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Serbs Honor Srebrenica Victims With Shoe Memorial



WATCH: Members of the organization Women in Black create a memorial to the victims of Srebrenica.

BELGRADE -- Old shoes are piling up in the Serbian capital.

The worn-out children's boots, shabby slippers, and tattered sneakers strewn about on Belgrade's central Knez Mihailo Street present a stark and jarring sight for passersby -- and that's just the point.

The shoes, with messages stuffed inside them from Serbian citizens, are a makeshift memorial to the thousands of victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, the largest mass killing of civilians in Europe since the Holocaust.

It was 15 years ago, on July 11, 1995, when Bosnian Serb paramilitaries under the command of General Ratko Mladic occupied the UN safe haven of Srebrenica, where Bosnian Muslims had taken refuge. The soldiers separated out the men and boys and took them away. Over the next seven days, they killed more than 8,000 of them in the most notorious event of the 1992-95 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Among those bringing their old shoes to pay tribute to the Srebrenica victims was anthropologist Milena Dragicevic Sesic. “I think I wrote that I want everyone to know, that I want my children to know, that I want my friends to know,” she said. “I believe that Srebrenica represents the greatest disgrace for Serbs in the past century.”

The shoes bear messages such as "I will never forget" and "I remember for myself, for my children, and for us."

Nadezda Gace, the former president of the Serbian Independent Journalists Association, compared the shoe memorial to former German Chancellor Willy Brandt's act of contrition in Poland in 1970, when he knelt before the monument to victims of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. “Each pair of shoes is like some little Willy Brandt only seeking reconciliation,” Gace said.

Karadzic’s Shadow

Not everybody in Belgrade, however, was in the mood for reconciliation.

A group of people gathered nearby wearing t-shirts with the image of Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader and one of the alleged architects of the Srebrenica massacre.

Karadzic was arrested in Belgrade in 2008 and is currently facing genocide charges at the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia. Mladic, who allegedly oversaw the massacre, remains at large.

There were also threats from the nationalist group "Nashi." But with a heavy police presence, there were no incidents.

The shoe monument was organized by the Belgrade-based organization Women In Black, which wants the shoes to become part of a permanent memorial to the victims of Srebrenica in the Serbian capital.

"The shoes represent the mark left by the people of Srebrenica,” said Stasa Zajovic, the group's coordinator. “They represent their presence in our lives, the space they occupied. The shoes are symbols of their stolen lives.”

'Guilt Of The West'

The shoe memorial in Belgrade was inspired by a similar initiative by the Berlin-based Center for Political Beauty. That organization plans to build a monument at the Potocari Memorial Center in Srebrenica, where victims of the massacre are buried, made up of 16,744 shoes, representing the 8,372 victims.

Philipp Ruch, the director of the Center for Political Beauty, explains that the shoes will be held together in a 16-meter-long concrete mold that will form the letters "UN," symbolizing the failure of UN peacekeeping troops is Srebrenica to protect the victims.

“The Srebrenica mothers have sought for three years now to erect a pillar of shame which would point to the guilt of the West, of Western officials and military, for not having engaged in 1995 to defend the people of Srebrenica,” Ruch said.

Zajovic and the Women in Black also organized a March for Peace, which concluded at the memorial center, where victims of the massacre are buried, on July 11. There they attended a memorial ceremony marking the 15th anniversary of the killings.

The ceremony included the burial of 775 recently identified victims -- 774 Bosniaks and one Croat -- joining the 3,749 already there. Serbian President Boris Tadic, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner were among the world leaders in attendance.

Among those burying loved ones was Hatidza Mehmedovic, who buried her husband and two sons after searching for their remains for years.

"I'll bury all three of my men on July 11," Mehmedovic said. She had helped investigators identify parts of the bodies of her sons Azmir and Almir, known as Lalo, during exhumation work earlier this year.

"The hardest thing is when you find out the truth -- that you no longer have children," she said.

Mehmedovic is still searching for the remains of her two brothers, who were also killed in the massacre.

Irina Lagunina of RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report

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