Thursday 18 January 2018

Women of Srebrenica's 20-year wait to bury their loved ones

A woman kisses a coffin of a newly identified victim of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre at the Memorial Center in Potocari near Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
A woman kisses a coffin of a newly identified victim of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre at the Memorial Center in Potocari near Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Mary Fitzgerald

What is it like to bury the mangled remains of the men of your family over a period of decades? The women of the Ademovic family know. They are among the women of Srebrenica who lost fathers, husbands, brothers and sons when Bosnian Serb forces overran the besieged Muslim town on July 11, 1995 despite the fact the United Nations had declared the enclave a "safe area".

As former secretary-general Kofi Annan put it, what happened in Srebrenica will forever haunt the UN. The poorly supported Dutch peacekeepers stationed there to protect the town were pushed aside. They looked on as the Serbs rounded up everyone in sight, separated the men from the women and children, and took them away to be killed.

Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic ordered women and children to be taken away on buses and told them "No one will harm you."

The men who tried to escape were hunted down in the hills around Srebrenica. More than 8,100 Bosnian Muslim men were slaughtered in the surrounding fields, schools and warehouses.

Among the atrocities recounted at a later war crimes tribunal was the story of an elderly man who was pinned to a tree by a knife and forced to eat his grandson's entrails. "Truly scenes from hell," said the judge, "written on the darkest pages of human history."

The horror did not end there. The men's corpses were dumped into mass graves. After then-US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright produced satellite photos of mass graves at a Security Council meeting, the Serbs, desperate to cover up evidence of war crimes, used bulldozers to unearth the bodies and dump them elsewhere. Many of the decomposing bodies were torn apart in the process, and today fragments of the same person can be scattered for miles across the lush hills that dot the region.

More than 60 men from the extended Ademovic family perished during the massacre. The Ademovic women moved to Dublin in the late 1990s, joining a brother who survived because he was one of the first Bosnian refugees to arrive in Ireland in 1992. They are among the country's 1,600-strong Bosnian population.

In 2009, I accompanied the Ademovic women to the vast Potocari cemetery some kilometres north of Srebrenica town, where thousands of white marble gravestones stretch into the distance.

That day Bosnians were burying the remains of 534 local men who were killed during the massacre and whose bodies had been identified over the previous year through a pioneering DNA testing project. The oldest victims interred that year were 75 in 1995, the two youngest only 14. The Ademovic sisters were burying their mother's brother.

Two decades after the massacre, the women of Srebrenica still struggle to come to terms with what happened that July.

This week I met Sanela Ademovic before she left for Srebrenica with her family to commemorate the 20th anniversary. "The war never really goes away," she said. "It stays with us in so many ways."

The Srebrenica they will return to for the memorial is no more. Two-thirds Muslim before the war, the town now lies within Republika Srpska, an entity within Bosnia ceded to the Serbs by the Dayton accord which ended the war, and its population is mostly Serb. The massacre remains an explosive political issue, with many Serbs unwilling to accept the truth of what happened.

While Serbia's parliament narrowly passed a motion in 2010 apologising to the victims, many bitterly dispute the official version of events and deny the mass killings were an act of genocide, despite international court rulings to that effect.

Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska, last month called it "the greatest deception of the 20th century".

Differences remain too on the international stage. A UN draft resolution condemning the massacre as genocide was blocked by Russia this week.

Moscow claimed the motion was politically motivated and illegitimate.

It argued the resolution would have stirred tensions in the Balkans by blaming Serbs for atrocities committed during the 1992-1995 Bosnian war that claimed 100,000 lives.

Prosecutors at a UN court in The Hague have called for former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic to be sentenced to life in prison for his alleged crimes, including the Srebrenica massacre and the shelling of Sarajevo.

Mladic, the man the Ademovic women remember seeing patting the heads of children whose fathers he later liquidated, is also currently on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, where he faces charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.

The search for justice for the women of Srebrenica continues.

Irish Independent

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