Our time spent in Tuzla & Srebrenica was relatively short but left me with an immense amount of information and emotion that I suspect will last –and haunt– me for a lifetime. One of the primary reasons I wanted to take this course was because it seemed like it might be a rare opportunity to get a closer look into the topic of genocide; one which I fortunately have not personally experienced but have always had an interest in. And it’s been just that. One can read as many texts as she can get her hands on, watch all the documentaries available and study the topic from those who teach it the best. But there is nothing like hearing the accounts from those who experienced it first-hand and lived to tell the stories. Ann has built such strong relationships with these individuals, over the years and because of this rapport and trust built, we were able to hear these stories. These individuals were willing to share some of the most horrific, raw, and mortifying details of their lives with us. It was truly a pleasure to meet each and every one of them, and again, I was so pleasantly surprised by how quickly I took to them. How could I not be? They are some of the most friendly, welcoming, down to earth individuals I have ever encountered. And given that they’ve experienced some of the most unimaginable and dark experiences one could ever go through, I found myself that much more aware of how wonderful they –and their willingness to share—is. These are (some of) the faces of genocide.
Hasan is a long-time friend of our professor Ann’s and, as I understand it, has been an essential link in connecting Ann and DU students to some of the survivors of the atrocities that took place in Bosnia during the early 90s. Hasan is a genocide survivor himself, and after losing his twin brother and father, he was 17 when was forced to walk in the Death March in order to escape further persecution + a looming brutal death. After being in the woods for many seasons, he survived and is here to tell the story. Not only that, he has a very warm and welcoming demeanor about him– always smiling and completely willing to answer any and all questions we had for him. Asking someone to recall the darkest, most unfathomably horrific time in his life is something I quickly learned can be uncomfortable, and understandably so. But Hasan is an open book and given that he is a good friend of our professor, we were given the opportunity of connecting with him on a more personal level. He shared deeper personal details with us than he said he typically does, as he now works at the museum of the genocide of Srebenica and give tidbits of his story each day. His energy is truly contagious. During our time with him, he found a way to be light, tell jokes and be goofy— so much so that one might not know that he is someone who has experienced the worst that could ever happen. But during the time when he recounted his story for us, it was easy to see how his spirit had once been broken – the dark room and echoes of heavy rainfall aside. It’s hard, or nearly impossible, to fully grasp what happened to him and even imagine putting myself in his position. But he showed no signs of hatred towards those who changed his life, and ended the lives of those he loved the most. He described himself as “psychologically destroyed. Totally” but also noted that he holds no hatred in his heart, and a man like this is one everyone could learn a thing or two from. His resilience, strength, and courage to get up each day and tell his story is something I did not take for granted, and will never forget.
We were lucky enough to spend an evening at the home of easily one of the warmest, most gracious, and sweetest women I have ever met, Saliha Osmanović. Although we could not communicate with one another through a common spoken language, I was instantly touched by her presence and her inviting nature. I was also quite taken when Sladjana translated Saliha expressing that she wished she could speak to me; in that moment, I thought ‘add to the list of wonderful for Saliha, she’s a mind reader!’, as I was thinking the exact same thing. Saliha lives on the outskirts of Srebrenica in the same home she resided in during the war, but now she lives alone. She is a widow and a mourning mother of 2 boys who were killed during the genocide. Knowing what she had been through, I cant imagine even having the will to get out of bed each morning and if she at all felt the same, you wouldn’t really know it. She keeps a beautiful home with one of the most magical and expansive gardens I’ve seen. She cooked a wonderful meal for the 16 of us and treated us with such kindness, generosity, and indescribable hospitality. In just a few hours I found myself having the same reaction to her as Ann said she did at their first meeting: totally fell in love with her. You really couldn’t not. She’s just one of those people you are instantly drawn to and want to be around. She also was graciously willing to tell us her story of the war, her losses and how she has gone on. It was just unfathomable for me. I just cant imagine or fully wrap my head around her pain. But was so humbled and thankful to have spent time with her. And per her request, I will share her story—and the narrative of what took place during the war—with others for as long as I can.
Once we reached Potočari, we were again given the rare and indescribably eye-opening opportunity of hearing from more survivors of the genocide in the Srebrenica area. Nura Mustafić came to speak with us and for the first time, I found myself recognizing her pain in a way that I could imagine would be similar to my own, had I been in her position. Unwilling to revisit it without breaking down. Somewhat unlike the others we spoke to, Nura was visibly heartbroken as she struggled to get the words out between catching her breath from sobbing. To me, it seemed as though her pain was truly palpable . And unfortunately, contagious. She explained that she was “left behind to live” without her husband and 3 sons, as they were killed during the mass executions carried out by the Serbian Army. After having her children literally ripped out of her hands (SOUND FAMILIAR? Aheeeem, Trump administration), she found herself alone with unanswered questions, so she scoured the mass grave sites and anywhere she felt she might get information about their well-being. Eventually, the results of DNA tests showed that her 2 boys and husband were slain in the mass-killings, but she has yet to get definitive information about her last son. He has been missing for 20+ years and it is likely he was also brutally killed, but the lack of closure must eat at her every. single. day. That coupled with her unquantifiable loss, I was even more touched by her willingness to meet with us and make herself vulnerable by awakening the pain by recalling her story for us. Her tears and vulnerability showed her strength and resilience. Just as I was by the others, I was so honored to meet her; and to say I was touched by her words would be an understatement. They certainly helped me to see my life, my struggles, or any pain I have experienced in a different light and with a new perspective.
After Nura spoke, Nedžad Avdić took the floor and I can confidently say his words have changed my outlook on my life, as a whole. Nedžad is one of the 10 identified survivors of the mass execution sites and with every word that came out of his mouth, I found myself more and more enthralled –and truly horrified—by what he was describing as his reality. When he was just 17 years old, he was rounded up with many other men, crammed into a truck for 2 days with no water, space or much air to breathe, and brought to the place where he thought would be his last. He described the setting as “chaos” and I couldn’t help but paint a picture in my mind of the torture and horrible conditions he and the others endured. The men were lied to, fed falsities of how they would survive and things would get better if they just cooperated, in an attempt to calm the chaos, I suppose. He explained that they were ordered to remove their shoes, clothing down to the waist and lined up face- down with their arms bound behind their backs. He waited to die. He wanted to die. After many rounds of fire, screaming, excruciating anxiety awaiting his final bullet, he described turning his head to the side in a way that would be more comfortable to be shot. His recollection of detail was astonishing and very telling. His description painted the most vivid image of the atrocities that we had heard yet, and I could feel my skin crawling and blood boiling, as tears streamed down my face. Even writing this is extremely difficult and I’m finding myself short of breath recalling only what I had heard. Imagine living through it. It’s truly heart-wrenching and makes me feel so discouraged about mankind is capable of. And I am only recounting the story second-hand. He lived it, and although he was shot multiple times that day, he managed to hold on and live another day. Another decade. And continues to get up, go about his life—and thankfully, and luckily for those of us who want to know, tell his story. The bravery, courage and again, great showing of resilience is truly in a league of his own. It is just truly truly unimaginable to me that man can be such a brutal beast, at times. Then, and NOW. And if there’s one thing I feel I can do to bring a tiny sliver of justice to Nedžad and the others’ stories, it’s to spread it around, it far and wide. He asked this of us, and I will make it my mission to speak about this with anyone who will listen.
Finally, we found ourselves high up in the hills at the home of Ramiz Nukić, or the bone man, as they call him. Ramiz is also a survivor of the genocide, and he also lost many many loved ones to the Serbian’s ethnic cleansing of the land. He lives with his wife, children and grandchildren in a home that boasts stunning views, and soothing sounds of silence that can only be found in remote locations—well, between the almost inviting tune of the clanging cow, or sheep, bells as they grazed. With the numerous animals and people combined, they greatly outnumbered our fairly large group of about 20 and one might imagine it gets a little tight in such close living quarters. But they didn’t seem to be bothered; they greeted us with ear-to-ear smiles and his grandchildren’s curiosity was endearing. Ramiz is known as “the bone man” because he, as he explained, has made it his life’s mission to continue to search for the remains of those who were killed during the war in the 90s. And not without success, either. He has found and helped identify over 200 (maybe more at this point) individuals who died at the hands of the Serbs. Since the beginning of our studies, it has been stressed that so many who managed to survive the war are still not at peace for many reasons –one of which is that they don’t have answers to the question of how their loved ones passed away. Closure, in so many circumstances, is so important and if you’ve experienced this open-ended feeling, you likely know how crucial it is to feel as though the healing process can begin. Ramiz is truly an amazing man, and not just because he survived some of the worst atrocities imaginable. But also because he cares enough to help others find peace. And without any compensation, I might add…which is a disgrace in itself. We didn’t spend as much time with him as some of the others, but his warm welcome and amazing spirit is enough to stick in my memory, just as any of the others.
As I do my best to reflect on this, I find myself having a really difficult time processing everything. And have a steady feeling of overwhelm; first, I want my recollection of this experience to do some justice for those who were willing to let us in. And secondly, the war, the genocide, the atrocities, they’re all so disheartening and I find myself discouraged. There’s no clear silver lining, as far as I can see –at this point, anyways. Additionally, I am truly disturbed and horrified by some of the parallels drawn between the situation that took place in Bosnia and the current state of affairs in the US. History has a way of repeating itself, over, over and over again and it seems we don’t want to learn from our mistakes—which is probably one of most discouraging and upsetting aspects for me. Either we don’t recognize the repetitive patterns, or simply choose to turn the other cheek. Unfortunately, I am fairly confident it’s the latter. And more generally and obviously from what’s described above, I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the brutality of mankind. Hasan, Saliha, Nura, Nedžad and Ramiz’s stories were all recounted to us in a matter of about 24 hours, and it’s been about 24 hours since then; that said, I hope with more time and reflection, I will find a way to feel as though I can make a difference. Not that any of us can really do anything now that would change the suffering of their past. And the lasting effects of their trauma now. But I, we, have got to make sure this does not happen again. Not without a fight, anyways. I plan to honor their requests of spreading awareness. So, for now, that’s where I will begin.