POTOCARI, Bosnia (Reuters) - Bosnia reburied another 409 victims of the Srebrenica massacre on Thursday but, 18 years after Europe’s worst atrocity since the Holocaust, the country remains mired in ethnic disputes long after other parties to the conflict have moved on.
Watched by thousands of mourners, coffins draped in green cloth were passed from hand to hand down lines of Bosnian Muslim men to be interred at the Potocari memorial center, a forest of white marble and wooden gravestones that now number 6,066.
Some 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed by Bosnian Serb forces in five summer days in 1995, towards the end of a war that erupted in 1992 with the collapse of federal Yugoslavia and claimed 100,000 lives.
“I feel like I’m losing them again today,” said Ramiza Siljkovic, 62, kneeling by two freshly dug graves for the remains of her two sons. “Only a handful of their bones were recovered from two mass graves.”
Some bodies have yet to be found from what became Europe’s worst mass killing since the Nazi Holocaust against Jews during World War Two.
Thursday’s anniversary has coincided with dramatic change in the Balkans. Bosnian neighbor and fellow former Yugoslav republic Croatia joined the European Union on July 1 and Serbia is on the cusp of accession talks following a landmark accord with Kosovo, its overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian former province.
Bosnia, however, trails the pack, still hostage to the ethnic politicking of rival Serb, Croat and Muslim (also known as Bosniak) leaders that has stifled development and kept it languishing on the margins of Europe.
The massacre was the culmination of a policy of ethnic cleansing by Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic’s forces to carve a pure Serb state out of communally diverse Bosnia.
“Innocent and helpless victims were faced with the cold and merciless hatred of criminals akin to those in the Nazi camps of Hitler’s Germany,” said Bakir Izetbegovic, the Muslim member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency.
“We have been asking ourselves through these 18 years - what could they have been guilty of, and to whom, in those hellish days?” said Izetbegovic, the son of Bosnia’s wartime president.
Mladic and his political chief, Radovan Karadzic, are standing trial in The Hague on charges including genocide in Srebrenica. Both deny that any orchestrated killing occurred.
On Thursday, judges reinstated another charge of genocide against Karadzic that was struck down last year. Appeals judges said there was evidence suggesting Karadzic had “genocidal intent” with respect to violence in the municipalities of Bosnia.
Many Serbs in Serbia and Bosnia still doubt the official figures and narrative of what happened in Srebrenica.
The town, located in wooded hill country of eastern Bosnia near the border with Serbia, was a designated “safe area” guarded by U.N. peacekeeping troops, but they abandoned their posts in the face of advancing Bosnian Serb forces.
Among those buried on Thursday were 44 boys, aged between 14 and 18, and a baby girl who died in a U.N. peacekeeping compound. Their remains were dug from nameless death pits and identified through DNA analysis.
The sectarian killings and big-power inertia of the current conflict in Syria has drawn comparisons with Bosnia.
The Bosnian war ended in a 1995 U.S.-brokered peace deal that created a byzantine system of ethnic quotas and power-sharing, frequently leading to abuse and paralysis.
The latest impasse is over how to issue the unique, 13-digit identification number given to every citizen, meaning that for weeks earlier this year babies were left unregistered and unable to leave the country even for emergency medical treatment.
The European Union, in a statement marking the anniversary, called for further progress towards reconciliation.
“Large steps have been made in that direction, but there is still much to be done, especially by those in positions of authority, so that citizens of the region can fully enjoy peace and prosperity, together with their fellow Europeans.”
Editing by Matt Robinson and Alison Williams