Leaders of Balkan nations, including Serbian President Boris Tadic, joined some 50,000 grieving Bosnians on Sunday as they gathered at a ceremony to bury the remains of 755 newly identified victims killed when Bosnian Serbs overran the eastern town of Srebrenica exactly 15 years ago.
The Srebrenica massacre, later recognized as genocide by the UN, stands out as Europe's worst massacre since World War II. But on Sunday, the site for burial shone as the birthplace of a process of reconciliation that is hoped to bring lasting peace to the troubled Balkans.
In Srebrenica, humanity's conscience -- as well as definitions of "safe haven" and of "international peace force" -- received a serious wound, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said, addressing the ceremony in Turkish. His remarks, translated into Bosnian, were a clear reference to the fact that the massacres in Srebrenica took place two years after being declared a "safe haven" by the UN.
"We will not forget it and we will not let it be forgotten. We will not let this disappear from our minds, in order to not let any ethnic cleansing happen in any part of the world," Erdoğan said.
Calling Sarajevo and İstanbul, Belgrade and Ankara and Zagreb and İzmir sister cities, and underlining that Balkan nations have a shared destiny, Erdoğan added: "Every war is bad. However a fight between siblings, between relatives; a fight between friends who share a common history, a common culture and even a common language is beyond bad."
In addition to Erdoğan and Tadic, Presidency of Bosnia Chairman Haris Silajdzic; Croatian President Ivo Josipovic, Belgium Prime Minister Yves Leterme -- whose country currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union -- and French Foreign Minister Bertrand Kouchner were among the many foreign dignitaries attending the ceremony and funeral in Potocari to pay respect to the victims of the massacre.
The historic meeting of Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian leaders at the burial site in Potocari was a result of successful Turkish mediation.
Serbia has for years denied the scale of the crime, deemed a genocide by The Hague-based UN war crimes court for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the UN's top court.
However, following the initiative by pro-European Tadic, the Serbian parliament in March passed a declaration condemning the massacre and apologized to the victims and their families.
In his address, Erdoğan called the Serbian parliament's declaration "a truly historic decision for a joint and peaceful future" in the Balkans.
"Tadic's presence here is also a historic step for our enlightened future, it is a historic step for the world from where we will build peace. I believe that Srebrenica, as the place where the honor of humanity disappeared, will also be place where the honor of humanity will emerge," Erdoğan said.
While pledging the continuation of Turkey's support for maintaining peace, welfare and stability in the Balkans, Erdoğan voiced confidence that Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia would exert the same kinds of efforts too.
At the time, some 30,000 Bosnian Muslims had flocked to the UN military base in Srebrenica's suburb of Potocari for refuge. But when Serb forces came, outnumbered Dutch troops opened the gates. The Serbs separated out men and boys, put them on trucks and carted them away, the vast majority never to be seen again.
The Srebrenica memorial center now stands across the road from that former UN base. The bodies being buried Sunday were previously excavated from mass graves and identified through DNA tests.
An estimated 60,000 people were at the memorial Sunday. Relatives mingled among the pits on one side and rows of green coffins on the other, looking for the names of their loved ones. Muslim prayers and weeping mixed with speeches of dignitaries condemning the crimes and calling for the perpetrators to be punished.
Fifteen years later, no one represented the UN at the ceremony. Tadic was the first dignitary to arrive, saying he was coming in an "act of reconciliation." "[I want to] build bridges of trust and understanding among the nations in the region," he said in Belgrade.
In Srebrenica, some in the crowd yelled "Bravo, Boris!" as others asked "Where is Mladic?" -- a reference to former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic, who led the Serb troops into Srebrenica. "I wish to welcome you, we are receiving you in peace," said Kada Hotic, a representative of the Srebrenica widows, as Tadic held both of her hands.
Mladic and former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic were indicted for genocide by the UN war crimes tribunal in 1995. Karadzic is now on trial at the tribunal in The Hague while Mladic is still a fugitive, presumably hiding in Serbia.
Tadic said in a short statement that he "will do everything" to apprehend all war crimes suspects in Serbia.
The US ambassador to Bosnia, Charles English, read a message from President Barack Obama that urged "governments to redouble their efforts" and arrest those responsible for the war crimes at Srebrenica.
Obama called the Srebrenica genocide a "stain on our collective consciousness" that occurred even after decades of pledges of "never again" after Nazi atrocities during World War II.
Bosnian Serbs sent no representatives to Sunday's ceremony. In a deliberate snub, Karadzic's Serb Democratic Party honored him Saturday at a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the party's founding.
Pillar of shame
Despite the stirring speeches Sunday by politicians, many of those crying and hugging coffins were not really listening. Two sisters, Amela and Bahrija, sat stone-faced next to pit number 495 holding each other's hands and not responding even to the questions of their husbands.
They came to bury their father, Ejup Golic, who was 56 when he was killed.
All but one of the victims buried Sunday were Muslims. Rudolf Hren's grave will so far be the only one marked with a Catholic cross.
"They asked me if I wanted him to be buried elsewhere because this is mainly a Muslim graveyard," said his mother, Barbara Hren. "He died with them. Let him rest with them."
Above the cemetery, survivors, helped by German non-governmental group Center for Political Beauty, put up a placard reading "UN Pillar of Shame," marking the site of a future monument designed to highlight the UN's role in the events. The monument, spelling out "UN" in huge letters, will stand eight meters tall, made of more than 16,000 shoes, representing the victims, and will be pierced by bullet holes.
The German NGO's spokesperson, Merima Spahic, said it will serve "as a metaphor of the immense betrayal of the UN in Bosnia for failing to protect the victims."
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