Two-weeks after the Srebrenica Peace March, the towns tucked in the rolling hills of Eastern Bosnia are sleepy with summertime heat. The dust clouds from the hundreds of buses crowded in front of the former UN Dutch Base, have settled, heightening the clarity of the white headstones in the memorial across the street.
For the two-decades since the end of the Bosnian War and the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995, journalists and spectators have sensationalized this region. The buildings still ridden with bullet holes, land mines hidden throughout the countryside threatening agrarian lives, over 60% unemployment among Bosnian youths…this is an amateurs interpretation of the region. Traveling to World War II memorials in France, and Bosnian War memorials throughout the Balkans, it was important for me not to view sites and people like a spectator at a zoo. I did not want to be a consumer of the pain and sadness of war.
Spending two-months in the Balkans allows for a different perspective, one that I hope has given me an authentic connection with the region, understanding it beyond the violence. A part of our curriculum here is studying peace and post-conflict development, and learning the stories of war survivors is an integral part of this. I hope I can retell their stories from my perspective with the justice they deserve.
This past Friday, on our second day in the Tuzla/Srebrenica region, our gracious tour guide and Srebrenica Genocide Memorial Curator, Hassan Hasanovic introduced us to Fatima Klempić Dautbašić, a young doctor and Srebrenica refugee during the war. She must have been my age at the time. Only a year-and-a-half out of medical school. Fatima worked everyday, almost every hour of the week, between 1992-95 at the hospital in Srebrenica. She dressed wounds and sewed stomachs and set broken bones with whatever medical tools she received from filtered and scavenged humanitarian aid supplies.
Beginning in 1992, civilians from the surrounding Eastern Bosnian countryside fled to Srebrenica for safety. The town of 6,000 swelled to 60,000 with our friend Fatima’s one-bedroom flat filled with 42 of her close family members. “How could I turn them away”, she asked us rhetorically. Srebrenica had food, water, humanitarian aid, and armed Bosniak militia members able to temporarily hold off incoming Serb forces. Video footage capturing Srebrenica at the time stops on a handwritten sign with the words:
This is the biggest death camp in the world.
In the spring of 1993, Phillipe Morillon, the commander of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR), pronounced via megaphone from a window above the local post office that Srebrenica was a safe zone, and he would not let these people down. Hassan, Fatima, and the rest of Srebrenica crowded into the streets below Morillon remember these words without hesitation.
Two-years later in the spring of 1995, Bosnian-Serb forces tightened their grip around Srebrenica, increasing their armed forces in preparation for their invasion of the refugee community. According to Hassan and Fatima’s testimonies, everyone knew that Srebrenica was about to fall. There was hope for a UN airstrike on the morning of the 6th of July 1995 (and the days following), but efforts were cancelled due (to the best of my knowledge) to Dutch prisoners held hostage by Serb forces.
On July 11th, the eve of the impending invasion, 12,000 men and boys fled Srebrenica in a single file line (in order to decrease deaths due to land mines) led by Bosniak military leaders in an attempt to reach free territory near the town of Tuzla. Hassan was a part of this “death march”. They marched under cover of darkness. Serb forces sought out the fleeing Bosniaks and, in several cases, disrupted and cut off the line. Thousands of prisoners were shot on sight or captured, taken to execution sites, killed and buried in mass graves. Out of the 12,000 who started the march, around 2,000 survived.
Back at Potočari, the small town just below Srebrenica and the location of the UN Dutch Base, 20,000+ refugees attempted to take shelter under the protective arm of the UN. But UN forces had no power to fight back or defend civilians with military force. They had to watch as Bosnian-Serb forces under General Ratko Mladic separated women and children from the men and boys. Males aged 12 and older were executed in surrounding fields, buildings, and roadsides. The strategic killings of Muslims brought back memories of the Jewish population in WWII. Genocide.
Somehow there were survivors. Hassan and Fatima were two of these. Both lost family members during the genocide and the war from 1992-95. Both told their stories to us. Hassan now works as the curator at the Genocide Museum at Potočari. Six days a week or more he tells the story of what happened here. What happened to his hometown and his family. How it used to be, how it was, how it is now. Everyday he tells this story because he, like many others, see it as their duty or fate to speak out against hate and violence that continues to kill communities across the world.
In Sarajevo, I have seen a photo of the Mothers of Srebrenica standing in front of an Anne Frank memorial with the words, “Never Again”. Never again.
“Everyone should be able to have freedom and happiness”, Fatima tells us at the end of our visit with her. This is what she wants us to take away from our experience in Bosnia. The peace she fights for is the same xenophobic war that is fought for racial equality, religious equality, gender rights, and gay rights worldwide.
After such a moving experience, I refuse to ever apologize for my “strong-headed” opinions when it comes to the basic human and civil rights of marginalized populations. Suicide rates in the United States are highest among LGBTQ youth. Unarmed black men continue to be targeted and shot in the streets. Muslims are persecuted as jihadists or extremists. I imagine those who preach hate against these populations only fear what they do not know, refusing to understand the values of those different from their own.
The fight for peace is worldwide, and I stand with my Bosnian friends in solidarity and remembrance of what happened in Srebrenica twenty-years ago. These people are courageous. They are giving and loving, and they have inspired me. By sharing the stories we have learned, and speaking up against ignorance and hate, I believe we all begin to take one small step towards Fatima’s dream of peace.