Srebrenica was under siege for three years before it fell to Bosnian Serb forces in July 1995, but people in the enclave struggled to live as normally as possible despite food, water and power shortages.
Emir Suljagic fell “hopelessly in love” with his first-ever girlfriend in the summer of 1992, when the place in which he lived at the time – Srebrenica – was under siege.
“I used to walk from Srebrenica to [the nearby village of] Potocari every second day to see her and spend some time with her. I did not mind going back at midnight or 1am during the war,” he recalled.
In 1992, thousands of Bosniak refugees from surrounding towns – such as Vlasenica, Visegrad, Brtaunac and Zvornik – which had been overrun over by Bosnian Serb forces took refuge in Srebrenica, sparking a humanitarian crisis. Suljagic was one of them.
The town was then besieged by Bosnian Serb forces in May 1992 – a situation that continued for over three years until the nominally UN-protected enclave fell in July 1995 and the mass killings of its Bosniak inhabitants began.
“There is no other way to describe Srebrenica at that time except as a ghetto and the biggest concentration camp under open sky, which does not mean there was no life in it… A new community was formed inside the enclave,” he recalled ahead of the 24th anniversary of the 1995 massacres, which will be commemorated on Thursday.
Suljagic said that the first two years of the war were a “pure fight for survival” due to the scarcity of food. More than 60,000 Bosniaks – Bosnian Muslims – were living in Srebrenica and the surrounding villages at the time.
“It was only after the first year that people decided to start living. All sorts of things began happening – we were playing football… It is interesting how important football is for mental health. We played on every flat surface. Up there in front of the school particularly. That is where between 70 and 80 people got killed in an artillery attack in March 1993. They were playing or watching a game,” he said.
Besides football and basketball, which he also played, Suljagic remembered how a summertime cinema and cultural and artistic society were organised in 1993 and 1994, while journalist Nihad ‘Nino’ Catic started a newspaper, in which he also published the words to his own songs.
“There was no paper, but we used the paper we had, 20 to 30 copies were reproduced on municipal forms from the pre-war Yugoslavia. On one side you see Nino’s lyrics or text and when you turn it over you see an Employment Bureau form from 1982 or 1983,” Suljagic said.
Catic was killed in July 1995. His remains have never been found.
His mother Hajra Catic, who worked at the wartime presidency and municipality of Srebrenica throughout the war, said that the newspaper, ‘Glas Srebrenice’ (‘Voice of Srebrenica’) found an enthusiastic readership.
“Those newspapers were typed with a typewriter using paper I would bring from the then municipality. Only around 20 copies were printed, but a number of people read them. They would go from hand to hand between people in Srebrenica, who loved to read and find out anything at that time,” Catic said.
‘Hell on earth’
Osman Avdic spent his youth in the enclave, and is now trying to preserve memories of that period by moderating a Facebook group for sharing photos from Srebrenica during wartime.
In 1993, Avdic said, the biggest problem in the enclave was food, because humanitarian aid would only arrive every two months.
“There was not enough food, no electricity. People began improvising, they began creating electric power plants – mini-plants,” he explained.
“Water was also very bad. They started building some pipelines, but the water could only be used for washing. Drinking water had to be fetched every day… There was a shortage of hygiene supplies,” he added.
Some residents of Srebrenica started growing their own food to deal with the shortages.
“In 1994, my family started sowing corn, because humanitarian aid was insufficient. There was hardly anything else, maybe some beans. I do not know exactly when they began distributing seeds in humanitarian aid. Some went a bit further and exchanged something for food or got food from their relatives elsewhere,” Avdic said.
In April 1993, the United Nations Security Council had declared the Srebrenica enclave a ‘safe area’, and Canadian and then Dutch peacekeepers were deployed.
Their role was to demilitarise Srebrenica and assist with humanitairan deliveries to the enclave, which was totally surrounded by Bosnian Serb forces on one side, and Serbian border on the other.
Avdic meanwhile recalled that the UN peacekeepers also organised social events like football tournaments.
A soldier from the UN’s Dutch Battalion, Martin Bakker, told BIRN that when he arrived in Srebrenica, he thought it was “hell on earth”.
“I remember seeing the first convoy of food. There were around 1,000 refugees waiting for food. That is something I shall not forget,” Bakker recalled.
Nevertheless, Bakker said he also had some pleasant memories too. He remembers a boy who used to come to nearby Potocari, where the UN troops were based, and follow soldiers on their patrols.
“One day he asked me to give him my camera so he could photograph his family. I gave him the camera and he did it. I developed the film, but when I came back [from leave in the Netherlands, the boy was no longer there,” he said.
“After 1995, I frequently thought about the boy and regretted it because he had never got his photographs. Last year I published those photos in Avdic’s closed group on Facebook. One day later I got a message from a man – I found him after 25 years. This year, I will give him the photos in Potocari,” he added.
Surgery without anaesthetic
Bakker’s colleague from the Dutch Battalion, Gerry Kremer, remembered how he witnessed “destroyed houses, the smell of burning and people without anything walking the streets” after he arrived in Srebrenica in February 1995.
“The most horrible thing I saw was the shelling of Srebrenica by Serb forces, or actually the consequences of that shelling, he said.
Kremer used to work in Srebrenica as a doctor with local physicians Ilijaz Pilav and Fatima Klempic.
“I am glad I could help nine-year-old boy Husein Memisevic, who was injured in an artillery attack. He was hit in his arm and I managed to operate on him under those conditions and help him,” Kremer said.
Emir Suljagic also remembered the doctors’ valiant efforts to save as many people as possible.
“The hospital did not even have the basic medications… my heroes in the first and second year [of the siege] were people like Ilijaz Pilav and Fatima Klempic; people who amputated legs without anaesthesia, but that enabled many people to stay alive,” Suljagic said.
Avdic, who missed three years of high school in Srebrenica under the siege, said that young people in the enclave tried to maintain some kind of social life despite the situation.
“There were some celebrations, dances, get-togethers in that period. Something was orgainsed every month, be it horse races or something like that,” he said.
“I remember that, in 1994 people used the electricity they produced for TVs and watched the world football championship in America. I managed to watch three or four games, around 20 minutes of each, because the TV signal was of poor quality,” he added.
However, people were afraid to gather in the “Srebrenica ghetto” because of the possibility of attack, Suljagic said. One of their releases from the stress was alcohol.
“People drank a lot; it was a very bad-quality rakija [Balkan brandy]. Some will maybe mind my saying so, but that is true. You simply did not need a special reason to drink in Srebrenica,” he recalled.
But Muslims in Srebrenica also did a lot of praying, he said – “at the same time, people drank a lot and believed a lot”.