Thousands Attend Burial of 520 Srebrenica Victims
More than 30,000 mourners attended the burial of 520 recently-identified victims of the Srebrenica massacre on July 11, marking the 17th anniversary of the worst mass killing in Europe since the Second World War.
The remains were discovered and positively identified over the last year, and were buried at the Potocari Memorial Center cemetery alongside those of 5,137 victims already buried there.
Current research indicates that over 8,000 people, mostly men and boys, were killed within the space of a few days after Bosnian Serb troops took control of the town, a United Nations-designated “safe area” in July 1995. A witness in the trial of wartime Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic said in May that of the 8,021 known to have been killed, 6,241 had been identified by DNA analysis. (See Demographics of Bosnian War Set Out.)
The 520 individuals buried this week included more than 80 boys aged 15 or younger, while the oldest victim to be buried was Saha Izmirlic, a 94-year-old woman.
Hatidza Ahmetovic, whose 17-year old son Hajrudin was amongst those laid to rest, said that waiting for his remains to be recovered had been extremely difficult, though his burial had helped her achieve partial closure.
“I kept thinking about the last time I hugged him and it gave me strength, and now I hope that his grave here will at least give me peace,” she said.
Describing her long wait for his remains to be identified, she said, “You know he won’t be coming back home again, but you still hope... that at least some day, someone will find his bones.”
Hajrudin’s remains were found at a mass grave at Kamenica, where they had been moved from another site in an attempt to conceal the extent of the massacre.
“It’s sickening to think that someone would go and kill an unarmed boy and then bury him, but it’s even more repulsive to think that someone would come with a bulldozer and tear up his body, hoping that he would never be found,” Ahmetovic said.
Only part of the teenager’s remains were recovered, but his mother decided she was ready for them to be buried as they were.
“They called me [from the DNA identification centre in Tuzla] and said they had a few bones together, a leg, an arm and a shoulder. They asked whether I wanted him buried like that, or whether they should keep looking,” she said. “I couldn’t wait any more; I told them that I wanted him buried.”
Through tears, Ahmetovic described her son as a “good boy” who had enjoyed studying chemistry and wanted to become an engineer.
Hajrudin’s only fault, she said, was to have “the wrong name while living in the wrong place at the wrong time”.
Ahmetovic’s neighbour Mejra, whose own son and husband were buried here in 2009 and 2010 after their remains were recovered, held her hand during the ceremony.
“It was like a never-ending walk of pain,” Mejra said of her own grief. “Every year you come back here, and you go through everything you’ve lived through again and again.”
Mejra said she wanted people to remember those still living in Srebrenica, as well as those who were killed.
The economic situation in the town remains poor, with limited prospects of employment and education. Many residents at the time of the killings no longer live there.
Camil Durakovic, acting mayor of Srebrenica, said it was time to try and do something for the children of those who died.
“We are burying not mortal remains, but fathers, brothers, husbands,” he said. “Now we must return life to Srebrenica.”
As happens each year, the ceremony was attended by community leaders and politicians from Bosnia and abroad. Although there were no political speeches this year, the rabbi of New York’s Park East Synagogue, Arthur Schneier, told mourners that he understood their suffering.
“My entire family was murdered in Auschwitz and in Terezin,” he said. “I know the anguish and despair that you feel when those dearest to you are brutally murdered for no other reason than their religion or ethnicity.”
He said that the acts committed at Srebrenica could never be forgotten.
“The totality of this crime must be remembered, not denied,” he said. “The testimony of those who survived cannot be refuted and the historical fact cannot be altered.”
The burials came as the trial of Ratko Mladic, commander of the Bosnian Serb army from 1992-1996, continued at The Hague this week. (See Witness Says Mladic Threatened to Kill Civilians.)
Mladic is charged with genocide, murder, extermination and deportation, among other crimes. He is also accused of planning and overseeing the 44-month siege of Sarajevo that left nearly 12,000 people dead, as well as the Srebrenica massacre.
Velma Šarić is an IWPR-trained reporter in Sarajevo.