Jezik / Language:
7 July 2015
My story

Fear on the Run: A Srebrenica Survivor’s Tale

Jasmina Đikoli BIRN BiH Sarajevo

Fatima Ahmic spent 13 days fleeing through woodlands, almost entirely without food and water, dodging ambushes and shellfire as she escaped the Srebrenica massacres 20 years ago.

Sitting in an office in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, many kilometres from Srebrenica, 61-year-old Fatima Ahmic gathers her nerves to talk about the worst days in her life - the desperate flight from the Bosnian Serb troops who overran her old hometown in July 1995, and the loss of her son.

After Bosnian Serb forces took control of Srebrenica, Fatima joined a column of thousands of men who had decided to flee through woodlands towards the town of Tuzla, around 70 kilometres away, which was in territory controlled by the Bosnian Army.

Fatima’s husband and two sons were also in the column. They had all agreed: “If we die, we die together.”

“I thought, if one of them is injured I would tend to him and be with him… but it never pans out the way you plan,” she says.

The column of men, some ten kilometres long, moved out of the villages near Srebrenica around midnight on July 11. There were between 10,000 and 15,000 of them, mostly aged between 16 and 65. At the forefront was the 28th Division of the Bosnian Army.

Meanwhile the rest of the women, children and elderly people went to the United Nations peacekeepers’ base in nearby Potocari, where they believed they would be safe.

The fleeing column came under constant shell fire and many people died during the long march, Fatima recalls. When the shooting started, she got separated from her family.

Dead bodies were everywhere; fearing that one of her loved ones might be among them, she started turning over some of the corpses.

“I wasn’t afraid. I guess Allah gave me power at that moment… I went to one child; he looked just like my [son] Sead. I sat beside him for four days,” she says.

After four days had passed, she noticed that the boy was wearing shoes different to the ones her son wore, so she picked herself up and went on alone.

By this time, she was confused and disorientated: “I don’t know what’s left or right. I don’t know anything,” she remembers.

She spent two more days in the woods, then met a man who asked her to say a prayer in Arabic to prove she was a Muslim. Fatima says she could barely remember her name, let alone a prayer, but she managed to do it all the same.

“I told him I was travelling with my kids, but that I had lost them… He said: ‘Go down, there is a group.’ I went and I saw 12 men… One of them said: ‘Woman, we are going to [the village of] Suceska, you can come with us if you want and help with the food. We won’t get to Tuzla for a month,’” she recalls.

She agreed to travel with the group but made them promise they would not take special care of her, but make sure they survived themselves. The problem was that no one knew the way. They ran into a Bosnian Serb ambush, fled, and ended up back in the same woodlands.

“We decided to start again at night, but when you go into the forest, you can’t find anything... I couldn’t see the sky… I came through all bloody and torn,” she says

Since leaving Srebrenica, she says she barely had a sip of water or a bite of food, and people in the group were starting to go mad as a result. “One of them yelled: ‘I dreamed about a big loaf of bread that my mum made…’ They were all hungry,” she says.

Another of the young men in her group had been injured in the ambush and was bleeding.

“A shell had blown off his elbow. I felt sorry for him. When we sat down, he fell asleep. I would spend half an hour each time waking him up. Once he yelled at me: ‘Leave me alone, why are you bothering me?’” she says.

“When we stopped near rivers, I tore off parts of my jacket and cleaned the wound since flies were coming near it. He was the same age as my boys.”

The young man survived, she says, but during the long march, many others succumbed to exhaustion and others were killed by the shelling. According to later verdicts from international and local courts, some 1,500 people died in the woods as they attempted to flee.

“I always say, if the woods could talk… So many people died. Even in the first ambush… We were running, surviving, stepping on dead people, not even looking,” Fatima recalls. She says she carried a grenade with her to kill herself in case she was taken by Bosnian Serb forces.

When they were nearing the town of Kladanj, Fatima says she saw a Serb trench, but the group managed to find a way past it, through a river.

Three days later, they reached Kladanj, which was under Bosnian Army control. The journey had taken 13 days. One of her sons made it in eight days but her husband Hasib took 66 days to get there after getting lost and wandering in the woods, trying to find the right way.

Her other son, Mirsad, never made it. Meanwhile Fatima’s brother, father and two brothers-in-law had sought refuge at the United Nations base in Potocari, but were taken by Bosnian Serb forces and killed.

Fatima lives in Sarajevo now and her nearest neighbours are Serbs and Croats, and she tries to have good relations with all of them. Despite what she suffered 20 years ago, she says that she hates no one.

“People should respect one another. They should know that upbringing is the most important thing. If you teach someone to be fair, they will be,” she says.

“We should also forgive, but never forget. In your heart, know what you have lived through.”

comments powered by Disqus

In this article