For the widows of Srebrenica, relief but no euphoria
Author: John Hooper, Tuzla
Uploaded: Wednesday, 23 July, 2008
Article on the arrest of Radovan Karadzic that evokes the most notorious single crime for which he will now face justice
It was 11.30, and Nura Begovic was already asleep when a friend rang her with the news. The man she holds responsible for the deaths of her husband and her son had finally been seized after 13 long years. ‘I had lost all hope that either [Radovan Karadzic or Ratko Mladic] would ever be captured. So when it happened I felt very, very relieved,’ she said. ‘But that doesn't mean that my pain will be any lighter.’
The silver-haired Begovic is a leader of the Women of Srebrenica, a group of survivors who have done as much as anyone to keep alive the memory of the atrocity that, more than any other, is linked to Karadzic's name. Behind her, on the wall of a little house in Tuzla she shares with another organiser, are row after row of photographs of those who were butchered.
There are around 300 photos on the wall, and another 3,000 in files. But even this does not give an adequate idea of the scale of horror of what was done in those summer days of not so long ago.
Almost 8,000 people, almost all men and boys, are reckoned to have died in the so-called Srebrenica massacre of July 1995. The term is misleading, because what the Serbs actually perpetrated was a horrendous series of mass killings.
Muslim Bosnians, many refugees from elsewhere, died in multiple executions staged in the surrounding villages, and in ambushes on a mountain road leading away from the town.
The UN War Crimes Tribunal wrote that the Srebrenica area witnessed: ‘Scenes from hell, written on the darkest pages of human history.’ One old man was skewered to a tree and forced to eat his grandson's guts.
It was also among the most discreditable chapters in the history of the UN, for the victims were killed despite the presence in the area of UN peacekeepers.
When the Serbs broke through into what, until then, had been a Bosnian enclave, Begovic's son, a freelance radio and TV reporter, urged his parents to take refuge at the UN base in Potocari. He would try to make it through on the mountain road to Tuzla, he told them.
‘He never got through,’ she said. ‘My husband was seized in Potocari. He was taken away along with 3,000 others. I never knew anything more about what happened to him until 2005, when his body was identified. I buried him in Potocari. I still know nothing about what happened to my son.’
To the extent that Begovic and the thousands like her have any stomach for festivity, the arrest of Karadzic supplied a motive. Yesterday, about 20 of the victims' surviving relatives gathered at her house to talk about what it meant.
‘There is some kind of relief,’ conceded Hasan Nuhanovic, a survivor who lives in Sarajevo. ‘But there is absolutely no place for euphoria, this should have happened years ago.’ Karadzic, he said, had ‘lived much better over the last 13 years than most of the survivors’.
And the survivors have had to live, too, with the fact that many others will probably never be brought before justice. ‘We know, because it has been established independently, that 810 people took part in the massacre who are walking around the streets of Republika Srpska today,’ said Begovic. ‘Some are in the police - thirty-three, to be precise. Others are public officials. Some of them have had their documents taken away. But they are still free.’
As for those who survived the orgy of killing over which Karadzic is accused of having presided, Begovic reckons that as many as 3,500 (out of a pre-war population of around 37,000) have gone back to live in Srebrenica and the surrounding villages, near the mass graves in which their relatives are interred and within the Serbian area of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Rather more have settled in this predominantly Muslim town [Tuzla] set amid high, rolling, green hills. ‘Most know they will never go back,’ said Begovic. ‘Either their house was burned down or the head of the family is dead.’
But, said Hasan Nuhanovic, ‘Most of the survivors of the Srebrenica massacre live now in the US or Europe. So, basically, Karadzic's project - to ethnically cleanse a part of the territory for the Serbs - has been carried out.
‘In fact, even before he went into hiding, it was complete. And his successors are doing a good job of keeping it ethnically homogenous. There are no precise statistics, but some estimates are that the non-Serbian proportion of the population is no more than 5%. It used to be something around 50%.’
Sabaheta Fejzic's baby son and husband were taken away during the roundup by Bosnian Serbs at the UN compound in Potocari; in all, she lost 16 relatives in the massacre. ‘The arrest of this butcher is good for both Bosnia and Serbia ... Now there is a trace of hope that the same destiny awaits Ratko Mladic.’
This article appeared in The Guardian (London), 23 July 2008