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1995: Srebrenica - a survivor's story

Emir Suljagic can remember the precise moment when war in the Balkans overtook his life.

It was 12 May 1992 and he was standing with his father on a wooded hill above Bratunac, the small town on the Bosnia-Serbia border where the 17 year old lived with his family.

The pair watched as columns of trucks from the Serbian bank of the Drina river crossed into Bosnia to pick up Muslims expelled from their villages in the valley.

"The women and children were mostly taken straight to the Bosnian government-controlled territory, whereas the men were held in Bratunac for no longer than a couple of weeks," Suljagic says.

"But in those couple of weeks, of some 700 people at least half were killed in what the survivors later related to us were really brutal murders."


" The first reaction was to run for our lives - and that's what my dad and I did "

Emir Suljagic

It was also a brutal awakening for the young Suljagic, who knew that family and friends were among the captured.

Before the war he was just a regular teenager, says Suljagic, now a 30-year-old journalist living in Sarajevo.

"I was interested in computers, I was interested in heavy metal music, I was a Metallica fan, I watched basketball. I did what everybody else my age did."

But the only thing on his mind watching the Serbian operation that afternoon was escape.

"The first reaction was to run for our lives. And that's what my dad and I did.

"We ran into the woods and we travelled the whole day to get to a village which was still not under Serb control."

Execution squad

Suljagic and his father ended up in Srebrenica - among the first of many Muslims who sought refuge there during the war.

They were joined by his mother and sister the following day. They told how many of their extended family in Bratunac had surrendered to Serb neighbours, who had guaranteed them safe passage to Tuzla.

"My dad's mother was actually looking for my father and me in an attempt to convince us to surrender to the Serbs."

But the decision to run probably saved their lives.

Two months later, Suljagic says a 17-year-old cousin who had surrendered joined them at Srebrenica.

"He told us that he had survived the execution squad in which everyone else was killed - all other male members of my family.

Refugees

"My relative said that the guy who was behind the machine gun on an armoured personnel carrier was the bus conductor on a bus we took to school every day," he adds.

Suljagic's father was killed by a Serb shell in December 1992 as he made his way back to the frontline near Bratunac. His mother and sister left for Tuzla in April 1993.

Suljagic stayed in Srebrenica for the next three years with his maternal grandparents.

Conditions in the town were terrible. The number of refugees in Srebrenica swelled to over 40,000 in early 1993. Many were forced to live on the streets in freezing temperatures.

Mass grave

When the United Nations arrived, the teenager secured a job as an interpreter working for UN military observers roving around the enclave.

Although suspicious of the rapport the Dutch officers developed with their Serb counterparts, Suljagic says he firmly believed the besieged Srebrenica would remain in UN hands - even after Serbian commander General Ratko Mladic attacked on 6 July 1995.

But the UN's "safe area" fell to the Bosnian Serb army on 11 July.

"I first knew what would be happening the moment they started separating men from women and children," Suljagic says.

"I knew that whenever they separated men from women, they most of the time kill the men."

Over the next three days, at least 8,000 Muslim males were killed, including Suljagic's 70-year-old grandfather, whose remains were identified in a mass grave near Zvornik in 2003.

Suljagic believes he was lucky to escape, despite running into General Mladic himself on 12 July while accompanying UN observers to nearby Potocari.

No forgiveness

The general questioned him on whether he had served in the army before dismissing him.

"I got really scared. I was pretty sure he was going to have me shot - there or somewhere else.

"I asked for my ID card back. The only thing that went through my mind was that if I'm shot on the way back to the camp, I don't want to be a nameless body."

Suljagic eventually made it safely to Tuzla. He says he will never come to terms with what happened at Srebrenica.

He wants the perpetrators to be tried, but is not sure justice has an "adequate answer" to a crime of this magnitude and nature.

"Of course it would be very good to see them in prison. I'm just not quite sure if it will mean anything 10 years later."

And he says he finds no solace in concepts of truth or reconciliation.

"I'm not going to forgive. It doesn't mean I'm going to hate, but I'm not going to forgive."

In Context
Emir Suljagic is a journalist for the Sarajevo weekly news magazine Dani.

He recovered the remains of his father in 2004 and will bury him in Srebrenica on the 10th anniversary of the massacre.

His book about Srebrenica, Postcards From The Grave, was published in June 2005.


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