Sorrow in Srebrenica: Bosnians bury 520 victims

July 11, 2012 - 5:49 PM
Bosnia Srebrenica Anniversary

Bosnian Muslim woman weeps while she touches a coffin of her relative among the over five-hundred coffins displayed at the Potocari memorial cemetery near Srebrenica, some 160 kilometers east of Sarajevo, Bosnia, Wednesday, July 11, 2012. Thousands gathered in the cemetery for the mass burial of 520 bodies, marking 17th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. (AP Photo/Sulejman Omerbasic)

SREBRENICA, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — The pain that seared Srebrenica 17 years ago burned fresh Wednesday as tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims came to bury their dead in the town whose name is now synonymous with genocide.

In a ceremony broadcast live on television across the country, 520 coffins were placed in the ground as tears flowed like water from family and friends.

On the anniversary of Europe's worst massacre since World War II, 30,000 Muslims traveled to a memorial center in Srebrenica to honor the thousands of Muslim men and boys slaughtered in July 1995 by Serb forces.

Izabela Hasanovic, 27, sobbed over one of the coffins before it was lowered into a freshly dug pit.

"My father, my father is here," she sobbed. "I cannot believe that my father is in this coffin. I cannot accept it!"

Another woman dropped on her knees next to a coffin, pressing her lips against the green cloth covering the wood.

"It's your sister kissing you. It's me," she whispered, caressing the coffin with both hands until others lowered it.

Then the valley echoed with the sound of dirt landing on the coffins from thousands of shovels, as a voice read out the names of the victims and their ages from loudspeakers.

Among them were 48 teenagers as well as 94-year-old Saha Izmirlic, who was buried next to her son who also died in the massacre. On the other side of her grave, an empty space is waiting for her grandson who has not yet been found.

Srebrenica was a U.N.-protected Muslim town in Bosnia besieged by Serb forces throughout Bosnia's 1992-95 war. Serb troops led by Gen. Ratko Mladic overran the enclave in July 1995, separated men from women and executed 8,372 men and boys within days. Dutch troops stationed in Srebrenica as U.N. peacekeepers were undermanned and outgunned and failed to stop the slaughter.

The bodies of the victims are still being found in mass graves throughout eastern Bosnia. The task has been made even more difficult by the fact that the perpetrators dug up mass graves and reburied remains in other areas to try to cover their tracks. The victims have been identified through DNA analysis and newly identified ones are buried at the Srebrenica memorial center every year.

So far 5,325 Srebrenica massacre victims found this way have been laid to rest.

In Washington, President Barack Obama issued a statement honoring the memory of the "8,000 innocent men and boys" massacred in Srebrenica.

"The name Srebrenica will forever be associated with some of the darkest acts of the 20th century," Obama said, adding that the U.S. "rejects efforts to distort the scope of this atrocity, rationalize the motivations behind it, blame the victims, and deny the indisputable fact that it was genocide."

In London, Prime Minister David Cameron said Srebrenica should never be forgotten or denied and called on the world to "prevent such atrocities from taking place."

Mladic was arrested last year in Serbia and is on trial now at the tribunal in The Hague. He faces 11 charges, including genocide, for allegedly masterminding Serb atrocities throughout the war that left 100,000 dead, especially the Srebrenica massacre. He denies wrongdoing.

Many Serbs still deny the Srebrenica genocide, including Serbia's newly inaugurated president, Tomislav Nikolic. Some of them view Mladic as a national hero.

"Serbs believe he is an honorable and fair man," said Bosnian Serb Novica Kapuran from the town of Pale, near Sarajevo. "He is being blamed for something he has not done."

Tired of listening to political speeches every year, the families of the victims allowed only Holocaust survivor Rabbi Arthur Schneier of the Park East Synagogue in New York to address them during Wednesday's ceremony.

"Shalom, Salam," Schneier greeted the crowd, calling them "brothers and sisters."

He said the Srebrenica genocide was a crime against humanity but also a crime allowed by the rest of humanity.

"Silence is not a solution, it only encourages the perpetrators and ultimately it pays a heavy price in blood," Schneier said.

He reminded the audience that even today, the Syrian regime was killing its own people.

"(It's time) for humanity to say in one clear voice: These crimes against people will end!" the rabbi declared. "Here on this sacred day we say 'Never again!' And we mean 'Never again!"

The crowd greeted his words with "Allah Akbar" — "God is great" in Arabic.