Srebrenica: A Survivor’s Story

Interview With Hasan Nuhanovic

Hasan Nuhanovic Hasan Nuhanovic

It would be impossible not to be altered by meeting Hasan Nuhanovic. Hasan is a lanky, bespectacled 38-year-old Bosnian with a determined, quiet demeanor. And although you wouldn’t expect this from someone who lost his entire family in a massacre, he has a wry sense of humor. Dragan Stanimirovi, an investigative journalist for the Bosnian news program 60 Minutes, describes Hasan as the “Eli Weisel of Bosnia.”

Hasan’s personal story is tragic and almost incomprehensible. He made it through the war as a U.N. translator. When we met him in Sarajevo in January 2006, he told me that he would like to turn his personal experience and observations at Srebrenica into a film, along the lines of the Roman Polanski film The Pianist. With the camera simply tilted on the table, I asked him to “pitch” the film as if I were a Hollywood director. I was sincere about this, as I think the idea of a film about Srebrenica is a good one. But this also gave Hasan the freedom to tell his story in a different way. It was especially interesting to hear Hasan’s description of the creeping deprivation during the siege of Srebrenica. He talked about hunger, about being cut off from his girlfriend (she is now his wife, and they have a daughter together) for three years in the early 1990s, and how he once traded $1,000 worth of black-market tobacco for a three-minute phone call with her. And, of course, he talks about the role of his father, Ibro, who was brought in to “negotiate” with the Serb commander General Ratko Mladic, on behalf of some 25,000 Bosnian Muslim refugees after the fall of the town and just days before the worst massacre in Europe since World War II took place there. --Joe Rubin

Joe Rubin: Can you tell me about your experiences in Srebrenica?

Hasan Nuhanovic: I got stuck in Srebrenica with my family. That was not our original place. We used to live there a long time ago, and then we moved from one place to another in eastern Bosnia. Terrible things happened in eastern Bosnia. Between 1992 and 1995, we lived as refugees in that area without any outside assistance. We almost died of starvation with thousands of other people, and then in 1993, the United Nations sent the first peacekeeping unit of Canadians. There were only about 150 people there.

I went to their base to talk to them, and they hired me as an interpreter. Later, they were replaced by a Dutch batallion. There were about 600 Dutch soldiers, many more than the Canadians. They were supposed to protect us from the Serbs. The Serb troops were all over the place around Srebrenica. The area was about a couple of square kilometers. That was the only territory where we could live for three and a half years. We were, of course, prepared to accept that kind of life in misery, in total misery -- no running water, no electricity, nothing. What happened in July 1995 was the final episode of genocide, of mass killing, of mass murder. The only thing I did not expect -- because I expected bad things to happen -- was that the U.N. peacekeepers, the Dutch battalion in this case, was going to assist the Serbs, to hand over these people to the Serbs, like my family. Later, thousands of mostly women and children, but also men and boys, moved toward the Dutch battalion. Some of them were allowed to come inside. But most of them were actually forced to remain outside the U.N. base. That was a decision of the Dutch battalion. They closed the gate. They sealed a hole in the fence. So about 5,000 or 6,000 people were inside the base, and about 20,000 people were outside the base. If you were inside the base, you were safe because the Serbs did not do anything bad to the people inside the base. I heard about killings happening outside the base. I heard screams and shots. I was afraid, of course, for my family, my parents and my brother -- if they stepped outside the base, they were going to be killed. So I tried to keep them inside the base.

What happened in July 1995 was the final episode of genocide, of mass killing, of mass murder. The only thing I did not expect -- because I expected bad things to happen -- was that the U.N. peacekeepers, the Dutch battalion in this case, was going to assist the Serbs, to hand over these people to the Serbs, like my family.

Everyone wanted to remain inside the base, but the Dutch decided to actually throw them out. They gave me a megaphone and said, “Tell the people to start leaving the base in groups of five.” They didn’t say anything else. The people didn’t know what was waiting for them outside the base. They were hoping and thinking, “OK, the Dutch are in charge; the Dutch know what we’re supposed to do, no problem.”

Then what happened?

Some of the people, when they reached the gate, saw the Serb soldiers standing there next to the Dutch soldiers, pushing the men and the boys away from their sisters, wives, children -- there was a separation taking place right there at the gate. People actually realized at that very moment that something is wrong, thinking, “I’m not going to any safe place. The Serbs are going to take me.” The Dutch just stood there. Some of them turned around and walked back toward the factory [where the refugees were gathered inside the base] and forcibly expelled them.

And what about your family?

My family was among the last ones to stay inside. I tried to keep them inside the base for as long as possible. But they were forced. Three Dutch soldiers came inside with three U.N. military observers and looked at my family and told me, “Hasan, translate to your family, tell them to leave right now.” I was crying. My brother, who was 19, was sitting on the chair. Of course, my parents knew what was going to happen. But they were behaving in a different way; they actually tried to calm me down -- they felt that if I start panicking, I would cause trouble for myself. If their elder son, myself, could remain inside the base, could stay alive, let’s at least try to do that. They knew my brother was going to be killed, they knew they were going to be killed. All the time as they were walked out of the base by the Dutch soldiers, my parents told me, “Hasan, stay. You can stay. Your brother will be with us; he will be OK.” I was walking behind them, screaming and saying, “I am coming with you.” But my brother turned around, and he started screaming right at my face: “You are not coming with me, you are going to stay inside because you can stay.” And that was the last time I saw my family.

Did you ever learn what happened to your family?

I’ve heard so many stories. I’ve spent at least five, six years, every day, 24 hours, trying to find out what happened to them. I haven’t the organization to do the exhumations; the identifications [agency] has not notified me of any findings. There is a DNA identification …

So they’ve never made …

Maybe they’ve been exhumed. Most of the remains are kept piled up in a facility. They are in very bad shape. Sometimes they only find a leg of a person or a skull. My cousin was killed, and his skull was found. I learned about it and I didn’t know how to tell his father. How do you tell a father that your son’s skull was discovered? I mean, it’s a very difficult process. And I’m not really looking forward to that, to be frank. I don’t know how I’m going to live through that.

Can you talk a little about your father and how he was asked to meet with General Mladic at the fall of Srebrenica?

My father was a manager of a forestry company. He was a well-known man in the area; that’s probably why people wanted him to represent them with the meeting with Mladic as one of the so-called negotiators. They were not negotiators, of course, because they were not in a position to negotiate.

There’s a video where you can clearly see and hear Mladic talking to my father. My father tried to convey a message from 25,000 refugees that we are all civilians inside and outside the U.N. base, so please treat us as civilians. They were speaking on behalf of 25,000 refugees [driven out of the nearby town of Potocari]. There were three civilians, including my father, and Mladic apparently promised that everybody was going to be evacuated safely to the government-controlled territory. When people talk about Srebrenica, they talk about three days in July 1995. But that’s not Srebrenica. Srebrenica was three and a half years of life in a big concentration camp guarded by U.N. peacekeepers.

How do you feel about the fact that Mladic is still at large?

They knew my brother was going to be killed, they knew they were going to be killed. All the time as they were walked out of the base by the Dutch soldiers, my parents told me, “Hasan, stay. You can stay.

The question about why Ratko Mladic is still at large in my opinion has become a joke. It was a serious question in 1995, 1996, 1997. And now it’s talking for the sake of talking. I used to sit down and read some reports and try to analyze why they were not arrested. But I’m not going to do it anymore because I’m just fed up. There was a capacity to do it, especially at the time when NATO had about 60,000 soldiers deployed in Bosnia, 20,000 of them Americans. There are only 6,000 soldiers now.

Do you not think their arrest is needed for justice or for reconciliation? Would that change anything for you?

Yes. If you look at the big picture, their arrest is needed for the future, to actually settle the score, to have these two -- The Hague Tribunal likes to call them the Two Big Fish -- in The Hague, behind bars. But my point is that “the big fish” are important, but the small fish are even more important. One of the details about my mother’s fate was that six Serbs in a nearby town in Srebrenica tried to rape her in prison. I got the story from a Serb who claimed to be there when it happened. She broke a glass on the window in the prison cell, and she cut her veins before they managed to open the cell door. Six Serbs. I know exactly the name of the chief of police who was in charge of the prison. And some other officials, police, the military civilian authorities, I know their names -- they’ve not even been indicted or arrested or anything. Mladic and Karadzic are important for me as a citizen of Bosnia Herzegovina, for the Balkans region -- for reconciliation. But for me personally, I would rather have first the information on who were those six soldiers who came to rape my mother when she killed herself. And what happened to this police chief?

I also learned that he [the police chief] is living in Sarajevo somewhere. Can you imagine? There’s like a half million people in this town. I live here and this man is also living here, working in these so-called joint institutions that were created after the Dayton Peace Agreement was signed. What am I supposed to do if I meet him in the street? Am I supposed to go to him and say, “I’m Hasan Nuhanovic and you were chief of police 10 years ago in Vlasenica. What do you know about the death of my mother? What’s going to happen?” This is a situation that should be resolved. And that’s what I’m trying to point out.

Of course, Karadzic and Mladic are very important. But there is so much to be done even after they are arrested. Now there’s this state court [in Sarajevo] with a war crimes chamber; I think as much as The Hague Tribunal was important, I think that the state court and war crimes chamber are maybe even more important. A whole process needs to unfold in the next five to 10 years in this country, in this capital.

Do you think Bosnia has been forgotten?

I think so. Bosnia seems to have been forgotten by the rest of the world. When something happens somewhere else, of course, you are worried that resources will be diverted. There should be enough resources left in this country to finalize the process they started …

Did you get any recourse from the United Nations?

I did bring a case, and I am suing the Netherlands.

What are you hoping for?

The massacre committed in Srebrenica against my people was done by the Bosnian-Serb army and police. But the role of the international community -- the U.N. peacekeepers, the United Nations in New York, the European Union and NATO -- were very, very shameful because many things could have been done to prevent the massacre.

Those who are responsible. The Netherlands protected those individuals. … I couldn’t get to the individuals that wronged me because the state is protecting them. I am suing the state as an individual … perhaps compensation.

Tell me a little bit about the book you have written.

The title of my book is Under the U.N. Flag: The International Community and Genocide in Srebrenica. Actually, the massacre was happening while the U.N. flag in Potocari, the U.N. base, was still on top of the headquarters building. The massacre committed in Srebrenica against my people was done by the Bosnian-Serb army and police. But the role of the international community -- the U.N. peacekeepers, the United Nations in New York, the European Union and NATO -- were very, very shameful because many things could have been done to prevent the massacre. And these many people -- the 10,000 who were killed -- could be alive today if the United Nations, the E.U. negotiators and NATO -- with its airplanes in Italy at the disposal of the United Nations in Bosnia -- all they needed was a call to take off from Italy and bomb the Bosnian-Serb troops on the ground on that very day. My book explains why this did not take place -- why military intervention with very limited objectives did not happen. We did not need NATO to bomb the entire Serb army, but to bomb several of the Serb tanks on the ground. Destroy the tanks, and the Serb infantry would have stopped its attack. And the massacre would not have happened.

I’m trying to raise many questions in my book, and I’m trying to answer all the questions as well. And I quote from many documents. I’m talking about the U.N. documents labeled “strictly confidential”; most of those documents I got from an American reporter, David Rode, who wrote a book on Srebrenica called End Game. He’s a friend of mine; he’s done also good research on Srebrenica. Today, 10 years later, you can clearly see that the Dutch on the ground, in my opinion, are complicit in this war crime. And the role of the United Nations -- and not calling for air strikes when air strikes were needed and when NATO planes were available -- is also complicit. The United Nations should answer for this. At one point [documents say], the United Nations called off air strikes just as they started. Two bombs were dropped; they missed their targets and it was called off. Most documents say it was done by a Dutch minister of defense -- a Dutch secretary of defense -- and the United Nations basically complied with his request.

You uncovered in your book and in your research that there were actual deals made that allowed the massacre to happen.

Yes, there are various sources of information suggesting that a deal was made a month before the attack on Srebrenica when General Mladic was apparently promised by the top U.N. officials -- a French general was involved and probably a British general and some more officials from the Western governments -- that they would not bomb his troops on the ground anymore; they would send no more air strikes against his forces. So, again, according to this source, Mladic then knew a month before that if he attacks the eastern enclaves, one of which was Srebrenica, there will be no retaliation against his forces on the ground by NATO. At the very last moment, however, according to what I saw from being there, and from these documents, they did send two Dutch jet fighters, which dropped two bombs, which missed their targets, maybe deliberately; I don’t know. And according to one source, these two bombs were actually from the Second World War.

It’s easy to criticize all the things that the international community has done wrong, but there was a huge war going on and there was genocide going on here and they did do something.

I mean, come on. The only thing the U.N. peacekeeping troops in Bosnia did during the war was secure the route for human aid convoys. So basically, you feed the people before they get killed. That’s exactly what happened in Srebrenica until Americans got involved directly. That’s a fact. And I think we should appreciate that.

This is an edited transcript of an interview that took place in Sarajevo in January 2006 between Hasan Nuhanovic and producer Joe Rubin.

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