Thursday, July 7, 2011

Bosnians from around world heading toward Srebrenica for anniversary of massacre

In this July 13, 1995 file photo Dutch UN peacekeepers sit on top of an APC while Muslim refugees from Srebrenica, eastern Bosnia, gather in the village of Potocari, some 5 kms north of Srebrenica. The Netherlands was responsible for the deaths of three Bosnian Muslim men slain by Serbs during the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, appeals judges ruled Tuesday, July 5, 2011, ordering the Dutch government to compensate the men's relatives. The landmark ruling could open the path to other compensation claims by victims who claim their male relatives should have been protected by the Dutch U.N. peacekeepers in charge of the U.N. 'safe zone' near Srebrenica during Bosnia's 1992-1995 war. (AP Photo, File) (Anonymous, AP / July 5, 2011)

SREBRENICA, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — They're coming on bicycle from Switzerland, by plane from the U.S. and Australia. From Bosnian towns and villages they're heading through the woods on foot joining thousands of other pilgrims.

The occasion is a somber one that's also marked by solace: the funeral next Monday of 613 newly identified victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.

The burial is a yearly event marking the July 11 anniversary of Europe's worst massacre since the Nazi era. This year, the commemorations are particularly special because of the May capture of Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb commander accused of orchestrating the execution of 8,000 Muslim men and boys — and now standing trial on genocide charges in The Hague.

The event attracts more people than Srebrenica, a town of about 4,000 people, has residents. Historians, former townsfolk, Bosnians from all over the world come to take part in round table discussions, performances and a march along the route through the woods survivors took in 1995 to escape death.

The week of reflection and commemoration culminates with the burial of hundreds of bodies found in mass graves and identified through DNA analysis.

Not everybody here is happy about the ceremonies. Today, Srebrenica is an ethnically divided town where Serbs and Muslims shop at rival butcher shops and hold deeply conflicting views of history.

On Monday, a Serb was arrested for driving up and down town waving an ultranationalist flag and playing patriotic songs as Mladic appeared at his hearing at the International War Crimes Tribunal.

Muslims say they're struggling to keep historical memory alive in a hostile environment where majority Serbs continue to worship Mladic and former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, also on trial at the Hague.

Mladic's "genocidal policy is nowhere near to being defeated here," said Damir Pestalic, the local imam.

Srebrenica was under the protection of the United Nations during the 1992-95 Bosnian war but the outnumbered Dutch troops never shot a bullet when Serb forces commanded by Mladic overran Srebrenica on July 11, 1995.

Over 15,000 men headed through the mountains toward government-held territory but many of them never made it as they were hunted down by Serb forces and killed.

Every year, thousands march that escape route backward, praying at sites of mass graves along the way. They walk for days and time their arrival for the July 11 funeral at the memorial center in the Srebrenica suburb of Potocari.

The burial ground is where, in 1995, thousands of other residents flocked to the U.N. compound to seek shelter. But the Dutch peacekeepers bowed to pressure from Mladic's troops and forced thousands of Muslim families out of their base.

Serb forces sorted the Muslims by gender, then trucked the males away and began executing some 8,000 Muslim men and boys. Those bodies were plowed into hastily made mass graves in what international courts have ruled a genocide.

Gravediggers are working overtime to prepare pits for the 613 victims identified this year through DNA analysis. The bones will be laid to rest across the road from the former Dutch base, in the memorial center where 4,000 massacre victims have been buried over the years.

Muslims from Bosnia who are now scattered around the world often plan their vacations around the event or mark the anniversary where they live today.

A group of Bosnians headed out last week on bicycle from Switzerland and more should join them along the way as they ride the 1,450 kilometers (900 miles) to Srebrenica. Another group of Bosnians from the United States said they will be accompanied by American friends.

Others started walking on July 2 from the central Bosnian town of Zenica, some 270 kilometers (170 miles) west of Srebrenica. "We plan to arrive in time for the funeral," said Dzevad Smailagic, who leads the group.

Actors plan a performance in a Sarajevo theater where they will count out loud to 8,372 — the number of victims of the Srebrenica massacre.

The counting last year took them over five hours — their way of driving home the magnitude of the crime. This year Sarajevans are invited to join the 44 actors Sunday night and count with them until the early hours of Monday, July 11.

"Each number represents a victim, a person who lost his identity and was turned into a number," said actress Zana Marjanovic, the author of the project.

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