Hasan Hasanovic remembers how he and his brothers began a perilous trek from Srebrenica to escape Bosnian Serb forces in July 1995 – but one brother was shot dead and the other injured, leaving him to try to carry his wounded sibling to safety.
Hasan Hasanovic was 21 years old in July 1995 when he joined a column of around 15,000 Bosniaks who were fleeing the attack by Bosnian Serb forces on the UN-protected enclave of Srebrenica.
Like the rest of the Bosniak men and boys, he and his two brothers were hoping that they could evade capture and death by trekking through the woods to safety in territory controlled by the Bosnian Army near the city of Tuzla some 100 kilometres away.
“On July 11, I parted from my wife, 16-month-old son and mother-in-law at a crossroads. Two, three, five shells were falling every second,” Hasanovic recalled in an interview with BIRN ahead of the annual genocide commemoration at the Srebrenica memorial centre on Thursday.
“I thought that seeing my son flinching in fear would be the hardest moment of my life. But the horrors were yet to come. At that moment, I did not know where my brothers and mother were,” he said.
Arriving in the village of Susnjari, a couple of kilometres from Srebrenica, Hasanovic found both his brothers, Hajro and Hasib. After that, he headed towards the village of Buljim on foot with the convoy of men and a smaller group of women and girls.
As he tried to evade Bosnian Serb Army ambushes, Hasanovic often lost sight of his brothers along the way. He said he saw his younger brother Hajro for the last time in Susnjari.
“When we got to Kamenicko Brdo [hill], my neighbour Osman, who was aged around 15, came to me and said my brother Hajro had been killed. Just after they passed Buljim, he was at the end of the line [of fleeing Bosniaks]. Serb forces shot at the tail of the line with an anti-aircraft machine gun,” Hasanovic said.
“I went back, not telling my brother Hasib what had happened. I walked back for around two or three hours before coming across my brother Hajro. He was dead. I took his jacket off and covered his face with it. I covered up my neighbours Nazif and Mersed, who were also dead, with tree branches,” he added.
‘The ground was covered with bodies’
For next couple of days, Hasanovic wandered through the woods, lost, often not knowing where the column of men heading towards Tuzla was, trying to find Hasib.
In the afternoon of July 12 he arrived at Kamenicko Brdo, where he took an 18-hour rest together with a large group of Bosniaks, among whom he found his surviving brother. Then Serb forces ambushed them.
“Towards evening, I sat down with my brother Hasib, leaning against an oak tree on the edge of a field, where it was really quiet,” he recalled.
“But then, everything was aflame with bullets. I do not think a horror movie director would be able to film something like that. At that moment I guess 15,000 people were at Kamenicko Brdo. The ground was covered with dead bodies, and there was no place to put your foot,” he continued.
“Some people were still alive, but they had lost body parts, arms and legs. They were probably calling for help. Some were asking to be killed so their suffering would end.”
During the ambush, Hasanovic lost sight of Hasib. He walked alone, occasionally coming across parts of the column of fleeing Bosniaks and running into ambushes. Walking through the woods, he said he saw the bodies of hundreds of Bosniaks, some of whom had been beheaded.
A particularly striking incident during his journey was his encounter with a boy who was wearing a new red tracksuit.
“Having new clothes in Srebrenica was unimaginable. I immediately suspected he had been sent to disrupt the column. However, I noticed he knew the terrain and trusted him,” Hasanovic said.
“On our arrival at Djugum, he told me: ‘Let’s move quickly. Don’t look at that thing on the chair.’ Right above the road, there was a chair and a man on it. His legs were tied. He was wearing a skirt. His cheeks were cut open. His cheeks were fastened to his ears with safety pins. I think he had no eyes, but I could not see because of the blood,” he continued.
“He was saying something, he was still alive. I noticed that his genitals were severed too. I think I got so terrified that I no longer wanted to live.”
When Hasanovic got to Mount Udrc, near the town of Cerska, he met the boy in the red tracksuit again. He was leading 60 people, including his brother Hasib.
“Later on I said he was a miracle from God. God sent him, he was not one of us humans. There are many witnesses to the fact that the child was there, but when I inquire who he was, nobody knows him or what happened to him,” he said.
‘Tell mum I did not suffer’
Hasanovic moved on, along with his brother and a group of neighbours, to the village of Krizevici, where they stumbled into a minefield. An explosion threw him back into the forest, where he crawled around on the ground, trying to find his brother.
He came across a wounded neighbour from Srebrenica, Admir, who showed him where Hasib was.
“At that moment I put my hand into something that felt like warm pudding. My entire fist was immersed in something a little bit slimy. I actually put my hand into my brother’s stomach. He was seriously wounded. The left side of his stomach was completely smashed up. His intestines were showing,” he said.
Two doctors who were among the fleeing Bosniaks bandaged his brother’s stomach and he remained alive for nine more hours.
Hasanovic moved on again, now carrying his badly-wounded brother, but just before they reached the village of Baljkovice, Hasib asked to be put down, saying he could no longer bear it.
“He asked me to put him down into my arms and on my lap. While lying in my lap, he looked at me and said: ‘When you see mum, tell her I did not suffer.’ He said he was sorry he would not see my son. He took three breaths and died.
“That was the hardest moment of my life. I see and feel that every day,” Hasanovic said through his tears.
He decided to carry his brother’s body onwards to Nezuk, which was under Bosnian Army control, some 70 kilometres from Srebrenica, where he had started his journey. He said he did not want to leave Hasib in Serb-controlled territory.
“I brought his body to the stadium in Nezuk at around 6pm on July 16. I did not think of him as a burden. It wasn’t hard for me,” Hasanovic said.
Seventy-two of Hasanovic’s relatives were killed in the massacres.
“For years I have been the oldest member of our family. Thank God, I have a son. He is grown up and I teach him the truth. I do not teach him to hate anyone. I also teach my daughter the truth, not hate towards anyone,” he said.
“I have taught them what happened, and what could happen if they forget.”