The Graves at Srebrenica

By Eric Stover

Excerpted chapter from The Graves: Srebrenica and Vukovar by Eric Stover and Gilles Peress

View photos by Gilles Peress and read recollections from Eric Stover.

It was late in the afternoon of July 11, 1995, and shafts of bright sunlight shot through the parting clouds illuminating Srebrenica like spotlights on an empty stage. General Ratko Mladic, his light blue eyes flashing and his silvery hair glistening in the incandescent light, strode triumphantly through the streets of the town. This was without doubt the Bosnian Serb commander’s finest hour. His dark army fatigues freshly laundered and pressed, a pair of heavy field glasses balanced on his thick chest, and a 9mm Heckler submachine gun grasped in his left hand, he looked every inch the conquering field commander.

As a television reporter from the Bosnian-Serb capital of Pale recorded his every move, the 52-year-old general approached a group of Serb officers with Kalishnikov assault rifles slung across their backs. He embraced and kissed each of the soldiers -- first on the right cheek, followed by the left, and then back to the right. His exuberance appeared frenzied, as if the acrid smell of spent gunpowder and the salty scent of his victorious fighters had melded into a powerful stimulant.

Mladic left his men and walked down the street past a row of gutted apartment buildings. Then he paused and faced the camera. In a husky voice, he said: “Here we are in Srebrenica on July 11, 1995. On the eve of yet another great Serb holiday. We present this city to the Serbian people as a gift. Finally, the time has come to take revenge on the Turks.”

The Serb assault on Srebrenica had been swift and decisive. In battle after battle over the last three years, Mladic had followed the military doctrine of concentrated force espoused by the German panzer general Heinz Guderian: Klotzen, nicht Kleckern! -- “Smash! Don’t sprinkle!” By sundown on July 9, the second day of the attack, Bosnian Serb troops had taken control of the southern half of the enclave and were holding 30 Dutch soldiers hostage. The following day, as the Dutch commander repeatedly radioed U.N. headquarters and pleaded for air strikes, the Serbs advanced to the edge of town, encountering little real resistance.

Mladic left his men and walked down the street past a row of gutted apartment buildings. Then he paused and faced the camera. In a husky voice, he said: “Here we are in Srebrenica on July 11, 1995. On the eve of yet another great Serb holiday. We present this city to the Serbian people as a gift. Finally, the time has come to take revenge on the Turks.”

The Muslim commander, Naser Oric, was out of town, as it turned out. Two months earlier, he and 15 of his best officers had left the enclave and made their way to Tuzla, 40 miles to the northwest. (Oric later insisted that the Bosnian government had barred him from returning to the besieged enclave. Bosnian government officials contended that they had ordered Naser to return, but that he had refused.) Without their top military leaders, the undisciplined and poorly trained Muslims were incapable of organizing themselves to defend the town. There had even been firefights between army factions that wanted to stay to protect the town and those that wanted to flee. A comforting rumor was also spreading that the Serbs would open up a corridor for the men and their families to retreat to government lines near Tuzla.

By the morning of July 11, the Serbs were within striking distance of Srebrenica. Fearing they would be overrun by the advancing Serbs, the Dutch began preparing to move their troops and civilians out of the town. Then, just after 2:30 p.m., two NATO planes finally appeared over the skies of Srebrenica. They released two bombs on Serb positions outside of the town, causing negligible damage, and then disappeared over the horizon. The Dutch were flabbergasted. The United Nation’s last chance to defend a “safe area” they had sworn to protect had just evaporated right before their eyes. In Zagreb, the United Nation’s top military commander, Lieutenant General Bernard Janvier of France, and the U.N. special representative Yasushi Akashi of Japan, who had argued that the United Nations should pull out of the safe areas, had decided to limit the air strikes to a token attack.

At approximately 4:15 p.m., the Bosnian Serb army, led by Ratko Mladic, entered Srebrenica. As the troops swarmed over the town, the Dutch soldiers and thousands of Muslims fled up the two-mile stretch of asphalt road to the main Dutch base in Potocari. Women carried children or led them by the hand. The elderly struggled to help one another. Occasionally, a mortar shell whistled over their heads and exploded in the lush green grass and trees bordering the road.

By the time Srebrenica fell, almost all of the men and adolescent boys from Srebrenica -- numbering 10,000 to 15,000 -- had left the town. While the women, children and elderly fled to Potocari, the men retreated to the village of Susnjari, where they would meet and organize themselves for the 40-mile trek to Tuzla.

That night, under a luminous moon, the men gathered in the fields surrounding the village. Only a few thousand were armed. Some had automatic weapons, but little ammunition. Others had old hunting rifles or World War II vintage rifles given to them by their fathers or grandfathers.

Among the men in the fields that night was 18-year-old Ibrahim. He was there with his father and younger brother. Ibrahim’s older brother, who had been badly wounded during the final assault on Srebrenica, had fled with his mother to the Dutch base in Potocari.

Two years later, I interviewed Ibrahim, who asked that his last name not be used, at a refugee center north of Tuzla. Dressed in faded jeans and a matching denim jacket, a dusty red baseball cap pulled down so low it partially obscured his piercing blue eyes, he could have passed as a farm boy from the midwestern United States. In the traditional Muslim way, we sat opposite one another atop mattresses on the floor, drinking cups of Turkish coffee served in tiny porcelain cups. Ibrahim told me that before the war, he had lived with his family in Apolje, a predominantly Muslim village north of Srebrenica, on the shores of the Drina River. His girlfriend, whom he had known since childhood, had been a Serb from a neighboring village. After Bosnia declared independence in April 1992 and tensions started to rise in the region, he and his girlfriend began meeting secretly. But it soon became too dangerous for Muslims and Serbs to be seen together at all, and they had to abandon their clandestine encounters.

Women carried children or led them by the hand. The elderly struggled to help one another. Occasionally, a mortar shell whistled over their heads and exploded in the lush green grass and trees bordering the road.

Ibrahim’s father was a miner, and his mother, like most Muslim women of her generation, stayed at home to raise her three sons. They were a traditional rural Muslim family in eastern Bosnia. His mother wore a headscarf and brightly colored dimijes, baggy trousers with intricate patterns traditional among Muslim women within rural Bosnian society. Ibrahim’s father sported a dark-blue beret, common among older Muslim men in rural areas, and around his neck he wore a leather pouch with a hamajlija (from the Arabic term for “amulet”) wrapped inside -- a small piece of paper with a verse or phrase from the Koran written on it. Worn next to the heart for protection against spells and illnesses, it can also be worn to secure happiness and good fortune or to ease anxiety and physical pains.

Ibrahim and his family were part of a zajednica, a Muslim community consisting of several related families living in separate houses but sharing a common plot of land. In their case, Ibrahim and his family lived with his father’s parents and older brother and his wife and children. The men took turns working in local factories or staying at home to tend the livestock and plant and harvest the crops. The women kept their homes in order and took care of the basica, a garden plot near the house where they grew vegetables of all of sorts -- beans, onions, leeks, potatoes, maize -- mainly for household consumption.

Before the breakup of Yugoslavia, Muslim men in rural areas usually had more interaction with the outside world than women did, since they traveled out of the village to labor in factories or, in some cases, to other countries, such as Germany, to work as migrant laborers. They also were required to serve in the Yugoslav People’s Army where they trained alongside other Muslims as well as Serbs and Croats.

In early 1994, after Serb paramilitaries attacked Ibrahim’s village and torched their house, Ibrahim and his extended family fled to Srebrenica. Sturdy and swift on his feet, he got a job delivering messages for the municipality. He and his older brother also joined one of Oric’s defense units. The two brothers had a semiautomatic carbine, which they exchanged as one returned and the other set off for the front line. Despite the obvious dangers, Ibrahim didn’t mind patrolling the boundaries of the enclave. Srebrenica could be boring, and the human stench from the refugees living in the streets, especially in the summertime, was overpowering.

“Some mornings when it was quiet on the front,” he told me, “we would yell over to the Serbs from our trench: ‘Hey, Cedo [a diminutive for Serb nationalists]! Put your gun down and come on over for some coffee! It’s brewed just the way you like it!’ Of course, they never came. Then they’d shout back a similar invitation. And it would go on and on until we were all laughing hysterically. One time I even recognized the voice of a friend, a real joker, a Serb guy I used to play football with.”

At the edge of a cornfield on the outskirts of Susnjari, Ibrahim leaned into the crowd of Muslim men who had gathered to plan their escape to Tuzla. One of the enclave’s political leaders was assigning defense units to positions along the column as the men would hike the 40-mile trail through the forest to Tuzla. Scouts who knew the area would go first, removing mines as they went. Ibrahim’s unit was positioned near the head of the column: only about 1,500 would leave ahead of him. As he left the group, Ibrahim overheard a group of men whispering to one another. They were angry that the enclave’s leaders (and a few women and children, mostly families of the senior military and political leaders) had been placed with the best-equipped units at the head of the column while the least armed and least influential people were being forced to walk at the rear.

By sunrise on July 12, the exodus was in high gear. From the air, the column of men looked like a seemingly endless procession of black ants wending their way through hills of dense forests and open meadows and pastures. Whatever food the men had brought soon spoiled in the stifling heat and had to be thrown away. They survived by raiding fruit orchards, and when these were depleted, they ate mushrooms and leaves. Snails lived on the floor of the forest, and those men who could stomach the mollusks gathered them up and roasted them over small fires.

The men referred to the escape route as the “Trail of Life or Death.” Few, like Ibrahim and his father, knew the path or had maps to guide them. They simply relied on the men ahead of them to lead the way. The plan was to walk during the night and sleep during the day. But that strategy was soon abandoned as the Serbs opened fire on the column with mortars and anti-aircraft guns. Occasionally, a Serb patrol would venture into the woods for what was jokingly referred to as “a little Muslim poaching.” Serbs on the roads called out to the Muslim men to surrender. Some men found it difficult to resist and began to emerge from the forest.

The men referred to the escape route as the “Trail of Life or Death.” Few, like Ibrahim and his father, knew the path or had maps to guide them. They simply relied on the men ahead of them to lead the way.

Ibrahim and his father and younger brother stopped to rest on the side of a hill in the Bijela Forest. They had been walking all night and most of the morning. “It was about midday, and some of the men were sleeping,” Ibrahim said. “Suddenly, the forest burst into light, as mortar shells rained down on us. Men started screaming and scrambling for cover. I felt a flash of heat pass across my face, and then blood trickled into my mouth. I took off running. I had to jump over the dead so as not to step on them. I remember at one point quickly looking back to where my father and brother had been sitting, but they were gone.”

Ibrahim walked five days and nights before he finally crossed over into Muslim territory. He immediately went to the Tuzla office of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to inquire about the fate of his parents and two brothers. Hundreds of other refugees from Srebrenica were waiting in a queue that stretched around the Red Cross building and across the street. He stood in the queue all day, but never made it to the entrance. That night he bedded down on a park bench near the ICRC office. The next morning, he was one of the first refugees to file through the organization’s door. With his baseball hat in hand, he approached a woman sitting at a desk and handed her a slip of paper with the names of his four family members written on it. She consulted a list of names and shook her head. There were too many people missing, she told the young man. He would have to fill in the questionnaire and return in a week.

By nightfall on July 11, over 20,000 Muslims had fled Srebrenica and gathered in and around the Dutch compound in Potocari. Most of them were women, children and the elderly. But scattered among them were over a thousand men of military age. Some, like Ibrahim’s older brother, were sick or wounded; others still believed the Dutch would protect them and their families from the Serbs.

Conditions in the compound soon deteriorated as more and more people streamed into Potocari. Without toilets, they had to urinate and defecate on the ground. Water was scarce, and in the stifling heat dehydration began to spread among the very young and elderly. Women became desperate as they moved through the crowd searching for their children and friends.

Serb scouts arrived at Potocari late in the morning of July 12. At first, they were polite to the Dutch peacekeepers. A couple of Serb soldiers offered them plum brandy and cigarettes. The Serbs assured the peacekeepers that an orderly evacuation of the refugees would begin once their commanders arrived. The women and children would be bussed to Bosnian-held territory, the men to POW camps. Nobody should worry, they said. They were good soldiers. They knew all about the Geneva Conventions.

Bosnian Serb troops soon gathered at strategic points around the perimeter of the Dutch compound. A Serb tank, manned by a beefy soldier wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses and smoking a cigar, rattled up to the main gate and aimed its heavy gun barrel at the crowd. Dutch soldiers linked arms and formed a barrier between the Serbs and the refugees, but Serb soldiers, some with German shepherds, pushed their way past the “blue helmets” and began circulating among the women and children. When the Dutch protested, the Serbs said it was a formality: They were only looking for men to screen for “war crimes.”

A Serb tank, manned by a beefy soldier wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses and smoking a cigar, rattled up to the main gate and aimed its heavy gun barrel at the crowd.

At the edge of the crowd of refugees, an 18-year-old boy named Ahmed sat on the ground with his arms propped on his knees. His dark eyes scanned over the heads of the bedraggled women, children and old men. Suddenly, he stiffened and leaned over to tap his father’s shoulder. The boy motioned to a spot, 40 yards away, where two Serb soldiers were pulling an old man to his feet. Luckily, the soldiers had their backs turned. Without a word, Ahmed left his mother and younger brother, who were curled up asleep on a blanket, and crept quietly with his father through the crowd to a stack of wooden pallets at the edge of the compound.

Ahmed and his family had arrived at Potocari late in the afternoon of July 11. After sunset the boy and his father slipped out of the compound to join the other men in Susnjari, but they were stopped by Dutch soldiers, who told them to go back to the camp. Ahmed’s father tried to explain in his broken English that his son was 18 years old and that he was in his mid-40s, which meant they could be detained and interrogated by the Serbs. But the U.N. soldiers wouldn’t listen. It would be safer in the camp under the protection of the United Nations, they said.

For two days and two nights, Ahmed and his father played a game of cat and mouse with the Serb soldiers in the compound. They slept in shifts next to the pallets, waking each other the moment soldiers came near. More than once, Ahmed had watched in the darkness as drunken soldiers grabbed pretty young girls from the mass of sleeping bodies and took them to a building just outside of the perimeter. The next morning, he awoke to the sound of a backhoe and saw six Dutch soldiers hurriedly carrying bodies on stretchers away from the compound. He later learned that two men and a teenage girl had committed suicide during the night.

Leaning against the pallets, Ahmed and his father reviewed their options for breaking out of the camp. Two hours earlier, more than a dozen buses and trucks had pulled up behind the parked tank. The Serbs were stepping up the deportations. A steady stream of refugees was now moving through the main gate. A young soldier, with a red bandanna wrapped around his head, suddenly appeared next to the pallets and forced the two men to their feet. The soldier jammed his rifle barrel between Ahmed’s shoulder blades and told him to move toward the buses.

“My father was just ahead of me,” Ahmed recalled. “In front of the tank he turned to the left with the other men. Without thinking, I continued walking straight ahead with the women and children. After a few yards, a hand reached out and grabbed my right shoulder. I turned around. It was a Serb soldier, a neighbor of mine from Srebrenica. He shoved a blanket in my arms and motioned for me to put it on my head. He literally saved my life.”

As the bus left the compound, Ahmed saw a group of Serb paramilitaries marching about 30 men with their heads down and their hands tied behind their backs into a house. The militiamen were wearing police uniforms with the kokarda -- a Serbian nationalist symbol, depicting a double-headed eagle -- on their caps. As he watched the line of men pass, he gently fingered a gold earring in his right ear. It was a tic, something he did when he was feeling anxious.

As the men stepped, single file, into the doorway of the house, a hard shadow would cut diagonally across each of their faces. Ahmed had seen the same effect in old films from the 1930s. Then, suddenly, he saw him.

The image flashed by in a split second: In the doorway, suspended in a flicker of light and shadow, was his father.

In less than two days, the Serbs deported 23,000 people, virtually all women and children, from the U.N. compound in Potocari. Over the next week, thousands of men from Srebrenica emerged from the woods and managed to cross into Muslim-held territory. They continued to arrive, usually in small groups, throughout the autumn. By late November, roughly 4,700 men had reached Tuzla.

Forty-year-old Omer was one of the last to escape the scourge of “ethnic cleansing” that befell Srebrenica and the surrounding countryside in July 1995. A bricklayer from the village of Cerska, with a wife and four young children to feed, Omer worked hard at his trade, and it showed in his broad shoulders and muscular hands. His hair was thick and straight, the color of black oak, with flecks of gray. He had a weathered face and a gentle smile, and like many people with a speech impediment, he tended to raise his voice when he sensed he wasn’t being understood. It made him seem doltish, almost dull-witted, but he was hardly that.

Omer and his family fled to Srebrenica in February 1993 to escape the advancing Serbs. They knew no one in the town and had nowhere to stay. The bricklayer and his oldest son, Medin, a strapping 17-year-old, built a shelter out of sheets of plastic and old timbers they pulled from beneath the rubble of a demolished house. Near the post office, they found a 50-gallon drum and a piece of rain gutter and fashioned the materials into a pot-bellied stove. During the day, Omer’s children scoured the snow-covered hills, braving land mines and sniper fire, to gather firewood to sell in the streets.

When the Serbs captured Srebrenica, Omer accompanied his wife and children to Potocari and then continued on alone to join the men gathering in the fields around Susnjari. He made his way through the crowd until he found his brother and six of his cousins from Cerska. The eight men formed one of the last groups to join the exodus from Srebrenica.

In less than two days, the Serbs deported 23,000 people, virtually all women and children, from the U.N. compound in Potocari. Over the next week, thousands of men from Srebrenica emerged from the woods and managed to cross into Muslim-held territory. They continued to arrive, usually in small groups, throughout the autumn. By late November, roughly 4,700 men had reached Tuzla.

Walking through the night, they arrived late the following morning in the heavily forested hills overlooking the road that links the villages of Nova Kasaba and Konjevic Polje. The day before, thousands of men had crossed the road without incident. But now the 30-foot-wide strip of asphalt and the field next to it were crawling with Serb soldiers. Two armored personnel carriers were positioned at opposite ends of the field with their anti-aircraft guns pointed toward the hills. Dozens of prisoners, shirtless and with their hands tied behind their backs, sat by the side of the road.

Exhausted and demoralized, the eight men circled back to an abandoned mill they had passed earlier in the morning. That night four of the men slept in the rafters above the broken paddle wheel, while the others bedded down in the cellar. Their only weapon was a hand grenade, which they tied to a trip-wire just outside the door.

The next morning, the men awoke to the sound of two Serb soldiers shouting to each other on the ridge across from the mill. Patrols were going from village to village to flush out any remaining Muslims. Omer and his relatives realized there was no way they could escape -- at least for the time being.

The eight men stayed at the mill for four months. At night, when the Serbs patrols had left the area, Omer and his relatives picked wild berries and rummaged through the backpacks and clothing of men who had been killed along the trail. They seldom found food on the bloated corpses, but occasionally they turned up a packet of salt or tobacco. As their food stocks dwindled, they went further afield to raid the gardens of Serb farmhouses. One night, they stole a lamb and slit its throat. To keep it cool, they stuffed the skinned and gutted carcass in a burlap sack and submerged it under rocks in the river. Lighting a fire would only attract attention, so they ate the meat fresh.

By mid-November, the men were running out of food and salt. The weather was changing. The nights were turning colder, and it was only a matter of days before the first snowstorm would arrive. Desperate, they left the mill and headed along the trail toward Tuzla.

“The first night was the worst,” Omer later told me. “It was like a nightmare. The ambushes months earlier had left decomposing corpses everywhere. Wild dogs and other scavengers had pulled the bodies apart and left the bones scattered along the trail.” In a clearing in the forest, Omer saw what he thought were dozens of large white mushrooms gleaming in the moonlight. But when he went closer, he could see they were skulls that had rolled down the hill and become bleached by the sun.

On the morning of November 20, Omer and his companions waited patiently along a wooded ridge until a Serb patrol passed and then descended from the trail. Moving cautiously along the asphalt road, they walked the last nine miles to the Muslim front lines. The bricklayer found his wife living in an abandoned schoolhouse outside Tuzla with hundreds of other refugees from Srebrenica. The school was one of a dozen or so buildings around the city that had been transformed into living facilities for the refugees.

It was a bittersweet reunion. Omer’s youngest sons had managed to squeeze by the Serb soldiers in Potocari and climb onto the bus with their mother. But the 17-year-old, Medin, wasn’t so lucky. Serb soldiers had pulled him from his mother’s side and forced him to join the men who would later be interrogated and shot.

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