Fifty newly identified victims were honoured and reburied Monday in Bosnia as thousands gathered to commemorate the anniversary of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, Europe’s only acknowledged genocide since the Holocaust.
Twenty-seven years after they were murdered, the remains of 47 men and three teenage boys were laid to rest at a memorial cemetery at the entrance to Srebrenica, joining more than 6,600 other massacre victims already reburied there.
Idriz Mustafic attended the collective funeral to bury the partial remains of his son, Salim. He was 16 when he was killed in Srebrenica in July 1995 while trying to flee the town as it was overrun by Bosnian Serb forces in the closing months of Bosnia’s 1992-95 war.
“My older son, Enis, was also killed,” Mustafic said. “We buried him in 2005. Now I am burying Salim.”
He said that forensic experts have not found Salim’s skull.
“My wife got cancer and had to undergo surgery,” Mustafic said. “We just couldn’t wait any longer to bury the bones that we found, to at least know where their graves are.”
Painstaking DNA analysis
The Srebrenica killings were the bloody crescendo of Bosnia’s war, which came after the breakup of Yugoslavia unleashed nationalistic passions and territorial ambitions that set Bosnian Serbs against the country’s two other main ethnic factions — Croats and Bosniaks.
In July 1995, Bosnian Serbs overran a UN-protected safe haven in Srebrenica. They separated at least 8,000 Bosniak men and boys from their wives, mothers and sisters, chased them through woods around the eastern town and slaughtered them.
The perpetrators then plowed their victims’ bodies into hastily made mass graves, which they later dug up with bulldozers, scattering the remains among other burial sites to hide the evidence of their war crimes. During the process, the half-decomposed remains were ripped apart. Body parts are still being found in mass graves around Srebrenica and are being put together and identified through painstaking DNA analysis.
When the remains are identified, they are returned to their relatives and reburied in the memorial centre and cemetery just outside Srebrenica each July 11 — the anniversary of the day the killings began in 1995.
Mana Ademovic, who lost her husband and many other male relatives in the massacre, was among those attending Monday’s commemoration ceremonies in Srebrenica. Ademovic found her husband’s partial remains and reburied him years ago but said she “must be in Srebrenica every July 11.”
“It is easier when you have a grave to visit, no matter how many bones are buried inside,” she said, while sitting among the graves at the vast and still-expanding memorial cemetery, hugging her husband’s white marble headstone.
Tens of thousands attend service
In the last two years, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, only a relatively small number of survivors were allowed to attend the annual commemoration service and collective funeral of the victims in Srebrenica. But with restrictions lifted, tens of thousands attended Monday, including many diplomats and dignitaries.
Addressing the commemoration ceremony ahead of the funeral, the Dutch Defence Minister Kajsa Ollongren apologized to the Srebrenica survivors for the Dutch peacekeepers’ failure to prevent the 1995 massacre.
“The international community failed to offer adequate protection to the people of Srebrenica,” Ollongren said. “And, as part of that community, the Dutch government shares responsibility for the situation in which that failure occurred and for this we offer our deepest apologies.”
The Srebrenica killings were the only event of the Bosnian war to be legally defined as genocide. The war itself left over 100,000 dead. In all, a special UN war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague and courts in the Balkans have sentenced close to 50 Bosnian Serb wartime officials — including their wartime leader Radovan Karadzic and his military commander, Ratko Mladic — to more than 700 years in prison for the Srebrenica killings.
However, despite the irrefutable evidence of what happened, most Serb leaders in Bosnia and neighbouring Serbia continue to downplay or even deny the Srebrenica massacre and celebrate Karadzic and Mladic as heroes.
Menachem Rosensaft, the executive vice-president and general counsel of the World Jewish Congress, also addressed the mourners Monday. He said the commemoration of the Srebrenica massacre was of “momentous significance for all who care about international human rights, for all who have a conscience.”
Rosensaft said it was “critical” for the international community to formally commemorate the Srebrenica genocide every July 11 “not just out of respect for its victims, but as a public countermeasure to the repeated efforts to deny this genocide.”