Srebrenica, fifteen years on

The dignified commemorations of the massacre of Bosnian Muslims in July 1995 retain their integrity and human core, even as the leaders of a divided Bosnia seek to channel the grief into political pageantry. Peter Lippman, in eastern Bosnia, reports.
Peter Lippman
15 July 2010

On Sunday 11 July 2010, the fifteenth anniversary of the genocide in Srebrenica, eastern Bosnia, hundreds of families bury their relatives in a mass funeral. Mothers, daughters, and wives grieve beneath the scorching sun. Politicians perform. The wave of new burials means that approximately half of the victims of the atrocity of 11-15 July 1995 - when Bosnian Serb forces massacred around 8,000 Bosnian Muslim males after taking control of Srebrenica - now rest in the memorial cemetery in Potocari. The remainder await exhumation from mass-graves and DNA-identification.

The annual reburial of identified human remains has become a ritual that is taking on attributes of political pageantry. The leaders of Bosnia’s fellow ex-Yugoslavia neighbours, together with representatives from Europe, the United Nations and the United States, join Bosnian politicians to express their sympathy for the victims’ families and to declare their determination that such a crime must never happen again.

This year’s commemoration is in every respect bigger than its predecessors. The vast cemetery, designed to hold more than 8,000 graves, overflows with at least 50,000 mourners and sympathisers. Thousands of visitors who were unable to enter the grounds upon the 11:00 a.m. start of the ceremony seek relief across the street for a time, in the shade of the derelict battery-factory that had once housed the Dutch contingent of United Nations troops which had surrendered the Srebrenica enclave to the Bosnian Serb army. Religious services and political speeches last for several hours (three times as long as in earlier anniversaries). And at 775, the number of victims buried is the highest single number ever.

A single coffin had been interred earlier in the day - that of the lone Catholic casualty. Now, after the prayer-service and speeches, 774 coffins covered with green cloth are carried out towards the deep pits that are their final resting-place. These are all Muslim victims.

For more than an hour, the names of these 775 victims are read out, one by one. Some surnames repeat dozens of times: Hasanović, Muratović, Imamović.

The relatives who had waited patiently through the ceremony now bury their loved ones quietly, using shovels that had been placed near each pit. Mothers cry bitterly for their sons, wives for their lost husbands.

No mother should have to bury her son.

After the burial, each family - clustering in small groups around its grave - makes a quiet prayer. Then, an overwhelming silence reigns.

The strength and patience of the survivors, as well as their deep sorrow, is palpable. They have fought for these fifteen years - fought to return to their pre-war homes, to survive financially, to find their loved ones, and to see them at rest.

The bulk of the mourners participate piously in the religious service, kneeling and standing according to custom, and wait for the speeches to end. The mother of the Catholic victim fainted and was not able to attend her son’s burial.

The domestic and international politicians present - and the religious figures as well - are engaged in a different kind of act; it is as if two plays are being presented in the same scene. The presidents, ministers, and priests express the same condolences and admonitions as they had, according to template, for the last fifteen years.

This is election year in Bosnia, and the volume of political declarations seems higher than ever. The Turkish prime minister and the French foreign minister put in appearances, as do neighbouring Serbia’s president, Boris Tadic. The presiding member of Bosnia’s three-part presidency, Haris Silajdzic, calls for a resolution against atrocity-denial. The head imam, Reis Mustafa efendija Ceric, rails against Europe’s discriminatory visa-regime. The gathered dignitaries thus process the vast sorrow of the bereaved. So ends the fifteenth anniversary commemoration of Srebrenica, in Potocari, on 11 July 2010.

A march of life

Just preceding the anniversary, a smaller group of people had undertaken another form of commemoration: the marš mira (“march of peace”), in which for three days, between 5,000 and 6,000 hikers walked through the woods to Potocari, a distance of approximately 100 kilometres.

It began in 2005, to mark the desperate attempt of between 10,000 and 15,000 Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) men and boys to flee through the forests towards free territory after the fall of the Srebrenica enclave in July 1995. Around 5,000 evaded capture by Serb nationalist troops and reached safety; the rest were slaughtered.

What began as an initiative by activists to commemorate that tortuous flight in a directly physical way has become a tradition with some of the characteristics of pilgrimage. Each year the number of participants increases. The Bosnian army helps logistically, setting up tent-camps and distributing water and basic foods.

Bosnian participants - themselves mostly Bosniaks - arrived from all corners of the country: Kljuc in the northwest, Mostar in the south, Tuzla in the northeast. A 10-year-old girl walked, as did an 89-year-old man. There were dozens of other countries represented, from Canada to Turkey, from France to Australia. Donata, a 76-year-old woman from Milan, used a cane to assist herself on her fourth annual march. Some members of Women in Black, the human-rights organisation in neighbouring Serbia, came to show their solidarity.

On the first morning the sky was slightly cloudy. A local participant told me: “On this anniversary, the sky should cry. God is not pleased with what has been done here.” Šahman, in his 50s, had made the escape in 1995. He said, “There are nights when I don’t sleep.” I asked him if it was not difficult to retrace those harrowing steps. He replied, “I take a couple of pills to calm myself.”

We alternately hurried and waited as the crowd bottlenecked through narrow pathways and then hustled down steep slopes across the Podrinje hills. Amidst the vertical farms a Bosnian hiker told me: “I am here to feel at least a little of the suffering of those who went out in 1995.” Another said: “I have come to honour those who fought to survive the siege of Srebrenica.”

The sparsely-settled region was once dotted with predominantly Muslim-populated villages. Serb forces expelled the inhabitants from these settlements and destroyed them early in the 1992-95 war. Some four or five years after the end of the war, villagers began to return to this region. Now their red-tile roofs have been repaired and the corn and squash are growing. Every couple of hours the march arrived at a village, and the residents would line the path to greet the hikers. Some of the villagers worked all day providing water and coffee to the passing thousands. They photographed us, and we photographed them.

In one village I encountered an aged local man talking to two hikers. One of the hikers, a woman of about 45 from central Bosnia, wore a picture of her husband around her neck. He had been killed in 1993. The other hiker, a man of similar age, told me that his 10-year-old son had been killed. The elderly man told us that he had no relatives in the village, that his daughter was in Austria. Then he broke down, crying.

There were other wrenching stories. A teenager from Srebrenica, now living in Tuzla, told me that his father was killed in a notorious massacre at Kravica. Young Adem, from Cerska, told me how he had hid in a cave after his parents were killed. He said: “Tell the world about this march, and ask them to come next year.”

The mood of the marš mira evolved with the journey. The participants were there to express their sincere solidarity with the victims of the Srebrenica massacre. The shared effort also naturally induced an air of camaraderie. By the third day, the march felt like a rich, roving social gathering. A wellspring of life amid a landscape that had seen death.

A neighbouring rite

On Sunday night, after the memorial ceremony, a local Serb taxi-driver recounted to me his view of recent history. He told me that the Serb troops conquering Srebrenica numbered only 500, and that most of the Bosniaks killed had been soldiers; and that the latter “had plenty of weapons, and would have killed someone.” He also asserted that many of the bodies buried in Potocari had been transferred there from other cemeteries.

The next day, 12 July, I attended a memorial observance at the Serb military cemetery in nearby Bratunac. Several hundred men and women stood under the bright sun as a dozen officials in grey suits assembled to remember the fallen Serb soldiers. The number of Serbs killed in the wider region during 1992-95 is cited as over 3,000.

A number of young men and women wore badges bearing the photo of Vojislav Seselj, arch-nationalist and paramilitary leader who is now on trial at The Hague. Eight or ten Serbian Orthodox priests gathered under a canopy advertising Tuborg beer. A mother stood by a grave and cried.

A group of unreconstructed militant nationalists, who call themselves “Chetniks” after the Serbian monarchist fighters of the second world war, was blocked from joining the ceremony. After a considerable wait, Republika Srpska prime minister Milorad Dodik arrived. The ceremony began with people lighting the traditional sweet-smelling yellow wax candles, followed by the euphonious chanting of an Orthodox prayer.

Dodik’s talk exhorted the “legitimacy of the Republika Srpska” (one of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s two “entities”) and declared that, while a “large-scale” crime had been committed at Srebrenica, it was not genocide. Rather, that “genocide was committed against Serb people of the region.”

After the speeches, priests and mourners laid flowers at the several hundred Serb graves and went home.

A long wait

On the marš mira trail I had looked out over the rolling hills of Podrinje with their dark green forests upon green hills, and reconnected with my love for this tormented country. I hoped that I could live long enough to see it a happier place.

In pursuit of that goal, many talk of “reconciliation”. This is a worthy aspiration but as the journalist Ed Vulliamy notes, reconciliation is not just “something that can be sprinkled around.” Boris Tadic, Serbia’s president, announced that he had come to Potocari as an act of reconciliation. French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner asserted that “reconciliation is underway, in fact accelerating”. But Kouchner and Tadic were speaking to each other, not to the suffering mothers still waiting for another 4,000-5,000 loved ones to be found and identified.

The United States ambassador to Bosnia, Charles English, appropriately highlighted one important step towards realising the goal when he called for the arrest of General Ratko Mladic, leader of the nationalist Serb forces that conquered Srebrenica and committed the massacre.

After all, justice is the first step towards healing and reconciliation, but it is a long way off in Bosnia. Meanwhile, some Bosniak leaders exploit the pain of their constituency for political points, while Serb leaders work overtime to establish a false symmetry of victimisation. In a very real way, these seemingly opposed sets of figures are collaborating to maintain their respective positions of power and to hold Bosnia in a long-term paralysis.


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