If you glanced at him, you would not know what the energetic old man had been through. But 20 years on from the Srebrenica massacre, his narrow, wrinkled face is still marked by fear.
Somehow, miraculously, this man survived the slaughter of some 1,000 Bosnian Muslims in a warehouse outside Srebrenica, the town that has become synonymous with the worst massacre in Europe since World War II.
But it is testament to the 71-year-old’s lasting fears for his safety — and the ethnic tensions that still plague Bosnia — that he recalled his tale on condition of anonymity.
“If it’s possible to be born again, then that’s what happened at that moment,” said the man, who lives in a mountainous village around a half-hour’s drive from Srebrenica.
He had spent 24 hours playing dead under corpses, covered in the blood of other men. The memories still haunt him every day.
– ‘ Why are you still here?’ –
Saturday marks 20 years since Bosnian Serb forces overran Srebrenica — then a UN-protected enclave — setting the stage for several horrific days in which some 8,000 Muslim men and boys were murdered.
The mass execution, which came as Bosnia’s 1992-1995 civil war neared its bloody end, has been declared a genocide by two international courts but never recognised as such by Serbs.
“On 11 July, 1995, I was collecting hay in a field, just as I am today,” the old man said, as he sat in the doorway of a small barn.
“My daughter arrived in tears. She asked me: ‘Why are you still here? Everyone’s leaving.'”
His wife and two daughters headed to the UN base in Potocari outside Srebrenica to seek refuge, along with some 26,000 others.
His brother and a nephew did the same, but they never made it. Their bodies were found in a mass grave a few years after the end of the war.
The survivor filled a backpack with food and headed into the woods, along with some 15,000 other Muslim men and boys. They were trying to reach territory under Muslim control, but thousands of them would not survive the journey.
The next day, the group he was travelling with were ambushed and captured by Serb soldiers. Then they were rounded up with other prisoners in a field and made to sit in rows.
It was then that they received a visit from general Ratko Mladic, the commander of the Bosnian Serb forces who is currently on trial for war crimes.
– ‘Screams worse than shots’ –
The survivor says Mladic had been full of reassurances.
“We have already evacuated almost all your families,” he told them. “Everyone will be reunited with their families. You will not be beaten, you will not be provoked. We will give you food.”
But soon afterwards they were marched to an agricultural warehouse in Kravica, 25 kilometres (16 miles) north of Srebrenica.
“I was in the middle of the column. When I entered, the warehouse was packed full of people. If someone had dropped a match, it wouldn’t have reached the ground,” he said.
International prosecutors say around 1,000 people were shut in the building.
The survivor stood in a corner, his back to the wall. Then a fight broke out between a prisoner and one of the troops. The soldier opened fire.
“They were shooting at us, they were throwing grenades, firing rockets, barrages of gunfire. I crouched down. They were shooting through the doors, through the windows,” said the tiny old man.
“Hearing people screaming was worse than the gunshots.”
The carnage lasted an hour or longer.
“I slipped below two dead bodies and I stayed still for the next 24 hours. I didn’t give the slightest indication that I was still alive,” the survivor said.
“My clothes were soaked with blood.”
The next day, the bodies were loaded up — probably with a bulldozer, although the survivor did not look up to see. After the Serbs had left for the day, there was silence. The man waited for a long time, and then he heard a whisper.
“I crawled on all fours over the corpses,” he remembers. “Two men were sitting in a corner. I saw that they were some of ‘our’ men. I told them: ‘Let’s run’.”
The survivor took the gamble first and crept out of the warehouse. One of the other men followed him. At first, the coast seemed clear.
“Then I saw a soldier,” he said. “I laid down with my face in the soil. He yelled, ‘Get up!'” The other man was lying next to me. Then he shouted for a second time, ‘Get up!’ And then for a third time.”
Then, the man said, he got to his feet — “almost as if someone had come and told me, ‘Get out of here!’ I stood up. I said a prayer.”
The two men fled for their lives, and heard no gunshots as they ran.