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SREBRENICA, Bosnia-Herzegovina – Twenty years ago Saturday, Bosnian Serb troops led by Gen. Ratko Mladic carried out Europe's worst carnage since the end of World War II — a massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys that a United Nations court calls a genocide. As Dutch peacekeepers stood helplessly by, the Serbs stormed the Srebrenica safe haven, separating men and boys from women. They drove the males away in trucks and massacred 2,000 on the spot. About 15,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys fled into the woods; the Serbs hunted 6,000 of them down and killed them one by one — some 8,000 in all. The bodies were dumped in mass graves that were bulldozed to hide the evidence, causing remains to be jumbled up into a jigsaw puzzle that has yet to be fully solved. About 1,000 victims remain to be found. Many families have reburied a few bones identified as belonging to their loved-ones through DNA testing.
Two decades later, Srebrenica's women still grieve. Here are some of their stories told through cherished objects.
Fazila Efendic, 64, keeps her husband Hamed's old terracotta-color shirt in the closet. He was 46 when the Bosnian Serb troops shot him dead in the forest. "When I miss him, I open the closet, touch the shirt and I can't say if I feel better or worse then," she says. "But I must touch it." It's the same thing with the school diplomas of her only son Fejzo, who was 20 when he was killed in the Srebrenica massacre. "He won several regional competitions in math and physics. He was a very good child." She showed a white handkerchief with blue stripes that her son gave her before Srebrenica fell. "I carry it around wherever I go," she said. She found the remains of both men years ago and buried them at the Srebrenica Memorial Center, where they lay with nearly 7,000 other victims. She found Hamed in 2003 in one mass grave and Fejzo — or rather two of his leg bones — in 2013 in another.
HANDFUL OF CLAY
Meva Hodzic takes out a tobacco box, a rusted Swiss knife and a key from a plastic box, and with them fall crumbs of clay. She puts the clay back in the bag, because it's a kind of relic, too: It comes from the mass grave where her husband was found after Serbs killed him in the forest, as he fled carrying the three objects. "It belongs to these items and they should stay together. I was asked to give all this up for a museum of items found in mass graves. But, no," she says "how can I do that if it's the only thing I have left from him?" Mujo ran into the forest with the other Srebrenica men after promising to come back to find her in the purported safe haven that was under Dutch peacekeeper protection. Instead, parts of Mujo's body turned up after the war in three different mass graves. He was put together and identified through DNA analysis. "Besides him I lost two brothers, my father, two sons-in-law and my nephews."
PICTURE OF SORROW
When Remzija Delic, 58, wakes up in the morning, the first thing she sees on the wall is the picture of her husband Sabit. Then she gets up and looks through the window at the former factory that the United Nations turned into their military headquarters after they declared Srebrenica a safe haven — staring hard at its gate. She goes to the stove and puts the water on boil for her morning coffee. When she returns to the window, she sees her neighbor Sreten Stankovic walking down the street to work, and her face grows dark. He was the Bosnian Serb army soldier who separated her husband from her at the factory gate, selecting him to become one of the victims of the massacre. She also lost her father, two brothers and several nephews. As Sabit was trying to board the bus transporting the Srebrenica women to government-held territory, Stankovic grabbed his neighbor by the back and yelled: "No. Not you." He pushed him over to the crowd of men chosen for killing. Forensic experts found Sabit, 40, in a mass grave. "You know, all this did not make me hate the Serbs," she said. "There are some wonderful people among them."
TOBACCO BOX AND FLINT
Djulka Jusupovic, 65, carefully handles a tobacco box made of cans of U.N.-delivered food, along with a piece of flint used to make fire with during the war. After three years of Serb siege, the population ran out of lighters or matches and improvised just like cavemen did. "Someone would make fire with this in his garden in the morning, then everybody would come with a piece of wood to light it and take it home to make a fire," she said, describing life in a town that was on the brink of starvation before the bloodletting began. She keeps the items in several plastic bags. They are still as dirty as they were found when found on her husband, Himzo, as he was excavated from a mass grave. These days she rarely looks at the objects. Each time she takes them out, she remembers what the forensic experts told her when they handed them to her: Himzo, after being shot, may have still been alive when buried.
"Once this sweater was white like snow," says 60-year-old Kadira Gabeljic. "I knitted it myself." She points to it in a picture of the clothes wrapped around her husband's skeleton when forensic experts found him. "Now it's black from the dirt of the mass grave they found him in, and it is torn in the middle from bullets that rattled through his stomach when the Serbs shot him." Her only two children, sons Mesud, 16, and Meho, 21, followed their father Abdulah and the other men fleeing through the woods. All three were hunted down and slaughtered. Her 42-year-old husband and Meho were taken to a warehouse in the nearby village of Kravice and locked inside with another 1,000 other men who were hunted down. Then the Serbs threw hand grenades inside and mowed down the crowd through the windows, until they killed all of them. Forensic experts later found their body parts in four different mass graves. "Actually, they only found parts of Meho," she said. "The head and legs. The middle part is still missing. I buried what I had."