Ten years ago, thousands of Muslims were massacred at Srebrenica. In the coming days, several hundred Bosnians who have settled here plan to return to remember the dead and reconnect with their past.
Dzevad Malkic wants to retrace the route he took to escape death and once again see the places where so many of his relatives and friends disappeared.
Hasiba Husic looks forward to burying the remains of her father, a victim of the homicidal brutality that forced her to flee her native land. Aziz Salihovic wants to visit the site where his house once stood. Now, it is a pile of rubble.
They are among several hundred people living in the St. Louis area who plan to be in Bosnia in coming days to memorialize relatives lost in the worst atrocity in Europe since World War II.
July 11 marks the tenth anniversary of the day when nationalist Serb police and military forces attacked the United Nations-declared “safe haven” town of Srebrenica and began the massacre of more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys.
The genocide helped prompt a flood of refugees that in time would lead St. Louis to become home to one of the largest Bosnian communities outside of Europe. One local social service agency estimates that between 35,000 and 40,000 Bosnians now live in the metropolitan area. Within that community are about 4,000 to 5,000 survivors of Srebrenica (sreh-breh-NEET-sah), the largest such concentration anywhere outside of Bosnia.
Despite their presence here, many St. Louisans are unaware of the brutality and inhumanity that many of their newest neighbors suffered at the hands of their former countrymen.
“If St. Louisans could hear the stories I’ve heard, it would boggle the mind, ” said Ron Klutho, a former social worker who continues to work closely with Bosnians here. “I don’t think anybody could even believe that a human mind could think of these things to do to other humans.”
For Bosnians, Srebrenica is their 9/11, said Mary Carroll, resettlement director for Catholic Charities Refugee Services in St. Louis. “How can Americans ever forget 9/11? We won’t, ” Carroll said.
“How can Bosnians ever forget Srebrenica? They won’t. They’re living with us, and they are a part of us, and we need to know what they’ve gone through.”
Atrocities, mass graves
It was a faraway war in a place that many Americans knew little about. It involved a complex stew of ethnic and religious groups.
The conflict began in 1992. That year, with the breakup of the former Yugoslavia under way, Bosnia-Herzegovina followed Slovenia and Croatia and voted to become an independent state, in which Bosnian Muslims were the biggest ethnic group. But Bosnian Serbs opposed the move. They instead sought to align with President Slobodan Milosevic who desired an ethnically “pure” Greater Serbia.
The Serbs formed their own state under President Radovan Karadzic and their own army under Gen. Ratko Mladic. That spring, the Bosnian Serbs launched an all-out offensive against Croatians and Bosnian Muslims, also known as Bosniaks. The action introduced the term “ethnic cleansing” into the language.
Some of the first resistance to Serb aggression was encountered at Srebrenica, a former silver mining town, 50 miles northeast of the capital, Sarajevo.
As surrounding towns fell, refugees fled to Srebrenica and the enclave’s population swelled from 8,000 to 40,000.
Muslim defenders launched counterattacks against nearby Serb areas, in which they stand accused of committing their own atrocities.
Serb attacks on the town continued. U.N. food convoys were blocked and the local population faced starvation.
In March 1993, French Gen. Philippe Morillon, head of all U.N. military forces in Bosnia, traveled to Srebrenica and declared it under U.N. protection.
It eventually became one of six U.N. declared “safe areas” in the country.
But for the next two years, Serb forces continued to shell and mortar the town, one of the few remaining pockets of Muslim resistance in eastern Bosnia. NATO airstrikes and the presence of Dutch peacekeepers did little to stop the attacks.
Finally, on July 11, 1995, as Serb forces stood poised to overrun the town, a group of 12,000 to 15,000 refugees, mostly unarmed boys and men of fighting age, took to the forest on foot to try to reach the safety of Muslim-controlled territory in Tuzla, about 30 miles away. Only about half reached their destination. Most were ambushed along the route by Serb forces and executed, often in brutal fashion.
As the town fell, the remaining 25,000 inhabitants, mostly women, children, the old and the infirm, fled to the Dutch base camp in the nearby village of Potocari.
There, while overwhelmed U.N. forces watched, Bosnian Serb soldiers separated men and boys from women and other children. The women were put on buses and most made it safely to Tuzla. An estimated 1,700 men and boys were slaughtered and their bodies dumped into mass graves.
Many of the bodies of those killed along the march and at the camp are still missing.
The events at Srebrenica marked the climax of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
By the time a peace accord was signed in December 1995 in Dayton, Ohio, that ended large-scale fighting, an estimated 260,000 people had perished and 1.8 million more were made refugees.
Several Bosnian Serbs have been indicted for the Srebrenica killings by the U.N. war crimes tribunal in the Hague, Netherlands.
Home away from home
St. Louis was one of about 25 cities picked by the State Department as resettlement sites for Bosnians fleeing the war. The city offered affordable housing and plenty of entry-level jobs.
At the time only a few Bosnians lived in St. Louis, said Anna Crosslin, director of the International Institute. Mainly, they were immigrant families where Bosnians had intermarried with either Croatians or Serbians.
In those early years of resettlement, many St. Louisans of Croatian descent were also actively involved in Bosnian resettlement. Relations between local Serbians and Bosnians were and continue to be strained because of the war, Crosslin said.
The first Bosnian refugee arrived in St. Louis on February 23, 1993.
Over the next several years, the Institute and Catholic Charities Refugee Services would sponsor more than 11,000 refugees to St. Louis.
As time passed, many Bosnians moved from their original resettlement cities as they located friends and family or sought better housing and jobs.
St. Louis became a magnet during this secondary migration. That, in turn, fueled additional resettlement from overseas because the State Department refugee program is designed to reunite family members.
For families like the Malkics, Husics and Salihovics, their journey back to Bosnia will be bittersweet.
For some it’s a chance to reunite with friends and family for the first time since they fled their modern-day holocaust. But it also means a return to homes they no longer call their own, a time to bury their dead, a chance to relive nightmares that many would just as soon forget.
Srebrenica is now a Serbian-controlled area. Many of the homes where Bosnian Muslims once lived now are occupied by their former adversaries.
Dzevad Malkic, 46, and Aziz Salihovic, 39, plan to join with thousands of others who plan to walk from Tuzla to Potocari along what became known as the “March of Death.” They will arrive at Potocari in time for a memorial scheduled for July 11 that is expected to draw tens of thousands.
Malkic wants to see if he could have done something different, if he could have chosen a better escape route. He lost three uncles and three cousins after they became separated two days after fleeing Srebrenica. He made it to safety after a month and a half on the run. He never saw his relatives again.
Salihovic wants to make the march as a testament that his people won’t be driven from the area.
Hasiba Husic, 38, and her family also plan to be at Potocari on July 11. In a cemetery there, they will inter the remains of her father which were discovered and identified earlier this year.
“It’s important for us to know this because this is history, ” said Klutho, the social worker who works with Bosnians here. “This is genocide that happened in the 20th century on TV night after night. St. Louis can be an example to the rest of the country of how we can welcome these people and work together for the common good.”
SOURCE: St. Louis Post Dispatch
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