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Eerie Srebrenica

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In Srebrenica one of the saddest pages of the war has been written.

In a nutshell (once again I’m just trying to give an overview, the Internet and books are out the for you if you want): during the conflict in Bosnia this small city, previously a mixed Muslim/Orthodox community, saw the departure of the Serbian population towards safer areas and a massive concentration of Muslim refugees that came here from the surrounding villages to seek the protection of the UN, that in 1993 declared the area a “safe haven” under international protection.

A proper enclave surrounded by territory controlled by the Bosnian Serb army, the population of the city grew from the initial 10,000 people to an astonishing 60,000 (according to certain sources), thus creating one of the biggest concentration camps in modern history.

On the 11th of July 1995, Mladic’s forces shelled the city, vanquished the non-existent resistance of the young and poorly trained Dutch battalion that was “protecting the city” and stormed the roads of Srebrenica.

Most people fled to the UN compound to receive protection whilst a group of men chose to escape through the woods in hope to reach Tuzla, some 100 km away, in the scorching heat, on a mined road that was under heavy artillery attack: many of them perished in the attempt. (On a note: every year there is a peace march leaving from Tuzla and arriving to Srebrenica on the 11th of July. I’ll try my best to attend later on this year…)

The Dutch battalion opened the doors of their base to a small minority of people whilst leaving most out: when Mladic forces arrived, women and children were separated from men and sent to the free Bosnian territory. Serbs insisted man must be questioned to identify Muslim war criminals. The civilian who were captured were mercilessly killed in the vicinity of Srebrenica. In the most shameful way the UN surrendered to the attacking forces and handed over the few they were still “protecting” to Mladic’s men. At least 8000 man and boys were killed by soldiers of the Army of Republika Srpska in the close vicinities and buried in mass graves.

Coming to Srebrenica these days is an eerie experience, during this time of the year even more as the now preponderant Orthodox community is busy with preparations for the upcoming Christmas.

The streets of the city are busy with people skinning pigs and sheep for Christmas lunch and breakfast: it looks pretty much like a man business where rakia (the local superstrong spirit) flows like there is no tomorrow; rare are the women helping with this task. Although most of the people I’ve met during my stroll in the city were kind and welcoming I cannot but ask myself whether these rubicund and happy faces had been involved in any way whatsoever with the Muslim genocide. I’d like to think that people I’ve shared one too many shots of rakia weren’t even here when the atrocities happened but the loud volume of the nationalistic music in the background shakes my beliefs.

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The visit of the Potocari Memorial in this atmosphere is particularly striking. Near the former UN base, lines of white and green tombstones mark the graves of thousands of victims: green temporary ones are then replaced by permanent marble ones, all of them bearing the same date. The process of identification is a slow and painful one, even using the most advanced DNA matching techniques. Sometimes only a fraction of the body has been recovered, a limb without a body: to cover the traces of the massacre, to make recovery harder or just as a cruel game, bodies that were haphazardly thrown in a single mass grave were dug out and scattered in several other minor ones. In one instance, remains of a dead man could be found in four different graves (I’ve read account of remains found in six different ones but I couldn’t find any online reference).

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On the walls of the former battery factory, that housed the Dutch soldiers, can still be found some shameful graffiti, drawn by the same people that were supposed to defend the local population. I’m only showing the most famous one describing a Bosnian woman according to a UN soldier and just one of the least offensive ones (believe me, there are other, more disturbing ones).

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Of course, with facts of this gravity there is not just one side to the story and when it comes to Srebrenica there are other revisionist theories explaining what happened: when you go there and you speak with some of the survivors it’s hard to believe it’s just a fabrication.

Meanwhile, the streets of Srebrenica seem forgetful about their recent history and the day before Christmas fires are lit everywhere to roast the animals that have been skinned the previous day. Rakia and music.

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And on Christmas’ Eve a procession of cars and tractors, blowing their horns and waving Serbian flags, as if after a football game victory, heads to the church for midnight mass.

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