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Srebrenica: genocide and memory

About the author
Ed Vulliamy is a journalist with the Guardian and the author of Seasons in Hell: understanding Bosnia’s war (1994). He was foreign reporter of the year in the 1997 British Press Awards.

Bosnian Muslim citizens weep and pray near coffins prepared for a mass burial at the Memorial Center in Potocari, near Srebenica Bosnian Muslim citizens weep and pray in Potocari, near Srebenica, after Mladic arrest, July 2011/Demotix/All rights reserved

The Bosnian Serb massacre of around 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in July 1995 has left deep wounds. Ed Vulliamy revisits the scenes of a terrible crime, meets families and survivors, and reports on the search for human remains and justice.

The snow lies deep, the air is still and seven degrees below zero – but the shiver is not from cold. It comes from somewhere within this accursed terrain, covered by a layer of virgin white. It comes from within this confounded building, and the memories it holds: a disused warehouse on the country road that runs through the village of Kravica in eastern Bosnia.

Ten years ago this July, some 1,200 men and boys were rounded up, packed into this place and summarily annihilated, by machine-gun fire and grenades tossed into the building, in a murderous bloodbath. And Kravica was but one of a number of execution sites – the whole area is haunted by them – that made up what came to be called the massacre of Srebrenica, a small mountain town nearby.

Some 7,942 Bosniak Muslim men and boys (according to official Bosnia-Herzegovina government figures) were systematically slaughtered by Serbian troops and paramilitaries within six days, between 6 July and 11 July 1995. It was the worst single carnage on European soil since the Third Reich. The brutality, as well as the scale, of the killing knew no bounds: on one infamous occasion, cited by Judge Fouad Riad at a trial in The Hague some years later, an elderly man was skewered to a tree by a knife and made to eat the innards of his grandson; “truly scenes from hell,” said the judge, “written on the darkest pages of human history”. A series of events is being held in Britain to mark the tenth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. For details, click here

Ten years on, the phantasmal warehouse at Kravica has changed little since those days of bloodletting. But for the fact that it was summer then, the shooting, the explosions, the screaming, the throes of death could have been a moment ago. But then how long is a moment in a place like this? The cream-coloured external walls are riddled with bullet holes – pockmarks now filled with cement, a futile gesture which conceals nothing.

Bullet holes splatter the walls inside too; crates are piled up, industrial plant is stored and a canister of creosote bears the date 1992, the year that Muslims were first killed or else burned and chased out of this area. The crow of a cockerel echoes across the shallow valley along which the road runs; a dog barks. Washing hangs from the balcony of a peasant holding across the byway.

A little further on up the road is the village of Glogova. Here, some houses remain only as skeletal ruins, incinerated monuments to the orgy of killing and burning in 1992 as the Serbs attacked and “ethnically cleansed” the community (as they did all others, except those around Srebrenica itself, which held out).

Other buildings, however, have been rebuilt – monuments this time to the remarkable but precarious return of Muslims to the area, to live among the executioners of their relatives, and the ghosts of their dead. And just off the road at Glogova is another place that is at once accursed and holy in its way: a field, now snow-covered, where the bodies of those killed at Kravica were ploughed into the earth.

A rusty car is now the only skeleton above ground, abandoned on this unnatural sepulture. But there are bones beneath the earth across so much of this terrain; bones shredded by bulldozers as bodies were unearthed and re-buried for concealment, their aura reaching the surface, their presence always there. And still they are being patiently exhumed, one by one, as the remarkable effort continues to match them with the names of those who disappeared during those fateful days ten years ago.