There was a war here. This seems universally agreed upon. Hundreds of thousands of people died from all backgrounds – Muslims, Serbians, Croatians (Isn’t it interesting how we still place religious beliefs with ethnic backgrounds?). What isn’t universally agreed upon is the genocide. In one week more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys were executed. They were separated from women and very young children and put on buses to be transported to different massacre sites – schools, open fields, soccer fields – where they were lined up and fired upon. If anyone answered that they had survived, they were shot point blank. We heard the testimony of one man who didn’t answer the call and was able to escape, he was the only one from that site. We met another young man who was concealed under a woman’s skirts, he was the only male survivor at his site.
Women were also targeted – between 40,000 and 70,000 women were raped as a weapon of war – many forced to live in rape camps. But this isn’t a common conversation here. In fact, we had to ask to learn more details about how the women fared. Rape is taboo. It’s shameful. And too often the survivors are fearful of sharing their stories, of telling anyone, and so their torture often continues. Why is there so much shame around the world about rape when it is unfortunately far too common?
We spent three days learning more about this genocide and some of the post-conflict activities. And there is far too much to include in one post. We visited both campuses of the ICMP – the International Committee for Missing Persons in Tuzla. At one site, the remains of the found are stored and forensic anthropologists sort through the bones before attempting to put the skeleton back together. At the other site, they test each bone to find DNA matches. They must match with a 95.5% before families are notified that a family member has been found. The ICMP has been crucial for healing and closure to surviving family members.
We met a woman, Saliha Osmanovic, who lost her husband and sons. Her husband can be seen in footage, A Cry From the Grave, where he and others were asked to call their sons out of the “safety” of the woods under the impression that if they surrendered they would be saved. They were all executed. Saliha now lives alone on the Serbian/Bosnian border and says she has a bag packed in case she needs to flee again. She is a brave woman who has testified against war criminals – looking them in the eyes and sharing what she witnessed. She is a well-known person and has been invited to speak around the world to share her story. What does she want us to take from what we have learned? She wants us to share her story. To share the story of all the Bosnians. To learn from it. To never let it happen again.
What does this mean for me?
It means that I have seen through other’s experiences the disconnect between the policy level and the civil level. Often, we make plans for people and places we’ve never been, never experienced, don’t understand. Things “should” work. However, they often don’t. I do believe many of our officials in UN-like organizations have the best intentions and yet often don’t know the reality of their impact. The disconnect is vast and we must find a way to bridge this gap if we are to really make a difference for those who want it.
It means I’m angry that so many people were tortured and killed here. I’m disgusted that there is such evil in this world, that a human can take another human’s life – in this case thousands of lives, of all ages. The hardest thing for me was watching how the men were psychologically tortured before they were killed. I don’t understand how we still allow propaganda to rule our thinking and how so many people blindly follow a person or a system without questioning the intent, the impact, the ethics. How do we teach bravery to stand up to what we fear, what we believe is wrong? I’m sad for all of the people who experienced this war, this genocide. I’m sad that this kind of conflict often leaves behind a separation of people and vicarious racism. I’m thankful for all of the people who came together, who fight the ignorance of racism. I’m grateful for those who remain open-hearted and want to see a unified society, once again. I want to heal my friends. I want to stop this from happening elsewhere. I want other Americans to see that we too are allowing propaganda and hatred to cloud our humanitarian spirits. I know this will be a challenge for me. It is one I am willing to embrace if it means that even a small difference is made, somewhere. We can make changes. And we must do it together.
ICMP: “The BiH Law on Missing Persons, enacted in 2004 (BiH Official Gazette 50/2004), was the first such piece of national legislation related to missing persons anywhere in the world. It prescribed the families’ right to the truth about the fate of their missing relatives as well as the right to information about ongoing investigations. It also prescribed the creation of the Missing Persons Institute with a mandate to search for and identify missing persons across the entire territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina thereby ending the discriminatory practice of searching for missing persons based on their ethnicity or religion. It prescribed the creation of both the Central Records of missing persons and a Fund for the Families of the Missing. It also made provision for sanctions against individuals who withhold information pertaining to the fate of missing persons” (International Commission for Missing Persons, 2014).
A Cry From the Grave: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fliw801iX84