he field was taped off while a mechanical digger clawed at the ground, making parallel trenches in the sandy earth. Forensics specialists in black sleeveless jackets peered into the soil looking for a flash of white bone. The police leant on their patrol car, sweating in the noon heat.
The massacres in Srebrenica were committed 20 years ago next week. Commemorations around the world will include a memorial service in Westminster Abbey on Monday, and dignitaries will gather at the huge graveyard near the old United Nations base in Potocari.
But the place is still an active crime scene. It refuses to slip into history. Some crimes are so vast, so devastating, so shocking, they are never truly over. The case is never closed. Pain seeps out through decades and generations. At least that how it feels to the survivors, the families of the dead, who gather at the police tape, waiting to see whose bones will rise from the ground.
It is as hot and humid now as it was in July 1995, when more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys were executed in the fields around Srebrenica. After a morning of tearing at the same ground two decades on, the digger overheated and had to be rested. The driver, the police and investigators retired to the cafe of a nearby petrol station to wait. Among them was Amor Masovic, the chairman of the Bosnian Missing Persons Institute, the man entrusted by the state with the endless task of accounting for the dead.
By the reckoning of Masovic’s institute, 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. They call Masovic all the time, asking for news.
But these last bodies are the hardest to find.
After the Srebrenica genocide, 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.
“We are the first generation in human civilization in which bodies are buried and then dug up and scattered,” Masovic said. “As far as I know, no one else did this.”
He tells the story of one man, Kadrija Music, who had been 23 at the time of the massacre. Six of his bones were found in five different locations up to 32km apart.
The discovery of new bones can bring peace to some families while stealing it away from others. If they belong to someone whose partial remains have already been found, mothers and widows are faced with the choice of leaving the new bones in communal graves, or digging up their dead son or husband so that he can be reburied in more complete form. Most choose the latter path, even though the same torment could be repeated again and again.
Hajra Catic can only dream of such dilemmas. She would love to have the choice of where to bury her son, Nino, who disappeared at the age of 26. He had been the town’s radio operator who had sent out its last forlorn appeals for help. When Srebrenica fell, he was one of thousands of local men who opted to flee into the wooded mountains rather than trust their lives to the Serb forces or their supposed UN protectors. Along the way, the fugitives had to cross mined frontlines, and face one ambush after another while mortar and artillery shells slashed through the trees around them.
The woods are still being demined, and as they are cleared, more bones are found strewn in the undergrowth. Catic was told that the remains of five people were found in recent months and only two have so far been identified so far. She believes Nino could be one of the remaining three. She is waiting for her phone to ring.
“I live for that call. Every year I think this is the year I will bury my son,” she said. She knows that particular mix of despair and relief, from the time she got a call about her husband, Junuz, who was shot in one of the mass executions and whose body was eventually found in 2005 with many others, under a rubbish heap in the nearby town of Kozluk. She has left a space next to Junuz for their son.
“When the call comes, your memory goes straight back to 95,” Catic said. “It is a terrible thing but I wish Nino was in a mass grave. Then I would know where he was. Every night I wake up thinking about him. For us, this is not history. For us, it’s like it happened yesterday.”
For years, she had been pushing the authorities to get the demining done. In 2012, she gave up waiting and went into the woods with one of Nino’s friends who was prepared to take the risk.
“He took me to the place they said they had seen Nino wounded from a mortar,” she said. “It was mined all around. I tried to clear the surface looking for something, but I found nothing. But walking back I found a skull by a creek. I couldn’t leave it there. I put in a bag and took it back. It stayed in my study for 18 months before anyone came to pick it up.”
The skull did not belong to Nino, but to a teenage boy. One of the survivors from the long trek through the mountains, Muhamed Durakovic, had seen the boy with his father, Kemal Hajdarovic, in the woods.
“I asked Kemal why he had brought the boy – he was only 12 or 13. “’Yes, but he’s tall for his age,’ he told me,” recalled Durakovic. Hajdarovic had feared his son’s height would get him killed. In the woods in July 1995, both father and son died.
Durakovic spent 37 days wandering in the woods. He now works for the ICMP. He never saw Nino Catic, whom he knew well, in all that time, and believes his mother may be looking in the wrong place.
Amor Masovic believes the missing 1,200 are somewhere in the mountains or in secondary graves, where the Bosnian Serb army reburied the corpses they had disinterred. In June he and his team were looking at the steep hillsides around the village of Glogova, where remains had been tipped out of trucks and allowed to roll down a gorge.
As they worked, a schoolboy on his way home on a mountain road waited patiently for them to finish so that he could pass. His name was Suad Mujic, and he was born five years after the end of the war. His parents had escaped to the city of Tuzla and then returned to the village in 2004 to pick up their old lives. Suad’s grandfather, grandmother and 21-year-old aunt had been killed, and their bodies were later found in different sites in the vicinity. His walk to school is literally through a killing field.
“From time to time I think about it if I’m walking home alone,” the 15-year-old said. But he thought more Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) families should return. “It’s a good place, and we are coming back to our property to prove it belongs to us.”
He has Serb friends, but they never talk about what happened in July 1995.
“If we want to talk about [it], the Serb teachers at school take their side. They want to diminish it, as if never happened.”
The same rule applies across Srebrenica municipality. Because of the numbers of Bosniaks who insisted on returning and the unusual degree of international protection they received from the international community, it is one of the very few mixed municipalities in the Republika Srpska (RS), the Serb half of Bosnia that was carved up by ethnic cleansing but accepted as part of the 1995 peace agreement. It is the only town in the RS with a Bosniak mayor, partly due to the fact that even those Bosniak families that did not return made sure they registered for the municipal elections and outvoted Serbs, who make up 55% of the 8,000 population.
A Bosnian flag flies outside Srebrenica town hall, an extreme rarity for the RS, and a Serb deputy mayor and other Serb officials work alongside their Bosniak colleagues. But the cohabitation is a veneer.
In the office of Nermin Alivukovic, the mayor’s chief of staff, there is nothing to show that anything out of the ordinary happened in Srebrenica, as it would be viewed as provocative.
“You can talk about anything but when you start talking about 95, that’s the end of the conversation,” Alivukovic said. “Before each anniversary on 11 July, you can feel the tension rising. The Serbs start withdrawing socially and stop talking or hanging out with us.”
In an office a few feet down the corridor, the Serb head of the municipal council, Milos Milovanovic, said he had no intention of attending ceremonies to mark the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre.
“No Bosniaks ever come to remember the Serb dead,” Milovanovic said. The Serbs have begun holding rival ceremonies for their own dead in northeast Bosnia, which they estimate at 3,700 over the course of the war, mostly soldiers
As for the question of whether the massacre of the 8,000 men and boys happened, Milovanovic, a former Bosnian Serb soldier, is hazy.
“I think there should be a joint commission to investigate what really happened,” he said. “We can’t speculate about numbers. Even one victim is too much.”
Soldiers from Milovanic’s unit, the Bratunac brigade, took an important role in the mass executions, but he says he was transferred to another front as Srebrenica fell, and was not present in the bloody aftermath.
The Bosnian Serb leader, Milorad Dodik, has become increasingly assertive in questioning the fact of the Srebrenica killings. Last month he called it “the biggest sham of the 20th century” and he has been supported by nationalists in Serbia and by Moscow, which is currently blocking a UK-sponsored UN security council resolution officially declaring the killings a genocide.
The spirit of denial is palpably deepening across the RS. In the cafe across the road from the municipal hall, an unemployed Serb metalworker, Srdjan Jovanovic, bemoaned the death of town. Many of the workers in government jobs live elsewhere and after 5pm, the place is ghostly. There is no longer a bakery or butcher. He acknowledged that many of his Bosniak neighbours are gone never to return, but bristled at the suggestion of massacres and Srebrenica.
“What happened, if it happened,” Jovanovic was careful to say before any mention of the subject. He echoed Milovanovic’s line about all sides having their dead to mourn.
“Twenty years after the genocide, Serbia and the Republika Srpska continue to humiliate and undermine the rights of Srebrenica’s survivors,” said Lara Nettelfield, a lecturer in international relations at Royal Holloway, University of London and the co-author of new book:Srebrenica in the Aftermath of Genocide. “Just as the survivors are preparing for this solemn anniversary, they are forced to fight for the legitimacy of their cause and the nature of the genocide.”
Refik Hodzic, the head of communications at the International Centre for Transitional Justice in New York, last week described his country as “still gripped by war” in which the families of the victims “are forced to endure a limbo with no acknowledgement and little justice, a limbo constructed by the constant manufacturing of fear and hatred”.
Writing on the Balkanist website, Hodzic said: “Right now, we are living the war for the ‘truth’ about ethnic superiority intended to shape the attitudes of the coming generations. And in war, there can be no acknowledgement of the enemy’s suffering, let alone reconciliation.”