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Forgotten refugees

May 16, 2012

Former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic has appeared at the Hague tribunal, accused of mass murder and the expulsion of thousands of Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s. Two decades on, many are still living in refugee camps.

Aysa Hukic shows photos of her sons who were killed in Srebrenica Copyright: DW/Mirsad Camdzic 13.05.2012
All five of Aysa Hukic's sons were killed in the fighting around SrebrenicaImage: DW

Aysa Hukic has grown accustomed to solitude. Visitors seldom come to Drafinci, a small settlement in the north-east of Bosnia. Its inhabitants are mostly elderly women, and they didn't choose to live here. Aysa Hukic and her neighbours are refugees - women whose husbands and sons were killed in the war. When visitors do come, the old ladies serve coffee in the traditional Bosnian style: black, with sugar. It's good for the heart, they say.

Although she's now 73, Aysa Hukic's still extremely active. She is originally from Sase, a village near Srebrenica, where she was raising five sons and one daughter on her own. Then, in 1992, the Bosnian Serb army led by General Ratko Mladic attempted to conquer the eastern part of Bosnia and expel the Muslim population.

Dogs in the street of Drafnici refugee camp in north-east Bosnia. Copyright: DW/Mirsad Camdzic 13.05.2012
Drafnici in north-east Bosnia is a settlement of refugeesImage: DW

The little village suddenly found itself on the frontline. In just two months all five of Aysa's sons were killed in the fighting around Srebrenica. "Not a day or night passes without me crying for my sons," says Aysa, with tears in her eyes. "They were so good. Now all of them are gone."

No mercy, no forgiveness

In July 1995, Mladic's soldiers captured Srebrenica and murdered an estimated 8,000 Muslim men and boys. Aysa had to leave. Along with her daughter Hayra and grandson Fuad, they came to a refugee camp. Seventeen years later, the two women are still here.

Aysa's grandson is now grown-up, and her daughter, who's now 40, has a job in the local bakery. But Hayra is still haunted by the past. "I will never forget my brothers," she says. "I will never forget what happened! I was robbed of my childhood. So I was never able to make anything of my life."

Hayra Golic with her mother Aysa Hukic. The two women fled Srebrenica in 1995 and now live in Drafnici refugee camp near Gracanica. Copyright: DW/Mirsad Camdzic 13.05.2012
Hayra Golic and her mother Aysa Hukic fled Srebrenica in 1995Image: DW

They cannot forgive the former general Ratko Mladic. Hayra sees no reason why he should be accorded rights that he denied his victims. "The tribunal in the Hague should not allow him to have a lawyer. He should pay the ultimate penalty. And it should be public, so that everyone knows, and so that there's an end to it all," she demands.

Little interest in the refugees

Life in the refugee camp is a makeshift one that has been this way for almost two decades. None of the roads in the settlement are asphalted, and there's no running water. Yet the two women have no intention of returning to Srebrenica. "There's nothing there for us to go back to," says Aysa, adding bitterly: "I'm not so stupid any more as to go back where there are Serbs. I'd rather jump straight in the river!" Her daughter nods in agreement.

There's no work in the refugee camp, so the refugees have almost no prospects, either. And in a country with an official unemployment rate of 43 percent, people have enough worries of their own. Few are interested in the fate of the refugees.

Homecoming as belated reparation

So it's no surprise that the youngest member of the family, Hayra's son Fuad, has moved away. Now 20, he lives in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo. Fuad was three-and-a-half when his family had to board a bus and flee their home. "I don't remember very much about it, but I do know that back then I stopped speaking," he recalls. "I was sitting on the bus with my mother when a man got on. I asked her who he was, and my mother answered, 'Don't say a word! Or they'll butcher you!' So I didn't say another word - for three years," says Fuad.

Today he is studying Islamic theology and would like to become a hafiz - the name given to a learned person who knows the whole of the Koran by heart. But when he finishes his studies, Fuad - unlike his mother and grandmother - would like to go back, as an imam, to the place where General Ratko Mladic once tried to drive his family out of forever: Srebrenica.

epa02763959 Former Bosnian Serb General Ratko Ratko Mladic during his initial appearance at U.N.'s Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, 03 June 2011. Mladic faces charges of genocide for having ordered the slaughter of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica. EPA/MARTIN MEISSNER POOL
Ratko Mladic is currently on trial in the Hague on charges of genocideImage: picture alliance / dpa

"God willing, my dream will come true and I will work in the city where I was born. I belong there, I'm from there, those are my people," he says, with a smile full of hope.

This is his personal contribution to a multiethnic Bosnia. It's also a chance to demonstrate to Ratko Mladic, now finally before the court in the Hague, that his inhuman plan for the "ethnic cleansing" of Bosnia has failed.

Author: Zoran Arbutina / cc
Editor: Gabriel Borrud