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The Missing

May 10, 1992, on the orders of Yugoslav Army General Radko Mladic, Bosnian Serb paramilitary units swept into the town of Bratunac, Bosnia, about 90 kilometers northeast of Sarajevo. What followed was a textbook example of the inhuman butchery that became tragically commonplace in this part of the world. The invading forces crushed the modest resistance of the Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) and began their “ethnic cleansing” operations — meaning the swift execution of civil leaders, clergy, teachers, and local officials.

The men who weren’t immediately killed, more than 2,500 of them of all ages, were taken to a local school which served as a makeshift prison. Over the next 24 hours, more than 1,800 of them were taken into the nearby woods and slaughtered by the Serbs, their bodies thrown into the River Drina. The remaining 700 male Bosniaks, except for a handful of young men who escaped the massacre, have been added to the International Committee of the Red Cross’s Book of Missing Persons on the Territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The women of Bratunac were separated from their brothers, fathers, husbands, and children, and, after many were raped, evacuated to the nearby hamlet of Kladanj. Later, after the October 1995 peace accord ended the Bosnian wars, the women relocated to Sarajevo and other towns. Joined by the women who had shared the same fate in other massacres, these loved ones of the dead and disappeared banded together to form “The Movement Mothers of Srebrenica and Zapa Enclaves.”

I have researched, written books about, and taught courses on issues surrounding genocide, war crimes, and international justice. But when a 2003 Fulbright Distinguished Lectureship at Sofia University’s Law School in Bulgaria brought me to eastern Europe, I would gain a deeper understanding and personal connection to the tragedy for which no amount of study could have prepared me. Happenstance placed me in Bratunac on the same day that survivors of the slaughter returned for the first time since that terrible day 11 years in the past.

It was a trip that many of them had tried to make before. On May 10, 2000, the eighth anniversary of the massacre, the Bratunac women traveled to the region by bus with plans to visit the site, walk to the Drina (the boundary between Bosnia and Serbia), say prayers, and throw flowers into the river to honor their dead and missing family members.

They did not reach their destination. On the outskirts of Bratunac, Bosnian Serbs who had moved into the homes and farms vacated by the Muslims, were waiting for the four buses full of Muslim women. Although the visitors were “protected” by Republika Sprska police and by the UN’s troops, they were unable to prevent the locals from showering the buses with rocks, bricks, and other missiles. Windows were shattered and fourteen women were injured. Thwarted and crestfallen, the women returned to Sarajevo and Tuzla. Three years later — on May 10, 2003 — they would try again.

On that same sad day of anniversary, I began my own journey to Bratunac, entering Bosnia, a country officially on the U.S. State Department’s “Do Not Visit” list. Accompanying me on the almost three-hour trip from Sarajevo to the region were my driver, 31-year-old Adnan, a veteran of the Bosnian wars who had been seriously wounded four times, and my guide, 27-year-old Samira. Both are Bosniaks; both have felt the pain and terror, physical and psychological, of the almost four-year siege of Sarajevo; both were reluctant to take me to Srebrenica and Bratunac.

Adnan borrowed a non-descript, beat-up VW Golf from a friend; it isn’t wise to drive a new car through the Bosnian Serb countryside. He also, I am sure, had a gun under his seat. For the entire ride to Srebrenica, a frightened Samira was crouched in the back seat, not wanting to see the Republika Sprska police — armed with machine guns — who dotted the roadside.

At the town of Bratunac, we came upon a small convoy of buses escorted by more than a dozen Republika Sprska police cars. More police were lining the streets, holding machine guns at the ready. We were informed by one of the policemen that the passengers were Bosniaks, mostly widows and orphans, coming from Sarajevo, about 80 kilometers distant.

We followed the caravan, traveling another several kilometers before pulling over and getting out near the River Drina. For a few moments there were just the three of us and some two dozen Republika Sprska police, most smoking and some laughing, as they lounged around a deserted building, once a restaurant.

When the buses parked, we watched as nearly one hundred filed off, mostly middle-aged and elderly women with a handful of teenaged boys (toddlers when their fathers were killed here), and slowly marched from the road to the riverbank. In the midst of the silent, solemn throng was a Muslim cleric. They all carried flowers.

A brief prayer at the Drina, they then commemorated the dead and the disappeared by throwing their flowers into the water. I glanced at the Bosnian Serb police and wondered how many of them had participated in the deaths of the Bosnian Muslim grandfathers, fathers, husbands, and sons eleven years earlier.

It was a quiet ride back to Sarajevo for Adnan, Samira, and me. All of us affected in our own ways by the events at the river. Bosnia is a tragic place. Bitter enemies, Serbs and Bosniaks, walk side-by-side on the narrow Sarajevo streets. There is no real peace because, for the Bosniaks, there is still no justice. Buildings are still riddled with bullet holes; Bosniaks still carry the deep scars of the four long years of Serbian terror. And there is still the daunting task of finding the 30,000 “disappeared” civilian Bosniaks. For their families, time and life have stopped. There are no birthday celebrations, no festive occasions until the “missing” are found.

Moved by the plight of these people and the courage of those working to find the missing, their story has become the focus of my next book. Soon I will return to Sarajevo to complete research on the “seekers,” the small band of men and women in Bosnia searching for the missing. Their grim work is vital because justice in this beleaguered region and for a growing list of nations — Cyprus to Rwanda to Iraq — depends, in great part, on bringing some kind of closure to the tragedy of the disappeared.

Howard Ball is emeritus professor of political science at UVM and professor of law at Vermont Law School. His books include Prosecuting War Crimes and Genocide: The Twentieth Century Experience and War Crimes and Justice.