Although she was born as one of four children into a poor family, struggling to get by in 1950s Yugoslavia, Fadila Efendić was taught the value of education and reading from an early age. But nothing she had read could prepare her for what happened in July 1995:
“They cannot put into 100 films what I saw in those two days”
she says shaking her head and remembering the horrific ordeal she and thousands of others went through under the watch of UN forces in Potočari.
Her husband, Hamed, and son, Fejzo, were murdered along with over 8,000 other Muslim men and boys trying to escape Srebrenica, but their fates remained unknown to Fadila for many years afterwards. The one thing that gave Fadila the strength to carry on was her drive to ensure that she gave her daughter the opportunity to study and make something of her life.
Nowadays, in the divided former Yugoslavia, and especially Bosnia-Herzegovina, everyone is very aware that names are part of people’s identity and indicate whether they are Bosniak Muslim, Serb or Croatian. However, Fadila remembers that things were quite different when she was growing up:
“We were socialising together: pioneers, brotherhood and unity, going to school, there was never any question of who we were or what our religion was. When I was at school in Tuzla, I came to like my friend’s name, it was Helena, and when I came home I told my mother: “Mother, that is the most beautiful name, I really like that name”, then she told me: “Yes, it’s a nice Catholic name”. I was trying to figure out how come it’s a Catholic name. That was the first time that I realised that there are Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Muslims.”
Her mother secretly introduced her children to religion: “I knew that I was a Muslim. My mother wasn’t a member of the party, unlike my father, and she practised things her own way; she would go to the mosque, she prayed, she taught us about it. Of course, she hid it from my father. My mother was firm, she never gave up, and she didn’t want to give in:
‘You do your own thing, I will do mine’ she told him.”
In the early 1990s, things started to change, but although she saw problems occurring in other parts of the country, Fadila had no idea how bad the situation would become: “I didn’t feel any intolerance among Muslim and Orthodox people in Srebrenica. At work, I asked my colleagues: “What’s going to happen?” They told me that they didn’t know; one told me: “maybe if somebody owes something to somebody else, they will simply collect their debts, they will fight, nothing else.”
I was so naïve; I thought I didn’t owe anything to anybody, I hadn’t argued with anybody, so nobody would harm me. That’s why I remained here.
My sister and her three children went away, my brothers also. I stayed in Potočari. My mother was very sick, she couldn’t go; someone had to look after her. So, I stayed, with my family, my husband and two children.”
This was a decision that would change her life forever: “You cannot explain it to someone who didn’t live through it, but if I had known what was coming, I wouldn’t have stayed; I would have run away somewhere. A war not only brings killings, many ugly things happen. As the days passed, each became more difficult than the last. I had to endure shelling; I had to endure many adversities of war.”
Despite the awful conditions they were desperate to keep in touch with what was happening, but found the radio was full of propaganda:
“I was listening to Radio Belgrade, we could only hear the news before the battery drained. There wasn’t enough for anything else, not even for the lights in the room. They were reporting about counter attacks from Srebrenica and how the Serbian army was forced to come and to defend people.
At the same time, we were suffering heavy shelling and there was nobody on the streets, we didn’t have enough weapons to defend ourselves; they were lying all the time. They were trying to justify themselves to the families who sent their children in to battle. They were creating the idea that they had to fight, defend the people, when they were killing us at the time. That’s war propaganda, always fake. Guilty parties are always seeking for a way to justify themselves.”
Fadila’s mother had passed away by 1995, but the rest of the family were still living in their house just outside Srebrenica: “I never believed that this was a “Safe zone”. How could I believe it when Serbian soldiers were firing shells and killing people, whenever they wanted?
On 6th July, it was the worst situation. There was so much firing that I asked my husband: “Darling, what’s this? What is going to happen?” Something’s got to happen, he told me; either we will break free, or they will kill all of us. Milovanović (A Serbian general) said on Radio Belgrade that ‘Srebrenica is a huge waiting room. They can only sit and wait for when we will come and from where we will come to Srebrenica to finish the job.’ That job was to kill the people, for people and Srebrenica to vanish.”
Not long after this ominous warning, the worst happened:
“The fatal 11th July came. They were saying all the time that we would be protected. NATO’s airplanes were flying over Srebrenica, but they were not acting. I asked my husband: ‘What are you waiting for? Can’t you see that people are panicking, that they are trying to run away through the woods?’
He said: ‘The world will not allow this.’
What world? You can only count on yourself. Do not count on the world to protect you. My daughter and I had to leave our house. My husband and son stayed to try and break through the woods, the next day. I heard that they came to the UN base as well. We were not together, I don’t know why. I never saw them again.”
Instead of a refuge, the UN base turned into a scene from hell, as Fadila recalls: “My daughter and I were at the base for two days and two nights without food and water. I wasn’t hungry, I was only cold and it was July, 30 degrees Celsius. I only felt cold, I was freezing. It was because of fear, it wasn’t really cold, but I was afraid.
You’re watching your death with your own eyes. You are waiting for them to take you out and kill you. You’re talking to a person and suddenly he’s gone. Where is he? They just gave a sign with a finger. They executed him. They took him somewhere.”
“It was terrible. Everybody was lying on the ground in the battery factory: old people, children, women. In one corner a woman is giving birth, and in another there is a woman dying.
What are we going to do with her? Are we going to get her out? It’s not that somebody came to kill her, but she was dying out of fear. One woman gave birth, the child is crying, and in one moment I didn’t know if the child was dead or alive. The woman didn’t have any food to breast-feed the baby. Another woman had given birth two days earlier and she was begging for someone to give her a drop of milk or sugar for the baby. The children were dying, crying all around. A woman hung herself by the neck out of fear. It was complete chaos.
I stood up and I was just watching. If I only had a camera to record all of that. Respect to the reporters, but when it’s at its worst they are not there. They run away, that’s normal. Everybody’s afraid for their own lives.”
One chilling encounter sticks in Fadila’s head, although she wasn’t aware of the significance at the time:
“While I was in the battery factory, a Serbian soldier came and said: “Don’t be afraid, we’ll not do you any harm. We just need to know who the master is and who the slaves are.” That was Mladić, apparently. How could I know who Mladić was? It was some man in a uniform, he came and that’s what he said.”
The next day they were taken away on an open topped army truck: “We were just waiting for them to bring us down from the truck to kill us. You see a dead man, but you don’t care. You don’t have time to look at him, to see who he is.
The worst feeling was while I was in Kravica, when I saw they were bringing an entire column of people into the warehouse. From the column one man recognised me and called my name. When I heard it, I didn’t dare to turn around, I thought they would kill me; they would shoot me down. You could see the fear on everybody’s faces. They were hitting people with their guns. I saw everything around us. In Milići they were throwing rocks at us.
The truck stopped for water. Water? It wasn’t on our minds. We just wanted to keep moving so a rock didn’t hit us on the head. That’s how much hatred there was.
I saw 4 soldiers in black uniforms and they were swearing, saying: ‘Look at how many kids there are. We’ll have to have another war in twenty years.’ I was thinking how even if I stay alive I’ll have to suffer all over again. I’m not important, but our children will go through this again.”
The wait for news of what had happened to her husband and son was excruciating and it didn’t help that they were being given misinformation:
“They lied to me. I would go out to search for them, but a translator, told me that she saw my Fejzo and Hamed in the bus and that they had already gone to the free territory. Some people were saying that they will capture them and let them go. I trusted in the diplomats, I was hoping they would do something. At that time, I wasn’t 100% sure that they would kill them in such numbers. You kill 10 people and it’s still a lot, never mind ten thousand. I don’t know how they didn’t get tired.”
“When I came to the free territory, I was searching for my son and husband. They told me that I was crazy. How could they come when so many people were missing? OK, I’m crazy. The next day I went to the International Red Cross to report them missing, and I couldn’t say a single word. I had to drink some water before I could speak.”
A year later, she began to accept that she would never see them alive again: “I went to Germany and I was travelling to Zagreb by train when a Croatian soldier told me: ‘Don’t fool yourself. They’re not alive, it’s better if you understand that they’re gone. There were so many prisoners it would be too expensive to keep them in prisons or camps. It was easier to kill them.’ I gave him a very sad look. It was so hard for me. But, you must face the truth no matter how bitter it is.”
Finally, years later, and despite the efforts of Bosnian Serbs forces to hide the bodies in mass graves, her husband and son’s remains were found: “In March 1998, when my husband was identified; he wasn’t complete. His body was found in one grave, his head in another. That realisation was terrible. It was hard four years later as well, when I found out about my son. They only found his two leg bones.”
The pain she feels about the loss of her son is particularly hard to take:
“Every mother is a lioness for her child. When you give birth, then you know. When your child goes to sleep and gets a fever, you’re afraid something’s going to happen, that your child will die. What can you say when you see your child has grown up, but someone takes him from you and kills him.”
Despite the pain and the trauma of her horrific experiences, Fadila returned to Srebrenica and set up a business selling flowers: “I started realising that I must go on. I survived along with my daughter, but she only has me. I must work and earn, so my daughter doesn’t feel that she’s an orphan. She did feel it, without the tenderness and love from her father or brother, but I had to be strong and capable to give her as much as I could. Her job was to study. My job was to work. We made an agreement. You have to learn and to justify all the trust I have in you, and I will work in order to finance your education.”
͞When it comes to justice, Fadila is adamant about what needs to happen:
“I only tell the truth and those who don’t, who deny the genocide, deny that executions happened here, or who deny that Serbia was a participant in the war as well, should be afraid. Serbia has to be held responsible. When they pay the reparations, or when they get punished for their mistakes, then they can live and die peacefully. The truth must come to the surface one day. By lying they are only creating problems for themselves, for future generations, for their children.”
For survivors like Fadila, such denial causes more pain. Sitting in her shop opposite the cemetery in Potočari, she has to challenge it:
“You’re beating me and I cannot say that it hurts me? And it hurts when you’re getting beaten.
There is no justice. This graveyard and all of these murdered people here fell from the sky? A meteor fell and killed these people? That’s not what happened. It’s well known who killed the people. I didn’t believe that it could happen, but I must speak out so that what happened to us never happens to anyone ever again.”