Mirela Hodzic Sivic had a childhood, but she was never able to be a kid. The horrors of war in Bosnia made sure of that.
“It was a normal thing for me to hear one day that someone was found dead, that the whole family was found dead,” she said from her home in Quebec.
More than 100,000 people were killed during the nearly four-year-long war, including at least 30 members of her extended family.
But this week, on the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, she’s thinking specifically about her father Sulejman Hodzic and keeping his memory alive.
She was 7 years old when Bosnian Serbs surrounded Srebrenica and began systematically murdering all the men and boys. In all, more than 8,000 were killed while many women were raped.
Canada, along with the United States and the European Union, has called it genocide.
Fortunately, Mirela had escaped months prior with her mother and brother to Turkey. But the Serb forces were preventing any men from leaving so her father, who was almost 27 years old, had to stay behind.
When it became clear Srebrenica was about to fall, Mirela says her father tried to escape — along with thousands of others.
“They were escaping to the forest through the mountains,” she said, “and he was in a small group but he was killed just before he reached safe territory.”
She said the lone survivor of that group told her family what happened, but after returning to Bosnia in 1996 she still held out hope her father had survived.
“And when I would go to sleep at night, I would actually imagine the scene of him coming back,” she said.”I think my mom actually knew that he wouldn’t ever come back, but she never wanted to tell us.”
It wasn’t until 2004 that his death was confirmed, after his remains were found in a forest. By then the surviving Hodzics had emigrated to Canada and started a new life. Because Mirela was the only one in her family who spoke some English it was up to her to tell their story to immigration officers. She was only 12 years old.
“Well, it was really, really difficult,” she said, “but Canada has given us an opportunity to change our destiny, and we have definitely changed that.”
The war began after the fall of communism in the former Yugoslavia. Bosnian Serbs, who were backed by neighbouring Serbia, attacked the newly created Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992 by laying siege to the city of Sarajevo.
It wasn’t until after the Srebrenica massacre in 1995 that UN airstrikes and sanctions helped end the conflict.
Stephen Saideman, who co-hosts the Canadian Global Affairs podcast Battle Rhythm, said the UN had the resources to end the conflict sooner but it wasn’t willing to commit anything more than lightly armed Dutch troops, who had replaced Canadian peacekeepers in 1994.
“I think that Canada felt guilt, as much as any other country felt guilt, because we let genocide happen in front of us,” he said.
In the years after the war, a UN tribunal in The Hague found 62 men guilty of war crimes. Ratko Mladic, who was in charge of the Bosnian Serb forces, and political leader Radovan Karadzic were among those convicted of the crime of genocide.
But far more who were involved with the massacre are still free and unlikely to ever see the inside of a courtroom, adding to continued tension in an already volatile area.
“Maybe Ratko Mladic, the military leader and Karadzic the political leader have gone to The Hague and (former Serbian President) Slobodan Milosovic is dead,” Saideman said. “But the folks behind them, the folks under them are still around, and it hasn’t been the whole reckoning.”
A number of refugees from Srebrenica settled in Windsor, Ont., where MP Brian Masse took an interest their stories. He had a monument installed in a Windsor park earlier this year commemorating the massacre.
In 2010 he made a motion that passed in the House of Commons to have July 11 recognized as Srebrenica Remembrance Day in Canada. Shortly thereafter he travelled to the region, and was left shaken by the stories he heard and mass graves he visited.
“I went there feeling guilty, that all I could do is pass a motion of words that, you know, was a couple of sentences long,” he said. “But that to them was so important that it meant the world to them. And it also meant that they weren’t alone and being alone was the worst thing.”
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