Saturday, July 10, 2010

Srebrenica survivors' long wait to bury their dead

SREBRENICA, Bosnia-Hercegovina — Hajra Catic knows that her son Nino is dead, killed in the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre, but she cannot give him burial because his remains have not been found.

"Fifteen years have passed (...) if only I could find no more than a finger of my son I would have something to bury," she said.

Three years ago a massacre survivor came to see Catic to tell her he witnessed Nino's death. He was killed with six friends when their group was attacked by Bosnian Serb troops as they tried to flee through the mountains to Muslim-held territory.

"The young man even drew me a map of the place where Nino was killed," she told AFP.

But the site is heavily mined and there are no plans to search it by the authorities looking for the remains of Srebrenica victims.

"I would have preferred my son to be in a mass grave. That way I could hope that one day I could recover some of his remains," she said.

Nino Catic, the Srebrenica correspondent for several Bosnian papers during the bloody 1992-95 war in Bosnia-Hercegovina, was 26 years old when he died.

In all nearly 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed in the massacre, the only episode during the war sparked by the break-up of Yugoslavia that was ruled a genocide by two international courts.

Hundreds of bodies of men who fled the enclave before it was overrun by Bosnian Serb troops on July 11, 1995, have been found in the woods surrounding Srebrenica and dozens are thought to be still there, said Amor Masovic, of the Bosnian institute charged with searching for the war missing.

The remains of thousands of other victims have been found in more than 70 mass graves in the area.

Catic's husband Junuz was one of those. Very ill because of kidney failure, he did not try to escape through the woods with his son but went with Hajra to the UN base in Potocari near Srebrenica.

There 25,000 women and children, the elderly and the sick gathered in the hope that the Dutch UN peacekeepers stationed there would protect them.

"On July 13 the deportations started. One moment we were directed to a bus. Just before we got in, two Serb soldiers came and separated my husband and me," Catic, who runs an association for the women of Srebrenica based in Tuzla, said.

Junuz was taken away and finally killed by a shot in the neck in a village some 60 kilometers (35 miles) to the north of Srebrenica where 500 Muslims were executed.

His body was not found until 2005, when Hajra was finally able to give him a funeral.

To date the remains of nearly 6,500 victims of the massacre have been identified through DNA testing at the laboratory of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) in Bosnia, based in Sarajevo.

Identification is a long and difficult process as many bodies were moved from their initial graves into secondary and even tertiary mass graves as Bosnian Serb troops tried to cover up the scale of the killings.

"This was done using bulldozers. Many bodies fell apart. We sometimes find bones belonging to the same person in three or four different mass grave sites," Masovic of the ICMP said.

The Srebrenica victims exhumed so far have been found at around 100 sites, the majority in mass graves containing five or more bodies, he added.

Late June the authorities started exhumation in the latest site in Zalazje, a village near Srebrenica, and there are still around a dozen places that have to be checked for victims.

In a vast morgue in Tuzla where the remains of victims are examined by pathologists and forensic anthropologists some 4,000 bags filled with bones are kept in rows and rows of metal drawers.

Mostly these are identified but the families are waiting in the hope that they might one day be able to bury all the remains of their loved ones together.

"Only a quarter of the bodies we recovered this year were complete. The rest were just parts of the skeleton," anthropologist Dragana Vucetic said.

On Sunday Hatidza Mehmedovic, another Srebrenica mother, will bury her two sons and her husband in the Potocari cemetery during the commemoration service on the 15th anniversary of the massacre.

Remains of her oldest son Azmir, 20, were found in a mass grave in Liplje close to the eastern town of Zvornik.

The remains of her other son Almir, 17, and her husband had already been found late in 2007 but Mehmedovic wanted to wait until her oldest son was discovered so she could bury them together.

"We were separated on July 11, 1995. They left for the forest and I thought I would see them again in a few days. I lost my whole family in one day," Mehmedovic said, in tears.

"Now I will bury all three on the same day."

Every day she looks out over the garden of her house in Srebrenica and sees the fir trees Almir planted just before the war started. He wanted to use the wood to build his own house one day, she said.

"Sometimes my sons come to see me in my dreams. They appear and say: 'Mamma, we came'."

Almost 800 people will be buried on Sunday in the Potocari cemetery, which already holds the graves of around 3,700 other victims.

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