'Burying the body parts of relatives is overwhelming'

Bosnians living in Ireland and elsewhere return to Srebrenica this weekend for a ceremony to honour those killed in the 1995 …

Bosnians living in Ireland and elsewhere return to Srebrenica this weekend for a ceremony to honour those killed in the 1995 massacre

'FOR THE last five years I have returned every year to Srebrenica to bury someone from my family," says Mirsad Ademovic. In what has become an annual ritual, tens of thousands of Bosniaks, or Bosnian Muslims, will assemble tomorrow to mark the 15th anniversary of the first day of the Srebrenica massacre.

The slaughter of at least 8,000 Muslim men and boys on July 11th, 1995, became a symbol of the brutality of Bosnia's 1992-1995 war. It was the worst single atrocity committed on European soil since the second World War.

Bosnian Serb forces led by General Ratko Mladic seized Srebrenica, in eastern Bosnia, where tens of thousands of Bosnian civilians had taken refuge, divided the men from the woman and children, and took them away to kill. More than 8,100 Muslim men and boys were slaughtered in six days, and those who tried to escape were hunted down and killed in the forests surrounding the mountain enclave. About 30,000 troops from the UN protection force were based in Bosnia at the time of the massacre. Dutch soldiers stationed at Srebrenica failed to act when the Bosnian Serb forces overran the enclave.


Ademovic, who lives in Dublin, fled Srebrenica in 1992, as the Bosnian Serb army unleashed a hurricane of violence in surrounding towns, forcing people flee to the enclave. In fear of his life, the then 19-year-old fled alone to Hungary, leaving behind his wife, Razija, and his seven-month-old son. He didn't know it at the time, but Ademovic would never again see his father, Suljo, or his two brothers, Mesud and Senad.

Now aged 42, he was one of the first Bosnian refugees to move to Ireland, in 1992. He returned to Srebrenica for the first time in 2001, to see what remained of his family home and the small bar he ran in the town. Since then Ademovic has made numerous visits to Srebrenica and, with his mother and three sisters, endured the process of identifying the remains of 53 of his loved ones killed in the six-day massacre. As of March this year, 6,414 victims have been identified through a painstaking DNA process involving the analysis of body parts recovered from mass graves spread around the eastern region of Bosnia.

More than 3,200 victims have been buried at a memorial centre in the town of Potocari, north of where the massacre took place. Another 800 to 1,000 victims are expected to be buried at tomorrow's commemoration.

In 2005 Ademovic's father, Suljo, was the family's first relative to be identified. When his body was exhumed from one of the mass graves, Suljo was still bound with wire. After that their eldest brother, Mesud, was laid to rest. Still to be buried is Senad, Ademovic's youngest brother. He was 17 in 1995. In March this year the family was informed that two of his legs and one of his arms had been identified. "The emotional burden of burying body parts belonging to your relatives is overwhelming," says Ademovic.

Whether to bury incomplete remains of loved ones is a dilemma shared by many Srebrenica survivors; on this occasion Ademovic's mother decided to wait until other parts of his body are recovered.

Some bones may never be found, however. After throwing their slaughtered victims into mass graves, the Serbs later unearthed the corpses and spread the remains over a wide area, to conceal the extent of their systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing.

The massacre drew widespread condemnation internationally, but it was a case of too little too late for Mirsad Ademovic and his murdered relatives.

Bosnia's war cost at least 100,000 lives and left the country split into two autonomous entities: the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Serbs' Republika Srpska.

The former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic is before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. His military collaborator Ratko Mladic faces 15 indictments for war crimes. Now aged 68, he has been on the run for the past 15 years, even though his capture is deemed a necessity if Serbia wants a preliminary deal towards EU membership.

Kurt Bassuener of the Democratisation Policy Council, based in Sarajevo, says the EU is considering the ratification of Serbia's inclusion in the union, with or without the arrest of Mladic. If Serbia's accession to the union is ratified, it will have a destabilising effect in Bosnia, which would see the predominantly Serb Republika Srpska associate completely with Belgrade, says Bassuener. "Does the EU really want to include a Serbia, a country whose leaders can't summon the political will to arrest Mladic?" asks Bassuener. "Any move toward a so-called peaceful dissolution between the regions of Bosnia would be anything but peaceful."

The stories of two Irish survivors

'People from all over Bosnia lost a loved one'

Emir Omerovic, a Bosnian living in Ireland, will bury his uncle at the ceremony tomorrow. Like other members of Ireland's Bosnian community, Omerovic travels to Srebrenica every July to remember relatives laid to rest at past ceremonies.

The 26-year-old escaped to Germany with his family when fighting broke out in his home town of Bijeljina, in eastern Bosnia. His grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins, all from Srebrenica, remained in the enclave during the siege. His uncle Mirsad was in his early 30s when he was killed.

In 2006 Omerovic's grandfather, Selim, was also lowered into one of the thousands of graves at the memorial site. Since the war Omerovic has buried at least 40 members of his family, and he expects more of his missing relatives to be identified and lowered beneath the white marble tombstones at Potocari.

Omerovic says the anniversary is poignant not only for those from Srebrenica. "People from all over Bosnia lost a loved one. The lives of everybody from Bosnia have been severely affected by the war.

'You just keep going and do what you must to survive'

Zulfo Ramic, who is 32, lives in Dublin. His brother Kiram was one of the victims discovered in the hills canopied by the lush forests surrounding Srebrenica. He was shot and killed by Bosnian Serb troops while trying to trek north to safety across the mountainous terrain. It was the same route that Zulfo and hundreds of others from his village embarked on just hours earlier to escape the horrors in Srebrenica.

At the age of 16 Zulfo Ramic set out with his eldest brother into territory held by the Bosnian Serb army, towards the safety of lands in the north, which were fortified by the Bosnian Muslim army. He walked for seven days.

Sniper fire, minefields and a poisoned water supply killed many of Ramic's companions. "In that situation nobody knows who is alive and who is dead," he says. "You just keep going and do what you must to survive."

Some of the bodies buried in the hills around Srebrenica have only recently been found, after more than a decade of decay in the dense woodlands. Many victims are still missing.

In 2006 Kiram's remains were discovered, and after the identification process his body was laid to rest in a wooden coffin, lowered into the soil of the place he so desperately fled.