Survivor recalls carnage 20 years on

A worker digging graves at a memorial centre for Srebrenica Massacre victims in Potocari.
A worker digging graves at a memorial centre for Srebrenica Massacre victims in Potocari.PHOTO: REUTERS

SREBRENICA• • If you glanced at him, you would not know what the energetic old man had been through. But 20 years on from the Srebrenica massacre, his narrow, wrinkled face is still marked by fear.

Somehow, miraculously, this man survived the slaughter of some 1,000 Bosnian Muslims in a warehouse outside Srebrenica, the town whose name has become synonymous with the worst massacre in Europe since World War II.

But it is testament to the 71-year-old's lasting fears for his safety - and the ethnic tensions that still plague Bosnia - that he recalled his tale on condition of anonymity.

"On July 11, 1995, I was collecting hay in a field, just as I am today," the old man said, as he sat in the doorway of a small barn.

"My daughter arrived in tears. She asked me: 'Why are you still here? Everyone's leaving.'"

That was the day Bosnian Serb forces overran Srebrenica, setting the stage for several horrific days in which some 8,000 Muslim men and boys were murdered.

The survivor filled a backpack with food and headed into the woods, along with some 15,000 other Muslim men and boys. They were trying to reach territory under Muslim control, but thousands of them would not survive the journey. The next day, the group he was travelling with was ambushed and captured by Serb soldiers. They were rounded up with other prisoners in a field and made to sit in rows.

It was then that they received a visit from General Ratko Mladic, the commander of the Bosnian Serb forces, who is currently on trial for war crimes.

The survivor says Gen Mladic had been full of reassurances.

"We have already evacuated almost all your families," he told them. "Everyone will be reunited with their families. You will not be beaten; you will not be provoked. We will give you food."

But soon afterwards, they were marched to an agricultural warehouse in Kravica, 25km north of Srebrenica. International prosecutors say around 1,000 people were shut in the building.

The survivor stood in a corner, his back to the wall.

Then a fight broke out between a prisoner and one of the troops. The soldiers opened fire.

"They were shooting at us, they were throwing grenades, firing rockets, barrages of gunfire. I crouched down. They were shooting through the doors, through the windows," said the tiny old man. "Hearing people screaming was worse than the gunshots."

The carnage lasted an hour or longer. "I slipped below two dead bodies and I stayed still for the next 24 hours. I didn't give the slightest indication that I was still alive. My clothes were soaked with blood."

The survivor later found two men, also survivors, sitting in a corner of the warehouse. Along with one of the men, he took the chance to creep out of the warehouse.

"Then I saw a soldier," he said. "I laid down with my face in the soil. He yelled, 'Get up!'" The other man was lying next to me. The soldier shouted "Get up!" again, and then for a third time." The survivor got on his feet, "almost as if someone had come and told me, 'Get out of here!' I stood up. I said a prayer."

The two men fled for their lives, and heard no gunshots as they ran. AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 09, 2015, with the headline 'Survivor recalls carnage 20 years on'. Print Edition | Subscribe