Bosnian-Canadians mark 25th anniversary of Srebrenica massacre

Mirela Hodzic Sivic's mother has told her stories about her father, but she doesn't have her own. Those memories were lost in the carnage of the Srebrenica massacre that claimed his life a quarter of a century ago.

At just seven years old, she was living with her mother and brother in a refugee camp in Turkey, speaking to her father in Srebrenica a couple times a year until 1995, when they planned to reunite.

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They didn't get the chance. He was among 8,000 Muslim Bosnian men and boys killed in the massacre.

It was only after moving to Canada at the beginning of high school that she recognized how the war had stolen her childhood.

"That's how I grew up. My first life memories are from war," said Hodzic Sivic.

"It's sad for a child to think that it's normal, actually, to be in war and to have family members killed."

On July 11, the Bosnian Serb army raided the town on the eastern edge of the country, systematically murdering thousands of Srebrenica’s Muslims.

The Serbs separated the men and boys from the women, offering assurances that nothing would happen to anyone. But within the next 10 days, Bosnian Serb troops killed the male prisoners and hunted down many of those who tried to escape through the surrounding hills.

The victims were executed by firearms, had their throats slashed or were tied up and locked in a warehouse where explosives were then set off.

In an attempt to hide the massacre, the Serb army buried the bodies in mass graves, before digging them out and moving them.

Bodies are still being recovered and identified a quarter of a century later.

Hodzic Sivic's family didn't know for sure at the time, but her father was among those killed. His body wouldn't be found and identified until 2004, when Hodzic Sivic was 16 years old and living in Canada.

"We were just basically waiting to find his corpse so we can put him in a grave," she said.

The pain is still raw today, and largely unprocessed.

"I don't really talk a lot about my emotions, not even with my mother or brother or my husband," she said. "I keep it inside of me. And then once every few months, I just cry it out. That's how I manage."

It's much the same for Ibro Hadzic, now 39. He spent his childhood in central Bosnia — not Srebrenica — and witnessed atrocities before escaping the country to Switzerland.

"It's not easy to talk about it, because you don't know if people will understand," he said. "But I feel like I have a duty to talk about it or to do something like be a part of organizing commemorations, not to forget all this."

He's one of those putting together an event in Montreal, where a smaller-than-usual group is set to gather to remember and grieve together.

Others were due to gather Saturday in Windsor, Ont., where there's a monument to the massacre, but a recent spike of COVID-19 cases means the event will be limited to just 10 people.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was among dozens of world leaders who addressed a commemoration ceremony held Saturday in Srebrenica via prerecorded video messages.

The pandemic is hampering events around the world, said Susana Vukic, who is Croatian-Canadian but has spent more than a decade writing about the Bosnian war, which pitted the country’s three main ethnic factions — Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims — against each other after the break-up of Yugoslavia.

She said events that would typically draw thousands will instead comprise hundreds.

"Because all of these large gatherings aren't feasible, then you know, we have to make up for that in other ways and find other meaningful ways to commemorate this event," she said.

For instance, she and a few friends created a video to remember the genocide, with contributions from people around the world, including in the U.S. and Bosnia.

"It's a small way to honour Srebrenica," she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 11, 2020.

—with files from The Associated Press.

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