By Clara Sanchiz
The Bosnian village of Klotjevac is home to a little over a dozen inhabitants. It is located some 30 kilometres south of Srebrenica, overlooking the Drina River, which marks the border between Bosnia and Serbia. The town is nestled among the green, bucolic mountains of both countries. Nature is slowly taking over what remains of the family homes destroyed during the shelling of the 1992-95 war. One of the survivors who made it back is Abdulah Mešanović, an old man who laments how the war left his home town barely populated and lifeless.
“They call me Dule. I have always lived in Klotjevac. Before the war started, I had a good, peaceful life in this village. At the time, there were about 100 adults living here. It was a prosperous place, where people raised cattle. We didn’t have a life like that of people in Europe, but at least we didn’t suffer. My goals were to give my children a good education and to build a nice house for them closer to the city so that they could study.
“I didn’t suspect the war was coming until we were really close to it. One of the first signs was that some people in the military started to take their own children out of the army and advised others to do the same. Another sign was that the Yugoslav army came to a storage area near our town, where artillery was kept. They took the weapons, saying they were having them repaired. They were never returned, so we felt something was going on. They wanted to make sure we didn’t have any weapons.
“Some families started fleeing to Slovenia and Macedonia. Serbs entered houses, demanding that people hand over their hunting weapons. They also put up roadblocks. Other Serbs were taken out of the village. They helped them flee before the shelling started. The preparations took around one year.
“And then it was too late for us. They started to attack. Cannons, missiles, grenades. They targeted us from all sides with multiple weapons. Me and my family took cover on the ground floor of our house. We’d cover the women with mattresses and board the windows. A grenade hit one side of my house. Fragments hit my daughter once, but luckily they had hit the ceiling first, reducing the impact, so she survived. There’d be shelling throughout the entire day. We could only get out at night. This went on during an entire year. Other families sought shelter in my house, and eventually we had 20 people there.
Image: A destroyed house in Klotjevac
“The Serbs also sent signs, for example, from Višegrad. It is a town down the river, where a lot of people were slaughtered. We saw dead bodies floating. They had been tied to pieces of wood and sent down the river from there. People also came from Višegrad to seek refuge in Klotjevac. One woman had had one of her breasts amputated by the Serbs.
“In 1993, we decided to try reach Srebrenica. The region’s roads were barricaded, so we went through the woods in the mountains. In the beginning, we lived in a basement. It was full of people, so epidemics easily broke out. Luckily, the Swedish government started to send cottages for displaced persons to live in, and we got one because we were a group of 10 people. So we moved into the cottage, which was right outside Srebrenica. I am deeply thankful to the Swedes for that.
“There was no food. Humanitarian aid was dropped in Žepa, a city 50 kilometres away. In order to get the aid, we would make kitchenware and little plates out of tin, bring them over to Žepa and wait until we could trade them in for stuff like gasoline or flour. Then I’d carry the goods down again, sometimes up to 50 kilos of flour on my back and a tank of gasoline in my hands during a two-day walk through the woods. After that I couldn’t walk for another two days. It was so tough, but definitely worth it to know that you could provide food for your family.
“The atmosphere in Srebrenica was hopeless. Some convoys would sometimes take people out of the city, but it happened rarely. People were sometimes killed when they went to get humanitarian aid. My daughter-in-law saw a bunch of bodies hanging from a building one day. The UN was there while all of this was going on. I saw the Dutch UN peacekeepers and the Bosnian Serb army speaking to each other. They stayed at the same house at some point. You’d also see them in cafés together.
“When the Serbs took over Srebrenica, we knew it was all over. My wife took my family, including my father, to Potočari [where a UN base was located. Thousands of displaced Bosnians had taken refuge there in and around hangars]. They stayed for two days. My father, a 76-year-old man who wouldn’t pick up a gun and couldn’t reproduce, was killed later on. A convoy took my wife and the rest to Kladanj, in Bosniak-controlled territory. They were given food and drinks. After some time, they were relocated to a nearby town.
Image: Potocari hanger
“Meanwhile, I left on foot with my two sons. We went through the woods. We stayed in a cave once. We got skin diseases. We ate grass. We would go to villages to see whether there was some food left over. Once I was lucky enough to find a piece of bread.
“We got to Kladanj on 11 September 1995. We arrived in a column of 192 men and boys. I felt instant relief. I felt safe. At that point, if anyone had told me there was a place anywhere in Europe where I would be safe, but that I had to reach it on foot, I would not think twice and walk all the way.
“I asked around to see if anyone had spotted my family. I finally got hold of them in Srebenik, where they had been relocated. After that, we were all moved to a place in Ozren, a village with many abandoned houses that used to belong to Serbs. I started to work hard, made the house a better place, started farming. The locals were amazed. They never thought a newcomer would work so diligently in a house with which he had no history.
Image: Entire family
“Eventually we came back to Klotjevac. The entire village was devastated and it also took a lot of hard work to rebuild my home. The village has changed. It used to be a small town where you would meet people here and there and have conversations. Now it is deserted. Only I and my nephew’s family live here. Even after the war was over, occasionally Serb civilians would come down the river in boats, get drunk and then yell and shoot at us, just to provoke us. We had to cope with this harassment. The war had other effects on me. For example, sometimes I say something, and five minutes later I can’t remember what I said.
“I have lost all hope and faith in the ICTY. For example, I’m disappointed that those who admit to have killed hundreds of men are sometimes having their sentences reduced. Or the case of Vojislav Šešelj. There’s evidence against him, but he is free to walk around. [Šešelj is accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He was granted provisional release last November due to health reasons and went back to Belgrade. The Court requested his return to The Hague in March, but the indictee has not gone back.]
“To me, justice is something you find in human beings. For instance, a man of words, persons who are willing to help other people, who pass on knowledge… not everybody does this. But it is also related to equality. That everyone has equal opportunities regardless of their nationality or religion. Everyone should have the same rights.”
Lead image: Dule
All photos by Clara Sanchiz/Justice Hub