In 1972 on holiday in Yugoslavia in the Istrian peninsula of Croatia I saw Marshal Tito in a motorcade sweep into the port of Pula. It was an impressive site. Respected in both cold war blocs he received 98 national honours including the Order of the Bath and the Légion d’Honneur. He managed to keep Yugoslavia united and largely independent of the Soviet bloc. After his death in 1980 Yugoslavia quickly fell apart and in 1991 a series of deadly rivalries broke out between the different factions, nationalities and religious groups.
As an Honorary Fellow of the University of Bedfordshire I was invited last week to a remarkable event, the conferment of an Honorary Doctor of Philosophy award on Nedžad Avdic in recognition of his outstanding commitment to Human Rights. As a special privilege Nedžad also delivered a lecture during his visit to the University.
Nedžad Avdic was just seventeen when Srebrenica was taken by Bosnian Serb forces in 1995. With thousands of other men and boys, including his father and uncles, he fled for his life with ‘the Column’. He was captured, and told to line up with hundreds of other men who were being systematically executed, hands tied behind their backs. Having been shot in the arm and the stomach, he thought he would surely die, yet miraculously he managed to survive and escape to safety with the help of another man. Nedžad is one of only a handful of men to survive the mass executions. His father and uncles were murdered in the massacre and, hiding in the bushes, Nedžad witnessed that.
The killings were perpetrated by units of the Bosnian Serb Army of Republika Srpska under the command of General Ratko Mladic. The Scorpions, a paramilitary unit from Serbia, which had been part of the Serbian Interior Ministry until 1991, also participated in the massacre. In April 1993 the United Nations (UN) had declared the besieged enclave of Srebrenica – in the Drina Valley of north eastern Bosnia – a “safe area” under UN protection. However, in July 1995, UNPROFOR’s 370 Dutchbat soldiers in Srebrenica failed to prevent the town’s capture by the VRS – and the subsequent massacre.
Nedžad returned to Srebrenica in 2007 and lives there with his wife and three daughters who accompanied him to the presentation. He courageously shares his story so that current and future generations will hear the truth of what happened, and grow up without hatred.
In the spring of 1993, when Nedžad was fifteen, Bosnia was surrounded by Serbia. The Serbians began a process of ‘ethnic cleansing’ on the Muslim population of Bosnia and parts of Croatia. Their target was men of fighting age though some young boys and older men got caught up in it. The blue helmeted Dutch UN troops abandoned their posts. Nedžad and his family thought the UN were there to keep them safe. Once the Dutch had gone they felt abandoned by the whole world.
What happened in Srebrenica has been described as the worst humanitarian disaster in Europe since the Second World War. But it was not a natural disaster but organised and systematic killing. At first, Nedžad wanted to escape from the memory. But he realised he was wrong. What could he do? He must cope with the pain of memory. He had to accept his experience. As the Bosnian Serbs closed in the UN forces came seemingly as rescuers. The US forces dropped food but the local Muslims struggled to reach it. He had already lost school mates, cousins and neighbours to starvation. Then in July 1995 the Serbs moved in, loaded up all the men and boys in their thousands onto trucks while the blue helmeted Dutch soldiers just watched.
July 1995 Nedžad’s parents were taken and killed. He was taken, stripped naked. He was not even asked for by name. The only purpose was to be killed. The decision was made in advance. He escaped and hiding in the bushes watched as bodies were loaded by machine onto trucks to be disposed of.
Now Nedžad hears from diplomats and politicians that we should forget Srebrenica. That was in the past, they say. He believes this is wrong. We must confront the past. While some have been convicted of war crimes in The Hague many of those responsible have not accepted their responsibility.
In Srebrenica today the majority of the population is Serbian and so all the elected officials are Serbian. Many of them deny that these war crimes took place and even deny the International Court of Justice decisions where at least 11 Serbian individuals have been found guilty of genocide and most sentenced to at least 40 years imprisonment; another two individuals have been convicted of aiding and abetting genocide and sentenced to 30 and 35 years respectively; and a further five individuals have been convicted of crimes against humanity and war crimes and been convicted of sentences ranging from 13 to 43 years imprisonment.
But in Bosnia some individuals have been fined for bringing cases to court. The children of Srebrenica are not taught about the genocide. “I do not instil hatred in my children,” says Nedžad, “But if we don’t tell them, it will happen again. It will be my task until the end of my life.”
He is particularly galled by the desertion of the UN troops. “What message does it send to other people in similar circumstances? I always try to find a positive, but they just helped the Serbian army to get into Srebrenica and commit the massacre.”
“Here is the tension. There are positives but they are just drops in the ocean. Ordinary people are just ordinary people. They just want to get on with their lives. “
There is a new mayor in Srebrenica. He is very young, a Serbian and he, of course, denies the genocide. But he says he does not deny it because nothing happened!
Nedžad was supported on the day, not only by his wife and children but also by a few friends and colleagues from the charity, Remembering Srebrenica
. During the questions that followed they spoke up loudly in a mixture of English and Bosnian to show how strongly they all feel about this tragedy. One Bosnian who has lived in Luton for many years was particularly eloquent. He asked us how people in Europe would feel if the Third Reich was still here. But that is the fate of the Bosniaks. They are still living among the people of Serbia who committed this massacre. But he feels that it is a Serbian problem first. It is part of their history and they will have to live with it.
Nedžad was asked if, when he looks around the world, does it give him concerns. “I am very worried”, he answered. “We did not learn anything. We have to do something to fight against evil. “
At the macro level I find this quite depressing. Because the world does not learn. It will happen again despite endless protestations that it must not happen again. Intervention has been shown to work well on occasions like in Kosovo and Sierra Leone but has been shown to work incredibly badly in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and countless more. The situations like Syria occur where there does not appear to be any practical solution, either to intervene or not to intervene.
Nearly 1 in 100 people worldwide are now displaced from their homes; the highest share of the world’s population that has been forcibly displaced since the UN High Commissioner for Refugees began collecting data on displaced persons in 1951. Displacement levels are higher in some regions of the world than others. For example, more than one-in-twenty people living in the Middle East (5.6%) are displaced. Meanwhile, about one-in-sixty people living in continental Africa (1.6%) are displaced (not including Egypt, which is considered part of the Middle East. In Europe, 0.7% of the population is displaced, similar to levels following the collapse of Eastern bloc countries in the early 1990s. And around half of all these refugees are under 18. [i]
Not all those who deny that what happened in Srebrenica was genocide are Serbian. On 18th
July 2015 Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have condemned the Srebrenica massacre as a genocide. The resolution was intended to mark the 20th
anniversary of the killing of 8,000 men and boys. China, Nigeria, Angola and Venezuela abstained and the remaining 10 members of the Council voted in favour. The veto was praised by Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic who said that Russia had “prevented an attempt of smearing the entire Serbian nation as genocidal” and proven itself as a true and honest friend.
The director of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre office in Israel, Effraim Zuroff, also disagrees that Serb forces had genocidal intent. He explained: “As far as I know what happened does not fit the description or definition of genocide. I think the decision to call it genocide was made for political reasons. Obviously a tragedy occurred, innocent people lost their lives and their memory should be preserved.” Zuroff also called attempts to equate Srebrenica to the Holocaust “horrible” and “absurd”, saying: “I wish the Nazis moved aside Jewish women and children before their bloody rampage, instead of murdering them, but that, as we know, did not happen.”
But at the micro level I found Nedžad Avdic’s story inspiring. The fact that he came from death to life, stayed alive and then created life is a brilliant achievement. His example of staying alive is inspiring. To have his family with him is his best revenge.