All parts of the Balkans show the scars of the Yugoslav wars but no place I saw this week was wounded so devastatingly as Srebrencia.
The small town in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina is slowly shutting down as both Bosnians and Serbs abandon the location of Europe’s last genocide.
The rolling hills and beautiful rivers are contrasted by the abandoned houses lining the road to Srebrencia. 40 000 lived in the district in 1992. Barely 10 000 inhabitant it now and the town centre is just 500.
Albeit telling reminders of previous conflict, the abandoned houses are no match for the graveyard at the foot of the town centre. Thousands of white tombstones rise from the ground and cover half an acre.
The cemetery is the final resting place for 5671 killed in the days following July 11, 1995, Researchers believe up to 5000 more lay in mass graves in the area around the town.
Understandably, all visitors are stunned to silence. The first questions that come to mind are simple yet challenging: how and why.
Amra, one of the few people left in Srebrencia, tells the stories her friends and family cannot in her role as museum guide. She lost her father and her best friend when the Bosnian Serbs overran the town in July 1995 following a three year siege.
She still painfully remembers the morning of July 11. Bosnian Serb Army General Ratko Mladić strolled into town and declared his wish to give the Serbs a present for a holy Serb day. In a sick version of revenge against the 19th century Ottoman empire, his gift was the slaughter of all Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims).
Amra’s family raced to the UN peacekeepers base at the foot of the town, 300 blue berets having been stationed old battery factory for 10 days. Initially the factory provided a refuge for the 6000 there. However for many, the sanctuary just postponed an inevitable gruesome death.
In the town, those too frail to leave their houses were burned alive and escapees shot. Men and sons who left wives and daughters at the factory were mowed down as they tried to escape through the hills.
For Amra , the lack of protection from the UN peacekeepers was the biggest disappointment. After declaring Srebrencia a safe area in 1993, the peacekeeping unit abandoned the town and handed the occupants to the enemy.
The army separated the townspeople into genders, splitting families in a heartbeat. One lady says she could see nothing but the terror in her son’s face as her boy of seventeen was forced to leave on his way to a brutal firing squad.
Amra says her father’s body was found in a mass grave in 1999 with a bullet to the skull. As she explains, while this would usually signal a quick and painless death, it is far from the reality. The style of the Bosnian Serb army was to take lives with mass firing squads, shooting chests, arms and legs. Any unfortunate enough to suffer were one by one shot as they lay on the ground.
Every story from this episode of the Yugoslav Wars is horrible. Listening to the words from those involved was emotional torture; living through it is unimaginable.
While some Bosniaks survived, the Bosnian Serb army sadly succeeded. Srebrencia is falling apart and its vibrancy is destroyed. Mothers and fathers are tortured every day by the memory of those they are without.
18 years on, Bosniaks and Serbs intermingle professionally and socially. The Srebrencia survivors see the next generation knitting a closer relationship with Serbs. They can now only hope the integration prevents Srebrencia from ever happening again.