They were the ones who lived in a world where their husbands, children, brothers, uncles, and nephews were killed. They were the ones that fought to ensure the truth was not forgotten or denied by the world. Srebrenica.
As thousands converge on the eastern Bosnian town to commemorate the 27th anniversary on Monday of Europe’s only acknowledged genocide since World War II, the crucial role women have played in forging a global understanding of the 1995 massacre also is getting recognised.
A permanent photo exhibition of portraits of the women of Srebrenica opened on Saturday in a memorial centre dedicated to the massacre’s more than 8,000 victims.
Just outside of the town is the Potocari centre which will host an international conference for women about how they were able to find the strength to fight justice after being expelled from their homes, and having witnessed their loved ones being killed.
“After I survived the genocide in which my most beloved child and my husband were killed, it was the injustice of their killers, their refusal to acknowledge what they did and to repent, that pushed me to fight for truth and justice,” Munira Subasic said.
10 days slaughter
Subasic’s relatives were among more than 8,000 men and boys from the Bosniak ethnic group, which is made up primarily of Muslims, who perished in 10 days of slaughter after the town was overrun by Bosnian Serb forces in the closing months of Bosnia’s 1992-95 fratricidal war.
Bosnian Serb soldiers ploughed the victims’ bodies into hastily made mass graves, and then later dug up the sites with bulldozers and scattered the remains among other burial sites to hide the evidence of their crimes.
Bosniak children and women were taken to buses and driven out of the town. Subasic and the other women who shared her fate promised to search for the remains of their loved one, bring them back home, and then bury them.
To accomplish this, they established an organization. Mothers of Srebrenica, which took part in street protests as well as other actions to keep the public eye.
They demanded that mass graves be located, remains identified and those responsible for the massacre be punished.
Nearly 90% of those who were reported missing during the fall of Srebrenica are now found.
“People often ask us who supported us, who had our back early on. But it was no one, we did it on our own,” Sehida Abdurahmanovic said.
“The pain is the best and the most difficult education, but also the most honest, because it comes directly from the heart,” she added.
The women continued to return
Since the end of the war, Srebrenica has been located in the Serb-run Bosnian entity of Republika Srpska, while many of its pre-war inhabitants live in the country’s other entity, the Bosniak-Croat Federation.
Crowds of angry Bosnian Serbs tried to stop women who had suffered through the bloodshed delaying visiting mass graves newly discovered to look for belongings that belonged to them in the years immediately after the war.
In order to intimidate them, they would crowd up and shout at the bus drivers, throwing stones and other objects.
However, the women kept coming back.
Although they were kept waiting for the NATO-led peacekeepers to arrive, they refused permission to inter their bodies anywhere other than in Srebrenica.
In 2003, the Bosnian Serb authorities gave in to pressure and allowed survivors to open the memorial cemetery for victims of the war in the town.
More than 6,600 bodies have been buried in the cemetery so far. On Monday, 50 additional victims will be buried there, including those recently discovered in mass graves. They were identified using DNA analysis.
Dozens upon dozens of Srebrenica women gave evidence before the UN war crime tribunal for the ex-Yugoslavia. This helped to put behind bars nearly 50 Bosnian Serb wartime officers, who were collectively sentenced at more than 700 years imprisonment.
“After my husband was killed and I stayed alone with our two children, I thought I will not be able to function, but the pain kept us going,” Abdurahmanovic said.
Srebrenica women were raised in patriarchal societies and expected to live in silence. They also weren’t to confront Serb leaders who continue to deny or downplay the 1995 massacre.
They changed their lives by creating support groups, remembering the victims, and telling their story to anyone who would listen to them, including presidents, prime ministers and diplomats.
“The history of what happened in Srebrenica has been written in white marble headstones in the memorial cemetery, which would not have existed had we not insisted,” said Suhra Sinanovic, who lost her husband and 23 other close male relatives in the massacre.
She stated that Bosnian Serb authorities had underestimated the Srebrenica females.
“If, God forbid, a war was to break out in Bosnia again, maybe [the Serbs] would do things differently by letting the men live and killing the women,” she said.