As the bus turns off the main road, we drive past farm houses, green fields with a stream running through, and hay stacks piled high like a scene from a Monet painting. We wind higher and higher up the Bosnian countryside until the road levels off and an older man, wearing socks with sandals, waves to us as children sit outside the house waiting to see who has arrived. We have come to meet the bone man, a farmer by trade; he has made it his mission to bring some semblance of peace to the thousands of families who lost their loved ones in the genocide.
In the hills surrounding his farm, thousands of men and boys marched to their deaths, hunted like animals and slaughtered. Thousands of boys and men set off through the forest with the hope that they would make it to the safety of Tuzla. They were not alone in that forest. They were shot at, captured, and systematically killed. The worst kind of nightmares came to life on the hills surrounding the farm.
In Tuzla, a sterile white room with shelves and shelves of files, hold the identities of those men and boys killed on those hills. They are some of the 40,000 missing persons reported from the genocide. Their mothers, sisters, wives and families left wondering what happened to them, left hoping that one day they will be able to bring their loved one home.
The bone man survived the genocide. He made it through those hills, his brother did not. He tells us how important it was when his brother was found and finally laid to rest; how he must now make sure other families can do the same. So everyday, he wanders 20 kilometers through the hills around his house looking for those who remain. Looking for the boys and men who deserve a proper resting place, and looking to bring some peace to the families.
He takes us up the road and down a hill. We gather at the base of a grouping of trees. The bone man bends down and tenderly begins to move rocks and leaves, uncovering human remains. He handles the bones with great care as he tells us the story of how he came across them. We sit in awe and soak in the horrors of what happened on these hills. Beautiful hills with a very ugly story. As we get up to leave, I watch as he meticulously prepares a place for the bones, seeming to make them as comfortable and safe as possible—providing them with the dignity and grace that was absent during their final days. The ICMP (International Commission of Missing Persons) will come to take the bones to Tuzla. In Tuzla, they will be identified and the family will finally be able to bury their loved one.
As we walk back up the hill, I am struck by the determination and dedication of the bone man. He has helped to identify some 250 people. He has made it his life’s work to ensure that the victims of the genocide are not forgotten in those hills. Someone asks what he would like us to take away, he says simply, “the truth.”