Bosnia is marking the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, the only crime in Europe since World War II that has been declared a genocide, with only a small number of survivors allowed to take part in commemoration events due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The brutal execution in July 1995 of more than 8,000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys is being commemorated in a series of events and the reburial of recently identified remains of nine victims in a memorial cemetery and centre just outside the town in eastern Bosnia.
The Srebrenica massacre is the only episode of Bosnia’s 1992-1995 war to be defined as genocide, including by two UN courts. After murdering thousands of Srebrenica’s Muslims, in an attempt to hide the crime, Serbs dumped their bodies in numerous mass graves scattered throughout eastern Bosnia.
Body parts are still being found in mass graves and are being put together and identified through DNA analysis. Close to 7,000 of those killed have already been found and identified.
Newly identified victims are buried each year on July 11 — the anniversary of the day the killing began in 1995 — in the memorial cemetery just outside of Srebrenica.
Typically, thousands of visitors from various countries attend the commemoration service and funeral, but this year only a relatively small number of survivors will be allowed at the cemetery due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Dozens of world leaders, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Spain's Pedro Sánchez, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Britain’s Prince Charles, are addressing the commemoration ceremony via prerecorded video messages.
Finally laid to rest
Bahrudin Salihovic always knew his father had perished 25 years ago in the storm of violence unleashed in the final months of the Balkan country’s 1992-95 war. He himself barely survived.
But over the years, he has been waiting for his father’s remains to be found in one of dozens of mass graves scattered around his hometown.
On Friday, Salihovic finally huddled over a coffin holding a few of his father’s bones, unearthed from a death pit found near Srebrenica last November and identified through DNA testing.
“His remains are incomplete, but mother and I decided to bury the part of him that was found, to know where his grave is, to know where to go to pray for him,” Salihovic said.
“I know that many people will never be found,” he added.
On Saturday, the anniversary of the day the killing began in 1995, Salihovic will finally lay his father to rest in a memorial cemetery at Potocari, just outside Srebrenica, next to 6,610 previously identified victims.
Draped in green covers, his father’s coffin, and the coffins of eight other victims, were moved to the memorial center several days ago to give the surviving relatives some time to say their final goodbyes.
Bahrudin cried and prayed over the coffin, but his mother did not muster the strength to join him.
“It means a lot to have at least a few of his bones because for all these years ... we did not know where he is,” Hajrija Salihovic said. But she said it will not stop her from imagining his last moments on this earth: “His bones do not tell the story of how he met his death, did he suffer.”
In July 1995, at least 8,000 mostly Muslim men and boys were chased through woods in and around Srebrenica by Serb troops in what is considered the worst carnage of civilians in Europe since World War II.
The Bosnian war pitted the country’s three main ethnic factions — Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims — against each other after the break-up of Yugoslavia. More than 100,000 people were killed in the conflict before a peace deal was brokered in 1995.
What took place in Srebrenica was a mark of shame for the international community because the town had been declared a UN “safe haven” for civilians in 1993.
However, two years later, the outgunned peacekeepers watched helplessly as Serb troops separated men and boys for execution, bussing the women and girls to Bosnian government-held territory.
Bahrudin Salihovic, then 25 years old, fled through the woods, reaching safety after several days of wandering through the countryside. He was hungry, thirsty, and terrified by the constant echo of Serb machine guns executing others who had been caught.
The killers sought to hide evidence of the genocide, piling most of the bodies into hastily made mass graves, which they subsequently dug up with bulldozers. The bodies were scattered across numerous burial sites.
In the years since the war, remains of nearly 7,000 victims of the massacre have been dug out and identified through DNA testing. About 1,000 victims remain to be found.
A special UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague and courts in the Balkans have sentenced close to 50 Bosnian Serbs to more than 700 years in prison for Srebrenica crimes.
However, adding to the suffering of the survivors, many Serbs still deny the extent of the 1995 Srebrenica killings and often even celebrate the executioners. Last year, top Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik called the massacre “a fabricated myth.”
“On this sombre anniversary, we are reminded that peace (in Bosnia) is still fragile. We cannot let up in working toward genuine reconciliation,” the Secretary General of the United Nations said in a video message released Friday.
“Reconciliation means rejecting denial of genocide and war crimes and of any effort to glorify convicted war criminals,” Antonio Guterres added.
In Srebrenica, Bahrudin Salihovic stared into the distance, saying he has constantly thought about “the past 25 years of yearning for a part of my heart that had been hacked away, killed” in the massacre.
“I survived a genocide,” he said with a heavy sigh.