Though the general will finally face a war crimes tribunal for his campaign of violence in the early 1990s, the Bekrics, like so many of his victims, still live with the scars of attempted genocide
A Bosnian Muslim woman on her return to Srebrenica in 2002. Damir Sagolj/Reuters
It was a bright afternoon and the brilliant green brought by the warm spring weather crept across the valley. Sead Bekric, 14, was kicking a soccer ball with some friends in a schoolyard in Srebrenica, a small Bosnian town near the Serbian border. The first shell exploded at the far end of the field. Sead ran to an injured friend and pulled him into the school. As he returned to help other children who lay bleeding and wailing on the ground, he looked up and saw a black cloud of smoke in the air. The second shell hit, shrapnel flashing toward Sead. Parts of his nose were blown deep into his face. The metal shattered his right cheekbone, severely injuring his right eye and destroying his left. He was knocked unconscious.
When he awakened, he was covered with a blanket, unable to see. He touched his arms and legs, finding them unharmed. He felt around on top of the blanket, and touched something round and flesh-like, but cool. He felt hair, then a neck, and what seemed like ligaments and veins stringing spaghetti-like from the neck. It was a head without a body.
Refugees who were living in the school heard his screams and rushed to help. Rescuers had covered him with a blanket because they thought his wounds were so bad that there was no way that he would survive.
The refugees from the school were carrying the bleeding teenager toward the hospital when another shell hit. They dropped Sead in the street as they ran for cover. After the explosion cleared, the refugees picked him back up and kept going.
When his mother Mulija arrived at the hospital, which was overwhelmed with injured and dying children, she could not bring herself to look at her son, she later told me. His brown hair was matted with blood and his face looked as if it had been mauled by an animal. His father, Selman, a strong, tall man, picked up his thin son, cradled him in his arms, and began to wail.
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The attack on the Srebrenica schoolyard in April 1993 was one of the first of many injuries to the Bekric family as General Ratko Mladic, the leader of the Bosnian Serb military, led his troops in the war against the Muslims and Croats of Bosnia-Herzegovina. In just three years, the Bekrics would be broken apart, some would be maimed, some killed, and all deeply scarred by the total warfare that Mladic's command waged in a relentless effort to seize land and resources owned by non-Serbs after Bosnia, in a national referendum, voted for independence from Yugoslavia.
Just one year earlier, in 1992, the Bekric family had been living on their farm in Voljevica on the fertile banks of the Drina River, which divides Bosnia from Serbia. But after the vote for independence, the family began to hear rumors that Serbian paramilitaries were coming to the village and snatching people. Two bodies were found decapitated in the street. One day Sead looked across the Drina and saw seven tanks on the Serbian side of the river aimed toward his farm and the rest of the village. Neighbors who had been friendly before now wore the uniforms of the Bosnian Serbs. Soldiers ordered the villagers to give up their guns. They issued their commands with megaphones and drove heavy trucks into the center of town to collect the weapons. In exchange, they promised to provide security for the villagers. It seemed like an effort to restore calm and order. The Muslims complied.
"A week later, the Serbs were shooting at us from every direction," Sead later recalled, in one of many conversations I had with him and members of his family over the years since first meeting him as he lay on a stretcher with his head bandaged in 1993. The Bekrics' story of suffering at the hands of the Serb army is especially poignant this week, as Mladic's arrival at The International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague promises to finally bring justice to the man who so tormented this family and thousands like it as the head of the Bosnian Serb military.
Miroslav Deronjic, who was head of the local ad hoc Bratunac Serbian defense force near Sead's village, testified before the Tribunal that this violence formed a definable pattern that General Mladic had applauded and encouraged. Paramilitaries terrorized a village, the Bosnian Serb military arrived with promises to restore order, but violent attacks continued. Muslim families either fled, were forced to leave, or were killed.
Sead and his family escaped into the hills, climbing high into the mountains and taking refuge in a series of small villages. But one night, returning to their farm to collect some food, Sead and his mother discovered that their house and the village had been burned to the ground.
"They had destroyed everything," he said.
Unable to return, the Bekric family eventually walked about six miles to Srebrenica, a small zinc mining town that had, until recently, been full of cafes, shops, and boutiques. The found buildings incinerated, windows blown out, stores and warehouses looted. They saw only a few people in the entire three-mile stretch of the town.
Sead, his parents, younger brother, and an unmarried sister, settled into an abandoned house that a Bosnian Serb family had vacated. It was a small, two-bedroom place with a living room and a kitchen. At first they shared it with another family. Everyday more refugees rolled into the town, hauling bags and carrying their wounded. The siege of Srebrenica became a tedious struggle for survival. By the time he was injured, at least 10 families were living in the house, all without plumbing or electricity. With the overcrowding came lice, illness, and lawlessness. Sead's unmarried sister was gang raped inside the house, and later outside in separate attacks by at least two men the family knew.
His mother, Mulija, wore a scarf around her head and her weathered face bespoke a lifetime of field labor and the exhaustion of the ongoing conflict. Her eyes had absorbed every torment. "We have been under siege for more than a year. There is no food or water, and the Serbs shell every day," she said.
"Our loved ones will never be returned to us"
During the day, the family took cover indoors from the onslaught of mortars and sniper fire outside. Although the United Nations tried to deliver food to the enclave of villages that made up the Srebrenica area, the Bosnian Serb soldiers frequently blocked the trucks. At night, the refugees went into the wilderness to forage for food, raiding nearby villages held by the Bosnian Serbs for anything they could find.
Sead's older brother-in-law, Mevludin Oric, routinely carried a gun into the forest as one of the Srebrenica fighters. A distant cousin to the commander of Srebrenica's army, Naser Oric, Mevludin lived on the hill above the center of town with his wife Hadzira, Sead's older sister, and their children.
Srebrenica had what could barely be described as a hospital. Patients there were given homemade brandy before operations for want of anesthesia. One man awakened from his drunken stupor on the operating table, screaming from the pain of the sight of a surgeon sawing off his leg. There was no chance that the doctors in the hospital, with their blunt instruments, could save Sead.
International outrage over the shelling of the schoolyard enabled the UN to pressure the Bosnian Serb military into allowing the wounded to be taken overland to a better hospital in Tuzla, about 65 miles north. By the time Sead and the other children arrived there, that hospital too was in short supply, and unable to help Sead.
The charity group Americares, based in Connecticut, flew medical supplies and a surgeon toward Tuzla. All the warring factions -- the Serbs, the Croats, and the Muslims -- had to agree to let the plane fly over the land they controlled. But the Bosnia Serb military, led by Mladic, refused, denying the injured people of Eastern Bosnia desperately needed medical supplies. Instead, the gleaming white cargo plane -- a Russian Antonov, the largest in the world, filled with thousands of medicines and bandages -- was diverted to an airport in Venice, Italy.
Claire Halasz, an American of Croatian heritage, saw a British news report on Sead and worked through Americares to bring him to the U.S. After the Antonov was stranded, General Philippe Morillon, the leader of the UN's army in Bosnia, put Sead on his helicopter. The boy lay unconscious for most of the journey, waking only when he felt the chopper rising or falling, banking right or left to avoid ground fire that sprayed toward it. His mother and little brother, Enver, 10, followed in another helicopter behind. It was the first leg of the family's journey to Los Angeles for treatment in a dramatic effort to save Sead's sight.
In Srebrenica, Sead's father, Selman, appeared lost without his wife and young children.
"He would just walk around, worried about his son. He would come to my house and cry and say he doesn't know what to do," Mevludin recalled. "He would cry for days sometimes. It was hard. When he started crying I started crying. He would stare, sometimes not answer to his name, his mind was elsewhere."
Sead spoke to his father only once, via ham radio. "I know you are going to make it in life," his father told him. "But I fear I won't see you again." The UN designated Srebrenica a safe area after the schoolyard attack that had killed more than 60 children and injured more than 150. Under the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC), created by the Geneva Convention, noncombatants are not to be specifically targeted in war. Though the U.S. military and NATO subscribed to LOAC, the Bosnian Serb military operated under its own rules and chafed against outside intervention.
The Srebrenica safe zone held an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 refugees. While the UN protected the area, it did not fully disarm the Srebrenica fighters who still raided Serb villages at night, infuriating the Bosnian Serb army, which complained bitterly when the Muslim forces killed Serb soldiers and civilians as they retook villages. On July 6, 1995, the Bosnian Serb soldiers, led by Mladic, attacked Srebrenica. First they used small weapons, and then fired round after round of artillery in an effort to dislodge the 450 Dutch UN troops who surrounded the safe area.
The Bosnian Serb army shelled the town with tanks, howitzers, and rocket launchers. In the first 12 hours, the Serbs rained 200 shells around the Dutch peacekeepers. Though the Dutch attempted to call in air support, a long series of botched communications and bureaucratic hang-ups delayed the NATO response by five days. The Dutch force was overrun.
The afternoon of July 11, more than 30,000 inhabitants and refugees who had been holed up in Srebrenica for more than three years, surrounded by their Serbian enemies and living on whatever meager rations that the UN was able to get to them, realized they didn't have a chance. Panicked families flooded the UN headquarters in Srebrenica. The UN soldiers helped them evacuate,piling the wounded, the mentally ill, and the elderly who were willing to risk the journey onto their trucks and APCs and fled. About 25,000 refugees streamed down the road toward the UN compound in the town of Potocari to try and escape the onslaught.
Mevludin Oric, Sead's brother-in-law and one of the defenders of Srebrenica, watched the scene unfold from a hill above the enclave. As commander of a platoon in the Bosnian Muslim army, Oric did not want to turn himself in, but he encouraged civilians to flee toward Potocari. Sead's father, Selman, was among the civilians who went. Believing the siege of Srebrenica was finally over, he, his daughter Hadzira, and her three children walked three miles with the other refugees, stunned but relieved that their three-year captivity was finally ending.
"The Serbs told them that they would be alright," said Mevludin.
The Dutch allowed 5,000 civilian refugees onto their base and, saying they had run out of room, blocked the rest. Thousands of men, women, children, and elderly took shelter in nearby abandoned factories, on the grass, or in parking lots. Mladic soon arrived, telling the refugees in Potocari that they would all be taken to safety. Over the next two days, Serb soldiers forcibly separated most of the men and boys from the women and children at gunpoint. They confiscated the men's weapons. And they forced refugees out of the Dutch base.
Hadzira and her children boarded one of 200 buses and countless trucks that took refugees, mainly women and children, to Tuzla. Selman, along with about 2,000 men and a few teenage boys, boarded another set of buses. They were taken to a school and forced into a gymnasium.
"Mevludin, what are you doing here?" Selman asked when he saw his son-in-law.
"I don't know what the hell I'm doing here," said Mevludin, who had not wanted to give himself up. He had been among the thousands of Muslim men who -- unable to stop the fall of Srebrenica due to a lack of weapons, sufficient ammunition, leadership, and sheer will -- had begun a 35-mile march to Tuzla on foot instead of surrendering. Mevludin and his male relatives had joined the end of a five-mile column of 10,000 to 15,000 men who tried to escape the Bosnian Serb advance by heading into the hills, hoping to make the six day journey by foot. Mevludin knew the route well, for he had smuggled ammunition into Srebrenica from Tuzla during the siege. But the group had not gotten very far across the thickly forested hills and sweeping valleys when the Bosnian Serbs surrounded them and opened fire with mortars and gunfire. The Muslims tried to escape but were blocked and ambushed by Serbs throwing grenades, hurling shells, and firing guns. After two days of repeated ambushes, watching the wounded die alone after being abandoned by family and friends attempting to save themselves, nearly 7,000 men, including Mevludin, began their surrender to the Bosnian Serbs.
"The [Serbs] could treat us soldiers bad, but not the people who did not fight," he said, expressing confusion about why both civilian and military men would be kept together.
Selman, though very tall and strong, was very gentle, always willing to compromise, and never fought due to his partial deafness.
"He didn't do anything to anyone," said Mevludin. "I thought for sure he would have been sent with the women and children."
Inside the gym, the men were instructed to sit down and face the doors and the walls. They were ordered not to talk and not to look around. On that mid-summer day, the gym steamed with the acrid sweat of 2,000 men crowding against each other. Mladic arrived and told everyone that they were going to be taken to Batkovic prison camp. The guards took five men away at a time and made the rest scoot forward, always in a seated position, to fill the empty space on the floor and wait their turn.
"It could have been an hour, it could have been five hours," said Mevludin. "It was so hot, and we were all thirsty. I nearly passed out."
The last time Mevludin saw his father-in-law, Selman was seated on the floor, facing the wall of the gymnasium.
A couple of Serb soldiers put Mevludin on a bus with other men. After several hours of waiting, the bus took them to a field where he was lined up with hundreds of other men. The Bosnian Serb soldiers opened fire, bullets raking across the chests, arms, and legs of the men. Mevludin made himself fall into the pit, where his cousin's bleeding body fell on top of him. At nightfall, unhurt, he crawled out from under the bloodied and lifeless corpses and began a seven-day escape to Tuzla. He was one of the few men to survive the massacre.
Mevludin believes that Selman was treated the same as he was, carted off to a field to be shot and buried in a mass grave dug by a bulldozer. Other men were taken to different fields and shot. Still others were confined to a warehouse, beaten with crow bars and axes, blown up with grenades. Sead's other brother-in-law, who was married to his third sister, Musa, was found buried with his four brothers in a grave in Potocari.
Sead never saw his father alive again. He donated a sample of his own blood to forensic pathologists who are still examining the mass burial sites from the massacre. It was only last year that they identified the remains of Selman Bekric in a mass grave in Kamenica, a village near the Bosnian Serb military headquarters in Zvornik. He had been shot once in the head and three times in the leg. The Bekric family was finally able to bury their father.
"I knew my father would never make it. He
was a strong man, but he was too gentle. He had no experience on the
frontline. He wasn't a fighter. He was handicapped," said Sead.
Despite Sead's evacuation to Los Angeles in 1993, doctors were unable to save his sight. He underwent several operations, but the optic nerve in his right eye was too damaged.
"When I arrived in 1993, I was basically a child," said Sead. "I couldn't see, I couldn't speak English, I did not know Braille, or how to behave as a blind person." He went straight from the hospital to living at the home of Claire Halasz, his benefactor who made an ongoing, committed effort to help the Bekric family. At the time, she was living with Tony Maglica, the founder of Maglite.
Sead's mother, Mulija, who had never held a paying job before, began working in the Maglite factory, where she helped put flashlights together. Mulija learned enough English to get around and to go shopping. After 10 years in California, she moved back to Bosnia and bought half an acre of property in Tuzla, where she now grows fruits and vegetables.
Sead Bekric at his father's 2010 burial, surrounded by relatives. By Enver Bekric.
When Claire's relationship with Tony ended, she moved to Florida. Sead and his younger brother Enver went with her. For some time they all lived together in one house. Enver, now 29, works as a medical assistant in a doctor's office and has his own place.
"[Enver] is one of those six feet tall, ripped guys that has blonde women all around him at the beach," said Sead of his brother. "I have accent and he don't," he added with more wonder than jealousy.
Sead, now 32, says he is enormously grateful to Claire, whom he describes as his mother, his friend, his everything.
"She pushed me big time into life, saying you can do this, you can do that." At Claire's encouragement, Sead went to college and graduated with a degree in international relations and global affairs. He started the Balkan Café in Pinellas County, Florida, which served such traditional Balkan cuisine as cevapcici, ribbons of beef fried with onions. It was a place where people from the war would come to talk. Sead later sold the café and started a business selling computer-screen magnifiers and lights to people with poor vision. When the economy slowed, he closed the business. Now, he is thinking about getting his master's degree in political science.
Survival has not been easy for the Bekric family, and neither the struggle nor the pain ended when Mladic's guns finally went silent. Mevludin Oric lived through the massacre but is now separated from his wife, who lives with her mother in Tuzla. He has had difficulty finding and keeping work in the fractured Bosnian economy and drinks heavily. Although he plans to testify against Mladic before the War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague, it will never bring back the life he once had.
"We weren't surprised to hear about Mladic being arrested. We knew he was in Serbia, protected by the Serbian government. It's not a closure. Our loved ones will never be returned to us," said Sead.
The Bekric family is dispersed across two continents and each member copes daily with memories of war that are difficult to dislodge. Sead's unmarried sister, whom he requested not be named, is in a mental institution in Tuzla. When she lived in California, doctors there diagnosed her with schizophrenia, but Sead believes she suffers instead from post-traumatic stress. He says that she continually relives the sexual attacks she experienced in Srebrenica, assaults he was forced at gunpoint to witness.
Although he is blind, Sead still sees in his dreams.
"I have a horrible disgusting dream where I see a guy coming toward me to get me. I keep shooting at him, and I see him full of holes and blood but he keeps coming at me and slices me with an axe. It's the kind of dream where you keep running but can't escape."
When he awakens from this dream, Sead remembers Srebrenica, the wounded, and the blood he saw there in 1993, the last images his eyes ever registered. He hopes he will be asked to testify against Mladic at the International War Crimes Tribunal for the attack on the schoolyard.
"It fills a need for justice, but it does not bring anyone back to life."
Despite the Serb army's dedicated efforts toward ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, Sead believes the final, most important story of the war is that the effort failed. He is convinced that it failed, and that such efforts will always fail, no matter where they are tried, because it is simply impossible to eradicate one religious, racial, or ethnic group from the face of the planet.
"Hitler had superior weapons and he couldn't do it, even though he killed six million Jews. No one could succeed in Bosnia either," he said.
While Mladic faces charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and violation of the laws or customs of war, Sead will be raising his family. He has a five-year-old son named Elvis, and now lives in Dunedin, Florida, with his Serbian girlfriend, Natasha Vilaret, with whom he has an 18-month-old son, Adam.
"I feel lucky to be alive," said Sead. "I love this country. People live together here, Muslim, Croat, Serb, without fighting. That is what we wanted in Bosnia."