The Courage to Speak Out: Hasan Nuhanović

I come from  Vlasenica,  a  little town in  Eastern Bosnia,  near  Srebrenica.  When the war broke out,  I  was in my fourth year in  Sarajevo,  studying mechanical engineering.  Many people were talking about leaving the country,  but it was not an option for my parents.  

My brother was 17 and still at school.  My father Ibro was managing a company of 500  employees in Vlasenica,  half of them Serb. When I told him we had to prepare for war and suggested leaving the country he said:  “No,  I  have to look after my employees”.  Most people were a bit naïve and thought everything would be resolved in a few weeks.  When we finally decided to leave  Bosnia,  it was too late to get out.  By April 1992,  we feared for our lives.

On live  TV,  we saw the aftermath of the massacre in  Bijeljina by  Arkan,  the notorious  Serb commander.  On the 6th or 7th of April, we had driven to Zvorni and my father’s car was the only car on the road. The day after we left,  we heard about the horrific massacre in Zvornik. I told my father to drive to Sarajevo. I  thought that being in the capital would provide us with some protection. The CNN  and the BBC were in Sarajevo.  The world was watching. But a Serb colleague of my father’s told him  “Ibro, don’t take your family to Sarajevo. Sarajevo will be erased from  the ground.”  So my father said we should go to the mountains, to the village where he was born.

The Serb attack came in June: my first experience of war. It was horrible. Military aircraft from Serbia bombed the villages and went back to Serbia to reload. You couldn’t see the jets, they were too fast, but you could hear them. It was hell on earth for a few days, but we were protected by the deep forest. They couldn’t see us.

The  year  April  1992  to  April  1993  was  the  worst  experience  of  our  lives. Worse  than  July  1995,  even  though  that  is  when  my  family  was  killed.  The  suffering  was  extreme.  We  were  stuck  in  the  mountains,  with  no  food,  starving.  We  moved  to  those  villages  that  were  able  to  defend  themselves,  and  decided  to  move  towards  Srebrenica  in  September  1992.  We  couldn’t  go  by  road,  so  we  had  to  climb  down  steep  cliffs  at  night,  then  go  downriver  by  boat.  When  dawn  came,  the  shelling  started  again  from  Serbia,  but  somehow  we  survived,  walking  to  Srebrenica  on  foot.  But  when  we  arrived,  we  realised  we  were  stuck  again.  

Srebrenica  was  besieged.  They  were  bombing  the  town—by  artillery,  from  the  air—for  six  months.  People  would  go  to  their  burned,  destroyed  villages  and  take  cattle  food  out of  their  silos  to  eat.  We  were  starving.  Even  though  the  Srebrenica  fighters  were  trying  to  hold  Serb  forces  back  from  the  town,  by  March  1993  it  became  clear  that  they  could  no  longer  hold  the  lines.

On  the  very  day  that  we  thought  the  Serbs  would  take  the  town  and  massacre  us  all,  we  heard  on  the  radio  that  the  UN  Security  Council  had  declared  Srebrenica  a  safe  area.

We  didn’t  know  what  a  UN  safe  area  meant,  but  the  word  “safe”  sounded  promising.

The  next  day,  when  the  Canadians  arrived,  was  the  first  day  in  a  year  that  people  dared  to  walk  out  in  the  street.  I  had  tears  in  my  eyes,  we  all  did.  We  loved  the  Canadians.  We  loved  the  UN.  And  we  thought:  maybe,  we  are  not  going  to  die.

The  UN’s  arrival  froze  the  genocide  that  was  taking  place  against  the  Bosniak  people.  We  knew  that  if  the  Serbs  attacked  Srebrenica  again,  and  the  UN  didn’t  stop  them,  there  would  undoubtedly  be  another  massacre.  When  the  UN  called  for  NATO  air  strikes  to  stop  the  attack  on  the  “safe  area”  of  Gorazde  in  1994,  we  thought  the  UN  would  do  the  same  if  anything  happened  in  Srebrenica.  That  is  why,  when  July  1995  came,  everyone  expected  to  hear  the  sound  of  NATO  jets  until  the  moment  when  the  town  finally  fell.

The  attack  started  on  6  July.  I’d  been  translating  for  the  UN,  but  had  promised  my  parents  I  would  collect  my  brother  if  it  looked  like  the  town  would  fall,  so  I  went  under  heavy  fire  to  fetch  him.  He  was  the  first  civilian  inside  the  UN  base  at  Potočari.  My  parents  arrived  with  the  big  crowd  of  older  men,  women  and  children  that  came  to  the  base  when  the  town  fell.  They  were  some  of  the  first  to  arrive  so  they  managed  to  get  inside  the  base.  25,000  others  were  not  so  lucky,  and  were  left  outside  when  the  Dutch  closed  the  gates.
When  the  Serbs  arrived  on  12  July,  they  separated  all  the  men  and  boys  from  outside  the  base,  and  deported  all  the  women  and  girls,  but  they  did  not  enter  the  base  itself.

I  thought  we  would  be  safe  inside,  but  then  the  Dutch  soldiers  told  those  inside  the  base  to  get  out.  Under  the  UN  flag,  5,000  refugees  were  marched  to  the  gate  one  by  one,  where  the  Serbs  took  the  men  and  boys  to  their  deaths.

My  family  was  one  of  the  last  to  leave.  The  Dutch  told  me:  “Tell  your  family  to  leave.  They  can’t  stay  here  anymore.”  I  never  saw  them  again.

From  that  day  until  today,  23  years  later,  I  have  needed  to  find  out  what  happened  to  my  family,  and  to  the  other  people  who  were  missing.  At  first  I  wasn’t  even  thinking  about  justice.  I  just  wanted  to  find  out  what  happened.  I  was  begging  the  government  of  the  Netherlands  to  tell  me,  and  to  start  an  investigation  into  those  who  had  made  the  decision  to  turn  the  refugees  out  at  Potočari,  but  they  wouldn’t  engage  with  me.  They  said  I  was  too  emotional,  too  loud.  Then  finally  a Dutch  lawyer  came  to  me  and  said  “I’ll  represent  you”.  We  didn’t  expect  to  win,  but  I  wanted  to  get  to  truth.  We  couldn’t  establish  the  truth  any  other  way,  so  we  would  try  and  do  it  in  the  courtroom.

It  took  ten  years,  and  so  many  obstacles  to  get  to  the  final  judgement  that  we  both  nearly  gave  up,  but  we  never  did.

The  final  verdict,  from  the  Supreme  Court  of  the  Netherlands,  was  all  in  Dutch  but  I  remember  looking  over  at  the  lawyer  and  she  was  smiling.  It  was  the  first  time  ever  that  a  government  had  been  found  liable  for  its  troops  on  a  UN  mission.  I  didn’t  feel  victory,  or  even  satisfaction.  I  just  felt  relieved  that  this  fight  was  over.  I  was  thinking  about  my  parents,  and  my  brother.  I  was  doing  this  for  them.  What  else  could  I  have  done?

My  father  was  identified  ten  years  after  he  was  killed  in  the  genocide.  Like  most  victims,  he  was  identified  by  the  International  Commission  for  Missing  Persons  using  DNA.  My  brother  and  mother  were  identified  after  fifteen  years.  All  three  of  them  are  buried  in  the  graveyard  at  Potočari.

I’ve  had  to  fight  so  long  and  so  hard  just  to  find  out  what  happened,  who  was  responsible,  even  to  establish  the  Memorial  Centre  where  they  are  buried.  Even  after  23  years,  our  story  is  still  not  finished.