Jan 30, 2012

Srebrenica - NEVER FORGET !!!!

In the Srebrenica massacre, 8,000 were slaughtered – but after a terrifying 70-mile march under heavy fire, 3,500 Bosniaks, including a Kent taxi driver, escaped to safety...

The funeral at the end of this year's peace march to Potocari to bury the recently recovered remains of 613 victims of the Srebrenica massacre
The walkers come marching resolutely down the dusty track from the forests, seven and a half thousand of them in bright hiking gear and T-shirts. They are on their way to Srebrenica, an old silver town set in a bowl of rolling, wooded hills. They call themselves the Mars Mira – the peace march – but this is no bunch of weekend revolutionaries.
There are women, and girls and boys too young to remember the war, but the real heroes of the Mars Mira are the surviving men of Srebrenica, sweaty in the 100-degree heat, clutching the plastic water bottles they wished they had 16 years ago.
They set off three days and almost 70 miles ago from the village of Nezuk in northern Bosnia and you can only imagine what memories assail them as they walked through those woods. For the Mars Mira follows (in reverse) the route of Srebrenica’s Death March – the Put Smrti – along which these men battled for five days, after their town finally fell to the Serbs on July 11, 1995.
Srebrenica’s name is now synonymous with the worst single act of genocide in Europe since the Nazi Holocaust, when more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men were murdered by the Serbs; the actual number is still uncertain, but more than 5,000 bodies have been found so far and thousands more are still missing.
But less well known is the extraordinary story of the men who tried to escape the massacre. For although 2,000 wounded and old men did give themselves up and were almost immediately killed, the able-bodied men refused to surrender.
Instead, they decided to fight their way out. With just a few hundred weapons, and weak from more than three years of being under siege, they fought for five days over densely wooded hills and in gruelling heat. They faced artillery barrages, ambushes and hallucinogenic gas shells, until they finally reached the safety of Bosnian government territory, nearly 70 miles away.
Of the 15,000 men who set off back then, only 3,500 made it through Serb lines. I watched them arrive, an army of ragged ghosts searching for their families in the refugee camp by the UN Tuzla airbase, in July 1995. The rest were either captured and killed or trapped in the woods, some for up to nine months, after Srebrenica fell.
Huso Bektic was one of those ghosts. Now he’s a taxi driver living with his wife Ramisa in Chatham, Kent, but 16 years ago he was one of the desperate few who managed to reach free Bosnian territory alive.
‘For six days, from Srebrenica to Tuzla, the Serbs shot at me,’ says Bektic.
‘Whoever they could kill, they killed. They killed my father. We weren’t in the same part of the column and I lost him in the woods.’
Until now, Bektic has never spoken publicly about his ordeal. In his mid-forties, with a comfortable paunch, he hardly looks as if he is a survivor of what an SAS officer serving in Bosnia at the time told me was ‘the greatest act of military heroism in Europe since World War II’.
The remains (that have so far been found) of the bodies of those who died after Srebrenica fell have all been identified by Bosnia’s national DNA programme – their white tombstones carpet Srebrenica’s vast Memorial Cemetery, opposite the old UN base in Potocari.
Bektic’s father was found and buried here two years ago. Every year those bodies dug up, pieced together and identified are buried in a mass funeral at the Memorial Cemetery on the anniversary of Srebrenica’s fall.
As the peace march sweeps into the cemetery, past a Bosnian army guard of honour and cheering civilians, 613 green shrouded coffins lie waiting for the annual mass funeral the following day. There are so many graves, so white and shiny, that the hillside looks like a World War I cemetery. Bektic is trying to show me his father’s tombstone, but they all look the same.
‘I was here only yesterday…’ he says, searching the white marble ranks. Then he finds him. Bektic’s father’s dates are 1940-1995, the same death year as every other body in this cemetery.
Even now Bektic can hardly bear to remember the Death March.
‘It was all just horrific. I had terrible déjà vu when I walked through the woods last year.’
Yet every year he drives his taxi from Chatham to Srebrenica for the memorial service. Now he’s staying with his widowed mother. She was deported by the Serbs in 1995 but is now back living in their old family house in the village of Suceska, in the wooded hills above Srebrenica.
‘I helped rebuild the house,’ he says. ‘The Serbs burned it down after we left.’
The idea for the Mars Mira came from Dr Ilijaz  Pilav, a Srebrenica doctor who ran the field hospital on the Death March.
‘I wanted to do something to remember my friends and relations who died on the Death Road,’ he says. This year is particularly poignant after the arrest in June of General Ratko Mladic for war crimes.
At the front walks Mujo Gojinovic, a former Bosnian soldier, bearing aloft a banner with the legend: ‘Ejub Golic. Participant. The Breakout ’95.’
‘Golic was my commander. Thousands survived thanks to him,’ says Mujo. Golic, who brought up the rear of the column, rallying the civilians, is regarded as the great hero of the Death March.
‘We survivors carry this banner every year,’ he adds. ‘We often find bones in the wood on the way, or things people dropped, like photographs.’
Mevludin Oric’s story is more remarkable still, for he should now be lying in that cemetery.
Oric, 42, has already testified in war crimes trials at The Hague – and is likely to be a key witness in the genocide case against General Mladic.
During the war, he  was a junior Special Forces officer and courier, with ten men under his command, and only four guns between them. Now he’s a builder, when he gets the work. Captured by the Serbs two days into the Death March, Oric miraculously survived a brutal mass execution by pretending to be dead.
As the walkers drum past us, below them lies a field. In the middle of the field stands a little orange house where, as Serbs overran the town, Srebrenica’s military commanders debated what they should do.
‘This is Susnjari, where the column started from,’ says Oric. As the Serbs began to overrun Srebrenica on the afternoon of July 11, he explains, the word was passed through the enclave that all the men who did not want to surrender should come up to this field.
It was dark by the time Oric arrived.
‘The field was full of men and boys, 15,000 of us. It looked like a football stadium,’ he says.
‘Everyone was desperate for the leaders to tell them what to do.’

Oric was called into the house.
‘They asked me to lead the column,’ he says. ‘Because I was a courier, I knew all the secret tracks. I said no. I told them that to lead 15,000 men through that territory was certain death.’
The decision was finally made to head to Tuzla, and the column set off at 12.30am on July 12. At the front was a team of four scouts, to clear the minefields and check for ambushes, followed by senior commanders and the field hospital.
‘We went in single file,’ recalls Bektic. ‘But there were a lot of us.’
The column was more than ten miles long, and the back had yet to leave three hours after the front had set off. Of the 15,000 men, a third were civilians and the rest were soldiers, strung between them, although their military discipline was virtually the only weapon they had.
‘Soldiers!’ laughs Pilav. ‘They didn’t have any weapons. We only had one RPG on the entire column.’
From horizon to horizon, a line of scrawny men toiled under the trees. Oric was at the back with Commander Golic, and Oric’s 14-year-old nephew, Mirsa.
‘He was like a son to me,’ says Oric. ‘I taught him to shoot.’
At first the fighting front made very good time over the steep and wooded hills: 18 miles in the first six hours. The Serbs had been taken by surprise by the exodus. But at dawn the front reached its first big obstacle, the main Tarmac road encircling the enclave.
Dr Pilav and the fighting front started crossing at about 6am. They were spotted by Serb scouts and orders came down from General Mladic to reinforce the main road with tanks, anti-aircraft guns, and soldiers strung out every 15 yards. At 10am the Bosnian Serb army started shelling the woods where the rest of the column was still trudging along.
‘The single file broke as soon as the shelling started,’ says Bektic. ‘The shells fell everywhere. They weren’t just shelling us, but poisoning us. They fired shells filled with hallucinogenic gas. I was completely dazed. I’ve no idea how I survived.’
Hundreds of terrified civilians fled down onto the road where they were swiftly rounded up. In the confusion, Oric lost sight of his father and his nephew.
‘I never saw either of them again,’ he says.
The woods were littered with dead bodies and the possessions of those who had either died or fled in terror – rucksacks, books, photographs. Once the artillery stopped, the Serb infantry advanced into the woods: they infiltrated the column in civilian clothes, to lure the survivors to ambushes; they dressed in uniforms they’d taken from the UN soldiers and offered the terrified refugees the chance to surrender; and they booby-trapped the paths the refugees had to take.
‘They would even mine beehives in case we tried to get the honey,’ says Oric.
‘I stopped one man blowing us all up. The Chetniks (Serb fighters) scattered those little mines we call pate tins, which jump up and explode at knee height. They set trip wires, which would blow up across your chest. Those killed 15 men or more.’
Many of the refugees were shot on sight. The Serbs forced one refugee to call his brother and friends down from the woods, saying it was safe. An eye-witness described how 40 or so men were then tied up with wire and machine-gunned.
By now the column was split: Dr Pilav and the fighting front had managed to cross the road, but thousands were  still stuck on the Srebrenica side. Over the next 24 hours, between 5,000 and 6,000 men are estimated to have been captured in the woods. All were taken away and killed – some were machine gunned in fields, while the Serbs herded others into school gyms before throwing in hand grenades.
Oric, by this point unarmed and wearing civilian clothes, was captured the next afternoon, along with his cousin Haris and a dozen others: they were still trying to find a way to cross the road. They were walking through the woods when, says Oric,
‘Suddenly I felt a gun at my back. None of us had weapons. I’d been at school with one of the Serbs who stopped us.’
Oric, Haris and the others were taken to a police station and forced to spend the night sitting upright in a bus, with their hands behind their heads.
‘There were about 500 people in several buses,’ he says. ‘All men in civilian clothes.’
Throughout the night, the Serbs would call people off by name.
‘The guy would be taken away. We’d hear the shots and that’s the last we’d see of him,’ says Oric.
On the morning of the 14th, the buses were then driven to a school gym at a place called Orahovac.
‘There must have been about 2,000 of us in the gym,’ says Oric. ‘Buses and trucks kept coming full of people. Then Mladic came. He didn’t say a word. He just looked round the gym and laughed.’
After Mladic had gone, the guards told the prisoners they were being taken to a prisoner exchange. At the door they were given blindfolds. Then they were taken off in trucks in groups of ten or so at a time; after five minutes, the trucks would come back empty.
‘The place they told us they were taking us to was an hour and a half away,’ says Oric, ‘so I realised that they were killing us.’
He was on the sixth truckload, with his cousin.
‘Haris was a big guy,’ says Oric, ‘but I held his hand. When we left the truck I peeped through my blindfold and I could see it was just a field. Haris said, “They’re going to kill us,” but I said, “No they’re not.” Then they got out machine-guns and shot us all.’
Oric was crushed beneath Haris. ‘He shook for three or four seconds, then that was it. Then I realised I hadn’t been hit.’
Oric lay beneath Haris until it was dark. Hundreds more men were taken to the field and shot.
‘I was terrified I’d be hit by a stray bullet. Then they went round finishing off the wounded. The Chetnik shot the guy next to me, I just played dead. I could hear bulldozers digging our grave.’
Finally Oric passed out. When he woke up it was dark.
‘I got up and took my blindfold off. I was stunned,  just seeing a field of dead bodies. I started to scream. Then another man got up and asked if I was hurt.  I thought he was a ghost.’
The two men quickly left and started walking through the woods. It took them another week before they finally managed to cross the lines into Bosnian territory.
For Dr Pilav, Bektic and the others, the ordeal continued. For four more days they trekked through the woods, in single file, travelling by night, resting by day; their numbers constantly whittled down by ambushes and artillery barrages. Commander Golic had taken over the column, but they still had no food and very little water.
So many more would have died, but for three strokes of luck. On the evening of Friday 14, they overheard the Serbs planning an ambush. So when Serb Special Forces captain Zoran Jankovic tried to sneak into the column in civilian clothes, the Bosniaks were waiting.
They captured Jankovic; with him as a hostage, they had some leverage. But they were still down to their last 500 bullets; then in fierce fighting, they captured a Serb arms dump, including an anti-aircraft gun.
Using Jankovic’s walkie-talkie, Golic had finally managed to contact Srebrenica’s commander-in-chief, Naser Oric, in Tuzla. They arranged to break through the Serb lines at a village called Baljkovica, and Oric promised to put together a group of volunteers to punch through from the other side.
It was late afternoon when Golic and the front arrived at the woods above the Serb front line.
‘We could see Bosnian territory. We could also see the Serbs fortifying their line,’ says Pilav. ‘It was a fortress: trenches, mines. A double front line facing towards us.’
The situation looked hopeless. Suddenly the heavens opened with hailstones the size of walnuts and sheets of rain. It was the perfect cover. Golic struck. The Bosnians took four tanks before the Serbs knew what had hit them and turned them on the Serbs. ‘We had the tanks for 30 minutes before the Serbs destroyed them,’ says Pilav.
The fighting continued hard through the night. It was at 6am that relief finally came, when Oric arrived with his volunteers. The Serbs were now on the backfoot, fighting on two fronts.
It was 1.30pm on July 16 that the column finally broke through to Bosnian territory. The refugees met Naser Oric on the other side but it wasn’t over.
For hours, Naser Oric and the fighters on Dr Pilav’s side fought to keep the corridor open, as the desperate escapees fled through.
‘It was like being reborn,’ says Bektic. ‘I was just numb,’ adds Pilav. ‘I kept thinking about all my family and friends who had died.’
The corridor finally collapsed at 6pm. Only 3,500 of them had made it through. Hundreds had died in the battle for the corridor, and up to a thousand men were still trapped in the Serb-held woods on the other side. Pilav, manning his hospital, was one of the last through.
Tragically, Commander Golic, who saved so many lives, was killed in the battle for the tanks. His men kept his death secret in order to keep up morale, burying him in the dirt with their knives. He was reburied in Potocari cemetery last year.
Each year, the woods yield up more bodies. This year, as we watched, 613 more were buried; the roll call of their names took over 45 minutes.
The survivors of Srebrenica may be scattered all over the world, but more than 30,000 people came to the mass funeral this year and the survivors and their sons carried the coffins shoulder high to their graves. General Mladic may have tried to annihilate the men of Srebrenica, but he failed.
The town lives on.