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Srebrenica massacre: Gruesome history still painful 20 years on

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Srebrenica massacre: Gruesome history still painful 20 years on

Srebrenica, Bosnia Herzegovina (CNN)Twenty years ago, as the world stood by, an army massacred 8,000 men and boys in a Bosnian town because of their ethnicity. It was a drop in a deluge of bloodshed that had gone on for three years.

On Saturday, former U.S. President Bill Clinton was part of a delegation that traveled there to commemorate the largest single atrocity in Europe since World War II, the Srebrenica massacre against the Muslim population during the civil war that tore former Yugoslavia apart.

The moment of heightened carnage pushed Clinton and other Western leaders to take action against a genocidal force the U.N. had warned for months might strike a very vulnerable spot.

Gen. Rupert Smith, commander of the U.N. Protection Force in Bosnia, had watched the Bosnian Serb Army advance on ground the U.N. had declared as safe areas. He feared the territory would be retaken, with ruthless consequences for Muslim civilians living there.

A Bosnian woman weeps next to the coffins of Muslim men and boys before their burial in Potocari, near Srebrenica, East Bosnia and Herzegovina.
A Bosnian woman weeps next to the coffins of Muslim men and boys before their burial in Potocari, near Srebrenica, East Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The massacre

Starting on July 11, 1995, for three days, the ethnic Serb forces gunned down Muslim boys and men in and around Srebrenica. The sight of their broken bodies dumped into mass graves, belongings lining roadsides, and carnage strewn across fields forced the world’s eyes onto a broader campaign of ethnic cleansing.

“That awful act finally stirred all the members of NATO to support the military intervention that was clearly necessary,” Clinton said in his address.

The extended slaughter of civilians, including children, women and old men in Bosnia-Herzegovina, had taken around 100,000 Muslim lives.

Weeks after Srebrenica, NATO jets bombed Bosnian Serb positions for two weeks in Operation Deliberate Force. The Serbs quickly surrendered, and months later both sides signed an accord worked out in Dayton, Ohio, establishing a peace that has lasted since.

But the bodies of the dead were barely covered as they sat in various spots, and searchers still work to recover and identify them.

136 more buried Saturday

While crowds strolled in between obelisk-shaped grave markers covering the memorial site Saturday, some paused to read inscriptions or pray.

Freshly dug graves gaped at passersby, waiting for newly-found bodies to fill them as part of the commemoration. Coffins wrapped in smooth, green cloth lay in rows up and down a path.

“Today, loved ones and total strangers from all over the world come here, and they can see that 6,000 men and boys are buried with more coming today,” Clinton said. When he attended the site’s inauguration in 2003, only 600 had been buried.

Srebrenica’s mayor said 136 victims would find a final resting place Saturday, two decades after their killing.

There will be many funerals to come.

Monument against cruelty

The Srebrenica memorial cemetery has become an international monument against a repeat of such carnage.

“We owe the people that sacrificed their lives here,” Clinton said.

The world must work to live up to the mission, Clinton said, as many people are still being killed over their ethnicity.

For Europe, the memorial is a painful reminder of a continent not having acted expediently.

“In Srebrenica, Europe is faced with its shame,” said EU High Representative Federica Mogherini.

“Europe failed to stand up to the promise of our founding fathers and to the dreams of their grandsons: no more war in Europe, no more murders in the name of race or the nation. No more genocides.”

The war crimes led to the prosecution of former Serbian leaders in international courts. But many are not yet satisfied that justice has been done completely.

“Those who perpetrated that massacre must be brought to justice,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement. “And we must remember Srebrenica’s victims and all the victims of the war — not just today but every day.”

Russian U.N. veto

But old resentments galvanized by war have a way of hanging on.

Parties to massacre, and their allies, sometimes object to the killings being called genocide, and the United Nations was unable this week to muster the support in the Security Council to lend that term to the ethnic carnage in Srebrenica.

Investigators and forensic experts work on top of a cluster of bodies, many of them with their hands tied in the back and many of them blindfolded
Investigators and forensic experts work on top of a cluster of bodies, many of them with their hands tied in the back and many of them blindfolded

When it introduced a resolution, the Russian Federation, a permanent Security Council member and Serbian ally, vetoed it.

On Thursday, the European Parliament criticized the vote. “MEPs (parliamentarians) regret that the U.N. Security Council failed to pass a resolution commemorating the genocide and call for acceleration of war crimes prosecution at international and domestic level,” it said in a statement.

Two U.N. judicial bodies, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the International Court of Justice, both recognize the massacre as genocide and have condemned Serbia’s ethnic cleansing campaign as “the biggest war crime in Europe since the end of the Second World War.”

‘Insults stated against Serbia’

Serbia, which is interested in joining the European Union, bristled at the criticism from Brussels.

“… The insults stated against Serbia regarding Srebrenica could in no way lead to a better future,” its foreign ministry said in a statement.

And when Clinton and representatives of European Union countries took their places in front of the white pylon grave markers that stretch across the Srebrenica memorial cemetery, in neighboring Serbia there reportedly were no official commemorations, as these were canceled.

A group of protesters were expected to lie down in front of the Serbian national assembly building in Belgrade to honor the dead.

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic attended the ceremony in Srebrenica. When he emerged from his car, crowds booed at him. Later, a group of people chased after him yelling and throwing objects, forcing him to climb into his vehicle and flee.

CNN’s Christiane Amanpour reported from Srebrenica; Ben Brumfield reported and wrote from Atlanta.

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