Created: Fri, 11 Jul 2014 01:15:43 EST
Updated: Fri, 11 Jul 2014 01:15:43 EST
SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — Hajrija Selimovic waited for 19 years to put her family back together.
Her husband and her two sons were being reunited Friday in a cemetery for Srebrenica massacre victims. After that, she will always be able to find them — and lean her head against their cold, white tombstones when she cries.
Samir was 23 and Nermin only 19 when the Serb execution squad shot them.
The three were among the 8,000 Muslim men and boys executed when Serb forces overran the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica on July 11, 1995 — Europe's worst massacre since World War II.
Even as the years pass, the remains of Srebrenica victims are still being found in mass graves. Every July 11, more are buried at a memorial center near the town.
This year, Selimovic's two sons will be among the 175 newly identified victims laid to rest next to the 6,066 previously buried ones. It's also the site where last year she buried her husband Hasan, who was found in 2001.
"I didn't want to bury him because they only found his head and a few little bones," she said, explaining why she waited for so many years.
"I waited, thinking the rest will be found and then everything can be buried at once ... but there was nothing else and we buried what we had," she said.
The eastern town of Srebrenica was a U.N.-protected area besieged by Serb forces throughout Bosnia's 1992-95 war. But U.N. troops offered no resistance when the Serbs overran the majority Muslim town, rounding up Srebrenica's Muslims and killing the males. An international court later labeled the slayings as genocide.
After the massacre, then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright waved satellite photos of mass graves in Bosnia at the U.N. Security Council. Washington knew where the mass graves were, she told them.
That's when Serb troops rushed to the sites with bulldozers and moved the Srebrenica victims to other locations. As the machines ploughed up bodies, they ripped them apart, and now fragments of the same person can be scattered among several different sites.
"The perpetrators had every hope that these people would be wiped out and never found again," said Kathryne Bomberger, head of the International Commission for Missing Persons, a Bosnia-based DNA identification project.
The ICMP, established in 1996 at the urging of former President Bill Clinton, has collected almost 100,000 blood samples from relatives of the missing from the Yugoslav wars. It has analyzed their DNA profiles and is now matching them with profiles extracted from the estimated 50,000 bone samples that have been exhumed.
The group grew into the world's largest DNA-assisted identification program. It has identified 14,600 individuals in Bosnia, including some 7,000 Srebrenica victims. The agency, which also helped identify Hurricane Katrina victims and those who died in the 2004 Asian tsunami, is now involved in identifying missing people in Libya, Iraq, Colombia, Kuwait, Philippines and South Africa.
Bosnia remains its biggest operation.
"Without DNA, we would have never been able to identify anyone," Bomberger said Thursday. "However, this means that the families have to make the difficult decision on when to bury a person. And many of the women from Srebrenica want to bury their sons, their family members, the way they remember them when they were alive."
So thousands of traumatized mothers and widows are faced with another trauma — the decision to either bury just a fragment or wait until more bones are found.
This year, the families of some 500 identified victims have decided not to accept just two or three bones. Those will remain stored in a mortuary in the northern city of Tuzla until the families get tired of waiting or until more remains are found.
"We calculate that there are still about 1,000 persons missing ... in addition there are probably thousands of pieces of bodies" still to find, Bomberger said. "This is an extremely complex process that has taken a long time, just simply because of the efforts the perpetrators went to to hide the bodies."
Selimovic, who made a hard decision last year regarding her husband, said this year's decision was easier.
"Now I am burying two sons," she said. "They are complete. Just the younger one is missing a few fingers."
Almir Alic reported from Srebrenica