Bosnia marks massacre anniversary with mass burial

July 11, 2011 - 11:59 AM
Bosnia Srebrenica

Bosnian Muslim women saying their prayer during mass funeral for Srebrenica victims, at Memorial Cemetery Potocari ,160 kms northeast of Sarajevo, Bosnia, on Monday, July 11, 2011. Thousands gathered in Memorial Cemetery Potocari for mass burial of 613 bodies marking 16th anniversary of Srebrenica massacre. (AP Photo/Amel Emric)

SREBRENICA, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — Hundreds of victims of the Srebrenica massacre were reburied Monday as over 40,000 mourners looked on — solemnly paying their respects on the 16th anniversary of the worst crime in Europe since the Nazi era.

After a ceremony and collective prayer at the memorial center in the eastern Bosnian town that already contains over 4,500 graves, survivors and volunteers hoisted 613 coffins wrapped in green cloth to the air and carried them to a field of freshly dug graves.

The youngest laid to rest was 11-years old and the oldest 82. Several people fainted as the names of the victims were read.

Among the dead was Nezira Ibisevic — just 20-years old and freshly married when she fled murderous Serb forces with her husband, Hazim Smajlovic, and brother.

As her coffin was lowered into the earth Monday, her brother — Jusuf Ibisevic, who survived — leapt into her grave.

"May this earth not be too heavy for you sister," he said, tears pouring down his cheeks as he began shoveling earth onto her coffin. Meanwhile, the sound of dirt from hundreds of shovels hitting wooden coffins echoed around the swelteringly hot valley.

Nezira's husband's body — along with about 3,000 others — is yet to be found, however a plot remains next to her grave for them one day to be reunited in death.

In July 1995 some 30,000 residents of mainly Muslim Srebrenica flocked to the U.N. military base in the Srebrenica suburb of Potocari. But when Serb forces — led by recently arrested genocide suspect Ratko Mladic — arrived, the outnumbered Dutch troops simply opened the gate.

Serb soldiers then separated the crowd by gender and drove the men and boys to the fields. Over 8,000 men and boys were butchered over the following few days.

15,000 others — almost all men, as women were bussed by the Serbs to government territory — tried to escape, fleeing through the mountains in a desperate attempt to reach Bosnian government-held territory. Many were hunted down and executed — Their bodies later found in mass graves.

During the ceremony, officials called on Serbs both in Bosnia and in neighboring Serbia to face the past and realize what was done in their name.

"A great number of Serb people refuse to face the truth," said Bakir Izetbegovic, the Muslim Bosnian member of the country's three-member Presidency. Izetbegovic attended the ceremony with his Bosnian Croat colleague, Zeljko Komsic.

The Bosnian Serb member failed to attend Monday — as has been the case for 16-years — reflecting the deep division that still remains among Muslim Bosnians, Croats and Serbs who fought each other at various points of the 1992-95 Bosnian war that cost 100,000 lives and culminated with the Srebrenica massacre.

"Those who deny this genocide, or attempt to minimize it, add immensely to the grief of those gathered here today," said the U.S. Ambassador to Bosnia, Patrick Moon.

This year's commemoration has particular resonance as it follows the recent capture of Ratko Mladic, the Serb commander accused of orchestrating the execution — And now standing trial on genocide charges in The Hague.

Serbian president Boris Tadic attended last year's commemoration, where he promised to do everything he could to arrest Mladic.

"He kept his promise," Izetbegiovic — the son of late wartime Bosnian President, Alija Izetbegovic, said. "We finally have leaders in the region who are ready to face the past and build a better future."

Izetbegiovic thanked Croatia's President Ivo Josipovic for coming and telling the victim's families they are not alone in their sorrow.

"But there are parts of Bosnia and Serbia where Mladic is still celebrated as a hero," he added.

Bosnia is divided in two ministates — one for the Serbs, the other shared by Muslim Bosnians and Croats. Neighboring Serbia supported the Bosnian Serbs during the war politically and logistically. The International Court of Justice ruled a few years ago that the Srebrenica massacre was an act of genocide and that Serbia could have prevented it.

But so far neither the Serbian public nor those living in the Serb part of Bosnia have been ready to fully accept their role in the crime.

However, there are those in the Serbian community who share the Bosnian loss. Members of the Serbian association "Women in Black" travel every year from Belgrade to join the Srebrenica widows and mothers as they bury their beloved ones.

On Monday, dressed in black, they displayed an oversized banner at the funeral emblazoned with: "rejecting, denying, forgetting (equals) genocide".

"Together with the women of Srebrenica, we want to build a just peace in the Balkans," said Stasa Zajovic, the head of the association. which has been trying to raise awareness of the atrocity among the Serbian public.

"But no official from Serbia has come here today," she said.

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Aida Cerkez reported from Sarajevo