This weekend I returned to Srebrenica with my fellow peace marchers, along with the rest of the program participants to get a more in depth look at the fall of Srebrenica, the genocide and the impact it had on the area. In three days we travelled from Sarajevo to Tuzla, where we visited the International Commission on Missing Persons, then across eastern Bosnia to visit a number of survivors and sites related to the genocide, and finally on the third day we went into Srebrenica and Potocari to visit the memorial. Two weeks on from my experience at the march it was still hard to gather my thoughts on it all, and the weekend added even more to reflect upon. Much like the our first visit to Srebrenica, the experience took its toll both physically and emotionally, I often felt as if I had concrete in my lungs sitting in the harsh summer heat while walking past an area where a mass grave was found or a large massacre had occurred.
While a lot of time was spent on this excursion shuttling from one site related to the genocide to another, the spotlight was on the people we met and their stories. Perhaps it may be easier to reflect upon the weekend in the form of profiles of the important people we met on this trip.
When the war broke out Fatima was just fresh out of medical school, a women in her early twenties with her whole life in front of her. However the breakup of Yugoslavia and the outbreak of war threw her into a life she had never dreamed of in her worst nightmares. As the town of Srebrenica became overwhelmed with Muslim refugees from around the Eastern Bosnia region, Fatima found herself as one of the only doctors working in the clinic in Srebrenica while also trying to survive in the besieged city herself. Working conditions were extremely difficult as they had little to no medical supplies, Fatima had almost no experience, and the town was constantly under attack. In July of 1995 Fatima made the decision to flee Srebrenica with more than ten thousand others in the death march. Fatima was one of only a handful of women that decided to make the trek through the hill in an attempt to reach Bosnian held safe territory near Tuzla. Fatima explains that her decision was fueled by her feeling that the UN Dutchbat protection force could do nothing to protect the people of Srebrenica, and if she stayed she believed that she would be raped by Serb forces. In explaining her decision she declared “it was worse to be raped than it was to die”, revealing the ugly truth of conflict related sexual violence that was unfortunately widespread during the Bosnian war. Fatima’s declaration hit me in the face with the same impact that a brick might, and lingered in the pit of my stomach for days afterwards. Today Fatima still lives in the area, and still works as doctor, now serving as an OBGYN for her community. She openly admits she still has very hard time discussing her time in Srebrenica and the war, but holds onto the memories of the few people she was able to help.
Ramiz Nukic lives on a hillside a few miles from Srebrenica, a hillside that happened to be the sight of one of the largest ambushes in the genocidal campaign conducted by Bosnian Serb forces in July of 1995. Ramiz was caught in that ambush in 1995, his father, brother, and uncle were likely killed in the ambush not far from his home. Today, Ramiz spends everyday roaming this hillside and the valley below for the bones or any trace of those lost in that ambush. He seeks to allow the other survivors of the genocide a chance to mourn and gain closure by giving them remains to bury. The bones and artifacts Ramiz finds are handed over to the ICMP, who undertake the process of cleaning the remains and attempting to match them with their database of DNA samples from the families of the victims. To date he has helped to indentify over 200 victims and has found everything from complete skeletons to just single bones that matched remains found in mass graves miles away. During our visit with Ramiz, he took us up to the site of his latest recovery. He was quiet but seemed happy and eager to share his story with us. With a quiet and unassuming dignity, Ramiz explained it is his duty to find those who are still missing, no one else is doing it so he must.
Saliha Osmanović and her story is emblematic of many other survivors from Srebrenica and other tragedies that occurred in Eastern Bosnia during the war. Saliha lost one of her sons to a sniper just days before the city fell to the Serbs, she lost her other son and her husband shortly after, as they were killed in the death march. Today Saliha lives a literal stones throw away from Serbia in the home she once lived in with her husband. She welcomed us warmly into her home and fed us generously from her massive garden. After dinner we heard a bit of her story and had the opportunity to ask her many questions. Even before we had the blessing of meeting Saliha, I had heard from Ann about her spirit, kindness and energy. It became very clear at our visit to her home that she was not the type of woman who just wanted to mourn and fade away quietly. Saliha has travelled all around Europe to testify and share her story in hopes that the perpetrators of this atrocity are brought to justice and other survivors can gain some peace. Unlike other witnesses to the genocide that have chosen to come forward, Saliha has elected not to be a protected witness, meaning she has stood face to face with war criminals and her identity is known. Many may question why Saliha choose not to remain anonymous, especially since she lives on the Serbian border. Sitting on her stoop, in the fading final minutes of daylight, Saliha explains that she has already lost everything, her hope, her future, and ultimately has nothing left to lose, so she uses her life to hopefully bring some justice to survivors like her.
The group that participated in the peace march had already met Hassan Hassanovic, who had been a fairy godmother of sorts during the peace march. Prior to this weekend Hassan was a friend in a high place wrangling generals and inspecting tents for us. We knew a bit of his story, that he had been in the death march and had lost a lot of his family in Srebrenica, but we didn’t know a lot. Hassan is the curator for the Srebrenica memorial in Potocari and helps to give visitors a better understanding of the atrocities that occurred in the area and the impact those events had on Eastern Bosnia and the people that lived through it. However Hassan was able to take a few days off from his work at the museum to show us around Tuzla, Srebrenica, and the areas in-between. On the third day of the trip we sat down with a Hassan in the museum to hear his story. Through the story I realized that many of the places we stopped and visited throughout our trip were integral to Hassan story and the person he was before the war and who he is now. The lake we stopped at for a break and a drink was where he spent many afternoons in his early teens, swimming and then sneaking into his neighbor’s gardens to steal tomatoes. We drove through the town of Bratunac where he lived when he started secondary school. We pulled over by a small hill where he had hid from serb tank during the death march. The whole area is full of painful memories of war, suffering, starvation, and immeasurable fear and yet Hassan returns to tell his story.
All of the people we met with over the course of the weekend suffered immeasurable losses and experienced unimaginable fear, and yet have persevered on to share their stories in hopes of helping others in some way. Some hope that by telling their stories eventually everyone will know the truth and no longer be able to deny what happened in Srebrenica. For Hasan and Ramiz, their work may be their own attempt at catharsis, finding peace for themselves by helping others. I always feel cliché invoking anything about the human spirit and resilience, but it is more than apt in this case. I have feared referring to the stories of the brave people we met this week as inspiring as I see so many people label rather trivial things as inspiring and I would not want to cheapen the experiences and stories of these people by lumping them with anything trivial. I do not just want to hear their stories and move on like I tour group passing by musing “how tragic and inspiring” and then leave it at that. But this experience was genuinely inspiring; I have always been inspired and motivated by the work of marginalized groups to have their voices heard and take agency over their lives, bodies and history. It is what has led me on the path human rights minded field research, to bear witness to, learn from, aid in giving a voice to, and work in solidarity with. As such I will never be able to for get the people we met in Srebrenica, and will not hesitate share what they have shared with me.