Public Lecture - 28 May 2015 - Sarajevo BiH - Gallery 11/07/95

The role of the UN

Hasan Nuhanovic, MA

expert researcher, Srebrenica survivor


I always have problems to start. I don’t know really where to start from. I did not take notes while the previous speakers were talking because there are some interventions that I would have made during their presentations and also during the first video, in order to have some sort of reference points to limit myself and not exceed the 15 minutes. I was asked, however, to speak about the role of the United Nations and, probably, 20 years after the Srebrenica genocide I would be standing in front of you even if my family was not killed, because I worked with the United Nations and you would have now invited me, maybe, to speak about my experience as a local employee, as the so called locally employed staff in the period between 1993 and 1995. There were other young men like myself who were employed locally in Srebrenica in April, May 1993 until July 1995. One of those individuals you know from TV, his name is Emir Suljagic. We’ve worked together side by side for two years, every single day, seven days a week.

How I became a UN employee? My father was a passionate smoker and he bagged me for three days to go to the Canadians when they first arrived at the end of April and ask them for one cigarette for my father. I smoked, too, but not for months because the price of one package of cigarettes was 150 German Marks so it was totally unaffordable like many other things. I will not go into details about the price list of food items in Srebrenica, but just before the UN came we were about to die out of starvation, not only because the Serbs shelled the area every day and people died from shelling and sniping, but because we were on the edge, literally. I lost 25-30 kilograms, my father lost 40. As I said, I went to ask for a cigarette and the soldier who was in front of the base said: ‘Do you speak some English?’ and I said ‘Yes, I do a little’, because I spent three months before this event studying English. At the most critical period of my life and the lives of tens of thousands of people, because we were about to be exterminated, eliminated, killed - whatever you call it. So people joked about my desire to learn English in Srebrenica at the end of 1992 and the beginning of 1993. And why I did it? I was so desperate in that situation. I did not see the end of the suffering. I thought we were all going to die. This is what I thought. I thought we will not survive this. And I said: ‘But if I survive, I will not stay in Bosnia for one single day. Not one hour. Not even for one hour.’ As soon there is peace, if there is peace ever again, because we could not even imagine that there will be peace one day again. This is in retrospect. We know it now, but in that moment you don’t see the end of the tunnel. You don’t see it. I started learning English in Srebrenica from a book which I managed to find in the local Dom kulture. That is how I became an employee of the United Nations. We did not have any contracts and then three, four, five months later we worked as volunteers for almost six months and then we received contracts. A couple of people like myself, young men, joined the UN in patrols across the UN safe area on daily basis and what separated us inside from the Serb forces outside were, at the beginning, 13 observation posts. Later, the number of posts was reduced down to eight or nine. But it did not make a big difference. When we patrolled, I would join two or three officers - not Dutch, these were from various countries in the world – I joined them on those trips and the people who lived around the observation posts – I was translating from Bosnian to English - they would ask the question: ‘What will happen if the Serbs launch an attack?’ These observers would show up to the sky and answer: ‘Well, within 5, 10 or 15 minutes upon our call - the call of the United Nations – there would be NATO planes. They would just fly from the NATO base in Italy and it takes a few minutes for those mighty war machines to destroy any attacking force on the ground. You are safe. You are under the protection of the United Nations and NATO.’

People were scared. We survived the worst year in our lives. Between 1992 and April 1993 there was no UN. The situation was well described by Florence and by the other speakers, how we even managed to survive the firs year of the war before the UN finally sent the first unit of 200 Canadians to Srebrenica. 200 Canadians. They were succeeded 10 months later by 600 Dutch soldiers. So how did life look like inside the UN safe area? Well, the mass killing stopped. There was a difference after those two resolutions were passed in New York. People still died, but the number of those who died was hundred times smaller, thousand times smaller. People would die around the border of the UN safe area from sniping every week, a person or ten every ten days or a few people a month. But the number of those who were killed was much smaller than before. Food was delivered three times a week. Let’s say ten, fifteen big, huge lorries would come three times a week. And this was the assessment of the UNHCR. This is how much food was needed for 42.000 people in Srebrenica. The official figure was 42.000 people inside that UN safe area. That is the indicator which tells you how much food was needed before the UN started sending food to us. I would never be able to describe the life before the UN. I tried to do that in my book “Zbijeg” which I wrote a couple of years ago. If you walked the streets of Srebrenica, after I would return from patrolling the area with those UN military observers, we would return to Srebrenica and I would walk through the streets and we would see NATO planes flying over – not every day, but every week, every ten days. We even learned how to distinguish between different types of NATO planes. We heard about some planes called A10, which were tank busters, tank destroyers. We were explaining that these tank destroyers would destroy tanks just like that, with laser guided ammunition etc. You walked through the streets of Srebrenica and you meet those Canadians left, two hundred of them. They were very tough, experienced soldiers. When the Dutch came, they brought in freshly painted white APCs with UN signs on them. If you would touch the APCs, I think that the white paint was still fresh. It was all brand new. The Dutch sent a brand new unit and equipment to Srebrenica. I realised that the Dutch are next to Montenegrins the tallest nation in the world. When we walked through the streets of Srebrenica, we would encounter five, six huge Dutch guys with machine guns in their hands, Ray-Ban glasses, they all looked like Rambo in the streets of Srebrenica. They were tough guys walking through the mass of disoriented refugees.

I needed to explain how we lived inside the UN safe area before the Serbs launched that attack in July 1995. It was very much a surreal life. It was as if somebody placed a glass bell over us. There was some sort of invisible wall but that invisible wall actually comes from the status of the UN safe area. This is the most important thing. It is not about the number of UN troops or even the number of UN planes, or sorry – NATO planes that are at disposal upon the invitation of the United Nations to protect the UN safe area. It is about the status itself. If you have the United Nations with 193 member countries, states, we had the feeling that all of the 193 states in the world are actually supporting and protecting us. We did not think that the flag of the United Nations that flew over the UN compound in Potocari was a joke. There you see the picture - it says ‘United Nothing’. We didn’t think that it was ‘United Nothing’. We thought that these people came to save our lives. There was nothing funny about it. It was a matter of life and death. And they stood between us and the Serbs. Nothing else was there. However, I would just refer to the video from the beginning: the video does not mention, or let’s say, in the video it looks as if Srebrenica was somehow defended by the Dutch. The Dutch did not fire one single bullet at the attacking Serb forces. This is what the UN report on Srebrenica says. The attack lasted for six days and it was the local Bosnian brave people who took up the arms again and tried to defend the town. The attack lasted for 6 days. One thing is often forgotten. I will not mention the names of some officers who asked me over the last twenty years: ‘Why did you not hold longer? Why did you not fight by all means?’ Let’s just think about this: The fighting lasted for six days and if you are planning to leave the UN safe area at one point, because it was indefensible, how are you supposed to cross 100 kilometres of territory to Tuzla if you fire all your ammunition. So, Srebrenica was absolutely indefensible. It was just a matter of days, hours or minutes when it is going to fall into the Serb hands, unless the NATO and United Nations do their job. They were tasked to do that. The UN was paid. We’re not talking about the organization as such or the flag - it was the people with very high salaries that were there to do their job.

I was actually probably asked to come here to talk about what happened in Potočari, I will try to quickly go through that because I have a few more minutes left. When Srebrenica fell, the mass of 25.000 refugees reached Potocari. As it was shown in the first video, the Dutch allowed 5.000 refugees to enter the compound and 20.000 had to remain outside. That was the first moment when the Dutch, not the Serbs, decided who or how many people get inside and how many people do not get inside. It was a decision made by the United Nations, the Dutch, not the Serbs. The Serbs did not come to Potocari on that day. It was the 11th of July. The Serbs came the next day. Now I have to say something very important. As Florence said and Jana Bec before - she talked about the war crime tribunals in the First and the second world war, Nurnberg – in the work of the ICTY, in the way in which the international community attempted - I wouldn’t say attempted but let’s use the word attempted - to prevent the genocide, there were precedents in many ways in the way in which the international community treated the Bosnian war. One of the precedents in this case, I would say, in terms of genocide being perpetrated, was what I would call “the third element”. The third element in this genocide was the United Nations. Normally, in genocide you have the perpetrator and the victim. Normally. In this situation that I am showing to you in the presentation, in the photos, you have a third element. This third element was an active participant in these events that I am going to describe in one minute. And you realize now that it was the Dutch who received the 5.000 people inside. The 20.000 people remained outside despite the fact that there was so much space available inside the UN compound. The only remaining place in the UN safe area was the UN compound. So, why would the Dutch not allow the people to remain there? Well, there is no time for all these notes. There is one note, for example, that Akashi, the top UN guy in Zagreb, on 11th of July says to his staff. On 11th of July the UN in Zagreb knows that Srebrenica just fell. And this is what Akashi states, this is recorded by a person called Anthony Banbury. This is one of his notes. Akashi says: ‘We should take advantage the events. Rationalization with deployment we have desired for a long time’, Florence talked about that, ‘also in Zepa and in Gorazde.’ This means that they already have written off the other two enclaves on the 11th of July 1995. As far as the UN was concerned the other two enclaves were going to fall, too. ‘We have a huge media challenge. Any sign of abandoning the enclaves would be very difficult. How do we sell this new policy?’ This was the only concern of Akashi, as far as I can see. Not what happens to the people.

This is the situation when the Serbs arrived on the 12th of July from two directions. You can see now how different the situation was for those people who were inside the base and for those people who were outside the base. It was totally different. The people who were inside the base thought that they were the lucky ones. 'It's not a fair situation, but now that we are inside', the people thought, 'OK, we are the lucky ones'. And those who had to remain outside are unlucky. Looking at my friend, Jean Rene Ruez, we spent a lot of time together in '96, '97, '98, until you left and I remember how serious that job was for you and affected your health, but remember, I told you about these events, but from the point of the ICTY the priority was investigating the Serb war criminals who perpetrated genocide. Investigation of the actions of the United Nations or the Dutch was out of the question. And this is what was officially told. I’ve received officially this type of information from a top person. I was talking to Carla Del Ponte at that time, I went to her office and she told us that the ICTY will never investigate any of the Dutch soldiers or officers or officers who were responsible for what I'm describing on these pictures now. What marked my life forever was this. So, on 13th of July 1995 the Dutch ordered all the refugees who were inside the base, inside the factory hall to leave. The Dutch did not tell these people anything else. They just told them to go out. The Dutch made sure that these people walk straight to the main gate. It was not the Serbs. Remember what I am trying to tell you. Many people don't realize that Mladic never stepped inside the UN compound in Potocari. He never placed his foot inside. Only at one point five or six Serb soldiers came inside and checked how many refugees were there. They said they wanted to find out if there were any armed soldiers, Bosnian army soldiers. They checked that and they left. So, whatever happened after that moment inside the UN compound was the decision of the Dutch and the United Nations. The Dutch made sure that access would mark how the Dutch stood, on both sides of this track people would have to go one by one, out of the compound and straight through the main gate. The Dutch or the United Nations directly participated or actually conducted by themselves this expulsion or eviction of the people from the compound as if the ownership of this compound was in the hands of the Dutch or the UN. No one else had more right to remain inside the compound from Bosniaks themselves: Who had more right? The UN safe area was created for us, not for the Dutch or the UN. So, what the Dutch or the UN did, was that they actually evicted the people from the last remaining space of the UN safe area. They evicted them, they sent them out and this all happened under two flags that were still standing on top of the tallest building there – the UN flag and the flag of the Netherlands. The people walked straight to their deaths, as you know, and the number of men and boys in Potocari, both inside and outside the compound, summed up together, was about 2.000. This is also very often forgotten. If you check the numbers, about 25% of the Srebrenica genocide victims were taken away from Potocari. I am speaking this in the context of genocide denial, because a few nights ago I watched a program in which a serious, respectable Serb historian denied genocide on the Federation TV and he said the column of men and boys, I am not going to argue about that now, was a legitimate target of the Bosnian Serb Army. You can talk about that, maybe, I don’t know. I am not going to argue about that if the column was a legitimate target. Of course, they arrested these people, they tied up their hands and killed then in these mass executions, but none of these Serb experts from Belgrade or Banja Luka would ever mention the fact that in Potocari there were 2.000 men and boys. They were all taken away and killed. I would like to hear their opinion in that context, how they would try to justify that part of the Srebrenica genocide story. I survived the Potocari situation, I did not survive the column, the march of death and I can not talk about that.

This is my last slide. I know I've also violated the time limit. It's the last picture. I had more pictures to show but unfortunately there is no more time. When finally 60.000 international troops, under the NATO flag this time, came to Bosnia and deployed their forces across the country, nobody ever talked about that. I tried to raise this question 10, 15 years ago. I managed with the mothers of Srebrenica to protest in front of the Eagle base in 2002 or 2001. Look at the map of the deployment of the international troops after the Dayton agreement was signed. There isn't one single spot, there isn't one single permanent installation, military base of NATO troops, SFOR, IFOR etc. in Eastern Bosnia which was directly affected by the Srebrenica genocide. How on earth were the Bosniaks supposed to go back to their homes, those who survived and at this point were concentrated in the Federation in Central Bosnia and who were already thinking about migrating to the USA or Western Europe. What else should they have done? Genocide continued in this way and if I had time or another opportunity I would've shown you a map of the globe where you would see that Bosniaks live on four continents. In St. Louis alone there is 50.000 Bosniaks – the largest community of Bosniaks, including those from the Drina valley. In St. Louis in America. Fifty thousand Bosniaks are there. The mass graves that Jean Rene was talking about were all there in the American sector and there was only one American base later established near Srebrenica for a very brief time, for one or two years. That is when the return of Bosniaks started to that region. When Afghanistan and Iraq war started, American president Bush withdrew the Americans from Bosnia and there was no more international presence in that form in Eastern Bosnia anymore. Thank you.

Hasan Nuhanovic, Bosnia And Herzegovina
Born in Zvornik, BiH, in 1968. BSc in Mechanical Engineering from Sarajevo University in 2008 (regular university studies interrupted by the BiH war). In 2014, MA in International and Public Relations from International University of Sarajevo (IUS). Presently works as Strategic Planning Expert Adviser at the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial Centre. Active member of associations of families of the victims of the Srebrenica genocide. Contributed to numerous publications and participated in a number of conferences dealing with the Srebrenica genocide and other related issues.

Books: In July 2005, Report / book about the role of the international community in the events surrounding the fall of Srebrenica “UN Safe Area” entitled “Under the UN Flag – the international community and the Srebrenica Genocide.” In October 2012, creative non-fiction book entitled “Zbijeg” (“A Refuge”) on genocide perpetrated against Bosniak population of eastern Bosnia in 1992 and 1993.