Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Nameless Srebrenica Victims

Thousands of people killed following the fall of the enclave remain unidentified eight years after the atrocity.
By Nermina Durmic-Kahrovic

Tahira Osmanovic, a 50-year-old widow from Srebrenica, was at a loss for words last week as she stood at a memorial and cemetery in Potocari, the former UN base just outside of town along with more than 10,000 others to commemorate the anniversary of the worst atrocity committed in Europe since World War II.


Osmanovic lost both her husband and son when Bosnian Serb forces overran the enclave in July 1995, executing more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys.


Like so many relatives of those killed, Osmanovic subsequently left Bosnia and started a new life in Colorado, in the United States. She returned to Srebrenica on July 11 - the eighth anniversary of the massacre - to bury the remains of her family.


The last time she saw them, her son, Edin, was 16 and her husband, Ibro, was 44. Their remains were among several hundred others recently identified through DNA testing.


Thus far, the bodies of some 5,000 people have been exhumed from mass graves in eastern Bosnia in the years since the massacre. Only 1,000 of them have been identified, with the 1000th identification coming on the anniversary.


More than 600 of those identified were reburied in Potocari in March, and on July 11, some 282 bodies, including 26 boys who were all under 18, were placed in the cemetery. The funeral for the remainder of those who have been identified will be held in September.


The identifications, the families say, are a mixed blessing. While they provide a long overdue sense of closure, even after eight years, many of the survivors said they still had hopes of finding their loved ones alive.


“For eight years, we have been hoping that our brother and father would not be discovered among these bodies,” said 29-year-old Vasvija Efendic. “Our father had a lot of Serb friends and we hope somebody might have helped them by giving them a place to hide.”


Vasvija’s father, Edhem and her brother, Mevludin, who was only 18-years-old at the time, were identified several months ago. “In the end, it’s better for us to know where their bodies are,” she said.


The majority of relatives of the men and boys who went missing in July 1995 are still waiting to have their likely fate confirmed.


One old woman, Sida Mehanovic, arrived at the cemetery clutching a photo of her four sons. “They took them away in front of me. They are just gone. When will somebody tell me where they are…?”


Some 4,000 bags containing remains excavated from mass graves in eastern Bosnia are still to be identified.


“Everyone involved in the process must continue the work of finding remains and giving back names to the thousands of persons still missing,” said Gordon Bacon, head of the Sarajevo-based International Commission on Missing Persons, ICMP, which was established in 1996.


In an effort to identify as many as possible, ICMP has collected more then 14,000 blood samples, just from families whose loved ones disappeared from Srebrenica in 1995.


Many of the same faces who had gathered to commemorate the previous anniversaries were present on July 11, but for the first time, they were also joined by a Bosnian Serb delegation, including the prime minister of Republika Srpska, Dragan Mikerevic. “We no longer want crime to be taboo in Republika Srpska,” he said.


His words, however, rang hollow to the survivors, who point out that there has never been a serious investigation in the Bosnian Serb entity about what happened in Srebrenica.


Many others who were present at the memorial service said they were losing faith in ever seeing any kind of justice.


Emina Durakovic, 36, came to the funeral with her sister to bury two of their three missing brothers, Huso, who was 31 when he disappeared, and Emin, who was 20. Their 22-year-old brother Emir is still missing.


“What is punishment for the murder of my brothers? I have stopped believing the tribunal will really punish the perpetrators and their commanders,” Durakovic said.


During the post-war period, only a few families returned to their homes in Srebrenica.


“We would have no place to live and work in this town if we returned,” said 19-year-old Emir Salihovic, who recently finished high school in Tuzla.


Salihovic lost both his father and his brother in the massacre. He said he could not imagine coming back to Srebrenica to live and that he would probably try to immigrate to America.


Although the exact number is not known, more and more Srebrenica survivors are attempting to leave Bosnia and resettle abroad where they don’t have to be constantly confronted by such painful memories.


Vasvija Efendic moved to Germany several years ago and her mother and brother left the country last September to live in the US. “They did not just kill our brothers and fathers, they destroyed us in so many other ways,” Vasvija said. “We are now without home and without a country. We are just wrecks.”


Nermina Durmic-Kahrovic is a Tuzla-based journalist.