Fifty new victims were honored and buried in Bosnia on Monday as thousands gathered to commemorate the anniversary of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre – the only genocide in Europe since the Holocaust.
The remains of 47 men and three teenagers were buried in a memorial cemetery on the outskirts of Srebrenica 27 years after they were killed. They join over 6,600 other massacre victims already buried there.
Idriz Mustafic attended the collective funeral to bury the partial remains of his son Salim. He was 16 years old when he was killed in Srebrenica in July 1995 while trying to flee the city when he was captured by Bosnian Serb forces during the final months of the 1992-95 Bosnian War.
“My eldest son Enis was also killed. We buried him in 2005. Now I am burying Salim,” Mustafic said.
“[Forensic experts] did not find his skull. My wife got cancer and had to have surgery, we just couldn’t wait any longer to bury the bones we found, even to know where their graves were,” he added.
“It’s easier when there’s a grave to visit”
The Srebrenica killings were the bloody crescendo of the war in Bosnia that resulted from the collapse of Yugoslavia, unleashing nationalist passions and territorial ambitions that pitted the country’s three main ethnic groups – Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats – against each other.
In July 1995, Bosnian Serb forces captured the United Nations-protected safe area of Srebrenica, at that time populated almost exclusively by Bosniaks from the city and neighboring villages who had sought refuge there.
Republika Srpska Army (ARS) troops separated at least 8,000 Bosnian men and boys from their wives, mothers and sisters, executing them on the spot or in nearby towns over the course of three days.
Some who tried to escape were pursued through the surrounding forests, surrounded and killed.
The perpetrators then buried the bodies of their victims in hastily constructed mass graves. Some of them were later dug up by bulldozers and the remains scattered among other graves to hide evidence of their war crimes.
During this process, the semi-decomposed remains were torn apart. Body parts, sometimes the size of a finger bone, are still found in mass graves around Srebrenica, as well as in other parts of the country, and they are collected together and identified through careful DNA analysis.
When the remains are identified, they are returned to their relatives and reburied at the memorial center and cemetery near Srebrenica every July 11, the anniversary of the start of the killings in 1995.
Mana Ademovich, who lost her husband and many other male relatives in the massacre, was among those who attended Monday’s memorial ceremonies in Srebrenica. Ademovich found her husband’s partial remains and had him reburied years ago, but said she “should be in Srebrenica every July 11th.”
“It’s easier when you have a grave to visit, no matter how many bones are buried inside,” she said, sitting among the graves in the huge and still expanding memorial cemetery, hugging her husband’s white marble headstone.
Dutch diplomat apologizes for role of UN peacekeepers
Over the past two years, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, only a relatively small number of survivors have been allowed to attend the annual memorial service and collective funeral of the victims in Srebrenica. But since restrictions were lifted on Monday, tens of thousands of people showed up, including many diplomats and dignitaries.
Speaking at a memorial ceremony before the funeral, Dutch Defense Minister Kaisa Ollongren apologized to Srebrenica survivors for the failure of Dutch UN peacekeepers to prevent the 1995 massacre.
“The international community has failed to adequately protect the people of Srebrenica and the Dutch government, as part of this community, shares responsibility for the situation in which this failure occurred, and for this we offer our deepest apologies,” Ollongren said.
The UN has tasked the Dutch Peace Battalion, or Dutch Battalion, with protecting civilians in the Srebrenica Safe Zone.
However, due to lack of coordination with the UNPROFOR leadership and fear of open conflict with the Bosnian Serb forces, the peacekeepers allowed the VRS to commit crimes in July 1995.
The Srebrenica killings were the only event in the Bosnian war that was legally defined as genocide. The war itself claimed the lives of over 100,000 people.
“Essential for everyone with a conscience”
After the end of the war, the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague and courts in the Balkans sentenced about 50 Bosnian Serb military men, including their leader Radovan Karadzic and his warlord Ratko Mladic, to more than 700 years in prison for the Srebrenica murders.
At the ICTY, both Karadzic and Mladic received maximum life sentences for genocide and other war crimes.
However, despite overwhelming evidence of what happened, gathered both by UN-led international groups and local experts, most Serb leaders in Bosnia and neighboring Serbia continue to downplay or even deny the Srebrenica massacre and glorify Karadzic and Mladic as heroes.
Menachem Rosensaft, General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress, also addressed the mourners on Monday.
He said that the memory of the Srebrenica genocide is “of great importance for everyone who cares about international human rights, for everyone who has a conscience.”
Rosensaft said it was “critical” for the international community to officially commemorate the Srebrenica genocide every July 11 “not only out of respect for its victims, but also as a public countermeasure to repeated attempts to deny this genocide.”