I know I haven’t written in a while. I would think about writing, but I didn’t know where to begin. I would let my mind slowly reach towards the fire of thoughts, images, and emotions I knew was raging somewhere inside of me, but it felt like bandages were being torn away from newly covered, gaping wounds. I quickly pulled away. I honestly didn’t know if I was going to make it through the rest of my program. Getting out of bed was an immense effort, and I started searching for flights home on kayak.com. Well, I thought about searching for them…my computer was too far away for my comatose state.
Tears seemed to leak out of my eyes without warning. We stopped asking each other how we were doing, because it seemed like how are you? triggered just about all of the tear ducts in our hostel. Unraveling, people. We were unraveling.
Then, a miracle happened.
Last night, the skies cracked open and gumdrops of rain sobbed from above. Everyone ran for cover, and I just stood there, arms outstretched, unmoving. Within seconds I was drenched and it didn’t matter. If I was crying, the sky was crying, too. Lightning struck all around us, and soul trembling thunder ripped through the night air. Soon, I was joined by a few from my group who felt just as overcome with anguish over the last week. We spoke very little, but let the pelting rain soak in past our clothes, past our skin, into our aching, despairing hearts. Minute by minute we were healing. We started smiling, we started hugging, we started laughing, we started dancing. The storm just stayed, suspended over us. It rained and rained and rained.
Our entire group finally joined in, even Ann our incredible director. The Bosnians and other Americans who had joined the dinner peered out from the windows inside the house. They’ve completely lost it said the eyes of the onlookers.
Yes, yes I have lost it! I have seen images I will never be able to unsee. I have heard stories I carry with me every waking moment. I am burdened with experiences that wake me up panicking with nightmares. I am laden with grief for the people I have met, for the burden I know they endure day after day.
To have a woman look you in the eyes and say I am waiting to die because her husband and her two sons were tortured and executed in a genocide – this plagues my thoughts and gnaws at my heart. You will leave my house tonight, but I will still be here. I will be here alone in the rooms where my boys used to run. I suffer inside. My soul suffers – there’s nothing to console that pain.
The tears I shed over the last week did not even touch a drop of this ocean of despair. And then, the skies cracked open and gumdrops of rain sobbed from above.
Rose: I don’t believe in God, but that was the closest thing to it.
Me: I do. And that was divine intervention.
I sit here this morning at a hotel typing to you, and tears still well up in my eyes. I know I need to write. I know I need to tell and retell their stories. They asked me not to forget, they asked me to share what they have experienced so that no one will have to live what they are living. These tears are not from pity. The people I have met have more tenacity and endurance and grace than anyone I know.
So I will start with Tuzla, the first city we visited last weekend. It was great to be in a hotel that was semi-nice. Just from a completely shallow standpoint, I liked Tuzla immediately. It has a smaller feel than Sarajevo, but is still bustling with activity. It wasn’t overwhelming. Interestingly, very few people wear hijabs there, even though it is still predominantly Muslim.
We arrived after a long, snaking drive through the Eastern region of Bosnia to meet with Amir (need to get his last name). This man works in the office of the Mayor of Tuzla, and is a powerhouse. He’s a heavier set man who towers over everyone in my group. Gray hair, salt and pepper beard with round cheeks and many years of burek sitting in his belly. He put on his thin reading glasses; as Ann says, he can’t think without his glasses. Out of his briefcase, he pulled pages and pages of notes that he meticulously organized on his desk before beginning to speak. He spoke in Bosnian and Hasan translated.
Amir is a survivor of the Death March. He spent 7 days and 7 nights in the forest before successfully entering Nezuk and then Tuzla, the free territory. When he left Srebrenica, he said goodbye to his wife who was 7 months pregnant. He told us that after he left, the Bosnian Serb army was separating his wife from her father. She desperately tried to cling to him until a soldier pointed a gun at her pregnant belly threatening to shoot her baby and kill her. Her father shuffled her onto one of the buses transporting women and children to Tuzla. She never saw him again.
Two months later, in September, she gave birth to their son. Today, she still suffers from these memories.
Amir is an academic, a father, a tenacious survivor. I talked to him about his recovery, and he told me about the time he spent in the Netherlands. They tried to medicate him, but his anxiety spiked, his heart raced constantly, he was paralyzed by both depression and paranoia. Once he returned to Bosnia and connected with other survivors, his life regained meaning and purpose. He is a ferocious advocate for transitional justice.
Transitional justice considers four main areas: 1. judicial/criminal prosecutions, 2. establishing facts and telling the truth, 3. reparations and compensations, 4. institutional reforms.
His work with transitional justice has inspired me to look at the disproportionate focus on prosecutions. Many survivors die before any trial concludes, many perpetrators serve only a few years and have since returned to positions of power in communities where these survivors live. Is late justice justice at all? Amir questioned. Yes, I think yes it is. But it is not sufficient. I am not discounting the necessity of bringing criminals to justice, but it is evident that these convictions are not helping the victims heal.
I thought that men could die just once, but after a genocide, you can die again. First, when your life is taken away. Again when your bones are transferred, but denial of victims is the last phase of genocide. Every day we spend in silence. It is a denial that you have existed as a human being. (Amir)
Serbia denies the Srebrenica genocide. Many Bosnian Serbs deny or downplay the degree to which Bosniaks were systematically grouped, expelled and massacred in Eastern Bosnia. Without the establishment of truth, without being able to share their stories and their experiences, the survivors suffer protracted trauma from blatant denial. Another survivor, Hasan (whose story I will tell soon), described this:
By denying the genocide, they are saying my father and my twin brother are trash. They already executed them and threw their bodies into mass graves. They dug up the graves to scatter the bodies in secondary graves, trying to cover up their acts. They just threw them in a pile. A pile of trash. My father and brother, trash.
Tears welled up in his eyes as made the motion of tossing a banana peel into the garbage. Twenty-one years later, this is the burden they bear. This is the pain they suffer. This is the perpetuation of genocide.
In consideration of transitional justice, it is imperative that survivors are given a platform to tell their stories. Many thought that protected witness trials would provide this. This is not the case. The witnesses are asked questions, asked about certain pieces of their stories, what the prosecution teams deems important for the trial. These dynamics return survivors to an inferior position. Empowerment is imperative for addressing trauma, and the environment of the courts does not offer such a space.
While truth commissions are structured as a means for testimonials, the impersonal environment lacks the support often needed for survivors to feel safe sharing their stories and supported by a community. Some benefit is gained from these forums, but often survivors are re-traumatized by recalling their stories – an unsurprising psychological response.
Amir was able to heal largely through his involvement with other survivors and their collective purpose in advocacy. Through their collective healing, Amir has been able share his story to wider audiences. However, as long as political structures and institutions deny, downplay and disregard the truth, many survivors will remain disenfranchised and unable to heal.
Transitional justice is a complicated concept – one that involves macro level institutional reform to micro level individual considerations. I am humbled and astounded by the resilience of people like Amir to continue living, to continue advocating for holistic justice that has yet to be realized.
I will continue my story of Srebrenica in subsequent posts…stories I have not quite been able to put into words yet. Thank you for reading. Thank you for answering my skype calls. Thank you for encouraging me from afar.