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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.
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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