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After Hague Destroys Srebrenica Evidence, Survivors Feel Pain Of Lost Memories

A Bosnian forensic expert shows a pocket watch found at a mass grave site. The UN tribunal has destroyed many such artifacts, citing health risks.
A Bosnian forensic expert shows a pocket watch found at a mass grave site. The UN tribunal has destroyed many such artifacts, citing health risks.
By Kristin Deasy and Dzenana Halimovic
All signs of Munira Subasic's 20 years of child-rearing have disappeared. There are no old photographs of her missing son, Nermin; no letters, no furniture, no old clothes, no remains. Her years as a mother could have been a dream.

In fact, she can't prove her son ever existed.

Nermin Subasic was one of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys who were killed in 1995 when Bosnian Serb forces captured the UN-protected enclave of Srebrenica.

On September 2, closing arguments began at The Hague war crimes tribunal in the genocide trial of seven Bosnian Serb officers charged with orchestrating the massacre, considered the largest mass murder in Europe since World War II.

The trial was meant to help close the page on one of the grisliest chapters in modern European history. Instead, Srebrenica survivors are reeling at a recent admission by The Hague tribunal that it intentionally destroyed over 1,000 personal items and forensic evidence retrieved from the graves of the massacre victims, a quarter of whom have yet to be identified 14 years after the tragedy.

Without the artifacts, mothers like Munira -- whose home and belongings were destroyed in the war -- are left with nothing to remember their slain children by.

Subasic tells RFE/RL that a number of mothers who lost children "don't have photographs of them," explaining that "if you don't have a mezar [a Muslim grave], if you don't have photographs, if you don't have anything that belonged to that person, it's like the person never existed."

"Those things put us in a position to prove that we did have our children," she says.

Bosnia’s Greatest Massacre

Thousands of Muslim men and boys were killed in and around Srebrenica in July 1995, after Serb forces led by General Ratko Mladic overran the town.

Dutch UN peacekeepers charged with protecting the Muslim enclave, outnumbered by the Serb soldiers, offered no resistance. Over the course of several days, men and boys were separated from female residents and summarily executed, their bodies bulldozed into mass graves.

Munira Subasic says she has no evidence of her son's short life.
Many who managed to escape were tracked down, killed by machine gun or artillery fire, and dumped into ravines or makeshift graves. In the years that followed, grave robbers and Serb forces looking to cover their crimes used heavy machinery to scatter the decomposing bodies among multiple grave sites.

Close to 70 mass graves have been located and exhumed since the massacre in the effort to find Srebrenica victims. More than 6,000 victims have been identified, and forensic work continues to track down missing victims like Nermin Subasic.

But those efforts may be hindered by the destruction of artifacts kept by the UN tribunal in The Hague, a body created to help bring war criminals responsible for Srebrenica and other atrocities to justice.

Health Risk


The materials, which according to Hague documents included personal documents as well as "bones, blood samples, tissue parts, and hair," were used by prosecutors preparing for the trial of seven former police and military officials indicted for genocide in Srebrenica, the so-called "Srebrenica Seven."

According to Hague officials, the evidence was destroyed over three years ago, just before the start of the trial. Tribunal spokeswoman Olga Kavran says the decision was made in accordance with standard court procedure.

"We're talking about artifacts that were disposed of at the end of 2005 and the beginning of 2006," she tells RFE/RL. "The vast majority of these artifacts came from mass graves, were deteriorating, and presented a risk to health."

Forensic workers exhume a mass grave in Srebrenica.
The Hague initially declined to comment on the fate of the materials. But during a visit to Sarajevo this spring, chief tribunal prosecutor Serge Brammertz acknowledged the artifacts had been destroyed.

The admission has been seized upon by Hague defense lawyers in the final weeks of the trial. More importantly, it has outraged Bosnian Muslims, who say the court acted recklessly in destroying objects of potentially tremendous emotional or forensic value.

Hajra Catic, who heads the Bosnian NGO Women of Srebrenica, lost her husband and son in the massacre. What mother "could think to take a picture of a son, of a husband, with us?” she asks, referring to the moment when she was forced to flee her home. "And who [at The Hague tribunal] could think of destroying the remains of these artifacts from the families who don't have a single family photo?"

Hague officials say the evidence was photographed before it was destroyed. Although digital images of photographs and identity papers might make up for some of the loss, there are concerns that The Hague may have disposed of human remains that could have provided a critical DNA link to identifying missing victims.

Forensic Puzzle

The International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP) is engaged in the immense challenge of retrieving and identifying the victims of Srebrenica and other atrocities. The organization has successfully identified nearly 15,000 war victims in the former Yugoslavia by building up a massive DNA and bone-sample database, through years of working with victims' relatives and retrieving even small scraps of human remains from secondary and tertiary graves.

Adi Rizvic, the deputy director of the ICMP's forensic department, calls Srebrenica the "biggest forensic puzzle" of the Yugoslav wars because many of the primary mass graves were robbed. He mentions one case in which the remains of a person were "found in four different secondary mass graves."

Srebrenica, he says, was "basically the main reason why we established the DNA lab investigation process."

Amor Masovic, who works with the Bosnian Institute for Missing Persons, spent years working to locate his country's mass graves. He wants to know why it wasn't possible to at least retrieve DNA samples from the evidence at The Hague before it was destroyed.

"If some of the skeletal remains have also been destroyed, then it is really unacceptable," he says. "Those remains should have been sent to Bosnia for DNA analysis, so that the identities of the victims could be confirmed, and then returned to their families.”

Masovic continued: “The Hague tribunal's explanation about the possibility of infection is extremely debatable. Why were they permitted to store these items in conditions that would cause them to disintegrate?"

The case has failed to stir much international attention, but several victims' support groups have been outspoken on what they see as the carelessness of the UN tribunal's decision.

The Germany-based Society for Threatened Peoples called the destruction of the evidence a "monstrous scandal," saying any similar attempt to destroy documents from the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials of the 1960s would have caused an international outcry.

‘Not Unusual’

Kavran declined to give details on how the Srebrenica evidence was destroyed, but she defended the move. "There's a suggestion somehow that this is something that doesn't happen," she says. "And that it's something that's unusual. And I'm referring you to domestic jurisdictions just to simply say that no, it's not unusual that something like this could happen. A court of law will dispose of certain artifacts."

The argument has failed to persuade Bosnian Muslims, many of whom already resent the UN for the failure of its peacekeepers to prevent the Srebrenica massacre. For some, the tribunal's decision to destroy the artifacts reopens old wounds.

Haris Silajdzic, the Muslim member of Bosnia's tripartite presidency, wrote to Brammertz demanding an official investigation of the matter.

Bosnian Foreign Minister Sven Alkalaj has appealed to Patrick Robinson, the president of the Hague tribunal, to explain the court's apparent negligence and take appropriate measures against those responsible for destroying the evidence.

Catic has also suggested Women of Srebrenica may take legal action against The Hague tribunal.

Ordinary survivors like Zumra Sehomerovic, whose husband was killed at Srebrenica, say what The Hague tribunal is defending as routine housecleaning comes at a huge emotional cost. For the victims, she says, "each photo, each piece of clothing, each little object is extremely valuable."

"Our houses were demolished, our family photos are nonexistent," she says. "All we have are remains. I personally think that The Hague made a huge mistake.”

“I can't even describe how important every item is, even if it's just a tiny scrap of clothing,” Sehomerovic continued. “Only last June I managed to bury my husband after 14 years, and there are no words to express how painful it is to have nothing, just nothing, that belonged to him."
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by: Brazilian Man from: São Paulo - SP, Brazil
September 03, 2009 16:44
Many well-paid people walking in Brussels lobbies, corridors andf five-star hotel rooms would like to destroy everything related to the Bosnian Serb atrocities…

by: Prince Igor
September 04, 2009 06:10
Another anti-Serb propaganda piece from RFE/RL.<br /><br />Of late, the not so Serb friendly Carl Bildt has acknowledged (albeit partially) that the claim of 7,000 or more Muslims summarily executed at Srebrenica is questionable.<br /><br />note that some Bosnian Muslim nationalist myths were later acknowledged as false. In particular, the bogus claims of tens of thousands of rape victims and 200,000 or more killed in fighting during the Bosnian Civil War.<br /><br />The crimes committed by Bosnian Muslim nationalist goons continue to be covered up.<br /><br />Recently, the Bosnian Croats are showing opposition to the Bosnian Muslim nationalist attempts to dominate Bosnia. <br /><br />

by: ivan from: berlin
September 04, 2009 08:49
Gosh, Carl Bildt, who was an EU envoy to the Yugoslav conflict, doubted the Srebrenica casualty figures, what a revelation, Mr. Averko (sorry, "Prince Igor"! I'd know that "affecting long-lens objectivity" style anywhere). They've already identified more bodies than he gave as a figure, so who cares what he said? And didn't he say it a decade ago anyway?

by: US Army officer from: Fort Dix, NJ
September 04, 2009 17:34
I'm not paid anything by Serbs or Bosnians, as a US army officer I served in Bosnia as a part of IFOR, from December 95 to Jan 96 and then again in 1998. Based off of what I saw with my own eyes, I agree that the allegations against the Serbs were blown way out of proportion, and allegations against Muslims and Croats were ignored. This is one big kangaroo court.

by: Antifascist
September 04, 2009 17:51
The Serbofascists are constantly justifying the genocidal anti-Bosniak crusade they committed against the Bosniaks with what &quot;The Turks, the Austrohungarians, the Ustashe, the Germans etc etc&quot; did or allegedly did to Serbs, tens or hundreds of years ago. And if that does not help they say &quot;Bosniaks are guilty too&quot; and try to protray the victim as a perpetrator, or to attribute to the Bosniaks what the Serbs did to them. And this extremely threadbare and poor defense only shows their moral and intellectual shortcomings all too clear. In other words, the serbofascists are not only evil, they are stupid. But now the Bosniaks, if they ever decide to pay back the Serbs for what they did in 1992-1995, one hundered or one thousand yeares from now, can claim, and with more right, that the Serbs tried to exterminate them, especially at Srebrenica. And while nobody should teach his cildren to hate a particular people or nation, I certainly will teach mine never to forget what the Serbs did to the Bosniaks just because they are Muslims. And while it is certainly evil to take revenge on the descendants of today's criminals, well, in this time justice is being denied to Bosniaks. Justice dellayed is justice denied. The West is clearly not interested in giving the Bosniaks justice. So they will have to seek justice themselves. Justice, NOT revenge, no matter whatthe Serbofascists may say. And besides that, also next time around the Bosniaks will do nothing but defend themselves from Serb aggression and Serb attempt at genocide.<br />Of course I know that not all Serbs are genocidal fascist barbarians and morons, but all those who continue to endorse the ideas of Greater Serbia, of Serbs as a master race or who say &quot;Serbs will not be ruled by Muslims&quot; certainly are. And I say to them: The Cross will nevber chase the Crescent out of Bosnia-Herzegovina! There will be no Anschluss of Bosnia, or of parts of it, to Serbia or Croatia! Bosnia, the Bosniaks and Islam in Bosnia will prevail!All the serbofascists out there may say and think what they like, but that is the plain truth, and reality on the ground, demographic, strategic and geopolitical favors the Bosniaks.

by: Ivan from: Sofia
September 04, 2009 18:05
For 5 centuries the muslims pillage, rape, murder, kidnap, enslave and destroy Christian civilization on the Balkans. The muslims stole young boys to become emissaries and young girls to be the wives of their circumcised barbarian men. Then after Russia liberates fellow Christian and Slavic nations on the Balkans from the Ottoman enslavement, the unscrupuluous Turks start a process of remolding the fabric of Christian societies on the Balkans by procreating to such large extent that soon the muslims become a very sizable minority. Then they want independence for their newly &quot;conquered&quot; territories in Bosnia and Kosovo. And now in the school children's textbooks the muslim enslavement that lasted almost 500 years is mentioned only rarely and not as a slavery, but as a muslim &quot;presence&quot; on the Balkans. Wake up West! The only reason the Eiffel Tower is not surrounded by the minarets of muslim mosques is because brave nations like Serbs and Bulgarians stood on the way of the muslim hords trying to capture all Europe.<br /><br />Shakespeare would have written in Turkish and Van Gogh would have drawn crescents if it hadn't been for the Serbs, so it's time the West realizes who its real enemies are. Or perhaps the West knows it pretty well, that's why it's still juxtapozing one side against the other, thus weakening the Balkans even further in never-ending quarrels and fights. Just like the West did with the Palestinians in Israel. Keep up the good work England, France and Germany. EU is marching under your drum.

by: Freedom from: Norway
September 05, 2009 10:57
Srebrenica is nothing, comparing to what Muslims Turks did to Christian Serbs and Croats in Bosnia during they occupation form ca. 1500 until 1880. More then 400 year’s occupation of Bosnia by Turks, more then 400 years. Can you imagine that your country one day been occupies by Turks barbarians in more then 400 years. The worse terror, tyranny and slavery, world ever known. Bosnian christens Serbs and Croats people were nearly exterminate. <br />Armenian people too. <br />And still, the Christian in Bosnia &amp; H. are not free. They made more mosques, like never before, course they getting help booth from christen betrayers on the west and surely from Muslims lands on the east. There is no Muslims country that is helping Christians Serbs or Croats in Bosnia. But Christians on the west are major help to the Muslims Turks and half Turks in Bosnia. I believe in God Jesus and I believe that Christian in Bosnia are gouging to bee free, just like a Christian in Spain and Greece. Be glorified Jesus! <br />

by: Antifascist
September 05, 2009 19:44
To all the islamophobic fascist genocidal morons and NAZIS out there such as Prince Igor (or Michael Averko) Freedom from Norway and Ivan from Sofia who still try to justify the genocide against the Bosniaks: <br />Whatever the Turks did, and Turkey had a civilization at least as brilliant as that of ancient Rome, they were no barbarians, IS NO JUSTIFICATION FOR TRYING TO EXTERMINATE THE BOSNIAKS! The Bosniaks have a RIGHT to live in BOSNIA AS MUSLIMS, and who does not agree with their being there, IS FREE TO GO to Serbia, Croatia or elsewhere, they have Serb and Croat passports anyway they reject Bosnia and the Bosniaks, then GET OUT! QUIT BOSNIA! <br />And THE CROSS WILL NEVER CHASE THE CRESCENT OUT OF BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA! <br />All allegations of inhuman acts aginst the Christians notwithstanding, Ottoman rule did not last in the Balkans over 400 years for nothing! In general, Christians and Jews were let to thrive. If it had not been so, then ALL Balkan peoples would be mostly Muslims today, but many people embraced Islam voluntarily as is the case in Albania and in Bosnia-Herzegovina. An empire based only on bruatlity and repression cannot last. The Roman Empire lasted 1000 years, the Ottoman Empire a good 700 years, the Habsburg Empire some 400 years, but the Soviet Empire only for 44 years (from 1945 to 1989) because it was built only on brute force and nothing else.<br />And besides that Ivan, you LIAR, the Serbs and Bulgarians only were brave against the Turks AFTER the Russians had defeated them in 1878. At the battle of Nikopol in 1378, at Kosovo Polje 1389 and in both attempts to conquer Vienna 1527 and 1683 there were important contingents of Serbs and Bulgarians in the Ottoman army, and no, they were not Janissaries, they were not Muslims, they were Orthodox. So stop spreading such stupid lies and don't insult my intelligence! After 1878, good Christians killed and expelled over 1.5 million Muslims from the Balkans. I don't think that the Turks ever did something like that to the Christians, or else today most Balkan peoples would be Muslims. What you say is nothing but the usual Islamophobic Serb propaganda blah blah blah with which they try to justify their genocide against the Bosniaks! It has no credibility whatsoever, and with that you disqualify yourselves as decent and intelligent human beings and show that you are no better than the NAZIS! Woe betide Europe if people like you shoud EVER gain power, or these ideas become widespread! I have already resigned from Christianity for I do not want to be associated with people who committed Srebrenica and who destroyed a priceless work of art as the Stari Most (see who the real barbarians are?), and I can only tell you that I don't want nothing with an Europe in which, as in teh times of Ferdianand and Isabella, Islamopohobia is official government policy. Or do I have to wait for that too?<br />And let me tell, you, &quot;freedom&quot; and &quot;ivan&quot;, people who write and who believe in such crude jingoist rubbish as you do are at the same time evil and stupid. And that is the worst kind of human beings there is. Many Serbofascists are just like that, and they do not deserve to walk this Earth! But you will not triumph over the Bosniaks! And since you mentioned Spain, an increasing number of Spaniards (Spanish-born, not of immigrant background) is turning again towards Islam, the faith of their ancestors. <br />What never ceases to baffle me is that RFE/RL allows such fascist and Neonazi rubbish to be published on a site that is supposed to oppose totalitarianism.

by: Brazilian Man from: S&#227;o Paulo - SP, Brazil
September 05, 2009 22:39
The use of supposed “historical justice” to justify the mass killings of tens thousands of Bosnian civillians born almost a century after Bosnia left the Ottoman Empire is typical of the Slobodan Milosevic rethoric which is unacceptable to the modern rules of Wstern democratic civillization.

by: Prince Igor
September 06, 2009 08:52
The US army officer at this thread speaks the truth unlike others such as Marko Attila Hoare.
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