Several months after the Srebrenica massacre, the US Secretary of State had released a statement, which alluded to the US being aware of the mass gravesites the Bosnian Serb Army had erected from satellite photos the US had taken. To hide the remains again, a division of the Bosnian Serb Army issued an organized effort to dig up primary mass graves using heavy equipment. This ‘reburial’ of graves was carried out during the night, with several gravesites in Srebrenica being dug up, and remains moved to secondary, sometimes tertiary sites.
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By Nazarul Islam, Copy Edited By Maham Abbasi, TIO: Grief did not change me, in life. Perhaps, this only revealed who I am. Many of us who went through strife, civil wars, and genocide will acknowledge at least, five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. For some women in Bosnia, the stages were on a loop. For every time a woman had thought she had buried the remains of her husband or her son, another piece of him resurfaced. She was condemned to re-live the anguish, all over again.
What is ironic though is that to retrieve her loved-ones from the blood-shed they were lost to, she needed to first give more blood. The International Commission of Missing Persons (ICMP) had taken 71,195 blood samples from the families of the missing since it was established in 1996. Matching DNA from blood and bone samples had become the only accurate way to identify the thousands of Bosniak bodies recovered from mass gravesites.
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At the end of the Balkan wars, a staggering 40,000 people were estimated to be missing. Almost all of them were thought to have disappeared as a direct result of human rights violations during the war. So far, 91 mass gravesites were uncovered in Srebrenica alone, yielding 6,877 positive identifications out of a possible 8,100 that were reported missing.
“We uncovered the remains of one man in four different gravesites, 50 kilometers apart. We had to carry out 13 separate DNA tests to identify him.”
The remains of victims were not only found in gravesites but on ‘surface sites’ such as caves and rivers. Five hundred and twenty victims were identified in a single year alone; among them were six children and four women. Adam Boys, Chief Operating Officer of the ICMP, has lived in Bosnia for almost 20 years. “My children were born here, and sometimes it’s difficult to explain to them exactly what had happened.” Boys, a Scotsman, arrived in Bosnia in the midst of the conflict. He explains that the foundation of the ICMP is as much political, as it is social. “The basis of the initiative is to remove any political barriers to the peace process.
Perhaps, the ICMP had operated the world’s largest DNA human identification facility. However, the process of identification was never easy. The entire families were victims of the heinous crime.
The organization had to be sure that their genetic data would be protected, that it would only be used for the purposes of identification, and that it would not be shared unless they give their permission.
Ethnic tensions have not ended—these are still rife in Bosnia. With the Srebrenica massacre targeting Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) in particular, it was unsurprising that some families may be weary of providing a blood sample, which revealed their identity to a Bosnian Croat, or Serb. This mistrust, and fear that their sample might, for example, be somehow polluted to prevent a positive match, had always existed.
Their commitment to ensuring validity in testing had led to the development of a complicated yet efficient identification process.
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As a direct result of this, multiple DNA tests had become necessary to correctly identify numerous remains of the same victim, scattered in different gravesites.
Some gravesites have yielded a mixture of partial remains only, making the process of recovery and identification even more painstaking and complicated. Until then, the remains of victims are kept in large mortuaries in Sarajevo and Tuzla. The forensic science behind the process is of little significance to those awaiting phone calls, however.
“Every time a woman thinks she has buried the remains of her husband or her son, another piece of him resurfaces, and she must re-live the anguish again.”
For them, grieving for loved ones has become more of a game – a jigsaw puzzle of anatomical remains they first must assemble, in order to move onto the next level – burial. In the event that only partial remains have determined a match, the process becomes even more difficult.
There were some families who had simply refused to accept the results in the hope that their loved one is still living. For those who chose to bury the partial remains, if further remains are uncovered, the Bosnian authorities took responsibility for re-exhumation. But for some, funerals were an unattainable privilege; they have waited years for even a fragment of bone, or a lock of hair – something to show that those they loved once lived.
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Then there were those who were yet to be reported missing. Entire families were massacred; lineages were wiped out. So, some were simply not reported missing because there was no one living to file the report.
To attain some fragment of closure, the families of the dead convene on 11th July every year to bury what remains of their loved ones at the Srebrenica- Potočari Memorial Center.
This commemorative act was healing and simultaneously painful, as families of the massacre shared their grief. Last year, genocide survivor Mujo Musić was finally able to bury his 26-year-old son. “We escaped through the forest when Srebrenica fell”, recounts Mr. Musić.
“When we reached Snagovo, they started firing at us from Kula. Eight people were killed, including my son. His body remained in the field. I found two bones. I have buried many relatives already. My wife died of grief. I do not know what to do anymore.” Another woman buried only four bones of her deceased husband, for that is all that was found of him. But with every year, the number of green coffins carried for burial had decreased.
Yet, considering the scale and sheer brutality of the massacre, it is difficult to estimate when the work of rehab will be completed. Recently, an officer tried and convicted at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was asked to estimate the number of Bosnian Serb soldiers who had committed war crimes. He answered, “20,000”.
To date, out of those probable 20,000, a mere 500 have been convicted. For the families of the victims, justice is a distant hope.
All they ask now is to be reunited with a single piece of their loved one, so that they may finally have a grave at which to grieve.
Our journey through Europe’s ethnic cleansing has not sensed. As the evening shadows faded night emerged. The darker the night, the brighter are the stars. And, the deeper the grief—the closer is God!
Compiled and Curated By Adam Rizvi.