July 11, 2020
I have happy memories from before the war.
I Survived The Srebrenica Massacre. 25 Years Later, I’m Still Hurting
Growing up in my village with my mother, father, two brothers and three sisters, our vegetable farm was doing really well, and my father had a decent Job in construction which allowed him to travel. There was a mosque nearby, and every Friday we would join our neighbours there for jummah prayers. There was a real sense of community. 
Everything changed when I was nine. When trucks of Bosnian Serb soldiers arrived in the village. 
There had been talk among our community that war was coming, and that us Muslims were under attack. But even so, we couldn’t believe what we were seeing: soldiers burning down the houses of Muslim families like ours. 
We knew we had to get out. 
My family and I took what we could carry and fled to Srebrenica on foot, because it was the biggest city in the region and we thought it would be safer. We were joined by my grandmother, my uncle and his family. It took about four hours and was pouring with rain. Above us, Serb forces dropped poisonous gas. My dad told me to put my T-shirt over my face to protect my mouth. 
I wasn’t fully aware of what was happening – I was just a child after all. But I knew it was bad. Bosnian Serb forces were burning villages like mine, driving people to the city, and then bombing us once we got there. We were trapped.I had an aunt in Srebrenica so we settled with her, but she had five children so the house was already crowded. At one point there were 13 of us living there. Her husband had been killed a year before, and her daughter was killed by a bomb not long after we got there.
Bosnian Serb forces were burning villages like mine, driving people to the city, and then bombing us once we got there. We were trapped. We hardly had any food: we would scavenge among old plants to see what we could find and the older people would try and cook something out of it. Other aspects of life went on: we still went to school. One day a grenade hit the school playground and killed many of my fellow classmates. 
In 1993 the UN came and designated Srebrenica a safe zone. But in July 1995, the Bosnian Serb army captured Srebrenica and tragedy unfolded. 
Luckily for me, my mother, my siblings and I were sent on a bus out of the city to safer territory. But it was such a scramble to get on the bus, and amid the crowds and the chaos, my younger brother and I were separated from our mother and other siblings. We got on the bus alone. I will never forget that feeling of panic. I was 12 years old, I knew there were people who wanted my family dead, I didn’t know where I was going and if I would ever see my mum and dad again. We were driving through Serbian territory with soldiers all around us. Everywhere I looked I was scanning for my mother’s face.
My brother and I were in a refugee camp for three days, surrounded by people as lost and as traumatised as we were. During those three days, word was getting around that everyone we had left behind was dead. I was overwhelmed with relief when my mother, sisters and my other brother turned up. I felt safe again. Your father is someone who is meant to provide you with support and security through life, but they took my father away from me when I needed him most.We stayed in refugee camps for about six months. I later learned that it was a very close shave for me: after a few days, soldiers started taking all the boys off the buses leaving Srebrenica and killing them along with the adult men.
Meanwhile Bosniak men like my father weren’t allowed on the buses at all, so he and my uncle took matters into their own hands and tried to flee through the mountains. We never found out what happened to them; they were killed somewhere on their journey but their murderers didn’t even leave their bodies to be found. To cover their tracks, they killed one group, put them in a mass grave, then a few months later took some of their body parts and mixed body parts with other dead Bosniaks in another grave.
As a child in the war I went through a lot, but the scene that keeps replaying in my mind is from years later, when I was 28, when parts of my father’s body were finally found and identified. All that was left of him were a few bones. 
Whenever I go past a graveyard now I feel nauseous, but I visit my father’s grave whenever I go to Srebrenica to run errands. Every time I visit, it is very emotionally difficult for me. You father and mother are the closest and most important people in life, and your father is someone who is meant to provide you with support and security through life, but they took my father away from me when I needed him most. No virus can stop us from remembering our family members who were brutally murdered. 
The pain and emptiness due to that loss cannot be described. At this time every year, I pray with my family for my father and others who were killed. I lost at least 20 family members in the massacre.
I try to have a calm, comfortable life now, back in the same village I was born in with my wife and our five children. We have a new home and a greenhouse where we grow vegetables and we have a small farm, built for us by Islamic Relief, from which we make a living. 
And like countries across the world, the Coronavirus pandemic has meant we are supporting our kids to do their schoolwork online. But it also means this year, 25 years after the massacre, we won’t be able to gather in the mosque to commemorate our dead. This year, the coronavirus has made it impossible for us to mark the memory of our loved ones in the way we are used to. But no virus, or anything else, can stop us from remembering our family members who were brutally murdered. 
For everyone, even for this situation, we rely on God’s mercy and hope that this is just one of life’s trials that will soon disappear. But, until then, we are still hurting.
Elvis Lemes is a farmer in Bosnia, and a survivor of the Srebenica massacre
Have a compelling personal story you want to tell? Find out what we’re looking for here, and pitch us on ukpersonal@huffpost.comMore from HuffPost UK Black Teens Like Me Have The Future In Our Hands. Here’s What We Must Do With It I’m Tired Of Feeling Like Your 'Diversity Hire’ We’ve Been Hosting Two Refugees During Lockdown. Here’s What We’ve Learned
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