CBC In Depth
The bones of Srebrenica
John Chipman, CBC Radio's The Current | July 11, 2005

In July 2003, John Chipman, a producer for CBC Radio's The Current, travelled to Srebrenica to report on the eighth anniversary of the massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims by Bosnian Serbs.

Serb forces attacked Srebrenica in early July 1995. By July 12, Muslim women and children were being bused to Muslim territory. Men between the ages of 12 and 77 were detained for questioning.

By July 16, reports of the massacre of Muslim men began to leak out, as Muslim soldiers who managed to get out of Srebrenica started arriving in Muslim-held territory.

Hasan Nuhanovic and wife
Hasan Nuhanovic knows the mountains towering over Srebrenica well.

For three years, they were his second home.

During the war in Bosnia, he worked for United Nations peacekeepers as a translator and a guide. He helped soldiers navigate the terrain, pointing out the Serb artillery units perched atop the nearby hills.

That job saved his life.

When Serb forces overran Srebrenica in the summer of 1995, he was allowed to stay inside the old, sprawling battery factory that the Dutch troops were using as their base.

His family, however, was not allowed to stay. As Nuhanovic watched, his parents and brother were marched out to the compound gate.

Serb soldiers waited just outside.

"I brought my brother [to Srebrenica] to serve him to the Serbs on a plate,� says Nuhanovic. �I thought I did the best thing at that moment; to bring him to the safest place in the region, which was the Dutch battalion base, not knowing they were going to hand him over to the Serbs. If he had gone to the forests with his friends � many of his friends survived. At least he would have had a chance to run and fight for his life.�

It's been almost eight years since the end of the war in Bosnia. For relatives of the victims, the pain lingers. Many are left wondering what happened to their missing loved ones.

Srebrenica knows the pain of unanswered questions. Thousands of Muslim men and boys were slaughtered after Serb forces overran the town. Only now are Srebrenica's victims being identified and given proper burials.

Hasan's search

After the war ended, Nuhanovic searched for his family, driving through the Bosnian countryside, talking to anyone who might know what happened, praying that the stories and the rumours weren't true, that they had somehow escaped the mass executions and the mass graves, that they were alive somewhere in the hills or maybe being held in secret prison camps.

Then, slowly, he learned the truth.

"My brother and father were probably taken to the soccer field in Bratunac, along with 4,000 other men and boys,� he says. �On the same day, my mother was taken to a prison in my town in Vlasenica. She was actually killed there. I don't want to talk about the details because some of these bastards are still living in that town. Apparently there were six of them. First, they tried to rape my mother. At that time I think she was 48.

�So how would you feel if you drove through a town in which five or six thugs who tried to rape your mother and then kill her still live like free men? This whole eastern part of Bosnia is soaked in blood."

His search didn�t end. Nuhanovic gave up looking for his family, and started looking for their bodies.

Memorial cemetery
Hasan Nuhanovic then became the driving force behind a memorial cemetery at Potocari, just outside Srebrenica, so all the victims could have a proper burial.

He pressured the international community to fund the project, and Bosnia's divided government to recognize it.

The memorial

March 31, 2003, was a sunny day as Reis Mustafa Ceric, the religious leader of Bosnia's Muslims, preached to more than 10,000 mourners at the new memorial cemetery.

"Allah Akbar � May God forgive their sins and may we learn from Srebrenica," he said.

�Dear brothers and sisters. We would like to ask you to make way for the families so they can go to the graves of their beloved and bury them in peace.�

The cemetery was built in a cornfield; the long grass and cornstalks had been stripped away.

Women cried quietly. Men stood solemnly, hands shaking, trying to look strong.

There were 600 holes, 600 mounds of dirt.

As staggering as that seems, that�s only a fraction of the graves that will eventually be needed at Potocari. The 600 were the first to be identified by DNA lab analysis.

When completed, this cemetery will be large enough to hold 10,000 graves.

Relatives struggled to lower caskets into the ground. Dirt fell simultaneously on 600 wooden boxes with a sound like low rolling thunder.

For Hasan Nuhanovic, the cemetery marked his tragic triumph. But he still has no one to bury.

"The whole process is very slow,� Nuhanovic says, �If my family members had been exhumed and identified in 1996, 7, 8. I don't know, just after the war when I really wanted it so much, everything would have been different, but now it's 2003. And, I don't know, if it doesn't happen soon, you ask yourself if you really want to wait for this for the rest of your life.�

Hasa Selimovic at her son's grave
Hasa's story

Hasa Selimovic was also among the crowd. She lost her husband and three sons in Srebrenica. Like Nuhanovic, she spent years searching for them, asking difficult answers. Fearing even more difficult answers

Her youngest son was 17 years old. His name was Junuz.

"I haven't got even a single picture of him because he took all his pictures with him and put them in his rucksack. And of course, it was with him. I have pictures of my husband and my other sons, but not this one,� she said. �He was killed by the enemy and I don't know why. He was only a child. He was not even big enough to carry a rifle. Just � a child � It's very, very difficult. It's awful. My heart is full of wounds. It's broken. I'm alone in this world."

An old battery factory sits across the road from the cemetery. The factory was where the Dutch peacekeepers had their base; it was where about 30,000 refugees from Srebrenica sought refuge from the undermanned unit. Five thousand of the refugees, including Nuhanovic�s family, who managed to get inside, were refused refuge. It was on that road and at the factory that Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general, personally led his troops as they tore Muslim families apart. Leading husbands away from wives. Mothers away from sons, some barely teens.

To the trucks and buses that lined the road.

Women and children were crammed into one bus, men into another. It's the last place Selimovic saw her husband and youngest son alive.

The first 600 victims of the Srebrenica massacre are buried at Potocari Cemetery, March 31, 2003. (Sava Radovanovic/AP Photo)
"My husband, my son and myself, we managed to get on one truck,� she said. �But when my husband was spotted by Mladic, he shouted at him 'Get off that truck!' I didn't allow him to get off but he shouted again 'Get off that truck' and he had to get off.

�Then he saw my son. My son was clinging to my lap and he didn't want to go. But Mladic saw him and said 'Get off the truck!' I said why? because he's only a child. And he shouted again 'Get off!' and he approached and he grabbed my son and took my son away from me. My son started crying and he said Mom, I'll be back soon. And that's what happened. Nothing else."

40,000 missing

A team of international scientists worked to bring back the boy�s remains and the remains of all the people missing since the war.

It's a daunting task. As many as 40,000 people went missing during the Balkan wars, more than 7,000 from Srebrenica alone.

Bodies are scattered across the country. Many were buried in mass graves. Some bodies were later moved. Bones were mixed together in secondary graves. Others were burned. Few Bosnians have dental records making traditional identification procedures even more difficult.

The International Commission for Missing Persons set up laboratories in Bosnia. One processes DNA from blood samples taken from victims' relatives. Another processes DNA taken from bone samples from the exhumed remains. Matches are made in a central database. Almost 40,000 blood samples have been collected, and 7,500 bone samples taken. Still, it's just a fraction of what needs to be done.

A forensic pathologist inspects remains in a mass grave site in the village of Liplje, Bosnia. Experts believe the victims were killed during the Srebrenica massacre, originally buried elsewhere, later exhumed and then reburied after the war in an effort to hide evidence. (Amel Emric/AP Photo)
The pathologists and anthropologists who work in Bosnia's morgues make the final identification.

Mark Skinner teaches anthropology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. His work has taken him all over the world, including Afghanistan, East Timor and Bosnia.

He makes many of the final identifications of Srebrenica's victims. It takes time. The morgue he works in has bodies stacked to the ceiling.

"We're looking at a very large room with shelves and bodies stacked to the ceiling. There are about 3,000 bodies stored here,� he said. �If you turn around the corner, you see it goes all the way down. This is a very large room. And all of these are being processed �"

"On the table in front of me, we have basically what is a complete skeleton, from skull right down to the big toe. But we have two pieces of bone that are actually from two different individuals. What you can see here is that this part of the bone is from the base of the skull, and it's matched with this piece I have in one hand. Clearly then I have two individuals here. So the question that immediately arises is 'Does this skull go with the rest of the body?'

Hills north of Srebrenica
�And it doesn't because the rest of the body has a different colouration, so I've decided, then, that this skull represents another individual and the DNA was taken from this portion, from the part below the neck � and it's that portion that will be offered back to the family."

DNA identification

The first identification was made in November 2001. Rijad Konjhodzic, a DNA lab co-ordinator, worked on the match.

"It was quite amazing,� Konjhodzic said. �We had a mutation in our first case. And it had to be verified by Y-chromosome testing. So we can't believe our luck because mutations show up one in every 1,000 cases, and the first case we had one. I did the Y- chromosome testing on that one and it was done at 2 a.m. I woke everyone up. �It's our guy.�

�The preparations were really, really long. We invested a lot of time, a lot of patience, a lot of hours. We worked 14-hour shifts straight. We all know what we're working for but when the first ID dropped, you close the circle. You see that you're not working in vain, that it's working. If it worked for one case, it's going to work for another. So it was a big day, a big day for us."

Junuz Selimovic's grave
It was a turning point for the scientists, a turning point for the family. That first match was Junuz Selimovic, Hasa�s son.

"It was a very, very difficult moment, but now I think it is even better to know than to not know because now I know where to go,� she said. �I can go to his grave. When there is no grave, there is nowhere to go at all."

Eleven days after Hasa buried her youngest son on that cold March afternoon, her husband Ismet was identified. Father and son will be buried side by side at the memorial cemetery next month.

"This is something really that is very, very important to us because finally the bones of our loved ones will not be scattered all over this country. They will be at one place," she says.

Hasa Selimovic, however, is the exception right now in Bosnia. More than 85 per cent of Srebrenica's missing have not been identified, leaving most relatives waiting.

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