I have been struck, horrified, and amazed over the last three days. It would be impossible to put every experience into words- some things simply have no verbal expressions powerful enough to describe them. Up until our trip to the greater region of Srebrenica on Monday, things have been able to remain somewhat lighthearted. We learned about how painful and violent life was in Sarajevo during the war, but we have also experienced a lot of joy and liveliness here. That was not the case in Srebrenica.
We were met by Hasan for our journey. He is a remarkable person, and exudes a steady and strong confidence in his presence, despite having endured a tragic life. Having survived the Death March of Srebrenica as a young teenager, it does seem fairly appropriate that he would not be fearful of much else in life.
We drove through steep and winding roads to get there, and with my habit of motion sickness, I took a dramamine and tried to close my eyes for most of it. I wish I didn’t have this affliction, so that I could have seen all of the countryside and territory that we crossed. What I did see when we closer to our destination, further northeast of Sarajevo, that many houses were standing empty, blown out, and burned out. They looked like that had been uninhabited for years, and that is exactly why they looked that way. After the genocide and mass deportation of Bosniak Muslims in the area, many homes were destroyed and never returned to. It is an eery, depressing environment, surrounding by beautiful landscapes and lush greenery.
Our first important stop that day was at the ICMP- International Commission on Missing Persons, located here in the town of Tuzla. It is so small and unassuming, without clue as to the immensity of the content inside. Human bones. So many human bones. It was overwhelming in every possible way to the senses. Sight, smell, sound…listening inside of the tiny to Dragana (a woman who is instrumental in running a ridiculously underfunded DNA identification program) I can hear something else in the background. It’s a light clattering sound, and somewhere in the back of my mind I know its the sound of bones being moved around, though I’m trying to and hoping to think its anything else. That is later confirmed for me though, when the tour of the unimaginable is over. At the far end of the room the door is open and I walk into a room that is largely empty except for several bags of bones tied up in material that you can see them through. Earlier I must have heard someone moving them around. These are the bones that are mysteries to the analysts, not knowing who they possibly belong to. Many mass graves were dug up and moved around by the Serbian army, as a way to try and cover up their brutal crimes.
Our final important stop that day was at the home of Saliha, another incredible survivor. Her home was a beautiful oasis in the sad landscape, with the most amazing garden one could imagine; an amazing feat in my eyes, as she lives alone and does this entirely herself. Saliha lost her entire family in the genocide of Srebrenica- a husband and two sons. She wakes up everyday reminded of her pain and loss in beautifully and humble home that was rebuilt, and that is empty. She has withstood the most unbearable experiences imaginable. And she does not keep a fence around her garden to keep deer and other creatures out, because she says simply that she grows enough food for everyone.
The same remarkable presence can be said of the two other survivors we met on the following day, at the genocide memorial in Potocari. Nura was another mother of Srebrenica, who lost four sons and her husband during the Death March. She was one of few women to attempted to walk it herself, in her determination to not be separated from her beloved family. She cannot speak about this without crying, and you can see how heavily it weighs on her still. I’m crying along with her, as many of us are.
Nedzad is a survivor of an execution site, of whom there are only 10 survivors like him. He was only 17 years old when this happened to him. He is brave enough to tell his harrowing tell in an effort to make the truth known, and bring consolation and recognition to the loss of loved ones to so many- so narrowly avoiding death himself that he many times wished it upon himself in the grueling and torturous hours of his experience. I find myself so amazed at his poise and presence as well, and I feel that he must be one of the strongest men alive today, living on to be a husband, father, and presenter on his experience of the crimes and genocide of Srebrenica.
I will never forget any of these people. Their only wish is for others like us to spread their story so that their loss and their loved ones are not forgotten. The truth cannot be denied, though many try to suppress it. I hope to be able to honor their wishes, and help to combat hatred in society that leads to such violent ends. The simple passing of time will not be enough to heal the wounds of Srebrenica, and the world needs to be a part of offering some hope for healing.