Thousands mourn Srebrenica massacre at annual burial service

Victims of the 1995 genocide are buried each year at the memorial center across the road from the former U.N. base where most of them were last seen alive.

AP Photo/Amel Emric
Bosnian people stand near coffins containing the remains of people killed during the Srebrenica massacre, during a funeral ceremony for the 127 victims at the Potocari memorial complex near Srebrenica, 150 kilometers (94 miles) northeast of Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on Monday, July 11, 2016. Twenty one years ago, on July 11, 1995, Serb troops overran the eastern Bosnian Muslim enclave of Srebrenica and executed some 8,000 Muslim men and boys.

Tens of thousands of people on Monday marked the 21st anniversary of Europe's worst mass murder since the Holocaust and attended the funeral of 127 newly-found victims.

Family members sobbed as they hugged the coffins for the last time before their loved ones were laid to rest at a cemetery next to 6,337 other victims found previously in mass graves. The youngest victim buried this year was 14, the oldest 77.

Fatima Duric, 52, buried her husband whom she last saw when Serbs overran the eastern Bosnian enclave at the end of Bosnia's 1992-95 war.

The United Nations had declared Srebrenica a safe haven for civilians, but that didn't prevent Serb soldiers from attacking the town they besieged for years. As they advanced on July 11, 1995, most of the town's Muslim population rushed to the nearby U.N. compound in hopes the Dutch peacekeepers would protect them.

But the outnumbered and outgunned peacekeepers watched helplessly as Muslim men and boys were separated for execution and the women and girls were sent to Bosnian government-held territory. Nearly 15,000 residents tried to flee through the woods, but were hunted down and also killed.

International courts defined the massacre of more than 8,000 people as an act of genocide committed with the intent to exterminate the Muslim Bosniak population in the area.

The victims were buried in mass graves, which were dug up by the perpetrators shortly after the war and relocated in order to hide the crime. During the process, the half-decomposed remains were ripped apart by bulldozers so that body parts are still being found in more than 100 different mass graves and are being put together and identified through DNA analysis.

Victims are buried each year at the memorial center across the road from the former U.N. base where most of them were last seen alive.

Duric lost her husband as they fled with their two children through the woods and walked for days toward government-held territory.

"After all these years, his body was found. In fact, just a few bones. I am burying them today," Duric said.

What hurts the survivors the most is the constant denial of the nature of the crime by Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs.

Last year, Serbia's prime minister Aleksandar Vucic – a former radical Serb nationalist who openly supported Serb forces in Bosnia during the war – was chased away by stone-throwing protesters from the burial ceremony mostly because he refused to acknowledge the genocide.

This year, victims' families demanded that those who deny the nature of the crime should not come, so nobody from official Belgrade or the Serb half of now ethnically divided Bosnia, where Srebrenica is located, came. The president of the Bosnian Serb part, Milorad Dodik, told media on Monday that Serbs will never acknowledge the massacre as genocide.

However, the leader of the Serbian opposition Liberal Democratic Party, Cedomir Jovanovic, who never avoided the word, was greeted by the victims' family members with applause as he laid flowers at the memorial center. Like every year, the non-governmental group from Belgrade "Women in Black" stood quietly holding a large banner that read "Responsibility," demanding Serbia acknowledges its role in the crimes in Bosnia.

"We will never stop paying tribute to the victims of genocide," said Stasa Zajevic, the head of the group.

The former president of the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Theodor Meron, as well as the current president, Carmel Agius, insisted in speeches that the Srebrenica massacre "must be called by its real name: genocide." The tribunal has convicted six people for involvement in the Srebrenica genocide, including wartime Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, sentenced this year to 40 years in prison.

President Bakir Izetbegovic said in order for a crime to be put into the past, it first has to face punishment.

"The answer is in our readiness to learn from history and to turn those lessons into a vision of peace, understanding and tolerance," Izetbegovic said.

"The dream of exterminating others will always end with defeat and self-destruction," he warned those who still deny the genocide in Srebrenica. "Accepting and acknowledging the truth is the first step toward reconciliation."

The Srebrenica funerals are unique among Muslims because they are attended by women, which otherwise is not customary. But mostly male residents were killed in Srebrenica and the town's women never even considered sticking to the tradition.

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