Srebrenica: genocide and memory

About the author
Ed Vulliamy is a journalist with the Guardian and the author of Seasons in Hell: understanding Bosnia’s war (1994). He was foreign reporter of the year in the 1997 British Press Awards.

The Bosnian Serb massacre of around 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in July 1995 has left deep wounds. Ed Vulliamy revisits the scenes of a terrible crime, meets families and survivors, and reports on the search for human remains and justice.

The snow lies deep, the air is still and seven degrees below zero – but the shiver is not from cold. It comes from somewhere within this accursed terrain, covered by a layer of virgin white. It comes from within this confounded building, and the memories it holds: a disused warehouse on the country road that runs through the village of Kravica in eastern Bosnia.

Ten years ago this July, some 1,200 men and boys were rounded up, packed into this place and summarily annihilated, by machine-gun fire and grenades tossed into the building, in a murderous bloodbath. And Kravica was but one of a number of execution sites – the whole area is haunted by them – that made up what came to be called the massacre of Srebrenica, a small mountain town nearby.

Some 7,942 Bosniak Muslim men and boys (according to official Bosnia-Herzegovina government figures) were systematically slaughtered by Serbian troops and paramilitaries within six days, between 6 July and 11 July 1995. It was the worst single carnage on European soil since the Third Reich. The brutality, as well as the scale, of the killing knew no bounds: on one infamous occasion, cited by Judge Fouad Riad at a trial in The Hague some years later, an elderly man was skewered to a tree by a knife and made to eat the innards of his grandson; “truly scenes from hell,” said the judge, “written on the darkest pages of human history”. A series of events is being held in Britain to mark the tenth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. For details, click here

Ten years on, the phantasmal warehouse at Kravica has changed little since those days of bloodletting. But for the fact that it was summer then, the shooting, the explosions, the screaming, the throes of death could have been a moment ago. But then how long is a moment in a place like this? The cream-coloured external walls are riddled with bullet holes – pockmarks now filled with cement, a futile gesture which conceals nothing.

Bullet holes splatter the walls inside too; crates are piled up, industrial plant is stored and a canister of creosote bears the date 1992, the year that Muslims were first killed or else burned and chased out of this area. The crow of a cockerel echoes across the shallow valley along which the road runs; a dog barks. Washing hangs from the balcony of a peasant holding across the byway.

A little further on up the road is the village of Glogova. Here, some houses remain only as skeletal ruins, incinerated monuments to the orgy of killing and burning in 1992 as the Serbs attacked and “ethnically cleansed” the community (as they did all others, except those around Srebrenica itself, which held out).

Other buildings, however, have been rebuilt – monuments this time to the remarkable but precarious return of Muslims to the area, to live among the executioners of their relatives, and the ghosts of their dead. And just off the road at Glogova is another place that is at once accursed and holy in its way: a field, now snow-covered, where the bodies of those killed at Kravica were ploughed into the earth.

A rusty car is now the only skeleton above ground, abandoned on this unnatural sepulture. But there are bones beneath the earth across so much of this terrain; bones shredded by bulldozers as bodies were unearthed and re-buried for concealment, their aura reaching the surface, their presence always there. And still they are being patiently exhumed, one by one, as the remarkable effort continues to match them with the names of those who disappeared during those fateful days ten years ago.

“This view makes me reflect on the past. Before the war, I worked as an accounts cashier at the wood factory in Potocari. Every weekend I would spend my wages at the department store on nice things. There was an insurance and construction company, a lift, central heating and a supermarket in the basement. Now I could cry when I look at it.”

Slobodanka, a Serb, works with children at an NGO bringing different ethnic groups together. She worries about the future for young people in Srebrenica and the surrounding villages. She feels that people returning to the villages need much more support than they currently get. She works with village children who leave their homes at 4am so that they can get to school on time. She also thinks that it is very important that children have the chance to visit “normal” places. Last year she helped to organise an exchange with a school in Novi Sad, Serbia.

What happened at Srebrenica

The story of the Srebrenica massacre is oft-told, but needs brief recollection here.

In spring 1992, the Bosnian Serbs, with backing from Serbia proper, unleashed a hurricane of violence against the Bosniak Muslim population of the newly independent country of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The well-documented plan was to carve out an ethnically “pure” Serbian statelet within Bosnia, with a view to dissolving the border with Serbia and accede to Slobodan Milosevic’s state.

Some of the first and most terrible violence was in the east of Bosnia adjacent to Serbia proper, along that border it intended to dissolve, the valley of the river Drina. In some places – Zvornik, Visegrad, Foca and others – the “ethnic cleansing” was swift, brutal and effective. Tens of thousands were killed, hundreds of thousands forcibly deported or fled into the enclave that became besieged Srebrenica.

For more than three years, since that spring of 1992, a pocket around Srebrenica somehow held out, cut off and surrounded by the Serbian enemy. The town lived a nightmare: brimful not only with its own besieged population, but also with refugees in flight from the surrounding area.

Together, these people faced a fusillade of artillery fire, day after day. On one morning in 1993, scores were killed when a shell landed in a school playground in which hundreds had pitched camp. Somehow, the enclave held on, defended by a desperate Bosnian guerrilla force armed by couriers who would bring ammunition by foot through the forests of enemy territory from the Bosnian government-held town of Tuzla.

The situation grew so intolerable that in March 1993, the French general, Phillipe Morillon, arrived in Srebrenica to promise protection by the United Nations. Some people – elderly, children and wounded – were evacuated. But the Serbs tightened their grip and were about to take the town, when on 16 April 1993, Srebrenica – along with three other surrounded enclaves – was declared a “safe area” by the United Nations Security Council. From then on, contingents of Canadian and later Dutch troops were tasked by international mandate to protect Srebrenica.

But the siege continued, and on 6 July 1995 came the beginning of the end. The Serbs, under direct command of General Ratko Mladic – now wanted for genocide – began a final and unrelenting onslaught. The Dutch capitulated, impotent; the international community stood by and watched.

Dutch commander Tom Karremans asked for Nato air strikes to halt the assault, but when they came, they were less than half-hearted, ineffective, too little and too late. The reason for this – which amounted to the delivery of Srebrenica into the hands of the Serbs – would become clear with time.

On 11 July, Mladic and his troops entered Srebrenica. Terrified, the people of the town moved en masse, northwards towards the Dutch base at the outlying village of Potocari. On the way, the citizenry and the remnants of their army split into two groups. Some 20,000 people feared the worst, and set out just before midnight into the mountain forests, in a great column, hoping to run a gauntlet through Serbian territory and reach, through rough country, the safety of Tuzla.

Most of the Bosnian army fighters chose this option, leading a ragtag of civilians, children and farm animals along what would become known to history as the “road of death”. Another 20,000 or so proceeded to Potocari, hoping for protection from the Dutch. They had packed the UN compound by the time Mladic and the Serbs arrived on the morning of Wednesday 12 July; “don’t be afraid”, pledged Mladic, “no one will harm you”.

There, while Dutch soldiers watched – while Nato and the United Nations Protection Force mobilised across the rest of Bosnia did nothing – the Serbs began the separation of men from women and children. The men, they said, were wanted for “screening”. But the killing (as well as torture and rape) began right there in Potocari.

From there, women, children and the elderly were taken by bus or truck to the Bosnian army front line at Kladanj, to the west. Males, aged 11 to 65, were transported to a network of locations whose names now defile history – Karakaj, Bratunac, Kozluk, Branjevo, Grbvaci and others – and summarily executed.

The road of death was meanwhile repeatedly cut and ambushed, with thousands more either killed along its route, or else taken to places like the warehouse at Kravica for mass execution.

By 19 July, some 8,500 were slaughtered. No one has a definitive figure, but those trying to fit names to the remains of the missing estimate that some 3,500 were taken to their death from Potocari, and the remainder killed along the road of death.

In search of justice

The narrative of the Srebrenica massacre has had a long and unfolding history over ten years. It soon emerged that the French general in charge of United Nations forces in Bosnia, Bernard Janvier, had given up on the enclaves, including Srebrenica. Not only that, but he had done a deal with General Mladic at a meeting on 4 June 1995 whereby he would not call on Nato to attack the Serbs with serious air strikes.

Minutes of a meeting in Split a few days later show Janvier insisting that the Serbs “want to modify their behaviour” and “need international recognition”. Those of a further meeting in Zagreb at the height of the Srebrenica crisis, after Karremans had asked for air strikes which would have stopped the Serbian onslaught, show Janvier isolated over the matter, but resolute – and backed by his Japanese civilian boss, Yasushi Akashi. Janvier and Akashi had their way, and thus Srebrenica was sold to the slaughter.

The Serbs began nearly a decade of denial almost immediately. Jovan Zametica, spokesman for their leader Radovan Karadzic, said of initial reports of a massacre that “none of these accusations has a firm basis”. The following November, Karadzic himself said that “nothing happened” at Srebrenica, that accounts of a massacre were “a propaganda trick in the run-up to the negotiations at Dayton” – the peace talks which ended the war in 1995, establishing two separate “entities”, the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Serbian Republic, or “Republika Srpska”.

A document published in Banja Luka in September 2002 by the “Bureau of the Government of Republika Srpska” for relations with the Hague war crimes tribunal concluded, in a chapter headed “The Alleged Massacre” that “less than 100” Muslims had been killed, “by Bosnian Serb forces for personal revenge or in simple ignorance of international law”. Other Serbian accounts, including defence testimony at The Hague, proposed that the Muslims had either been killed in combat, fought amongst themselves, committed mass suicide or been murdered by a despatch of French, Bosnian and other mercenaries in order to discredit the Serbs.

In 2003, after a ruling by the Human Rights Chamber in Sarajevo, the international community’s high representative to Bosnia, Paddy Ashdown, ordered the “Republika Srpska” statelet to form a commission to investigate the massacre at Srebrenica. The result merely repeated the worst of the denials. Ashdown was furious. He called the report “a scandalous indictment” of Rebublika Srpska, “a whitewash”, and ordered the commission to sit again.

This time, in June 2004, the Bosnian Serbs for the first and only time reckoned with their own recent past. In a unique, unprecedented and unrepeated document – which acknowledged a figure of 7,779 men and boys missing, presumed dead – the commission established “that between 10th and 19th July 1995, several thousands of Bosniaks were liquidated in a manner that represents a serious violation of International Humanitarian law”.

Nothing like this has come before or since from the Serbs – in this, among the countless atrocities committed across Bosnia, Srebrenica stands alone.

Meanwhile, events at The Hague were moving apace. First, a man called Drazen Erdemovic surrendered and testified on his duties as a member of the 10th sabotage unit of the Bosnian Serb army, putting to death busloads of Muslims at a military farm. The prosecutor who procured the testimony in prospective evidence against Karadzic and Mladic, Mark Harmon, then went on to secure the conviction for genocide, in August 2001, of Mladic’s right-hand man at Srebrenica, General Radislav Krstic. The trial was a landmark one, charged with epic testimony from survivors and bereaved, and for the first time using forensic evidence arriving in The Hague from the exhumation of mass graves. (The conviction was amended on appeal to “aiding and abetting genocide”, but the appeals chamber “calls the massacre by its proper name: genocide”).

In May 2003, two further cases affirmed the truth. Two senior Bosnian Serbs – Momir Nikolic, former chief of intelligence in the Bratunac Brigade, and Dragan Obrenovic, chief of staff of the Zvornik Brigade – pleaded guilty to their roles in the massacre and agreed to testify against former colleagues. Nikolic said brazenly that “able-bodied Muslim men within the crowd of Muslim civilians would be separated ... and killed shortly thereafter. I was told that it was my responsibility to help coordinate and organise this operation”.

The memorial at Potocari

All the while, another uniqueness in the history of Srebrenica was in train. Potocari, for all the dolorous history of that place, is now the only site in Bosnia where memory has become enshrined in a public physical space. Right next to the former Dutch base where the separation took place and the slaughter began, is a memorial to those lost, and a cemetery where those whose remains have been found and identified are buried – 1,438 of them so far.

The initiative was that of a remarkable organisation based in Sarajevo, of afflicted but unswerving women, the Mothers of Srebrenica, who lost their menfolk and who now live for and survive on their search for their loved ones and the heartsick quest for justice. Potocari was chosen as the site after an exhaustive survey of the bereaved; “Potocari,” says their organiser Munira Subasic, “is not Serbian land, it is ours”.

When the women first returned to Potocari to try to claim their site, they were met by hostile crowds, Serbian salutes and spitting. But their project won the backing of the then high representative, Wolfgang Petrich, and later harnessed the inimitable enthusiasm of his successor, Paddy Ashdown. In 2001, the land was duly granted; in 2003, the first burials took place amid crowds packing the mountainsides and in September that year Bill Clinton came to inaugurate the site.

Devoid of dignitaries and crowds, empty and under a heavy snowfall, Potocari is a disconsolate place – and yet there is some desolate comfort here, some balm, a last home. The green gravestones fan out almost as far as the eye can see, and there is space for many more – for, even ten years on, the painful history of the massacre at Srebrenica is a long way from reaching its denouement.

When the UN troops came to Srebrenica in 1993, Hajra’s husband volunteered as an interpreter. In July 1995 when Serb troops entered the town, he had the opportunity as an international employee to be evacuated to safety – but only if he went without his family. He chose to stay. “My daughter and I were the last people to see him before they separated us at Potocari,” Harja says. “His last words to my daughter were: ‘Now everything is over.’”

Hajra returned to Srebrenica alone in October 2002 and lived without electricity and running water for a year and a half. She is waiting for the remains of her missing husband and father to be identified, but is uncertain whether this will happen. “Who knows?” she says. “A lot of mothers will be dead before they find out anything about their sons…”

Mevludin Oric’s story

Only a handful of men – between eight and fifteen in all – survived the mass execution sites to which the men of Srebrenica were shipped by bus and truck to their death. One of them was Mevludin Oric, whose epic recollections are told over five leaden hours in a scrappy flat on the outskirts of Sarajevo, which feel like half a lifetime. He is wan, thin, and tells his story methodically, detail by detail.

When Srebrenica was cut off at the beginning of the war, Mevludin walked to the enclave, through enemy territory from Tuzla, because his wife and newborn daughter were there. During the siege, he served in the Bosnian army as a courier of ammunition from Tuzla. When the town fell, Mevludin was among those who elected to make a way along the road of death.

But on a hillside near the village of Konjevic Polje, “we were surrounded. None of us had guns, and they took us”. First, Mevludin went by bus to Kravica, where the warehouse was full, and men packed into “a field full of prisoners, sitting on the ground with their hands behind their heads”. The bus, joined by a convoy of others, and trucks, then went on to Bratunac, to the Vuk Karadzic school, site of a massacre of Muslims in 1992.

“Inside the school, we could hear screaming and shooting. We couldn’t fit in there. They told us to wait on the bus because there was no room. I prayed for dawn to come, and for us to move on”. The convoy headed north, through the valley town of Zvornik, after which it turned off the main road, “which is when I suspected that they would kill us all”.

Five busloads and six truckloads of men then arrived at a school in the village of Grbavici, where they were packed into the gym. “It was so hot, people were fainting. They gave us water, but we fought over it so that it spilt, and men were licking it off the floor”.

Then, into the gym, walked General Mladic himself – “laughing with his bodyguards” – with news that the men would be taken to a camp. Two prisoners were selected to stand by the door and blindfold the others as they made their way back towards the trucks and buses.

“I was on the sixth truck”, says Mevludin, “with my nephew Haris. We huddled up, so that if we were going to a camp we could be together. They took us to a field, and when they stopped the trucks and said ‘Line up!’ I knew what was coming. I could see bodies in the field. They were cocking their guns. I took Haris by the hand; he asked ‘are they going to kill us?’; I said no, then they started shooting. Haris was hit; I was holding him, he took the bullet and we both fell. Nothing hit me; I just threw myself on the ground; my nephew shook, and died on top of me”.

Mevludin remained lying, face down, all day. “When they finished shooting, they went back to get other groups. They kept bringing new rounds of men. I could hear crying and pleading, but they kept on shooting. It went on all day”. At one point, Serbian soldiers began shooting dead and half-dead men through the head, but still Mevludin was spared. For a while, he lost consciousness.

“When I came round, it was dark, and there was a little rain. My nephew’s body was still over me; I could not move my leg, but I removed the blindfold. There was light coming from bulldozers that were already digging the graves. By now, the Chetniks (a Bosniak word for Serbian extremists) were tired and drunk, and still shooting by the light of the bulldozers. They went to those who were wounded and played around with them. ‘Are you alive?’ and if the man said ‘Yes’, they would shoot and ask again: ‘are you alive?’ And if the answer came, they would shoot again. Finally they turned off the lights. I started to move a little. I got my nephew off me. I arose and saw a field full of bodies, everywhere, as far as I could see. And I cried; I could not stop myself”.

Amazingly: “there was another man on his feet. I thought I was dreaming, seeing things. I walked towards him; I had to step on bodies to get to him – there was no patch of land without bodies. I hugged and kissed him – his name was Hurem Suljic”. Mevludin and Suljic walked through the forests to Tuzla, narrowly escaping ambush and death many times. Their journey to safety took eleven days.

It is spine-chilling to retrace Mevludin’s road to the killing field. There is the turn-off on the Zvornik road, past a restaurant called “Valley of Peace”, to the school at Grbavici, still in use, with a monument to the fallen partisans of the 1941-45 war outside. Through the village, up a track, under a railway bridge – and there is the field of blood. Now covered under a thick coat of snow, stroked by the tangerine light of a late sun, dappled by trees. Eerie, haunted, accursed.

Mevludin, now 35, lives in emergency accommodation built by the Dutch government and leased to local authorities in Illias, a town near Sarajevo. In May, the lease expires and neither Mevludin nor any of his neighbours from Srebrenica or elsewhere in eastern Bosnia know what will happen to them. He survives on a share of his mother’s retirement pension, with which he keeps his four children and wife, Hadzira, who suffers from schizophrenia. He spends his days going down to the employment office in Illias, to be told that there is no work.

“Time can never fade those memories”, says Mevludin. “I can recall every face of the dead I happened to see; every word we said along the way to Tuzla. No, I never went to any psychologist and maybe I should have. Every day I get skinnier, and the memories get worse”.

Women without men

In a flat in the Sarajevo suburb of Vogosca, surrounded by neighbours – invariably women – also from Srebrenica, Sabaheta Fezic, aged 49, lives with her mother. The mountains, although lower, remind her of home, where she was once a manager in Srebrenica’s zinc mine. Sabaheta is one of the great diaspora of bereaved women scattered across Bosnia and the world, exiled in fear of return to Srebrenica, and in fear of their memories should they ever do so. Her eyes are deep and forlorn.

Sabaheta’s husband Saban opted for the road of death; “he waved at me as he left – I never saw him again”. But it is the moment of the loss of her son Rijad which tears at Sabaheta’s soul.

“He was my only son, and only 17, which is why I took him to Potocari, hoping the Dutch would help us, safer than in the forest with his father. At Potocari, on 13 July, we were lined up into a column and made to walk past the Dutch to where the Chetnik guards were waiting. They sent men to the right, and women left, to the buses. They told Rijad to go to the right and me to the left, but I didn’t listen to them. I held my son’s arm, I said I was going with him. They pulled me and said you cannot; I said that wherever he goes, I go too. They said they just wanted to question him – I said he doesn’t know anything – ask me! Then they lost patience and tried to pull me away. We were struggling, me pulling Rijad on one side, them on the other. He was terrified; his eyes were wide; he burst into tears. Of course, they wrenched him away, and I fell on my knees”. Sabaheta’s expression is stone still; her eyes inconsolable.

“When I got to Tuzla, I tried to commit suicide, but thank God I did not succeed. I knew the moment they took my son that he was dead, but went to places where people were coming out of the forest, to see if my husband was among the men coming in. I wandered the hospitals where the wounded were. Eventually, the last man to see him alive told me he was killed just a few kilometres from free territory, that he had nearly made it. I went back with the Commission for Missing Persons to look for his remains; I found only a piece of his jacket.

“It will be ten years now, but it is like it happened yesterday. I still see my son in front of my eyes, the fear in his face, and I still see the faces of the Chetniks who took him away, and have no words to describe them. Now my biggest fear is that I will never find my child. That I will have no grave, and will never know how they killed him”.

Sabaheta spends her weekends doing housework, cooking, watching soap operas and reading every word about Srebrenica she can get her hands on. But her consolation is to go each weekday to the humble office of the Mothers of Srebrenica in Sarajevo. Here every conversation is a lament, but here are kindred spirits – some whose menfolks’ remains have been identified, others for whom the search continues.

“Our only happiness is to have this place”, says Zumra Sehomirovic, whose husband Omer was taken away from her at Potocari, in front of the factory where he had worked all his life.

“We give each other the willpower to keep going towards our aim – to find the missing and bury them. Finding them is so important; I need to go to a specific place and say, finally he is at peace. I went this summer to the exhumations, I stood on the edge of the mass grave, hoping that one day my husband would be found and buried in Potocari”.

“There is a beautiful silence there,” says Kada Hotic, whose husband’s body has been found but whose son Samir remains missing.

“I said to my dead husband: you have a good home here, and good neighbours compared to those still in mass graves waiting to be found, like my son. He went through the forest – I called out ‘Good luck son!’ – he waved and I never saw him again. But I do hope I will find his remains one day. It will be a terrible blow, but I will survive it – it is much harder asking myself at night how he died – was he killed by a bullet or was he tortured? People died in such monstrous ways, that those who died from bullets were lucky. When I found out my husband was shot, I was relieved. But my son, Samir – I have to know”.

Kada also remembers the hellish scenes at Potocari that day:

“There was a night of terror; men were being taken; we could hear the screaming. First they took my brother; later, my brother’s son, who was with his mother. He was only 11 years old; I saw the Chetniks pulling him, and his mother pulling him in the other direction. And I saw them kill a baby, pulled from its mother’s arms, who would not stop crying, and who annoyed them”.

“Time has flown so fast”, says Kada. “I feel I’m on a journey with a destination I cannot reach. I’ve lost my past; my husband packed some photographs, but when they took him they took them as well; they were the only proof I had of that part of my life”.

That life remains locked away in both time and space, in a town to which Kada and Sabaheta have no wish to return. “Why would I want my grandchildren to go to school in Srebrenica where Mladic and Karadzic are heroes?” says Kada; “I would be too afraid to go back,” says Sabaheta. “I could not look into their faces. And only two nights ago, I got a phone call to say that if I went back to Srebrenica, they would kill me”.

The road of return

But while these women remain as refugees in the Muslim-Croat Federation, an extraordinary movement has occurred: of Bosniak Muslims, back to the territory of the Republika Srpska, whence they were brutally banished, intended never to return, if to live at all.

The return to the Drina valley region is all the more remarkable for the violence to which Muslims from this area were subjected, and no more so than to Srebrenica itself. Nevertheless, “Bosnian communities decided they would collect their people and go,” says Margriet Prins, who worked for the Return and Reconstruction Task Force in the office of Paddy Ashdown. The first returns, to the Zvornik area, where met with a welcome of mines, sniper fire, stones and insults.

The unthinkable return of Muslims to Srebrenica happened some two years later than elsewhere, with international funding unsure whether it could work, and because of the particular surreality of returning to this, of all places. And yet it began, in a tiny, remote mountain village above Srebrenica called Suceska. The snowbound track takes one up high, through a breathtaking mountainscape, to within a trudge on foot through thick snowdrifts into the hamlet. And there, wearing a hat and a grin, is the man who led this return, Hasib Huseinovic.

While Serbian troops razed Suceska to the ground after the fall of Srebrenica, Hasib escaped and watched on, hiding in a field of corn: “I saw them burn the village, enter my house and set it alight”. Hasib’s wife Tima was deported by truck from Potocari to Tuzla, along with most women from the village, but their son Fadil elected to try the road of death. He was captured and last seen being taken to the warehouse at Kravica. Hasib, however, made his own way to the free territory, through the forests for eighty-five days, finally arriving in Tuzla on Tima’s birthday.

And in June 2000, against his wife’s wishes, he returned to Suceska.

“When I first came, I was heartbroken to see it”, he says. “Every house had been destroyed to the foundations. It was all overgrown. Tima did not want to come back, but I was determined to do so. For the first few weeks, we lived in tents, then slowly rebuilt our houses, one by one”.

But the life force in Hasib’s face suddenly dissipates when he explains his real reason for coming back, and his bright eyes fill with tears. “I wanted to be where my son grew up. I wanted to feel a connection to him. I always have this feeling that one day I might see him coming over the hill, that he went somewhere, and will return”.

Suceska, a burned out shell five years ago, is now a peasant hamlet again, of seven men and thirty women. The project has been carefully overseen by Ashdown’s man in the area, Charlie Powell, who says: “they amaze me, these people, with their initiative and determination, coming back somewhere from which they were driven out like that”. But, warns Powell, “the process is not irreversible. They’ve come back, but they need to live”.

“We have returned, but now we need to stay”, says Hasib, “And our problem is to create work. Otherwise we will have to leave again. We have all these elderly women here, who have lost their husbands and sons; they need machines to cut their grass; they need tractors, and help with their livestock”.

Muslim return to the town of Srebrenica itself is a lonelier, more dangerous business than to the surrounding, largely mono-ethnic villages. Sija Mustafic, aged 72, who lost her husband Mehmed and her son Sead in the massacre, has moved back into town; she puts planks up against her door at night and keeps the police station’s number beside her telephone.

Sija has been back for three years; one of the first women back into town. Her wedding photo, and one of her dead son, adorn the wall of the home she reclaimed from a Serbian family which had settled in.

Srebrenica was all Serbian then”, she says, “and the people living here would not let me come and see my own home. I said to them ‘But we were sitting in here drinking coffee together before the war – you know it’s mine’. I stayed upstairs for three months, and finally got the court order telling them they had to leave. They took everything when they went, even the telephone lines. But I sold my necklace to buy a few things; some dishes and pans. I did it to spite them. I won’t let them live in my house. My husband and my brother built it; it’s mine and I want to die here”.

As she speaks a man walks by the window, checking electricity meters. “He is doing that now”, says Sija, “but during the war he was burning houses. I know they killed my husband and my son. I know that my neighbours were involved in this. But you can’t say this one burned that house and that one killed that man. They were all involved. I know who was doing the killing – they wanted me to go to The Hague, but my daughter said they would kill me, and I didn’t. So I don’t talk to them. Just to think about it gives me a headache. They have their life, I have mine. If I cry, I would die of heartbreak, so I don’t. Instead, I fix my house, I eat something, I drink some coffee”.

Sida’s husband, Omer, was killed in the family home during the first wave of anti-Bosniak violence in April 1992 and is buried in the garden that backs on to Srebrenica’s mosque. Her son was 17 when he died in 1993. . He was shot while visiting his grandmother in a village near Srebrenica. He was brought home by horse and cart but died on the way.

“This is my daughter’s bedroom,” says Sida. “Sabera is alone now. My son, her brother, was killed and since then she has had many toys. A Serb family was living in my home and I went there to try and get some of my things and some toys. They told me to leave and threatened me. I saw my son’s school shoes, a coat he had bought me, his diary. My son started to write a diary on the first day of the war and wrote it until the day he died. They would not even let me take the diary.”

Sabera was one of the first Bosniak students to return to the secondary school in Srebrenica. At first she says she felt ostracized and unwanted but eventually settled in. She has now graduated and is taking entrance exams to study English at university in Tuzla.

Perhaps most unbelievable is the return of the Risanovic family to the house they watched burn in 1992, in Glogova, where the dead from Kravica were buried. Their humble home, now rebuilt, is less than 100 metres from the mass grave. More than that, Mrs Munira Risanovic believes that the remains of her brother and her husband Hasan, murdered at Kravica, were buried there. “We were here”, she explains, “when they were exhuming the graves. Just in the field there. Soldiers came here to secure it. It was very strange and very frightening. I am thinking all the time that my husband and brother might be there, right there”.

Here is a sorrow-stricken household; our conversation is wrapped in long silences. Mrs Risanovic’s granddaughter Alma, aged one, has a terrible eye disease. The extended family lost thirty-five men in the massacre, and what remains came back in 2001. “But only out of necessity”, says Mrs Risanovic. “I wish I had had the money to stay in the federation, I wish we could have stayed with the rest of our people. But we had nothing. Here they taunt us with insults, but we have two cows at least”.

Mrs Risanovic’s father, Meho, watched the murder of sixty-three Muslims outside the mosque in Golgova, and saw his house burning in 1992 before escaping into the Srebrenica enclave. He too is convinced that his son died at Kravica, and would therefore have been buried in the field adjacent to the house. So these conversations become like eternal circles of death – a son and a husband killed at the warehouse down the road, buried in the field there, and the family returned to within metres of the bones.

These people live stifled by death, hanging in the air around them. “I didn’t ask for the war”, says Meho, “it just ruined our lives and left our family a rump. And when you look around you, the Serbs all say they are not guilty for what happened. But if not, then where are all these people now?”

The return to Glogova was among the hardest, led by a local businessman, Senad Avdic, who recalls the day in 1998 he first came to negotiate with the local Serbs, only to have the bus shot at. Once the exodus home began, a returnee’s car was attacked with gunfire. Shortly afterwards, a returnee was killed when his house was booby-trapped. Fresh graffiti down the road reads: ‘Knife and Wire Srebrenica” – as happened to men, whose hands were tied and throats cut. “But we had to come back,” says Avdic, “if only so that the Serbs failed to achieve their aim”.

The road of death

The road of death runs along the ridge just above Glogova, and Avdic is among those who survived it, those who now look each day into the landscape of their nightmares. Avdic runs a café and mini-market with a perfect view of the ridge.

“Most people”, he says, “went to Potocari, hoping the Dutch would help them and the Serbs were not going to kill them. It never occurred to me to trust them”. But the road itself, he recalls, “was madness. People moving on, then turning back to try and find members of their family – they would invariably be killed. I remember a child barking like a dog – he had gone insane. I remember people saying they had to go back to Srebrenica to change their clothes. I myself missed being taken to Kravica by five minutes. I had just passed through the hamlet of Kamenica when they surrounded it and took everyone. I remember the screaming, the shooting”.

This week, on the tenth anniversary of the massacre, Avdic and others are leading a commemorative retracing of the road of death. “The survivors”, he says, “are coming from all over Bosnia, from Sweden, Holland and elsewhere, to walk the route again”.

One of the luckiest survivors of the road of death was Ahmet Begovic, who has moved back to, and is rebuilding, his house on a hillside at Potocari, only metres from the cemetery where his father is buried, the remains having been found in Glogova. Begovic used to own a travel agency in Srebrenica, but dare not go back into town. He now survives, with his wife Nura, thanks to a small flock of sheep. The Begovic family had a cow too, but shortly after they returned, their new Serbian neighbours staged a welcome: during the night the animal was killed, flayed and the skinned carcass left outside their home.

Ahmet Begovic had no doubts as he embarked on the road of death.

“It was a better chance to go that way, in small groups – a few soldiers, but mainly citizens; women, children and even animals. When we took some rest above Kravica, they cut the column – many were killed, but I jumped into a hole by a stream; it was full of dead people. Further on, we reached Konjevic Polje, where they had blocked the road and killed many more. They were calling at us by megaphone; they got boys to call their fathers to come down and surrender. They followed us all the way. They were whooping and yelling, as though on a hunt for animals. People were going mad with fear; many killed themselves, they were so afraid of being captured. Then came the worst part of the road, at Bajkovica, just as we approached the free territory. I saw it happen; they were dying right next to me; at one point there were five of us, then a shell landed, and three were killed the next moment ... I am 53 years old now, but I’m afraid that I may still go mad from all this in my 60s”.

Srebrenica today

Srebrenica, once beautiful, nestled among forested mountains, is now a baleful, dilapidated town. While many places in Bosnia ravaged by war have been rebuilt and resurfaced over ten years, Srebrenica still bears its scars openly; on almost every external wall are the impairments of war, as though no one wanted to remove them. Buildings are still claw-marked by shellfire and shrapnel, with no attempt to fill in or plaster over the wounds.

Many edifices, like the offices of the Ergoinvest petrol company, are left as incinerated, gnarled skeletons of charred iron, still as they were in 1995. “It is a shell of a place that does not make sense,” says Emir Suljagic, a former UN translator who survived the massacre. “A few Serbs, a few Bosniaks, and the entire apparatus behind the genocide still there, intact”. The zinc mine at which Sabaheta Fezic was once a manager has finally reopened, contracted to a Russian firm, but employs only Serbs; Bosniak returnees are regarded as ineligible for work there.

Before the war, the Srebrenica district comprised 36,600 people, of whom 25,000 were Bosniak Muslims and 8,500 were Serbs. Now, the total population is 10,000, of whom 4,000 are Serbs come home, 2,000 Serbs displaced from elsewhere in Bosnia and 4,000 are returnee Muslims, mainly to the surrounding villages, making Srebrenica itself an almost entirely Serbian town.

In the small marketplace, amid drifts of snow, Milan Pavlovic lays out his stall of plumbing parts, padlocks and gloves he has bought at another market in northern Bosnia, for resale at a small profit, “if anyone comes to buy” – which they seem not to. Milan is from the Serbian outskirts of Sarajevo, but left during the exodus of Serbs, along with their disinterred dead, ordered to do so by their own leaders after the Dayton accord gave the besieged capital to the Muslim-Croat Federation. “We were herded out of Sarajevo like animals,” says Milan, “to this sad place, where everything is destroyed”

Because voting is based on the pre-war 1991 census, the Muslim diaspora is eligible to vote in municipal elections; as a result the mayor of Srebrenica, Abdurahman Malkic, is a Bosniak member of the Muslim SDA party. But outside his municipal headquarters – the only building in town to be renovated – hangs the flag of the Republika Srpska, and on the door is a symbol of crossed S’s, indicating the slogan “only unity can save the Serbs” – used as an emblem by the movement that between fifteen and ten years ago sought to wipe Malkic’s people from the map.

“Yes, I do feel as though these symbols hang above my head,” says the lonely mayor. “But I cannot speak as an ordinary person, I have to speak as the mayor. I am bound by the legal boundaries set out for me. But of course I do not think it is a good thing for such symbols to hanging above somebody's head.

The stray dogs photographed by Sadik, a Bosniak, were shot before the onset of winter. This is regularly done to prevent the spread of rabies.

The photographers often spoke of fighting, not just during the war but since, too. “It shows dogs fighting, and we as people fight like dogs also,” said Ljubisa, one of the group.

Sadik once worked as a journalist in Srebrenica but left in 1992. He had already started to collect photographs showing life in the town. He continued to collect during the decade he lived elsewhere and has put them together in a book.

“This book is for Srebrenica,” he says. “When I look around today, it looks as if we did not have any kind of life before. I want to try and give that life back, remind people what it was like. I think it is an educational book, especially for young people who were too young to know how it was before the war.”

Sadik now lives with his wife in Srebrenica and continues to document every burial at Potocari, the site of the former UN base where identified remains are interred.

One of those who returned home to Srebrenica after the massacre was Milos Milovanovic. When fighting first broke out in Srebrenica in 1992, Milovanivic was commander of a paramilitary unit called the “Serbian Guard”; there is no information on what he was doing in 1995. He now sits on the municipal council for the SDS party, founded by Radovan Karadzic, and is also head of the Bosnian Serb army’s war veterans’ association, trying to secure benefits for those who fought in the siege and “liberation” – as he calls it – of Srebrenica in 1995.

Milovanovic speaks in deadly earnest, in the freezing cold of a hotel coffee bar, surrounded by some of what he calls his “warriors”, huddled around an electric fire. Like most Serbs in Srebrenica, he refers back to an ugly incident in early 1993, when Muslim defenders of the town broke through the siege lines and briefly took Serbian territory. Before they were pushed back, Serbian civilians as well as soldiers were killed during the breakout, a crime for which the commander of the defence of Srebrenica, Naser Oric, is currently on trial at The Hague.

It is in the context of this episode that Milovanovic discusses the events of 1995, about which he is unequivocal. “The massacre is a lie”, he says. “It is propaganda in order to make a bad picture of the Serbian people. The Muslims are lying, they are manipulating the numbers, they are exaggerating what happened. Far more Serbs died at Srebrenica than Muslims”.

Morever, he insists:

“the memorial at Potocari is a fake. They are bringing their dead from all over Bosnia to bury there. We have evidence that it is fake, we have documents: for instance, we found one man said to be missing who was in jail in Serbia all the time. And we are holding an investigation into this lie; all we can do is wait for the result. Meanwhile, my members are very bitter about all this manipulation, these lies about a massacre”.

Milovanovic calls over one of his veterans, Cvetin Petrovic. “The world outside refuses to see the truth about 1995”, he says. “Out in the world, everyone says that we, the Serbs, were killing people here. And we are powerless against this propaganda”.

Srebrenica on Saturday night: and such sentiments are echoed in the Bar Venera, as menacing-looking lads assemble to drink, chatter and catch up on the English and Italian football results as they arrive by teletext. Conversation about the massacre does not come easy in this place, but we do suggest that maybe the name of the town might be profitably changed, because of what happened in 1995.

“Never!”, says Milan, aged 32. “Because the massacre did not happen. The Hague goes on about Srebrenica just to make itself popular. Maybe something bad happened, but they are making a mountain out of an anthill. It was a lie to get Arab money to the Muslims so that they could leave the country”. But then, says his friend, lightening up: “at least it means that Srebrenica is famous!” Another man with a black leather jacket is in no mood to talk recent history, but says simply: “this is Serbia”.

Srebrenica high school – cradle of the town’s future – is adorned with Serbian nationalist regalia, reproductions of Orthodox icons and pictures of Serbian national heroes throughout history. A man called Momcilo Cvijetinovic – whose views are so extreme that he is even banned from standing for the SDS party – is a part-time teacher here. In an art class, teenaged pupils paint pop stars, Orthodox churches or Serbian heroes wielding swords, riding their chargers. On the wall and desk of the director, Milan Jovanovic, is the symbol of Serbian nationalism, the crossed S’s.

But the conversation with Jovanovic is a strange one. He is a heavy-hearted man, wary, passionate about Dostoyevsky. He lives, it seems, under the weight of the heraldry around him, and no doubt of his education ministry. “It is hard to live and teach in a destroyed town”, he says. Jovanovic explains that when he returned to Srebrenica after the Serbs took the town in 1995, the school was utterly destroyed and opened for twenty-five pupils. Now, there are 600, of whom forty-eight are Muslim, and “this makes me happy – two years ago, they were no Muslims in the school”. Jovanovic laments the fact that a further thirteen Muslim pupils have won and eagerly accepted scholarships to study in Turkey instead.

“We do not teach the history of what happened here”, he explains. “We need to wait a long time before we can do that. Because there is much different thinking about what happened – we are not sure what happened in 1995, and The Hague has not yet finished with its cases. We are waiting for history to establish what happened before we teach it. And I will not talk politics”.

This mercurial discourse progresses; Jovanovic seems to walk a high-wire between what he is supposed to say, and some stirring of conscience. “What happened here was so terrible that I have no words to describe it. I do not speak or think about these things, even if I am alone in the forest, where no one is listening. I was teaching in Bratunac at the time. I was too close to Srebrenica, but” – and, with eyes staring into his own soul, Jovanovic crosses himself – “but I thank God I was not involved in what happened.

At the end of the photography project, a selection of the photographs, chosen by the photographers, were displayed throughout the town. The show provoked interest, comment and debate. Here Ljubisa, one of the Serb photographers, studies his work with Nermin, a Bosniak photographer.

Disinterring the past

The dead of Srebrenica were not left in peace; quite the reverse. Their story has been an unquiet, macabre and restless one, from the outset. And it is one which has given rise to one of the most extraordinary enterprises of our time in the field of science and human rights: the attempt to give every concealed, shredded and fragmented skeleton of someone killed at Srebrenica a name, to return the remains to the bereaved, and to bury them at Potocari. It is an epic and expert project by people driven in their work.

Within weeks of ploughing their thousands of victims into mass graves, the Bosnian Serbs embarked on a singularly morbid operation: to unearth and move almost all the bodies to so-called “secondary” graves, in an effort to conceal the evidence of what they had done from prying international eyes, and especially from The Hague. For months, bulldozers heaved the decomposing dead from their temporary resting-places, hauling them to others; the byways of eastern Bosnia were laden with trucks transporting pieces of human beings from one place to another, for reburial in a miasma of these “secondary” mass graves, many of which have yet to be found. It happened over months, if not years, and yet no one spoke out.

From 1996, however, expert teams from The Hague began, under heavy military guard, to discover and exhume some of the graves. Their purpose was prosecution: to determine the cause and manner of death, to establish the truth of what happened and determine the guilt of the perpetrators. And it was expertly done. But it was not to identify the dead.

In the slipstream of The Hague, responsibility for the identification and exhumation of mass graves passed to the Commission for Missing Persons for the Muslim/Croat Federation. To travel this terrain with those who work for the commission is to wander some limbo between life and death.

After the haunted field at Glogova is Nova Kasaba, where 2-3,000 men were held on the football pitch before being transported on for execution, or else killed here, beside a ravine between a field and the foot of the mountain. “Jardar Football Club” reads the freshly painted sign. Murat Hurtic, who represents the Commission in Tuzla, has opened sixty-six mass graves now, and takes us to the dam at an artificial lake near Petkovici, beneath which hundreds were lined up and shot.

We are chased off the premises by the security guard, but follow the trail of the dead, who were dug from here and taken up a winding mountain track to a remote village called Liplja. It defies imagination to think of trucks heaving up this rough road, from Petkovici and elsewhere, laden with body parts, dug up and transported for reburial.

Hurtic strides into the snow: “In this village, in three graves, are shredded remains of more than 1,000 people”, he says. “About 240 were in this first grave. When I came, we found skulls and bones on the surface – they didn’t do the job very well. All the graves were in Bosniak villages that had been completely destroyed, to which they thought people would never come back … we live strange lives”, he reflects, “traumatic, but we do it. Because we have to”.

The man who oversees the search is Amor Masevic, head of the federation’s commission, who explains the gruesome discovery: “that each primary grave has four or five secondary graves, so that bodies became split up; there are pieces of the same person spread out across different graves all over Bosnia. Therefore we are left with a dilemma: we may only have someone’s forearm, and maybe we can find out the name of that forearm, but we don’t have the nerve to say to the family ‘we have found your son’. How can you hand over to a mother a son represented by a forearm? But unfortunately death does not wait for us to find the missing. Not a day passes without someone from the enclaves dying without their family being found. And that is our moral dilemma: when you find a bone that has a name, do you tell, or do you keep silent? We have talked a lot about this, and have reached a consensus that if 50% of a body is found, we tell”.

In this nightmare, the remarkable process of “reassociation” of skeletons and eventual identification proceeds. Once the commission has found and exhumed the graves, and autopsies completed by the Bosnian authorities, the remains are handed over to a series of facilities run by the International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP).

The first of these is called the Podrinje Identification Project in Tuzla. It is based beside a tunnel dug into a hillside in which are stored tens of thousands of body-bags from all over Bosnia, from throughout the war. But most of those from Srebrenica arrive separately, into an annex of vaults.

Here they are: piled up on shelf after shelf, on aluminium trays, in row after row; white plastic bags for body parts; brown bags for personal effects. Because the shelves are full, other bags are piled up on the floor. A forklift truck stands ready to lift more, or take them down. There are 4,000 of them here, divided, says Zlatan Sabanovic, into three categories: “first: complete, or relatively complete bodies. Second: a few body parts belonging to one person. And third: mixed body parts – parts of up to ten people in one bag”.

In a small room, on other shelves, are poignant relics from the massacre: belongings people took with them on either the road of death or from Potocari to the execution sites. A silver carriage-clock; photographs of children; Deutschmarks and Austrian Schillings; water bottles.

At first, the identification project used classic forensic anthropological and pathological methods. Then, in 1998, it began an experiment that was revolutionary in post-conflict situations: DNA testing – both from bone to bone, and between bones and blood samples collected from surviving family members of the missing, itself a massive quest.

Initially, samples of body parts were sent abroad to laboratories in America, Poland and Britain. But the practice proved slow and expensive; results came back after months, if at all. So in 2000, the ICMP began its own DNA testing project in Bosnia. The effect was immediate and dramatic, as the statistics on positive identifications show: 7 in 1997, 20 in 1998; 518 in 2002; 490 in 2003; 534 in 2004.

From Tuzla, then, the body bags journey to a premises round the back of a funeral parlour in the small industrial town of Lukavac, known as the “reassociation centre” – a place for the reassembly of individual skeletons, an attempt to complete the osteological mosaic of human beings. “We are re-assembling the body parts of individuals,” says the facility’s director, Canadian forensic anthropologist Cheryl Katzmarzyk.

This is a macabre place, yet purposeful and impressive. First stop is the bone cleaning area. Here, Meho Islam removes the bones from bagsful of mud and grime, rummaging through dirt and sediment to ensure that every part is recovered. “He’s particularly good at finding teeth”, says Katzmarzyk. Then each bone is washed, and carefully stored.

Upstairs is a large room in which the “reassociation” takes place. On tables and upon brown paper across the floor are rows of skeletons at various stages of completion – some merely small collections of bones; others nearly assembled, piece by piece. The skeletons currently being reassembled come originally from Glogova, from the field next to the Risanovic family’s house: these are the remains of the men executed at that accursed warehouse at Kravica.

That circle, that hex of conversations about killing, burial, reburial and exhumation, seems to reach its destination here, as though we had been following these human parts from the Kravica warehouse, to Glogova, up the mountainside to the “secondary graves”, and now this place. It is as if, by now, we know these people, in their silent grimace of death; their personal narrative concealed – and yet told – from behind the hollow stare of a skull. A skull here, a forearm there, a leg here, assemblages of a rib cage there – slowly, painstakingly, Katzmarzyk’s team of anthropologists and pathologists set about their work.

A man called Nerman Hodzic fits two pieces of bone together to ascertain a clean break. “Within this group of bones are at least three people”, says Katzmarzyk, doing her rounds. “Here, we have a very young person, probably 16 or less ... Right here, we have a knee, that’s all there is – and some burning, as you can see”. The bone is indeed charred; one’s mind’s eye thinks back to Kravica, and boggles.

On the floor is a completed skeleton – “but in this case we have no relative”, says Katzmarzyk, “no blood sample. We’ve had him completed since 2003 and he needs to go home. We desperately need more people to come forward with blood samples. Here on this table, the same situation – a person complete since 13 February 2002 – but no name, and no one to claim him”.

The third location in the process, back in Tuzla, is the Identification Co-ordination Division. To this place, sections of bone arrive in bags; they are measured, cleaned, put in a glass tube, bar coded and DNA profiled. Also come the relatives’ blood samples, likewise bar coded. Here, and thus, the matches are made. Here, and thus, history is forensically affirmed, and families given back their dead.

The numbers on Srebrenica so far are as follows, says Katheryne Bomberger, chief of staff for ICMP in Bosnia: 7,789 missing on the basis of an estimated 70% of blood samples taken from relatives of the dead. “More people than this are missing, definitely”, she says, “I think we will end up with a figure close to 8,500. So far we have 1,716 identified cases closed, of which 1,438 have been buried”. The remainder will be buried on the tenth anniversary, Monday 11 July 2005.

“Everything we are doing is completely new – let alone on such a scale”, says Bomberger. “Having a war-crimes tribunal looking at mass graves with a view to prosecution is new. But having a parallel operation looking at mass graves to try to establish truth – and ultimately justice – in a society that craves it is also a voyage into the unknown. What we are doing is unique in the world”.

“This represents for me something so bright in what still is a very dark situation here.” Vesna, a Bosnian Serb married to a Bosniak, has two teenage daughters. She left Srebrenica in April 1992 when the first wave of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia took place after nationalist Serbs declared an independent republic. Fearing persecution, she and her husband sought refuge in Tuzla, 60 miles away in government territory. They left with only a carrier bag of clothes, believing that they would be back in a month.

“My kids deserve more,” says Vesna. “They have my values; they are not interested in labels or what someone’s name is but whether people are good friends. They don’t like it when people are separated or defined by ethnicity and nationality.”

These images are part of Srebrenica Now, an exhibition hosted by Bridging Arts. The photographs, by Bosniaks and Serbs now living in Srebrenica, are a result of workshops and discussions run by the Civil Presence Project, a partnership between the Dutch-Bosnian NGO Werkgroep Nederland-Srebrenica, the Srebrenica Justice Campaign and the refugee support group BH Community UK. The exhibition is at Salon des Arts from 8–17 July.

Srebrenica and beyond

Srebrenica is, of course, the tip of the iceberg. In a way, those who lost their loved ones at Srebrenica are lucky inasmuch as there is no comparable project to cover the hundreds of thousands killed in other massacres and atrocities during three years of carnage.

“There is no collective sense of the atrocities that took place in Bosnia”, says Bomberger. “And what we are doing is politically charged. The numbers are skewed: 85% of persons who are missing are Bosniak Muslims; 12% are Serbs and 3% are Croats. The numbers speak for themselves; they tell the story of what happened here – but we have to be seen as credible and politically impartial. How do you get people to recognise the horrors? Can you? Our work is intended to be a contribution; these records will show what the truth is – it is a question of justice”.

Srebrenica is a name; it is iconic. The massacre initiated the closing phase of a war that had dragged on, and been allowed to drag on by the west, for more than three years. Srebrenica is iconic in its brutality, an extreme representative of so much other violence that preceded it.

Srebrenica is iconic for the wilful inaction of the international community to stop the massacre, almost to the point of complicity through negligence; iconic of three years’ appeasement of the Serbs, of fruitless peace plans at which their leaders, Karadzic and Mladic could only laugh as they carried on the killing.

Now, Mladic is the world’s most wanted war criminal, but on the eve of the Srebrenica massacre, he was a man the United Nations could – and did – do business with. Karadzic is likewise a wanted war criminal; but for three years, the world’s diplomats and political leaders, under the chandeliers of London, Geneva and Paris, shook his hand.

Besides Srebrenica, there was so much more. Besides Srebrenica, there are so many other names, other places whose names are defiled by atrocity: Visegrad, Foca, Zvornik, Prijedor, Omarska, Brcko, Vlasenica, Bijeljina ... and countless others, less renowned than the infamous Srebrenica. For the rest, Srebrenica stands as emblem.

These are the kinds of thoughts that haunt Emir Suljagic when he returns to Srebrenica from his adoptive home of Sarajevo. Emir survived the massacre – and a face-to-face meeting with Ratko Mladic himself – only because he was working throughout the siege as a translator for the United Nations military observers in the area, “and no thanks to the Dutch – they were preparing us for the possibility that we might have to be handed over to the Serbs”.

Emir was there at Potocari when the Serbs began the separation of men from women and children, frantically trying to register names of the men gathered in the factory across the road from the Dutch base – he compiled a list of 239 of them “with some idea that if we had their names we might be able to protect them”. The Dutch deputy commander Tom Franken promised to forward Emir’s list to Zagreb; it was found in a clerk’s desk six months later.

It is strange to stand with Emir in that same factory now – empty, but for ghosts and icicles. “It is a chance to be with those people, for a moment, again”, he says. This week, Emir’s father, whose remains were found last year, will be buried along with hundreds of others. He has an abiding memory of his father’s humiliation during the siege: desperately reciting the names of the entire Belgian football team to a Belgian soldier, in return for three cigarettes. Soon after, he was dead.

“Srebrenica was a combination of all the elements of the war”, says Emir. “It was a siege the length of Sarajevo, only more intense. It was the brutality of Omarska, only more brutal. It was the complicity of the United Nations, only more obvious. Srebrenica was everything that happened over three years in Bosnia culminated into one place and one time”.

Emir has a project – an ambitious one to do with physical objects, memory and the affirmation of historical truth in pursuit of reckoning with what happened at Srebrenica and elsewhere. He has gathered objects found in mass graves for a museum to be built in a darkened space here within the factory where he took the names that day: lighters, watches, tobacco boxes, glasses. And now he is tracing the surviving families of the owners of these objects, in order to give them a narrative.

The objects were exhumed along with the bodies, and have been recognised by the families”, he says. “The idea is make a personal portrait out of each object. When you tell someone that 10,000 people died, they cannot understand or imagine that. What I want to say is that these people were peasants, car mechanics or masons. That they had daughters, mothers, that they leave someone behind; that a lot of people are hurt by this person’s death.

“This is what the project means to me”, Emir says. “For a start, it is a way of paying something back for my survival. Then there is the future. I have given up on this generation of Serbs. I have given up on the people who were my friends, whom I played basketball with. It seems that they will never reckon with what they have done. But what I want is for their children to have a chance to make up their own minds. Children who will be passing by the memorial every day. I want them to know and think about what happened, and to learn from it. Only that way we can start to live with one another again.

“We need”, Emir Suljagic says, “to be able to stand there and say: ‘This is the place where they killed so many people. This is the place where the massacre happened’. The problem is that this is only the case at Srebrenica. So much of this country is stained with blood, and yet there is nothing to say that it happened. There is nothing at Omarska and the other camps. There is nothing at Visegrad, Brcko, Foca, Zvornik – and all those other schools and hangars where people were mass murdered in a similar way, or worse. We have to mark them as we are marking Srebrenica. And if there are places where the Serbs were murdered, then we should mark them too. Only then can the next generation grow up and be told by what they see: that this should never happen again”.