I was wondering how I was going to process everything I had seen and heard about the Srebrenica genocide. The films we watched were somewhat graphic and very intense, the stories we heard were told through tears, still fresh to the survivors even after twenty years. This was not the first time I have heard horrible personal stories or seen graphic films detailing gross violations of human rights. I think I am fairly good at compartmentalizing and keeping a straight face. But I do internalize what I hear and see. This became evident to me after these two truly awful dreams I had. While they were not about Srebrenica, I know they were my brain’s way of processing through what I had experienced. I can only imagine the nightmares that the survivors must have, probably many nights a week.
I will describe the dreams in vague detail here because they are still fresh in my mind, making my stomach turn, and I don’t want to remember all the details. The first I am sure came about as a mixture of stories I have read and pictures I have seen of Mexican drug cartels and the extremely graphic and gory things they do, and the images I saw in films of the Srebrenica genocide. In my dream I was loosely involved in a drug cartel, against my will as so many are, and my “boss” had just been killed in a very violent and public manner along with tons other completely innocent people. I won’t describe it as I can’t believe my brain even came up with these things, but I am sure I dreamt this as a way to process the mass murder of thousands of innocent Muslim men in Srebrenica, just because they were Bosniak, and my brain for some reason made the connection with the people whose lives are negatively affected daily by drug cartels in Mexico.
The second dream was stranger. Two adults, one man and one woman, had been chosen to fight each other to the death for public spectacle (Hunger Games style, but much more intimate and grotesque). They had to torture each other and make it as bloody and drawn-out as possible. But at the same time, they had to try and trick each other, having conversations, trapping each other, earning each other’s trust only to turn on each other later. I am sure that this part of the dream was created by my mind after hearing many witness testimonies and perpetrator confessions about Srebrenica. Mladic and several of his men tricked the Bosniaks and Dutch peacekeepers, handing out candy to the children and pretending that they were safe. One story, told by one of the Dutch peacekeepers at the ICTY stood out to me. He had observed the men being separated from the women, stripped of their belongings, and crowded into a house. He asked Mladic what was going on and Mladic responded that his army was going to check for war criminals among the men. The Dutch peacekeeper noticed that the men’s belongings, sitting in a huge pile outside the house, included passports. He asked Mladic how they were going to prove the identity of any potential war criminals from among the men if they didn’t have identification and Mladic grinned and said, “They won’t be needing those anymore.” All of the men were later murdered, mostly by firing squad.
The depth of human depravity is something I am still coming to terms with, clearly, and my mind does not know how to process that anyone could order the things that Mladic ordered – genocide of all Muslim men and boys, just because they were Muslim. Mass exodus of all the women and small children, separated forcefully from their fathers, husbands, and brothers never to meet again. Another story that stood out to me was told by a woman who had watched helplessly from the bus she was shoved on as men were marched past her window with their arms up in surrender, knowing they walked to their death. This image I am sure will never leave her mind.
No matter how many times I hear such horrible stories, I still cannot grasp how a person can place so little value on other human life and feel so superior as to justify such a slaughter. Why does that person lack empathy? Why doesn’t that person feel the fear of the victims and be broken down by their pleas? Just hearing the stories made several members of my group cry, and yet men like Mladic felt nothing. How is this possible?