SREBRENICA, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — Through tears and in between fraught silences, Devla Ajsic refuses to remain quiet any longer.
Ajsic was 21 years old and three months pregnant in July 1995 when she was repeatedly sexually assaulted in Srebrenica while her fiance and thousands of other mostly Muslim men and boys were taken away and executed in Europe’s only acknowledged genocide since World War II.
For decades, Ajsic did not talk openly about the horrors she endured after Bosnian Serb forces stormed the eastern Bosnian town in the waning months of the Balkan country’s 1992-95 war.
“I locked it all inside for 26 years and suffered in silence. I had no one to confide in, no one to share my pain with. ... I cannot take it any longer,” said the now 47-year-old Ajsic, steeling herself as she finally spoke publicly of her ordeal on the eve of the 26th anniversary of the massacre Sunday.
When Bosnian Serb forces captured Srebrenica, which had been declared a U.N. “safe haven” for civilians in 1993, about 30,000 of its terrified Muslim residents rushed to the U.N. compound at the entrance to town in the hope that the Dutch U.N. peacekeepers there would protect them.
However, the outgunned and outnumbered peacekeepers watched helplessly as Serb troops took some 2,000 men and boys from the compound for execution, raped the women and girls, and then bused the women, children and elderly to Bosniak Muslim-held territory.
Ajsic said she was sexually assaulted and tortured for three days before departing Srebrenica in one of the last buses packed with refugees.
“The things they did to me, they tied me to a desk, my neck and my chest were blue from bruises, I was sprawled naked on that table,” she recounted, sobbing. The Associated Press typically doesn’t name sex abuse victims except in cases where they opt to speak publicly.
Ajsic said the Serb soldiers drugged her, clouding her mind, but even so she was acutely aware she was not the only woman kept bound and subject to horrific abuse in a hangar of the then-U.N. compound.
There are no words to describe their “screaming, their cries for help," she said of the women. “What could we do when (the soldiers) came through that door unzipping their pants and walked toward us? We were like lambs, like sacrificial lambs waiting for a knife to slaughter us.”
And yet, she believes her personal nightmare, including the loss of the fetus she had to abort after fleeing Srebrenica, is dwarfed by the weeklong Bosnian Serb killing spree in which over 8,000 mostly Muslim men and boys from the town perished.
Most of the victims were hunted down and summarily executed as they tried to flee into nearby forest. Their bodies were plowed into hastily dug mass graves and then later excavated with bulldozers and scattered among other burial sites to hide evidence of the crime.
Many wives, mothers, sisters and daughters of those killed in Srebrenica have dedicated their lives to fighting for the truth about what happened to their men and searching for their remains. And yet, in over a quarter-century, only a handful have publicly spoken of the sexual abuse they suffered during the fall of Srebrenica.
The women stubbornly stood their ground when confronted with political opposition to their request to set up a memorial cemetery across from the former Dutch U.N. base, where on every July 11 since 2002 they have reburied the remains of their loved ones.
So far, the remains of more than 6,600 people have been exhumed from mass graves, identified by forensic analysis and reburied at the site. The remains of 19 more victims will be laid to rest there Sunday.
Srebrenica’s Bosniak women were also key to cases brought against the United Nations and the Netherlands over the failure of the Dutch U.N. troops to protect the town’s civilians in 1995, and the adoption of a European Parliament resolution commemorating July 11 as the Day of Remembrance of the Srebrenica genocide.
Among them was Munira Subasic, who lost her husband, a son and 22 other male relatives in the massacre.
She, along with dozens of others testified before a special U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague to prosecute the crimes committed during the 1990s Balkan wars that followed the dissolution of former Yugoslavia, helping put behind bars Bosnian Serb war-time political and military leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, both convicted of genocide and war crimes and jailed for life.
Although the Srebrenica massacre was branded genocide by international and national courts, Serbian and Bosnian Serb officials still downplay or deny the crime. For many Srebrenica women setting the historical record straight about what happened to their men has become their life’s purpose.
“We have to keep fighting for truth and justice in order to prevent the young generations (in the Balkans) from being infected by hate, from seeking revenge,” Subasic said.
“I hope that the conscience of the world will awaken and that they will protect us as they had protected the Jewish mothers, help us get a law against genocide denial, spare us from the offense and humiliation of its denial.”
“Only then will we and our children start living a normal life,” she said.
Bosnian Serb political leaders have consistently prevented the country from adopting a law that would ban genocide denial, with the Serb member of Bosnia’s presidency, Milorad Dodik, even publicly describing the Srebrenica slaughter as a “fabricated myth.”
What Bosniak Muslim women like Subasic are up against is “active, institutional and institutionalized genocide denial” by Serbian and Bosnian Serb officials, said Emir Suljagic, the director of the Srebrenica Memorial Centre.
“The people who took part in genocide are still alive and the political class which is deeply invested in (the war crimes) of the 1990s is still in power,” Suljagic said, noting that Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic was a former ultranationalist government minister who, in July 1995, threatened to kill 100 Muslim Bosniaks for every Serb killed if the international community intervened to stop the Srebrenica slaughter.
Vucic has now rebranded himself as a pro-European Union reformer, but it did not stop him from condemning as “an act of betrayal" resolutions passed recently by Montenegro and Kosovo condemning the Srebrenica genocide and banning its denial.
Having returned a year ago to Srebrenica with her 24-year-old son and his family after living for decades in a region of central Bosnia, Ajsic no longer believes a normal life is possible after the horrors she endured.
Her late husband banned her from talking publicly about the abuse because of the stigma still surrounding the rapes, but with his death she felt free to unload a little of her trauma now.
She says she is afraid to walk the streets of Srebrenica, a town now shared between massacre survivors and massacre deniers, because she never knows if the people she encounters consider the genocide a fabrication or even took part in it.
“I came back to live in Srebrenica, but I am terrified to walk on the streets here because I don’t know who the people driving in the cars around me are, what kind of people they are,” she said.