“It was almost dawn when someone shouted, “They’re coming!” I have tried many times to describe that scene of human misery I witnessed on that misty early morning in northern BiH.....The best I can do is to say it was like watching black and white footage of the scenes during the Second World War – only this was Europe in 1995!”
Before I became an aid worker I had heard of Srebrenica on the news in UK, it was one of the ‘eastern enclaves’ that were frequently mentioned during reports from the war in Bosnia & Herzegovina (BiH). However, before I arrived at Split in Croatia at the end of October 1992, I didn’t know exactly where it was. During the UNHCR daily briefings for those organisations travelling into BiH the names Srebrenica, Zepa & Gorazde in the east, along with Bihac in the north-west, and Sarajevo in the centre became the frequently mentioned towns/cities/areas that were surrounded and under siege.
In the spring of 1993 I tried to reach Srebrenica for the first time with two journalists (to this day both very close friends) who I’d never met before. They worked for the Daily Mail in London and their newspaper had an appeal running for the organisation I was working with Feed the Children (FTC). At that time Srebrenica was in the eye of the world because of the injured, along with some women & children, who were being flown by helicopter and/or transported by truck out of the enclave. Dave Williams (Chief Reporter for the Daily Mail) suggested we try to get to Srebrenica or as close as possible to it. At that time I had never been north of Maglaj in central BiH..
On our way north, in two old FTC 4x4 vehicles loaded with food and toiletries for babies, we decided to stay overnight at FTC’s base in middle BiH at Vitez. Suffice to say the Croat/Muslim war was starting and Vitez was probably at the most dangerous I ever saw the Vitez area in all the years I was to spend there. We were escorted into the UNPROFOR base (one vehicle with a bullet hole in a tyre) in the evening and the following morning escorted to Zenica, before heading northwards on our own towards Tuzla.
In Tuzla we needed fuel for our intended journey to Srebrenica and, as word of our intended journey spread, people came to give us jars, bottles and tins containing their own meagre but precious supplies of petrol. They knew what our cargo would mean to the babies and their mothers in the Srebrenica enclave.
Almost a week of negotiations followed, where every day we would go to Kalesija with one of the United Nations Military Observers (UNMO) who was in contact with an UNMO on the Serb side. For four days we were told that permission had been refused then, on the 5th day, we were told we had permission to go to Srebrenica. With Steve Back, Dave William’s photographer, who was with me that day (without his cameras as we knew if he had taken them and they were found they would be confiscated and the trip to Srebrenica refused) we set off across “no-man’s land” to be met by an UNMO at the other side, who took us to Zvornik. Steve and I saw a most amazing site in the middle of “no-man’s land” - that of a young couple walking hand in hand along an otherwise totally empty track with not another soul in view for hundreds of metres in any direction – though we knew there were soldiers there watching our every move!
At a checkpoint at the Drina bridge in Zvornik, (the river Drina is the border between BiH & Serbia) we were told by the senior Bosnian Serb army officer present that we could proceed to Belgrade. We said we had waited 5 days for permission to take the baby food in the vehicle to Srebrenica. After several hours we had no choice but to accept that we were going to have to return to Tuzla but luckily, just before we started the return journey, an international working with UNHCR came to the checkpoint in a vehicle and he took our supplies. Thankfully he was taking a convoy to Srebrenica the next day so our much needed aid would reach the intended beneficiaries.
During the week in Tuzla we went to the airport on a number of occasions while helicopters were flying in injured from Srebrenica for treatment at Tuzla hospital. It was on one of those occasions that I met a then young boy, who I now know to be Sead Bekric. He was lying in an ambulance with his eyes covered in bandages waiting to be flown to Split for further emergency treatment. I had some biscuits with me and gave the young lad a packet of ‘Hobnobs’ - remember that!
Seeing the people limping or being carried from the helicopters was a very sad sight, especially when it was in the last decade of the 20th century. Sadly as we all know now much worse was to come.
I was in middle Bosnia in early July 1995, because from the information coming from the UNHCR briefings, we knew the situation in Srebrenica was critical. When we were informed that many thousands of women and children from Srebrenica were in urgent need of assistance at Tuzla airfield, FTC assembled a convoy. Almost every vehicle in the fleet, certainly every lorry, was loaded with supplies and taken to Tuzla airfield.
I had seen grief all too often in my 27 year career as a policeman, after people had died whether it had been from murder, accident or indeed natural causes. However, nothing could prepare you to witness the collective grief of some 20,000 people, almost all women and children. To be able to offer assistance to people at the time they need it most is the aid workers drug, but all who were present, will I’m certain, never forget that sight!
A few days later word came that Zepa would fall within a matter of hours. Because we had advance warning and we had time to react, FTC sent a team to the Kladanj – Vlasenica road and set up an ‘emergency reception area’ just on the Kladanj side of the front line. It was almost dawn when someone shouted, “They’re coming!” I have tried many times to describe that scene of human misery I witnessed on that misty early morning in northern BiH. People aching with weariness, doubled up with the few possessions they were trying to carry and totally exhausted from lack of food and lack of sleep Old people being held between two others and hundreds of mothers carrying infants, many of them with slightly older children clinging onto the skirts of their mother. The best I can do is to say it was like watching black and white footage of the scenes during the Second World War – only this was Europe in 1995!
In the FTC tent mothers were able to discard the urine and faeces sodden clothes & rags the babies were wearing. Babies were washes, cleaned and dried, then the exhausted mothers, assisted by FTC helpers (some local and some international) applied powder, cream and fresh nappies. Baby food, in ready to eat jars, was given to the mothers who, probably for the first time in many months felt someone cared and the world hadn’t forgotten them after all.
Over the next weeks, months and for the next two years FTC took assistance to many of the families from Srebrenica and Zepa, as well as to babies, children and families from many parts of BiH.
Months later I successfully negotiated with the Serb authorities, initially in Knin and later in Belgrade, for permission for FTC to get aid into Bihac during the siege but we were unable to reach the eastern enclaves.
Before it ended operations in the summer of 1997, FTC had eight offices, four in the Federation area and four in the RS. It was a great privilege to be a part of that team.
When FTC closed its operations in summer 1997 I left BiH but returned in October 1998 to work with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), an American NGO. Displaced people from Srebrenica as well as those returning to their original homes were assisted by IRC’s programmes from its Tuzla office.
However, my longest and closest contact with people from Srebrenica started when I joined the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) as its Chief of Staff in August 2000. With approximately 8,000 missing, Srebrenica accounted for more than a quarter of those still missing in BiH (30,000) and a fifth of those still missing across the Balkan region (40,000).
Because of those massive losses it was evident that Srebrenica, and the families of those missing, would be a very important aspect of my ICMP job. At the same time, because of my police background I realised that to find answers was not going to be an easy task. Partially because so many bodies were still to be recovered, and partially because I knew identifying bodies with traditional forensic science, after such a long period of time, was going to immensely difficult.
However, while much still needed to be done for the former (location of grave sites) because of the ground breaking scientific work carried out by ICMP’s DNA experts, the recovered bodies began to be identified. ICMP’s first identification, a youth from Srebrenica, was made on 16th November 2001 and since then there have been several thousand identifications, many hundreds of them Srebrenica victims.
Over the following 4 ½ years I came to know and have great respect for the members of the various Family Associations. They worked tirelessly to find answers to the questions, “What happened to our loved ones, where are they now and who is responsible for what happened to them?” As time went on I saw the acceptance that they would never see their missing relatives again, but the requirement to have the answers to those three questions never wavered. I admire their courage and fortitude greatly.
A few weeks after I began working at ICMP I was informed that a British TV film crew from ITN were visiting the ICMP storage and examination facility in Tuzla. I was told they were not recording a story about ICMP but about a blind man from Srebrenica. I just knew immediately it was the same little chap I had seen at Tuzla airfield in spring of 1993. When I spoke to the ITN producer Paul Davies, I found that indeed it was the same person and a couple of days later I met Sead Bekric for the second time. He spoke perfect English and I learned how he had been transferred from a hospital in Split to one in Amsterdam then to the USA, the travel and medical costs being paid by a very successful US businessman who originated from Croatia. Sead had received an excellent education and hoped to become a lawyer.
I invited Sead to my home for a meal with his American guardian and benefactor Claire Maglica. While shopping in readiness for the dinner at the British NAAFI (PX) within the large UN Army Camp in Sarajevo, I saw something I had never seen in a shop in BiH before, yes, ‘Hobnob’ biscuits. Somehow just meant to be that they had Hobnob’s that day! I bought a packet and for the second time gave Sead a packet, the circumstance being much better the second time around, made an even happier occasion because my daughter Lesley and my brother Roger, who were on a visit to Sarajevo at that time, were also present.
I went to Potocari on 11th July 2001, for the first time to attend an event remembering what had happened in July 1995. The following year a commemorative stone laying ceremony took place on what was an open and empty area which had been designated at the site for a Cemetery and Memorial. While working in BiH I attended every Anniversary and special event since then, the most poignant being when over 600 bodies were buried in one day on 31st March 2003. Since then many hundreds more recovered bodies have been identified, a most important factor being their families have been able to bury them with dignity and with their names returned to them.
In September 2003, I met President Clinton at Srebrenica when he officially opened the Cemetery and Memorial. As it was President Clinton who suggested the formation of ICMP at a G7 Summit in Lyon, France in 1996, I was able to tell him that thanks to his initiative, and ICMP’s success with DNA, all of the bodies in the cemetery had a name, something that would not have happened without ICMP.
In December 2003 I was informed that the High Representative, Lord Paddy Ashdown, wanted to recommend me to the President of the Republika Srpska to be the International Community representative on the RS Government Commission which was to look into the events in and around Srebrenica in July 1995. This recommendation was accepted by the RS President and I served on that Commission from January to October 2004 along with fives Serbs and one Bosniaks. OHR and ICTY had observer status on the Commission.
These are some of the findings and recommendation of the Commission (in my words and not taken from any official document):
acceptance that almost 8,000 Muslims died in July 1995, most of them in criminal acts;
that Serbs (not the whole Serb nation) were responsible for those acts;
that the guilty should be prosecuted;
that some of those responsible still holding positions of prominence in the army, police of politics should be removed; and,
very importantly, that the Government of the RS should apologise to the families of those killed.
The fact that the findings and recommendations were accepted by the RS Government, will perhaps in later years be seen as a watershed for events towards reconciliation, not only for the victims of Srebrenica and their family members, but for BiH and indeed the whole Balkan region.
When Lord Ashdown left BiH at the end of his term as High Representative, I was invited to his leaving function. He told me that the work carried out by the RS Commission into Srebrenica, along with the recommendations that were presented and agreed by the RS Government, were among the things he looked back on with the greatest satisfaction.
Finally, I should say that in my time with ICMP I saw a change in attitude among the family members from Srebrenica and elsewhere. In August 2000 I remember utter hopelessness and anger from feelings that the world that forgot them, not only in 1995, but it still didn’t care at the start of the new millennium. That has changed to hope that the bodies of their loved ones will one day be recovered because they know that if they are, they will be identified by the DNA programme.
At the same time, because of meetings convened with Family Associations across the Balkans, a realisation and acceptance has evolved that the families of the other ethnic/religious groups who lost family members, have gone through exactly the same problems and felt the same anger and pain. Now, working together, these Family Associations have a loud and collective voice that will be heard Balkan wide, indeed world-wide, and it will not be silenced.