Srebrenica lies 30 km west of the Drina River that marks the Bosnian border with Serbia. In 1992, Munira Beba Hadzic was the headmistress of the elementary school there, and responsible for over 1,000 7- 15-year-olds from all ethnicities and backgrounds. At the beginning of May that year, Serb forces chased the town’s Bosnian Muslim population from their homes, foreshadowing the Srebrenica genocide that took place three years later, during which some 8,000 Muslim men and boys lost their lives. Following the 1992 military operation, Beba, together with her mother, sister and husband ended up homeless and destitute in Tuzla, a northern industrial town where she still lives. Today, she runs an organisation, Bosfam that helps widows and other poor and vulnerable women of all ages, ethnicities and nationalities earn a small living making Bosnian handicrafts.
Some people fled to the hills when the armed men and paramilitaries arrived, but hundreds of us were pushed into the streets and taken to a nearby village where soldiers with guns and masks were waiting for us. Our menfolk were separated from us and taken to a local school. Thank God my husband was not there, or his fate would have been sealed. I hid with my mother and sister for ten days in a house belonging to the mother of a neighbour, until my husband later joined us.
Then early one morning, soldiers rounded up everyone and took us to the bus station. I saw the son of one of my colleagues from school dressed in an army uniform, a boy of around 17. I asked him what he was doing. I will never forget his reply. He said: “Don’t worry, we don’t want to kill you. But we are sending you all away because only Serbs are allowed to live here now.” I felt as if I had been hit in the face. What seemed so terrible was his belief that he had the right to do that. I thought, My God, this is the ideology of war. We can be killed at any moment.
Later the soldiers confiscated all our money, jewelry and IDs, and then we were herded into trucks and driven to Tuzla. After 36 hours in terrible conditions we reached our destination where thankfully a relative met us and took us to her home. But still, you cannot imagine what it feels like to be displaced, to be a refugee. One day you have a home, friends, a job, money, photos, and the next day you have nothing.
After some days I tried to get information about people I knew and went to a sports hall, which had been turned into a collective centre. It was packed with refugees. On the steps a little girl from my school spotted me. ”Oh, look, there’s our headmistress,” she said, pointing. It was as if my eyes were suddenly opened. I said to myself, she’s right, although, I am a refugee and I have nothing, I am still a headmistress. And then I remembered something my mother always said to us as children: You can lose money, possessions, everything, but no one can take from you what you have learned.
Today, almost twenty years on, I run an organisation called Bosfam that supports very poor women and widows who have suffered the loss of loved ones or other tragedies. In Bosfam we weave carpets, knit, and make handicrafts. No one is turned away. The only thing that is not welcome is any talk of politics.
I started the organisation in Tuzla in 1994. When Srebrenica fell to Bosnian Serb Forces a year later, it was a terrible situation. As many as 100 women at a time were coming to do weaving and handicrafts. I remember the mothers who had lost husbands, brothers, and sons just sitting there, feeling the weight of their sorrow. So I made them move around and clean and be active so that when they drank coffee together afterwards and started to talk, they felt better. Help and healing passed from hand to hand.
I believe there exists in all of us the ability to help others when terrible things happen. Men and women are like plants that if watered, grow.
I have been back to Srebrenica many times over the years and seen the armed men who pushed me out of my home in 1992. I was told one of them was causing problems for any of his fellow Serbs who spoke with us Bosniaks. So when he passed me in the street and looked at me I made a point of saying, “Hello, how are you?” We were in a public place and he couldn’t ignore me, so he also said, “How are you?” Then I looked at him in the eye and said, “You see, you did not destroy me.” It was such a small thing, but he looked happy and smiled. I called people over who had accused him of bad things, and said to them, “Look I am standing with him in the middle of the town.” And to him I said, “Now you can say that you stood here and talked with Beba.”