SREBRENICA, Bosnia-Herzegovina - Draped in green cloth, 107 coffins were passed by outstretched arms yesterday over the heads of families mourning an 8-year-old massacre. The caskets were lowered, one by one, to final burial. Fathers with their sons. Brothers. Cousins. All of them male Muslims between ages 16 and 75.
In a solemn ceremony, thousands of Bosnians and their guest of honor, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, dedicated the first official memorial to the more than 7,000 victims of the single bloodiest atrocity in Europe since World War II - a "genocidal madness," as Clinton put it.
"History has assigned us a role as witness to human hatred," said Advija Ibrahimovic, who was 10 when her father was taken from her and led to his death, in opening the ceremony. "In this sacred place, the memory of our dearest must never be forgotten."
The Muslim men and boys were rounded up by Serbian forces in the east Bosnian town of Srebrenica in July 1995 and taken away, never to be seen alive again. Most were shot dead by the Serbs and dumped in mass graves.
It was the massacre of Srebrenica, which had been designated a United Nations haven to protect Muslims, that pushed Clinton and a NATO-led alliance to bomb Serbs besieging other Bosnian towns and then to launch a serious diplomatic campaign.
Four months after Srebrenica, a war that had raged more than three years was over. Srebrenica had become the symbol of egregious brutality in a conflict that claimed a quarter of a million lives and displaced nearly 2 million people.
Yesterday's ceremony laid 107 victims symbolically to rest in the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial Center and Cemetery, erected in the shape of a flower on land that was once a cornfield. Each "petal" will be filled with more graves. The 107 caskets were added to another 850 buried on the site.
The bodies were exhumed from mass graves and identified as part of a slow, painstaking process to name the dead and answer the cries of families seeking an accounting of their relatives' fates. About a quarter of an estimated 5,000 recovered bodies have been identified.
It would have been unthinkable just a few years ago to create a memorial here. Despite some progress in easing ethnic tensions and returning some refugees to their pre-war homes, most Serbs in this area continue to deny the events of Srebrenica. Muslims who have returned, even for visits, are greeted with hostility and violence.
But in a positive sign, the prime minister of the Bosnian Serb half of the country, Dragan Mikerevic, attended yesterday's dedication at the head of a Bosnian Serb delegation to, he said, "pay respects to the victims of the Srebrenica tragedy."
Clinton, admired by many Bosnians for ending the war, urged the world to learn from Srebrenica and see the dangers of those who use "dark claims of religious and ethnic superiority" to propel "genocidal madness."
He called for the two top Bosnian Serbs responsible for the Srebrenica atrocity to be brought to justice. Former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic and his army commander, Gen. Ratko Mladic, indicted by The Hague war crimes tribunal on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, are fugitives.
Thousands of NATO-led peacekeepers continue to monitor Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Clinton pointedly stressed the need for the contingent, including its U.S. members, to remain. This comes at a time the Bush administration is considering pulling its troops from Bosnia to redeploy in more troublesome hotspots, including Iraq.
Some Bosnian survivors blame Clinton for failing to act more quickly. Two of the main organizations of Srebrenica victims' families claimed last week that the "head of the only superpower" had to share responsibility for the fall of Srebrenica.
The site of the memorial is on the same meadow where Serbian gunmen separated Srebrenica's men and boys from the women and girls.
"I stood at this very place, and, unlike today, I was scared to death," said Ibrahimovic, the survivor who opened the ceremony. "Next to me stood the most frightened children, sad women and broken old men. We watched hatred kill human beings. I still remember the moment they took my father away, and his last glance cast at my interrupted childhood."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.