“This is not history. For us, it’s like it happened yesterday.” These are the words of Hajra Catic, whose son, Nino, disappeared 20 years ago during the massacre at Srebernica.
In April 1992, the government of the Yugoslav republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina declared its independence from Yugoslavia. Over the next few years, Bosnian Serb forces, with the backing of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army, carried out atrocities against both Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) and Croatian civilians resulting in the deaths of some 100,000 people (80% Bosniak).
By the summer of 1995, three towns in eastern Bosnia – Srebrenica, Zepa and Gorazde – remained under the control of the Bosnian government. Two years earlier, the U.N. had declared these enclaves “safe havens”, to be disarmed and protected by international peacekeeping forces. On 11 July 11 1995, however, Bosnian Serb forces advanced on Srebrenica, overwhelming a battalion of Dutch peacekeepers stationed there. Military forces segregated the Bosniak civilians, putting the women and girls on buses and sending them to Bosnian-held territory. Some of the women were raped or sexually assaulted, while the men and boys who remained behind were immediately killed or taken away to mass killing sites.
Twenty years on, the wounds are unhealed. According to the Bosnian Missing Persons Institute, so far the remains of 7,100 of the dead have been found out of total of 8,372 missing. The International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP), which is helping with the DNA identification work, has similar figures. That leaves some 1,200 people left to find, and many more surviving relatives in perpetual agony.
One obstacle is that, after the Srebrenica genocide (a term that is being contested by the Serbian government), the Bosnian Serb wartime leadership ordered the graves dug up and the corpses reburied in a bid to conceal them. The job was done with bulldozers and trucks, breaking up bodies in the process.
Radovan Karadžic and Ratko Mladić, the political and military leaders of the Bosnian Serbs during the 1992-95 war, are currently on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), facing criminal charges for overseeing the Srebrenica massacre. The trials mark the climax of more than two decades of seeking justice for the crimes of the 1990s and identifying those who were directly responsible.
But Karadžic and Mladić are literally the tip of the iceberg. On 4 October 2005, the Special Bosnian Serb Government Working Group declared that during the war 25,083 people were involved in carrying out killings, including 19,473 members of various Bosnian Serb armed forces that gave orders or directly took part (17,074 being identified by name). On 24 August 2006, the respected Sarajevo daily newspaper Oslobođenje (Liberation) started publishing a list of 892 Bosnian Serbs who had participated in the Srebrenica massacre and were believed to be still in positions of power at government and municipal level. The list had been kept secret by the chief prosecutor of the Bosnian War Crimes Chamber.
In March 2015, following a lengthy investigation, police arrested just seven suspects in Serbia in the first domestic operation in almost 20 years. They are said to be former members of a special brigade of the Bosnian Serb police.
Sadly, none of this helps Hajra Catic find the remains of her son, Nino. Worse still, Bosnia and Herzegovina is still racked by internal conflict. As Refik Hodzic, director of communications at the International Center for Transitional Justice, makes clear in “Twenty Years Since Srebernica: No Reconciliation, We’re Still At War” (Balkanist, 29 June 2015), it constitutes a bitter struggle to claim:
“The dominant narrative of the past, for the ‘truth’ as the foundation of political projects largely rooted in wartime goals of ethnic separation and dominance. This war is mainly fought out in political arenas, but also in the media, in classrooms, churches and mosques, at family dinner tables, and its consequences are bound to have a lasting impact on the region’s stability.”
The Nobel Prize winning Yugoslav writer Ivo Andrić, who was born in Eastern Bosnia and is best known for his evocative novel The Bridge on the Drina (1945), once said, “One shouldn’t be afraid of humans. Well, I am not afraid of humans, but only of what is inhuman in them.” In his wisdom, he may have foreseen the horror of Srebernica.