by Vahid Suljic
Fifty years after the world said “Never Again” to the horrors of the Holocaust, genocide took place on European soil. The name Srebrenica has become synonymous with those dark days in July 1995 when, in the first ever United Nations declared safe area, thousands of men and boys were systematically murdered and buried in mass graves. The victims, predominantly Muslim, were selected for death on the basis of their identity. This was the worst atrocity on European soil since the Second World War. On Saturday, July 11, 2020, thousands of people will gather at Potocari, Bosnia and Herzegovina to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. In 2009, the European Parliament declared 11th July, the official day of remembrance for the victims of Srebrenica. On this day each year, people all over the world are asked to honour the victims and survivors of the genocide.
Qatar University and Hamad Bin Khalifa University alumni, Vahid Suljic, as a 9-year-old boy survived the Bosnian war and the Srebrenica genocide, Europe’s Worst Massacre since World War II. This is his story
I was born in a small village named Voljavica near the border with Serbia. In May 1992, Serb soldiers began torturing, killing and taking my neighbours from nearby villages to concentration camps. For a while, we hid in the woods near our house, because we were afraid that what had happened to our neighbours would happen to us. In order to save our lives, we fled to Srebrenica, which was under the control of the legal Bosnian army. On that road, while walking towards Srebrenica, we survived two ambushes, while some people from the group were not so lucky.
When we arrived in Srebrenica, we lived in the house of our relatives for a short period and later moved to another apartment. I remember we were always looking for food. Since Srebrenica was in the vicinity, we rarely got help or food from outside.
From July 6 to July 12, 1995, Srebrenica suffered a string of attacks by the Bosnian Serb Army and Serbian paramilitaries, who had been trying to conquer it since 1992.
The scenario from three years prior was repeated. To save our lives, we went with the rest of the citizens to the former battery factory, where the UN base held by Dutch battalion soldiers was situated, to seek protection, while my father went across the woods to reach free territory. He knew if he stayed with us he had no chance of surviving.
Inside and outside the battery factory, there were thousands of people who came seeking protection. It became obvious that the Dutch soldiers did not know what to do with us. In those moments, fierce battles were being fought around us, everyone was scared, petrified even. While people were sleeping, we saw Serb soldiers separating the men and taking them away from their families.
I remember hearing men screaming and asking for help every night. After three days, the buses arrived. They said the women and children would be evacuated to Tuzla, a free territory controlled by the legal army of Bosnia and Herzegovina. All males between the ages of 11 and 77 must stay and wait to be collected by another set of busses we were told. I was then led by my uncle, whom I was later forcibly separated from by Serbian soldiers from.
We got on the bus in hope that we would meet our loved ones again in Tuzla. As we travelled to Tuzla, we watched the captured men being taken to be shot. Among them I recognised my neighbours, with whom I played before and during the war. They looked scared and traumatised. I never had the courage to meet their families after that. We arrived in Tuzla, where we lived in a refugee camp. After that we were moved to a village near Tuzla. In those days we did not know what happened to my father, uncles and other relatives. After seven days of crossing through Serbian lines and ambushes, my father managed to survive, while other relatives of mine did not. A couple of years ago we received a phone call informing us that the bodies of my uncles were found in different mass graves.
On July 11 1995, my world changed. Within a few days, I lost so many relatives I became one of what was soon to be known as ‘The Lost Generation’, young children with no dreams and little prospects. During the war, our childhood was focused on one thing only — survival. Bosnian’s dark period has left a generation of young people traumatised by the horrors of war. Unfortunately, I witnessed so many bad things myself, and these things — you just don’t forget. But there is always light at the end of the tunnel, so long as you look for it. In Qatar, I got my life back on track, and also my dreams that had been stolen away from me.
Every year we visit Srebrenica and we honour family and friends that are no longer with us. Srebrenica will always be part of my life and we will always remember those who were killed simply because of who they were and what they believed in.
That being said, unfortunately it seems to me that the world still hasn’t learnt painful lessons from Srebrenica. We pray that Srebrenica never happens again.
Due to Covid 19, commemoration events for the Srebrenica genocide will not take place in Doha this year. However, the lesson from Srebrenica is that no society is immune to prejudice and intolerance. We must all remain vigilant against these forces, and take positive action to build stronger, more resilient communities.
Vahid is also the founder of Qatar’s largest student platform called Campus & Student life in Qatar (@Students_Qatar) and currently works for Qatar Foundation.