Bosnian Genocide Survivor, "I remember my mother's eyes"
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Srebrenica Orphans Recall Horror
p. front, A88 July 1996.
Ferida Osmanovic hanged herself a year ago. She just walked off alone into a quiet wood, leaving behind her two children to fend for themselves.
Her despair was too much to bear. She endured the long siege of Srebrenica. Then came the terrifying end when Bosnian Serbs overran the Muslim enclave. The final horror was seeing the Serbs drag her husband away.
One July later, Osmanovic’s grave in a paupers cemetery is marked by a simple slab of wood inscribed: “No name: Srebrenica.”
Her children know where she is buried and have drawn the hard lessons of war, death and despair.
The world is struggling with the lessons, too. International investigators are searching for the bones of the dead men of Srebrenica, and a U.N. war-crimes tribunal is hearing the grisly tale of their slaughter.
“I remember my mother’s eyes,” recalls her 15-year-old son, Damir. “They were red all the time, because she never stopped crying.”
Last July 11, Bosnian Serb tanks rolled into Srebrenica, an eastern enclave protected by Dutch U.N. peacekeepers. Thousands of people huddled for protection at the Dutch base; thousands more fled across the hills and forests. Neither choice was a good one.
Osmanovic’s husband, Selman, was plucked off a bus by Serb soldiers. He is among about 8,000 men who were never heard from again.
Damir, his sister Fatima, now 10, and mother made it to safety in Tuzla, about 55 miles northwest of Srebrenica.
But within days, 34-year-old Ferida walked away from a refugee camp and hanged herself from a tree.
Children found by grandfather
The children’s paternal grandfather found the children after two days – but it was not until a month later that he was able to identify his daughter-in-law from a police photo.
It was the children’s closest – but far from their first – experience of death and suffering.
War came in April 1992 when their mother’s brother, 28-year-old Sehid Dzanic, was shot dead while picking corn.
“I remember we were hungry, and he wanted to get us food, and then he was hurt and left us,” says Damir, a short boy who rarely smiles.
Then came three years of siege – shooting and shelling and hunger – a dark memory that Fatima, a shy little girl with an easy smile, says it is difficult to talk about.
Serbs squeezed Srebrenica at will. In March 1993, Lt. Gen. Phillipe Morillon of France, then the U.N. commander in Bosnia, entered the town to draw attention to its plight.
When the Serbs let U.N. trucks leave with Morillon to take out those who wanted to go, the panic was such that some people were crushed to death. Two of the children’s aunts, Seida Osmanovic, 30, and Hiba Hajdarevic, 41, made it out, but their family stayed.
In April 1993, the U.N. Security Council declared Srebrenica the first safe area protected by U.N. troops, and the enclave settled into the numbing routine of siege for the next two years.
That came to an end last July as the Serbs squeezed Srebrenica once more and built up their forces around its outskirts.
U.N. troops gave up the men
The several hundred Dutch peacekeepers were no match. When the Serbs moved in, the Dutch turned over the thousands of Muslims who sought safety at their base in Potocari just north of Srebrenica, and left.
“We were moved to a house in Potocari and spent the night there,” Damir says. “The noise of screaming people and shooting woke me the next morning.”
Then, evacuation buses came. Muslims climbed aboard, but Serb soldiers – whom the Muslims refer to as “Chetniks” – took off all the men.
“They took my father, and I never saw him again,” Damir says. “My mother wouldn’t stop crying, and I was very scared.”
Over the next several days, despite promises they would not be harmed, men ranging in age from their late teens to early 60s were transported to several killing fields, executed and buried in mass graves, according to eyewitnesses.
Husband not allowed to flee
Damir’s grandmother, Habiba, says her daughter-in-law may have felt guilty for forcing her 36-year-old husband to join her in Potocari instead of allowing him to try to flee through the woods with other men from their family.
“She did not kill herself because she was mentally ill, but I think she felt so sorry that she led her husband to his death,” she says.
Last week at the war-crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, Dutch Col. Ton Karremans testified about his helplessness to stop Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic from capturing Srebrenica.
The hearing was aimed at highlighting evidence against Mladic and the Bosnian Serb civilian leader, Radovan Karadzic, for genocide and crimes against humanity.
One year after the Srebrenica massacres, both men remain at large. Under international pressure, Karadzic has turned his presidential powers over to a deputy but he appears no closer to standing before the Hague tribunal to answer charges. Mladic spends his time at a well-guarded compound about 15 miles west of Srebrenica.
Serb general placed at scene
Survivors of one mass execution say they saw Mladic at the killing fields.
One of the fields is Glogova, just northwest of Srebrenica, where Damir says his father worked as a locksmith.
Glogova is believed to contain the graves of up to 2,000 people herded and subjected to a barrage of grenades and firearms. The warehouse is peppered with bullet and shrapnel holes. Bits of human hair and tissue still are visible on walls.
War-crimes investigators have uncovered the bodies of bound civilian men buried in mass graves around the area and plan to begin exhuming some of their remains within days.
The families’ agony goes on.
Damir and Fatima’s 63-year-old grandmother says the two children are a burden to poor refugees who lost everything.
“I don’t know what to do with these children,” she says. “I can’t offer them much. Eight of us live here together, and sometimes I think I should give the children to the orphanage.”
“We can never forgive our mother for what she did,” the children say together. Damir adds: “It’s the Chetniks I will never forget.”