My neighbors ask me, the ones in Tuzla, how are you in Srebrenica? Here we are somewhere – here the fuel is a bit more expensive, with you it is the oil…The man looks up and nods.I know, we are expected to say that we are afraid of something, but after what we have survived, whatever life brings us cannot be worse, writes Amra Begić Fazlić in her tweet at the moment when fuel and food prices are rising due to inflation when many mention that such prices have not been recorded ever since the war.
Begić Fazlić returned to Srebrenica when, as she says, she acquired the private conditions for her return – not only to complete her education but also that the house she and her family were forced to leave be vacated. For her, the option of not coming back has never existed, nor has she ever considered staying in Sarajevo, Tuzla, or any other city in Bosnia and Herzegovina. My desire has always been to come back and maybe it was some hidden revenge meant to say – ‘Here we are again, what are we going to do now? You have not succeeded in destroying us nor in eradicating us completely.’
At the moment of her return, she was not considering whether she would be able to get a job, it was important for her to return because of her mother, who was living alone in Srebrenica at that time. However, one year after her return, Begić Fazlić got a job at the Srebrenica Memorial Center – as the first, and then for four years as its only curator, after which her colleagues joined her. Then, from 2007, she took over the management of the legal and economic service and museum activities in order to start working in the position of the assistant director of the Memorial Center in 2020, whose duties she still performs today.
Begić Fazlić is the daughter and granddaughter of the Srebrenica genocide victim. In July 1995, when the Srebrenica enclave fell into the hands of the Republika Srpska Army, her father, grandfather, many relatives, neighbors, and also her best friend were killed. The crimes committed in Srebrenica represent one of the darkest pages of human history, and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and regional courts have convicted more than 50 individuals of collective and command responsibility for participating in and planning genocide.
In showing all the individual victims, in addition to the people killed and missing, it is worth thinking about the many times greater number of those whose lives have been irretrievably damaged by the loss of family members, as well as friends and the local community. I have recently been reading about a protest march in Sarajevo that was joined by mothers from Srebrenica to give support for Ukraine and call for an end to the crimes in Mariupol. All of this reminds us very much of what we survived in the 1990s here in Srebrenica and in Bosnia and Herzegovina, she said, and continued: The comments below the text in which the victims of the genocide in Srebrenica give their support come from the other, the negative side, which writes – “Aren’t the victims dead, weren’t they killed?” The victim does not necessarily have to be dead, we are indirect victims of the Srebrenica genocide.
That is exactly why for Begić Fazlić and her colleagues their job is different, they do not perform it routinely, salary is not the most important factor in work and activities, and the work environment exudes a family atmosphere. We have waited to see our loved ones off to eternal peace and now we keep the memory of all of them. That’s why it’s more than work. It is a mission that has no end. When they come out of their shell, she continues, they are all the same. Apart from sharing the same mission and working on joint projects, employees at the Memorial Center are both family and friends. I already see that with my friends who do not live a life like this, I find it increasingly difficult to find something in common.
The other dimension of war
Denial as an integral part of genocide is a strategy that is common to the denial of genocide throughout history. The tactics used for the purpose of denying it and strengthening the revisionist narratives have also been explained in the Report on the Denial of Genocide published last year by the Srebrenica Memorial Center, and are reflected in challenging the number and identity of victims, in theories of so-called international conspiracy and dismissing evidence presented at The Hague Tribunal and The Court of Justice, as well as in the national historical revisionism.
Personally, I no longer have the need nor the strength to prove to others something that has already been proven in the courts and for which the facts have been presented. Anyone who wants to look the truth in the eye, everything is available to him. Anyone who thinks they need to learn more is welcome at the Memorial Center. When it comes to denial, I really do hope that this law passed by the former High Representative of Bosnia and Herzegovina will come to life in a way that we see some repressive measures, as well, to show that the law is extremely serious, and not just a dead letter on paper. Unfortunately, such a thing is not happening yet.
Through projects and research, the Memorial Center seeks to act as a place of remembrance of the victims of the 1995 Srebrenica genocide, but also as a place of life in the enclave from 1992 to 1995. Dedicated to the preservation of history, it conducts numerous projects and researches, including an oral history project in which it researches and finds personal stories of victims, survivors, and witnesses of the Srebrenica genocide.
The Oral History project is as important as other projects of the Memorial Center points out Begić Fazlić because these projects are viewed as pieces of the puzzle and the completion and visualization of facts. Nevertheless, the Oral History project is extremely important for generations to come for the purpose of preventing future crimes, and thus the genocide as well. It equally teaches us about the prevention and consequences of genocide, because the participants in the project, through their personal stories, also hinted at the course of events. The genocide in Srebrenica was not committed just like overnight. The overture has begun yet in April 1992. From the example of Srebrenica and from the examples of all the statements of the witnesses, it is seen that this was a process that lasted and smoldered and finally culminated in July 1995. So this is what current students and decision-makers in their communities, who visit us at the Memorial Center, can study here.
On the other hand, the Oral History Project has been launched out of a deep need to document personal family stories as soon as possible. Several interviews have been conducted with women who are no longer alive today, such as Nura Alispahić, the mother of the youngest murder victim in Trnovo, or Hajra Ćatić, who never managed to find the remains of her son Nihad Nino Ćatić, a war journalist reporting from Srebrenica. It is exactly for this very reason that this was the ultimate moment for the stories to be recorded for future generations. Our children will know when the time comes for that, says Begić Fazlić, who found it difficult to answer her daughter’s question about why she does not have a grandfather. I really do care about how I pass on to my children the events in and around Srebrenica. It is very difficult. Instead of gathering for Eid, we go to the cemetery.
It is also important to try to give children the opportunity to understand it by themselves and that is what even children who are not from Srebrenica will be able to study at the Memorial Center, to understand for themselves in their own way what happened here and to understand all the elements of genocide, without anyone misrepresenting it to them, she adds. These topics we are dealing with are very sensitive, but all the more important.
In addition to the items that the survivors and members of the victims’ families transferred to Tuzla, which someone found in the house on their way back, or those collected in the woods along the route of the breakthrough in the Death March, there are also items excavated along with the remains of the victims. Collecting such items at the Memorial Center, that families donate, is an important task. In the mass grave in which the remains of father Begić Fazlić were found, and whose discovery was preceded by a dream in which she was looking for her father’s bones, his glasses and watch were also found. She kept them in the house and from time to time she returned to them, opening the box. In the end, she also decides to donate these items to the Memorial Center, as she says – for permanent preservation because donated items are always available to the families of the victims who do not find it easy to give up something, perhaps the last and the only thing, that belonged to their family members. If I had to run away again, along with my children and my mother, I would take those two items with me, that’s all I have got left from my father.
Each individual item carries its own story that is just being heard by employees who are themselves witnesses or family members of genocide victims, and the Memorial Center thus becomes one of the few museums in which the families of victims are the ones who spread the truth. You can imagine how much weight it is – apart from your own story that you carry on your soul, you have been carrying all these other stories for years.
The voice of women
The people of Srebrenica have been determined by the events of the war since 1992 when the war began, and after the loss of their family members, the struggle of the search for the missing persons, identification, trials, and burials began. Sometimes I have a habit of saying that the genocide in Srebrenica is still going on because many mothers have not found their children yet. Many mothers are still searching for at least one tiny bone of the body of their loved ones. It is one moment when you are hoping all the time to find something, to get a call that one of your loved ones has been identified, even though you are not ready for it yet again.
It is mostly about mothers who bury the male members of their family, so Begić Fazlić states that it is special contentment to be of service to them. As one of the most powerful symbols of perseverance in building peace in the postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina, faced with difficult life circumstances, they took the initiative and became the main decision-makers in the family.
I have one such woman in my house, says Begić Fazlić with a smile and pride, and she continues: Bosnian women are a miracle, especially these ours from the east of Bosnia, whom I know very well. They were expected not to be so strong. They killed their men thinking that women would just sit in a corner and cry, and we children who stay behind our fathers with our mothers that would drown in all of this, and that was where the story ended. However, our mothers decided otherwise.
Rarely highly educated, mostly with completed primary or secondary school, they saw the importance of education for their children, as a step towards the future. Although these women in pre-war life relied on men who were considered to be the heads of the house, and they were mainly in charge of the household, the decisions were made jointly. I don’t remember my father making a single decision without consulting my mother, meaning a meeting of two members who would ask themselves, over coffee in the morning, – ‘Eh, what are we going to do today?’ At the time of the killing of these men, it was believed that the women would kneel down and that they did not have that deciding head, that they were also beheaded in the same way.
However, they surprised everyone. Apart from the long-standing struggle to search for missing persons and information about their husbands, brothers, fathers, and relatives, they also decided that their children would succeed. I do not know a single mother who has not done her best to give her child the opportunity to go to school, succeed and be stronger than he was when he was expatriated.
However, the experience of women in the war is a painful topic and a trauma that has been neglected in the society of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Thus, women were left alone, especially the elderly, who mostly lack company. Begić Fazlić is in contact with them, especially in the month of Ramadan when she brings them flatbreads, which she travels for miles outside the town. Whenever I am on the road, I bring those Ramadan flatbreads, so I go down the street and start calling them. Last year our Mina told me: Those flatbreads are good, but we love the most when someone talks to us.
They miss their children, husbands, brothers, and fathers, but also their neighborhood, she continues, adding: We, the younger generations, are trying to be here for them as much as we can, even though we are not so young anymore either.
Besides, it is also worth mentioning those women who, along with the loss of their family members, faced the trauma of sexual violence during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Rape and other forms of sexual violence, including sexual slavery, were deliberately and ruthlessly used as weapons of war and as a part of the war strategy. Stigma follows the victims of rape in armed conflicts, which also reflects the far-reaching impact of sexual crimes on the victim, the family, and the community, as well. The crime of rape is one of the most serious crimes and a very difficult topic. There is an official record of women raped during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but I am afraid it is so far from the real number.
Although, since its establishment, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has been pressing charges and closing cases involving rape charges and other forms of sexual violence related to the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the victims are often left to fend for themselves. The lack of victim-oriented support, as well as their protection, exposes them to retraumatization and violation of their human rights, but also to stigmatization and additional social exclusion. Such cases are not uncommon in smaller communities, in which the victims are at risk of poverty anyway.
Our women are as pure as the sun. They think in a way – maybe it is my fault. They are ashamed to talk about it, and they are ashamed of their children, but they are also afraid of that being spread around, even though they are not guilty of anything, and I fear that this is the greatest trauma that a lot of women have buried and never talked about.Unfortunately, this is still one of the most sensitive topics in our country and these women have mostly been left without any kind of help.
Despite their suffering, women, motivated by justice rather than revenge, a career, or something else, have found ways to rise, speak out, and demand the right to remembrance and truth. With dignity, clear in their intentions and goals, returnees, but also those who, after the exile, decided to stay in other cities of Bosnia and Herzegovina, tell stories of humanity, establishing friendly relations in a divided and impoverished postwar society. This is how we end our conversation, in which Begić Fazlić emphasizes the importance of networking at all levels, including the museum ones, for the sake of truth and justice, as the voice of those who no longer speak.