SREBRENICA, Bosnia and Herzegovina — The recording is two decades old and crackles with static, but the desperation in Nino Catic’s voice could not be clearer.
In the last broadcast the young reporter and radio enthusiast would make, Nino implores anyone who is listening to do something to save his hometown, Srebrenica, from an onslaught by Bosnian Serb forces that surrounded it.
“Will anyone in the world come and see the tragedy that is befalling Srebrenica and its residents?” Nino, then 25, shouts into the microphone.
He sent out his cry for help on July 10, 1995. No one answered, and no one came.
In the house where Nino grew up, beside a stream that rushes down from the green hills that almost encircle Srebrenica, his mother often listens to his voice as she still waits for news of him.
Hajra Catic knows that her only son is dead — one of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys who were murdered by Ratko Mladic’s Bosnian Serb troops in the days following Nino’s final broadcast.
But 20 years after Nino was killed, his remains have yet to be identified, and Hajra has not been able to bury him beside her husband, who was also executed in Europe’s worst massacre since World War II.
“Every year more victims of the genocide are identified, and we bury them on July 11. And every year I think I will bury Nino,” Hajra said in the living room of her home, where photographs of her husband, Junuz, and her son hang on the wall.
“I worry that if Nino’s remains are not found, and it’s not proved that he was killed, then in a few years someone could try to deny that he was murdered, and deny what happened here. It would be as if they murdered him a second time.”
The long shadow cast over Bosnia by a war that killed 100,000 people is at its darkest each July.
That is when Bosnian Muslims, or Bosniaks, recall how Mladic’s men disarmed vastly outnumbered Dutch peacekeepers tasked with protecting Srebrenica, which the United Nations had declared a “safe haven.”
“Don’t be afraid, no one will harm you,” Mladic told thousands of terrified Bosniaks, who had sought safety at the Dutch base in a former battery factory in Potocari, 3 miles along the valley from Srebrenica.
But after sending away the women and youngest children on buses, Mladic’s soldiers executed the men and boys, including Junuz Catic. Nino was among those who fled through the hills rather than going to Potocari; some made it safely to Bosniak-held territory, but many were shot dead or killed by land mines. Nino was never heard from again.
The rusting hulk of the battery factory still stands by the road from Potocari to Srebrenica, but now it faces a forest of more than 6,200 white marble steles, each marking the resting place of a massacre victim whose remains have been identified.
More than 7,000 people are still missing from Bosnia’s 1992-5 war, however, and its legacy not only continues to divide the country’s Bosniak, Serb and Croat communities, but stymies efforts to improve life for the country’s 3.8 million people.
A U.S.-brokered deal peace deal, signed in Dayton, Ohio, in late 1995, imposed a tortuous political system on Bosnia.
The Dayton accords split the country into a Muslim-Croat Federation and a Serb-run Republika Srpska, autonomous “entities” linked by state institutions in the national capital, Sarajevo.
Each region has its own parliament, government, prime minister and president, and each of the three main ethnic groups also provides a representative to a tri-partite national presidency, and they take turns as its chairman. There is also a national parliament with two houses and a national government in Sarajevo.
To complicate matters further, the Muslim-Croat Federation is subdivided into 10 “cantons” with significant autonomy, there are 22 police agencies around the country, and local elections in 2012 saw 190 political parties compete for posts.
The system breeds suffocating bureaucracy, corruption and cronyism, paralyzes decision-making and perpetuates the power of veteran politicians who have based their careers on defending only the interests of their ethnic kin.
The European Union’s drive to foster reform in Bosnia and bring it closer to the bloc is broadly supported by Bosniaks, who comprise about 40 percent of the population, and by the 15 percent Catholic Croat community, but opposed by the leaders of Orthodox Christian Serbs who make up about 31 percent of the country.
The EU’s fiercest critic in Bosnia is Milorad Dodik, the current president of Republika Srpska and the dominant figure in the region’s politics since the war.
Dodik says that efforts to strengthen Bosnia’s state authorities are a danger to its Serb community, and he has repeatedly threatened to call a referendum on independence for Republika Srpska rather than see any of its powers transferred to Sarajevo.
Last month, after the EU activated a landmark trade and political pact with Bosnia to reinvigorate its faltering accession process, Dodik torpedoed Bosnia’s side of the deal by rejecting a reform plan that Brussels thought was cut-and-dried.
Now, his assertion that the crimes committed at Srebrenica did not constitute genocide is clouding preparations for the 20th anniversary of the atrocity.
“Everything is done to promote a non-truth — namely, that there was a genocide there — while ignoring Serb victims,” Dodik said last month, while urging Russia to block a proposed U.N. Security Council resolution to mark the anniversary.
In a letter this week to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Mladen Ivanic, the Serb chairman of Bosnia’s national presidency, said the “anti-Serb” resolution “would only divide Bosnian society further.”
“I must warn you that the current (inter-ethnic) situation is bad, and I call on you to recognize that adoption of this resolution would not be a good thing for the stability of Bosnia,” Ivanic wrote.
A chance to soothe strained relations in the Balkans was lost last month, when Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic cancelled what would have been his first official visit to Bosnia, due to Bosniak fury at the arrest of one of its wartime commanders.
Naser Oric, whom Belgrade accuses of committing atrocities against Serbs in the Srebrenica area, was traveling to an event in Switzerland to commemorate the massacre when he was detained on a Serbian arrest warrant.
Oric was subsequently deported back to Bosnia rather than to Serbia, but rancor lingers on both sides: Bosniaks are angry that Belgrade would seek the arrest of a widely lionized defender of Srebrenica at this sensitive time; and many Serbs are furious that a man whom they regard as a war criminal is still at large.
The dispute highlights the inability of Bosnia — a poor, dysfunctional state with the highest youth unemployment in the world — to shift focus from the horrific events of the 1990s onto building a peaceful and prosperous future.
Nowhere does history lay heavier than Srebrenica, a bustling, ethnically harmonious town in Yugoslav days, now transformed into a byword for genocide.