Srebrenica massacre: Two decades on, wounds still raw, graves still open

Story highlights

The killings began on July 11, 1995

An international criminal tribunal established "that the killing of 7,000 to 8,000 Bosnian Muslim prisoners was genocide"

New burials were held Saturday in the sprawling cemetery -- 136 sets of remains were laid to rest

Srebrenica, Bosnia Herzegovina CNN  — 

Ramo Ademovic does not remember how he survived the Srebrenica genocide.

Twenty years ago Saturday, on July 11, 1995, he was put on the so-called “path of death” – led by Bosnian Serb troops who killed thousands of Muslims in and around Srebrenica.

“I kept a diary through the war,” he says standing next to his brother’s grave.

When he retires, he will finally reread the memories he has thoroughly blocked out, and type them up for posterity.

His story is one of thousands here on this day of remembrance, each worthy of its own memoir.

Before visiting this cemetery in Bosnia-Herzegovina, you never realize just how odd it is for thousands of gravestones to be marked with the same year of death, 1995.

Twenty years later, wounds are still raw and graves – quite literally – still open. Saturday, 136 sets of human remains were buried, as newly found and identified remains are every year on the anniversary of the atrocity.

“After 20 years, a man becomes numb, you don’t know if you are struck by grief or happiness” with finally burying some of the dead, Ademovic said in Bosnian.

The happiness, Ademovic said, comes in finally having somewhere to come and pray.

But “it will always be an open wound.”

Just how open that wound is was on full display on this sweltering day. The Serbian Prime Minister, Aleksandar Vucic, was forced to flee in a panicked run, surrounded by dark-suited bodyguards, after mourners and attendees hissed and threw stones and bottles at him as he made his way through the crowd.

“Takbir Allahu akbar!” – God is great! – the crowd shouted.

Bosnia’s grand mufti, in addressing the crowd, later reprimanded them for attacking the Serbian leader.

The Prime Minister’s attendance was meant as an outreach of empathy. But Russia’s veto this past week of a U.N. Security Council resolution that called what happened here a “genocide,” has weighed heavily here in Bosnia.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has “established beyond a reasonable doubt that the killing of 7,000 to 8,000 Bosnian Muslim prisoners was genocide.”

The country remains incredibly divided ethnically. Muslim Bosniaks point at the Bosnian Serbs for never having fully made amends; Bosnian Serbs often say that Muslims, too, committed atrocities during the war, which lasted from 1992 to 1995.

Vucic’ was not the only controversial attendance.

President Bill Clinton, who was in office during the war, is viewed with mixed feelings. It was his initiative that eventually ended the war, with a NATO intervention and American-brokered peace talks, but he also did little to stop the slaughter of thousands of civilians during the first three years of the war.

The Dutch foreign minister’s attendance, too, was controversial.

Lightly armed Dutch peacekeepers, stationed just down the road from Srebrenica protecting many Muslim Bosniaks, failed to stop the genocide.

A former battery factory, which served as the Dutch base, now stands empty across from the cemetery, an unnerving testament to the horrors. A Dutch court ruled last year that the country is liable for the deaths of more than 300 men who were taken from the Dutch compound and killed. Bert Koenders said his government shared responsibility for the massacre, and made sure – along with the other speakers – to call it a genocide.

For many of the mourners, sitting aside their relatives’ graves, the world leaders’ attendance was of little import.

“It means nothing to me,” Hadzira Dozic said. “What means something is this; my pain is inside me.”

The remains of her brother, 32 at the time of his death in the massacre, were found in an open grave, alongside those of her husband.

“It can never be done. How can it be done?”

She sat beside the open grave that was awaiting her brother’s remains. Her husband, and his three brothers were also killed, along with around 30 other family members, she said.

It was not just relatives, or even Bosnians, who made the trip to Srebrenica.

Azra Mehonjic, from Montenegro, said she feels intense solidarity with the mourners.

“When I see them cry, I want to cry.”

“I don’t think they have soul or heart, those people who did this.”

As the Islamic prayer blasted through the valley on loudspeakers, thousands of Muslim men and women faced east and prayed.

In the idyllic rolling hills of eastern Bosnia, it’s hard to imagine the horrors that took place here.

Srebrenica was meant to be a U.N. safe area, a Muslim enclave in ethnically Serbian-held territory. But when the Bosnian Serbs decided to take the town, residents had little hope of escape. They were shot en masse, their bodies dumped, and later reburied in mass graves to help cover the evidence.

Slowly, as those graves are discovered, DNA taken from bone samples has been compared with known relatives of the victims. Often, just a few bones can be recovered. Whether the partial remains are given a proper burial – rather than waiting for a more complete skeleton – is a decision left to the families.

Ademovic said his brother’s remains were discovered three years ago, but the family only now decided to bury him.

They can always rebury more remains if they are found, he said.

“After so many years, this is the only thing that can give you some sense of closure,” he said.