Thousands of people started to gather to attend Monday’s commemorations of the 27th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, which most Serbs and their leaders still refuse to recognize in ethnically divided Bosnia.
The remains of 50 more recently identified victims of Europe’s worst massacre since World War II will be buried alongside 6,671 others in the cemetery of the memorial center.
Some 8,000 Muslim men and boys from the eastern town of Srebrenica were killed by Bosnian Serb forces in July 1995, an act of genocide under international law.
The EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell and enlargement commissioner Oliver Varhelyi paid tribute to the Srebrenica dead at a time when the Russian invasion of Ukraine shows “still today we cannot take peace for granted”.
“Russia’s unjustified and unprovoked aggression against Ukraine has brought back a brutal war to our continent,” they said in a statement.
“The mass killings and war crimes we see in Ukraine bring back vivid memories of those witnessed in the war in the Western Balkans in the 1990s.
“It is more than ever our duty to remember the genocide of Srebrenica… to stand up to defend peace, human dignity and universal values.
“In Srebrenica, Europe failed and we are faced with our shame.”
The discovery of skeletal remains from the massacre have become rare in recent years, even though some 1,200 people are still missing, according to the Missing Persons Institute of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Pain never leaves
The identification process has been made more difficult by the bulldozing up of the remains and their removal to mass graves in a bid to conceal the extent of the slaughter.
Mass funerals of those identified are held each July 11, the takeover date by the forces of Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic, who has been jailed for life for war crimes.
The remains of one of the 50 people awaiting burial were found spread across three separate mass graves, said Amor Masovic, a forensic expert who has worked on dozens of mass grave sites in the Srebrenica region.
The remains of most of the others were found spread across two mass graves, he added.
Hajra Alic arrived early Monday to pray at the graves of her only son, who was 17 years old when he was killed, and husband.
The remains of Alic’s son Muhamed — a part of his leg as it was the only thing that was found — were laid to rest in 2018.
The remains of her husband, Redzo, were buried on two occasions — in 2007 and 2016.
“Pain never leaves my heart,” the woman in her 60s told AFP while sitting between two white tombstones.
“I think of my child and my husband every day, not only on July 11, but every July 11 I’m as distraught as if it (the atrocity) was happening now.”
Ever since the brutal 1990s war that claimed some 100,000 lives, Bosnia has been divided along ethnic lines. One half of the country belongs to the Serb entity while the other is ruled by a Muslim-Croat federation.
More than a quarter of a century has passed but Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, the president of Republika Srpska during the war who has also been jailed for life, remain “heroes” in the eyes of many Serbs, with their pictures still adorning many walls.
Political leaders of Serbs living in Bosnia today and in neighboring Serbia refuse to accept that a genocide took place at Srebrenica, preferring to call it a “major crime”.
“We have for 27 years been fighting for the truth and demanding justice, but for 27 years they have denied the truth, denied genocide,” said Munira Subasic, head of a Srebrenica women’s association.
US ambassador to Bosnia Michael Murphy said the Balkan country’s officials had an “institutional responsibility to acknowledge what occurred in Srebrenica 27 years ago”.
“This is the only road to a future that brings reconciliation to the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina.”
Last July, the former high representative for Bosnia, Valentin Inzko, outlawed denial of the genocide and war crimes, making it punishable by jail time.
The move sparked uproar among Bosnian Serbs led by Milorad Dodik, who sits on the country’s collective presidency.
He has launched a process of Serb withdrawal from the army, judiciary and the tax system, stirring fears of breaking up the country or starting a new conflict.