Walking in their footsteps

One week later and here we are in Srebrenica again. I thought I was prepared to come back, to visit the memorial, to hear stories from survivors, I thought, but I wasn’t. Those of us studying in Korbel, the International Studies school always joke that we don’t have feelings or emotions because if we did we would have a mental breakdown every other month. But we do feel and we feel deeply.

I always think I’m prepared to listen to survivor testimonies. I’ve heard stories from Holocaust survivors, Rwandan genocide survivors, refugees, migrants, veterans but I’m never prepared. I think I’ve heard it all but I haven’t. My heart is always ripped out of my chest and tears are always in my eyes. I don’t think I’ll ever be prepared and this weekend was not any different from my past.

First, in Tuzla we met with Nura Begovic, the vice-president of the Women of Srebrenica Association. These mothers and daughters are still fighting 22 years later to find their men and boys and the strength Nura emulated was absolutely encouraging. I felt the passion and courage in Nura’s voice as she told us about her family and the goals of the Association.

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All the men, boys, and women who died or are still missing from the Death March.

The next day, we walked the road from Srebrenica to Potocari, the same route many of the women took to the Dutch UN Peacekeeper base to escape the massacres. We stopped at the petrol station where many families made to difficult decision to split up, the husbands and sons turning left to go through the Bosnian mountains to escape to the free territory and the wives and daughters to the right to seek refuge with the Dutch UN Peacekeepers. As we entered Potocari the scene was different from July 11, there were no vendors on the street selling food and hardly anyone was outside their homes (except for a few standing in their doorways wondering what we were doing). Our solemn walk ended at the memorial and cemetery and that afternoon we heard the testimony of Nura Mustafic. Nura lost her husband and three sons to the genocide and throughout her testimony she kept saying how she wished we had grandchildren, they would have been about our ages if her boys survived. The women of Srebrenica have lost so much but they comfort one another, and they are one others’ families now. As we ate with Saliha Osmanovic that night I could see how the neighbors have come together to watch over one another. Saliha lost her husband and two sons to the genocide, the last time she saw her husband was on a Bosnian Serb propaganda video, Ramo was calling up the Bosnian hillside to their son, Nermin, at the insistences of the Serbs, telling all the boys and men to come down, that they will be safe. She was finally able to lay Nermin and Ramo to rest in 2008. But Saliha’s neighbors have helped to create a sense of home, I think. As we ate with her two neighbor boys were hanging around in her yard, riding their bicycles up and down the road, being boys. Like Nura, Saliha said that she wishes she had grandchildren, that is what is missing from her life. As we left that night I could tell she did not want any of us to leave, she didn’t want to be in her big house by herself that night.

As I woke up the next morning, still trying to process the previous day, I didn’t know how I would be able to continue. We had one more testimony to hear but I am so honored to be able to hear it. Ramiz Nukic survived an ambush on one of the hills above his family and childhood home. In 2002, after years of work and rebuilding his home, he moved back but those who died were left in his mind. He started walking the hills and he kept finding bones, and to this day he keeps finding bones. This is his contribution to life, to those who did not make it through the war and for their families who are still trying to find answers. Even though Ramiz has found hundreds of people and has helped to bring closure to families he has still not found his father and brother. For Ramiz, this is his life work now and he is proud to do it. When asked when he will be through with searching he said, “When the last bone is picked up, I will be through.”

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Ramiz, The Bone Man
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Recently found bones. Ramiz is waiting for them to be picked up by the authorities.

As our weekend in Srebrenica and our visit with Ramiz came to an end I couldn’t help to think about everyone we met over these short three days. Even though I heard their testimonies of death and destruction of life there was still hope in them, hope for the families who haven’t found their loved ones, hope for their country to heal, and hope for themselves to live a full life.

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