The Work and Life of Hatidza Mehmedovic, Activist and Leader of the Mothers of Srebrenica

Hatidza Mehmedovic, 65, Dies; Spoke Out for Bosnia Massacre Victims
By Barbara Surk (NEW YORK TIMES)

Hatidza Mehmedovic, a fearless campaigner for justice for the more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys who were killed by Serb forces in Bosnia in 1995, Europe’s worst massacre since World War II, died on July 22 in a Sarajevo hospital. She was 65 and had lost her own sons and husband in the bloodshed.

Camil Durakovic, a friend and former mayor of Srebrenica, the site of the massacre in eastern Bosnia, said the cause was complications of breast cancer.

Mrs. Mehmedovic (her full name is pronounced hah-tih-jah meh-meh-tow-ich) was president of the Mothers of Srebrenica, an association of women whose loved ones perished in the killings.

In recent years she spoke out against growing nationalism in Bosnia and called to account politicians in the region who stoked ethnic hatred or denied that genocide had taken place in Srebrenica, as the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia had determined during war crimes trials for the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

Mrs. Mehmedovic’s husband, Abdullah, their sons, Azmir, 21, and Almir, 18, and two brothers, Edhem and Hamed, died in the massacre, and she told her story of loss to journalists, prosecutors, academics, researchers, school children, neighbors and fellow citizens in Bosnia.

“We can’t let those who had killed to become the same as those who had been killed,” she said in a recent television interview. “I should not be the only one who is afraid of the future in which we don’t know who was the perpetrator and who was the victim.”

The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina erupted in early 1992 after Serbs living there refused to back independence from Yugoslavia following the secession of neighboring Croatia and Slovenia. Serbs in Bosnia took up arms to expel non-Serbs with the aim of annexing conquered territory to Serbia.

At the time, Mrs. Mehmedovic, a homemaker with a grade-school education, was living with her husband, a security guard at a mine, and their two sons in a residential area just outside of Srebrenica.

Bosnian Serbs laid siege to Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo, and went on a deadly rampage across eastern Bosnia, seeking to drive Croats and Muslims out of their homes, a practice that became known as ethnic cleansing.

By the summer of 1995 Srebrenica and its surrounding area had swelled to 40,000 people, many seeking shelter after the United Nations declared the area a safe haven. But Serb forces under the command of Gen. Ratko Mladic overran the enclave and ordered men and boys to walk across forested hills, pursuing, ambushing and systematically killing most of them.

Mrs. Mehmedovic parted ways with her sons and her husband in the woods just above the town.

“We were standing there and my young one, Lalo — that’s what we called him, although his name was Almir — was saying, ‘Go on, mother, go, leave, already’ as he was pulling me closer and closer, and would not let me go,” Mrs. Mehmedovic said in one of her last interviews, with a Bosnian TV station in November. “We thought we’d see each other in two, three days. We did not know they’d kill them all.”

Mrs. Mehmedovic was taken by bus to the town of Kladanj and later learned from Red Cross officials that her husband and sons were missing.

International investigators found the remains of her husband and sons scattered among the nearly 100 mass graves discovered in the Srebrenica area. They were exhumed and identified before she buried them in 2010 in the memorial cemetery in Potocari, not far from the spot in the woods where she had last seen them.

In November, Gen. Mladic was convicted of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes by the tribunal in The Hague. He was sentenced to life in prison. Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader, was convicted of the same charges in 2016 and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Mr. Durakovic, the former mayor, described Mrs. Mehmedovic as a “tough, strong woman, an incredible leader in the largely patriarchal society in which women remain mostly in the background.”

He said, “She carried her sorrow and the grief of other women with such dignity,” and described how Mrs. Mehmedovic had told her story repeatedly, tearfully and in great detail.

“ ‘It’s all I have to do,’ she’d say to me when I asked her how on earth she can do it,” Mr. Durakovic said. “ ‘I am all alone, and my life’s wealth is in the ground in Potocari,’ she’d say.”

Mrs. Mehmedovic is survived by two older sisters.

She moved back to Srebrenica, where few Muslims dared to return to live, in 2003. There she faced harassment by the police and resentment by her Serb neighbors for her denunciation of people living in their midst who were accused of war crimes.

“She is our Rosa Parks, our heroine,” Emir Suljagic, a survivor of the Srebrenica massacre, said. “She refused to have been ethnically cleansed from her homeland.”