by Tristan McConnell
In July 1995, Nedzad Handzic survived the Srebrenica genocide. More than 100 of his relatives, friends, and neighbors did not.
When Serbian troops descended on the Bosnian city, United Nations peacekeepers who had declared it a safe haven stood by as 8,000 people were killed. It was a dark, shameful episode in peacekeeping’s short history, and one the UN has endeavored not to repeat.
But this past December, 40-year-old Handzic felt like it was happening all over — in another conflict in another city on another continent.
On Dec. 15, he watched from inside the UN compound in Juba as terrified civilians, mostly women and children, began to throng the gates, hours after a fresh round of civil war had erupted.
“When it started happening, all the memories of Srebrenica, all the faces, came back to me,” said Handzic, a father of two. The career police officer has been part of UN peacekeeping forces in South Sudan since early 2012.
“I remember thinking, ‘What happened in Srebrenica must not be repeated here.’”
Handzic had been awakened earlier that morning by the sound of gunfire coming from the center of the capital.
It was 1 a.m. The shooting was sporadic at first, but by dawn, there was sustained gunfire all over town — some of it very close — and then the louder sounds of tanks and artillery. “Moment by moment shooting was growing, more and more,” said Handzic.
A lull in the middle of the afternoon gave civilians their chance: they grabbed their children and what few possessions they could carry and headed for the large UN base next to Juba’s airport, where they begged for protection.
At first they came in small family huddles. Then entire neighborhoods started showing up together, until there were more than 5,000 people gathered outside the UN gates.
“You could see on their faces that they were very scared. They were civilians, they were not part of the fighting,” Handzic said. “My opinion was: if we don’t open the gates these people will be killed.”
Handzic briefed his superiors. On his advice, a request was sent to headquarters in New York asking permission to open the gates to let the people in. Within two hours Handzic was at the western gate with a team of 16 UN police officers ordering it open.
“In that moment you could see they felt somehow that they were protected, they were safe now,” said Handzic.