What Clings to Us

The sun is setting slowly on the Potočari memorial, casting its golden light onto the endless rows of white pillars, markers for the more than 8,000 victims of the Srebrenica genocide. If you listen, you can hear the birds beginning to sing their lullabies, beckoning the evening to bed. The laughter of children visiting the memorial with their families cascades between columns. It is almost beautiful, in its own right.

The names on the marble slabs read endless. Only the person’s birth year is given: 1920, 1923, 1975, 1944, and so on; all were murdered in one week in July of 1995. The youngest killed was 13 years old, the oldest, 77.

We have been graciously brought here by Hasan Hasanović, a survivor of the genocide at Srebrenica who works at the memorial. He tells us his story, the details of living in what was at the time the world’s largest concentration camp, surviving intolerable winters and brutally hot summers without the most basic needs. He watched over 70 children playing soccer torn to pieces by a mortar; he survived simply because he was waiting to play the next game. During the genocide of Srebrenica, his father and his twin brother were killed. Hasan walked for six days and six nights to free territory.

Hasan and Ann introduce us to other survivors. We sit first with Nura Mustafić, one of the few women who fled Srebrenica through the woods on what would later be known as the Death March, the same that brought Hasan to safety. She left with her husband, sons, and hundreds of other men and boys. Her sons were wounded on the way, and she tells us of tending their injuries, of surrendering to the Serb forces, of being forcibly separated from her sons for what would be the final time. She apologizes for her tears.

Next, we sit with Nedžad Avdić, one of just ten survivors from the five primary execution sites where the 8,000 men and boys were murdered; his was the Petkovci School site, where today, elementary school children learn addition, subtraction, and history — but not the history of the Srebrenica genocide. 

He recounts in detail the process of being rounded up into trucks, nearly suffocating in the hot July sun, of being refused water, of being transported to the school where hundreds would ultimately die. He describes walking through congealed blood in bare feet, his hands bound behind his back, ordered to stand in front of a truck. He remembers thinking his mother would never know where he died. He apologizes for taking so much of our time.

In such incomprehensible situations, what details do we choose to share, what specifics become important? What memories do we cling to, or cling to us? “My sons were beautiful children, they were good students, nice to everyone,” Nura tells us.

“I used to love this river, but now I hate it because there are dead bodies under it,” Hasan says of the Drina River, the natural border between Serbia and Bosnia, as we drive to Srebrenica. It is slow moving, expansive, quietly beautiful. It is poisoned.

What is there to say? When the ugliest of atrocities are committed against humanity — when all that makes us human is lost — words become wholly inadequate. As an outsider, this is especially true. These experiences are beyond my comprehension, and they are not my stories. But they are stories that need to be told. Ann asks Nura and Saliha what they would like us to do, how we can help.

“Go home and tell everyone what happened here,” they tell us, “so that it may never happen again. To anyone.”

And in this answer is perhaps one of the most profound and moving pieces of all this horrible, nasty mess: for Nura and Saliha, for Hassan and Nedžad, it seems there is no hatred or desire for revenge. There is pain — deep, inconsolable, unimaginable — there is anger, a desire for justice, of course, and there is so much more that I cannot begin to understand. But above all, there is a wish for recognition, a burning insistence that this never happen again, anywhere, to anyone. This is worth clinging to.

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