In her small shop in the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial Center, 65-year-old Fazila sells flowers to mourners and visitors who come to honor and remember the 8,000 men and boys who were massacred there in July 1995. Before the genocide, Fazila lived in the town with her husband Hamed, her son Fejzo, and her daughter Nirha. Today, just she and Nirha remain.
Fazila and her family had sought refuge at the U.N. compound in Srebrenica in the days leading up to the massacre. But when Serbian forces took control of the area, Fazila and Nirha were separated from Hamed and Fejzo, who were put on buses to be taken to a temporary detention center.
They never saw them again.
In the chaos that followed, Fazila and Nirha, along with thousands of others, fled Srebrenica. Days, weeks, and years passed. The fate of her husband and son was shrouded in silence.
In the early 2000s, Fazila decided to enroll in Women for Women International’s training program in Sarajevo. There she connected with other women who were also struggling to recover from the trauma and aftermath of the war. Seeing their shared pain and wanting a better future for her 15-year-old daughter, Fazila knew she had to move forward.
“[My daughter] was the most important for me in that moment,” recalls Fazila. “I was aware that I have to convert my personal tragedy into energy that, first of all, my daughter needed, and then other women from my town too, who equally survived the massacre and lost their dearest ones.”
Returning to Confront the Past
Fazila made the difficult decision to return to Srebrenica in 2002, to the home where she and her husband had started their life together before the war, where her son was born, took his first steps, and spent his childhood. When Fazila arrived, she found their house in ruins. As she slowly began rebuilding it by herself, the memories and trauma she had experienced returned.
“Bitterness, anger, and anxiety were hiding under the bunch of ruins,” says Fazila. Remembering her mother’s words inspired her to keep going.
“[She told me,] ‘You have to be brave in life and confront the biggest challenges that life brings! If you wish something, you must not give up!’”
So each night, Fazila repaired the remaining furniture to have a couch to sleep on and a table to eat at. And each day, she worked to restore her garden and reconnect with other widows who had returned and faced similar challenges.
“We only had each other”
Fazila and the other women returnees in Srebrenica faced a series of complicated processes to formally claim their property, to benefit from projects dedicated to reconstructing their homes, and others designed to help them create opportunities for work and income.
Many of the women had no education, and didn’t know how to navigate the processes that were meant to support them. For most of the women, it was also a difficult, emotional step.
“I felt that I must help them in this…because we only had each other,” recalls Fazila.
Together, Fazila and a group of returnees founded their own association – Mothers of Srebrenica – to provide support to survivors and a way for women to come together to encourage each other and find ways to solve common problems. They have also worked to raise awareness for what happened to their families in 1995. Over the years the association has grown and pushed for accountability for these crimes.
“Those who listen to us might send the message to someone else and in that way the truth will go all around the world,” says Fazila. If nothing else, she hopes their work will remind others that terrible things can happen anywhere, to anyone.
Raising Her Voice and Bringing WfWI to Srebrenica
Fazila credits her work with the Mothers of Srebrenica Association for helping her regain self-confidence, and find the strength to take on new challenges. Years after graduating from WfWI’s program, she reached out to the WfWI team in Sarajevo and encouraged them to expand their programs to Srebrenica to help the women in her community who were struggling to move forward.
“Fazila’s story is a powerful reminder of how the women of Bosnia and Herzegovina have and continue to be at the heart of efforts to rebuild our country,” says Seida Saric, Director of Zene za Zene International, who was there with Fazila the day WfWI opened its office in Srebrenica 10 years ago. Today, Zene za Zene continues to support more than 30 women’s associations of WfWI graduates.
“Women’s associations across Bosnia are strengthening local communities, creating opportunities for economic development and civic engagement, and building bridges for healing and working together to invest in our future,” says Saric.
“I carry it around wherever I go”
As she has moved forward with her life and helped her daughter finish her master’s degree, the past was never far from Fazila’s mind. Every day, she still carries around the handkerchief her son gave her before his death.
She had it with her on the day in 2003 – eight years after the genocide – when her husband Hamed’s remains were finally found in a mass grave and reburied at the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial and Cemetery where she runs her flower shop.
It was with her on the day in 2005 when more of her husband’s remains were found in a second mass grave, and when she reburied him.
And it was with her in 2013, when she was finally able to bury her son Fejzo’s remains in the same cemetery as her husband.
Witnessing the suffering of women who have had similar experiences to hers, both in Bosnia and around the world, Fazila says she feels their pain as if it were her own.
To those who are struggling, she encourages them to look inside:
“Ask yourself where your strength is greatest and how you could help, with your strength, those who currently do not see and cannot find [their own]…It is not always painless, there is resistance, but…you will find a path! You will sometimes think that you are the one that needs help, and that is fine! But look for it and then you will realize that you can help someone as well. And then, take that road!”
 Zene za Zene International is an affiliate of Women for Women International.