I am now starting another week back in Sarajevo after a dense and heavy but satisfying weekend. Our group visited Tuzla, another city in eastern Bosnia, and we also returned to Srebrenica to complete the weekend, which is back to its quiet days and empty streets after the Peace March and Srebrenica ceremonies are over, the marchers, diplomats, and dignitaries gone for another year. The weekend was heavy for us all, although it was integral to our purpose here and its timing ideal for a culmination of these past weeks. It was another weekend of introductions to some of the strongest people I have ever had the privilege of meeting. I feel like I could write a novella on just our experiences for the weekend. Each stop, each visit, each person was important and those experiences deserve Pulitzer-level descriptions, however for the sake of time and each place and person receiving due diligence, I will construct a brief summary of each experience. I am also not a Pulitzer-deserving writer, although that would be a nice talent.
Our group first stopped at one of the destinations we have all been looking forward to experiencing-the ICMP, or International Commission for Missing Persons, which is the entity that is responsible for identifying remains that have been unearthed in mass graves or other locations, not only in Bosnia, but throughout the world. This entity has identified thousands of missing persons here in Bosnia, even in wars preceding the years of 1992-1995. We learned that remains were found from the Ottoman period and the Second World War, and those identities ascertained. At least a form of closure has been granted to many families and loved ones here who did not know the fates of their missing. I reminded myself of that fact as we stood in the cool, dim morgue that housed many remains. We visited two different sites, the site which housed the remains and conducts identification work with the skeletal remains, and the location that contains DNA sample databases from relatives of the missing for identification. Both sites were equally interesting and crucial to the work of the ICMP, and to the future of the country.
After our visit to the ICMP sites, we had the honor of meeting Fatima, a friend and colleague of our director and a person with a compelling and tragic account of her war experiences. She took time out of her busy day as a doctor, an ob-gyn in Tuzla to be exact-to sit down with us. We all gathered in our hotel’s empty breakfast room to listen to her story. It was another hot and humid Bosnian summer day, in a room without air conditioning, however we soon forgot about the heat, and I was thoroughly chilled as her experiences unfolded. She lost loved ones in the war, she lost her job as a doctor and was helpless as her means of aiding wounded were limited, however she risked her life to carry out her calling in the medical field, and to fulfill her human compassion. She saved many lives, and continues to live today in strength. She is the true definition of a hero. It is rare to share a room with a true hero, and I can say I have been fortunate to relive that experience numerous times in Bosnia, as we have met many heroes during our short time here.
We left for Srebrenica the next morning, and stopped at several places along the way. Hasan Hasanovic, a dear friend and colleague of our director, accompanied us throughout the weekend, and showed us several important places and revealed more about his own personal experiences from the war. We stopped at several execution sites on the way to Srebrenica, many of them were close to our Peace March, the reverse route of those who fled from Srebrenica to Tuzla as Bosnian Serb forces advanced. We were in the RS, or Republica Srpska region of Bosnia, which is policed by RS officers. We were unable to stay at most stops for longer than 5-10 minutes, as Hasan strongly suggested swift observations and departures to avoid police attention. Genocide denial is alive and well in the RS, however the police often harass people when they show up in certain places, as Hasan and our director Ann have both experienced numerous times. Not all of our stops were tragic or haunting, Hasan showed us a mountain cliff with a beautiful mosque constructed on its edge. The mosque was obliterated during the war, however it was rebuilt due to the efforts of people carrying materials on their backs to the cliff. It was a symbolic and refreshing sight.
Our director, Ann, to our benefit, had the honor of meeting Ramiz Nukic, another person with an incredible story and means of healing. He has been searching for remains from the genocide in the woods near his home in the small village of Kamenice near Srebrenica for over fifteen years after he returned. Ramiz lost his father and brothers in the war, and has reunited over 200 people with their lost loved ones due to the days and years he has spent in the woods, often finding remains each day from previous mass gravesites. He notifies ICMP officials, and they repeat the process of obtaining the remains for identification. Ramiz of course does not know any of the identities of the remains he has unearthed. He is disappointed in his country, that he alone is tasked with finding remains, the work of one dedicated person. His statements highlighted the reality of the country’s capability of unearthing thousands of more remains if it actually initiated a serious effort to do so.
We had the honor of meeting another hero, another person whose story and strength I hope I will always remember throughout my life. Her name is Saliha Osmanovic, and she lives in a beautiful house across the river Drina from Serbia, about 40 minutes or so outside of Srebrenica, a route that crosses through a beautiful mountain road with views of lakes and the dammed Drina, and the vivid blue-green water for which Bosnian rivers and lakes are so famous. Saliha lost her husband and her sons in the war, and has since returned to the site where her original home that she shared with her family once stood. The home has since been rebuilt, surrounded by beautiful flowers and trees, and the property features an enormous garden behind the house in which Saliha cultivates every delicious vegetable and fruit that thrives so well in this country. We enjoyed some of the best food we have ever tasted in our lives, and then we listened to Saliha’s story and her words when she was relatively certain we had enough food to sustain ourselves for a week. Saliha has testified against some of the worst perpetrators of the genocide in Belgrade and in The Hague. She has met numerous world leaders and dignitaries. She continues to live across the Drina from Serbia, and in a region of her country that denies the genocide that took her sons and husband from her. She has relived the horror of her sons’ and husband’s deaths as Serb footage of her captured husband and son has been presented before her-often without warning- and those accounts have also been repeated countless times over the past two decades. Saliha however did not repeat those accounts. She questioned the injustice of denial and asserted her own strength and desire to heal in her own way, to be a symbol of strength and truth.
Our group with Saliha
-Photo courtesy of Ann Petrila
Our last day comprised visits to the Srebrenica exhibit, which is housed in the old U.N. Dutchbat, or Dutch Battalion base, and the adjacent old battery factory, further symbols of atrocity and evil that now stand as sites of justice and healing. The old Dutch base resembles something from an apocalyptic account or horror movie. Most of the building is unstable in construction, and is completely gutted, with the old blue U.N. blinds mangled in the windows. The section of the building behind those quarters however was a stark contrast-it was undergoing construction as a future site for a museum. The exhibit was informative and raw as it featured different informational topics, ranging from judicial investigations into the genocide to survivors’ accounts to guilty pleas from participants. We were able to learn about these topics as we watched documentaries of various accounts at each topical mini-exhibit. The old battery factory was one of the many execution sites just in the Srebrenica area. Bullet holes from the execution cover the walls of the factory and serve as constant reminders of a not too distant past as we walked through the building and viewed its exhibits. The building comprised many of the harrowing photographic images of the war, which once again raised many individual questions for us all. We completed the visit with Hasan’s final account of his experiences. We have garnered an idea of his resilience during our short time with him, however we were able to understand his reasoning for remaining here in Bosnia, and his lifelong devotion to his own heroic cause for justice and truth.
I hope I am fortunate enough to again meet more true heroes in my lifetime as I have met here in my short time in Bosnia, to see more human strength and hope in the aftermath of pain.