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Bosnian massacre survivors grapple with horrors and deniers

Devla Ajsic refuses silence, through tears and between fraught silences.

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Bosnian massacre survivors grapple with horrors and deniers

Ajsic, 21 years old, was three months pregnant when she was sexually assaulted repeatedly in Srebrenica in July 1995. Her fiance and thousands more mostly Muslim men were also taken away and executed in Europe’s only genocide since World War II.

Ajsic didn't speak openly for decades about the horrors she suffered after Bosnian Serb troops stormed eastern Bosnian towns in the final months of 1992-95 war.

"I kept it all in for 26 years, and suffered silently." I didn't have anyone to confide in or to share my pain. ... "I cannot take it anymore," Ajsic, now 47 years old, said as she fought back tears as she spoke out publicly about her experience on Sunday 26th anniversary of the massacre.

About 30,000 Muslims fled Srebrenica after Bosnian Serb forces took it. The town had been declared a U.N. safe haven in 1993.

The outnumbered and outgunned peacekeepers watched as the Serb troops removed some 2,000 soldiers and men from the compound and executed them. They then raped the girls and women and bused them to Bosniak Muslim-held territory.

Ajsic claimed that she was sexually assaulted, tortured, and beaten for three days before leaving Srebrenica in one the last refugee buses.

She sobbed, describing the horrors they did to her. "They tied me to a desk. My neck and chest were bruised from the beatings. I was naked on that table." Unless they are willing to talk publicly, the Associated Press doesn't usually name victims of sex abuse.

Ajsic claimed that the Serb soldiers had drugged her, clouding the mind. However, she was acutely aware that she wasn't the only woman who was kept tied and subjected to terrible abuse in a hangar at the U.N compound.

She said nothing about the women's "screaming and cries for help" as she described them. "What were we to do when the soldiers came through the door and unzipped their pants as they walked towards us?" We felt like lambs, waiting for the knife to kill us.

She believes that her personal horror, including the loss to the fetus after fleeing Srebrenica and the killing spree by Bosnian Serbs over 8,000 predominantly Muslim men and boys, is nothing compared to the massacre in Bosnia.

Several victims fled into the nearby forest, but were captured and executed by police. To hide the crime, their bodies were dug into mass graves with bulldozers.

Many of the wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters of the victims in Srebrenica are dedicated to finding their husbands' remains and fighting for justice. Yet, very few have spoken out about the sexual abuse they endured during the fall in Srebrenica for more than a quarter century.

When confronted by political opposition to setting up a memorial graveyard across from the Dutch U.N. Base, the women refused to give up. Since 2002, they have reburied their loved ones every July 11.

The remains of over 6,600 people have been exhumed so far from mass graves. They were identified using forensic analysis, and reburied at this site. There will be 19 more victims laid to rest on Sunday.

Srebrenica's Bosniak women played a key role in cases against the United Nations (UN) and the Netherlands. These cases were based on the failure of Dutch U.N. troops in 1995 to protect civilians of the town. The European Parliament adopted a resolution commemorating July 11, as the Day of Remembrance of Srebrenica genocide.

Munira Subasic was one of them. She lost her husband, a child, and 22 male relatives to the massacre.

Together with many others, she testified before the U.N. war crime tribunal in The Hague. They were investigating the crimes committed in the 1990s Balkan Wars. This helped to put behind bars Radovan Karadzic, a Bosnian Serb wartime political and military leader, and Ratko Maldic, who were both convicted for genocide as well as war crimes.

The Srebrenica massacre was called genocide by international courts and national courts. However, officials from Serbian and Bosnian Serb still downplay the crime or deny it. Many Srebrenica women have made it their mission to set the record straight about what happened with their men.

Subasic stated, "We must keep fighting for truth & justice to prevent the young generation (in the Balkans), from being infected with hate and from seeking revenge."

"I hope the conscience of the whole world will wake up and protect us like they did the Jewish mothers. Help us get a law to prevent genocide denial and spare us from the humiliation and offense of its denial."

She said, "Only then can we and our kids start living a normal lifestyle."

Bosnian Serb political leadership has repeatedly prevented the country's adoption of a law banning genocide denial. Milorad Dodik the Serb member in Bosnia's presidency, publicly described the Srebrenica massacre as "fabricated myth."

Subasic and other Bosniak Muslim women are against "active, institution and institutionalized genocide denimination" by Serbian officials.

"The people who participated in genocide remain alive and the political classes which are deeply invested in (the 1990s war crimes) are still in power," Suljagic stated. He noted that Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, a former ultranationalist minister, threatened to kill 100 Muslim Bosniaks if the international community intervened in stopping the Srebrenica massacre.

Vucic now calls himself a pro-European Union reformer. However, he did not hesitate to condemn as "an act betrayal" recent resolutions by Montenegro & Kosovo condemning the Srebrenica genocide as well as banning its denial.

After living in Bosnia for many decades, Ajsic returned to Srebrenica a year ago with her son and their family. She no longer believes that a normal existence is possible because of the traumas she has endured.

Because of the stigma surrounding the rapes, her late husband forbade her from speaking out about it publicly. But with his passing, she was able to let go of some of her trauma.

She claims she is afraid to go on the streets of Srebrenica. This town is now shared by massacre survivors and massacre deniers.

She said, "I returned to Srebrenica to live, but I am afraid to walk on the streets here, because I don’t know who the people driving around me are or what their motives are."

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