Doha, Qatar – The youngest victim only lived for a few hours. Her name was going to be Fatima, but she was killed on July 11, 1995, in the Srebrenica “safe area”, where over just a few days, thousands of Bosnian Muslims were killed, most of them men.
Among the victims buried today are the bodies of 44 boys, exhumed from mass graves. At the time of death, they were between 14 and 18 years of age.
Estimates on the number of victims vary. A commission set up by Republika Srpska identified 8,372 victims, while the Association of Mothers of Srebrenica recorded 10,701.
So far, 5,672 victims have been buried. Another 1,000 are awaiting their funeral, because not enough of their remains were discovered. In some cases, a bone or a single tooth is all that was found. A few more bones in the coffin – that’s all their families long for.
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But there are still many who have no idea how their loved ones died or where their remains are. They put their hopes in the Federal Commission, a body tasked with finding mass graves, which has discovered more than 5,000 graves in Bosnia Herzegovina in the past 18 years. The remains are then identified by the International Commission for Missing Persons or ICMP.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Court of Justice in The Hague have ruled that this mass crime amounts to genocide. It is considered the worst single atrocity during the wars in the former Yugoslavia, and the largest massacre committed in Europe since World War II.
Death march vs Peace march
On July 11, 1995, the shelling of the UN safe area of Srebrenica begun. Families separated trying to increase their chances of survival. Some sought shelter under the UN flag, at the Dutch peacekeepers’ base in Potocari, a village outside Srebrenica. Others headed for the forest, in a desperate attempt to reach free territory, around the city of Tuzla.
Muhsin Omerovic was 21 when he – after almost two months of wandering in the woods – finally reached Tuzla. He survived the march, but many were not so lucky.
Today, he is one of the organisers of the annual Peace march, the eighth in memory of the victims. Thousands of people make the three-day hike to Srebrenica, days before the July 11 anniversary.
“It’s a journey of almost 100 km, but we cannot take the full authentic route from 1995 – because the last section, the Kamenicko hill, is still riddled with landmines,” Omerovic tols Al Jazeera. “That’s where the column was first ambushed and where, during five to ten minutes, 1,000 people were killed and as many wounded.”
This year, nearly 6,000 people from 20 countries, from Cambodia to Switzerland, took part in the march.
“The Peace march is about remembering the tragic events of 1995, about keeping alive the memory of all those boys, men and women who lost their lives in the ‘Death march’, as we called it. On the other hand, the peace march is also about the future, because it is an opportunity to meet people, people you know intuitively, and where new ideas are born,” said Omerovic.
Children of Srebrenica – and the memory of lost parents
Nermina Muminovic is burying her father 18 years after his death. He was last seen on July 11, 1995. His remains were found in a canal, half buried. There was a deep wound in his chest and his head was missing. He was 39 when he was killed.
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“The town was being shelled and everybody said we should run to the UN base. They said the men should go through the woods and the women to Potocari and that nothing would happen to them. My father joined the other men – it was the last time we saw him. He said: ‘Go with your mum, I’ll arrive in Tuzla before you and I’ll wait for you there.’ But he never came.”
Muminovic finished college as a refugee in Tuzla. In 2006 she returned to Srebrenica, got a job in the local administration and started a family.
“Srebrenica was given to Serbs. That is the greatest injustice towards us, Bosniaks [Bosnian Muslims]. Neither I nor anyone else here can accept that; it’s just wrong. But in a way, we feel that we are the winners. Even though they wanted to destroy us – somehow we defeated them and despite all, we came back as educated people. For me, it’s still a success, for all these people,” said Muminovic.
Advija Ibrahimovic was 11 when she became an orphan. Her mother was killed in 1992, while they were fleeing to Srebrenica from a nearby village.
She was separated from her father the day Srebrenica fell.
“He was really ill and he had a very sad look in his eyes,” she said. “None of us were able to utter a word. That was the last time we saw each other. Nobody spoke, and he somehow seemed to know. It is really painful to remember all that. I don’t even know how to describe all those events. I usually suppress them and try not to live in those moments. I do not know how sane I am today.”
Ibrahimovic grew up in an orphanage in Tuzla, together with her older brother and sister. She went to medical school and now works for the ICMP. That is where her father’s remains were stored for four years waiting to be buried, in the hope that more parts of his body would be discovered. With 70 percent of the bones found, he was finally put to rest in 2012.
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During the fall of Srebrenica, Hasan Nuhanovic was working as an interpreter for the Dutch battalion at the UN military base in Potocari. On July 11, his family came there seeking refuge. But they found none.
“The Dutch expelled 5,000 people from their base and handed them over to the Serbs at the gate. In the end, they expelled my family too – my father, mother and brother. That was the last time I saw them,” he recalled.
He continued working for the UN in the Srebrenica area until the end of the war, hoping to discover his family’s fate. It was only after 10 years that the first news came: his father had been found in a secondary mass grave. He found the remains of his mother and 20-year-old brother 15 years after their deaths.
Hasan Nuhanovic wrote a book, Under the UN flag, on the massacre and now works as an associate at Potocari Memorial Center. When it comes to the Srebrenica genocide he sees a great paradox:
“The genocide took place literally under the banner of the UN,” he said. “The two flags, that of the Netherlands and the UN, were not taken down even for a moment during the days when people were being handed over to the Chetniks and their certain deaths. Those flags continued to fly as if nothing was happening.”
In 1999, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan acknowledged that the international community as a whole must share in responsibility for such a limited response to the ethnic cleansing which took place. Ten years after the massacre, in 2005, Annan expresed solidarity with the families of those who were killed.
“As they grieve, so we grieve,” read his statement. “As they cry out for truth and justice, so must we continue the fight, no matter how long it takes, to secure a full and proper reckoning… For us who serve the United Nations, that truth is a hard one to face.”
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia tried more than 100 people. Former Bosnian Serb Commander Zdravko Tolimir was sentenced to life imprisonment. Some were acquitted.
Most cases have yet to be concluded, such as those of former Prime Minister of Republika Srpska Radovan Karadzic and Bosnian Serb Army commander Ratko Mladic. Both are accused of genocide and crimes against humanity, including extermination, murder and deportation.
The pain in Srebrenica will likely never be alleviated, but many souls may be soothed once the judicial process is complete, and the remains of those victims still missing are found and finally laid to rest.
Follow Alma Brnicanin on Twitter: @AlmaBrnicanin
Source: Al Jazeera