Beba Hadzic, from Srebrenica, describes how she lead women survivors from the 1992 – 1995 Bosnian war to create Bosfam, a knitting collective that functions to generate income, provide support, and seek answers to the questions that remain central to survivors’ struggles.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Welcome to this month’s episode of Voices on Genocide Prevention. With me today is Beba Hadzić. Beba is from Srebrenica. She left in 1992 at the beginning of the war, but started a long-term project which continues through today, working with survivors from Srebrenica, largely women, on a knitting project. She’s now the director of BOSFAM, the organization that brings these women together. Ms. Hadzić, thank you very much for joining me today.
BEBA HADZIĆ: Thank you for the invitation.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Can you tell our audience what your life was like before the war began? What were you doing? Where were you living?
BEBA HADZIĆ: I am from Srebrenica. I am mathematics teacher and I was working in the Srebrenica school. Twelve years before the war, I was the director of the primary school is Srebrenica town, that was my job.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And you left in 1992. Can you describe what happened immediately around when you decided to leave?
BEBA HADZIĆ: I was in Srebrenica and my wish was to stay in Srebrenica. I really didn’t like to go out from Srebrenica. That is my town, my life, my home and everything. But in May of 1992, Serb paramilitary troops came to Srebrenica and found me and other groups of people who were in Srebrenica in buildings and they pushed all of us from our homes. Outside was a big truck and police and paramilitary Serb troops and they brought all the people who were in my building there. My family and my neighbors and kids and everyone who was in that building must go out and they pick up all of us and push us on big truck.
And then, that was May 1, 1992 and after that, they bring all people in that big truck and bus to Bratunac. My family and me, my husband, my mother and my sister who was with me spent ten days in Bratunac in one private house from our friend. Then there was ethnic cleaning in Bratunac and we must to left Bratunac. They did ethnic cleaning of Bratunac and they pushed all people who were found in that time in Bratunac and then they bring us to Tuzla, like put us like refugees in Tuzla. That was all in May 1992.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: When you were pushed out, you lost your house. Were you able to bring anything with you?
BEBA HADZIĆ: No, not anything. I didn’t have time and I didn’t have possibility to take my shoes. I was without shoes. I did not bring any pictures from my life. I just think about how I can save my life, life for my mother, my sister and my husband, which was in very bad position because many men are missing in that time. They separated [the men] from women and we want to save them because that was time when we really did not think about anything. That’s time when I leave from my home without shoes. And you can think in that time what’s happened with people in just one moment. You don’t have home. You don’t have shoes. You don’t have food. You don’t have bed. You don’t have pictures. You have nothing. You are refugee.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Srebrenica came under attack or the people from Srebrenica early then in 1992. Some defenders were able to take the town, Bosnian Muslim defenders, and hold it. It almost fell again in 1993. Then of course in 1995 the Serbs did take it and they killed some 8,000 men and boys. But, I want to talk a little bit more about that time after you were pushed out, you were forced out and became a refugee. You eventually made your way to Tuzla, which was under Bosnian government control. What did you do there?
BEBA HADZIĆ: When I just came to Tuzla like refugee that was terrible. You have nothing you own, just try to find a way to survive. Thanks for support from my friend and my relatives I got shoes. I got apartment for small time, but I really did not like just sit and wait who will help me. For example, for myself, it was very terrible, how I can go to Red Cross and ask for food? You know, when you have education, when you have salary, when you everything and after that, just about your name, you must go to Red Cross and ask for food. That’s terrible experience. That’s a really terrible time.
But, in that time, I think about that they really want to do something and the special was for me, something that was very important and sometimes I really cannot forget my students from my school, I tried to find when I started my life here like refugees in Tuzla, I just think about what’s happened with my boss and my friends. I really want to know who is maybe in Tuzla, who is not, who is lost, who is missing.
One day, I go to visit one big sports hall in Tuzla with many, many refugees in that big sports hall and I just go in and try to find someone. I want to know what’s happened with my sister and family. But one of my students, one girl who was really nice -- she’s now married, she have kids, she survived the war, but in that time, she was a little girl, maybe 10, 11, not more -- and she’s sitting with her mother like refugees in this sports hall. But when I came, she stood up and say, “Oh, my God, the director is here. That’s my director.” At that time, that was something that really pushed me and, oh, my gosh, she thinks I am director, I am not. I am refugee. I say, “Yes, I am here. How are you?” and start a little bit talk with her and her mom was crying. It was something that really pushed me and I think about that because really, we had to do something for ourselves.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: What did you decide to do? You had time and very little resources. How could you change your situation?
BEBA HADZIĆ: I mean that time was terrible situation in Tuzla. Every school was a collective center. You know, all school have a very big classroom, but that classroom in normal situations kids go and sit and someone teach them. But in war, classroom was big room for maybe 20, 25, 30 persons, women, men, kids, old persons, sick persons, young persons who just don’t have home, who is in that schoolroom because don’t have other possibility and people just sitting in and waiting what will be with them and outside it’s war.
That was terrible time and I think in that time, it was very important to just talk with people, meet someone. For example, for me, when I met the kids from my school, it was very important to me and in that time, I know they wait for something. They think I can do something and I try to do something. What we did, it was just ask where is who, who is alive, who is not alive, take care about someone who needs help. In that time, I met people from Oxfam. It was very important meeting with them and thinking about that they want to help people and I sat and asked them for support for project. That was something that was very important to me. That’s part of Bosnian tradition handicraft it’s part of Bosnian tradition and we went in Bosnia, do handicraft when they’re sitting, when they’re talking.
It was not tradition go to psychologist and speak with them when you had problem. It was part of tradition when you had a problem that you talk a little bit with your sister, neighbors, friend. But in that time, you do something in hands. You need to do something with that. Part of that we take and help group of women in collective center.
That was just what we did and after that, we have established a new Bosnian organization with name BOSFAM. That means Bosnian family. That was like we lost one family, now we have established new one, which will be big family. And of course, when we speak about Bosnia, that Bosnian family, I really want to say it’s not Bosniak family, it’s Bosnian. That means in Bosnian family we have women different nationalities who work together, who want to be together and who want to help each other.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Do you remember when you first heard in 1995 that the Serb army had taken Srebrenica?
BEBA HADZIĆ: I remember that very well because in that time, before the shelling of Srebrenica, we tried to find support for family who had missing person from Bratunac from 1992 and we know that they have people in 1992 missing. We think about that, what will be now with people from Srebrenica and when Srebrenica fell, we tried to find support from International Red Cross and everyone, but no one helped Srebrenica. But from experience from 1992, many of us will know that men were killed after Srebrenica fell. And of course, what’s happening, that thousands of people who are killed in Srebrenica, it’s my sister’s son. He was only 16. He’s not found, not yet.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: I’m sorry.
BEBA HADZIĆ: and brother-in-law.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Her husband as well?
BEBA HADZIĆ: Husbands of two sisters which is missing their families in mass graves, both of them. But that boy is missing.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: I’m sorry.
BEBA HADZIĆ: We don’t know what happened with them. We know that he was killed, but who and when or where, we don’t know. In one mass grave, we found the husband of one sister and in second mass grave, we find [husband] from second sister, but this boy is not found. He was only 16 and a half years old. He was boy.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: A child still.
BEBA HADZIĆ: Yeah, a child. One of many child which is missing because I know when Srebrenica fell from that, many victims of Srebrenica, many students from my school… Young…and many teachers, my neighbors and relatives and men, husbands of someone, brother of someone, family of someone...
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Your sister’s family, their husbands have been identified. Were they reburied then at Potocari?
BEBA HADZIĆ: Yes.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: And for listeners who don’t know, Potocari is where the UN base was, just north of Srebrenica and it’s been turned into a memorial center and a graveyard. It’s the last place where many of the women saw their husbands or sons or fathers or brothers.
BEBA HADZIĆ: My sister was there – one of my sisters. She was in Potocari with them when she was separated from her husband and after that, he was found in a mass grave. That mean UN from Potocari has responsibility for life, because he was in Potocari with many people who were there.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: What were some of the immediate challenges you had after the war?
BEBA HADZIĆ: You know what, it’s very important. It’s not only knitting. It’s not only socks or slippers or carpet in knitting project. It’s like invitation. You are welcome to sit here. You can work something. You can drink coffee. You can cry. You can do something, but a part of everything, is to try to find a way to do income for women.
It’s very important. When you’ve lost your home, your neighbors, and you lost your job and you have nothing. It’s very important to have a place where you are welcome. That’s something what we did with our project. Just sit. You are welcome to sit here where you are. We don’t push you or send you out. Like sit with us, talk with us, listen to us, teach us, we will teach you something.
It’s not formal psychosocial support, but it’s not formal psychosocial support, but something that you can have every day when you need that. It’s not, for example, only on Monday or on Friday. The center is open every day for everyone who needs help, who wants to spend time, who want to talk with someone. That’s something that is very important. In that time, it’s very important to do something that’s very good occupational therapy for people who have problems, especially for women. For example, I have a woman, not only one, but one of the women who lost a son when Srebrenica fell in 1995. She do very nice carpet, very nice, but she’s always in situation when she’s always speaks about that, only when I weave my carpet I don’t think about my missing son. That’s very important in knitting project. That’s very important in knitting carpet. It is something that they do, they think about color, about motif, about - I don’t know - design, something like this. That’s very important. And of course, it’s very important because they work together. It’s not alone.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: You said at the center you have women who are Serbian, they’re Bosnian Muslim, they’re Croatian. Have you been able to maintain that mix?
BEBA HADZIĆ: It’s life. I never speak about that all people -- never mind which nationality -- all people are okay or not okay. In war, we had women who were in our center in Tuzla who were Bosniaks, who was Croat, who were Serbs. Most of the women who was included in our project is Bosniak because many refugees who were here were Bosniak, most of them, but we also have someone who is not Bosniak who is in our project. That’s happened in war, that’s happened now.
Because all our life, my school before war, my school now, my life always will they have someone who’s not the same nationality like me. We do that in Bosfam. We have women who are different nationalities who work together, who are sitting together and of course, who need better life for everyone in Bosnia.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: What do you think are the greatest concerns today for those women and other survivors from Srebrenica?
BEBA HADZIĆ: What we need is justice for everyone.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: By “justice,” what would that look like to you? Do you think of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia? Is it national trials? What does it look like to you?
BEBA HADZIĆ: Both. For example, in Srebrenica happened genocide. That we know now after The Hague or something like this, but we need something from Bosnian court, from Serbs court, from Republika Srspka and Federation. For example, in Srebrenica, we know that The Hague cannot do justice for everyone and of course, The Hague thinks about Karadzic, Mladic, about someone who was in high position.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: Yes, the military and political leaders.
BEBA HADZIĆ: Yes, and for example, we need justice from court, from Bjeljina or from Tuzla or from Sarajevo. That’s here. That’s here in Bosnia. I want to know who killed son of my sister and why. I really need that. My sister needs that. Many mothers who will have sons, many women who have brothers and husbands who were killed in war, they need justice. Never mind if their husband is Serb or Muslim.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: For BOSFAM, what is the future of your organization and the women, the craft-women that you’ve been working with?
BEBA HADZIĆ: When someone ask me what has BOSFAM do and what will BOSFAM do, always it’s the same answer. We try to find answers to the questions that life brings to us. That’s very important. I think when we’re talking about BOSFAM, now, we try to help women in this time in Bosnia. Always, it’s something, what we need, information for women. In different time, different information, but always need something. Always it’s something that we have to teach, that means education. Never mind if it’s education about human rights or it’s education about how we can do socks. Income generation is very important when you don’t have income, when you don’t have money for food. You don’t think about the gender issue or about human rights. That’s true. That’s from our life. We know that very well. When you don’t have food for you, your kids or someone who needs food from you, you don’t think about human rights. You don’t think about anything. That’s why income is very important. That’s why we’re doing income in BOSFAM. We try to find a way to support women and of course, when they have support, they can think about their kids, about responsibility and they can stay up and, of course, that’s about the dignity of women.
BRIDGET CONLEY-ZILKIC: I’m very, very proud to say that the Museum carries some of BOSFAM’s work in our gift shop. I would say in addition to helping the women in Bosnia, helping your colleagues, your neighbors, they do incredible work - the rugs, the socks, all the knitwear is beautiful. So, you can buy it for very selfish reasons, or you can buy it for altruistic ones, but in any case, it’s a wonderful addition to one’s household.
Ms. Hadzić, I want to thank you, again, for taking the time to speak with me. I know it’s always difficult particularly to talk about the losses that your own family has suffered. So, I want to thank you.
BEBA HADZIĆ: Thank you, too.
NARRATOR: You have been listening to Voices on Genocide Prevention, from United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. To learn more about responding to and preventing genocide, join us online at www.ushmm.org/genocide.