In July 1995, I faced certain death at the hands of Ratko Mladić’s so-called Army of Republika Srpska. A man named Kenneth Biser saved me.
By the time he was arrested in the village of Lazarevo in Serbia in May 2011, former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladić was a shadow of the man I met in Srebrenica in July 1995. He was arrested after 16 years in hiding, successfully evading the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). There’s little doubt that the Serbian police and intelligence agencies – which executed his arrest following years of international pressure on Serbia to hand over Mladić and other war crimes suspects – had also been helping him remain free all that time. When he finally showed up at court in The Hague, a ruin of a man, he was adamant that he – who oversaw the Srebrenica genocide operation and commanded a hundreds-of-thousands-strong military in a conflict that resulted in over a million refugees, 100,000 dead, and countless suffering – did no wrong.
After a trial spanning five years, with 530 working days, 9,914 exhibits, and 592 witnesses, the court disagreed. It found him guilty in November 2017 of one count of genocide, six counts of crimes against humanity, and four counts of violations of laws or customs of war. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. Mladić appealed the decision.
On Tuesday, the International Residual Mechanism for International Tribunals (IRMCT), a legal entity that has inherited international tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, upheld Mladić’s convictions and confirmed his life sentence. Its judgement was final and cannot be appealed any further.
As I watched the IRMCT judges deliver their verdict, I thought that even after Mladić is gone his life’s work is going to remain among us. His heritage will continue to poison our future. I did take comfort in the fact, however, that he was going to spend the rest of his life languishing in prison and fearing for his life every second.
Reflecting on how long we have waited for justice to be served, I thought of the man who saved me from certain death at the hands of Mladić’s so-called Army of Republika Srpska. I realised I never got to thank him.
When the town fell to Mladić’s troops, I found myself in Potočari, at the base belonging to the Dutch battalion (Dutchbat) responsible for enforcing the “Safe Area” designated in Srebrenica under a UN Security Council resolution. Tens of thousands of civilians from Srebrenica sought protection in Potočari on July 11, 1995. By the early evening of July 13, they were all forcibly removed. The only Bosniaks remaining in the enclave were a group of local interpreters and employees of various UN and international agencies, including my friend Hasan Nuhanović and myself.
We watched as the Serb soldiers – with the Dutchbat facilitating – forcibly removed 30,000 people in the course of three days. The base and the fields around it were suddenly empty. On July 13, the killing started all around us. At night, stragglers, sometimes wounded, would seek help at the Dutchbat gate. They were all turned away. The Dutch called me to translate. They made me say no to the men. Then I stood there and watched them disappear back into the dark, knowing that they had no chance of surviving.
In the afternoon of July 14, a fax arrived at Dutchbat headquarters. It was brief and contained legal advice and two names. It read: “This is to advise you that, according to the UNPF Legal Advisor, UNPROFOR has a legal obligation to evacuate its local staff employed under the 300 Series contract. While recognizing your own difficult situation, it is nevertheless imperative that all measures must be taken to ensure the safety and safe evacuation of the two UNMO interpreters: Mr. Hasan Nuhanovic (TZ 00172), Mr. Emir Suljagic (TZ 00173).”
This text did not necessarily ensure that Hasan and I would survive, but it did mean that, out of all the Bosniak men trapped at the Dutchbat base in Potočari and around it, someone knew about Hasan and me, and was interceding on our behalf. The document contained another paragraph requesting that the sender be informed in case anything should go wrong.
Hasan and I were lucky in that we had signed a specific type of UN contract. I am sure that none of us knew what that meant at the time we signed. We were also lucky in that there was a man sitting in Tuzla, whom we only met a few times and who, for whatever reason, decided to act on that contract.
Kenneth Biser was a burly former US Army lieutenant-colonel working in the Civilian Affairs department of the UN mission in Tuzla, in the Bosnian Government-held territory. He came to Srebrenica a few times, driving from Tuzla through numerous Serb checkpoints during the siege. He would speak to the two of us during his visits, but that was the extent of our relationship. I thought of him as well informed, sarcastic, and likeable.
The message Biser sent was prompted by a secret telephone call that Hasan made to Tuzla from the Dutchbat communication centre. If anyone found out Hasan had entered the communication centre, he would be expelled from the base, even if that meant that he would not survive. I can still remember a Dutch warrant officer turning us away from the battalion canteen when we came to watch the 1994 World Cup because we were locals. Dutchbat were strange that way: during the siege, they enforced rules related to local staff with rigour. That rigour petered out in the face of Ratko Mladić.
Hasan made the phone call because of increasing rumours that the Serbs were requesting – and the Dutch were considering – the handing over of the locally-employed staff, some of whom found refuge in the Dutch base with their families. Hasan and I, together with some dozen other “local staff,” left the base in Potočari on July 21, after a torturous 10 days. By the time the Dutchbat evacuated the base and Mladić ceremoniously presented the Dutchbat commander Thon Karremans with gifts for him and his wife on the border crossing between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, we were all at our wit’s end. But we survived.
Following the IRMCT verdict, it is now certain that Mladić, the man who oversaw the genocide, is going to spend his remaining years in prison. But Mladić is no longer the enemy – his poisonous heritage, especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina, is.
I refuse to be his hostage, and I want to honour the man who saved lives in those dark days. I do not remember meeting Kenneth Biser again, and I am sure I never thanked him properly or acknowledged him in the way he deserved for what he did for me and others. I am sure that his actions on Hasan’s and my behalf saved the lives of others from the base as well.
I have no other way of saying thank you except like this. Thank you, Ken. Thank you on behalf of my daughter as well.