Each year on the 11th of July a burial ceremony is held for those victims of the 1995 Srebrenica genocide who have been identified. This year I was invited to go to Srebrenica for the days leading up to the memorial ceremony and I went, looking forward to being with friends while at the same time knowing that I would be taking part in some very difficult things that I had never experienced before—things that I have wanted to experience as I struggle to make sense of something that cannot be understood in any terms of human decency.
A few days after the ceremony I was invited by the Mothers of Srebrenica and some survivors of the genocide to join them for a day of memorializing 6 of the many execution sites where their family members were tortured and killed in July 1995. This group was mostly women who had lost sons, fathers, husbands and every other male relative.
To be included was such an honor and to be asked to lay a wreath at one of the execution sites, the Cultural Center in Pilica, was something I will never forget because this is where my dear friend Hasan’s twin brother was killed along with 500 other men and boys. No memorialization of these sites exists and those memorial plaques that have been put up have since been removed by those who deny the genocide. I don’t know what is worse—execution sites that are once again used as schools where student-of-the week pictures adorn the walls of Petkovci school in the space where hundreds of men and boys were held to be executed, where kids play basketball in a gym where hundreds of others were held and killed—spaces that have no sign of what occurred there, spaces that include graffiti that says «welcome serbs» on the building where men were slaughtered. Is it worse to have these sites used as if nothing ever happened there or is it worse to have a site like the Pilica Cultural Center where nothing has changed since the massacre—the walls are full of bullet holes, debris is everywhere and it is the most horrible place I have ever been. It is like the set of a horror movie that you would never want to watch. It is haunted and it is impossible not to visualize what happened there.
The day of going from execution site to execution site was a day of traveling through insanity—the insanity of evil. When we arrived at Branjevo Fields where more than a thousand men were killed, fields that now serve as the front yard for several homes, we turned the corner to find ourselves in the midst of a carnival. The jokes began, as they have to on a day filled with the unthinkable, jokes about a county fair with a twist of genocide and a county fair with a swat team rather than a side show. Everywhere we went we were accompanied by or met by police, some heavily armed, just in case anything happened. Apparently this was the first year of the memorializing event that the police were helpful and not obstructionist. Given the political structure of Bosnia & Herzegovina, all of these execution sites lie in the Republika Srpska which means more things than can be explained here. In the past the participants have had to force their way in to these buildings because the police did not allow them access and some years they were unable to get in and therefore had to leave the wreaths on the road
Since it is Ramadan, the majority of people were fasting and it was so hot in the buses and at the sites. At the edge of the Aluminum Factory Dam execution site we stopped for a water break which for most of the participants meant splashing cold water on their faces and arms to try and cool off. I was so thirsty by the time we stopped that I couldn’t imagine what is what like for those who didn’t take a drink.
All day on the bus I felt the solidarity of women, women laughing and telling stories and crying and hugging each other, just like women do everywhere. Some of them were visiting the sites where their relatives were killed for the first time. How can a beautiful field surrounded by mountains, filled with haystacks and wild flowers be the site of an execution of a thousand innocent people and the site of a mass grave? How can a carnival be happening around the corner from this place? How can children attend Grbavci school and play basketball in a building where hundreds were tortured and killed and be taught that these events never happened? And most of all, how can people who survived this genocide and who lost those most precious to them—some lost every male member of their family—how can they have moved forward in their lives, have grace and humor, be so generous and welcoming and touched by my interest in being here, while having to fight to memorialize the places where their loved ones were slaughtered. How can they, year after year, greet the trucks in Sarajevo as they wind their way with the coffins to Potočari where they will be buried on July 11. How could they be concerned about me when the trucks entered Potočari, concerned that I was so sad. When they invited me to sit with them while they prayed in the corner of the room where the coffins were stored overnight I was overcome with the generosity of their spirit. How was it that I was laughing about cake and fat legs with 3 of the mothers at Iftar the following evening after they talked to me about how they noticed me at the trucks, noticed that I was crying and they wondered who I was. They wondered how an American could be so interested in their story. I told them that I was crying as a mother of a son, crying for mothers who were burying their sons. It feels strange and sometimes uncomfortable to me that anyone here spends time wondering about me and caring for me. How can they have anything left to give to anyone else after all that they have lost, particularly as the perpetrators of this war and genocide continue to deny that it happened.
I can only accept all of it for what it is. To have been taken in by this community of people is such a gift and I can’t imagine life without my Bosnians.