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

At Srebrenica Burial, Youngest Victim Laid to Rest

Thousands attend annual burial ceremony, this year for 409 people finally identified 18 years on.
By Velma Šarić
  • The baby in this coffin would have turned 18 on July 11, 2013, when she was buried with 408 others. (Photo: Velma Saric)
    The baby in this coffin would have turned 18 on July 11, 2013, when she was buried with 408 others. (Photo: Velma Saric)
  • The burial ceremony at Potocari is for people whose remains have been not only found but positively identified. (Photo: Velma Saric)
    The burial ceremony at Potocari is for people whose remains have been not only found but positively identified. (Photo: Velma Saric)
  • It is a traumatic event for relatives and other survivors. (Photo: Velma Saric)
    It is a traumatic event for relatives and other survivors. (Photo: Velma Saric)

Amid the sea of green coffins laid out on the ground at the memorial centre in Potocari, each by a freshly-dug grave, there was one that stood out. 

It was very, very small.

Covered in flowers, this coffin – one of 409 which were about to be laid to earth on July 11, 2013 – contained the remains of a newborn baby, the youngest victim of the Srebrenica genocide of July 1995.

Had the baby lived, her mother would have named her Fatima and she would now be 18 years of age. Her brother, who was just five when she died, carried the small coffin to its grave on his shoulder.

As they do every year, thousands of people gathered in Potocari on this July 11 to commemorate the victims of the Srebrenica massacre, which occurred when Serb forces overran this eastern Bosnian enclave on that day 18 years ago. In the days that followed, they carried out mass killings of Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) men and boys.

The massacre, the biggest on European soil since the Second World War, has been formally classified as genocide by the Hague tribunal.

The indictments against Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic and his army commander Ratko Mladic say that more than 7,000 died. An expert witness at the Karadzic trial last year cited an updated figure of 8,021, based on data from the International Committee of the Red Cross and the International Commission on Missing Persons. (Her testimony is reported here: Demographics of Bosnian War Set Out.)

Before the coffins were lowered into the ground, family members of the victims, foreign and Bosnian dignitaries, and other guests from whole country and the wider region stood still in the pouring rain as a local choir performed a song dedicated to Srebrenica.

The remains of the 409 people laid to rest this week – including 44 underage boys and the newborn child – take the total number buried at Potocari to 6,066.

Before the baby’s coffin was interred, Hatidza Omerovic, who lost her own husband and two children at Srebrenica victims, said a prayer.

"Had this baby girl survived, she would have come of age [aged 18] exactly on this day", she said.

During the funeral ceremony, Hatidza spent most of her time by the coffins of her nephews Fuad and Senad, also buried this week. Fuad was 18 when he was killed, Senad 16.

"Every year I have to come here to bury someone," Hatidza said, adding that she had lost count of "how many of our relatives, family members and loved ones we’ve lost".

“My eyes have dried up from crying, but this year the heavens cried with me and all the other mothers, wives, aunts and grandmothers of Srebrenica," she said, standing under the pouring rain.

Speaking at the ceremony, Srebrenica’s current mayor Camil Durakovic said the commemoration symbolised the “fight against the consequences of genocide, a call for unity, and a message of survival in the face of death and destruction".

A similar message was delivered by Valentin Inzko, the international community’s High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, who took time to read out two messages. He had been sent one of them by an elderly Bosniak woman, the other by a Franciscan monk from Sarajevo.

"Both of them wrote separately, but using the same words, the universal message that peace and love can be the only weapon against hatred. This is a universal human message; this is a call for the entire world to be better," Inzko said.

He emphasised the importance of remembrance. "Forgetting the innocently killed would be just like killing them all over again," he said.

Every year, hundreds of sets of remains found in mass graves around Srebrenica are buried on July 11.

Interment only takes place after they have been identified. Eighteen years on, there are still remains that have still to have a name put to them, and others not yet unearthed.

Amor Masovic, a member of the board of directors of Bosnia's Institute for Missing Persons, told IWPR that over the years the identification process has slowed down. It has been further complicated by the fact that several entire families were wiped out completely, and not enough relatives were left to provide genetic material for a DNA comparison with the remains.

Sometimes, families who have already buried a relative face further trauma when they are informed that more of their remains have been found at another grave site. Because many bodies were subsequently removed from the original mass graves and relocated to new ones to disguise what had happened, it is common for body parts from one individual to be uncovered at different sites.

"These people are faced with a very difficult decision,” Masovic said. “Nermin Subasic, for example, was buried today. His coffin contains only the two bones that we have found so far. It is possible we will find more of his remains at a later date."

Hatidza Omerovic’s sister Izeta has been through this experience. She had already buried the partial remains of her son when more were uncovered.

"When they called me to say they’d found additional bones belonging to my son, it felt like my world came crashing down all over again. I didn't know what to do. I couldn't even think about disturbing the fragile peace he was in,” she said, bursting into tears.

"My Mirsad... he was such a good boy. He liked physics and school and he wanted to be an engineer. I look at some things that I managed to save from his childhood – a t-shirt I took to Tuzla with me in the hope that he’d need it again one day. I look at it and it reminds me of him, and it pains me", Izeta said, as her sister Hatidza comforted her.

"It hurts me to remember, but it would hurt me even more to forget," she said.

Velma Saric is an IWPR-trained reporter in Sarajevo.