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The Lingering Pall Of Srebrenica

  • Gordana Knezevic

Hajra Catic has still not found the remains of her son, Nino, who disappeared in Srebrenica in 1995. (file photo)

In Srebrenica, July 11 is a day devoted to the absentees: 8,000 of them.

As head of the Women Of Srebrenica organization, Hajra Catic's job will be to greet official guests at a burial ceremony for dozens of newly identified victims of the 1995 massacre. Twenty-two years after a genocide that took more than 8,000 lives, the search continues for the bodies of victims.

The 71 new coffins will join the 6,504 white gravestones of Srebrenica men and boys already buried at the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial. For the relatives of those victims, that moment will represent some kind of closure.

But not for Hajra. The remains of her son, Nino, are not among the recent arrivals.

As the city was about to fall into Bosnian Serb hands in July 1995, Nino was the "Voice of Srebrenica" -- the name of the radio station he ran. His final on-air words were a cry of desperation: "Srebrenica is becoming a giant slaughterhouse.... Will anyone in the world come and witness the tragedy that is befalling Srebrenica and its people?"

Two years ago, marking the 20th anniversary of those events, Nino's mother told RFE/RL that she would continue to search for him for the rest of her life, if that's what it takes.

Nino Catic
Nino Catic

In the run-up to this year's anniversary, Hajra, who keeps the crackly recording of her son's last report on her mobile phone, said it was becoming harder with each passing day to find new information about the location of individual or mass graves.

"Those who know either don't want to or are afraid to speak about the mass graves," she said, adding that she has received hundreds of possible leads over the years about where her son may have been killed. But none has brought resolution.

Apart from the silence of those who might have information, Hajra and others still searching for the remains of loved ones must contend with the legacy of the systematic destruction of evidence by the Bosnian Serb Army. Bodies were exhumed and reburied so haphazardly, in fact, that the remains of single victims are routinely found in dozens of scattered mass graves.

New remains are located and identified every year, and the July 11 Potocari ceremony is both a way of keeping track of freshly identified victims and a reminder of those yet to be found.

Parallel Universe

Yet, in what might seem like a parallel universe, a festival scheduled for Srebrenica on July 6-12 was slated to include the launch of a book by an author regarded by many as a genocide denier, Ljiljana Bulatovic, titled Srebrenica: A Lie And Deception Against The Serb Nation (Srebrenica - Laž I Podvala Srpskom Narodu). Under pressure from some local NGOs, Srebrenica's mayor canceled the book promotion.

Bosnian media have cited Bulatovic's purportedly close relations with indicted war-crimes suspect General Ratko Mladic and war criminal Radovan Karadzic, as well as her frequent dismissal of Srebrenica as genocide.

But a Republika Srpska branch of the ultranationalist group Oath Keepers is organizing a protest rally in Banja Luka under the banner "Support for Ratko Mladic -- stop the lies about Srebrenica."

Meanwhile, writer and commentator Nedad Memic tweeted that "#Srebrenica must be the world's only place of #genocide where genocide deniers can fully spread their ideology and insult victims."

'Most Important Topic Of Our Time'

At the center of this dispute is the conclusion -- as, for instance, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has done -- that the mass killings of unarmed Bosniak men and boys at Srebrenica constituted genocide.

Neither Serbia nor Bosnian entity Republika Srpska has officially acknowledged that what took place there in July 1995 was an act of genocide.

ICTY chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz recently expressed hope that such recognition might be forthcoming. Brammertz told the Sarajevan daily Oslobodjenje recently that "it takes integrity and courage to admit the truth."

Journalist Ivica Djikic has studied the Srebrenica genocide from the perspective of the perpetrators, rather than the victims, and published a book on Srebrenica in 2016 titled Beara.

"In my opinion and according to my understanding of the world and life, Srebrenica is the most important topic of our time, particularly for those of us who live here," he said.

'What Ordinary People Are Capable Of'

Beara borrows its title from the surname of one of the chief perpetrators of the Srebrenica atrocities, the biggest mass killing in Europe since World War II. The book's protagonist, Ljubisa Beara, was the head of security at the Bosnian Serb Army's HQ. He received a life sentence for the crimes of genocide and murder, and died in prison earlier this year at the age of 77. Djikic told BIRN in an interview that he decided to write the book to try to determine the motives of people, like Beara, who "ordered and committed the genocide" of Srebrenica's Bosniaks.

"The genocide against Bosniaks will haunt this region forever as a warning about what ordinary people are capable of under certain political, ideological, and social conditions," Djikic said.

He said he worked on his book for nearly a decade and found most of his material in the archives of the Hague tribunal. The rest of the documents appeared in books or newspaper articles, or arose in conversations with people who knew Beara before the war.

Special Project: The Faces Of Thousands Who Died In Srebrenica

Genocide denial, Djikic said, is "wrong and infantile."

"The truth will not disappear if you cover your eyes. The political and intellectual elites should know by now that denial or relativization of genocide and war crimes only leads to long-term misery, primarily for their own people, and a future filled with hatred," he said.

While some Serbian politicians are planning to come to the Srebrenica memorial in connection with the tragedy's anniversary, many will stay away.

The leader of the Belgrade-based Movement of Free Citizens, Sasa Jankovic, has said that by denying or downplaying the Srebrenica genocide Serbian politicians are "deliberately preventing [Serbian citizens] from confronting and leaving the past behind."

"There will be no genuine reckoning with and moving on from the war as long as our countries are led by the same people who started it, or their political heirs."

Jankovic added that he would be in Srebrenica for the ceremony.

"This is the first time that I have been invited, and I will be there."

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.

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