POTOCARI: A picture shows tombstones of victims of the massive killing of Srebrenica during Bosnia's 1992-95 war, at Potocari memorial center, near Srebrenica. _ AFP

SREBRENICA: Fatima Mujic prays every day for the husband and three sons killed in the genocide against Bosnian Muslims that unfolded over several summer days in the town of Srebrenica 25 years ago. But she hesitates each time, thinking of her eldest son Refik, who has still not been found a quarter-century after the massacre. "I still think he's alive somewhere. I know about the others, but when I pray for him my hands start shaking, I don't know what to do," the 75-year-old widow told AFP.

Her loved ones were among some 8,000 Muslim men and boys who were killed by Serb forces in the eastern enclave towards the end of Bosnia's 1992-95 war, an atrocity deemed a genocide by international courts. Mujic's husband and two of her sons, whose remains were found in mass graves after the conflict, were buried a decade ago in the memorial centre where more than 6,600 victims of the victims lie.

Another 237 have been laid to rest at other sites. But more than 1,000 people have never been found, an acute source of pain for survivors. Mujic, who now lives in a village near Sarajevo, says she "lives for the call" that the remains of Refik have been unearthed. But a decade has passed since the last of 84 mass graves was discovered. "Since July 2019, the remains of only 13 victims have been found," said Emza Fazlic, spokesperson for the Missing Persons Institute. A lack of new information and witnesses has hampered the search, she said.

'Don't leave me'
Ahead of the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the massacre on Saturday, Mujic recalls the last time she saw her children. She was among thousands of women, children and elderly who had gathered in front of a UN base outside of Srebrenica after Serb troops over-ran the Dutch soldiers who had been protecting the Muslim enclave, deemed a "safe haven" at the time.

Under the command of Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic, men and boys were taken away and summarily killed. Mujic recalls how her youngest son, 16-year-old Nufik, "hung on to me and said, 'Mum, don't leave me.'" "I stroked his curly hair and said 'I won't leave you'," she remembers. "They took him, I followed them. I don't know if they hit me, but I don't remember anything," she said. Her two other sons and her husband tried to flee into the forest but were captured.

'Black soil'
Another widow, 71-year-old Mejra Djogaz, has decided to spend the rest of her days in the place where her life "stopped". She lives in a house a stone's throw away from the memorial in Srebrenica, which now lies in a Serb-dominated half of Bosnia, a legacy of ethnic cleansing during the war that left lasting divides between Bosnia's Serb, Muslim and Croat communities.

Every morning, when she goes out to water the flowers on her patio, she sees thousands of white gravestones that fan out in straight rows across the green lawns of the memorial. Her two sons Omer and Munib lie there. They were 19 and 21 years old. "I no longer have a reason to live. I take care of the flowers so I don't go crazy, but my flowers are in black soil," says the woman whose third son, Zuhdija, who was 20, and her husband Mustafa, were killed earlier in the war during a 1992 siege of Srebrenica. "My sons didn't hurt anyone, they didn't stand in the way of an ant. I only wonder why they killed my children? They were our neighbors," Djogaz laments.

'A beautiful child'
Ramiza Gurdic, 67, also wonders about the men who killed her sons and her husband: "Did they have children?" Her two children, Mehrudin and Mustafa, were 17 and 20. Before fleeing into the forest with their father, the eldest smoked a cigarette and rolled another one. "Mother, I will never see you again," he told her. "The youngest didn't say anything," adds Gurdic. The remains of both boys were later found, but only "half of Mehrudin".

The widow is still hopeful that the other half will someday be uncovered. "His mother didn't bring him into the world without a head and arms. He was a beautiful child. But they didn't think that," she says. A quarter-century later, she doesn't wish harm on the men who stole her sons. "God will give them what they deserve," she told AFP. "No hatred, no malice, but no reconciliation either."- AFP