Burial views from a faraway country

Charles 3 Comments


Posted by Kathryn Edwards


Serbia’s been generating news of late, featuring the Old Carnivore and the Young Herbivore (as one local commentator has characterised the players).  While Djokovic nibbles the Wimbledon lawn and Mladic huffs and postures in the Hague court, there’s been a lot of grave-digging taking place in a former meadow just outside the east Bosnian town of Srebrenica.

This once charming little place comprises both a main centre and a sprinkling of hamlets and smallholdings in the surrounding mountains.  In the old days there was a healing spa, the iron-rich water being thought useful for various complaints.  Along the cobbled path up to the source of the river Guber, which emerges from a rockface above the town, there are extra springs and pools that are reputed to offer remedies for various complaints and for general beautification.  The 1990s genocide attempt put paid to all that.  The chalets were torched, the woodlands mined – the mosques blown up, too, and the rubble barrowed away – and on a boiling hot July day in 1995, most of the locals were bussed out of town, to be deposited in ‘free’ Bosnia (women and little children) or slaughtered (lads and men).  Sensing what was coming, many men and boys fled through the woods and mountains, aiming for freedom; about half of them perished through murder or misadventure on the journey.

Most of the victims of the mass killings were buried, the perpetrators’ motive being disposal rather than mourning ritual.  They were buried more than once, as often as not, in an attempt to hide the bodies or confound the search for them.  The quest in that post-conflict, partitioned country is to find the mass graves, exhume the bodies, and identify them using DNA analysis, inform the relatives, and bury the dead in identified plots and with due rites.  Each year, new mass graves are revealed; each year the burials number hundreds.  A dedicated burial-ground has been created on some land just outside the town.  Known by official decree as the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial and Cemetery for the Victims of the 1995 Genocide, it was inaugurated by US President Bill Clinton in September 2003.  Since then, July 11th – the anniversary of the final capture of the town – has been the day chosen for the burials.

Momentum builds from the day before the ceremony.  The coffins, wooden trays with uniform green canvas stretched over a wooden frame, arrive on trucks.  Each one will weigh very little, the contents being merely bones (the dismal circumstances even having required a fatwa on the quantity of remains that can legitimise an individual’s funeral).  The precious cargoes are laid out in rows, each coffin named and numbered.  Members of the Bosnian diaspora will have arrived from all over the world, and the atmosphere is like a fairground of grief: people stare at the ranks of coffins, they weep quietly, they pray and read the Qur’an, they gossip and exchange news.  Some stay all night.  Before the dew falls, the coffins are covered in enormous sheets of polythene.

Next day, yet more people arrive, by car, by bus, and some – greeted with waves and cheers – are the last few of the thousands who have completed the March of Peace, that traces in reverse the so-called March of Death from Srebrenica out to the west and north that had been attempted by those fleeing the 1995 disaster.  On the route to the Memorial Centre opportunistic hucksters sell knick-knacks at the side of the road.  By mid-morning the field is a mass of tens of thousands of people, many of wielding umbrellas against the searing sun or teeming rain, according to the vagaries of this changeable mountain climate.  Latecomers hurrying along the valley will hear the sound of singing as the ceremony begins.



Dignitaries send substantial floral tributes.  There is a reading of the names of the dead, and.  It will take a while this year: 614 are being buried.  An imam speaks – with too much focus on politics for some people’s tastes – and also leads the prayers, men and women stretching in long lines where there’s open space, or squeezing in with whatever decorum can be managed in the tighter corners.  Suddenly the invocations are over and it’s time to act.  Scores of men move forward to shoulder the coffins and hurry them through the crowds, like ants carrying foraged treasure, to their designated sites.  People stretch out to touch the passing coffins for a blessing; in the manner of their deaths these dead are perceived as ‘shahid’ or ‘witnesses’ for their religion.

The ground has been thoroughly prepared: each grave is marked, with the traditional wooden planks hard by.  Mourners cluster by their dead men’s graves, faces tense.  The coffins are manhandled into place, then covered with the planks, and the graves become a frenzy of mass shovelling of soil – or mud or dust, as the climate disposes.  And all of a sudden, it seems, it’s over.  People pour out of the gates and away, the business of burials completed for another year.  Meanwhile, the earth will settle, and the green wooden markers will be replaced by pillars of white marble in a stylised version of the traditional turban-top gravestone.

Hostile elements of Serb society assert that the Potocari memorial site will foment vengeance.  The Srebrenica prayer, engraved in stone in Bosnian, Arabic and slightly wobbly English, suggests otherwise:

In the Name of God the Most Merciful,

the Most Compassionate

We pray to Almighty God,

May grievance become hope!

May revenge become justice!

May mothers’ tears become prayers

That Srebrenica never happens again

To no one and nowhere!

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11 years ago

Heavens above – what a post. Fantastically vivid, and frightening in its vast scale and necessarily abbreviated content. It sounds as if you were there, Kathryn, which I expect you were?
I wonder how they are really dealing with it, despite the prayer for justice vs. vengeance?

gloria mundi
11 years ago

A very fine piece of reporting. Beautifully poised and balanced. Thank you.

As for “hostile elements in Serb society…” all things considered, including the Mladic thing, they might do as well to hold their peace. Indeed they might.

Kathryn Edwards
Kathryn Edwards
11 years ago

Yes, James, I was indeed there, but I my post was written from experience in previous years, sent early so that GFG could consider the matter ‘on the day’. You are sharp to wonder how they’re doing. In the early days after the conflict, peaceable Bosniak women’s spontaneous remarks had two themes: (i) I had rather my son were dead and innocent than that he were still living and a murderous criminal; we can walk with our heads held high; (ii) We want to live again in peace with our neighbours: we just want the war criminals off the streets.… Read more »