Tears flow as kin bury Srebrenica massacre victims
Anniversary of killings is also marked
SREBRENICA, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Hoisting hundreds of coffins aloft, a line of about 60,000 people stretched for at least a mile yesterday as they honored Srebrenica massacre victims on the 15th anniversary of the worst atrocity in Europe since World War II.
A whole hillside in the eastern Bosnian town was dug out with graves, waiting for 775 coffins covered in green cloths to be laid to rest at the biggest Srebrenica funeral so far.
Still, that was less than a tenth of the estimated 8,000 Muslim men and boys executed after Serb forces overran the UN-protected town on July 11, 1995, during the 1992-1995 Bosnian war.
“I grew up without a father and I don’t even remember him,’’ said 16-year-old Hajro Ibrahimovic.
When the procession reached the hill, weeping relatives split off to find the graves of their loved ones.
The sound of dirt pounding against the coffins’ wooden lids echoed over the valley, as two announcers, one male and one female, solemnly read out the names of the victims being buried. The reading took 64 minutes.
On that fateful day in 1995, some 30,000 Bosnian Muslims had flocked to the United Nations military base in the town’s suburb of Potocari for refuge. But when Serb forces came, they forced outnumbered Dutch peacekeepers to open the gates.
The Serbs then separated out the Muslim men and boys, putting them on trucks and carting them away, the vast majority never to be seen again. The Dutch peacekeepers survived.
The Srebrenica memorial center now stands across the road from that former UN base.
Andrew Gilmour, the special representative of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in neighboring Serbia, represented the UN at the event, and other UN officials also attended. Ban plans to reaffirm the United Nations’ sorrow over what took place in Srebrenica at a commemorative event today, a spokesman said.
The youngest victim buried yesterday was 14, the oldest 78, joining nearly 4,000 already buried at the memorial center. All the bodies had been excavated from mass graves and identified through DNA tests.
Another 1,844 victims have been identified, but their skeletons consist only of a few bones and relatives are refusing to bury them until more fragments are found.
Several months after the massacre, Serb troops excavated the original mass graves with bulldozers and moved victims to other locations in a futile effort to conceal the evidence of war crimes. As the machines plowed up bodies, they ripped them apart and fragments of the same person can be scattered among several sites.
Before the funeral, Muslim prayers and weeping mixed with the speeches of dignitaries condemning the crimes and calling for the perpetrators to be punished — something victims’ families noted would not change the suffering they have endured.
Ahmet Cesko, 58, avoided being killed at Srebrenica by fleeing to government territory through the woods amid a manhunt by Serb troops. He came to pay his respect to comrades who did not survive the dangerous five-day hike.
Serb ambushes were set mainly next to creeks, he recalled.
“Some of those I saw lying by the water I now see in coffins,’’ he said.
President Boris Tadic of Serbia was the first dignitary to arrive yesterday, saying he was coming in an “act of reconciliation.’’ Some in the crowd yelled “Bravo, Boris!’’ while others asked “Where is Mladic?’’ — a reference to former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic, who led the Serb troops into Srebrenica.
“I wish to welcome you; we are receiving you in peace,’’ Kada Hotic, a representative of the Srebrenica widows, told Tadic while he held her hands.
Mladic and former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic were indicted on genocide charges in the Srebrenica massacre by the UN war crimes tribunal in 1995. Karadzic is now on trial at the tribunal in The Hague while Mladic is still a fugitive.