A woman from the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, had to wait 19 years before she could bury her two sons.
“I didn’t want to bury him because they found only his head and a few little bones,” Selimovic told reporters. “I waited, thinking the rest will be found and then everything can be buried at once … but there was nothing else and we buried what we had.”
The two boys were among the 8,000 Muslim residents of the town killed 19 years ago from Friday, in what is remembered as Europe’s worst atrocity since World War II. Each year on July 11, as more bodies are recovered from mass graves and identified using DNA technology, families and survivors of the massacre lay to rest their loved ones and mourn the anniversary of the horrific killings.
A Town Remembers
“We are full of sorrow, but we cannot forget or change the past,” said Srebrenica Mayor Camil Durakovic at the ceremony. “Unfortunately, this is not the end of the search for Srebrenica victims,” he added. According to the Bosnian Missing Persons Institute, 6,066 of the victims have been identified and reburied in a local memorial center. However, for countless families, the remains of loved ones lost to the killings may never be found. While several mass graves have been unearthed since 2004, spokesperson Lejla Cengic said that Bosnian Serb forces who carried out the killings scattered remains around in attempt to hide their crimes. After the United Nations’ special war crimes tribunal in the Hague started its investigation into atrocities committed during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, they returned to the area with bulldozers to unearth the bodies and destroy evidence.
On July 11, 1995, Bosnian Serbian forces — along with the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army — overwhelmed the small U.N. peacekeeping forces stationed in Srebrenica and rounded up all the boys and men in the Muslim-majority town. The massacre that followed has since been labeled an act of genocide by an international court. “The perpetrators had every hope that these people would be wiped out and never found again,” said Kathryne Bomberger, head of the International Commission for Missing Persons. The organization runs the world’s largest DNA-assisted identification program, having identified remains following the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. Bosnia is still the largest of its operations.
Serbs Remain Divided
Across the border in Belgrade, Serbian anti-war activists led by the NGO Women in Black honored the victims of the Srebrenica massacre by marching with black banners bearing the victims’ names and the word “responsibility.” In the days leading up to the ceremony, the leaders received death threats and some were physically attacked. Serbians remain divided over how they view the Balkan wars that tore apart Southeastern Europe two decades ago.
The war started shortly after the former Yugoslavia, a socialist state made up of six republics, broke down following the death of longtime leader Josef Tito and with the fall of the Soviet Union marking the end of an international communist movement. Tensions between the several ethnic and religious groups that had been held together by the crumbling coalition surfaced in 1991, when Croatia and Slovenia made bids for independence that the Serb-dominated military attempted to crush, leading to bloody fighting among the sides. Bosnia, a cosmopolitan country featuring a mix of Serbs, Muslims and Croats, followed suit in 1992. Bosnian Serbs responded by joining Yugoslav army units and driving a campaign of ethnic cleansing that claimed over 100,000 lives before NATO bombed Serbia in 1995, eventually putting an end to the conflict. The U.S. brokered peace deal that followed split Bosnia into a Serb republic and a loose federation for Muslims and Croats.
The Hague is still working to deliver justice. Radovan Karadzic, president of the Bosnian Serbs during the conflict, has been on trial since 2009, and closing arguments in the trial are expected to finally be presented in September. And the former Bosnian Serb army chief Ratko Mladic began his defense against war crimes charges last month. The young nationalists who attacked activists commemorating the massacre in Belgrade wore T-shirts proclaiming their support for Mladic, as they believe the charges of genocide are unfair. However, the peace activists are undeterred. “We will continue to put pressure on Serbia, not just for Srebrenica, but also for other war crimes,” said Stasa Zajovic, leader of the protestors. The group recently sent a letter to Serbian president Tomislav Nikolic and the parliament, urging them to stop “denying genocide.” While international courts call the July 11 massacre in Srebrenica an act of genocide, the parliament stopped short of calling the killings genocidal in a resolution condemning the killings it released last year.
On Friday, 5,000 members of a peace march that traces the route Muslims used to escape Srebrenica arrived in the town to assist with the reburial process. Muhizin Omerovic, the vice-president of the committee to organize this year’s march, said that through returning to the town, marchers “send a message of peace and lessons learned, not just for Bosnia and Herzegovina, but for the entire world.”
Will Freeman is an intern with Think Progress.