SREBRENICA, Bosnia-Herzegovina — The hardest part was the ants. They crawled over his arms and legs, over his face and into his mouth, hour by hour as he pretended to be dead in a pile of corpses slowly turning stiff.
Mevludin Oric lay for nine hours in one of the Srebrenica killing fields where Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic’s troops executed 8,000 Muslim men and boys in July 1995. He escaped in the dead of night, after the soldiers had satisfied themselves that everyone in the sea of bodies was dead.
On Thursday, Oric returned for the first time to the execution ground – a pretty V-shaped meadow surrounded by a forest – with Associated Press journalists to share his feelings about the capture of the man who orchestrated Europe’s worst carnage since World War II.
He brought his eldest daughter, 17-year-old Merima. He wanted her to know what happened here – he wants everyone to know, vowing to testify against Mladic at the U.N. war crimes tribunal in the Hague, Netherlands.
“I can’t wait to look into the eyes of that animal,” said the lanky 42-year-old, his eyes lighting up after a morning spent on the verge of tears.
Serbia extradited Mladic to the Netherlands on Tuesday to face genocide charges; he was arrested last week in a village north of Belgrade after 16 years on the run.
Oric, a Bosnian Muslim soldier captured by Serbs as he fled through the woods, is one of four men known to have survived the Srebrenica massacre. All endured the unspeakable ordeal of playing dead while Serb troops patrolled the blood-soaked field, finishing off anybody who showed signs of life with a pistol shot to the head.
Ants bit Oric as they prowled his body, but he didn’t dare move. Nearby, an old man begged for his life: “Children, we didn’t do anything. Don’t do this to us.” He, too, was shot.
On top of Oric was his dead cousin Hars. In the execution line, Hars took Oric’s hand and whispered: “They’ll kill us all.” When the gunfire erupted, Oric threw himself to the ground, as Hars fell over him, groaning in agony.
At one point, Oric saw a Serb soldier walk in his direction. The soldier paused to shoot a man in the head, then continued walking toward Oric. It’s my turn, he thought.
“I closed my eyes,” Oric said, looking at Merima, “and I thought about you and your mother. And for a few seconds before the expected shot, I wondered what it is like in heaven, or in hell.”
The shot never came. But it would be hours more before Oric would be free.
As he toured the meadow Thursday, Oric deciphered its grim geography: “This is where I lay… This is where the pit was…”
“This here is soaked with blood,” he said. “I should have been here. But destiny…” His voice trailed off.
“I would like to cry,” said the construction worker, who lives with his mother and three daughters in central Bosnia. “But there’s something in my throat that doesn’t allow me to cry.”
Close to midnight, the shooting stopped and the Serbs left. Oric’s arms and legs were numb, but he managed to shake off his cousin’s body and stand up. Moonlight shone over the field of bodies; he saw a shadow approach.
“It was the shadow of a man like a ghost” he said. “First I thought it was a soldier left to stand guard.”
But it was Hurem Suljic, a Bosnian Muslim bricklayer with a bum leg who had also survived. Suljic got closer and asked, “Are you wounded?” Oric said no.
Looking around, they saw others still alive but destined to die from rifle wounds. One man had a gash in his side exposing his kidney. “Can you give me a jacket?” he pleaded, “I’m cold.” Oric took a jacket from a dead man and gave it to him.
Oric saw another man crawling on his arms, dragging behind his bullet-riddled legs. “Run, brother,” the man said. “Don’t mind me. I won’t make it.”
Oric and Suljic stepped over corpses and headed into the forest. The journey was hard because of Suljic’s bad leg. At times, Oric said, he had to carry the older man on his back. Four days later, they crossed a mine field at the front line and were met by Bosnian soldiers.
Before the trip back to Srebrenica, Oric took Merima to the school gymnasium where he and hundreds of other Bosnian Muslim captives had been held by Serb forces before the massacre.
Oric said Mladic was there too on that day, inspecting the prisoners minutes before they were loaded onto trucks and driven to the execution ground. Suljic has given similar testimony.
In the school gym, the Muslim men were told they would be part of a prisoner swap. But the men had doubts because they heard gunfire all around.
As Oric and his daughter toured the grounds, people in surrounding houses in the Serb-dominated area called out.
“Let Mladic go!” they yelled.