Great Britain

‘I was shot and heard cries of dying men as I lay in a mass grave in Srebrenica Massacre that killed 8,000′

TEENAGER Nedžad Avdic lay completely still in a mass grave, bleeding from bullet wounds in his stomach, arm and foot, as the anguished cries of dying men and boys began to fade around him.

Convinced he was going to die, the wounded 17-year-old could only think of his mother, and how she would never know what had happened to her only son.

Nedžad was one of thousands of Muslim men and boys, some as young as 12, lined up and shot by Serbian soldiers in the worst massacres Europe has seen since the Second World War.

Incredibly, he survived but more than 8,000 died, including his father and four uncles, during the three day Srebrenica Massacre, which began on July 11 1995 - 25 years ago today.

The atrocity, committed by Serb soldiers under the command of Ratko Mladic, who was later jailed for life for war crimes, came six months before the end of the Bosnian war, fought between Bosnians and Serbs in the former Yugoslavia.

Critically wounded, Nedžad crawled over piles of dead bodies to hide in nearby bushes to escape the horrors of the massacre.

Now, 25 years on,the 42-year-old survivor says it’s important to remember the Bosnian genocide - as many in his country try to rewrite history.

“It is important to remember because of the victims and also because many of the criminals who took part are free today and we have many who deny it ever took place,” he says.

“We still haven’t found the body of one of my uncles and my aunt has no idea what happened to her husband and all three of her sons.

“I talk about my experiences, not to spread hatred, but because the denialists and revisionists are in force and they are getting stronger and stronger from day to day.”

First taste of massacre at 14

Growing up on a small farm in the former Yugoslavia, Nedžad was a happy boy who loved sport and had been picked to play for his local football team.

But, when the country was broken up into six regions, and Bosnia declared independence in 1992, fighting broke out between the Bosnian Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks - Bosnian Muslims.

As the conflict escalated, Serb forces began attacking Bosniak villages and, when Nedžad was 14, his father was arrested and tortured and the family fled their home and hid in the woods.

“We were forced to leave our home before it was set on fire, as many others already had been,” he says.

“In the village attacks, I lost my schoolmates, my neighbours, my relatives, all killed by the soldiers, so I was accustomed to the horror of massacres even then.”

The family eventually made it to Srebrenica, declared a safe zone by the United Nations in early 1993, where they were put in a refugee camp.

Despite the UN protection order, the violence continued and the conditions of the refugees was appalling.

“It was overcrowded, with barbed wire and soldiers and we had no food or clean water,” he says.

“I remember American planes parachuted food in and dropping them over the camp and we hoped the UN soldiers would come and protect us, but unfortunately, they just observed our tragedy.”

Executed outside school as bulldozers wait to dig graves

Whatever uneasy peace the family gained in the camp was shattered in July 1995, when General Mladic ordered Serbian troops to march into the city.

They deported around 23,000 women and girls, and began rounding up men and boys over the age of 12 for “interrogation.”

Nedžad’s mum and sisters went to a UN base and were helped to safety but he decided he would follow his father and uncle who were joining other men and boys fleeing to the hills, in a bid to walk to Bosnian-controlled territory.

Under heavy shelling, Nedžad was separated from his father. “I remember crying and asking anyone to take me with them but no one wanted to know,” he says.

“Then there was an attack on the column, which was between 1,000 and 2,000 men and boys, and many people were killed and wounded, including many of my schoolmates. It was horrific.”

After two days and nights of relentless bombing, the Serb troops urged them to give themselves up to save their injured colleagues and promised they would be safe.

“They took us to a meadow where one of the soldiers told us, ‘Don’t worry you will be with your families tonight and you will have dinner but you hear irony in his voice because he knew what our destiny was in the following days.”

“I could hear gunfire and crying outside.”

Nedžad Avdic

They were made to sing Serbian national songs before being piled into trucks and buses and taken to an empty school, just outside Srebrinica.

“The school had been prepared for our arrival, with no tables or chairs and we were packed in the classrooms,” says Nedžad.

“There were bulldozers waiting outside to dig mass graves, and trucks parked outside. As soon as night fell they started the killings in front of the school.

“I could hear gunfire and crying outside.”

Stripped, tied up and marched past piles of dead bodies to their death

At midnight, Nedžad and around a dozen of his fellow captors were rounded up, stripped of their clothes and had their hands tied behind their backs before being told to walk to a truck.

“Outside, I noticed piles and piles of dead bodies in front of the school and I felt something sticky underneath my feet. It was blood,” he says.

“I was walking with my head bent down. And at that moment, I wasn't interested in anything. I just waited for bullets to hit me.”

Nedžad’s group were driven to the field, just outside the village, where most would meet their end.

“When we got there I noticed rows and rows of dead bodies and I went into shock,” he says.

“I don't remember when I was shot in the stomach and arm. They started to fire and then I just remember that I was lying, shivering and trembling and I felt sharp pain.

“It was so unbearable, I prayed for the next bullet to end my suffering.

“I could hear many crying voices around me as people were dying. Then, as they shot the line behind me, a bullet hit my left foot.

“At one moment a military boot stopped in front of my eyes and I thought he had come back to kill me. Then he shot the guy beside me.

“I was thinking to call him to kill me but I didn't dare.

“As time went on the sound of crying became less and less and in the end no one could be heard and finally, the soldiers left and I just waited to die.”

Hiding in streams and graveyards as Serbian soldiers patrol

Turning his head to the side, to ease his discomfort, Nedžad spotted another man moving and ask him if he was alive.

The man was miraculously unhurt and managed to untie the wounded teenager but, knowing the soldiers would return, time was of the essence.

“I could hardly move,” he says. “I had to crawl over dead bodies which was horrific, but somehow we made it to the bushes and hid.”

The fellow survivor ripped up his T-shirt to bandage Nedžad’s wounds and tied his underwear around his foot.

For the next four days they travelled through the woods, avoiding the patrols of Serbian soldiers and hiding in destroyed houses, streams and graveyards.

“We survived the massacre but the next few days were the most difficult in my life.

“I lost so much blood and we didn’t know where we were going. Many times, I begged my friend to leave me to die and save himself but he was very brave and refused.”

Eventually, the pair stumbled on a village which was under Bosnian control.

“There was a man and a woman and man sitting under a tree and when they saw us, they ran away.

“We were covered by blood and dirt and they were afraid.”

Nedžad passed out and woke up surrounded by concerned people attempting to revive him with water. “At that point I cried because I realised I had survived.”

Nightmares and flashbacks 25 years on

In hospital, Nedžad was reunited with his mother and sisters but the true horror of what he had been through would not become clear to them until later.

“Every night I had nightmares and would cry out to her, begging her 'please take me from this place. They are killing people here.'”

The family stayed in Bosnia and Nedžad resumed his studies, eventually returning to Srebrenica 12 years after the massacre and settling down with a wife and three daughters.

In 2005, Kofi Annan, then Secretary-General of the United Nations described the mass murder as the worst crime on European soil since the Second World War, and said that while blame lay "first and foremost with those who planned and carried out the massacre", the UN had "made serious errors of judgement, rooted in a philosophy of impartiality", describing Srebrenica as a tragedy that would haunt the history of the UN forever

Former Serbian leader Radovan Karadzic was jailed for 40 years for war crimes at an International trial in the Hague, in 2016 and Ratko Mladić was convicted of various crimes, including genocide, a year later.

In Bosnia, only one man has ever been tried for the crimes and he received a sentence of just five years.

Despite the evidence, and a permanent memorial of the dead in Sebrinica, a growing number of Bosnians have sought to deny the massacre ever happened.

“We have peace today, but I expected that the situation would be better,” he says. “I returned to Srebrenica 12 years after the genocide and at the time we had positive political winds blowing.

“But today we have a mayor who denies the genocide, denies International judgement.”

Olivia Marks-Woldman, Chief Executive of Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, says: “This is a milestone anniversary, and an important time to reflect and remember the more than 8,000 men and boys who were murdered in Srebrenica.

“‘Denial of the genocide and support for the perpetrators continues in Bosnia today.

"We in the UK must all take this opportunity to learn about how an insidious ideology took root and turned neighbours against each other, leading to widespread discrimination, sexual violence and the murder of thousands of people.

“Today, our thoughts are with the families who were displaced by the genocide and came to the UK as refugees, the women who were raped and have to live with the trauma, the mothers who fought for justice after their sons were taken from them and those who were murdered at Srebrenica in July 1995.”

For Nedžad, the events of July 1995 will never be forgotten and he still suffers nightmares and flashbacks today.

“You cannot survive such things, such massacres and then take a rubber and erase that from your memory.

“I visited a psychiatrist for years but in the end I realised I will always have that in my memory and you cannot get rid of that.

“But during anniversaries, like the 25th this week, there are soldiers and police officers in my dreams and I'm always hiding somewhere in the forest as they patrol.”

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