SREBRENICA, Bosnia-Herzegovina — They’re coming on bicycle from Switzerland, by plane from the U.S. and Australia. From Bosnian towns and villages they’re heading through the woods on foot joining thousands of other pilgrims.
The occasion is a somber one that’s also marked by solace: the funeral next Monday of 613 newly identified victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.
The burial is a yearly event marking the July 11 anniversary of Europe’s worst massacre since the Nazi era. This year, the commemorations are particularly special because of the May capture of Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb commander accused of orchestrating the execution of 8,000 Muslim men and boys — and now standing trial on genocide charges in The Hague.
The event attracts more people than Srebrenica, a town of about 4,000 people, has residents. Historians, former townsfolk, Bosnians from all over the world come to take part in round table discussions, performances and a march along the route through the woods survivors took in 1995 to escape death.
The week of reflection and commemoration culminates with the burial of hundreds of bodies found in mass graves and identified through DNA analysis.
The ceremonies have caused more division in this ethnically divided town, where Serbs and Muslims shop at rival butcher shops and hold deeply conflicting views of history.
On Monday, a Serb was arrested for driving up and down town waving an ultranationalist flag and playing patriotic songs as Mladic appeared at his hearing at the International War Crimes Tribunal.
Muslims say they’re struggling to keep historical memory alive in a hostile environment where majority Serbs continue to worship Mladic and former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, also on trial at the Hague.
Mladic’s “genocidal policy is nowhere near to being defeated here,” said Damir Pestalic, the local imam.
Srebrenica was under the protection of the United Nations during the 1992-95 Bosnian war but the outnumbered Dutch troops never shot a bullet when Serb forces commanded by Mladic overran Srebrenica on July 11, 1995.
Over 15,000 men headed through the mountains toward government-held territory but many of them never made it as they were hunted down by Serb forces and killed.
Every year, thousands march that escape route backward, praying at sites of mass graves along the way.