What can be said about our trip to Tuzla and Srebrenica? I was prepared in some ways for the experience, having been through the Peace March and being confronted with the realities of genocide in previous work experiences. But this was a very visceral experience that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
All of the people we met and whose stories we heard had a significant impact on me. But the lasting image, that literally haunts my dreams, was from the video we watched at the multimedia room in the memorial. I had heard about the execution video before, but I was not at all prepared for the impact it has had on me. I am quite cynical by nature (somewhat paradoxically for someone studying social work), and it really makes me question the limited faith I have in humanity in general. I have two brothers, and I’ve had nightmares about them being targeted in a similar fashion. The sheer disregard for the humanity of an entire category of people is hard for me to fathom as someone who, as Ann puts it, “feels things very deeply.” I’m tearing up just thinking about what those thousands of people endured, to say nothing of the impact it had on their families and communities. After that video, and many times over the course of the weekend, I did not know whether to cry or scream. Ultimately, I just started feeling numb.
The numbness was invariably followed by an overwhelming sense of guilt. This guilt was partly rooted in shame over feeling numb about such atrocities, but it is really more about the fact that I have never, nor is it foreseeable that I ever will, face anything near the level of oppression inherent to a genocide. This guilt is something I have been confronted with a lot over my professional life, whether working with genocide survivors or refugees or simply folks in the United States who face varying forms of oppression that I do not. I think this guilt is rooted in empathy, so it isn’t an inherently bad thing. But it’s important to move on from it for a couple reasons (though that has been admittedly difficult this week). First of all, it can be paralyzing. Wallowing in this guilt can lead, in my opinion, to more and more inaction. It can lead to the mindset that there’s nothing to be done. More importantly, though, it is not what people who have been through such horrific events want. As a social worker, it is my role to always put oppressed people first in my work. No one that we met this weekend wants anything more than for us to understand their experience, educate those around us about their experience, and do what we can to try to prevent these atrocities in the future. It can be hard to keep this in mind, particularly after having so many difficult experiences over such a short period of time, but it is always important to remember that none of this was about me.
This trip was in many ways about holding the survivors in our hearts, and I was struck by the love and dedication I saw in so many of the people we met. The sacrifice and commitment to helping others the Fatima showed providing medical care during the siege of Srebrenica, then actually voluntary partaking in the death march in the hopes that she could help, left me awestruck. If we could all be a fraction as dedicated to helping others as she is, the world would be a far greater place. That Ramiz risks his life on a daily basis to try to locate remains and help the families of the deceased in a small way inspires me as well. I think it is important to remember that for many families, his work won’t lead to “peace” or “closure” because that simply isn’t possible. But knowing the fate of their loved ones and being able to bury their remains is incredibly important nonetheless. Even Dragina at the ICMP, despite her somewhat withdrawn approach, has still been working there for 12 years and clearly cares about what she is doing and understands the importance of trying to identify as many victims of the genocide as possible.
The horrors that were described to us this weekend will always be in my mind. The lasting effects on these innocent people’s lives will always stay with me. But I will also remember their resilience. I will always remember that Fatima now brings so many lives into the world. I will always remember Saliha’s passion and strength. I will always remember Fazila’s joy and excitement to be with young people. I will always remember Ramiz’s sense of humor. I will always remember that Hassan wants justice and not revenge. I will always remember Srebrenica.