Mother of a Srebrenica victim Fazila Efendic, the mother of a Srebrenica victim visits the graves of her husband and son in Srebrenica, Bosnia, on Feb. 15, 2020. They lost their lives in the Srebrenica genocide, which started on July 11, 1995.
Samir Jordamovic—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
March 8, 2021 11:04 AM EST

In some countries March 8, International Women’s Day, is also Mother’s Day. Bosnia-Herzegovina is one of them. This timing is particularly poignant for one group of Bosnian women, the Mothers of Srebrenica, whose husbands, sons and other male relatives were among more than 8,000 men and boys murdered during the genocide in 1995. Most of the Mothers of Srebrenica have no living relatives to honor and love them on this day, or to bring them the traditional Bosnian Mother’s Day gift of a bunch of red carnations.

Srebrenica was designated a “safe zone” by the U.N. Security Council in 1993, in the early stages of the war in Bosnia. Thousands of Bosnian Muslim civilians took refuge at the U.N. base in Srebrenica, entrusting their lives to the international community. In July 1995 Srebrenica was overrun by Bosnian Serb forces. Families were separated at gunpoint—the women forcibly expelled, and the men and boys taken away for execution, their bodies later hidden in mass graves. This gave rise to the particular cruelty of the genocide—the loss of a generation of fathers, husbands and sons.

I spoke to fellow director Jasmila Zbanic, whose critically acclaimed film about those events, Quo Vadis Aida, has been shortlisted for an Oscar. The film tells the tells the story through the eyes of a Bosnian woman, Aida, serving as a translator for the U.N. forces as she struggles to save her husband and children—and her people—from the impending violence. Jasmila told me how the Mothers of Srebrenica inspired her in the making of the film. For over two decades, this group of female survivors have used peaceful protest and the power of mothers’ love to keep the memory of their menfolk alive, search for their bodies and seek justice and truth. We spoke about the impact the Mothers had on us both, as women and artists; what the world can learn from their peaceful example; and why they are in our thoughts on International Women’s Day.

Jasmila, you lived through the war in Bosnia, and the siege of Sarajevo, all 1,425 days of it. What impact did that have on you? I was 17 when the war started. At the beginning I thought it was cool that there was no school, that my math test was postponed. It was exciting that everything was upside down. When the killings started, when the electricity was cut and we ran out of food, it wasn’t fun anymore. Priorities changed and I started to value life differently and to appreciate every small detail of it.

It must have felt like you had to grow up overnight? It shaped me as human being and as an artist. I enrolled in the academy of arts and started making short films, although we had almost no equipment. My graduation film was a documentary, Red Rubber Boots, about a mother searching for her four-year-old son and nine-month-old baby, who were killed and buried in a mass grave. These topics, this pain and the injustice shaped me forever.

Why did you feel you had to tell the story of the Srebrenica massacre? Srebrenica is a universal tragedy of our civilization. Though 26 years have passed, it is still a huge trauma for our region.

Bosnian filmmaker Jasmila Zbanic poses during an interview in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on Jan. 30, 2021.
Kemal Softic—AP

Were you worried about the risk of a backlash, given how raw the subject is? We knew Srebrenica is still a very painful subject that some politicians would try to use our film for their own purpose—to create another division among nations—therefore we had to hide the fact that we were filming.

Was it hard to get the film made? The financing period was very difficult. Everyone said people don’t want to watch a film about genocide. And for a female filmmaker in the Balkans, where societies are still very patriarchal, it is ten times harder to position yourself to make a film. So, when the film premiered and the audience was in tears, I was surprised and beyond happy. It is great to see that audiences love films with difficult subjects as well.

As someone who has worked with the U.N. for many years, I’m still reeling from Srebrenica. The tragedy is that people believed that the U.N. peacekeeping forces stationed there would protect them. Instead the area was overrun, and the slaughter happened. Has this experience affected how you see the U.N., and do you have a strong feeling about how it should change for the future? The U.N. is a wonderful idea of an institution that unites us all, and I would love to see it stronger, better and more determined. But the U.N. is still influenced by political interests that have nothing to do with human rights, and that makes the U.N. systematically corrupted. I believe we should make the U.N. serve the people and not politicians. I really hope that Quo Vadis Aida can help to raise questions of the independency of U.N. decisions and the need for more determination to protect human rights.

Part of the unique horror of the Srebrenica massacre was the conscious intent to murder all the men and boys—unarmed men and children. It’s hard to imagine the loss that represents. I’ve met women who lost 40 members of their family: their sons, husband, brothers, cousins, father, grandfather…three generations are gone. Connections with the past and future erased. The loss is so unbearable, and the hole left in hearts of survivors unmeasurable.

One of the truly amazing and inspiring things to emerge from that horror is the Mothers of Srebrenica, who keep the memory of their loved ones alive, search tirelessly for their bodies, and peacefully campaign for justice. What significance do they hold for you as a Bosnian citizen? I can’t comprehend how they have such incredible strength. The mothers are still looking for the bones of their sons and husbands. 1,700 bodies still have not been found. They remain hidden.

I remember sitting with a group of the Mothers, and one of them telling me that after years of searching, all she had to bury of her son were two small leg bones. Those fragments were all she could find of him. As a parent, that’s unimaginable. Some of the Mothers live only in order to find them and bury their loved ones. They know all their other relatives are dead, and if they don’t find them, their children will not have even a grave to visit. I know that no film can communicate such an amount of pain, but I tried to show a small part of this tragedy.

It has always struck me how brave the Mothers are. They’ve returned to the homes they built or lived in, often as the only surviving members of their family. They tend their gardens, they seek to coexist peacefully with their neighbors, even after what happened. They have never asked for revenge. All their energy is directed towards finding the truth and justice. That is the only way to build real peace. Even after such a tragedy, they are the ones who are promoting the idea of living together and loving each other.

Do you think this is something that is unique to them, or does it say something about women in general? I think women always find a solution in impossible situations. The Women from Srebrenica are a unique organization sharing the values of many other women’s organizations, such as the Women in Black, an amazing Serbian organization of women working hard against the war.

Do you think the Mothers of Srebrenica have received the recognition they deserve? I really wish we would nominate them for the Nobel Peace Prize, because they are a unique force of peacemakers in the word.

That is a beautiful idea. I hope people will take it up, and that it can be part of healing from the trauma of the war. You are right and I think the traumas are really deep and have not healed at all. One of the reasons is that the genocide is constantly denied, and that hurts the families of the victims very much. As long as the truth is not recognized and accepted it is not possible to move on.

What part do you think art has to play in that? I believe films can change the world. Even if one person is changed and decides not to hurt others, that’s an achievement.

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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