Engulfed by thousands of war refugees, all clamouring for a place on the buses sent to deliver them from the vengeful predations of an invading army, a 13-year-old girl clutched the hand of her younger brother.
After cowering amid the panic-stricken crowd all night, Almedina Dautbasic had begun to understand why the Serb troops periodically waded into the crowd to pluck out Bosnian Muslim men and boys, and march them away.
She had heard their futile cries for mercy and the rattle of machine-gun fire.
Finally Almedina and her brother Almir, 11, reached the front of the melee. Just as their safe passage seemed assured, however, a soldier snatched the boy from her grasp.
Horror: Investigators of the International War Crimes Tribunal at the grave of more than 100 victims executed at the Bosnian village of Pilica
‘You’re not going anywhere,’ he barked, ordering him to join a group of men herded together, ready for the next mass slaughter.
The date was July 11, 1995. Had fate taken a different turn that day, 8,373 identical white headstones would not now line the hills outside the remote Bosnian mountain town of Srebrenica. There would be 8,374.
Miraculously, Almir survived the infamous Srebrenica Massacre, a 12-day orgy of mass murder, rape and torture which began 25 years ago this month.
It was the worst atrocity committed in Europe since World War II and stands as this continent’s only legally recognised act of genocide since the Holocaust.
Now 36, and living in Tuzla, 65 miles from Srebrenica, Almir told me this week how he owes his life to his sister’s courage and sharp wits.
‘For a few seconds the soldier was distracted, and as he turned away Almedina somehow bundled me onto the bus,’ he said, through a translator. ‘She hid me under her seat covered with a blanket, and no one found me.
‘Later we realised that one sentence from our father was crucial. He said it over and over again: ‘Stick together no matter what, and don’t let them separate you.’ ‘
They were the last words their widower father Azem had spoken to his children. To reach the buses, the family had to pass through Serbian lines. So, realising he would be captured and executed, the coal-miner had left his family and tried to escape through the woods.
Nobody knows how he died, for his remains weren’t discovered until 2009. But on every July 11 since then, Almedina and Almir — who found sanctuary in an orphanage along with their younger brother, then aged five — have returned to the memorial cemetery outside Srebrenica to remember him.
Or at least they had until last weekend. Because of the pandemic there was no ceremony to mark the 25th anniversary.
No solemn parades or speeches in condemnation of a catastrophe that not only shames the Serbs but also Britain and its United Nations allies. There was to have been a service at St Paul’s last weekend, attended by Prince Charles and other world leaders.
Bosnian Muslim women pray as relatives of victims of Srebrenica genocide visit sites of 1995 mass execution of their loved ones, on July 13, 2020 in Brnjevo near Srebrenica, Bosnia and Hercegovina
Instead, the Prince and Boris Johnson expressed their sympathy and outrage via video messages.
And nine more victims — recovered this year during the unending search for those listed as missing — have been quietly laid to rest.
In Srebrenica, Almir’s story is rare: an uplifting fragment amid the horrifying images invoked by a town whose name stands alongside Auschwitz, Rwanda and the Killing Fields of Cambodia in the annals of inhumanity.
Hearing it this week brought back memories of my first visit to that beautiful but benighted place.
I went 18 years ago, after an official report shamed the UN ‘protection force’ — of 400 Dutch troops — for failing to intervene as the Serbs set about exterminating the Bosnian Muslims, or Bosniaks.
It was such a profoundly disquieting experience that words such as haunting and eerie seem inadequate.
Seven years after the massacre, people still wandered around with deadened eyes. Entire streets of homes lay abandoned. Factories and shops were almost all closed. And I conducted one of the most harrowing interviews in a 40-year career.
The man I spoke to, Hakija Hadzic, was another of Srebrenica’s few male survivors — yet such was the extent of his mental torment, he told me, that he wished every day that he had died with his comrades. Like Almir’s father, he too had attempted to escape Serbian forces by fleeing through woodland, hoping to find his way to Bosniak-held territory.
For hours he drove himself on, evading the search-parties who combed the forest, tricking many Muslims to surrender by shouting that they would be treated humanely and swapped for Serb prisoners.
Eventually, however, he gave himself up. Stripped of his boots, he and dozens more prisoners were forced to sit for hours in the baking sun.
Then the fearsome Serb Commander Ratko Mladic, the so-called Butcher of Bosnia now serving life for genocide and crimes against humanity, dismounted his armoured car to address them.
In empathetic tones, the burly general promised them fresh boots, food and drinking water, and said they would be united with their families.
It was a cynical lie; as calculatingly evil as that which persuaded thousands of unsuspecting Jews into the Nazi death camps.
As Mladic strode away, Hadzic, then 51, and a harmless farmer with a wife and three children, and the other captives were driven to a farm warehouse and ordered inside.
When the stifling room was filled to capacity, the shuttered windows and doors were suddenly opened and the men were mown down in a blizzard of fire from machine guns, grenades and bazookas. Men were heaped on top of one another, writhing and groaning, blood drenched the straw-matted ground.
Only three got out of that warehouse alive. One was Hadzic, who lay under a pile of corpses for 24 hours, pretending to be dead, ignoring the Serbs’ false entreaties for anyone still alive to declare themselves, whereupon they would be spared and enrolled in the Serbian army. Those who did stand up were promptly shot.
Stacks of unidentified corpses line the walls of an underground shelter in a Bosnian morgue in Tuzla in this March 1997 file photo
Satisfied no one was alive, the Serbs left, returning weeks later to remove the bodies with bulldozers, and hose down and disinfect the warehouse — though not thoroughly enough to destroy all the forensic evidence, which was later used in war crimes tribunals.
When they departed, Hadzic crawled away. Smeared in blood, he sneaked back into the forest and trekked on for two weeks, eating leaves and drinking rain water before, on July 26, he reached the Bosnian-held town of Zepa.
After telling his story, he agreed to show me the warehouse. It would have been the first time he had returned there.
However, as we approached the bullet-riddled building, he began crying, hyper-ventilating and shaking uncontrollably, and begged me not to stop the car.
‘Never a night goes by that I don’t wake up with a nightmare of what happened in that farm,’ he told me. He had by then been relocated to a village many miles from Srebrenica and vowed never to go back.
I heard many others make the same pledge.
Before the Bosnian War, which raged between 1992 and 1995 and was precipitated by the ruthless determination of Serbia’s ultra-nationalist political leaders to absorb Bosnia into their territory following the break-up of Yugoslavia, Srebrenica was a tranquil place.
Nestling in a pine-clad mountain pass, it was a magnet for tourists who hiked its forest trails and bathed in the healing waters of its spa.
Locals, who then numbered 36,000 — 27,000 Bosniaks and 9,000 Bosnian Serbs or Cetniks, lived harmoniously, working in the mineral mines (the English name for Srebrenica is Silver Town) and farms. Indeed, what makes the depravity that unfolded there so shocking is that people turned so violently against their neighbours, workmates and school friends.
Not only were thousands of innocents murdered. Witnesses have described seeing little girls being gang-raped by Serb soldiers as they waited with their parents to board buses to safety.
A young boy was beheaded as he cowered on his mother’s lap, after which his executioner impaled the severed head on his knife and brandished it triumphantly. When a soldier ordered a mother to stop her baby crying, and her soothing failed, he snatched the child and slit its throat, laughing as he did.
Another mother had her three young sons snatched and later found them stabbed to death. It was cruelty almost beyond belief.
Anyone who so much as remonstrated with the soldiers — many of whom were drunk on cheap liquor — was liable to have their eyes gouged out or their lips, noses and ears sliced off. Others hanged themselves in the woods rather than watch their families suffer.
That this could happen during the Nineties, in a country only two and a half hours flying time from London, is difficult to comprehend.
That many of these atrocities occurred directly outside the UN protection force’s compound, as the 400 Dutch troops remained behind its locked gates refusing to allow the Bosniaks inside — claiming there were too many to accommodate and that it was not in their remit — makes this surely the most shameful debacle in the organisation’s history.
According to a witness, one Dutch soldier listened to music on his Sony Walkman as a girl was gang-raped just yards from him.
Following my visit to Srebrenica I went to the Netherlands and tracked down two of the UN contingent. One told me how he had opened the camp gates to allow a girl of seven or eight, with a gaping wound in her leg, to come inside for treatment.
As the gates swung open, countless desperate refugees poured in after her. ‘I reckon I saved about 30 lives that day, but nobody wants to know about that,’ he said bitterly. ‘We are remembered as cowards.’
They are indeed.
Particularly their commander, Colonel Thom Karremans, who was filmed drinking a toast with Mladic shortly before the massacre unfolded.
Precisely why did it happen? The question is still fiercely debated.
The straight-forward explanation is that, after three years of laying siege to Srebrenica — one of several Bosniak zones designated as ‘safe areas’ by the UN, though they were surrounded by Serbian-occupied territory — the Serbs ran out of patience and took a chance.
For, by the summer of 1995, Srebrenica was ripe for the taking.
Cut off from the outside world and relentlessly bombarded by the Serbs, who refused to allow humanitarian convoys through their ranks and sabotaged the water supply, its population — swollen to 60,000 by refugees — was at breaking-point.
Several people had starved to death, many more were skeletal and wore rags, women resorted to prostitution to feed their children, and the dwindling stocks of food, cigarettes and fuel were sold on the black market by the militia.
Ratko Mladic in 1993
The evil architect of the massacre was ruthless Serbian political leader Radovan Karadzic, now 75 and also serving life for war crimes and genocide.
As early as March 1995, he issued his chilling ‘Directive 7’: an order to Mladic, his most senior field commander, to isolate the enclave beyond endurance.
To do this, Mladic was told ‘to create an unbearable situation of total insecurity with no hope of further survival or life for the inhabitants’.
Nonetheless, Britain and the West must shoulder some blame, for they were, at the very least, guilty of poor judgment and complacency.
British Army documents declassified last year suggest that even as the Serbs strengthened their forces around Srebrenica, our intelligence services didn’t believe they would overrun the town.
They also appeared to blame the besieged Bosnians for provoking the onslaught by making incursions behind Serbian lines.
So what is life like in Srebrenica now? After 25 years are the psychological wounds beginning to heal?
Have the Bosnian Muslims and Serbs — Orthodox Christians — reconciled their differences? Is the town returning to some semblance of normality? Tragically, the answer on all these fronts is a resounding No.
Journeying there this week, our correspondent found a scene of despair.
Though some residents who were ‘ethnically cleansed’ in 1995 have slowly returned, the population hovers around 13,000, split almost equally between Bosniaks and Serbs.
Even before coronavirus arrived, many shops and cafes were boarded up and jobs were scarce.
On one street, all but two of the 20 houses lay abandoned. People mill about aimlessly with that dead expression still in their eyes.
‘There is no life here. It is an empty town,’ said Radomirka Alic, 27, who runs a struggling restaurant with her husband, Hariz. The stigma hanging over Srebrenica means ‘people don’t even want to be buried here when they die,’ she sighed. They prefer to be interred elsewhere.
Mr and Mrs Alic are a rare entity: He is a Muslim, she a Serb.
But elsewhere, tensions between the two groups still simmer dangerously below the surface and sometimes explode.
When a school appointed a Muslim teacher who wore a hijab, the Serb parents started a protest group and threatened to withdraw their children. Every January, when the Serbs celebrate the Orthodox Christmas, they stage a rowdy car rally that deliberately passes the massacre memorial. Horns are honked and Serb nationalist songs blare from stereos.
Following the Dayton Agreement that settled the war, Srebrenica of course remained in Bosnia.
But it now lies in the Republic of Srpska — a so-called ‘entity’ with a majority of Serbs — and in 2016 it elected a Serbian mayor.
Like many of his compatriots, he denies the genocide ever happened, only conceding that several hundred Bozniaks were egregiously killed in the heat of war.
Meanwhile pro-Serb households now display window posters glorifying Mladic and Karadzic, claim they were convicted unjustly, and demand their release.
It is deeply worrying. For the thought of another bloody Balkan pogrom is too dreadful to contemplate.