Human Journalism – best articles from periodismohumano.com

Bostjan Videmsek · Photos: Jure Erzen · (Srebrenica)

The son of a family of Bosnians killed during the war in Yugoslavia (Jure Erzen)

All The Evil That Men Do

Mehmedalija Alić, 49, is bending over an open grave marked 413. He takes a shovel and throws some soil over the coffin down below. His son Dino, 8, tries to help his father by also getting a hold of the shovel and applying pressure when needed.

The grave belongs to Omer Duraković, the husband of Mehmedalija’s deaf-mute sister Zumra. His bones have only been found a few months ago in one of the mass graves of Podrinje. Several women are standing about the hole, clutching the gravestone for support and crying as if being electrocuted. Their agony merges with the wails of thousands of other mourners and resounds through the valley.

It is the fifteenth anniversary of the Serbian genocide. The fifty thousand mourners have come to say their last goodbye to their husbands, sons, fathers and brothers. »Never again.« some of them are saying over and over again – quietly, forlornly, something between a mantra and an imprecation. The wind carries their words off over the idyllic meadows all around us… But the echo is always quick to return to these grief-shredded people who know very well that around here, ‘never again’ usually just means ‘again and again’.

Family mourning their dead in mass graves Podrinje (Jure Erzen)

A speck of dirt

»My dear Americans and the oh-so-democratic Europeans,« Mehmedalija Alić murmurs while listening to the high-ranking potentates sprinkle their flowery rhetoric from the stage: »The more you defended us, the more of us got slain. And the more you now try to bring us back to Srebrenica, the less we want to come. Why can’t you simply leave us be so we can say goodbye to our loved ones in peace and some semblance of dignity?«

Mehmedalija lost two brothers in the genocide: Hajro, 36, and Sejdo, 29. While the Serbs were massacring people with impunity, Mehmedalija was living in Slovenian town of Zagorje – waiting for the bureaucrats to grant his application for Slovenian citizenship. Meeting every official criterion, he put in the application soon after Slovenia gained independence. Yet along with 25 670 others, the reigning pen pushers simply erased him out of existence. While the Chetnik hordes were slaughtering Bosnian innocents with guns and knives, over there the Slovenians were destroying people with sheer bureaucracy. »As my family was being dragged to hell and back,« Mehmedalija remembers: »I myself have been reduced to a worthless speck of dirt for the Slovenian apparatchiks to kick around.«

When he was finally granted the Slovenian citizenship, he could begin to rebuild his life and started dealing with the many irreplaceable losses his family had suffered in the southern war. But then he was surprised to receive a phone call from his superiors at the Trbovlje-Hrastnik Mine where, for a number of years, he’d been working as a mining technician.

The superiors put him in charge of The Dread Pit excavation and they made the best possible choice. It was mostly Mehmedalija’s personal drive that eventually exposed the unspeakable truth buried down below. The Slovenian politicians, he tells me, have been trying to sabotage the uncovering of this truth every step of the way. The underworld Mehmedalija and his workers dug into was crammed with thousands of corpses dating all the way back to 1945.

The corpses belonged to the victims of Yugoslavia’s secret massacres of both verified and merely alleged Nazi-collaborators right after World War II. Due to the geological conditions down in the Pit, many of the bodies Mehmedalija came across were in almost pristine condition. The expressions on some of the faces were as urgent as if their brutal demise had come calling a few hours ago. From Srebrenica to The Dread Pit, Mehmedalija Alić was granted a most unwelcome insight into the fetid marrow of the entire twentieth century.

Srebrenica. The Erased. The Dread Pit.

»I don’t know why fate chose to play such a trick on me.« he says today: »But I can tell you that I’ve long stopped believing in coincidence. Why did it come to pass that right before the end of my working years I had to descend into the Dread Pit and unearth yet another of humanity’s great crimes? My feeling is that some greater power put me on this mission.«

Portrait of Alice Mehmedalija (Jure Erzen)

As soon as he was ordered to head for the long-sealed mine in the area around Laško, he was starting to suspect something was badly wrong: »As I went through the documentation and read the testimonials of the victims’ relatives, I was immediately transported back to Srebrenica. And then we descended right into the Pit. For months, we grinded through a number of obstacles deliberately put there to stop us. The work was highly dangerous and all the time, our flesh was crawling with anxiety. Yet every day, I was more determined to get to the bottom of this – both literally and metaphorically. With my own bare hands, I was smashing through the concrete blockages. In keeping with my background from Srebrenica, my only concern was to get down there to the bodies, no matter what the cost. At a certain point, I realised that my life’s mission was to help those poor people down there get an honourable burial. I knew this to be my sacred duty – the thing I needed to do if I wanted there to be some degree of honour in my life. All the time my gut was telling me that behind the barriers something unspeakable was waiting for us. The entire dig reeked of death and evil. My goal was to help the victims’ relatives and to help expose the guilty – both the butchers who committed the atrocity and the scum who tried to cover it up. Some of them are trying even today – and that is why the excavation got stopped.«

Anniversary

On the day of the fifteenth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, Mehmedalija meets us in front of his old house in Potočari in the suburbs of Srebrenica – a ten-minute walk from the cemetery where his loved ones are buried. To keep him sane, he says, he has what is left of his family, his obsessive dedication to his work, his orderliness, his modesty. As he tells me this, I am reminded of the holocaust-surviving father in Art Spiegelman’s masterpiece Maus – and Mehmedalija, who impresses me with having read the graphic novel, can only agree.

The house in Potočari was built by Mehmedalija’s late brothers. Hajro, the elder one, was torn out of his mother’s hands by the Chetniks who then took him to a nearby factory where they killed him. What was left of him was found in a mass grave in one of the nearby forests. He was buried properly only two years ago.

»What still remains of my will to live I’m basing on the memory of my brother Hajro.« Mehmedalija says: »He was the most honest, decent and hard-working man in the world. He was my role model in everything. He was the one who taught me how to live, how to work, how to be kind. My life is dedicated to his memory. Not a day or night goes by that I don’t think of him. You know, I’m still learning from him – even if it’s only from memory. How can God let such things happen to good people?!«

The younger brother Sejdo was a deaf-mute. Mehmedalija’s late mother managed to smuggle him onto the bus bound for safety – the bus that was to take the women to a safe zone with only a few rape-stops on the way. But right before the vehicle took off, Serbian paramilitary troops came aboard to snatch Sejdo. »He can’t talk – he’s deaf and mute!« the poor woman beseeched them. »Oh, he’ll talk – don’t you worry!« they snarled back playfully and dragged him off the bus. His body still remains to be found.

8373. 25671. Unknown number.

Mehmedalija’s family has long fallen prey to the evil century’s downward spiral. Two of his father’s brothers, Avdag and Junuz, were killed in the Second World War; his grandfather simply disappeared; the family’s homestead was irreparably burned down. Two of Mehmedalija’s brothers died young while two of the five children were born deaf-mute.

»This latest genocide saw the death of twelve of my closest relatives and a few hundred members of my extended family.« he says: »Clearly, the aim was to eradicate us from the face of the Earth. What was once Srebrenica is now scattered all over the world. They’ve stolen our land but they cannot steal our souls. Wherever we go, Srebrenica lives within us. We, the survivors, are filled with heart-rending memories. Mind you, I’m not complaining – these memories are the only thing we have left so I guess it’s understandable we cultivate them so obsessively.«

Mehmedalija tells me this as we stand by the foot of his older brother’s grave. »Our homes have been taken over by murderers. They haven’t been punished for their crimes. We’re coming back here to bury our loved ones and there they are, the butchers, snickering at us from our houses, our forests and our meadows. After the war, the murderers were generously rewarded while we were being still further punished. Until every single one of these brigands is brought to answer for his crimes, the ghosts will be restless around here. No one will be able to live in peace, I guarantee you. The air here in Srebrenica seems clean and crisp, but you cannot breathe it in fully, you just can’t. To be honest, that is also how I feel up there in Slovenia. There, as well, I am daily seeing people who tried to destroy my family. I see them walking in the street, I see them trying to lead a peaceful and complacent life… As if nothing at all had happened!«

Burial of one of the victims

A train to the North

Mehmedalija was fourteen when he first came to Slovenia. The year was 1976. He was sent there because a party of well-dressed Slovenian lads came down to his native Bosnian village, whipped out some glossy brochures and promised a much better life up there in Yugoslavia’s north.

So his father put him on a train to Zagorje, where he had to face his first bad shock – the first Slovenian lie he had to learn to live with. Instead of getting schooled for a mining technician as he’d been promised, he was being educated for a common digger. These first years, the older boys would beat him all the time and on several occasions, he was robbed mercilessly.

In a matter of months, he lost most of his illusions about the Slovenian promised land. He badly wanted to return back home but he couldn’t face disappointing his father. »I suffered a lot as a boy all alone in Slovenia. All my arrivals and departures from Bosnia were marked by tears. But I was driven by the desire to prove to everyone I was made of sterner stuff than they thought.«

Mehmedalija’s face is cold and bitter when he recalls those years. There is plenty more he could say but he checks himself and draws back. My guess is that he doesn’t want to overtax me with his grief, at least not this early in the tale. His son Dino tugs at the hem of his shirt and Mehmedalija gives him a loving little pat on the head. He’d done everything he could to spare the boy from his own destiny and pain. When he looks at the gifted young footballer, it is as if he sees in him every single male relative he’d ever lost. That is why he always shields the boy with his own body when they’re walking side by side on the open road. He does this instinctively, without thinking – even when the road is clear of traffic.

A garden overrun by beasts

»Like most people, I couldn’t believe that there could be a war in our old country – especially not here in Bosnia and Herzegovina! I always thought of Bosnia as this garden of delight where everyone is able to get along without a hint of trouble. But the garden got overrun by savage beasts who trampled all the flowers and now there’s not even a whiff to be caught. I remember the summer of 1991 – as I was returning to Slovenia, I had no idea I would never get to see so many of my brothers, neighbours and schoolmates again! I should have known better. This, after all, was the time right after so many flags had sprung up – flags that seemed new but were really so old.«

As Slovenia seceded, Mehmedalija and his family soon fell down a bureaucratic rabbit hole – a hole that came to represent the refined Slovenian version of ethnic cleansing, a hole designed to crush entire lives and souls. Yes, bureaucracy can kill as well.

In 1992, Mehmedalija went to the town hall in Zagorje to secure his citizenship. »The two ladies there spared no effort to convince me not to worry. Slovenia is a European country now, they said: everything shall be taken care of, don’t lose any sleep over it. I also wanted to get the necessary papers for my two brothers and my sister so I could save them from the war. The two ladies gave me all the required information pertaining to the various permits – and as for my citizenship, they told me to apply whenever I got everything in order.«

Mehmedalija says he was absolutely jubilant at the time, reassured there would be no great difficulties with regard to his citizenship. But he couldn’t have been more wrong: »I had no clue what all those crazy evil people were about to do to my family. A few weeks after my visit to the Zagorje town hall, the Serbs killed my wife’s brother. My poor Nihada, she was so fond of him – when she heard the news, she just fell on the floor and fainted cold. They did it with an anti-aircraft gun, the Serbs, they blew him to pieces while he was standing in front of his own house. My wife was crushed, gutted, beyond mere devastation – but that was only the beginning.«

775 coffins

The Mothers of Srebrenica are standing there by the graves and holding on to each other, absolutely helpless in their pain. Their tears are spilling down their tired faces. The overall anxiety is occasionally pierced by a full-blown shriek. The agony of loss, both individual and collective, finds great synergy with the stress and the heat. Above it all resounds the prayer for all the lost souls, a mantra to help them find their peace, an imprecation to ward off any misguided attempt at vengeance.

The men, meanwhile, are carrying 775 coffins toward the freshly dug graves – the final resting place for the 775 victims that the forensics have managed to identify in the last year. This year’s anniversary has brought the greatest mass of mourners Potočari had ever seen – some 50 000 of them, despite the fact that seventy buses had been denied entry to this valley of sorrow, this Balkan version of The Killing Fields. The ones turning them back were the policemen employed by Republika Srpska – a political boon the Bosnian Serbs and Belgrade had been awarded by the international community for the genocide they’d perpetrated. Republika Srpska, a political boon for the butchers who still deny anything particularly tragic ever happened in Srebrenica – save, of course, for the crimes against the Serbian population.

Hague, sadly, is no Nuremberg. The official Serbian history has never been rewritten to comply with the awful truth.

Leaning over the grave marked 413, Mehmedalija tells me that he never felt any real inclination for revenge: neither for the revenge against the monsters butchering with guns and knives, nor against those destroying lives with bureaucracy. Someday each will get his own, he says simply, surrounded with what is left of his family – distant and not so distant relatives that had flocked to Srebrenica from all over the world, from New Zealand to Florida.

Mehmedalija says a few thoughtful and tender words to every one of them. Then, very tired and barely able to repress his tears, he hugs his youngest daughter Sanela. The quiet teen has recently confronted the genocide’s mind-boggling cruelty in a sombre but heartfelt school essay – a text that should become a part of the curriculum in every European high school… At least if the preservation of historical memory is to be something we pay more than lip service to.

Mislaid for five years

As Mehmedalija became the head of the Zagorje mine’s security in 1993, he remembered how to breathe again – if only for a moment. He was convinced that he finally came through on the promise he’d given his parents – that he’d fulfilled his mission and became a respectable citizen. A citizen of Slovenia.

His life was again acquiring at least some semblance of sense. He’d even been promised a bigger apartment! But then one morning, he received a call from the mine’s managing director who told him that in order to move to the new flat, he needed a a certificate proving his Slovenian citizenship.

»The problem,« he remembers: »was that I still didn’t have it! I told him that my entire family has certificate of permanent residence and that I’ll promptly apply for citizenship. Yet this was the beginning of the utter ruination of what was left of my world. I had no idea what to do. Back home, the entire Bosnia was burning – Death was riding atop a flaming chariot. In the spring of ’93, after an endless agonising wait, the Bosnian embassy finally sent me xy potrdilo o nekaznovanju so I could finally apply for citizenship here. But it was no go. My application, can you imagine, was mislaid for five years! And I also never got the new apartment. In the fall of ’93, my so-called friends from work – the ones that have been praising me and sucking up to me for years, they threw me out of the mine. I went to the managing director and asked him for any sort of job, anything at all. From his desk, he picked up a list with 97 names on it. I knew many of them – and I can tell you that their only crime was residing at a workers’ facility which somehow made them ineligible for Slovenian citizenship. I left the director’s office in tears, but all he said to me in parting was: ‘You know, out there in the streets, there are so many better men than you.’«

Soon after that, his wife lost her job as well – in spite of her many years of impeccable service. The time directly after the secession was a time of nationalist madness, a lunapark for cheap thugs, a time when the newly sprung robber barons started revving their forklifts to plunder the communal wealth. Diligence, experience and sheer human dignity stood for nothing at all.

Mehmedalija’s world had crumbled beyond repair, but a nervous breakdown was something he simply couldn’t afford. Bosnia was consumed by war. Many members of his immediate family were trapped in the ‘safe zone’ of Srebrenica. In the January of 1994, Mehmedalija broke down after all and spent a few days in the hospital. To make things worse, the family went under financially – they were absolutely bust. In the time when any sort of communication with his loved ones in Srebrenica was impossible, Mehmedalija spent long eighteen months in various German mines and on their construction sites. He was brutally taken advantage of there as well. On many occasions, they refused to pay him what they owed him. Everything he did manage to collect he immediately sent home to his family. Part of it went to Zagorje, and part of it – through The Red Cross – to Srebrenica.

»Where you going, Alić?«

Then came the July of 1995. »We were quick to find out what happened in Srebrenica. Mind you, we expected that the UN would do very little to protect us – but that they’d simply hand us over to the butchers, that took us by surprise. The UN let the genocide happen because we are Muslims, which means that we’re somewhere halfway between worthless and a threat. Fifteen years later, things have only got worse. Some of them are now saying openly that we are burying empty coffins here in Potočari and that the genocide is something we made up!! They are trying to rob us of even this final shred of dignity we have somehow managed to hold on to.«

These are Mehmedalija’s words as I walk with him through his native valley of death. The first time he himself saw Bosnia again was a year after the war ended. At the time, the chaos was such that he officially had no citizenship at all – even if he travelled with a Bosnian passport that listed a Slovenian address as his permanent residence. On the Bosnian border, the guard asked him: »Where you going, Alić?« – and Mehmedalija told him that he couldn’t really say. Where he wanted to go, he simply could not go: everything was turned to ash.

Most of his family had been killed so his mission was to search for survivors. His mother and sister had somehow managed to break through to the outskirts of Tuzla. »In the tiny village of Puračić near Tuzla I parked my Ford with its German license plates – I parked it in front of the house my mother was staying in. As soon as I opened the door, a pair of thugs stepped up to me and began threatening to blow the car up with me still in it. I calmly told them that I’d gladly do that myself if I thought it would do anyone any good. The two youths had mistaken me for a German-based war profiteer… But in the middle of my conversation with them, all my breath got crushed out of me. I was standing there next to a sagging green fence and suddenly I saw this broken old woman whom I realised to be my mother. I hadn’t seen her for six years and at some point, I had started believing that I never would again. My throat was dry as a desert. My mother looked at me and I could see the tears in her eyes. Her hands were shaking. ‘Is it really you, my son?’ she asked me and somehow noticed that all the while, I was sub-consciously scanning the yard for my brothers. ‘They’re gone,’ she said: ‘They were killed by the mad men.’ There was nothing I could do, I was shaking like a leaf… ‘Mother’ I was repeating over and over again: ‘It is not true, it cannot be, how could anyone kill them when they’d never done anyone any harm…’ As we hugged, my mother told me how they were killed and how many other relatives had been taken away from us. My sister Hamida lost her husband and four sons. They killed twelve members of my immediate family, we lost four of my father’s brothers and most of their sons… In the end, we found out that almost no one from our native village made it out alive. The Serbs proved out to be very systematic killers. Everything was planned in advance. There was this unwritten but well-respected rule that the murderer could take permanent residence in his victim’s house. Many of them still live there and many come to mock us here in our sacred grief. Why does the so-called democratic Europe allow such humiliation to take place – why, if they can’t bring our loved ones back, why can’t they at least help us mourn in peace?«

Mehmedalija Alić returned here many times – here to Potočari where his house still stands though he’d never seen its new owner who’d finally moved out in 2004. Mehmedalija only knows that this ‘owner’ was one of the courageous Serbian fighters during the time of the genocide. In spite of everything, in 2004 he granted this man’s request for his sojourn in the house to be extended for three months.

In the summer of 2002 Mehmedalija brought his family to this once again idyllic village, he parked the car in front of the three-storey building that his late brothers had built for him. His daughter Sanela, then 13, walked over to the house and asked the 18-year-old son of the ‘owner’ if she could touch the building. The young man just nodded and began to cry. Mehmedalija then hugged him and told him not to feel guilty. It was obvious that the boy, too, had found himself in this hell of human madness by pure misfortune.

»Look at the precision with which this has been made,« Mehmedalija now sighs as he fondles the walls of the house that is once again his: »Look at all the love… My brother made this for me, yet no one lives here now. What a tragedy this is…«

»Human souls are calling out to me for help!«

He finally got his Slovenian citizenship in 1998 and we can only imagine his surprise when soon after that he was put in charge of the Dread Pit excavation. »As I walked those dark and damp tunnels, I was haunted by the feeling that human souls were calling out to me for help. That they are thirsting to break free, cemented down there by evil men a small eternity ago.«

Mehmedalija says that down there in The Pit, his mind was returning to the nineties over and over again – flooded by the feelings he had only recently learned to master. »Around me, I mostly saw people dealing with comparatively minor, comparatively banal problems, while I was being consumed with the fury about all the evil that men do. Down in The Pit, I was the first to come across the corpses that looked alive. It was an amazing thing, impossible to describe. The first one we found we named The Refugee – for in his flight, he managed to break through some pretty impossible obstacles. The second one we named The Rebel. The third one died screaming – and since I like painting, I decided to call him The Scream. As we broke through the barriers in the next shaft, I found a mass of braided female hair. There were mummified bodies everywhere – bones, clothes and shoes, the place reeked like a charnel house. It seemed that beneath me, the doors of Hell itself were about to slash open through the hundreds of meters of piled-up bones. All the corpses were naked, and though they’d been covered in quicklime, a lot of their skin and muscle tissue was almost intact. Some of them were hugging, people dying atop each other. How many bodies, I asked myself – definitely at least 4000. I made a good plan to dig them all up and reach the lower levels as well, but no one wanted to hear it. Right now, the excavation is on hold, and has been for a while. The politicians put a stop to it, no one seems to want the truth about The Dread Pit. This truth, for them, is a second-tier subject, our president has said as much in public… And both sides are using it to feed their ideological campaigns. This is unacceptable. Those thousands of poor people lying dead down there – why, these are people who have not only been robbed of the right to live but even of the right to a decent burial!«

In the last few years, it dawned on Mehmedalija that there is no great difference between the butchers of The Dread Pit and the butchers of Srebrenica. The protocol was basically the same – with only half a century in between.

»If you come to think of it,« he muses sardonically: »Srebrenica was merely the official graduation for the sons of our national fathers – the ideologues of The Dread Pit massacre. In both cases, what happened happened with the active involvement of the democratic West, whose leaders knew only too well what was going on. The murderers are real people with easily identifiable names, and they should be tried and punished as such. Perhaps the greatest crime of these latest Balkan wars is that the history is once again being written by the criminals. Meaning the ones that have proved out to be the better killers. Yet we cannot allow their lies to eclipse the truth because this will mean that evil will have prevailed forever. We need to expose these Pits, old and new, we need to let the public know all about them. That, I’d say, is both my most pressing mission and my most effective therapy.«