Since my arrival Bosnia, I had been feeling far removed from the war that took place over 20 years ago in a Balkan nation halfway across the world from my home where I have never had any intimate connections. Sure, I remember overhearing bits and pieces of what was happening on the news back in the early 90’s, but I was far too young to comprehend what any of it really meant.
In Bosnia, there are still many buildings that have not been restored since being damaged during the war. There are over 100,000 landmines still in place across the country. Politically, it is clear that communities of the three primary ethnic groups are quite segregated with nationalist sentiments still running high as their respective flags are flown ubiquitously in the regions of the country that each claims as its territory. However, the area of Sarajevo that we are residing in does not capture this feeling at all. It is amidst many crowded bars, with hotels and tourist shops abundant, and obnoxious electronic music blasting through the streets every evening until the early hours of the morning. While it is certainly a great spot to be in to traverse the city and absorb the exuberant nightlife of Sarajevo, it doesn’t exactly make one feel close to the complex and tragic history of Bosnia. Ironically, the city’s historical center and old town known as Baščaršija, is just a couple of minutes away by foot.
My feelings changed drastically during our group excursion to Srebrenica. This may have been the first time since arriving that I really felt I could sense the post-war Bosnian atmosphere, where the deep wounds from the conflict are visible 20 years later and still healing. A little historical context for those who are reading and are not familiar with the story of what took place here: Srebrenica is a small town in the eastern part of the country close to the Serbian border where the massacre of thousands of Bosnian Muslims occurred in July of 1995, towards the end of the Bosnian war. Srebrenica became under siege by the Serb army which led to its subsequent occupation. Civilians fled the town in an attempt to reach a safe haven in the city of Tuzla where the Bosniak army could protect them, but were mercilessly slaughtered by Serb forces on their way to this destination in an event known as the “Death March”, as they trekked through the hills with limited supplies. Captive males and females were separated by military forces. The women were raped while over 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed. Mass executions took place and there are testimonies of many who were tortured and experienced bodily mutilation. Over 20 years later, the remains of victims are still being discovered in the forests and hills of the region. This was the largest genocide committed on European soil since the Holocaust.
Our excursion began about 60 miles north of Srebrenica in the city of Tuzla, where we visited the Missing Persons Institute and International Commission on Missing Persons. Here we learned about the process of identifying the remains of those killed during the war. It certainly felt more than a bit surreal entering a room filled with hundreds of bags containing human skeletal remains as well as each of the victims’ personal belongings recovered from the dense forests of Bosnia. Viewing a human jaw and femur among several other bones on an examination table had me wondering what specific fate this poor soul had suffered two decades ago. However, at this point I still viewed the conflict and genocide as a thing of the past, which took place long ago. It was difficult for me to experience a deep emotional reaction to something that I had no connection to. I had not yet seen the devastating emotional toll this had on the citizens of Bosnia.
Remains of victims undergoing the identification process
This all changed quickly once we entered the town of Srebrenica itself as Hasan Hasonovic, who was our guide for the entire trip, recounted his personal experiences to us as a survivor of the genocide. He gave us the details of everything from his trek to Tuzla to the deaths of his twin brother and father. Personal accounts from many others who we met including Saliha Osmanovic, a resilient and fearless Bosnian woman who had her entire family taken from her, were harrowing and difficult to wrap my head around. What helped me understand best how these people were feeling was to put myself in their shoes and imagine if this had happened to me. What if my father and brothers had been lined up, executed and their bodies were dumped into a mass grave in the most degrading manner possible? What if my girlfriend had been raped? What if I had been forced to leave my home and trek over 60 miles through the mountains, with limited food and water, in order to find protection? This exercise in empathy combined with the testimonies of the survivors who we met, made the genocide seem all too real and suddenly not so far removed from the past.
Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial and the gravestones of thousands who perished during the war
I am no stranger to dark history. While previously living in Germany and Austria, I had visited many WWII and holocaust historical sites such as the Nazi party rally grounds where Hitler spoke in Nürnberg and multiple concentration camps including Auschwitz and Dachau. I toured a Spanish inquisition museum full of disturbing medieval torture instruments in Andalucía. I have been on site of many southern plantations which belonged to slave owners in the southern United States. However, this was different. Watching color video footage of several Muslim men being lined up and shot from a time period when I was alive is an entire different animal than anything else I had ever witnessed. Meeting survivors of the genocide who are younger than my parents hit me harder than I could have imagined. The scars of the past here are much more recent and the wounds fresher. After Srebrenica, I can only count my blessings and be grateful for the easy and comfortable life that I was born into.
For the past couple of years, I have been working on being thankful for all that is good in my life each and everyday, realizing how trivial any of my personal problems are relative to so many others around the world. Refugees from Syria, those who have lost their homes and loved ones in any number natural disasters, and now after this excursion, the people who carry on living after what occurred in Srebrenica in July of 1995 are reminders that I am an incredibly privileged individual who can’t possibly begin to understand their pain and suffering.
Tarik Samarah’s famous photo of a doll left behind at one of the mass grave sites near Srebrenica
Saliha Osmanović and a link to her story-https://www.srebrenica.org.uk/survivor-stories/saliha-osmanovic/
Hasan Hasanovic telling his story at the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial
So this post was pretty grim and bleak. Here’s a picture of Zareen and a cat to lighten the mood just a bit.