SREBRENICA, Bosnia and Herzegovina
It takes half an hour driving along a thin, serpentine road through a canopy of beech and oak trees, past herds of cows ambling across the pavement, and another 10 minutes on a gravel path to reach Elvir Hafizovic.
A canary yellow structure of solid stone comes into view. This is his house, the only one in Kamenjaca, a hamlet just west of Srebrenica.
Hafizovic, 36, has put nearly 10 years of love into his home. He grew up here, but when he returned in 2006 he found doors and windows missing. Little by little, as finances allowed, he patched it up on his own.
His mother and little brother are two hours away, his sister lives abroad and his friends are strewn across the country. Kamenjaca — and much of the rest of this region — emptied out in the final months of the Bosnian War, when Bosnian Serbs stormed the area and slaughtered thousands of Muslims. The people who would be Hafizovic’s neighbors are either dead or never came home. Breathing life back into his defunct village has been a solitary effort.
Hafizovic studied criminology at a local university, but no matter where he searched — even in the capital, Sarajevo — he couldn’t find work in his field. When a friend called him about an opening in Srebrenica’s postal service, he decided to try it until something else came up. That was six years ago; nothing has.
So every weekday, Hafizovic journeys into town to pick up stacks of mail that he delivers to the surrounding villages, through the killing fields of a savage war.
More than 100,000 people died in the Bosnian War, which pitted Bosnian Serbs, Muslims and Croats against each other after the breakup of Yugoslavia. The power-sharing agreement that ended the conflict in 1995 granted regional autonomy to the warring factions. Republika Srpska, which includes the area around Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia, would be governed by Serbs.
Many Bosnian Muslims lived in the region before the war, and they have slowly returned. These days, families from both sides have settled into a peaceful, if tenuous, co-existence. But the wounds of war remain, and ethnic divisions still run deep. During a commemoration this month marking the anniversary of the Srebrenica Massacre, Bosnian Muslims hurled rocks at the prime minister of Serbia.
Hafizovic’s postal route passes through majority Muslim and Serb communities. Once, he delivered documents to a retiree in a Serb village who complained to Hafizovic that the government had denied him an army pension.
“When the state asked me to take up arms and slaughter Muslims, I did, and now the state won’t give me anything?”
Hafizovic didn’t respond.
But such slights are rare. Of the eight employees working in Srebrenica’s postal service, Hafizovic is the only Bosnian Muslim. In the beginning, the awkward pleasantries with his new colleagues were strained, but the tension didn’t last.
“We got to know each other over time,” he said. “Now I have a really good relationship with them.”
His meager salary isn’t enough to make ends meet, so he started stringing together hobbies to fill in the gaps. He taught himself to make honey by watching videos on YouTube. He constructed an apiary below a low, mossy knoll in the front yard and when visitors come, he serves fresh pieces of dripping honeycomb.
With his wide-set jaw and tawny features, Hafizovic is comic-book handsome, a fact that isn’t lost on women in town. But he’s happiest up here in the mountains. Save for five cats and a lazy hound dog, Bobby, Hafizovic is by himself.
“It’s a lonely life. Before the war there were some 50 people in this hamlet. Now I’m the only one,” he said. “That was the genocide.”
In early spring of 1992, Hafizovic stood on the crest of land in front of his house, looking over the unspoiled hills of eastern Bosnia. Just below sloping fields of daisies and thistles, he saw the next Muslim village in flames. That’s when he knew the war had begun.
For months, his parents had guessed where this was heading. Yugoslavia was breaking up, Slovenia and Croatia were spiraling into war and tensions were rising. They didn’t say anything to their four sons and daughter lest they worry, too. But kids sense things, and 13-year-old Hafizovic knew something was wrong.
Serb tanks perched on a hill to the north, and it wasn’t long before shells and bullets rained on their village. The family hid in the cellar for a few days, but the electricity vanished and water also dried up.
They had little way of knowing what was happening beyond Kamenjaca. But families fleeing surrounding villages started arriving in search of shelter. Soon there were 12 people sharing a house that was already snug for a family of seven. With no access to shops and the food supply thinning quickly, the adults planted potatoes and whatever other seeds they could find.
Hafizovic’s job was to tend the sheep in a valley just outside the enemy line of fire. The animals’ wool provided warmth and a cow provided milk. But it wasn’t nearly enough. In the beginning, they had thought the fighting would subside after a few days. By the time winter set in, food was scarcer than ever and desperation gnawed at their resolve.
“That’s when we started to think this will never end. We’ll either die of hunger or they’ll shoot us,” Hafizovic said.
Snipers were nestled into leafy nooks throughout the hills, and they rarely missed their mark. Hafizovic’s brothers were wounded by sniper fire, and he, too, took a bullet just above his right ankle.
Serb troops did try to storm directly into Kamenjaca early on. First they charged with shoddy hunting guns, and the villagers repelled them easily. The next time, they brought tanks and trucks. Hafizovic and the other men and boys drove them back with a stream of Molotov cocktails.
The Serbs stopped trying to break through, but the terror was constant. With time, Hafizovic and his family learned to navigate the cues and signals of war.
“The longer it went on, the more we knew when they attacked and when it was safe to go out,” he said. “We would hear when they would launch artillery and we knew we had about a minute to take cover.”
By 1995, war had been tearing apart Bosnia for three years. Hafizovic had long since stopped waiting for the television to turn back on, or for his childhood to return.
There was no other choice but to survive, he said, and to learn to deal with it. He didn’t feel hate or fury as a teenager trapped in the middle of a raging war. Instead, he felt a sense of injustice that still dogs him today.
July 11, 1995, was a quiet day in Kamenjaca. Hafizovic saw little movement on the front line where Serb tanks usually roamed. Then a courier arrived with news that Srebrenica had fallen.
During the war, tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims had fled to Srebrenica, a de-militarized zone under the protection of Dutch U.N. peacekeeping forces. Those forces were now overrun, and refugees swarmed the U.N. compound in the nearby town of Potočari, begging for safety.
But Serb soldiers separated out men and military-age boys from the group and put more than 20,000 women and children on buses headed to Bosniak-held territory.
In the days that followed, Bosnian Muslim men and boys were executed in warehouses, football fields and factories, according to testimony at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, or ICTY. Others were ambushed trying to escape through the forest. More than 8,000 were killed.
The massacre was the worst European crime since World War II, but the debate over just what happened is still fraught. Russia, which shares close cultural and religious ties with Serbia, vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution earlier this month that would have condemned Srebrenica as genocide. The Serbian government categorically rejects the label. For many Bosniaks, that denial is a festering wound.
Hafizovic’s mother and baby brother — born in the midst of the war — were heading to the U.N. compound in Potočari and she begged him to join. But at 16, he was already considered a man, and his father feared what would become of him if he crossed through Serb-held territory.
So Hafizovic joined his father, two elder brothers and thousands of other boys and men who set out to Tuzla, one of the few cities still in Bosnian Muslim hands. They did not trust that Serb forces in Potočari would let them live, and they believed the 100-kilometer journey through the woods was their only chance to survive.
Witnesses at the ICTY have testified that the column of Bosniak men and boys Hafizovic joined that day numbered at least 10,000. Some had been soldiers in the Yugoslav army, and they shored up the front and back of the column with experience and weapons. The rest — mostly boys or elderly men — filled out the middle.
It didn’t last long. Hafizovic and his family walked only five kilometers when they ran into enemy lines. The only way forward was through a steep ravine riddled with mines, and Serb troops waiting on the ledges opened fire. Within seconds, Hafizovic lost track of his brothers and father.
“There was panic, people were running,” he said. “The entire organization we had fell apart and it was every man for himself.”
He latched onto a breakaway group fleeing into the woods and careened onward. They fled in the searing summer heat, stopping to drink from a reservoir along the way.
A handful of survivors have testified to the presence of chemical agents in Srebrenica, describing hallucination and disorientation as they trekked through the forest. But evidence in and around Srebrenica is scattered and politicized, and investigators have been unable to prove the allegations.
Hafizovic is sure the water he drank from the reservoir was tainted. It took a few hours for the effects to set in, but men around him started seeing skyscrapers and rows of homes. Hafizovic saw a lake in the sky and climbed a tree to try and quench his thirst.
He had only consumed small amounts of the agent so it wore off quickly, he said. But many men were still severely disoriented when they ran into another Serb barricade in the village of Konjevic Polje. Dazed and exhausted, hundreds surrendered.
“(They) were being shot immediately. I saw there was no international law being followed,” he said. “I knew I had to protect myself so I grabbed a weapon.”
That was the beginning of what turned into an agonizing two and a half months on the run.
At first, Hafizovic holed up in the woods above Konjevic Polje with other survivors. It was the only way to get to Tuzla, and they were hoping the Serbs would clear out. They survived on apples, snails, grass — anything they found. But after two weeks, they were too feeble to go on. So they crept back through the woods to Kamenjaca.
“During the day we hid out in the forest. At night we came in [to his now-empty home] to cook food, then went back into the woods,” he said. He was grateful for the potatoes, corn and onions his parents had sowed just a few years earlier.
Hafizovic and the others regained their strength for a week and then made for Žepa, another supposedly safe territory high in the mountains. They were a dozen boys and most hailed from Kamenjaca or the surrounding villages, so they knew the land well. They traversed nearly 50 kilometers of dense forest to arrive in two days.
Žepa fell to Bosnian Serb forces the next morning. (Hafizovic slaps his thigh and laughs when he tells this part of his story.)
They scattered back into the woods, regrouped and rerouted to Kladanj — the last safe zone on the way to Tuzla. Hafizovic slept through fitful nights in the woods, his body both exhausted and on alert. This was the home stretch, but, one by one, members of the group started to fall. Two stepped on mines; others chose to take different paths. Sometimes they ran into Serb barricades and had to reroute.
In the end it was just Hafizovic and his neighbor who made it to Kladanj. They arrived bloodied and emaciated. A man found them and took them into his home.
“I thought I was dreaming. I looked around at everything in the house, up at the roof — I couldn’t believe it was happening. I couldn’t even fall asleep out of pure joy,” Hafizovic said. At that moment, he realized he was safe and free.
The Bosnian Muslim troops in Kladanj interrogated Hafizovic and his friend for two days on suspicion of being spies: No one could have survived 78 days in the woods. They had spanned mountains, rivers and minefields. They were released after the soldiers confirmed their identities.
Hafizovic reunited with his mother and little brother in Tuzla. They hoped and waited for his father and two elder brothers to arrive. Their remains were found years later.
Surviving was a stroke of luck, or fate, that Hafizovic still marvels at today.
“We never believed we were going to make it,” he said. “We still joke today that our lives ended in 1995 and everything since then has been a free ride.”
Knowing what Hafizovic survived, it’s all the more remarkable that he takes part in the annual peace march, called Mars Mira. Thousands of students, activists and survivors walk three days from the village of Nezuk near Tuzla to Potočari to honor the Bosnian Muslims who were part of the original column. Of the estimated 10,000 to 15,000 people who set out through the woods in July of 1995, about 9,000 died. Most were ambushed, captured and besieged. Others fell victim to starvation and exhaustion.
Hafizovic has joined the march four times. It’s a chance to share his experiences and swap stories with other survivors.
“It’s impossible to explain what it was like to the people who didn’t go through it,” he said.
It took him years to learn how to sleep again after the war. Even a fly in the house could keep him up for hours. He gradually eased back into the rhythm of life, into studying, then working and friends.
He considers himself “a pretty normal guy” these days. He has a girlfriend of sorts — Anesa, a wiry, effusive blonde with boundless energy and love. She is something of a de facto mayor in Srebrenica. Besides running a pasta factory and a media services company, she hosts NGOs and dignitaries and coordinates the constant stream of students, backpackers and journalists sweeping in and out of town.
Hafizovic has reluctantly settled into his position as a mailman. “I’m not completely satisfied with this work,” he said, “but if you look at the job situation in town it’s fine. It’s better to have some job than none at all.”
When he’s not on his mail route, he’s at home tending to the cats, the bees, the orchard. Sometimes he drops in on the nearest neighbors, or they come over for a cup of Bosnian coffee — the dark, muddy kind that rattles the bones. But in the solitude of his house, alone in a village of one, the past is ever-present.
“The old memories come back when I look over the mountains and think of the tanks and artillery. Then I sit down and smoke a cigarette and remind myself: The war is over.”
Friends and family have asked why he stays. Leaving has crossed his mind, but something stronger, a feeling, has kept him here. His answer is inat. It’s an elusive word shared by the Bosniaks and Serbs that can be likened to cutting off your nose to spite your face. People use it often here, especially among Muslims who have returned to Republika Srpska in the years following the war.
“They wanted to get rid of us. They wanted us out,” Hafizovic said. “This is where my grandfather lived, and my father. I want to live here, too. Nobody in the world can take that away from me.”
Sumi Somaskanda is an American freelance journalist living and working in Berlin for the past seven years. She covers Germany, Europe and the Middle East for a variety of international publications. Follow her at @SumangaliS.
Edited by Ben Wolford. Additional editing by Martine Powers.