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The Crying Mothers of Srebrenica

Bosnian women mourn the victims of the Srebrenica massacre. The tiny Muslim enclave was under UN protection until July 11, 1995 when it was overrun by ethnic Serb forces

As Gaza bleeds, Dr Amineh A Hoti visits Bosnia to revisit the shame and horror of Srebrenica massacre and ethnic cleansing in the heart of Europe at the close of the last century, that took place on the watch of the world community  


[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t shook my strong sense of optimism and faith in humanity when I walked through the sea of mass graves and heard the stories of an ethnic group savagely turning on innocent neighbors, babies as little as two days old murdered, and men as old as 95, shot mercilessly.

Pregnant mothers were beaten by drunken men in army boots till they bled and miscarried their babies. 50,000 women and girls between 10 to 60 years of age were grouped together in 100 concentration camps and repeatedly raped by the aggressor’s army. These women were enslaved for more than three years and the country was under brutal attack by an organized army.

These heinous crimes against humanity happened in front of the helpless families. The exact figure is unknown, but it is estimated that 500,000 people were killed in Bosnia in our life-time (just twenty years ago). Boys and men were separated from their families and trundled to the woods where they were shot and buried in mass graves. An entire generation annihilated while the pain and struggle to survive still endure.

Where and when did this genocide happen? In Europe, between 1992-1995 (the massacre of Srebrenica happened on 11 th July 1995). This is a continent that we associate with “civilization”, “democracy” and “human rights”. And who exactly were the victims of this genocide?

A community that is an integral part of Europe, and has been for the last 500 to 600 years: the Bosniaks or Muslims. Why were they targeted and victimized? They look entirely European (many Bosniaks are blonde and blue-eyed with fair complexion) their names are classical Muslim: Ahmed, Muhammad, Amina, Mustapha, Khadijah – these are their common names but spelt in the local vernacular.

As a part of the research project entitled “Journey into Europe” led by my father, Professor Akbar Ahmed, across key areas of Europe to understand how we can build bridges of peace, I and our team interviewed hundreds of people from Bosnia – ordinary people, scholars, leaders (religious and political) and they said they were targeted “because we are Muslims”, locally labeled as “Turks”. Yet, this is a gross misunderstanding of the Bosniaks’ indisputable identity as European Muslims.

The history of the Balkans is complex. Most of the region, including areas like Albania, Serbia, and Bosnia was once under the Muslim Ottoman Empire throughout the early modern period – from the 14th century to early 20th century. Before the Ottomans arrived, Muslim Sufis and dervishes travelled to Europe to preach good behavior and humanity, which encouraged locals to embrace Islam.

Religiously, Bosnia retains a Muslim majority even today who define themselves as European. Some Bosnian Muslims, therefore, did not convert to Islam under the Ottoman rule, but practiced Islam even before the Ottomans after being inspired by saints.

The Ottoman Empire was religiously, ethnically and linguistically diverse and was considered to be a much more tolerant place for religious practices as compared to other parts of the world at the time. A glaring disparity to the harsh treatment meted out to the Bosniaks by their neighbors, the Serbs and Croats, and the violence inflicted upon them in recent years. In Bosnia in the 1990s, more than 1000 mosques were targeted and blown up to “ethnically cleanse” the area of Muslim traces.

In contrast, we saw a constitutional document called the Ahdnama, which was handwritten by the Ottoman sultan, Mehmet II. In this important document, showed to us by a Franciscan monk with great pride in his monastery, the sultan allocated rights to the religious groups under his rule, including the (Bosnian) Franciscan Christians by bestowing them with his own robe as a symbol of his protection. Mehmet II wrote, “Let no one trouble or disturb (them)… Let no one endanger them or their lives, their properties and their monasteries.”

Though there were intermittent tensions, this general religious tolerance lasted for centuries. Muslims, Christians and Jews co-existed as neighbors, school friends and fellow countrymen. Yet in the 20 th century mass violence erupted with murders of Muslims, Jews and Romas (during World War II, 700,000 people were massacred during the Ustase genocide, 90% of Bosnian Jews were killed and the rest migrated to America).

Sitting amidst the sea of graves of the young and the old in Srebrenica, Potocari (a few hours from Sarajevo), I interviewed a “Mother of Srebrenica”, Hatidza Mehmedovic (the local spelling of Khadija Muhammad).

Hatidza’s two young teenage sons (younger than me in age), and husband were forcefully separated from her along with more than 8,372 men from the village and were brutally shackled with steel wires, they were forced to take off their clothes and dig their own graves – starved and naked – and were massacred by the Serb army, known as Chetniks.

The Chetniks are the Serbo-Croatian army part of the Balkan guerrilla force during World War II, a chain-link in the ugly pattern of terror and counter-terror that developed in the region in the 20th century.

Amongst the thousands of innocent men, 50 male members of Hatidza’s family were slaughtered. Hassan, our translator, recalled his own harrowing escape from Serb soldiers, alongside his twin brother and father; running through the woods for seven days, “hunted like an animal” in the mountains. Sadly, he alone survived the open fire ruthlessly rained down upon them.

Hatidza said that Bosniaks raised their children to be peace-loving and to live harmoniously with their neighbors. “We do not want war. We never taught them how to fight. We taught them how to write and be friends. We had beautiful, smart and good children. We did not teach them how to hate or kill, so because of this we became victims.”

Her non-Bosniak neighbors joined the Serbs and took away their boys and young men and “killed our loved ones. Serbs had massive weapons (they were then the fourth largest army in Europe) and we had nothing. We were unarmed and couldn’t escape. The Serbian army told the UN to leave with a guarantee that they would protect civilians. Serbia planned this mass genocide systematically to ethnically cleanse Europe of Muslims. They kept killing everyone who crossed their path – farmers, children, the old, everyone.”

Masses of people, some 30,000, gathered outside a large Dutch UN camp opposite the graveyard memorial where we, now, sat under the cool shadow of an open mosque in the memorial. In the large UN “protected”, “safe space” the Dutch only allowed in 3,000 women with children, leaving the rest in the merciless hands of the Serb soldiers.

Young boys were slaughtered – one mother, with a broken heart, recounts the heart-wrenching story of her 14-year-old son, “He had light hair and beautiful green eyes which swelled with tears and he was so scared of them when they came to take him away but there was no one to turn to, no one to help.”

Hatidza said, “The boys they took away to kill were innocent school children. The Serbs tied their hands at the back with wires, tortured them, lined them up in front of the firing squad and flung their bodies in mass graves. My heart bleeds at the thought of how my teenage sons felt just before they were shot dead.”

Without their fathers, brothers, sons, male cousins and uncles, the women were vulnerable, so the army turned on them next like scavengers. They converted schools and factory houses into concentration camps for rape, drunk with the poison of hatred and the intention of impregnating Muslim Bosniaks with Serbian blood – the heavy abuse caused the deaths of many of innocent women. Hatidza’s sister, with thousands of other young women, was one victim of rape.

Hatidza said her sister has children but won’t ever talk about this; she added with tears pouring down her cheeks “women went mad after what they experienced. I will not talk about this”. As a Muslim woman, whose very identity is built on the concept of avoiding shame and maintaining physical honor (haya) it was worse than death. “Killed Souls” is the title of one sketch in the Bosniak Institute in Sarajevo done by Mevludin Ekmecic which shows a young teenage girl heavily abused by soldiers in front of her parents and younger siblings. The subtitle reads, “I forgive you my life but save my dignity”.

Hatidza is lucky amongst the Mothers of Srebrenica, as the remains of her beloved sons and husband were found. Other mothers till today only live to find the remains of their sons in order to give them the human dignity of burial. Hatidza said, “This is not life, it is pain to live in this condition. I am alone, without anyone! I long for my sons”. When the bones of one of her sons were recovered from the mass graves he was finally laid to rest but sadly, Hatidza said, crying, without the bones of his lower legs.

The Serbs, we were told, in an attempt to hide this terrible genocide had dug up graves several times and changed their locations by transporting the bodies in trucks to various mass grave sites.

“They tell their children”, she said, “that they are heroes and that they won a battle against ‘the Turks’, but they don’t tell them that the victims were civilians”. Hatidza adds, “We don’t ask for much. We do not want to kill in return. We do not want revenge. But we want justice and to live as equal human beings with the international world recognizing our right to exist in Europe where we are born from its very clay and have lived for generations.”

Hatidza is a metaphor for Bosnia. Just as Hatidza says she is alone, the Bosniaks feel they are alone following their experience of genocide in Europe with the UN and international community looking the other way and in their own words, “turning a blind eye” to this inglorious taint (daagh) on human history. The way Bosniaks were treated is a shared shame for all of us. Pakistan, I am glad to say, was one of the few countries, amongst others, who helped.

The tragedy is even more acute because the Bosnian army was so ill-equipped it had a choice between protecting the capital of Bosnia, Sarajevo, or Srebrenica. With lack of resources – one pistol with only a few bullets to 12 men, the Muslims chose to protect the capital, Sarajevo, taking a chance on Srebrenica, which was declared a “protected zone” by the UN.

The UN, sadly, failed to protect the civilians and even played the devil’s advocate in this case and, therefore, locals now say and write that the UN in Bosnia’s case was “United for Nothing” (in the Srebrenica exhibition in Sarajevo and elsewhere).

The Serbs, we were told, planned to take over Sarajevo in 15 days and swallow up the rest of Bosnia in 30 days. But, this never happened: like Jang–e-Badar, the Bosniaks miraculously fought off the Serbs for more than three years or 1,425 days with a heavy cost to their own lives and their country while saving it.

Many Bosniaks suffer and live today with the consequences of that war – Mehmet (Muhammad) one of our very nice hosts lost his right hand and left eye in a grenade attack and his younger brother lost a leg. Women told us they were shot at by firing from the air and could not sleep peacefully with those nightmares of man’s aggression still haunting them and their children.

The brunt of the tragedy is not only felt by its citizens but also by its buildings (80% of the buildings I saw had bullet wounds on them) and sadly two million books were burnt, blown up and lost in the war. Amongst those were precious copies of the Holy Qur’ans and books of great wisdom and knowledge – a treasure to our literary world.

The Director of the Gazi Husrev Library said to us that human beings were tragically killed but can be replaced by the birth of other human beings but the books lost can never be replaced.

The passion for knowledge amongst the Bosniaks is what made them special for me amongst the Ummah. Indeed, the pain felt by Bosnia’s Muslim intellectuals and philosophers as European citizens on the periphery is captured beautifully by Mehmed Mesa Selimovic (the local spelling of Muhammad Musa Salim):

“History had never made such a joke with anyone as it did with us… We had been torn away and disconnected and were not accepted. Like a branch of the river which had been separated from the mother river by a torrential flood and it had neither a stream nor its mouth of the river, too small to be a lake and too big for a soil to absorb it within itself. We live at the crossroads of the worlds, on a border of nations; we bear the brunt of everybody, and we have always been guilty in the eyes of someone. The waves of history break themselves over our backs, as on a reef.” (In Essays (on Behalf) of Bosnia by Enes Karic, 1999)

With the team of Journey into Europe, I visited Dachau, one of Hitler’s concentration camps in Germany near Munich, where human beings were kept like starved animals. They were stripped of their identity and dignity and were deceived by lies into extermination camps and killed in masses (they were told that they were going to have “showers” but were actually poisoned to death in gas chambers). The world said “Never Again”.

This is also inscribed on a plaque in Dachau but today, again in the beginning of the 21 st century we have mass killings of innocent people in the Middle East in Gaza and the blood of the young is wasted and spilt, not sparing babies and school children.

The pattern of killings and justification for those killings is mirrored in our present. The ones who suffer are the children of our shared world – the ones who we lost, and those who will live with guilt and blame to haunt them for the rest of their lives at the savagery of humankind towards each other.

As the Mayor of Srebrenica (whose father was in a concentration camp in Bosnia and five male members of his immediate family were killed) told us, “We want to live together – it is their home (the Serbs’) and ours (Muslims’) but we need to change how the new generation is taught history”. Our collective fight today is against (jahiliya) violent ignorance, not kafiriya (paganism) as the former Grand Mufti, Mustafa Ceric who we met in Sarajevo, said.

The Bosniaks are one of the most dignified people I have encountered – they are intelligent, smart, noble, gentle and forgiving – people who value knowledge (ilm), respect for the Other (adab) and humanity (insaaniat). It is widely stated that there has not been one single act of revenge since the war of aggression on them.

As one lady, Professor Tuna who was the teacher of the Grand Mufti, told me, “We are comfortable in our Muslim skin”. The Bosniaks are exemplary Muslims (scholarly and many hafiz-e-Qur’an) and exemplary Europeans (living up to the standard of its higher values in the modern age).

At the risk of romanticizing them, the Bosniaks are a model for humanity, for Muslims and the rest of the world. But the acuteness of the tragedy is that as a world civilization, we human beings have not learnt our lessons from history: they know that they are a small number (less than 3 million) in a sea of unfriendly neighbors as our driver said to us when we left for the airport, “We Bosniaks are surrounded by neighboring people–Serbs and Croats—who want to kill us and divide our land between themselves.”

It is a matter of time to see and test the true tolerant nature of Europe and its higher values of human rights and equality – if the Bosniaks survive, Europe will pass the test of respect for human rights and space for “the Other”. I know for sure, that there are voices of compassion who will stand for the higher values of respecting human life and property and will say loud and clear: ENOUGH! NO MORE BLOODSHED! We accept, respect and value every human life from all communities, faiths and cultures.

As Gaza bleeds, Hatidza talked about the pain and suffering of war on Bosnia in reference to today’s Gaza. A lessons of all these wars and its consequences should make Pakistan and India think very hard before they even entertain any wrong ideas of war with each other ever again – it is, of course, better to work towards developing good “neighborly” relations with each other in line with the Sunnah and the Prophet’s sayings of being good to your neighbors 40 houses to either side of you.

Indeed, I want to stress that we have to learn from the wisdom of our Holy Scriptures in order of revelation — the Hebrew Bible (Taurat), the Bible (Injeel), and the Qur’an – which tell mankind that human life is sacred and God’s precious gift,

“He who saves one life… is as if he saves an entire universe. He who destroys a life… is as if he destroys an entire universe.”–Talmud (Sanhedrin 4:5)


All opinions and views expressed in columns and blogs are those of individual writers and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Clarion India

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