A 13-Year-Old’s Journey from Hell of Srebrenica

The Washington Post
April 22, 1993

TUZLA, Bosnia – Admir Mujic is a scrawny kid who can barely lift a rifle, but he has seen as much death and misery as front-line veterans.

His mother was shot by Bosnian Serb neighbors as she fed her cows. When a notorious paramilitary unit from neighboring Serbia, the “Arkanovci,” began terrorizing his Muslim village, Admir fled for the hills. He trekked to Srebrenica, which became the target of a Serb siege, and conditions turned hellish.

Admir shared a room with nine other Muslims and nearly starved. He stayed alive by going out at night and fighting for food dropped from the sky by American airplanes. He saw desperate people kill each other as they swarmed like ants over the crates of food.

“Everyone was fighting — children, women and grown men,” Admir said. “Nobody cared about being shot by the Serbs. They were near, but we were too hungry to pay attention to that.”

That’s the nicer half of his story.

It is told from Admir’s hospital bed in Tuzla, a Muslim stronghold in northeastern Bosnia. The beds are crammed next to one another in the small room — one for Admir, nursing a badly injured hand, the four others for militiamen who had lost legs or arms to Serb shells. The air smells of sickness and cigarettes.

Admir is 13, a brown-haired sixth-grader who has weathered his ordeal better than many adults might have. He is streetwise yet charming, and as he chatters about his ups and downs, it seems as though he is describing a fast-paced action movie he has watched, or recounting a fantasy he has dreamed up.

But it is real, and when he talks, even the militiamen next to him turn silent and listen.

For months, Srebrenica endured almost daily artillery attacks from Serb forces that had surrounded it for nearly a year. Two weeks ago, the Serbs plastered the crowded city center with salvo after salvo of mortar rounds. At least 56 people were killed, many of them children who were playing on a soccer field.

“The first bomb fell at a distance,” Admir said. “The people who were more experienced ran for cover. But I didn’t know. When the next bomb fell, it knocked me into the air. I didn’t know I was wounded until I looked at my hand. It was all bloody.”

Only in Bosnia could he be considered one of the lucky ones. Bits of searing shrapnel had shredded his right hand and torn into his back and legs; he was still alive, but not the others around him. He was at ground zero of one of the bloodiest episodes of the Bosnian war.

“I saw people without legs, or with legs but no stomach,” Admir said. “I saw brains blown out, jaws blown out.” He motioned to his waist. “I saw a body from here, and from upward, nothing. There were people without heads.”

Admir crawled for cover under a stairwell. When the shelling stopped, he walked to the hospital, where tractors were pulling carts full of bodies. To be seriously injured in Srebrenica was almost a death sentence, because the town had only one surgeon, little medicine and few bandages.

Admir was stitched together. A day later, for the first time in a year, he had a bit of luck. A U.N. food convoy had arrived in the town, and the empty trucks were evacuating women, children and old people. A U.N. soldier heaved Admir aboard one of the trucks, stuffed full of other Muslims desperate to get out of a town on the edge of extinction.

It was not yet time to celebrate. The white trucks with big “UN” letters on their sides were headed to Tuzla, a Muslim city, but they had to traverse Serb territory. Serb leaders had agreed to allow this because they wanted to empty the town and capture it.

Admir acknowledges he was often scared in the past year. He says he ran into his village home and hid under the furniture when the “Arkanovci” drove past and pointed their guns at him. And he says was scared of dying of starvation in Srebrenica. But nothing, he says, was worse than the trip to Tuzla.

Admir’s convoy, like those before it and those after it, was attacked by Serb civilians who lined the route. It is a Bosnian irony that a drive to safety is terrifying. “The Serbs were shouting at us, throwing rocks, cursing us,” he said. “I cried. I thought they would take me out and kill me.”

Admir is small for his age, his growth perhaps stunted by lack of food over the past year. Mentally he is older than his years. He breezily swaps war tales with the militiamen in his room, and like them, he has bags under his weary eyes.

There are lots of child war veterans in Bosnia, and a brief trip to the Tuzla hospital shows what the war has done to them. Some, like Admir, have done pretty well. But there are others, like a young boy, perhaps 6, who wandered around the hospital’s third floor with tears streaming down his face, crying out for his mother and father. They are both believed dead, but the hospital staff has not told him. They tell him his parents are coming for him soon.

Another boy, dressed in pajamas, lives on the fourth floor of the hospital and moves around in a wheelchair. His right leg has been shredded by a Serb shell and is held together by pins and steel rods. He will never be able to walk normally again, and he might still lose the leg. He has a frightened look on his face.

There is another boy who was in the same evacuation convoy as Admir. A Serb shell had ripped into his face, tearing out one eye and severely damaging the other. When he was lifted from the truck, a bloody bandage covered his face, and his body was shaking.

The physical injuries can be dealt with. The mental ones are quite different, and it may be that the seeds of the next Balkan war have been planted in the impressionable, fertile minds of children like Admir. They have seen too much to be the same again.

Half the children in Sarajevo, the Serb-besieged Bosnian capital, have seen someone die, according to the U.N. Children’s Fund. It surveyed 105 children and found that 39 percent of them had lost at least one family member. About 40 percent of the children had been shot at by snipers, and most said their homes had been shelled.

According to the Muslim-led Bosnian government, up to 3,000 children have been killed in Sarajevo. It happens every day, and although it happens to children of all groups — Muslims, Croats and Serbs — it is the Muslims who have suffered most.

Admir shrugs it all off, probably not realizing the weight of the mental burden he carries. But he remembers that just a year ago he sat next to a Serb boy in his village school and that they were the best of friends. Admir wants to return to that village, return to his home and to the school, but he doesn’t want to sit next to that Serb boy or live with Serbs.

“Never again” he says, shaking his head. “Never.”

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.