Srebrenica

I do not know real fear.

My worst nightmare pales in comparison to the terror that was Srebrenica in July 1995. Throughout the survivor testimonies, there were constant references to “shivering” and “trembling” – the physical representation of knowing that death is near. Looking death in the face in the literal sense, seeing dead bodies on the side of the road. Continuing to put one foot in front of the other all the while knowing this could be your own fate. Hasan revealed not being able to move during the Death March. He was completely frozen, too weak to move, and overcome by fear until a man offered him sugar water and willed him to keep going. Hasan, realizing that he had lost his father and brother, made the conscious decision to go forward instead of turn back to look for them. He had the unfathomable but rational thought that someone should survive to tell their story and that it was his duty to live on for them. When the terror of death was no longer crippling the mind and body, reality finally set in for the survivors of the Death March and the tears started to flow uncontrollably. The footage of men reaching free territory, caked in blood, barefoot and limping, reveals this instant release. Men buckling to the ground and weeping. The relief of safety mixed with irreparable loss.

I have not experienced tragic loss.

My grandmother died in February, at the old age of ninety three. She slowly took her last breath in her own house, in her own bedroom, surrounded by her children who were holding her hand and whispering their last loving words. Death greeted her as one would an old acquaintance.

The survivors of Srebrenica have different experiences with Death- stories involving blindfolds and bullets to the back of the head; hearing moaning, screaming, crying; soaked in the warm blood of brothers, cousins, neighbors; afraid to move a muscle, not daring to blink an eye. When a soldier asks, “Are there any survivors?” one man responds, “I am. Kill me.” A mother watching her son walk off into the distance becomes the last image she has of him. My grandmother’s funeral was less a mourning than it was a celebration of a full life well-lived. The continued burial of these innocent men is nothing but tragic. No one deserves to die amidst such terror. Having lost both of her sons and her husband to this massacre, Saliha is left alone. She has no fear left in her. What else could be taken from her? What has she not already suffered? As she tells her story from the step of her front door, a solid, unshakable strength exudes from her, but so does a desperate sorrow. Not a second goes by that she doesn’t think of her beloved men who were taken from her twenty years ago. She physically lives in the present moment but she is consumed by a constant remembrance of the past.

Being able to listen to the testimonies of both victims and perpetrators in the Documentation Center was so powerful. The most memorable testimony came from a VRS soldier who wished to remain anonymous. He explained that in the aftermath of a mass killing, amidst a field of dead bodies, a small child of 5 or 6 emerged from the heap, calling frantically for his father, “Baba! Baba! Where are you?” The soldier remembered silence as each man lowered his weapon and looked on in dismay. When the general angrily ordered them to “Finish him off already”, the soldiers didn’t move and instead responded “You have a pistol, finish him off yourself.” I listened to this testimony twice, unable to comprehend the irony in this small but significant event. It was astounding to me that these soldiers, who had clearly been capable of shooting thousands of innocent men, would not dare to end the innocent life of this one young boy. Why draw the line here? Why were they unable to kill one boy when shooting countless men did not seem to trouble their conscience? Why is innocence apparently embodied in a 6 year old child and not a 14 year old boy or a 50 year old man? As Hasan explained, this could happen anywhere, in any nation, at any time, and it is true.

I have borne witness to evil. 

Yet while many people relished in the killings by kicking, torturing, and psychologically taunting their victims before annihilating them, some soldiers felt they had no choice but to follow orders. One very young soldier explained that when he tried to refuse his orders to shoot, he was told he could stand right in line with them. One driver tearfully confessed the moment he found out he had been transporting dead bodies in his truck. I commend the Serbian driver who stood up for Saliha and ensured the safety of other refugees. I admire the few individuals who absolutely refused to engage in the deplorable actions ordered “from above.” If more people had respected the sanctity and dignity of a human life then perhaps July 11, 1995 would just be another date on a calendar.

Walking into the storage room filled with bags of human bones at the ICMP, I was overwhelmed by the smell of dirt mixed with decay. Surrounded on either side by shelves of human remains, I tried to be reverent while listening to the technical side of bone retrieval and identification. I kept looking around me- plastic bags labeled by a letter and a number- someone’s father, a mother’s son- so far from their homes and mourning loved ones. Yet despite the depressing circumstances that underlay the purpose for these retrieval tactics, I realized that PIP, the ICMP, and even the “bone man”, are immensely uplifting. A tragedy of unimaginable magnitude ended the lives of thousands. Mass graves still remain uncovered and countless bodies are still missing. But out of such a catastrophic and chaotic mess, it is comforting to know that there is an intricate, methodical, organized system that continues to match a myriad of body parts to a name and face. It is slow meticulous work involving the most dedicated individuals in their own specialties, from blood work to paperwork, from analyzing DNA to assembling skeletal remains, from pathologists who alert family members of new discoveries to a humble man who collects bones in the woods behind his house. Individuals are working together to assemble the pieces of an impossible puzzle in an attempt to somehow right the wrongs of twenty years past.

I refuse to lose faith in humanity.

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