Srebrenica. There are no words to describe the things we have seen and heard in the past two days. And yet, I am trying. We first went to the International Commission of Missing Persons (ICMP), where the forensic anthropologistDraganaexplained the process of identifying bodies exhumed from mass graves. The sheer number of primary andsecondary graves means this process is extraordinarily difficult and so far, they have uncovered thousands of bodies. At first, identification was based on clothing and other physical articles found on the bodies, or by bone fractures and diseases that could be validated by the families. Only 50 bodies were identified in this manner. When DNA matching was developed in 2002, they were able to positively identify over 7,000 bodies and are still working. To date, there are about 1,000 more bodies that need to be found and/or identified from this area alone.
After the emotional shock of visiting the ICMP, it was somewhat comforting to visit Anne’s friend Saliha that evening for dinner. Going to Saliha’s house was like visiting the home of a long-lost grandmother. Her flower gardens and yard were immaculately pruned and blooming profusely. Her vegetable garden was huge and flourishing. She immediately escorted Ann out to pick fresh garlic and onions, gesturing to the rest of us to go try the pears in the front yard. They were crisp, ripe and juicy. One of the driver’s wives had made a giant feast for us, which he set out along with fresh rose water and minty lemonade. The rose water was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tried – with the faint, but not overpowering, taste of rose, honey, and mint mingling in a sweet sip.
After dinner, Saliha sat down and told us her story of being separated from her two sons and husband in the genocide. She buried one son one week, then got separated from her other son and husband in the flight of the country and mass chaos. She became a refugee fleeing from camp to camp searching for her loved ones. She saw a picture of her husband in the newspaper, then later on the news a video of her husband calling her son down from the mountains. This video became widely distributed as an example of the atrocities happening during the war. The Serbs had captured her husband as he was fleeing and were forcing him to call his son down from the mountains where they were all escaping, yelling that he would be “safe” if he surrendered. Saliha saw the film and with it sprang hope that her husband and son were alive. But she could never find them. Years later his bones and those of his son were exhumed and their bodies identified. Finally, Saliha was able to bury them. As she spoke, her voice grew weary and sad. “I’m alone,” she said, “I have no one.”
The next day, we went to the Srebrenica Potocari Genocide Memorial & Cemetery. Here a good friend of Ann’s, Hasan Hasanović, told us his personal story of growing up, life before the war, and of surviving the death march. As hewandered through the woods, split from his twin brother and father, he barely escaped death on many occasions. Narrowly dodging shelling, gunshots, and captures, he climbed through the mountains with a group that had been cut off from the rest of the column. He was one of the few to survive, starving as he arrived half dead at the refugee camp. His father and twin brother unfortunately did not survive. Now Hasan is the curator of the Memorial and speaks at international events to spread awareness about the Srebrenica genocide so that it will never happen again.
When we went to the cemetary, Hasan had arranged for two more genocide survivors to speak with us. One, Nedžad Avdić, was at one of the mass execution sites and was one of only two people to survive the massacre of hundreds. Another, Nura, was one of the few women who attempted the death march with all the men. Her husband went to get water and never returned (they later found and identified his body), while two of her sons were injured on the march. They were captured by the Serbs and she was separated from them. She never saw them again, and later their bodies were also found.
At the end of the day we met Ramiz, the “bone man,” who walks the mountains searching for bones in order to turn them into the ICMP so they can identify more bodies. Ramiz has aided in the discovery and identity of over 200 bodies. All in all, it was an emotional few days in Tuzla and Srebrenica. And the disjointed nature of this post accurately reflects the disorganization currently felt in my thoughts and feelings after having seen these sites, heard these stories, and felt my heart breaking with this pain.