Europe

Viewpoint: Slow hunt for truth about Balkans' missing

Image caption Dzidza Mehmedovic waited 12 years to discover the fate of her family. All photos by Nick Danziger

Nearly 15 years from the end of the Balkans conflicts, thousands of people remain unaccounted for. The long wait for news has been unbearable for their families, as Rory MacLean discovers.

In villages around Srebrenica almost every other building is a ruin.

Amid the devastation rise busy Orthodox churches and deserted mosques without a congregation. Vast cement crosses squat on main streets. Blue beehives and slender white gravestones mount the hillsides. Above them spreads a ghost town of torched and vacated houses, their roofs collapsing, their windows open to the elements. Among them is a pretty little garden of yellow and red tulips, and a single restored home.

Beside it stand two young evergreens.

"My youngest boy Azmir planted the trees," says Dzidza Mehmedovic, "one for him and one for his brother. Every morning I look at them growing taller and stronger."

Image caption Survivor at a memorial: The bodies of his wife and son have not been found

The Balkans contains a reservoir of tragedy, but in few places is that reservoir as deep as in Srebrenica. The town in eastern Bosnia was besieged for much of the 1992-95 conflict. Tens of thousands of Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) were trapped in it. Despite being declared a demilitarised "safe area" under the care of the United Nations, it was eventually overrun by Bosnian Serb forces.

Vanished

"Before the war I was a happy woman. I woke up and had something to look forward to in my day," says Dzidza, speaking with fierce energy. "But if I had known what was going to happen, I would never have had children."

In the days following the takeover, members of the Bosnian Serb army and police planned and implemented the execution of more than 7,000 men and boys. Dzidza's husband and sons ran into the forest to escape the massacre. She would hear nothing of them or their fate for the next 12 years.

In a decade of successive Yugoslav conflicts, acts of barbarism unseen in Europe since World War II were committed in horrendous numbers.

As many as 140,000 people were killed, a quarter of whom simply vanished.

In their desperate need for news, the families of the missing prayed for a message and begged for the truth. In almost every case, the missing had been murdered. But without word, witness or body, the bereaved could not accept their loss.

Their torment was drawn out for as long as 18 years - for many it continues still. Children waited for parents to return from the grave. Mothers made up their dead sons' beds. Old men couldn't bury their descendants. The living also lost their lives.

Closure

Since 1991, the International Committee of the Red Cross in the Balkans has been asked by families to trace 34,389 missing persons. Every single one of them left behind them a wife or husband, child or parent, brother or sister. Now for the first time in war DNA is being used to match living relatives to recovered bones, reuniting families divided by death, enabling survivors to find closure and to begin to live again.

Like most of the Bosniak women, Dzidza was evacuated from Srebrenica. Unlike them she came back after the war.

"I felt that I would learn the truth faster," she says. Her white headscarf was edged in green-and-yellow flowers. "I also believed that my family would return to me. I knew it was irrational but I had to do it."

Her house had been vandalised and her possessions thrown onto the rubbish tip. Dzidza combed through the tippings and found a water-stained school exercise book and a single marble.

"I worked for weeks to put the house back together," she says. "The morning after I'd finished, I heard a voice call 'Mama' and I ran outside.

"I ran up the lane. Of course there was no-one there." She hurried on, "I used to worry about my boys slipping on the snow, or falling down and grazing a knee. How could that be taken away from me?"

Image caption The body of Anto and Milka Budimirovic's son was bundled fully-clothed into an unmarked grave

In 2007 Dzidza finally received news of her family's fate. The skeleton of one of her sons had been identified, but because the boys had been so close in age it proved impossible to determine if it had belonged to Almir or Azmir. Of her husband, only a single tibia remained.

Suffering knows no borders. Young or old, male or female, Albanian, Bosniak, Croat and Serb, all face the same abyss.

In the western Balkans most people - especially the families of the missing - speak now of the need to heal wounds. They plead for leaders to set an example and apologise for past wrongs.

Some progress has been achieved. War criminals have been prosecuted and put behind bars in Belgrade, Sarajevo, Zagreb and Pristina.

Earlier this year, Serbia's parliament formally apologised that Belgrade did not do enough to stop the Srebrenica massacre.

But there is a still a feeling that too few politicians in the region have shown the courage to act with contrition, to ask forgiveness for the sins inflicted by their predecessors.

The governments have an obligation to provide answers to the families and not to seek reciprocity for their efforts, not to treat the victims with partiality, not to delay endlessly. They need to open up their archives, to exchange information and to learn from the courage and humility of the bereaved.

This article has been amended since publication to include the reference to Serbia's apology for Srebrenica.

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