Only a few people have been allowed to interview Munira Subašić at the home she has made for herself in the suburbs of Sarajevo, but the comforts she now enjoys of a well-appointed house have come at an extremely high cost.
Hers is the face of tens of thousands of mothers. Hers is the voice of countless victims. Hers is the strength and courage to tell and retell the harrowing story of her own son and husband’s murders, when so many others have found themselves silenced by their trauma. She continues on a journey that is 21 years long, and not yet over.
As president of the organisation ‘Mothers of Srebrenica’, she knows it is her role to continue telling her story to all who will listen, because it’s important that it is never forgotten. It is this organisation – or force really – of mothers, who pushed for the truth behind what happened during that fateful week. In many ways it had to be. Who else but a desperate mother would move heaven and earth – quite literally in this case – to find her son, husband, or father?
Despite decades of battles and struggles both nationally, internationally – and even organisationally, Munira gives off an aura of both force and compassion. She is not jaded, or cold. Her coffee is rich and warm, and the fruit she expertly peels, sweet and generous. Nor does she offer cynical tears on demand. As she recounts her tale, her voice has a fluency that comes only with experience and constant retelling. But at times it also shakes with emotion, and her eyes glitter with determination. She doesn’t sit still for long, and like any decent grandmother constantly offers more food and drink. She’s watching what looks like the Bosnian television equivalent of Eastenders with her two teenage granddaughters, but gladly switches it off to tell her story once more.
Munira moved to Srebrenica in 1961, when she got married to Hilmo Subašić. In fact, the ceremony was witnessed by a Bosnian Serb friend. Their apartment block of 24 flats was inhabited by a mix of well-educated, well-heeled Croats, Serbs and Jewish people, and she recalls they celebrated each other’s religious holidays, congratulated each other on their births, and mourned their deaths. No doubt the birth of her own two sons, Vahidin and Nermin would have led to many a congratulatory baklava. This was the heyday of Srebrenica, when it existed as a spa town, visited by thousands every year for its healing waters. It was rich in minerals and her husband, educated in Belgrade, was the head of bauxite mine, while she was a shopkeeper.
But, she says, calls independence for the countries that made up the former Yugoslavia shifted the atmosphere. As the number of political parties grew, so too did the distance between the communities. What appeared to be an idyllic détente, revealed itself to be no more than a fragile truce. Small, odd behaviours made Munira suspicious, but not enough to cause alarm.
“The Bosnian Serbs in my building started to take their children out of the schools and send them to Belgrade. One of my neighbours suggested I should too. ‘Some day you will understand,’ she told me. At the shop I worked at, a man from Serbia came and bought 100 bottles of beer. I asked him why so many, and he told me it’s for a practice shooting party, but that I didn’t need to know everything. And sometimes my Bosnian Serb colleagues wouldn’t turn up for work, and my boss, also a Bosnian Serb, told me not to concern myself with it.”
By the time the war started in 1992, all the Bosnian Serbs, Croats and Jewish people from her apartment had left. Srebrenica was surrounded on all sides and laid under siege for three years.
“Looking back, it’s not that they left that hurts. It is that they became enemies. They had taken their children out and anything that was valuable from their homes. They went to the hills and started shooting us. But truthfully, at that time the only thing we were thinking of was how to survive.”
Tens of thousands of refugees fleeing from neighbouring towns flooded into the quiet town that had once housed less than 10,000. Munira describes it as the largest concentration in the world, as food, water and medicines were scarce. “At times, I didn’t feel there was enough air to breathe.” Women died during childbirth, and men wounded in the lightly-armed volunteer army died from minor injuries. It was a town that was suffocating.
It’s when she’s asked about July 11th that her voice trembles, just slightly.
“This bit will be a bit harder for me to talk about. Shelling started and the UN soldiers told us that Srebrenica had fallen. Men would have fought to protect it but it had been completely demilitarized, and we were told to head towards Potočari. I remember going in only my socks. I saw a small girl crying because her mother had left her, and I walked with her towards the battery factory that was serving as the UN base. At the time, the UN soldiers mocked us. They were as bad as the Serbs. I was with my husband and Nermin who was 17 at the time. They wouldn’t let me and my husband into the battery factory. Vahidin was with the army. Hilmo and I stayed the night outside. I could hear the Serbs take out a little girl. You could hear her scream – other people were shouting out “she’s only twelve.” That’s when the raping and killing started.
The next day, Mladić came to visit the base with cameras and he was handing out sweets and bread to the children, but as soon as the cameras switched off, there was chaos. I started to scream, and have a panic attack. One of the Serb soldiers came up to me and asked why I was screaming. I thought he would help and told him my son was inside the factory. He called out for him, and took him past me. That was the last time I saw him.”
Munira is expressionless. Forensic scientists have been unable to find all of Nermin’s remains. Only two small bones have been recovered – both in mass graves – 25km apart. Both at sites of mass executions. 18 years of waiting to find the remains of your youngest son, and then to bury just two of his bones.
“We did not give birth to our sons with no heads or feet – but it’s just the way it is. I am president of the association, and I have to lead by example. Too many mothers were dying and somebody had to bury their sons before there was no one left. We have to bury them with what we have.”
Because of her screaming, Munira was taken away by UN soldiers and sedated, and so she didn’t see when Hilmo was taken away. His remains were found in a mass grave by scientists from The Hague, but lay unidentified in a morgue for eight years. She buried him in 2004.
There are fewer stories about the horrors witnessed by the women who waited for deportation at the UN base, but Munira offers a glimpse of some traumatic scenes. A baby crying beheaded by Bosnian Serb soldiers, and a congratulatory thump on the back by a colleague: “Well done, Duke”.
A 15 year old boy told to rape his younger sister. He refused and so was killed and they raped her themselves. Dutch soldiers allowing girls to be taken away. Some never to be seen again. Sometimes men were found hiding amongst the women – they were allowed to be taken away to a white house, where the slaughter was taking place. From 11-14th of July, there was no food or water. Everyone was in a state of shock.
“This was the time when everyone died – literally or emotionally.”
It took months for Munira to be reunited with her son 22-year-old son, Vahidin, who had escaped through the mountains. It was then that she felt there was a purpose to her life again, she says. None of the tens of thousands of women, now refugees in Tuzla, were able to comprehend that all these men would be killed.
“We thought they were being held prisoners. We kept hope alive until 1997.”
“But it was when The Hague started their exhumations of the bodies that we realized no one was coming back. It was then that we decided to try and make the finding of the bones and their return to their families our aim. We also wanted to bring to justice those that were guilty of the crimes. We were the ones who had the names of those who did – the first and last names. We were the ones who started the documentation and handed it to the Hague. It’s important to tell these stories – our main goal now is to bring these men to justice.”
In their anguish and constant search for news, a number of the women came to her house one night, and started talking about creating an organisation. At that time, it was called The Movement of the Mothers of Srebrenica and Zepa enclaves.
“We did everything by ourselves. We had no help from anyone locally, or nationally. All we wanted to do was find the answers to our questions – where were our loved ones?”
Others came on board later on, but this group of feisty and strong women used direct action and protest to get themselves heard in a world that was weary of war and conflict.
“We’ve always had to impose ourselves on others,” she sighs. “And if they didn’t listen to us, we would go out onto the street. We definitely faced resistance. In the beginning we were insulted by both Serbs and Bosnians. We would go onto the roads and stop the traffic to try and get ourselves heard. We were asked if we knew what it meant to stop the traffic and we replied: ‘of course we know what it means. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t do it.’ We would do anything to get noticed – and we will still do anything to get noticed now.”
This formidable woman is on a mission and it’s clear nothing will stop her. She has lost none of her vigour and enthusiasm, despite her advancing years. Her solid figure and square frame attest to her durability. But it’s probably also true that the campaign gives her a reason to live and wake up in the morning, when so many who witnessed the Srebenica genocide have tapped out.
Her Mothers movement has fragmented in recent years, but it’s clear that she is still pursuing her goals, even though the truth is out. Radovan Karadžić has been found guilty by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for the genocide, but she won’t rest until each person who is responsible is brought to justice. She’s also on a crusade to increase the numbers of accepted killed – from just over 8,000 to nearly 11,000.
Like the stones on which the names of the dead are written, Srebrenica is etched on the memories of all who witnessed the horror. It is an experience which no one has been able to escape from, despite the passage of more than two decades.
As the last of the coffee is poured, and her grandson enters the room with his father, Munira lights up.
“I had my best and worst memories in Srebrenica. Today there are more dead than living there. But Srebrenica is where my son was born, where he grew up and where he was killed. I want to rebuild trust and reconciliation. But I also want to share the story with young children – so that they can learn from the past and also prepare for the future.”