Last week, more than 15,000 people attended the burial ceremony of 175 men and boys who were killed during the Srebrenica genocide, on July 11-13, 1995.
The ceremony at the Potocari memorial centre, down the road from the town of Srebrenica, marked the 19th anniversary of the genocide. Each year, bodies that have been newly found and identified from mass graves are laid to rest at the memorial site. So far, the remains of more than 6,000 people killed during the massacre have been buried in Potocari.
This year’s commemorations came a few days before a verdict is expected on a lawsuit brought by survivors of the genocide, who are suing the Netherlands over the role of Dutch UN peacekeeping soldiers. They accuse the soldiers of failing to prevent the massacre, in which more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed by Bosnian Serb forces after being offered protection in a UN “safe haven”.
After a religious ceremony at the Potocari memorial, the names of the dead were read out to the crowd, and relatives carried the 175 coffins to new grave plots within the memorial site. After the graves were dug, an imam read a prayer at each grave before the coffin was lowered.
Although Bosnian Muslim tradition states that close family members must bury the dead, in some cases only distant relatives of the victims survived the genocide. Brothers Amir and Asim Mujic, aged 20 and 24 when they were killed, were buried on Friday by their distant cousin, 78-year-old Ismet Memic. “Their father and their third brother were killed, then their mother died of sadness,” he explained.
As time passes, relatives whose family members are still missing or whose bodies have only been partly found have grown increasingly concerned that their loved ones will not be buried in their lifetime.
This year, more than 5,000 people participated in a three-day “peace march” from Nezuk to Srebrenica. It followed the route taken by the thousands of Bosnian Muslims who fled Srebrenica in July 1995, though in the opposite direction. The annual peace march has grown in popularity in recent years, with organisers estimating that around 80 percent of this year’s participants were under 30 years old.
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Twenty-year-old Harun Merdzanic, who grew up partly in Sweden after his family left Bosnia in the 1990s, explained that the march and memorial are important “to remember what the genocide victims went through in 1995, to honour their memory”.
But in Bosnia and Herzegovina, honouring the memory of those who died in the 1992-95 war is not easy. Since the war, schools have often been segregated on ethnic lines, teaching children three different, mutually exclusive narratives of what happened after the disintegration of Yugoslavia.
Many continue to contest what took place during the war. In Republika Srpska, the Serb-majority entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina where Srebrenica is situated, President Milorad Dodik has repeatedly denied that what happened in Srebrenica constituted genocide, despite the fact it has been established as such at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Court.
Merdzanic believes that the July 11 commemoration helps to counter denial of the massacre’s genocidal nature. “Srebrenica needs to be preserved as a memory for humanity, like Auschwitz. It needs to be a lesson for everyone, to never let something like this happen again, to anyone, to any group.”
The mayor of Srebrenica, Camil Durakovic, said at the anniversary commemoration that “this memorial must be viewed as a warning” and that it “should serve as a vow to all Bosniaks [Bosnian Muslims] to return to Srebrenica and build a life”. Initiatives in recent elections have encouraged Bosnian Muslims who lived there before the war to register as voters, so that the ethnic composition of the area before the genocide is politically represented.
Tensions among those living in the villages surrounding Srebrenica become inflamed during what is known as “commemoration season“. Down the road in Bratunac, an Orthodox ceremony is held the following day, on July 12, for the estimated 3,200 Serbs killed in the area throughout the war. The president of Republika Srpska has previously attended the Bratunac ceremony.
“It hurts me that Srebrenica is in Republika Sprska today,” said Sadzida Tulic, a 28-year-old Bosnian Muslim living in Sarajevo. “It is like they rewarded the perpetrators with this territory.” Bosnia and Herzegovina today is divided into two political entities, the majority-Serb Republika Srpska and the majority-Bosniak Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
She complained that media – domestic and international alike – only pay attention to Srebrenica during the genocide commemoration. “Look at the town of Srebrenica the other 364 days a year. It is like a crumbling ghost town, despite all the millions that have supposedly gone into it. The least that should be done to give dignity to those dehumanised by the genocide is to renovate Srebrenica to somewhere returnees would want to live.”
An unfinished process
The commemoration of the Srebrenica anniversary shows that transitional justice is an unfinished process in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Even burying the dead has not been easy, as mass graves were often disturbed and reburied during the war to prevent bodies from being found. For instance, the remains of Senad Beganovic, a 14-year-old boy who was killed in the massacre and buried in Potocari on Friday, were found in four different mass graves.
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Many Bosnians have been alienated by what they viewed as a distant and error-prone tribunal in The Hague. Meanwhile, local efforts to address the past have often been blocked by the country’s ethno-nationalist political framework.
This year’s commemorations took place as Bosnia and Herzegovina came to a crossroads. The popular protests and plenums that took place across the country in February and March took aim at mishandled privatisation; the country’s elites, who are perceived as being corrupt and overpaid; and the ethno-nationalism that protesters say stymies democratisation. But what was hailed as “Bosnia’s Euromaidan” – referring to the protest movement that toppled the Ukrainian president – petered out a month later as the worst floods in a century devastated the region.
The floods washed away many homes rebuilt after the war, and although Bosnian, Serbian, and Croatian citizens rushed to help those affected, there are fears that post-flood reconstruction will stall, just as post-war reconstruction did, on incompetence and corruption. As Sadzida noted, “It said a lot that we were organising our own aid efforts among ourselves to those affected by the floods, not donating to the emergency government fund, because no one trusts them”.
It has been suggested that next year, the 20th anniversary of the genocide, will be the last of the mass burial ceremonies at Potocari, as identifying remains and mass graves becomes more difficult as time passes.
Yet the floods earlier this year dislodged uncleared landmines from the war, and a new mass grave was discovered in the northern town of Doboj as flood waters receded. Almost 20 years after the end of the conflict, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s unresolved past continues to haunt the country.