Our Events Manager and 2nd generation survivor, Amra Mujkanović, shares her reflections on today’s burials in Prijedor and what it will mean to the families there. Content includes some details that some readers may find distressing.
I feel it’s the best way to encapsulate today and what is taking place in the land of my roots, in my family’s hometown of Kozarac. It is a hamlet in the North West of Bosnia, just outside of the city of Prijedor.
For many people across the globe, today marks the first day of Eid-al-Adha. One of the key dates in the Islamic calendar that is typically celebrated with friends and family. Much like other religious festivals, we would gather with our nearest and dearest, share greetings and good wishes, money and gifts with younger members of the family whilst overfilling our bellies with an abundance of food. A day ingrained as happy memories to later be reflected upon in life.
Unfortunately, this day – the 20th of July 2021 – has an echoing pain and emptiness that embraces us all from the Krajina region. The annual burials in Prijedor are taking place. Each year, the remains of those who have been identified in the subsequent years are laid to rest – piece by piece. This year is no different.
29 years after they were killed, a further 12 victims discovered across 5 different mass graves will find their peace. So too will the families that have longed to find them the past three decades, at last having a white gravestone to visit. A marker to solidify their existence, however long or brief, in this world. Their future site of pilgrimage.
The youngest victim to be buried this year, Fikret Marošlić, was only 21 when executed. He was my mother’s neighbour and friend. Two years prior, in 2019, the day before the mass burials, I gathered with families to pay my respects to those remains preparing to take their final journeys. First to the ceremonial burial site selected for the year and then onto their final resting places in special cemeteries dedicated to the victims across the region. Whilst at the International Commission on Missing Persons Krajina Identification Project Mortuary Šejkovača located in Sanski Most, I bore witness to Fikret’s remains.
The memory of that day remains vivid, even the smell on that hot July day. The smell of decay mixed with death. He was laid out on a long, metal tray on the concrete floor, with a sheet of paper stating his name, the date of his exhumation – 22.09.2017, the site of excavation alongside each unique code partnered to the tags on his bones or the bags holding them. He was just one of a number of victims laid out on display in a similar manner.
The warehouse floor and shelves were covered in these trays of bones. The picture I have that I took from the day is too graphic to share, the majority of the bones of his lower body were identified with visible osseins cutouts. Each piece was individually tested and connected to him, to his name. A process of skilfully reuniting one to the other. All that remained of his skull was his jaw. His spinal vertebrae, collar bones, left arm, both hands, rib cages amongst other bones that I couldn’t even begin to name were all missing.
This is the struggle of many families across Bosnia today. Do you bury your loved one piece by piece? Do you wait for the whole body to be found, knowing the chances are near impossible? Is there even anyone left to provide the DNA samples needed to identify them or even bury them? For many, the war and genocide never stopped. It carried on with those killed and marked as ‘missing’. Even if we know they were deliberately hidden and their bodies destroyed. I remember looking on whilst crouched down by his remains at the coffins shrouded in green near the door, ready to move on from the centre, whilst the remains laid out around me longed so strongly to follow their path too. For some that wish is fulfilled today.
The family of Fikret also bury his father today, Himzo Marošlić. The oldest victim of this year’s group, aged 47, to be buried on this bittersweet day. Both their remains were found at Korićanske Stijene (Korićani Cliffs), a site at which over 200 victims were killed in a single day in August 1992. The majority of which prior to their execution were imprisoned in the most notorious camps of the war. At the edge of the deep ravine, the victims were ordered to kneel before being executed one by one, their bodies falling into the abyss, accompanied by the gunshots and grenades of the perpetrators above. This was enacted as a means to make sure none survived and the evidence of their remains destroyed.
12 people survived this massacre and 117 victims have been identified through DNA analysis to date. Those that have testified at The Hague and other courts on the events of that dark day, noted how they were held on buses and brought out one by one to be executed. Witnessing what was awaiting them, counting their last seconds.
The family and friends of Fikret and Himzo, alongside those of Emin Ćoralić, Vasif Mujkanović, Rifet Kahrimanović, Sakib Denić, Hasib Behlić, Mirso Brdar, Ismet Hirkić, Idriz Duračak, Nedžad Fazlić, and Samir Merdžić will reunite with their loved ones on such a sacred day. Instead of greeting one another with festive wishes and smiles, they do so instead with tears and heartache. The remains confirm what they and so many had always feared; their loved ones aren’t alive nor are they returning to them. It simply confirms that they were murdered in the darkest and most brutal forms imaginable, the exact dates and means of which may never be known.
Today, those displaced across the globe gather in Kozarac, the site of this year’s ceremony to pay their respects to the victims and their surviving family members. They gather in silence and tears to hear the names of over 3,000 victims read out through speakers. Praying for those killed and finally buried with dignity to find their peace in the afterlife. They gather around the coffins that are arranged in an orderly fashion draped in green cloth. Amongst them, families are seen embracing the remains, whispering words they so longed to share in person as a means to soften their pain, greeting their loved ones after decades in the most heartbreaking of situations only to have to let them go once more. Their fleeting moments together, gone before they can even comprehend. How can one share all that has happened, all that one has felt over the years, everything one has longed to say in seconds? Those around them, pray for them, for God to give them the strength to endure this day. Just like the day they received the phone call to inform them of the found remains. More often than not, the crowds of surrounding people having personally survived the identical situation they see unfolding before them. Multiple times.
We gather to pay our respects to them all. This morning the men and boys, the generations that have come after the war, will gather for Eid prayers in the morning. Filling the mosques, rebuilt from their destruction, buildings that are otherwise near empty when the diaspora are not present. They will return home. The homes they painstakingly rebuilt whilst forging a new life from nothing in foreign lands, returning to their loved ones and sharing the traditional greetings over Bosnian coffee and homemade baklava. Never sweeter than when eaten on Eid. Phoning or messaging friends and family across the globe to share well wishes. Despite three decades passing, still hoping a day will come when they can all finally gather together. Just as they had once lived before 1992. Yet knowing that none is promised tomorrow.
As 11 am draws near, many will then prepare to attend the burials, revisiting mosques with opposing feelings to that of the same morning. They will endure the brutal summer heat for those innocently killed. The guilt of surviving is heavy on their souls. They will thank those that have travelled from all corners of Bosnia and the world for bearing witness to Prijedor’s tragedy. For carrying some of the burden, even just for today. Honouring the victims with a poignant silence as their coffins pass by them, or they help to carry them. Offering a prayer to each victim at their freshly closed graves. Zigzagging through the cemetery to pray for loved ones buried years prior. A bittersweet moment upon their return home, to their life after genocide when they are once again offered coffee and cake.
This time, the absence of those marked with white gravestones or missing in mass graves is ever more present.
How can one celebrate, when one mourns at the same time?