At dawn, that July 8th, it was thundering somewhere in the woods loud enough to wake us. That is when I moved to my shelter, next to the freezer, where the thickest wall was. During those few days, we ran so many times towards that thick wall in the house, and while running we used to gauge the grenades. From that July 9th, in order to shorten the time in my nest, next to the freezer, I spent time counting the shells which were detonating the whole day. At times there were thirty at once. The people went out in the streets, but only with the rule “The first one kills”. Ramo hljebara (Ramo the bread salesman) thundered down the streets with the wounded in his TAM truck.
The shells stopped and it all became silent at noon. I went out to see what Edo and Dado were doing. I knew my babo (meaning dad) was somewhere in the neighbourhood. When I came down the Miloševa street, I thought babo had maybe gone to the blacksmiths across the river. A shell detonation went off while I was at the centre of a clearing, next to Naser’s dam. The greatest of my concerns at that moment was to run back to my mother so she could at least see that I was OK. While running back home I ran into my aunt’s house and yelled: “I’m going to my mother so that she doesn’t worry!” My aunt barely succeeded in keeping me in the shelter under the table, with Edin and Dadin, assuring me my mother surely knew I was at their place.
Despite everything, we were stubborn enough to keep living our lives normally. In the morning of July the 10th we went upstairs to help nana clean her room. I took a stretch and went outside onto the terrace to dust it off. A shell detonated behind the house. The earth was falling on the roof like rain, and I spent about ten seconds hanging from the wall. When all the confusion amidst the shelling calmed down at noon, my parents decided to go to my aunt’s house to perform a ritual of “lead pouring”, which is an old Balkan tradition believed to help with fear and emotional trauma, due to the fact that I hadn’t spoken a word since that shell detonated. They thought something had happened to me. During the ritual I looked inside the bowl with lead and water and kept asking my aunt: “Where in the world do you see a lion?”
My aunt lived in Kazani, while we lived in town, which was pretty far off to be walking under the danger of shelling. To this day, it is not clear to me how they managed to communicate without a phone or any other link that we were supposed to meet at my other aunt’s house near the bus station, halfway to their house. When the lead pouring ritual was finished, I didn’t feel any less scared. Then the shelling started again. Edo and Dado were at our house. Edo and I were at my shelter by the freezer and Dado at the other thick wall. Somebody said the shells were detonating all over the Old town, and I started to worry about my friend Kemo.
On the morning of that July 11th, the shooting started early, closer than ever before. It was a hot day outside. Mom and babo were packing up our stuff in cloth shopping bags, so as, if we were to leave, we do not go empty-handed as when we left Drinjača. I jumped and packed my schoolbag with the Little Prince and the encyclopedia “1000 zašto – 1000 zato” (1000 why’s – 1000 because’s). The shelling continued all morning. More and more people started moving out of the town, running. We were foolishly waiting for something.
Then someone from the crowd yelled: “The Chetniks have come down to the marketplace!” We grabbed our bags, my father grabbed me as he would a bag, and we fled from the hill, on which our house was located, to join the crowd of people fleeing. Behind us, we could hear burst shooting.
While running down the street, I tore my right sleeve on a fence. The same fence which was blown apart by a grenade that also killed children playing a football tournament in front of our school. I may have cut my arm as well, but I didn’t feel it at the time. The only thing I saw was how my mother tore me from that fence and we ran into my aunt Munevera’s house at the bus station. We stopped for some reason. Babo ran back towards the town and mother took the backpack off my back, shook out my books and looked at me. I just shrugged. That’s how my Little Prince book got left behind. When she saw me frozen above my books, she consoled me by saying they would have been too heavy on my back while we were fleeing. I was thinking to myself, maybe they wouldn’t have been too heavy, but I kept silent, nothing seemed to make sense anymore.
A little bit later, my father came to the house carrying a sack of white flour on his back. He told us that people have broken into Naser’s warehouse. Aunt Munevera made fritters for us. I completely forgot that I hadn’t eaten for days and that I was hungry. I barely ate one. Soon, we separated. Father misled me by saying he was leaving to get some stuff and then he’d meet up with us, but instead, he went through the forest towards Tuzla. We met up with aunt Sena and moved on. There was a crowd around the hospital. I saw people jumping from balconies in nearby buildings. We went into one of them.
We didn’t stay in the darkness of that building for too long. We moved forward, but we couldn’t go further than the hospital. People were trying to get into the UN camp in Vezionica and someone said Zulfo Tursun is turning boys back from the hospital. That’s how we lost my aunt. Mother, grandmother and I stopped below one of the buildings near the hospital, above Vezionica.
A grenade exploded nearby. First, my grandmother and then my mother covered me, trying to protect me from pieces of glass falling from the building. I remember being barely able to breathe underneath them both.
After the shell exploded, women tried to force their way through the gates and fences of Vezionica. The three of us merged with the crowd in the street. Suddenly, through the noise, I heard a familiar voice: Husnija!!! Father came back from the forest. “I’ll go with you, whatever happens, happens.” One part of that Vezionica fence was finally broken apart. Father somehow carried me into the camp and we went into the UN vehicles and transporters garage. Another shell exploded. Shrapnel tore little holes through the tin walls of the garage. Sunlight seeped in. We lost mother, we lost aunt. There was no aunt, nor Edo, nor Dado, nor Keka, nor uncle Kiko. Just the two of us. Father saw the UN soldiers getting out of Vezionica in their trucks. He grabbed me and threw me into the trailer of the truck.
He helped many others climb onto the truck. The mob pushed me against the sides of it. I barely managed to turn my head towards the outside so I could breathe. I realised that babo and I were not holding hands anymore. The mob had separated us. People were constantly climbing onto the truck and I had less and less air. The truck slowly arrived to another base, “Akumulatorka” (Battery) factory. Babo and I ended up in the darkness of the warehouse. Along the way, we saw uncle Ibro. He was on stretchers.
People started pouring into the factory. Babo somehow managed to find a stretcher so I could sit for a while. I sat up against the wall, next to the smashed entrance. The stretcher was wet. Wet with blood. As I sat there, my eyes were fixated on the door, hoping to see my mum walk through them. I lost all sense of time. Suddenly, mother appeared. She was flushed as if she had just wrestled someone. She spotted us right away. She told us that UNPROFOR didn’t want to let her in, so she had to argue and fight with some soldier. Somehow, she managed to get in. Babo went to find some water for us. He brought a bottle that reeked of petrol, which had a little bit of water in it. He told us that he had found aunt, Edo and Dado, but Nana was nowhere to be found. Mother said that Nana stayed in another factory with our pregnant Keka.
I couldn’t bear to listen to the shouting and screaming or to look at the bloodied faces and the greyness of the factory hall anymore. I leaned my head back into a hole in the wall and I think I kind of fell asleep. I woke up a few minutes later. Mother asked why I was not sleeping.
“I want to see my aunt.”
“We’ll go later.”
“I want to go to the toilet then.”
She took me behind the factory. There were bloodied and lacerated people, a lot of faeces and bandages soaked with blood everywhere. I said I can’t go to the toilet, and I didn’t go anymore.
At some point, mother started going through our bags in a panic. She took a bundle of silverware and ran off to throw it away. Inside the factory, the word spread that chetniks were patrolling the factory dressed as UN soldiers and were just looking for excuses to take people out and slaughter them.
Babo asked her why in God’s name she had that silverware with her.
“How should I know where we’ll go after this and how we’ll end up?! I thought we could need them. “
All her jewellery was long gone, and now she threw away everything metallic we owned.
She understood that she couldn’t refuse my requests any more, so when the people stopped entering we went to find aunt and uncle Kika. Uncle Kika was frighteningly pale. He was a person with special needs, but he was never as frightened as he was then. Mother asked auntie where Senaid, my younger uncle, was. She said that he had left through the forest. I approached Edo and Dada, sat next to them on a blanket that covered the concrete, it was hard and cold.
So many faces that we’d never seen before were now around us in the hall. We’d never seen them but felt like we’d always known them. Through the halls, the waves of panic echoed. Ears picked up news that they were taking people out and slaughtering, raping and shooting them. Mother and father were murmuring with the people around us that everything will be over soon, that we should be OK there with the UNPROFOR troops, but, as the day grew dark, it became clear that being inside these factories we were actually in a camp.
We made it somehow through the night… I dragged my head into my hole in the wall again, mother leaned her body against me, as if to blanket me, to make me feel safer, all I heard throughout the night were moans, the cries of children, and somewhere in the distance behind the factory through that entrance, screams. Did I dream or did I merely vacate that hall in spirit, I don’t know, but all night long in front of my eyes was Drinjača, warm milk from Pahljeviči, raspberries from Burinca, the sunset in Konjević Polje… everything was mixing about in my head at random, as the camp drilled its scent and darkness into my memories.
The commotion and noise started very early in the morning. No voices came to us to say what it’s about, but the people were buzzing around the hall, going here and there. Father jumped and went through the doors that we came through, to see what was going on. Later father arrived with a tin plate, in it some soup, and a slice of see-through bread. The soup looked like dirty water, the plate was shallow, we had thrown our cutlery away, and we couldn’t even drink it. We wanted to pick the soup up with the bread, but it had melted in it.
As I was puzzling how to eat that bit of soup, father was telling mother how he was with uncle Ibro, and how he still could not stand up from the stretcher we saw him on yesterday. He said that he was very pale and had ‘dried up’. “No one had an infusion to give him”. I asked my mother and father to let me go for a walk. On the right side, in the distance, I saw that there was no wall and that the light was shining through. When I arrived to that gap I saw a field full of people, just like the people inside the hall, baking in the sun on the open field.
When I returned I couldn’t manage to tell them what I had seen. Mother ordered me to sit, and then in front of us, a man squatted down. He asked for our names, my father’s and mine. “The UNPROFOR’s told us to only write down the men’s names” he said. Father said that I am Jasmin Jusufa Jusufović, and he wrote it down.
Oh, how proud I was when father pronounced my name like that. I thought I am the son of my father, and no one can do a thing to me. When the surveyor left, from the side some man exclaimed: “Not UNPROFOR’s… chetniks!”
“Father, why did that man write down only mine and your names?”
“I don’t know. Maybe to know how many people are here?”
“But, why didn’t he write down mother’s name as well? Will he write down Nica? Did he write down Keka and Nana? Who will write down Kika?”
“I don’t know my dear child.”
Mother and father were talking to the people around us. Word arrived to us in the corner that they had sent chetniks among us, that they were taking people out to a white house near the factory, to be raped and shot. That is why my mother didn’t let me go alone to that field, out into the air.
“Please mother, let us go outside, to get some air.”
“I don’t want to, sit down.”
“Please mama, just to see the sun for a bit.”
“I don’t want to, sit down!”
“But mama, let us go to Nica and see Edo and Dado, let us go together.”
“When we get there…”
“Come on mama, I just want to go for a bit to that corner over there, you will see me from Nica’s spot.”
Every thirty seconds I would turn towards mother to wave and confirm that we could still see each other. Then I heard from the end of the fence screams, and yelling, and managed to make out what a female voice was shouting. I ran to my mother so quickly that I thought I’d be able to turn back the passage of time.
“What happened, what was that screaming about?”
“I don’t know, a woman was shouting: `He stomped on her child!`”
“Who stomped on whose child?”
“I don’t know mama, I just heard a woman shouting: `He stomped on her child!`.”
All at once, a deathly silence fell over the people. All of them were mute. For a moment there wasn’t a whisper to be heard. Later, by word of mouth, news arrived that a chetnik had taken a newborn baby from a woman that had just given birth next to the fence, and had stomped on it.
No longer did I dare mention that I would like to go somewhere. I couldn’t ask to go to see auntie any more. I only looked for that hole of mine in the wall, to hide my head and bring back the calming images of Drinjača to my mind.
When it started to get dark again, I asked, thinking aloud to myself and talking under my chin, “when will we get away from here?”
Father had heard me and thinking I was asking him replied:
“Tomorrow. Now sleep!”
Panic in the hall on the 13th of July woke me up. Half the hall was on their feet, mother was collecting the few things we had around me, and put into my lap my little backpack, in which the only thing remaining was that bottle that smelled like gasoline.
“Are we leaving?”, I asked. No one heard me.
The murmur that I could ignore the previous days, as an ever-present hum, had become louder that morning. People were bringing in news, some woman who had fainted was being brought back to consciousness a bit further to our left, a grandfather was being helped to his feet, a mother was trying to silence a screaming infant.
I was telling myself, I am not going to be like that. I am nice, I will not cry and scream, and worry my mother and father.
Everyone was ready to go somewhere, but we were not moving. The people, who had managed to get up, were only shifting and turning in place. Soon after, in the depths of the hall, the same side we had entered by, the large doors opened, and the people, like a river, started going through that one door. We did not go straight towards it, but the crowd carried us along the middle of the hall, to the place where auntie was sitting, but they were already gone.
Suddenly we stopped, next to a green truck, but the people were still squeezing towards the doors. I nudged my father’s hand and tried to shout to him:
“Babo, I can’t breathe!”
He took me and put me on his shoulders. I was at the same height as the truck. The truck had people on it. When we finally started moving again, I was blinded by the sun and the heat outside. I clutched my eyes. Father noticed that I no longer held onto his shoulders, so he removed me from himself, and placed me between him and mother, and they both took me by my hands. I threw down my gaze towards my legs to let my eyes adjust to the light.
We were walking through a long line of soldiers. I only saw real boots, and legs in military clothing and the barrels of rifles. They were forcing us, yelling, we had to start running. I hadn’t gotten used to the sun until we went out onto the road. In front of us was a line of trucks, buses and soldiers to the left. Father was pushing mother and me in front of himself, mother was holding me tight against her, wrapping me up in her clothes. It was hard to run like that. We were passing one, then another truck and bus, all until someone shouted “GET IN!” And I found myself in front of a wooden ladder which was leaned onto the truck.
I thought, the sooner I climbed up the ladder, the sooner all three of us would be on the truck, and all of this would come to an end. Halfway up the ladder, I heard an order shouted behind me: “You, get down! Over here!” and I heard a commotion. I climbed up the few remaining steps and turned around.
Mother was sitting in front of the ladder, waving her hands, and down the road, a soldier was pushing my father with a rifle. I couldn’t see anything else, besides the three of us and that soldier. I went stiff. Father was being forced by the soldier into a ditch by the road, while another was yelling at mother to make her climb up.
Mother grabbed me, completely petrified and carried me deeper into the truck. I was still looking towards father. He was standing in the ditch. He turned around towards us to see us out. When he saw I was looking at him, he put his finger over his mouth as to tell me “shhhhhh”, and waved his hand as if to say “go”.
I didn’t hear, maybe we were shouting, but I didn’t hear. I remember that I couldn’t move a thing. I left my eyes on my father. I only know I clenched my teeth hard, and inside I wanted to explode. It made tears come to my eyes, that fogged up my view of my father. I only managed to raise up a hand a little bit, and in my mind, I thought I was waving to him. He only repeated that motion of his “shhhh! Go”. He didn’t have his usual beret on his head, I thought that maybe he would be hot out in the sun.
He was wearing a t-shirt on him, creme coloured, with wide azure stripes. A worn-out leather vest. Black pants and worn-out shoes, the only ones he had in Srebrenica. Under his arm, he was carrying my red hooded jacket. And so he stayed, watching us, “shhhhh! Go”. It was as if someone had taken me, carried me out of the truck and into the heavens. I saw that in the ditch around my father were many more men.
Behind them I saw ripe wheat as it was playing around in the sun and wind, behind the hall people were still going out, some were climbing into buses. I saw mother on the truck, squeezed against me, wrapping me up in her long, wide dress, and crying.
From somewhere a teenager jumped into the bottom of the truck. He crawled behind some barrels that were there, and then the women on the truck threw the bundles they were carrying ontop of him. When the truck was filled up with people, they closed the tarp, and we were surrounded by complete darkness that made me go blind again. When the truck started, I whispered to myself “father will be in another truck…”
The truck drove slowly, for a long time, taking us somewhere. Under the tarp, we were running out of air. Suddenly we stopped. We all went quiet. I could hear the doors of the truck, and then I saw a long wooden beam opening a piece of the tarp for us, yelling:
“Why have you closed yourselves in, you are going to suffocate, god damn you.”
Through the open part, we saw from the part of the road that we were at, how they were, from somewhere in front of us, shelling the forest. I remembered my younger uncle who went through the forest. The wooden beam talked again:
“There, watch a bit, so you don’t get bored.”
In the little bit of light around myself I saw a grandmother, with her head wrapped in some kind of bloody bandage, and here eyes were also covered by the bandage and there were a lot of other women. I don’t recall seeing a single child. The board closed down on the tarp again, and they kept on driving. A long time later the truck stopped again, and mother put me on the floor and covered me with some things. The other women around me threw their things on me, and then I felt something heavy being put over everything that was on top of me. Afterwards, I heard a voice.
“Are there any men here?”, The women were saying that there weren’t, and then they started screaming.
“There isn’t anyone else, there was just him! There is no one else!”
The truck started again soon after they had taken the other boy out.
When we stopped again they unloaded us from the truck on a road, under which there was a meadow and a river, and above it another meadow, a house and the army. They were showing us to go along the road and saying, go there, your people are there… mother and I went along the road… the two of us were alone.
We heard from people that the place we came to is called Tišča. The road they pointed us at led towards Kladanj. We walked for hours and hours, stopping on occasion to catch our breaths. Along the way there were trees that had been knocked down, so we had to climb over some, and crawl under others.
Along the way the people from the edge of the street told us, just keep on straight towards the tunnel, your people are there after the tunnel…
The tunnel was nowhere in sight, behind every bend in the road there was just another bend, under the road a river, above the road a gorge, and through it a bit of sky.
The first dark started to fall, and we finally saw the tunnel. Going through the tunnel, further along, we found my aunt Safeta, Niska and Niho. When she saw me Niska screamed. From her voice, the gorge broke, and I froze. I don’t remember anyone hugging me and shaking as firmly as Niska did then. Through the tears, she kept on repeating
“dad is gone, my dad is gone”
I was thinking, so uncle Muhamed is also in another truck… and then I started crying. Without a sound, the tears just kept streaming…
From there on we walked only because we had to. I wasn’t present in myself. I can only remember in flashes the frame of the window in the bus that was taking us to Dubrave, and the red sky in the frame of the window.
By the time we got to Dubrava, it was already dark. Mother and I were slogging through a sea of unknown silhouettes. Some were running towards cisterns, some towards tents. Then mother saw a street light, and we sat there, on a pile of gravel. Outside the circle of light cast by the light bulb, was darkness, like there wasn’t anyone left in the world, only mother and I, sitting on a gravel pile, and waiting. Mother was telling me:
“They’ll see us first if we are here.”
We didn’t know whether they truly would.
I was already losing myself… Suddenly from somewhere, someone shouted our names:
We didn’t take notice, we didn’t believe it.
And from that darkness towards us appeared the face of my cousin Emir.
“It’s me Husnija! Emir! Don’t you recognise me?!”, he was saying whilst crying.
He gave us water to drink. And I was there for a moment, gone the next. I remember waking up in his car, and next to him, in front of us, seeing another woman, whom I couldn’t recognize.
In between falling in and out of consciousness, I noticed that they had brought us to their home. The woman from the front seat had taken me up some steps. When the light hit me, from the room at the top of the staircase, inside I saw two boys and recognised that it was my cousin Kada, leading me by the hand.
I do not know how, or when, but I found myself dressed in different clothes, and planted in front of a table, on which there was a roasted chicken. I gasped, lost myself, I didn’t know what to do. I’m looking at Kada, and then at the chicken… Kada took a piece of chicken, put it in my hands, and said: “come on, chicken, eat!”.
That roasted chicken, and the piece of meat in my hands that I didn’t know what to do with, those were the last things I remember of that day. I know that I slept, where and how I fell asleep I don’t remember. I just couldn’t be present any more on this world that day.
I returned to Srebrenica for the first time in 1999. The “Children’s Embassy” had organised a visit, and I suddenly found myself in front of the municipal council, with a microphone in my hand, having to say something after an insulting heckle from a councilwoman.
I told them: “Look at me! You haven’t killed all of us!”
I remember Duško Tomić, who I came with, going pale, and the journalists and cameras suddenly falling upon me, so I added:
“By the will of God, I have remained alive after my father, to testify about my father and what was done to us, whether you like it or not.”
I do not know where I got the courage.
After this they grabbed me, and we left faster than we had arrived. I did not have the time to ask to stay for a bit, to see if any of my books were left, anything of my fathers, was there anyone in our house or to check if they burnt my snow sledge.
Thank you to Jasmin Jusuf Jusufović for sharing his story with us, please visit his website to read his story in additional languages – mementovivere.life