As the anniversary of Srebrenica approaches, Bosnian journalists recall how the shocking scale of the atrocities slowly became clear in July 1995 as information trickled out and the first eyewitnesses to the massacres spoke to reporters.
“Srebrenica is turning into a vast slaughterhouse. The killed and wounded are being brought to the hospital continuously. It is impossible to describe it. Each second, three deadly projectiles are falling on this town. Seventeen casualties have just been brought to the hospital, as well as 57 severely and lightly wounded people. Will anyone in the world come and witness the tragedy that is befalling Srebrenica and its residents?”
These were the final words to be broadcast by Nihad ‘Nino’ Catic, an amateur radio operator from Srebrenica.
As Bosnian Serb forces surrounded the enclave, his voice was heard on the airwaves for the last time on July 10, 1995, when he did a report for Radio Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The wartime director of Radio Bosnia and Herzegovina, Milenko Vockic, told BIRN that as information came in about the attack on Srebrenica on July 10, he could sense that there would be “horrific casulaties”.
“When we received the information about the fall of Srebrenica, a dreadful silence spread among the entire crew who were at work at the time,” said Vockic.
“I was there when we received Nino Catic’s last report… The tone of that voice told us everything.”
The attack on Srebrenica, as Hague Tribunal verdicts show, started on July 6, 1995 and ended five days later when forces commanded by Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic entered the enclave.
One of the casualties was Catic, who had spent the entire war being the only connection between the enclave and Bosnian state radio and TV.
“I lie down in bed and I get up with that sentence in my head: ‘Srebrenica is turning into a vast slaughterhouse,’” said his mother Hajra Catic.
“I mean, it doesn’t go away, I cannot forget it.”
One of the few Bosniak men who survived after Mladic’s forces entered the enclave was Hasan Nuhanovic, who had been working as a translator for the UN peacekeeping mission. His father and brother, however, were killed along with more than 7,000 other men and boys.
Several years ago, Nuhanovic wrote a book about the media reports about Srebrenica in July 1995, which highlighted how Catic was the enclave’s only connection to the outside world.
“Other than Catic, I know there was nobody in that area in 1995, so Srebrenica was not covered at all; it was not covered by foreign or local media,” Nuhanovic said.
The first survivors tell their stories
In July 1995, state television and radio, as well as the Oslobodjenje newspaper, were operating in Bosnia and Herzegovina despite the ongoing war – but their editors say they received little information from Srebrenica in the days that preceded the attack.
“Practically we received information from the enclave very rarely and exclusively thanks to amateur radio operators and most often, in most cases, through our bureau in Tuzla,” said the wartime editor of Oslobodjenje, Mehmed Halilovic.
A day after Catic’s final report, there was silence, Milenko Vockic recalled.
“There was already talk of a large number of detainees and, as they said at the time, the chances were, killed people as well. So practically, sometime after July 12 we began to understand the scope of this crime,” he said.
On July 11, the anchor of the main news programme on Bosnian state TV was Duska Jurisic.
Jurisic told BIRN that she still recalls the day perfectly, as there was “a sense that something terrible was about to happen” in Srebrenica, which was nominally under UN protection.
“I must admit I was extremely sceptical that the international community would intervene after three years of war [to save Srebrenica],” she said.
“In the afternoon hours, the prime minister of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Haris Silajdzic, came to the TV building. He established radio communication [via an army radio link] with Srebrenica. That was the first time I saw Haris Silajdzic very sad. He was truly sad; they exchanged information and at some point, the connection dropped and Haris Silajdzic said: ‘It’s over.’”
The next day, on July 12, thousands of women, children and elderly men from the enclave arrived in buses in Tuzla, which was under the control of the Bosniak-led Bosnian Army. They were met by journalists who reported for the first time that they had been separated from the Bosniak men of Srebrenica by Serb forces.
‘Soon it became clear this was a massive crime’
Many men and boys meanwhile attempted to flee through woodlands towards Tuzla in an attempt to find safety – but a lot of them did not survive.
“On July 13, on the side of the road we saw an old woman and man, they were lying on the ground resting their heads on their bundle. I approached them and asked: ‘Granny, how are you?’ She was crying,” recalled Almasa Hadzic, a reporter from Tuzla.
Hadzic asked the elderly woman what was wrong. She replied: “Five sons went through the woods. They have killed all of them.”
The journalist said that surely they would arrive in Tuzla at some point, but the woman responded that her sons were already dead in Kravica near Konjevic Polje, where more than 1,000 men and boys were killed in an agricultural warehouse – the first of a series of systematic massacres of Bosniaks from Srebrenica by Bosnian Serb forces. Her sons, she said, were “lying there like piles of hay”.
A few days after the arrival of the women and children, groups of men started arriving in Tuzla – the remnants of the column of Bosniaks who had fled through the woods.
Ahmed Bajric, a wartime photojournalist from Tuzla, was the first to meet them, and he took photographs what he recalls as “worn-out, miserable and exhausted men”
“Some of them described the situation and what was happening there, they spoke about the columns [of fleeing Bosniaks] being intercepted, the way being blocked, the use of poison gas, ambushes and all sorts of things that had been done to them,” Bajric said.
One of the journalists who first talked to the survivors was Oslobodjenje reporter Vehid Jahic.
“They were already speaking about mass murders. I remember [a woman from Srebrenica called] Hanka Muminovic telling me they had held them in Potocari and she went out to fetch some water or something and counted dozens of bodies of killed people,” Jahic said.
“They took out all the men aged under 70, as well as adolescents, and killed them.”
Hasan Nuhanovic said that his media analysis shows that the first report on the killings was on July 16, after the arrival of the men who managed to reach Tuzla. The UN peacekeeping force UNPROFOR, which had a base in Potocari near Srebrenica staffed by Dutch troops, had given no information about the massacres by that point.
“Dutch soldiers in Potocari did not share any information with our media or anyone who could convey it to the public, although they did have the information and they knew what was happening in the field in terms of mass executions,” said Nuhanovic, who won a case against the Dutch UN peacekeeping forces for allowing his family to be killed.
UNPROFOR held daily press briefings, Vockic recalled, but there was “very little we could find out from those press conferences and the information we were receiving, those were just general phrases”.
In the days that followed, Bosnian and international media began sustained reporting on the massacres, which ensured the arrival of the first investigators from the UN court in The Hague, and ultimately indictments for genocide.
“Very soon it became crystal clear that it was a massive crime,” Jurisic said.
The voice of Nino Catic was last heard on air just before he, like thousands of other men and boys from Srebrenica, was killed. The courageous reporter from Srebrenica has become one of the symbols of its suffering, but his fellow journalists also see him as a symbol of commitment to the profession.
Catic’s body has still not been found.
“What can one say, so many years after the Srebrenica crimes were committed, knowing that Nino Catic’s bones are still being searched for?” asked Jurisic.
“Twenty-three years have passed since Srebrenica. And as long as the remains of each and every victim are not found, Bosnia and Herzegovina will face problems. The problem is even bigger due to the horrible denial, which is definitely the last stage of genocide. Finding the mortal remains of Nino Catic and all the others is essential for our future.”
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