At sunrise 20 years ago Saturday, Muhamed Mehmedovic fled his hometown of Srebrenica, Bosnia, dashing into surrounding woods with his father, brother and other relatives only to become a witness – and survivor – to one of history’s most despicable episodes.
On that day, July 11, 1995, and the two that followed, more than 8,300 men and boys who had made the same dash were gunned down by Serbian troops.
Among the dead were Mehmedovic’s father, brother and uncle.
“There is no day that goes by that I don’t remember what I went through,” said Mehmedovic, 38, of Salisbury. “There is still a sadness for my father and brother and all the other people when many of the people who killed these innocent civilians are still free and not prosecuted.”
As he does every July 11, Mehmedovic will join Charlotte’s Bosnian community on Saturday to observe the anniversary of that atrocity during a special program at UNC Charlotte that the public is encouraged to attend.
Since the massacre, about 2,000 Bosnian refugees resettled in the Charlotte region, one of the nation’s largest communities of Bosnians. About 500 of them survived the Srebrenica massacre.
Few want to tell their story, saying it is too painful. Until now, that included Mehmedovic. On the massacre’s 20th anniversary, he decided it was time to provide a glimpse of what is considered the worst atrocity in Europe since World War II.
‘Systematically killed or expelled’
Before the massacre, he lived with his parents, two brothers and sister in Srebrenica, a town of 32,000 in eastern Bosnia (now Bosnia-Herzegovina). His life began to unravel in 1992, when Bosnian Serbs – wanting to be a part of a dominant Serbian state in the Balkans – targeted eastern Bosnian towns dominated by Bosniaks (mostly Muslims).
“They systematically killed or expelled everybody who was a non-Serb,” said Dino Crnalic of Charlotte, raised in Prijedor, Bosnia, who is a spokesman for the Congress of North American Bosniaks. “It was clearly ethnic cleansing.”
They never stop sending projectiles, or grenades into the town. They bombed us from small planes using homemade bombs. All non-Serbs were never safe.
Muhamed Mehmedovic, survivor of Srebrenica massacre
Though Bosnian troops tried to defend the region, often with Croatia’s help, Bosnian Serbs controlled nearly 75 percent of the country by late 1993.
Two years later, the United Nations had set up “safety zones” in three Bosnian towns including Srebrenica, where U.N. peace-keeping troops from Holland were assigned to protect the town.
“Even with the peacekeeping troops, the Serbs still bombed our town,” Mehmedovic said. “They bombed us from small planes using homemade bombs. All non-Serbs were never safe.”
In early July 1995, word reached Srebrenica that the Serbs were closing in. “We began to notice a large massing of Serbian troops outside of town,” Mehmedovic said. Women and children, including his mother, sister and a younger brother – dressed in girl’s clothes for protection – were bused to safety.
“There were reports of babies killed because they were crying. Women were raped,” Crnalic said.
‘Like target practice’
Srebrenica’s leaders hatched a plan that the men and boys – about 15,000 – would flee the town for Tuzla in northeastern Bosnia where there was a concentration of Bosnian troops.
They started out on July 11 unarmed. Three hours later, most stopped at a road called Kamenicka Brdo where they knew Serbs were massing on the other side.
“We needed to wait until it was dark to cross the road,” Mehmedovic said. “The Serbs had 40,000 soldiers. They had tanks with heavy artillery. Guns and grenades. We had nothing.”
About 8 that night, they began crossing and the Serbs opened fire. “It was like target practice,” he said. “That’s where the heavy killing started. Immediately, there was a mile of dead bodies.”
He was separated from his father and brother and never saw them again. As he made his way to Tuzla with other survivors, he had to step over bodies. “Many screamed for help,” he said. “You want to help everybody, but you can help nobody. We were fighting for our own lives. It was painful to listen.”
There were reports of babies killed because they were crying. Women were raped.
Dino Crnalic, Bosnian who lives in Charlotte
All told, 8,372 were killed over three days – the youngest victim a baby born that day.
Mehmedovic walked for seven days and nights to get to Tuzla. Ten days later, he was reunited with his mother, sister and brother.
He moved to Salisbury in 1997, where there was a job waiting for him, two years after the end of the three-year Bosnian War.
“I never thought I would get out alive, but somehow I did,” he said. “I never should let my father and brother go from me. If they stay with me, they would be here.”
Few massacres rival Srebrenica
Bodies from the massacre are still being found in mass graves, and Serb leaders are still being hunted for war crimes. Local Bosnians say a Serb who committed war crimes lives in Charlotte.
Crnalic tells the story of a Charlotte woman whose father was arrested in 1992 by Serbian soldiers because he was Muslim and used as a slave until he was found by the Red Cross. The woman, Tahira Mesic, had to pay his captors to “buy back her father – three years after the war.”
“There are all kinds of stories like this,” Crnalic said. “But the Serbs won’t own up to their crimes and go free”
Last week, the U.N. Security Council failed to pass a resolution declaring the Srebrenica massacre “a crime of genocide” – upsetting local Bosnians.
Yet genocide scholars see it differently.
“A strong consensus exists among genocide scholars and legal experts that the Srebrenica massacre was a crime of genocide,” said John Cox, one of the Saturday event’s organizers and a UNCC professor who focuses on genocide. “Since World War II, there only have been about a half dozen massacres – anywhere in the world – that rival or surpass the death toll in Srebrenica.”
Want to go?
The Srebrenica event starts at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in the Lucas Room of UNC Charlotte’s Cone University Center. It will include speakers and a brief excerpt of the BBC documentary “Srebrenica: A Cry from the Grave.”