The Village of the Widows
July 12, 2005
The bereaved of Srebrenica are trying to rebuild their lives. But the massacre of their men and boys has doomed them demographically, economically and socially.
Suceska is a picture-book pretty village in the hills of what used to be the U.N.-protected Srebrenica safe area. It was supposed to be one of the post-war success stories, the first place where Bosnian Muslims returned after their forced expulsion. With support and protection from NATO and the international community, they returned to rebuild their homes, nearly all of which had been destroyed when Serbs overran the enclave. Schools were reopened, a clinic built, the mosque restored. At its peak, 1,140 people had returned, and there was hope thousands more would follow. But now it's just another hopeless Balkan place.
Despite all the aid and concern, Suceska can't escape its fate. When the Serbs killed all the men and boys they could find in Srebrenica it was genocide, but it was also demogracide. It doomed these communities demographically, economically and socially. Nowhere is that more plainly on view than in Suceska, a village of widows and declining hopes. The village once had 4,000 residents; now the dead plainly outnumber the living, with sprawling cemeteries around the center of the village, some of the graves with ancient stone markers, but many more with more recent wooden ones. As in many rural communities in Tito's Yugoslavia, the communists' industrialization of the country had put factory jobs within their reach. The men worked at the mines and factories in Srebrenica, and at home ran small farms and raised livestock. When war came, Suceska was on the frontlines and even before the massacres, it lost 190 people to the relentless bombardments from the Serbs surrounding them.
When Srebrenica fell 10 years ago this week, they, like many other villagers, fled to the safety of the United Nations base at Potocari, just outside the town, where another 830 men were killed within a few days. So nearly a fourth of its population was gone, and a far bigger chunk of its male population. Today, there is a widow in virtually every house, and of the 750 people who live there, only 51 are men between the ages of 18 and 65. Even that doesn't tell the whole story, since the massacres happened a decade ago, when many of Suceska's current young men were children. "Ninety-five percent of the men in the village died," says Muska Ametovich, who lost her son, Almedin, who was 18 in 1995. "You walk around and you will hardly see any man."
At the lone village shop, at a table outside, there are a few men, most of them obviously drunk in the early afternoon. Old men wander down the lanes, with little to do. A long queue of women wait to see the doctor at the clinic; he comes once every two weeks. There are few animals in the fields; livestock was slaughtered by the Serbs too, and few of the residents have enough money to replace them. Yesterday, most of the women and their few remaining men traveled on buses for the 45-minute trip to Srebrenica and Potocari, for the tenth anniversary commemoration of the massacres. They were among 30,000 Muslims, most of them refugees from other parts of Bosnia, who joined dignitaries from the West, and even the president of Serbia, Boris Tadic, who bowed in front of the memorial. It was the first time a top Serbian official came; so did the president of the Bosnian Serb entity within Bosnia, the Republika Srpska, Dragan Cavic, although he stayed briefly and left before the ceremonial reburial of 610 Muslim men, who had been found in mass graves and identified after painstaking DNA testing. (Just before the ceremonies, another mass grave was just discovered near Srebrenica, believed to have 100 bodies).
Mrs. Ametovich's son was not among them, nor was he among the others who have been recovered so far—only some 2,000 have been identified out of the at least 7,800 men and boys known to have been massacred. "If I could find my son, I would rest," she says. Unlike many of the women, she does have her husband, but he was left mentally incapacitated by the experience of fleeing through forests full of the bodies of those who didn't make it. "There were places where you could only walk by stepping on the corpses, one to the other," says Bulogovina Ademovic, another woman whose husband survived, but is still deeply affected. "He's always waking up shouting. You rewind the tape back to 11 July 1995 and you realize we were all damaged. There isn't a day that goes by that we don't talk about that time." Adds Nersada Mehmetovic, who lost her sons and brother, "it's hard to find anyone here who is sane."
Suceska's return began with high hopes and widespread patronage. The vanguard lived in tents, while aid money poured in to rebuild more than 200 homes. Now the money is drying up—40 families are waiting for grants to return and rebuild, and the clinic's visiting doctor, paid for by donations from the Dutch, made his last visit in early July. "They just wanted to ease their consciences," says Mrs. Ametovic. At one point, the community had as many as 1,200 returnees. Village leader Mujo Hasanovic is still hopeful—"this will be one of the most beautiful places in all of Bosnia," he says, if only enough aid comes in. Meantime, though, there are the harsh realities of life in Srebrenica 10 years later. There are no longer factories in the town below; the mines, silver, bauxite, and zinc, are well below capacity or not operating at all. In one way, the women who lost their husbands are better off financially than those who did not, because they at least get a pension from the Bosnian government. Hurija Salevic, 40, lost her husband, two brothers, father, brother-in-law, and now she raises four children, aged 18 to 10. And, she says, she is better off than many of the other women who have no pensions. "I will reconcile," she says, "when I am forced to reconcile, never before."
Paddy Ashdown, Bosnia’s international administrator, points to Suceska as an example of what has been possible. It took four years even after the Dayton peace accords for Muslims to return from the areas they were ethnically cleansed from, particularly Srebrenica. "It took courage beyond imagination," he says of those who did return. "The heroes are the ordinary people of this country, prepared to move back... It's the way of the Balkans, once every several decades a tide of blood washes over them and they take the pieces and rebuild." But he concedes that the problems remain huge, particularly the poor economy; without jobs, there's little for refugees to return home to.
Suceska's women would readily agree. "The return means nothing," says Sabra Kolenovic, of the Women of Srebrenica organization, who chose to stay in Sarajevo. "It will be like this as long as Bosnia is divided into two entities." Srebrenica, though 75 percent Muslim before the war, falls into the part of Bosnia controlled by the Republika Srpska. "Why did they send us back to Suceska?" asks Ahmo Ademovic, one of the village's surviving men. "We are just the dead end appendix of Bosnia." Soon, the dirt road to town will be paved; already, there are new electric lines connecting the village. But hardly anyone has a car; no one has telephones.
Still, the bereaved are trying to rebuild their lives. At 45, Muska Ametovic underwent fertility treatment in the hope of having a child to replace her lost son. Four years ago, she bore another son, Mohammed. She sees little hope for him; when he's older, he'll go to the Serb-run school in Srebrenica, where there are icons and crosses on all the walls, and teachers who still insist on Radovan Karadzic's version of history. "The worst," she says, "is that we are so sad, we live in sadness."
With Zoran Cirjakovic in Suceska