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Tuzla Remembers on Anniversary of Bosnia’s Deadliest Shell

May 25, 1996

TUZLA, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ For nearly six months of U.S.-brokered peace, the people of Tuzla have been trying to forget about war.

But on Saturday they remembered a beautiful May day one year ago, when a lone Serb shell killed 71 people and wounded 124. Residents say their city lost its youth in what they call a ``Massacre of the Innocents.″

It was the deadliest Serb shell in the entire 3 1/2-year war, slamming into a popular Old Town rendezvous spot for the northern city’s youth. The average age of those killed was 20.

People gathered Saturday at a special cemetery in a former park where about 50 of the victims _ Muslims, Croats and Serbs alike _ were buried together. The mourners prayed, wept and placed flowers and candles.

The first visitors were mostly young people, including some using wheelchairs or crutches because of the wounds from that shell. By evening, tens of thousands of people gathered on the cobblestones once deep in blood.

Safet Dedajic, a popular local folksinger, sobbed. ``I haven’t been here since the funeral. For many years I set up microphones to sing to people. That night I set up for the funeral of my friends’ children,″ he said.

All three religions were observing the anniversary, with Croats having a Roman Catholic mass, Serbs an Orthodox solemn liturgy and Muslims funeral prayers.

At 8:55 p.m., the exact moment the shell exploded, the crowd stood silent for two minutes. Then church bells tolled, and the call to funeral prayers sounded from mosques.

Former Bosnian Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic, leader of the main opposition Party for Bosnia and Herzegovina, placed flowers at the cemetery. President Alija Izetbegovic sent a telegram expressing his sympathy.

Largely protected by mountains inside Muslim-held territory, Tuzla had been spared the worst of war. The industrial city is now the headquarters of the U.S. troops patrolling Bosnia as part of a NATO-led peace force.

A year ago Saturday, the Serbs were in a showdown with NATO.

The Serbs had ignored an order from the United Nations the day before to remove all heavy weapons around Sarajevo. NATO aircraft responded by attacking a Serb ammunition depot.

Already that day the Serbs had shelled U.N. forces at nearby Tuzla Air Base. One shell had even landed in Tuzla about 7 p.m. without hurting anyone. It was one of 1,420 shells that hit the city during the war.

Later that evening the perfume of flowers was still strong in the fresh air, and young lovers strolled in the gathering dusk. Sirens had earlier warned of possible Serb attack, but nobody took it very seriously.

With little more than an hour left before the 10 p.m. curfew, about 500 teen-agers and young adults crowded into Kapija Square. They sat at sidewalk cafes or walked eating popcorn and ice cream bought from street vendors.

Then the 130mm shell hit, launched a few moments earlier from a highly accurate M46 artillery system in the Serb stronghold on Mount Ozren.

Just as the Serb gunners would have known casualties would be high from hitting the square shortly before curfew, so did the people of Tuzla when they heard a brief report on local television.

Panic was immediate. In the blink of an eye the massacre had turned a happy gathering into a terrible mass of bloody flesh scattered across the cobblestones.

Thousands of parents looked for their children among the bodies clad in Adidas sport shoes, miniskirts and blue jeans. Many of the young women victims had their hair done and were wearing makeup, a luxury in wartime.

Body parts were everywhere: a girl’s head, fingers with polished nails, a section of leg, a foot. Mixed among them were broken John Lennon-style sunglasses, car keys, hair ribbons, cans of Coca Cola.

The moans and screams of the wounded combined into a wild, agonized howl.

People crowded into the main hospital looking for their loved ones and offering to donate blood or help in any other way.

Doctors and nurses walked sobbing up and down hospital corridors slippery with blood, all 16 operating theaters in constant use until dawn.

Sixty-six were killed instantly in the attack. The youngest was 2 1/2-year-old Sandro Kalesic, pierced through the heart by a tiny piece of shrapnel as he sat on the lap of his father, Dino Kalesic.

Five died within days. Dijana Ninic, 20, was the last to die, on June 5.

Although Sarajevo suffered much more damage, the death toll in the Tuzla attack surpassed that of the Bosnian capital’s worst shelling, when 68 people were killed by one shell Feb. 5, 1994.

At dawn the next day the square was so still that the songbirds sounded almost raucous. For days there was no laughter in Tuzla.

After an investigation workers washed the square, and people started bringing flowers and candles, leaving poems and messages for the victims.

At the insistence of the victims’ parents most of the dead were placed together in the special cemetery with identical, non-denominational wooden grave markers. Some have since been replaced by marble.

On Saturday, a white handkerchief was pinned to the grave marker of Amir Dapo, 20. His parents wrote on it: ``Dear Son, The time passing hurts as will the time to come. Daddy and Mom.″

On the grave of Suzan Abdulismail, 15, was a note: ``Suzan, you only wanted to climb to the stars with your first love. And we lost both of you. We hope you are now together in heaven. Azra, Edina, Emina.″

Suzan’s boyfriend, Samir Mujkic, 19, is buried nearby, his marker bearing a photograph showing him striding happily down railroad tracks.

On the tiny grave of Sandro Kalesic _ his father a Muslim, his mother a mixture of Croat and Serb _ was a heart of red roses.

A sign there said, ``Here lies the youth of all religions and nations. Even shells did not separate them. Those who remain will live in love because of them.″

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