Arab News (Saudi Arabia)
22 July 2007
For a witness soaking up the remnants of a war gone by, a funeral for 465 people is a surreal experience. But for the inheritors of a genocide just outside the Bosnian city of Srebrenica, it has become an annual ceremony that brings horror and closure in equal measure.
Unlike the anniversary of most tragedies, every year in Srebrenica, hundreds of Muslim families are told that some of the human remains recently discovered in mass graves belong to their son, father, brother or husband.
Among the nearly 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys who were systematically killed by nationalist Serbian forces in July 1995, less than half have been identified through forensic testing, and many of the graves have yet to be located.
The families lucky enough to be released from the torture of not knowing stood graveside with one another and, on this 12th anniversary of the massacre, buried the remains of 465 men and boys in a matter of a few minutes. Last year’s total was 505.
The task was daunting enough for the memorial site to hire helpful ushers dressed in bright yellow to guide families to their respective minifunerals. The efficiency of the day’s events, which included a collective Muslim prayer for mourners, seemed to be as systematic as the genocide itself. Because the victims’ remains have taken years to identify, or were only discovered in the last 12 months, the green coffins were shorter, narrower and lighter than most — holding little more than bones and perhaps a few torn pieces of clothing. These graves were dug so closely to one another that mourners had no choice but to step on the dirt mounds from previous years’ burials as they navigated the graveyard, clutching the obelisk headstones to keep their balance in the muddy soil.
Yet not only was their efficiency startling, but everything the families and mourners did was virtually synchronized, like a factory assembly line. For twenty minutes, in a sea of nearly 50,000 people, the only sounds were the scraping of dirt on thousands of shovels and the thuds of soil settling in the graves. Many elderly women fainted during the mass funeral, and nearby men carried them to the memorial’s first-aid station, valiantly trying to fill a void left by so many murdered sons and fathers.
The women of Srebrenica have become accustomed to burying loved ones in this collective and annual ritual. Male family members from nearby towns were equally ready, informally dressed in T-shirts, jeans and raincoats, in anticipation of the grueling work of interring the dead. At first glance, the men could have been plowing a field for crops, but the wailing grandmothers were unmistakable. Many of the women were actually too young to be grandmothers, but three years of war in the early 1990s — which ended shortly after Srebrenica’s massacre — has left their faces worn and weary.
The only sight that might have seemed out of place was the occasional elderly woman, kneeling over the grave of her son or husband from a previous year’s burial. With most of the attention focused on the graveyard’s new arrivals, these were the only mourners who grieved alone. One mother sat alone in the dirt, clawing at the muddy earth, tilling the ground that covered her 22 year-old-son’s final resting place, perhaps to reclaim a lost memory.
Only 20 feet away, another mother looked around desperately for support, but she too was alone. She said that all the men in her life lay beneath her feet.
After burying her father, one woman’s family together moved ten steps to the left and proceeded to bury her youngest son, whose remains, she said, were found next to his grandfather’s in a mass grave down the road. Burying her son and her father on the same day, 12 years after they were killed, did not seem particularly strange to any one in the family. It seemed that the digging ritual had pleased the gods enough to warrant a torrential downpour. People finished their tasks and quickly said goodbye to family members. Their job was done. The rain provided the families of Srebrenica with just enough sustenance until next year’s drought. The consensus seemed clear. There are many more seeds to sow in Srebrenica, and many more fields to raise.