Srebrenica’s dead still being recovered, two decades later

srebrenica cemetery

The efficacy of the United Nations has long been a hot-button issue, particularly among US conservatives, but the entity’s shortcomings haven’t helped its cause.

Take the conflict in Bosnia in early- to mid-1990s: Srebrenica was a UN-protected area, but United Nations troops offered no resistance when Serbs overran the Muslim-majority town on this date 19 years ago, then rounded up and killed approximately 8,000 men and boys.

The slaughter was described as the worst crime on European soil since World War II.

Srebrenica had been attacked and besieged off and on for three years by the summer of 1995, as chaos reigned in many parts of the former Yugoslavia during the Bosnian War.

Although the UN had declared the enclave of Srebrenica in northeastern Bosnia a “safe area,” a United Nations Protection Force of 400 Dutch peacekeepers failed to prevent the Bosnian Serb army from attacking the town on July 6, 1995.

Three days later, emboldened in part by early successes and the absence of any significant reaction from the international community, the Serbs decided to press forward and take Srebrenica.

With the town’s residents weakened by siege, starvation and short on tools of resistance, Srebrenica fell quickly. Within a couple of days, the mass killings began.

Almost to a man, the thousands of Bosnian Muslims prisoners captured following the fall of Srebrenica were executed, according to the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia:

The mass executions followed a well-established pattern. The men were first taken to empty schools or warehouses. After being detained there for some hours, they were loaded onto buses or trucks and taken to another site for execution. Usually, the execution fields were in isolated locations. The prisoners were unarmed and in many cases, steps had been taken to minimize resistance, such as blindfolding them, binding their wrists behind their backs with ligatures or removing their shoes. Once at the killing fields, the men were taken off the trucks in small groups, lined up and shot. Those who survived the initial round of shooting were individually shot with an extra round, though sometimes only after they had been left to suffer for a time.

Among those who lost family is Hajrija Selimovic. Her husband and two sons were killed in the genocide.

On Friday, approximately 19 years after they were killed, Selimovic’s sons were buried, next to their father, in a cemetery for the victims of Srebrenica.

Samir was 23 and Nermin 19 when they were shot by an execution squad.

Burial of 775 identified victims of Srebrenica massacre in 2010.

Burial of 775 identified victims of Srebrenica massacre in 2010.

The remains of Srebrenica victims are still being found in mass graves to this day and are being identified using DNA technology. Every July 11, on the anniversary of the fall of Srebrenica, more are buried at a memorial center near the town, according to the Associated Press.

Selimovic’s two sons were among the 175 newly identified victims laid to rest this year, joining 6,066 others including their father Hasan, who was found in 2001 but buried only last year.

“I didn’t want to bury him because they found only his head and a few little bones,” Selimovic said. “I waited, thinking the rest will be found and then everything can be buried at once … but there was nothing else and we buried what we had.”

Insult was added to injury following the massacre when, after then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright offered up satellite photos of mass graves at the UN Security Council, saying Washington knew where the mass graves were, the Serbs desecrated burial sites.

Troops were rushed to the sites with bulldozers and moved the remains to other locations.

“As the machines ploughed up bodies they ripped them apart, and now fragments of the same person can be scattered among several different sites,” according to the wire service.

The International Commission for Missing Persons, a Bosnia-based DNA identification project, established in 1996, has collected almost 100,000 blood samples from relatives of the missing in the Yugoslav wars.

It has analyzed their DNA profiles and is now matching them with profiles extracted from the estimated 50,000 bone samples that have been exhumed.

The program has identified 14,600 sets of remains in Bosnia, including those of some 7,000 Srebrenica victims.

“Without DNA, we would have never been able to identify anyone,” said Kathryne Bomberger, head of the commission. “However, this means that the families have to make the difficult decision on when to bury a person. And many of the women from Srebrenica want to bury their sons, their family members, the way they remember them when they were alive.”

Thousands of traumatized mothers and widows are faced with a heart-rending dilemma – whether to either bury fragments, or wait until more bones are found.

This year, the families of about 500 identified victims have decided not to accept just two or three bones. Those will remain stored in a mortuary in the northern city of Tuzla until more remains are found – or until the families get tired of waiting, according to the Associated Press.

“We calculate that there are still about 1,000 persons missing. … In addition, there are probably thousands of pieces of bodies” still to find, Bomberger said. “This is an extremely complex process that has taken a long time, just simply because of the efforts the perpetrators went to to hide the bodies.”

(A Bosnian Muslim woman walks among gravestones for victims of the Srebrenica massacre in Srebrenica, Bosnia, Friday, July 11, 2014. Photo credit: The Associated Press.)

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