The 1995 Srebrenica massacre is central to the case against former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who is about to go on trial for war crimes. But the victims’ families are still seeking truth about the atrocity, reports Duncan Staff
Hasan Nuhanovic has the eyes of a man who has seen too much. He spends his evenings and weekends hunting for the remains of his murdered family.
“There’s no closure — that can come only when we die,” he says. “But I need to bury them.”
Nuhanovic’s father Ibro, mother Nasiha and 18-year-old brother Muhamed were killed in the Srebrenica massacre, Europe’s largest genocidal act since World War II. It is at the heart of the case against the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, whose trial starts next week in The Hague.
On July 11 1995 Karadzic’s general, Ratko Mladic, attacked the United Nations safe haven of Srebrenica, which was being guarded by a Dutch garrison. Hasan’s family were among the at least 6 000 men, women and children who sought refuge in the Dutch military base. Two days later the Dutch, terrified for their own lives, handed the refugees over to the Serbs.
Nuhanovic survived only because Mladic needed a skilled interpreter to translate his orders to the Dutch UN commander, Colonel Tom Karremans.
He agreed to take me to the Dutch base at Srebrenica and to tell me what happened there. We met outside a disused battery factory in the village of Potocari, close to Srebrenica. Its vast, empty production hall echoed to the sound of a lumber business’s rotary saws.
“This space was full,” Nuhanovic told me, gesturing to the bullet-riddled walls. “There were 6000 people. They were told to sit down by the Dutch soldiers. They weren’t allowed to go to the toilet — so they did everything here. The temperature was 35C. The place stank so much you almost couldn’t breathe.”
Outside, the Serbs waited for the Dutch to cave in. Then Hasan was told to climb on to an army truck and address the crowd. “They handed me a megaphone and said, ‘Shout to the people to start leaving the base’ — but the Dutch would not tell them what was waiting outside.”
In an echo of the Holocaust people were told to hand over possessions. “There were Dutch soldiers on either side, fully armed, with machine guns. They told the people: ‘Empty your wallets, empty your bags, empty your purses.'”
We climbed the cracked concrete stairs to the deserted factory’s offices, which served as the Dutch soldiers’ quarters. This is where Hasan worked for Dutch commander Karremans — at the heart of events, but powerless to influence them.
“My name was on a list of people who could stay in the base. My parents asked me to do everything I could to save my brother and for two days I was trying to get his name on the list. They put his name on — maybe just to get rid of me — then erased it at the last moment.
“I was walking alongside him as he walked out of the base, trying to apologise and saying: ‘I’m coming with you!’ He turned around and screamed: ‘You’re not coming with me! You will stay here!'”
Did they know they were on their way to die?
“Listen, the day before, Serb soldiers shot nine men and boys lined up against the wall of that white house outside the base. The Dutch soldiers saw it, it’s written in their report.”
Even now it remains a mystery why the massacre was allowed to take place. The Dutch soldiers who failed to protect the people of Srebrenica were not alone — a British SAS unit was in the town, radioing back a clear description of what was happening to Nato commanders.
One of the SAS men, a sergeant using the pseudonym Nick Cameron, wrote a book in which he describes telling his commanders about the impending massacre. He said that his SAS commander later told him: “We never intended to fight for this place. That was never the plan.”
Cameron concluded: “The whole UN thing was to get Srebrenica finished with.”
Despite the fact that he had received an award for bravery, the British ministry of defence took legal action against Cameron and the book was withdrawn.
As we left the factory, Nuhanovic stopped and gestured at the field opposite, his breath condensing in the freezing air. “I have a vision in my mind for a memorial here. I see a sunny day; 10000 headstones shining so strongly that you can’t even look at them.”
Earlier, I had met Nuhanovic in nearby Tuzla, at the headquarters of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), an organisation set up by Bill Clinton and funded by various governments to locate victims’ remains.
An ICMP worker quickly and expertly took a sample of his blood, to be DNA tested, entered on a database and matched against samples taken from bodies exhumed from mass graves.
After asking to see the ICMP’s identification facilities, I was sent to a disused railway station. There I had a glimpse of hell.
One of the greatest obstacles to identification is “co-mingling”. Most victims were split into smaller groups, executed and buried in mass graves. These were reopened over the next few months, using mechanical diggers to smash up and mix the bodies together, before they were moved to “secondary graves” to hide them from war-crimes investigators.
Years later investigators stripped what was left of the bodies and jet-washed them until all that was left was thousands of bone fragments. The clothes were sent to Tuzla to be laundered, photographed and catalogued by war crimes investigators.
Upstairs, to deafening dance music, a room full of anthropologists sorted through tables full of bones, quickly and expertly reassembling them into skeletons.
When they had finished, the air was torn by the scream of a hand-held saw. A small section of bone was cut from the skeleton, labelled, and sent to Sarajevo to be tested and matched against the blood samples from surviving relatives.
After giving his sample, Nuhanovic waited in vain. So he started tracking down people who could tell him what happened to his family — dangerous work, as only Serbs could help him.
At last he met a man who claimed he had seen his murdered mother’s body. Instead of going with the other women, who were mostly spared, she tried to walk home, was captured, imprisoned and then murdered.
In 2007 the ICMP called him to say that they had found remains of his father, Ibro. “They didn’t show me the remains — that’s a good thing. They showed me a chart, with the missing bones marked. They put together more than 50% of the remains.”
Every year, to mark the date of the massacre, all bodies identified and repatriated with their families over the previous year are buried. Ibro’s funeral took place in the cemetery opposite the Dutch base at Potocari on July 11 2007.
“Three places in the cemetery were reserved for my family members,” Nuhanovic told me. “I told myself that I need to find the other two.”
I visited the cemetery in the autumn of 2007. Row on row of headstones, wooden rather than marble, stand there, carefully tended by family members. The cemetery grows every year.
A group of Muslim men, spotting my camera, came over to thank me for reporting the story. The reaction is a common one in Bosnia. Nuhanovic told me: “I often feel we’ve been forgotten.”
Finally, a few months ago, Nuhanovic got the news that, for €1000, a man would tell him where his mother was buried. They met in secret near his home town of Vlasenica.
“He told me the killer’s name, and that the bastard took the 1500 deutschmarks she had on her. The next day she was killed alongside eight men. Shot in the head. He told me the bastard poured petrol over the bodies and burned them.”
The man gave Nuhanovic the location of his mother’s grave, which had already been exhumed and was among the backlog of cases awaiting tests. “They confirmed that the bodies in the grave had been burned. They’re going to do DNA tests.”
Central to Karadzic’s defence is his claim that former ambassador Richard Holbrooke offered him immunity from prosecution in return for surrendering power. Holbrooke vehemently denies this, but Karadzic is still trying to call the governments of countries he alleges were party to the agreement to testify.
It may mean that the start of the trial, already postponed, is delayed again at the last minute.
Karadzic’s general, Mladic, is still at large. He and soldiers who carried out his orders may never face trial. —