Heroic Women in Srebrenica

Last July, the Bosnian Serb Army overran the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica, while the world turned its back. The United Nations had declared the area a safe haven, but as the Bosnian Serbs moved in, the Dutch peacekeepers assigned to protect it retreated to their Potocari headquarters, locking the gate behind them. More than 40,000 civilians were forced to flee within a matter of days.

Many of these internal refugees can be found in collective centers or worse. The recent exhumation of mass graves and the testimony of Bosnian Serb soldiers at The Hague are bringing to light the ugly details of the ethnic cleansing of Srebrenica, leaving little doubt as to the fate of the 8,000 men still missing.

The Muslim population of Srebrenica had no choice but to flee as the Bosnian Serbs looted and burned their homes, forcibly removing their men in the process. As they left, the women of Srebrenica believed they would see their men again. After all, the UN and other international organizations, not to mention the press, were everywhere. The news media, initially slow to focus attention on the missing men of Srebrenica, eventually brought their stories to light.

A few weeks ago I visited Dobrinja, a Sarajevo suburb which had charmed international Olympians a dozen years ago. Holes from shells and sniper-fire mar the buildings like gaping wounds. Bosnian Serb snipers sprayed their bullets only onto the Muslim side of the streets. The Bosnian Serb houses survived four years of war virtually unscathed, only to be abandoned this February by their owners when Bosnian Serb authorities convinced the residents to leave. Since then, more than 100 refugee families have resettled in some of the abandoned houses.

Azemina's family was one. They arrived in Dobrinja during the first week of April. Her family now consists of two daughters, her youngest son, a daughter-in-law, and five grandchildren. They had been living in Tuzla with a host family, sharing a small, three-bedroom house since last August. Azemina decided to move to Dobrinja, clinging desperately to the finite possibility that somehow her husband and sons are still alive.

Azemina's stare, when she saw me, seemed predictable; as a young, Asian-American woman often traveling alone, I am accustomed to curious looks. Minutes later, she exclaimed, "You were at the Tuzla airbase last July!" A week after the fall of Srebrenica and Zepa, I was in Tuzla interviewing recently arrived refugees. I was the first person to "check in on her" since that time. After seeing the squalid conditions of the refugee camp and collective centers in Tuzla last July, I had erroneously assumed that these innocent victims would be taken care of; they were not.

Many women-headed households have been reluctant to move out of the collective centers and host homes to attempt to make it on their own. Azemina's survival, however, is tenuous. When asked what would happen if the Bosnian Serb homeowners were to return, a sigh is her only response. Survivors cannot afford "what ifs," especially with all the day-to-day worries that occupy them.

The survivors of Srebrenica in Dobrinja don't receive humanitarian aid. Current policy states that refugee status - and thus, access to assistance - is city-specific. Having left Tuzla, Azemina's family has to reregister in Sarajevo in order to receive UN High Commissioner for Refugees assistance. But the Sarajevo Assembly has been dissolved, and the governmental offices of the Bosnian Republic cannot deal with "local issues." The representative elected by the refugees has tried to address this problem but the mechanism to resolve such issues doesn't exist.

Heroic women like Azemina have suffered more loss in the past year than most people see in a lifetime. All they have now is hope. The international community, having declined to come to the rescue of Srebrenica, has an obligation to aid its survivors.

*Paula Ghedini is an advocacy associate at Refugees International, a Washington-based humanitarian organization.

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