Survivors recount Bosnia’s Srebrenica genocide, 25 years on

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Survivors recount Bosnia’s Srebrenica genocide, 25 years on

Bosnia marks the 25th anniversary of a genocide committed by Serb forces in Srebrenica where thousands perished.

by Mersiha Gadzo
Survivors recount Bosnia's Srebrenica genocide, 25 years on
Nedzad Avdic, 42, survived mass shootings committed by Serb forces in Srebrenica in July 1995 [Courtesy of Nedzad Avdic]

At 4:15pm on July 11, 1995, Bosnia’s Srebrenica – a United Nations-protected safe zone where about 50,000 Bosniaks had sought refuge – fell to advancing Serb forces, who claimed the town for a Greater Serbia.

“Here we are … in Serb Srebrenica. On the eve of yet another Serb holiday, we give this town to the Serb people as a gift,” Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic said at the time in front of the TV cameras.

“Finally, after the rebellion against the dahis, the time has come to take revenge on the Turks in this region,” he said, using the term “dahis” to refer to renegade janissary officers who ruled Serbia during the Ottoman Empire.

By Turks he meant Muslims and in the ensuing days, Bosnian Serb forces along with a Serbian paramilitary unit killed more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys in a massacre that constituted a genocide, according to the UN judges.

The Serb forces used bulldozers to throw the bodies in numerous mass graves. Their remains are still being searched for.

About 30,000 Bosniak women and children were deported in just two days. Thousands of women and girls were raped.

In 2017, the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) convicted Mladic on 10 charges, including genocide and crimes against humanity.

Two survivors of the genocide have shared with Al Jazeera their stories and their perspective on the future.

Nedzad Avdic, 42

Nedzad Avdic 2
Nedzad Avdic is seen at the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial Centre, where the names of thousands of Bosniaks killed by Serb forces are listed [Courtesy of Nedzad Avdic]

On July 11, 1995, 17-year-old Nedzad Avdic attempted to escape the mass shooting planned for him and his fellow Bosniaks by trekking through the forest along with his father, uncle and cousins, aiming to reach the city of Tuzla, located more than 100km away from the besieged territory.

About 15,000 Bosniaks joined in the trek, forming a column, but the chances of making it out alive were slim.

The trek is known as the Death March, as the column of men and boys was regularly ambushed and shot at with heavy artillery by the Serb forces. Only 3,000 Bosniaks survived – less than a quarter.

Avdic lost his father in the crowd and never saw him again.

Two days later, he was at the end of the column when they were shot at by the Serb forces. Many were injured, including his classmates.

Through a megaphone, the Serb police and army told the survivors from the field below to come down, promising that they would not be killed and that they would be reunited with their family.

When a group of them walked down, the injured were shot and killed and the rest, including Avdic, his teacher and classmates were loaded onto a truck, where they spent the night.

FILE - In this Monday July 17, 1995 file photo, Bosnian refugees cry as their father and husband arrives at the U.N. air base in Tuzla, Bosnia, after he survived the death march of six days from Srebr

Bosnian refugees, pictured on July 17, 1995, cry as their father and husband arrives at the UN airbase in Tuzla, Bosnia, after he survived the Death March of six days from Srebrenica [File: Michel Euler/AP Photo]

On July 14, in a row of trucks, Serb forces began transporting them and others they captured to an unknown location.

“I remember as we were going through [the nearby town of] Bratunac, before they covered the truck with tarpaulin, many [Serb] residents were watching us [being taken away] from their balconies, so people can’t say today that they didn’t know or they didn’t see anything,” Avdic said.

They were driven to a school. Group by group, they were taken out of the classrooms to be executed in front of the school.

As he was in the last classroom, his turn came at about midnight. He was ordered to take off his clothes and had his hands tied.

‘All those images come back to me’: Srebrenica survivor’s story

“Exiting the school, I saw piles of dead people to my left and right. My blood froze and in this moment, I realised that it was the end,” Avdic said.

He and his group were taken to a dam 10 minutes away.

“I went with my head down, aware that I’ll be killed. When I reached my spot [and looked up], I saw rows and rows of dead people lying in front of us.”

The group was told to lie down. The next thing Avdic remembers is that he was trembling, with the right half of his chest and stomach in pain as he had been shot thrice, and another bullet had hit his right hand.

Luckily, Avdic survived the massacre as none of the bullets hit his vital organs.

When the Serbs set the next row of five victims to be executed behind him, they were shooting everywhere and another bullet hit his foot.

“It was the fiercest pain. I really wanted to die. I was in a state between life and death … I was praying to God for them to come and kill me, but I didn’t dare call out to them.”

Avdic could smell the gunpowder in the air. Those who were still alive were howling from the pain, which stopped once the soldier shot them again.

Srebrenica. Admir Delic/Al Jazeera
An illustration by Admir Delic/Al Jazeera

“In that moment, I was waiting to die. I couldn’t take it any more,” Avdic said.

While the soldiers left to get more men and boys to kill, Avdic noticed someone moving in the rows in front of him.

“Are you alive?” Avdic asked. “I’m alive, come untie me!” said the man.

The two headed over to a channel nearby – Avdic, crawling all the way – where they hid while the next truck arrived and continued with the mass killing.

Once the massacre was over, the two crossed into a village, where they were taken to a military hospital nearby.

Srebrenica genocide survivor’s mission to find victims’ remains

Avdic’s father and uncle did not survive the genocide.

In 2007, Avdic returned to Srebrenica where he lives with his wife and three daughters. At first, it seemed the situation was headed in a positive direction, but this was short-lived.

A climate of genocide denial pervades among the Serb society and politicians, including the current Serb mayor of Srebrenica, Mladen Grujicic.

According to a 2018 poll, 66 percent of Serbs in Republika Srpska, Bosnia’s Serb-run entity, deny the genocide. Convicted war criminals are regularly celebrated.

“With the Dayton peace agreement, the international community gave up Srebrenica to Republika Srpska and to those who deny the genocide. I’m disappointed,” Avdic said.

“After 25 years, not much has changed. It’s not that they just deny genocide, but the international verdicts as well. We can’t speak about [what happened] in schools,” he said.

“But we won’t give up. We didn’t even give up in 1995 when they were killing almost all of us. I still have faith and I see there are a lot of younger generations who are fighting against this more and more.”

Almasa Salihovic, 33

Almasa Salihovic [Courtesy of Almasa Salihovic]
Salihovic’s two siblings were separated from the rest of the family in the crowd fleeing Potocari [Courtesy of Almasa Salihovic]

As the Serb forces entered Srebrenica on July 11, 1995, Almasa Salihovic, eight-year-old at the time, recalls her mother and siblings picking up what they could of their belongings from their uncle’s house where they had been staying and began running towards the UN base in the village of Potocari, about 22km (13.6 miles) away.

“I can’t hold you by the hand; just grab a piece of my clothing and whatever happens, don’t let go,” Salihovic remembers her mom telling her.

Salihovic was running alongside her four older siblings, but as a heavy stream of people were all headed in the same direction, her two eldest siblings Fatima, 19, and Abdulah, 17, got lost in the crowd.

Fatima and Abdulah managed to seek refuge inside the battery factory in Potocari, seen as a safe place.

As it was not possible for tens of thousands of people to stand inside, the UN soldiers closed the door so nobody could go in or out for three days.

The rest of the crowd stayed outside, including Salihovic, her mother and two other siblings.

July 13, 1995 file photo, Dutch U.N. peacekeepers sit on top of an armored personnel carrier as Muslim refugees from Srebrenica, eastern Bosnia, gather in the nearby village of Potocari. A Dutch appea
Dutch UN peacekeepers sitting on top of an armoured personnel carrier as Bosniak refugees from Srebrenica gather in the nearby village of Potocari on July 13, 1995 [File: AP Photo]

She recalls the unbearable screams at night when Serb soldiers, dressed in UN uniforms, would walk among the people and pick out boys and men from the crowd and take them away, never to return them.

“I remember women trying to sleep on top of their husbands and sons [to hide them], just so the Serb soldiers don’t spot a young man or an older one,” Salihovic said.

In the morning of July 13, a line of trucks and buses arrived and a Serb soldier announced: “You’re going to Alija’s [the first Bosnian president’s] territory. First women and children. The men will join you later.”

As the genders were being separated, Salihovic saw UN troops standing by the road.

“None of them reacted in any sort of way to even try to prevent [what was happening],” Salihovic said.

“None of them did anything to even bring attention to what was going on … they knew what was going to happen to the people inside [the factory].”

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Salihovic and her family got in one of the buses. Her mother pushed her 15-year-old brother Salih under the seat and threw some clothes on top of him to hide him, as she knew the Serb soldiers would search the bus again.

Driving through the nearby town of Bratunac, Salihovic recalls Serb children, women and boys spitting at the windows of their bus, cursing and throwing rocks or whatever they had at the bus.

Hours later, they reached the town of Kladanj, outside Serb control, and stopped at a meadow, which was full of people who were crying and waiting for news of their loved ones.

In the evening, Fatima arrived and found her family, but to their horror, she was alone.

When she said the Serbs did not let Abdulah with her on the bus, their mother fainted amid screams and cries.

About 13 years later, Salihovic received a phone call that 30 percent of Abdulah’s remains had been found in a secondary grave called Cancari near the town of Zvornik.

According to the reconstruction, experts found that Abdulah was shot.

International forensic experts examine dozens of bodies in a mass grave in Pilice, September 18, 1996. Bosnia will mark the 25th anniversary of the massacre of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and b
International forensic experts examine bodies in a mass grave in Pilice near Srebrenica in 1996 [File: Kevin Coombs/Reuters]

Salihovic and her sisters buried him that year on July 11, 2008, as experts told them it was possible they would never find the rest of his remains.

It took Fatima 25 years to speak about what happened when she detailed her memories in a letter to Salihovic earlier this year.

The letter said a Serb soldier entered the factory, asking all men and boys older than 15 to write their names on the paper signed by a Dutch military commander.

A Bosnian translator also entered the factory and told the Bosniaks a negotiation was going on for their release and that Serb soldiers had demanded from the UN to sign their names.

For two days, they were collecting names, but some people decided not to sign it.

Fatima had debated with Abdulah whether to add his name. In the end, they thought the paper served as proof of existence and could save his life, so Abdulah signed it.

But it proved to be the opposite. When they left the factory, the boys and men were separated from the others and had to stay.

UN Srebrenica. Admir Delic/Al Jazeera
An illustration of a UN peacekeeper in Bosnia [Admir Delic/Al Jazeera]

As they were leaving the factory, Fatima described “walking with Abdulah and looking in his eyes, eyes of a boy who knew that he was going to die”.

“She said she didn’t have the feeling that he was blaming her but she simply saw eyes that were saying the last goodbye,” Salihovic said.

In February, Salihovic visited the old factory, now a museum as a translator with a group of students.

She found a file of documents on a table that had a list of names. Turning to the last page, she saw her brother’s name written in his handwriting: Salihovic Abdulah – 1977.

His name was the second-last name on the list, number 238.

On July 11, 25 years later, while some bury the remains of their loved ones, others celebrate.

Posters of Mladic have been put up around Srebrenica and Bratunac, reading: “Thank you General for 11th of July, the day of liberation of Srebrenica.”

“That’s what scares me the most,” Salihovic said. “Even if we don’t have incidents in Srebrenica like physical fights, we still have these hidden attacks which is far more worse.”

“You have people who pretend that they’re nice, they greet you, they’re good. And all of a sudden, you see that they’re part of this [celebration] and that’s terrifying,” she said.

“You have people who would still do the same thing tomorrow if they have the chance and if we don’t speak even more loudly than we do now, then I’m really not sure where this is going.”

Srebrenica: Women Who Refuse to Die

AL JAZEERA WORLD

Srebrenica: Women Who Refuse to Die

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA NEWS

Trump commutes longtime friend Roger Stone’s prison sentence

Stone was sentenced to 40 months in jail for lying to legislators investigating Russian interference in US election.

Roger Stone, a longtime friend and adviser to Donald Trump, reacts after the US president commuted his federal prison sentence [Joe Skipper/Reuters]
Roger Stone, a longtime friend and adviser to Donald Trump, reacts after the US president commuted his federal prison sentence [Joe Skipper/Reuters]

US President Donald Trump commuted the sentence of his longtime friend and adviser Roger Stone on Friday, sparing him from prison after he was convicted of lying under oath to legislators investigating Russian interference in the 2016 US election.

Trump’s decision to commute Stone’s sentence days before he was due to report to prison marked the Republican president’s most assertive intervention to protect an associate in a criminal case and his latest use of executive clemency to benefit an ally.

Democrats condemned Trump’s action as an assault on the rule of law.

“Roger Stone has already suffered greatly,” the White House said in a statement. “He was treated very unfairly, as were many others in this case. Roger Stone is now a free man!”

The announcement came just minutes after an appeals court in Washington, DC denied Stone’s request to postpone his surrender date.

Stone told The Associated Press news agency Trump called him on Friday evening to tell him he was off the hook.

“The president told me that he had decided, in an act of clemency, to issue a full commutation of my sentence, and he urged me to vigorously pursue my appeal and my vindication,” Stone told the agency by phone from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he was celebrating with friends.

He said he had to change rooms because there were “too many people opening bottles of champagne here”.

A commutation does not erase Stone’s felony convictions in the same way a pardon would, but it would protect him from serving prison time as a result.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany called Stone a “victim of the Russia Hoax that the Left and its allies in the media”.

“Not only was Mr Stone charged by overzealous prosecutors pursing a case that never should have existed, and arrested in an operation that never should have been approved, but there were also serious questions about the jury in the case,” she said in a statement.

‘Two systems of justice’

Democrats were quick to denounce Trump’s decision.

Adam Schiff, chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, said: “With this commutation, Trump makes clear that there are two systems of justice in America: one for his criminal friends, and one for everyone else.”

The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner, added: “The United States was founded on the rule of law. It seems our president has nothing but contempt for it.”

Stone, 67, was sentenced to 40 months in prison in February after being convicted on seven counts of lying to Congress, obstruction of justice and witness tampering. The charges stemmed from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation which detailed Russian meddling in the 2016 election to boost Trump’s candidacy.

Stone was one of several Trump associates charged in Mueller’s inquiry.

Scott Anderson, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, called Trump’s decision a “remarkable move” that was likely to incur political costs ahead of November’s presidential election.

“This appears to be an indication either that the president is acting non-strategically, that’s he acting somewhat emotionally or perhaps that he sees his political future, whether it’s in the White House or perhaps in some other role as lying with his political base, who buy into the narrative of the deep state that he is using to justify this,” Anderson told Al Jazeera.

Trump has repeatedly lashed out at Twitter about Stone’s case, accusing prosecutors of being corrupt, the juror forewoman of political bias and the judge of treating his friend unfairly.

Attorney General William Barr earlier intervened in the case to scale back the Justice Department’s sentencing recommendation, leading four career prosecutors to quit the proceedings.

One of them, Aaron Zelinsky, testified to the Judiciary Committee of the US House of Representatives last month that his office received “heavy pressure from the highest levels of the Department of Justice” to ease its sentencing recommendation.

Zelinsky said Tim Shea, the acting US attorney at the time who was appointed by Barr, ultimately caved in to the pressure because he was “afraid of the president”.

The US constitution gives a president the “power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment”. Trump’s use of this executive clemency often has benefitted allies and well-connected political figures.

He pardoned hardline former Arizona county sheriff Joe Arpaio, former Republican White House aide Lewis “Scooter” Libby, conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza and convicted “junk bond king” Michael Milken.

He also commuted the prison sentence of Democratic former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who had been a contestant on Trump’s former reality TV show.

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA AND NEWS AGENCIES

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