About 60,000 attend memorial, including Serbian president
Tens of thousands gathered Sunday in the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica to bury hundreds of massacre victims on the 15th anniversary of the worst crime in Europe since the Nazi era.
A whole hillside was dug out with graves waiting for 775 coffins to be laid to rest at the biggest Srebrenica funeral so far. Still, that was less than a 10th of the total number of Muslim men and boys executed after Serb forces overran the UN-protected town on July 11, 1995, during the 1992-1995 Bosnian war.
At the time, some 30,000 Bosnian Muslims had flocked to the UN military base in the townâ€™s suburb of Potocari for refuge. But when Serb forces came, they outnumbered Dutch troops and were able to break through UN defences. The Serbs separated out men and boys, taking them away on vehicles, the vast majority never to be seen again.
The Srebrenica memorial centre now stands across the road from that former UN base. The bodies being buried Sunday were previously excavated from mass graves and identified through DNA tests.
An estimated 60,000 people were at the memorial Sunday. Relatives mingled among the pits on one side and rows of green coffins on the other, looking for the names of their loved ones. Muslim prayers and weeping mixed with speeches of dignitaries condemning the crimes and calling for the perpetrators to be punished.
Fifteen years later, no one represented the UN at the ceremony. Serbian President Boris Tadic was the first dignitary to arrive, saying he was coming in an â€œact of reconciliation.â€
He wanted to â€œbuild bridges of trust and understanding among the nations in the region,â€ he said in Belgrade.
In Srebrenica, some in the crowd yelled â€œBravo, Boris!â€ while others asked â€œWhere is Mladic?â€ â€” a reference to former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic, who led the Serb troops into Srebrenica.
â€œI wish to welcome you. We are receiving you in peace,â€ said Kada Hotic, a representative of the Srebrenica widows, while Tadic held both of her hands.
Mladic and former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic were indicted on genocide charges by a UN war crimes tribunal in 1995. Karadzic is now on trial at the tribunal in The Hague while Mladic is still a fugitive, presumably hiding in Serbia.
Tadic said in a short statement that he â€œwill do everythingâ€ to apprehend all war crimes suspects in Serbia.
The U.S. ambassador to Bosnia, Charles English, read a message from President Barack Obama that urged â€œgovernments to redouble their effortsâ€ and arrest those responsible for the war crimes at Srebrenica.
Obama called the Srebrenica genocide a â€œstain on our collective consciousnessâ€ that occurred even after decades of pledges of â€œnever againâ€ after Nazi atrocities during the Second World War.
Bosnian Serbs sent no representatives to Sundayâ€™s ceremony. In a deliberate snub, Karadzicâ€™s Serb Democratic Party honoured him Saturday at a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the partyâ€™s founding.
Despite the stirring speeches Sunday by politicians, many of those crying and hugging coffins were not really listening. Two sisters, Amela and Bahrija, sat stonefaced next to pit number 495 holding each otherâ€™s hands and not responding even to the questions of their husbands.
They came to bury their father, Ejup Golic, who was 56 when he was killed.
All but one of the victims buried Sunday were Muslims. Rudolf Hrenâ€™s grave will so far be the only one marked with a Catholic cross.
â€œThey asked me if I wanted him to be buried elsewhere because this is mainly a Muslim graveyard,â€ said his mother, Barbara Hren. â€œHe died with them. Let him rest with them.â€