I was born in 1982 in the village of Donje Peći, in the municipality of Srebrenica. I lived with my mother, grandmother and older sister. My father was away working in Belgrade, and my brother was in high school there. When the war broke out, they couldn’t get back to us—others tried the journey but they were killed at the border.
I was ten when the war started. I didn’t even know what war was. First there were pictures on Croatian TV of soldiers and convoys of vehicles. Then helicopters, then army vehicles. We didn’t know how to react. Then the columns of refugees came fleeing Serb forces. We heard stories of shooting and killing, but I didn’t really understand until they came to our village.
It was around 11 May 1992 when a tank started firing at our school. We escaped to the woods. In the chaos, I lost my mother. I was absolutely terrified, ten years old, all alone. I didn’t know what to do. I found my neighbours and went with them to a neighbouring village. It was three days before my mother found me and we went back to our village. My grandmother had suffered a stroke the day after the attack and passed away. We stayed until Serb forces attacked again, killing my other grandmother and two of my cousins, then we left and never went back. We stayed in different villages in others’ homes for a year. The village was under daily fire, but every day I had to take our cow to pasture, sneaking along and hiding to avoid the grenades.
In spring 1993 there was another offensive and we came to Srebrenica. I had a rash all over my body from the poisonous agents that we had been shelled with from Serbia. We hid in my mother’s uncle’s house with 50 other people. In every room there was a whole family. Somehow, we managed to survive. We had no food. The thing I remember most vividly was constant hunger, bread with no salt made from oats, that prickles when you eat it. But still we managed to be kids, playing, sledging, going to a makeshift school.
For a while, we had peace. Then July 1995 came. In early July, the shooting started. We heard the Serb forces were in the town, and people were going to Potočari. My mum was so frightened she forgot her shoes. When we got to the base, we were on the second floor of the factory. There were so many people. The first floor was full of the wounded. It was so, so cold at night—we had nothing with us; no food, no blankets. I was just shivering in my mother’s lap.
After two or three nights, we were the last ones to leave. We got on the bus, not knowing where they were taking us. From the bus I saw Bosnian prisoners sitting near Kravica. I can barely remember anything else from that journey, but eventually they told us to get off the bus and to go on foot to Kladanj, in the free territory of Bosnia. It was pitch black outside. We started to walk, but a Serb soldier shouted “HALT!” I was so afraid, I couldn’t move. But he just told us to help the older people, who couldn’t walk the few kilometres to the front.
When we arrived, there were crowds of refugees from Srebrenica. As buses came to take people to refugee centres and schools around Tuzla, I noticed my mother was starting to behave irrationally. She refused to get on the bus, believing that they were Serbs who would take us to concentration camps and kill us. I wanted to get on the bus, but I couldn’t leave her. All day, she was talking, talking, talking, and I couldn’t understand her.
Finally, she told me it would be better if we jumped in the river than get caught by the Serbs. I tried to convince her that it wasn’t true and we really were safe, but it was too late—she grabbed my arm and tried to drag me to the river. I grabbed onto a tree, but she jumped in. I was screaming for help. Five men came and somehow managed to get her out. They gave her coffee, which seemed to reach her somehow. She said, “Look, real coffee! There is no such thing at our place in Srebrenica”. That night they took her to a psychiatric hospital while I went to look for my sister.
When I look back, I wonder how I could have been so brave as a child. Now I have three children of my own, I am terrified. I can’t imagine how my mother survived on her own with me and my sister. Although she came out of hospital after a month, she was never the same again. My sister’s husband survived the fall of Srebrenica, but so many men never returned. My brother came home from Belgrade in 1999, but my father stayed there. I did not have a childhood, I was not a teenager, and I will never have a normal life. All because of the war.
Even after all that has happened, I live in Srebrenica and I have the strength to look in the eyes of those people who ruined my life. We returned to Srebrenica because we didn’t want to live in refugee camps, where we had nothing. Although we knew it would be difficult, we had a strong resolve to return home. We thought that the war was over forever, and most survivors would come back, but that didn’t happen.
Life in Srebrenica is very complicated for everyone, but especially for those who survived genocide. After the horror we went through, we are faced with almost daily denial of what we survived. Along with ordinary problems, we have politicians who want division and who support war criminals. Bosniaks were the majority here, but now we are in the minority, and through daily obstructions the authorities are trying to force us to leave this area forever. Every day here is a struggle, especially for our family because of my husband Nedžad’s experiences—he was one of the very few that survived the mass executions. I teach my children not to hate, but they have to know what happened here.
If they cannot learn these things at school, we must teach them at home. When I first told my story, I was not aware of the depth of what I had survived. Living here, I realise how important it is to speak out. Every single story is deep and special and deserves to be heard, because every story is somebody’s life. Faced with denial, our duty is to remind people of Srebrenica’s horrible past. Even if it is too late for us who survived, maybe others can learn from our experience