As wars go they rank among the worst I have ever experienced. Ideally, I’d rather completely forget about them, but I can’t.

After almost four decades covering conflicts all I can say is that there are some wars easier to process than others, but those in the former Yugoslavia were never among them.

To this day the time that I spent reporting on that bloody chapter remains alive in my mind’s eye. Many of the memories remain indelibly haunting.

I’m reminded again as this weekend marks the 25th anniversary of what was one of the darkest episodes in Europe since the Second World War. 

For most of us it’s still  hard to imagine the horrors that began to unfold on July 10 -11, 1995 when the Bosnian Serb Army attacked the town of Srebrenica. 
In the days and weeks that followed more than 8,000 mainly Bosnian Muslim men and boys were rounded up.

In what the UN had designated a “safe area”, these prisoners were then systematically butchered with bullets or grenades in fields, warehouses and football pitches, despite the presence of UN peacekeepers.

The bodies of the victims, many dismembered and mutilated, were piled into mass graves and to this day their remains are still being uncovered. 

Recalling those terrible events most commentators today refer to as the Srebrenica massacre, it would though be more accurate to call it what it really was – an act of genocide.

For many who recall those war years, Srebrenica and its victims remain perhaps the most infamous of atrocities committed during the separate but related ethnic wars fought between 1991 until 2001 that led to the breakup of the Yugoslav state. 

It is sometimes overlooked, however, that many other atrocities were committed during those wars. Hundreds of thousands of people from across the ethnic communities that up until then had made up what was called Yugoslavia suffered terribly, or were killed. 

It seems to me that this weekend is as good a time as any to reflect on some of those remarkable people I met along the way during that journey through war in our European backyard. 

To paraphrase the words of the haunting song Miss Sarajevo, made famous by the unlikely vocal collaboration of U2’s Bono and Luciano Pavarotti, my own memories of those times are inextricably tied to people and places whose names I still find it hard to spell.

Places like Vukovar, Gorazde, Mostar and Srebrenica. People like Hamza Baksic, Zoran Mrsic, Safeta Kovasevic and Kada Hotic. 

Among the many people I met during those years of conflict, some I know for certain never survived the war. Others I know died in its aftermath, still haunted by what they had experienced. I often wonder of those still alive and how their lives played out after the guns fell silent.

All of those I met had stories to tell, and more often than not what they had to say was uncomfortable to hear. I make no apology for repeating what they had to say here.

The savagery of those Yugoslav wars often defied comprehension and the stories of those who lived through them must serve as a vital lesson for us all that no society is immune to the gravest of crimes.

Perhaps of all those that I met during that time, no-one told their stories better than Hamza Baksic, a Bosnian Muslim man who along with his family spent three-and-a-half-years under siege in the city of Sarajevo. 

HeraldScotland:

Before the war, Hamza had been a celebrated journalist with the city’s famous Oslobodjenje newspaper. A strapping man, well over six feet tall, he possessed an incredible intellect and wonderful writing talent. 

Though he survived the entire siege of Sarajevo, it was not before withering to a shadow of his former self after being forced to live on a diet of grass or nettle soup when food supplies had all but run out in the city. He even lost his teeth.

It was over a drink in one of the city’s bars after the war that Hamza finally one day told me the story of his sister who had lived on the outskirts of Sarajevo. 

At the height of the fighting she had fled the city when Serb soldiers advanced on her neighbourhood. In the rush to leave her house she had left behind most of her belongings including a much-cherished large collection of shoes that she had bought during her European travels.

Then, after the Serbs had been forced out of the district, in February 1996, she returned to find devastation everywhere.

Remarkably, her house remained intact. Entering the bedroom she was amazed to see everything was pretty much as she remembered it, including the shoe collection that still lay spread out on the floor, apparently untouched.

On closer inspection, however, she realised that no one pair was complete, and that each right shoe was missing. Later, outside in the garden, she found the remains of those right shoes charred in a bonfire. 

“Can you imagine it?” said Hamza. “The Serbs who were living there had taken the time before they left to go through the shoes, take all the right-foot ones and burn them.”

I remember at the time being puzzled as to the point he was making until Hamza added: “There you have it, the mindset of the Balkans. Only here will you find such people, so calculating in their twisted bitterness and cruelty.”

We both laughed at the story that day, but in its telling Hamza had touched on something that went to the core of what I had witnessed during the war years. 
So often the cruelty of those perpetrating the worst violence and atrocities verged on the inexplicably twisted or perverse.

Terrible as it was and unprecedented in its scale, what happened in Srebrenica was but one bloody instance. In marking the anniversary of the genocide this weekend, it’s easy to forget that hostilities in the former Yugoslavia had begun long before 1995. 

It was as far back as 1991, in fact, when Slovenia and Croatia declared independence, that things began to unravel and continued long after the Bosnian war, when fighting still gripped Kosovo through 1998-99.

It was at the very start of that unravelling during the siege and the bitter battle for the now eastern Croatian town of Vukovar, which lasted 87 days, that I witnessed what was an ominous harbinger of things to come in other places. 

It was while in besieged Vukovar in September 1991, at the bomb-blasted Hotel Dunav on the banks of the Danube river from which the hotel took its name, that I first began to realise how dangerously drunk on sectarian nationalism the former Yugoslavia was becoming. 

For the first time, too, I had also begun to grasp the full extent to which this escalating war was perversely pitching former neighbours and friends into a bitter no quarter-style war in which civilians were often the targets. 

At that time Vukovar, like Sarajevo in the years to follow, had become a latter-day Stalingrad, held under siege by the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) and various Serbian paramilitary forces. The determination of Vukovar’s Croatian defenders is now legendary and among them was a young militia commander called Zoran Mrsic.

One afternoon, having ventured out with Zoran’s unit to pillage precious fuel and ammunition from a Serb tank that had hit a mine, we found ourselves pinned down in a cornfield by Serb gunfire.

“It’s Stefan doing the shooting, I had him in my sights a few days ago and could have put one through his head then, now I wish I had,” Mrsic complained nonchalantly as we lay face-down in the field next to the stinking remains of the Serb tank crew. 

Afterwards, Zoran went on to explain how Stefan, a Serb, was his best friend. As boys they had gone fishing and hunting together; as young men they had travelled around Europe as pals. Now they were on opposite sides trying to kill each other. 

Weeks later I was to find out that Stefan finally “triumphed” in their tragic game of cat and mouse, putting “one through’” Zoran’s head during a bout of bitter street-fighting.

Hamza Baksic was to tell me a similarly tragic story of how one of his long-term neighbours was to turn on those around him. 

It was in a mixed Sarajevo neighbourhood, a place where Muslims and Serbs had lived companionably all their lives until a sniper began targeting people. 

Many people had died, old men, women, children, anyone the sniper could train his rifle on. When local militia eventually tracked down the sniper’s location, they found a 15-year-old Serb boy who had acquired a rifle that he kept hidden until his next killing spree.

“I’d known the boy and his father for years,” I recall Hamza telling me, deeply troubled. 

“Yes, they were Serbs but they were our friends. The family had decided to stay and help defend the city against the Serb forces. But the boy ... well, who knows the madness that this war has instilled in us,” he told me with a shrug. 

Sometimes, during those times, that’s exactly how it felt, as if a kind of collective madness had descended.

Just a few years after the siege of Sarajevo I found myself returning to the city where I was to be based for some time.

It was during that stay that I met Safeta Kovasevic, my 75-year-old Sarajevo landlady who owned the flat in which I briefly lived on the city’s Obala Kulina Bana Street that runs alongside the Miljacka river. 

One afternoon, Safeta told me of how she had lived through that very madness that Hamza had alluded to.   

Safeta described how, during the siege, the constant bombardment had proved too much for her husband who collapsed from a stroke, dying in her arms. As a couple they had come together from opposite sides of the Bosnian sectarian divide, she being a Muslim and he a Serb

Shortly after her husband’s death, Safeta’s daughter and two sons fell to snipers’ bullets. During the last winter of the blockade, Safeta herself collapsed, lying alone for three days on the freezing floor of her shrapnel-scarred kitchen before being discovered. 

“I’ve lost everyone I ever loved and I’ve carried all of it with me,” I recall her telling me that day, her eyes filling with tears. “But look at me, I’m still here. I’m still smiling and the world is a wonderful place.” 

It was not the first, nor would it be the last time, I’ve been humbled by the courage of those who lived through and survived the worst of the war. 

Returning again to Sarajevo back in 2014 as part of a Scottish delegation representing the UK charity initiative, Remembering Srebrenica, I remember thinking of Safeta as our group’s coach swept passed my old flat in the city. 

A few days later in Srebrenica itself I was to be reminded of her again after meeting another woman who had survived those dark days though not before losing two of her brothers, Ekrem and Mustafa, her son Samir and husband Sejad in the genocide of 1995. 

The woman’s name was Kada Hotic. “I know that Samir, along with the other boys, was tied and probably kept waiting a long time to be killed,” Kada told me that day as we talked at the Potocari Memorial Centre that houses the huge cemetery for the victims of Srebrenica.

“It was a very hot day – so hot that some of the Serb soldiers couldn’t keep up with the pace of the shooting,” Kada continued, standing among the rows of white headstones, four of which belonged to the men of her family.

“When I gave birth to my son, I was the happiest woman alive and now I think of him thirsty and afraid having to wait in line that day to be killed,” Kada reflected. When we met, Kada who was then 69 years old, was suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, but this had not prevented her and the other Mothers of Srebrenica, as they are known from being as determined as ever to ensure justice is done and that the world should never forget the torture, brutality and killing during those days of the genocide.

That day in 2014, as I accompanied Kada from the cemetery passing each gravestone, she gently caressed the marble tops, stopping once to hug the stone above the grave of her son, Samir, as if it were the boy himself still here and alive. It was a touching and poignant moment that I will always remember.

In the same way we must never forget that all of this, the genocide, ethnic cleansing and other war crimes, is not a thing of the distant past, but took place right here in Europe barely 25 years ago today.