Remembering the Srebrenica Genocide

The personal reflections of Kerim and Aida

By Jeremy Maron

Tags for Remembering the Srebrenica Genocide

Two uniformed soldiers sit on a large vehicle, overlooking a densely packed crowd of people that stretches into the distance.

Photo: Associated Press

Story text

The Srebrenica Genocide was one of the largest‐scale atrocities committed during the Bosnian War (1992–1995), which erupted after the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

In 1993, the town of Srebrenica had been established as a safe zone under the protection of the United Nations (UN). Many Bosniak civilians sought refuge there to escape the surrounding violence of the war. But on July 11, 1995, Bosnian Serb and Serbian forces overtook the safe area, while the UN officers on the ground did not prevent the town’s capture. Neither they nor the international community took action to prevent the subsequent genocide that saw over 8,­­­­­­­300 Bosniak men and boys systematically killed.

Two women hold one another as they stand amid many coffins arranged in rows.

Bosniak women comfort each other, surrounded by coffins holding Srebrenica victims, in 2010. Mass burials are held as bodies of those killed in 1995 are found and identified.

Photo: Associated Press, Amel Emric

Remembering the genocide

Kerim Bajramovic and Aida Šehović are both Bosniaks touched by the Srebrenica Genocide in different ways. Their perspectives offer distinct personal lenses through which we can learn about Srebrenica and its legacy. 

Two men stand at a lectern next to a sign reading “Srebrenica, July 11, 2015.”

Kerim Bajramovic (left), with fellow Srebrenica survivor Fadil Kulasic, speaking at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights for the 20-year commemoration of Srebrenica, on July 11, 2015.

Photo: Bosnia and Herzegovina Association of Manitoba

Kerim’s lens is experiential. He was born in 1980 in Vlasenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina (then part of Yugoslavia) and witnessed the Bosnian War and fall of Srebrenica firsthand. He escaped the genocide thanks to the assistance of a Serb soldier. Kerim shared his personal story through an oral history interview with the Museum while he was in Winnipeg to speak at the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica Genocide in 2015. 

A smiling woman.

Aida Šehović in 2017.

Photo: Adnan Šaćiragić

Aida’s lens on Srebrenica is artistic. She was born in Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1977, and her family fled the country when the Bosnian War broke out in 1992. Exiled from her home country, Aida watched in horror from a distance as the Srebrenica Genocide unfolded. This physical distance, combined with her frustration at the disinterest of the rest of the world in taking action to stop the genocide, compelled her in 2006 to create a nomadic monument called ŠTO TE NEMA (Why Are You Not Here?) to commemorate those killed in Srebrenica. ŠTO TE NEMA will be on display at the Museum as part an exhibition called Artivism, showing at the Museum in 2021.

Together, the unique but complementary perspectives of Kerim and Aida – personal recollection and artistic commemoration – can reveal some of the many and varied personal impacts of a genocide that affected thousands.

Four men wearing makeshift uniforms stand with a black flag emblazoned with a skull and crossbones.

National and ethnic tensions in Yugoslavia during the 1990s are evident in this photo of Serb nationalists marching under a Chetnik flag. The Chetniks were a nationalist group that had targeted non‐Serbs during the Second World War.

Photo: Hrvatsko memorijalno dokumentacijski centar Domovinskog rata, HR- HMDCDR- 24

Kerim's story of survival

The Bosnian War occurred after the breakup of the nation of Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia was created after the Second World War when religious and ethnic groups that had been in conflict — including Bosnians (many of whom were Muslim) and Serbians (who were largely Orthodox Christians) – unified as one country under the repressive communist dictatorship of Josip Tito.

Memories of friendly coexistence

Tito died in 1980, the same year that Kerim Bajramovic was born in the town of Vlasenica. Kerim remembers seeing the legacy of Tito’s rule in Yugoslavia as a child in the 1980s. He does not recall religious or ethnic tensions during this period.

Audio clip: Kerim Bajramovic: Memories of friendly coexistence
Audio caption for Kerim Bajramovic: Memories of friendly coexistence

Kerim recalls how perceptions of ethnic and religious differences were not significant during his childhood in the 1980s.

Transcript for Kerim Bajramovic: Memories of friendly coexistence

Like, lot of people were religious. For me it was normal. There was some Serbs in there, but I was never taught to distinguish. Like, I used to go, one of my good friends was Serbian. I didn’t know until the war really that he was Serbian. We just practised different things, but I was never told “You are Muslim, you are Serb.” You know, we just practised our things. I even went – when the Ramadan ends, we usually, kids go door to door to knock, knock at neighbours’ house and they will give you a present. So I would go to Serbian houses, and all of them knew, so they all gave us presents, you know. But so it was never – I have never felt that, until the war, I have never felt any religious differences between people.

I was never taught to say, “Oh, this person a different religion.” My grandmother was extremely religious, and her best friend was Orthodox Christian, extremely religious, and they were best friends. And you know these are very tolerant people, and most of those people were that kind of religious. They have acceptance with everybody else, and you, they never taught me anything bad about anybody.

Everyday violence

This generally peaceful coexistence began to change markedly in the early 1990s, when the different states that had been incorporated into Yugoslavia began pushing for independence. This led to a re‐emergence of nationalism and increased tensions between different ethnic, national and religious groups.

Conditions worsened after Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia, which marked the beginning of the Bosnian War. In this conflict, human rights abuses were committed by all sides. These included systematic sexual attacks against women and girls. Violence and fear were widespread and became part of Bosnians’ everyday lives for the next couple of years.

A soldier runs down a smoky, empty street.

A soldier runs down a smoky, empty street.

Photo: Associated Press, David Brauchli
Audio clip: Kerim Bajramovic: Everyday violence
Audio caption for Kerim Bajramovic: Everyday violence

Kerim describes how violence became so commonplace during the Bosnian War that people almost became numb to it.

Transcript for Kerim Bajramovic: Everyday violence

So in war times, you get, you come to that feeling of sorrow, and because you have no feelings anymore, you’re so used to hearing people dying, that you become numb to it. Violence just became a norm, you know, hearing that this shell fell and killed 25 people. You just didn’t feel anything. It’s, it’s just, you just kind of say, “Oh thank god it wasn’t me.” Because I think when you get to that point of, of survival, like people just look for themself, you know. You are number one priority. It’s you and your family first and then everybody else. And it’s kind of sad that you can push people to that point, when you think about it. It’s sad that, that, you know, that we can, we can be, I don’t know, selfish in some way or another.

Surrounded by danger

With violence spreading around them, Kerim and his family fled to another region called Cerska, where they thought they would be safer. But danger was always present.

Audio clip: Kerim Bajramovic: Surrounded by danger
Audio caption for Kerim Bajramovic: Surrounded by danger

Kerim describes the violence in his home region during the war, including the execution of 32 people by Serb soldiers.

Transcript for Kerim Bajramovic: Surrounded by danger

So basically, like on daily basis, you will see shelling, shooting, do you know. I remember, because we had to move away from my town to the hills above, which is called Cerska, like in Pobjeda, Cerska is just like, moving up. So we went there with nothing, we left everything at home. Serbs were shelling our region at that time, so people always tried to find higher ground, because higher the ground is, much harder to shoot than if you are sitting down.

One of the nights, we find out – when we moved up – Serbs brought a big truck of 32 people to the front of our town, to show us what they are capable of. They took them out and they executed them while people watching it from, from the hill. So I, that’s the first time I’ve seen – three people survived, three guys survived. I remember one of them was shot in the stomach, I saw, then one was shot in the arm, and the other one was uninjured. They all came up there and they told us how they executed this whole village not far away from us. That’s when I realized, now it’s getting, do you know – now I’m seeing things than, rather than hearing on TV.

A long march

By March 1993, the situation in the Cerska region was getting increasingly dangerous. After Kerim’s uncle was killed, and hearing that it was just a matter of time before the region was overrun, Kerim, his mother and his grandmother decided to flee. They left early one morning and began a gruelling march towards the town of Potočari (next to Srebrenica).

Audio clip: Kerim Bajramovic: A long march
Audio caption for Kerim Bajramovic: A long march

Kerim describes the harrowing march to Potočari with his mother and grandmother as they attempted to flee danger in the Cerska region.

Transcript for Kerim Bajramovic: A long march

So we walked from 5 a.m. to – I don’t know, I’m trying to remember – til about 8 p.m. or 7 p.m. at night, from Pobudje to Potočari, which is about 18 kilometres, like if you want to say, aerial. But it’s probably about 25 to 30 kilometres, do you know, you’re going up and down the hills

I remember asking my mom as we went through – it was all snow – we went through all these burned homes, every single one is burned, wherever you went, you know. So we were walking, and then every time I’ll ask how far, like “Are we there?” And it’s like, “Oh, just around the corner.” “Are we there?” After a while I just stopped talking. I’m like there’s no – I don’t know if she’s telling me the truth, I have no idea how long we have to walk. And then when she told me that we’re in Potočari, I just collapsed. I was so tired, you know. At that time I was twelve and a half, and you thinking about, you carrying probably 40 pounds on you and you can barely walk. So that took a lot out of me, and then I realized, like, more effects of the war: people are freezing, people were cold. You just saw people like old people – especially I think it took more toll on old people – doing that kind of a march.

A close call

After they arrived in the area of Potočari and Srebrenica, the displaced people attempted to establish a semblance of normality and some schooling for children began. But the war was still raging around them, and in April 1993, there was a shelling attack that killed 56 people, including 14 children at a playground.

Audio clip: Kerim Bajramovic: A close call
Audio caption for Kerim Bajramovic: A close call

Kerim recalls how he narrowly evaded a shelling attack in Srebrenica.

Transcript for Kerim Bajramovic: A close call

And one night there was a, like, concert. Somebody made a concert and there was a lot of kids, people. And generally speaking, I never – I realized that during the war, number one thing you don’t do, don’t gather. Like, gathering is, it’s extremely dangerous, do you know, because you’re putting yourself as a target, because if somebody wants to do something, they can do a lot of damage. So I was sitting there, I don’t know, I was watching a little bit, then I was like, “You know, I don’t feel comfortable.” So as I was walking, I maybe walked for two minutes or minute and a half, I just heard big bang. I think it was one explosion, and I just run, do you know, you just, generally when you hear that, you just run. Next day when I came back, there was maybe like 40 or 50 people who died there, and a lot of kids, and like, because they throw the shell right in that region and they killed a lot of people.

Putting a face to an infamous name

Three days after this attack, the UN declared Srebrenica a “safe zone.” While danger still persisted, the presence of the UN made this area a safer place for Bosniaks who had fled their homes in the midst of the civil war.

In July 1995 though, the situation quickly deteriorated. On July 11, Bosnian Serb forces led by General Ratko Mladic overtook the area after a period of increased shelling. Kerim had previously heard Mladic’s name on news reports, but seeing him in person was very different.

Audio clip: Kerim Bajramovic: Putting a face to an infamous name
Audio caption for Kerim Bajramovic: Putting a face to an infamous name

Kerim describes recognizing General Ratko Mladic and witnessing his efforts to hide what he had planned for the Bosniaks from the outside world.

Transcript for Kerim Bajramovic: Putting a face to an infamous name

Then some soldiers came in, like, you know, wearing bandanas, all these kind of like insignias. They came in, I don’t know, I, I didn’t – initially I was scared, I didn’t want to go close. Later on when I got a little bit of more confidence, I walked up, I wanted to see, do you know – like, people are panicking around you. So I went up there and then as I was walking up there, I was, I was not that far away from that famous, when Mladic comes forward.

And then when he said “Ratko Mladic,” then I got really scared because you heard the name. I never, because in Bosnia we didn’t have access to electricity, that – some people had made from generators, but I never watched news. I heard it on radio, so you hear names, Ratko Mladic, Radovan Karadžić, but I don’t associate them. Then suddenly I realize, wow, this is the guy, one of the generals. So he came forward and he was all, “Ah nobody’s going to touch you, nobody’s going to do,” and people being scared will say “Oh yeah thank you so much,” because, like people are asking “Why are you saying thank you?” When you are scared and when your life is on line, you will say whatever you can just to get out, do you know. So, everybody was saying “thank you, thank you.” He’s like “Oh don’t worry. We’re going to take care, you’re safe now.” But once the video stopped, he came forward and is like… he goes, “Well, you know what, I’m going to send you to your Muslim president who doesn’t want you here. He left you to us to decide what we want to do with you. We should just kill you. And then, like but, what’s the use of it, do you know? We’re going to send you over there, and we’re going to get you anyway.”

A lucky encounter and escape

Four men wearing camouflage military uniforms stand together, holding drinks.

Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic (left) drinks with Col. Ton Karremans (second from right) on July 12, 1995 in Potočari. Karremans was commander of the Dutch UN battalion that was tasked with defending Srebrenica at the time of the genocide.

Photo: Associated Press.

As the area was being overrun, the Bosnian Serb soldiers began segregating the Bosniak men and older boys from the women and girls, targeting those who would be most able to take up arms. Seeing this process, Kerim knew he had to escape.

He and his mother quickly prepared to try to flee Srebrenica, but they faced danger on all sides. Unexpectedly, the quick and compassionate actions of a Serb soldier, who recognized one of Kerim’s neighbours, allowed them to be smuggled to safety in Bosnian‐controlled territory.

Audio clip: Kerim Bajramovic: A lucky encounter and escape
Audio caption for Kerim Bajramovic: A lucky encounter and escape

Kerim relates his tense escape from Srebrenica, including the actions of a Serb officer who saved them.

Transcript for Kerim Bajramovic: A lucky encounter and escape

At the same time there was this lady that we lived with, with her other son, which was one year younger than me. She came forward with her daughter, her other two sons went over, over the forest because they were too old, they were seventeen. So we went forward and, I don’t know, sometimes, I always say to people, war is very weird things. And a lot of times, like, when you think about what happens, I always think, it’s luck, or is it opportunity? Like, by some miracle, when we walk over there, the lady that that we lived [with], over there in [unclear], she recognized this Serbian guy who was soldier, and he looked at us and he just basically said “Who is this?” She pretended that my mom is her sister. So he said to us like “You know what, it’s like, this place, this place won’t be safe.” So he said, “Okay but don’t look at me.” So he said, “Just follow me. I’m going to show you the way you should be.” So he stood on the side, he’s just, “I’m going to be walking, walk with me.” And then as we started walking, Serbs were looking at us, those soldiers, but maybe they thought that he was taking us away. So I don’t, I don’t know how it works, so basically nobody said anything. We walked through, and then he just pointed us, go to the truck.

We went in and, I just, I went in the corner, hide myself under the blanket and tried to minimize my appearance at all. Uh, we were sitting there, I don’t know, maybe 15, 20 minutes. I was just begging, like, “Just start truck, I just want to go”, because you don’t want to be sitting there. And couple of times some Serbian – we called them Serbian radicals because usually the radicals had big beards, I think it seems to be most common. So a couple of times they would come in and they’d just say, “I’m just checking, is there any men here?” So they would climb on the truck and they would check. So it was much harder to check when you are in a truck, because you can hide. In a bus when you get in, you can’t hide anywhere, you’re sitting in seat.

So anyway, we went through, just above Vlasenica where my cousin is from. They stopped because we were approaching to the federational or Bosnian‐controlled area. They told us to get out, so now we all get out, and there were still soldiers every five feet. From both sides, there were soldiers, and then they will still pick out people. So I realize, I’m like, “Well I could be in danger.” So what I did, I put the bag on me and I kind of tried to bend my knees a little bit lower to make myself smaller.

And I kept walking and I saw some people still, some old men getting pulled over at that time, because they mostly cleaned out most of them. But they would pull girls aside, they will pull men aside, or whatever they wanted. So I just prayed. I just went forward. I kept going, going like those, I don’t know how long, for maybe like a kilometre. I don’t know how many, how long we walked; I don’t have recollection of it. So we walked and suddenly there was no soldiers. So then we go through this – there’s this, like, tunnel, and I was like, “I don’t know, where we going? Is there, is there an exit in the tunnel? I don’t know.” So we kept walking and my mom, I told my mom like, “Don’t say anything, don’t say anything to anybody, don’t turn around, just keep walking.” So all of us, all of these people are just walking, and then eventually when we went through that tunnel, there was another set of soldiers standing there, and they had different insignia. So now my mom is like, “Are these ours?” I’m like, “Don’t say anything, because it could be theirs, theirs dressed up as ours, just try to get you to say something or whatever.” So as we were walking, maybe 20, 30 feet, she recognized actually one of the guy, and that’s when she started crying. And then I was like “Okay, who is this?” And it’s like “Oh, it’s, it’s this guy,” and then I realized that we finally have crossed the line across that, from Serbian side to the Bosnian side.

The lingering effects of genocide

Meanwhile, back in Srebrenica, the Bosniak men and boys who had been separated from their families were systematically executed in an act of genocide by Bosnian Serb and Serbian soldiers. Over 8,300 were killed.

Grainy still image from a video showing a man wearing a camouflage uniform in the foreground. Several people in civilian clothes lie face down in the background with their hands tied.

This image, taken from a video, purports to show a member of a Serbian paramilitary unit walking past bound Bosnian Muslim civilian prisoners who had been taken from Srebrenica, 1995.

Photo: Associated Press/APTN
A woman holds another woman who covers her face with her hand. Both are weeping.

In this Thursday, July 13, 1995 photo, an unidentified woman and her mother, refugees from Srebrenica, cry together because they do not know what happened to the rest of their family.

Photo: Associated Press, Darko Bandic

After escaping Srebrenica, Kerim eventually moved to England, and later joined his mother in the United States where she had been granted asylum. He continued his education and now works as a mechanical engineer. But the legacy of his experiences at Srebrenica persist for him.

Audio clip: Kerim Bajramovic: The lingering effects of genocide
Audio caption for Kerim Bajramovic: The lingering effects of genocide

Kerim describes nightmares stemming from his experiences during the Srebrenica Genocide.

Transcript for Kerim Bajramovic: The lingering effects of genocide

And unfortunately for next year or so, every night I would have same dream: that I’m in Srebrenica and I have to get out. So every night, and that’s… I still now have problems sleeping. I’m afraid to fall asleep because for that time, I didn’t want to fall asleep because, like, I have nightmares. And probably for good year, every night, the same dream. And every night I will tell myself, “Oh my god I have to go through this again.” And doesn’t matter that I know, I’ll fall asleep and every night that was same dream: I’m at Srebrenica. I have to repeat the same step in order to survive.

 

Despite the weight of his past, Kerim shares his story in the hopes of conveying the importance of respecting and honouring differences between people, and encourages people to stand up in the face of human rights abuses, as did the Serb soldier whose actions saved his life.

A small crowd of people wearing yellow shirts march down a sidewalk, following three men in dark clothes who hold a banner reading “Srebrenica 11.07.1995.”

A small crowd of people wearing yellow shirts march down a sidewalk, following three men in dark clothes who hold a banner reading “Srebrenica 11.07.1995.”

Photo: Bosnia and Herzegovina Association of Manitoba

Aida's artistic commemoration of genocide

Like many Bosnian Muslims, artist Aida Šehović and her family fled the country when the Bosnian War broke out in 1992. She first lived as a refugee in Turkey and Germany before immigrating to the United States in 1997.

Anger at indifference

In exile from her home country, Aida watched media coverage from afar as the genocide in Srebrenica unfolded. It was immensely painful and frustrating for her to see what was happening, with no one doing anything to stop the violence.

Video: Aida Šehović: Anger at indifference

Aida describes her frustration that the international community knew what was happening in Srebrenica but took no action to stop it.

Art after atrocity

To address her anger in response to Srebrenica, Aida turned to her art, finding an outlet for her frustration through the artistic process. 

Video: Aida Šehović: Art after atrocity

Aida discusses her vision of art creating a safe space for conversation and healing in the aftermath of atrocity.

"Nomadic monument"

In order to honour those killed in Srebrenica just because of their ethnicity and religion, in 2006 Aida created a “nomadic” monument called ŠTO TE NEMA (Why Are You Not Here?). For ŠTO TE NEMA, Aida collects donations of traditional Bosnian coffee cups (fildžani). Her aim is to collect enough cups to represent each of the 8,373 (identified as of 2020) victims of Srebrenica. On each Srebrenica commemorative day (July 11) since 2006, Aida has installed the exhibit at a public space in a different city. Passersby are invited to fill the cups with traditional Bosnian coffee, and they are left undrunk in memory of the lives lost. 

Video: ŠTO TE NEMA - Boston, 2018, Directed by Rialda Zukić

Footage from the 11th annual iteration of the monument at Boston’s iconic Copley Square in 2016.

Community and commemoration

Aida deliberately included local Bosnian communities and other members of the public in ŠTO TE NEMA. As genocide is a crime against all of humanity, she saw that it was important for her commemoration of Srebrenica to give an opportunity for mass participation. The annual installation of ŠTO TE NEMA ensures that the lives of those killed in Srebrenica are remembered through the active involvement of the participants in the public monument.

Video: Aida Šehović: Community and commemoration

Aida speaks about why it was so important that the monument foster public participation in the commemoration of Srebrenica.

Remembering the victims, learning from atrocity

The Srebrenica Genocide affected Kerim and Aida differently, but they both became advocates who want to ensure the atrocity and its victims are not forgotten. Their efforts both preserve the history of the genocide and convey its enduring personal and communal impacts.

Kerim’s recollections show us the experiences of a young boy who witnessed Srebrenica first‐hand. He survived thanks to the actions of a soldier on the “other side,” who risked his own well‐being to help Kerim escape. This reminds us that taking a stand can be dangerous and that human rights atrocities happen as a result of people making choices to either act or look away.

People in a town square stand and kneel around a large display of coffee cups laid out on the ground.

ŠTO TE NEMA in Boston, Massachusetts, United States in 2016.ŠTO TE NEMAwill be on display at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights as part of an exhibition called Artivism.

Photo: Auschwitz Institute for the Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities, Mario Quiroz

Aida’s art asks us to remember that that those killed in Srebrenica were all individuals. In a large-scale atrocity like genocide, the individuality of each and every victim is sometimes forgotten. When ŠTO TE NEMA is installed, each coffee cup represents one victim, and we are invited to reflect, one by one, on the lives that were lost. The thousands killed in the genocide become visible as individuals.

Together, Kerim and Aida remind us that we all have a responsibility to remember the lives lost to genocide, to learn from these difficult histories, and to act within our own lives to help create a world where atrocities like Srebrenica will not be repeated.

Ask yourself:

  • Was there a time you risked your own safety to help someone else?

  • What is your favourite piece of art that speaks to human rights? Why do you find it so powerful?

  • Can you think of an instance when you worked out a difference of opinion with someone?