Bosnia and Herzegovina 24 Apr 2015 00:00
It took Hajrija Selimovic (not pictured) 19 years to bury her dead husband and her two sons. "It was July 11th, 1995 when I last saw my boys Nermin, 19, and Samir, 25, and my husband Hasan". On July 11, 1995, Bosnian Serb troops led by Ratko Mladic stormed through the UN peacekeeping enclave into the city of Srebrenica, executing over 8,000 Bosniaks, mostly men and boys. Many other hundred inhabitants tried to flee through enemy lines to reach the safe haven of Tuzla, Bosniak territory. At least 8,372 men and boys were killed in the Srebrenica area and burried in so called primary grave sites. Soon after the massacre the perpetrators tried to cover their traces of this genocide and opened the mass graves in order to rebury the dead all over Bosnian Serb territory in so called secondary mass graves. During this attempt many dead bodies were "broken" leading to the fact that some parts of a body went to one grave and other parts to other graves. It took several years after the war to identify the most of these 300 secondary mass graves. In 1997 the ICMP was set up in order to search and identify the dead people from Srebrenica. But it wasn't before 2002 until the first identification was possible through DNA.
Dragana Vučetić (pictured), Senior Forensic Anthropologist at the International Comitee for Missing Persons (ICMP): "The greatest problem we have is that we do not find a complete body in one grave. So we have to identify each and every bone. Sometimes we find human remains of one person in up to four secondary mass grave sites." That is what makes the work so complicated.
After bones are found - either in mass graves or above the surface (pictured) - these bones are collected by the ICMP. Dragana Vučetić then cuts out a piece of the bone (pictured) and sends it to Tuzla's Identification Coordination Division (ICD) where they try to extract DNA. The ICD is also responsible for the collecting of Blood samples by relatives. The closer the relatives are the better the chance to identify someone. Blood samples are stored in the ICD (pictured).
If a blood sample - like the one from Hajrija Selimovic - fits with DNA from newly found bones the ICMP is contacting the relatives. Hajrija Selimovic: "The ICMP called me and told me that they found my husband, but they don't know where his head is". It isn't difficult to understand that Hajrija didn't let the body of her husband be reburied but wanted to wait until the head was found. "I got another call", Hajrija says. "they have found my son! But the problem was they didn't know which son it was". Hajirija had to wait another two years before also her other son had been identified. In 2013 she was able to put her husband (with his head) to rest... In 2014 she had to attend (and didn't want to be photographed during the burial, acutally was just lying next to fence during the ceremony) the burial again and had to lay her two boys to rest! It took her 19 years!
Jasmin Agovic was the head of press at that time (in 2014) and told me following thing: "Imagine you are one of these women and you know that your brothers, your husband, your sons are dead. You can't be sure because their dead bodies haven't been found yet. Then you receive a call and someone tells you that they have found some bones and that one of your sons is dead. But they don't know which one, they can't tell you. And they haven't found everything of the human remains. On which point do you decide to burry your loved-ones or wait if the maybe find more bones. As an ICMP forensic team member you aks yourself if you identify onother bone: Should I call the women and tell them I have found one more bone or do I wait until I find more bones and they can burry their loved-ones. When do I call them and when do I not? What if they die in the meantime and you weren't able to give them their dead sons' bodies back?"
The process of contacting family members is a psychologically stressful one from start to finish, as survivors re-live the agony of the loss while deciding to hold a funeral immediately or to wait until all the remains have been found.
Not all of the dead are found in mass graves. Many were killed while they were trying to flee the enclave through Bosnian Serb enemy lines. Zijad Ibrić (pictured) who fled the enclave on Juy 11th, 1995 through enemy lines and survived is now working as a deminer in the region for Norwegian People's Aid. The area surrounding Srebrenica is still scattered with landmines and UXO. No anti-mine-vehicle and no dogs can operate in that area. Only the deminers themselves. And they have to see and collect the bones as well as clothings and personal belongings for ICMP for identification.
Zijad Ibrić: "I was fleeing Srebrenica with my younger brother on July 11th. My younger brother didn't make it. One moment he was next to me, the other he was vanished. Bosnian Serbs were coming and telling us they are refugees themselves and we should come out of the woods. Many did. They were arrested and later murdered. They also were firing granates on us. Many died. But today I am not angry. Norwegian People's Aid is a multi-ethnical family. I am working with Serbs and Croats. It wasn't my collegues who killed someone. It was those criminals and politicans at that time. Not today. Today I come back here and I am happy for each bone I find, for each individula I can help to be identified through ICMP. That is what I am doing today."
Dragana Vučetić (pictured): "Sometimes it is not easy to get useful DNA out of bones that were lying on the ground for nearly 20 years. We have some bones in our mortuary (pictured) we were trying to identify for four or five years now." But technology increases. In Sarajaevo ICMP now runs hyper-modern cubes that are able to multiply short DNA parts so that the DNA can be compared with the blood samples and so they were able to identify more and more people.
Every year on July 11th, the anniversary, a commemoration is happening in Potocari (the place where the UN Dutch peacekeeping bataillong was stationed - pictured) and all the dead who were identified in the last year are burried. 6,241 victims have been buried so far during the annual anniversaries of the massacre in Potocari, Bosnia. The number of burials decrease every year. While burrying their relatives (burial of Nermin, 19, and Samir, 25 - pictured / more images available including the names on graves and coffins) the women cry and collapse and faint (pictured). But finally they were able to say goodbye to their loved-ones. Only because of the work of ICMP.
More quotes and pictures available on request.