In 2012, Munira Subašić identified the man who had transported her son to his death; a high-level official in Srebrenica’s police department.
Subašić vividly recalls their previous fateful encounter: it was July 1995, and tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims fled Srebrenica as it fell to Bosnian Serb forces led by General Ratko Mladić. Subašić, along with dozens of her family members, sought protection at a battery factory in nearby Potočari, where a Dutch battalion of UN peacekeepers was stationed.
The man, who had been Subašić’s neighbour and was then a police officer, separated the men and boys from the women and children. Subašić clutched her 17-year-old son Nermin and begged the man not to take him, but he tore him from her grip. “Mum, don’t worry, everything will be fine,” Nermin told her.
Subašić and the other women didn’t know it at the time, but their sons, brothers, husbands and fathers would be taken away and executed en masse. In a matter of days, Bosnian Serb forces killed more than 8,000 Bosniak – Bosnian Muslim – men and boys. Subašić lost 22 family members and has been crusading for justice ever since.
“You can imagine that feeling when you walk by this person, and you know what he did, and he knows what he did, and he’s proud,” Subašić, the president of the Mothers of Srebrenica, says. “You simply die all over again, all of those feelings from the war come back to you, as you stand next to him in a queue to pay the water bill.”
This month, Subašić and other families commemorate the 25th anniversary of the worst atrocity in Europe since the second world war. While two UN courts found the massacre in Srebrenica constituted genocide, and several high-level perpetrators have been convicted for their involvement in crimes committed in and around Srebrenica, Subašić and other survivors are confronted by an increasingly powerful legion of genocide deniers, not least of which, Subašić says, are “those who killed our children and husbands, [who] are free among us”.
For years, Subašić and others have fought to get a law passed in the Bosnian parliament that would criminalise genocide denial, but lawmakers continue to reject proposals. The Serbian government refuses to acknowledge that the carnage in Srebrenica amounts to genocide. Bosnian Serbs continue to laud wartime leaders such as Radovan Karadžić, who the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) convicted of genocide and other war crimes.
“It makes it difficult when you have neighbours and people going through town with posters of Mladić, of his face, that say, ‘thank you for liberating Srebrenica’,” Suhra Sinanović, a member of the Mothers of Srebrenica, says of the chief architect of the genocide, also known as “the Butcher of Srebrenica”. In 2017, the ICTY convicted Mladić for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, and sentenced him to life.
“Groups of women, and girls as young as 12 years old, were routinely and brutally raped,” by Mladić’s forces, the ICTY found. “The crimes committed rank among the most heinous known to humankind,” Alphons Orie, the presiding judge, said at the time.
Mladić and prosecutors appealed the verdict, but hearings have been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, and survivors fear that the 77-year-old, who is in poor health, will die before justice is served.
As for many families, it took years for Subašić to find her son’s remains, and mass graves are still being identified. A division of the Bosnian Serb army dug up primary graves under cover of darkness, reburying the body parts in other sites.
“The Serbs, using mechanical diggers, tore the bodies apart, and instead of thousands of bodies we were then faced with many more thousands of body parts,” says Robert McNeil, a Scottish forensic technician who worked with a team of experts to identify bodies in mass graves. “They deliberately deposited those torn bodies into secondary graves … in the hope that they would never be able to put them together again,” he says. McNeil’s team unearthed parts of one man’s body from as many as five separate graves.
The image of the first grave McNeil saw, which contained 250 bodies, is “seared into my mind”, he says. “None of us were quite prepared for anything on such a scale.”
In 2013, Subašić buried the remains of her son that had been located: two bone fragments found in grave sites 25km apart. Knowing she may never find the rest of his body, she laid him to rest in Potočari, which, years earlier, she’d campaigned to have designated as an official memorial site and cemetery. “I wanted to be an example to those who are not burying their sons. Mothers are dying – they will die before they see their children buried,” says Subašić.
On Saturday 11 July, survivors and families gathered at the memorial site in Potočari to bury nine recently identified victims. It was the day that marked 25 years since they’d last seen their loved ones. Turnout was lower than expected due to the pandemic. Subašić addressed the crowd, directing her message to genocide deniers and to the perpetrators who walk freely among their victims.
One of those is the man Subašić identified years earlier as responsible for her son’s murder. But when he learned proceedings had been initiated against him, he is said to have fled to Serbia with his family.
Subašić, now in her 70s, stood firmly at the podium. “We will haunt you,” she said, as she looked up, “and never stop.”