What a week it has been. From having a ridiculously fun 4th of July party here in Sarajevo to an emotionally charged weekend the past 4 days. Over the course of this week’s blog I will do my best to attempt to describe the mess of emotions that have occupied me the past week.
I can’t believe that I have been here in Sarajevo for about a month already. And that definitely has shown. I think that realization came when 4th of July came about and I saw all of my friends having and participating in 4th-of-july type celebrations in Denver. I was sad. I was upset that I was not with my friends and family and that I was so far away from home. Yes, I am loving it here but there is something upsetting about being thousands of miles away from your home on this very American holiday. After a few glasses of champagne and a much needed, teary-eyed skype chat with my boyfriend and friends back home, being away didn’t feel so bad. Life-pro-tip: crying to your friends over skype is essential when living abroad.
Little did I realize that the 4th was just scratching the surface of emotions and feelings that were to be had in the coming days. Every year in Srebrenica there is this march called the Peace March. It is around a 60-mile march taking place over 3 days, and is done to remember the lives of the men and boys that lost their lives when Serb forces took control of the town of Srebrenica. We were given the option to participate in this, and many of the GPB students decided to, and I had originally planned on it, but due to health concerns that I decided against it. On the 7th these students left for their march from the 8th to the 11th while a few of us stayed back at the hostel.
For me, the days of the 8th through the 11th consisted of homemade food, relaxation, and crappy American TV; later I would come to realize that this was the EXACT opposite of what my friends were experiencing during these three days. On the 11th I left Sarajevo with two other girls and Ann, the program director, for Srebrenica so that we could meet the peace marchers as they arrived at their end destination, the Srebrenica Memorial, and to attend the public memorial on the 12th of July.
Once we arrived in Srebrenica we dropped our belongings off at the wonderful Anesa’s house; a good friend of Ann’s who never once ceased to amaze me. She would make us dinner, make our beds, clean the dishes, and make sure we had everything that we needed, all while doing the things that she needed to take care of, like sleeping… and eating. After eating and getting breakfast we walked from Anesa’s, in Srebrenica , to Potoćari, which is where the memorial is. And thus was the beginning of the roller coaster of emotions that has changed my entire perspective of what felt like another life.
Where do I even begin to describe this town and the feelings that accompany it. Deep in the Republik of Srpska, which is mostly occupied by Bosnian-Serbs, Srebrenica emits a feeling like none other. As we were walking down the winding road that leads to the memorial in Potoćari, we were met with stares conveying the residents’ dislike towards Americans. They knew we were only there for one reason. An event honoring the slain 8,372 Muslim men and boys, which some still to this day still deny. We were accosted by men who had slowed down in their cars as we were walking. We did not reply. We just kept our heads down. The town is quiet, hauntingly. There are remnants of war. The stairs where Karadzic proclaimed the take over of Srebrenica. I don’t know how Ann goes there in the winter. It is one of the last places I would ever want to be in the cold, grey, quiet of winter. Where 80 boys were killed there is a basketball court. People existing and living there like nothing ever happened. It is a very surreal experience. What is this feeling?
I am not sure if it was due to the speeding cars passing us by, or the feeling of eyes upon me, but I could feel every beat of my heart in my entire body, a feeling I would get to know in the coming days. Get me off of this road. The hot sun beaming on my back and shoulder, sweat rolling down my back. I just wanted to get to the memorial. Get to Ann. I wanted to be in a place with Ann, with other Bosniaks. I wanted to be with people who were there for the same reasons as us.
Once we were safely at the memorial and with Ann, she told us, that if we wanted, we could go into the old factory and view all of the recognizable green-covered coffins. These coffins held the remnants of individuals that were to be buried at the memorial this year. As we walked around the side of the building and towards the opening of the factory I could feel my stomach doing twists and turns. What is this feeling? Oh my god, oh my god… I was so nervous. And I thought that the walk down to the memorial was anxiety provoking. That was nothing compared to what I was about to feel. Seeing those coffins… I did not even know what to think. I think I was so stunned that my entire brain shut off and blocked off anything coming in. Feelings, thoughts, ideas. Processing was at a halt. I did not know what to make of the sight in front of me.
After an hour or so of being at the memorial, the moment was there. Watching my friends come in from the peace march was definitely a sight to behold. I was so happy to see them, but yet I was sad. I think I was sad not because I did not participate but because I knew that they had just completed this grueling task, and I wanted to be there for them, and support them, but I did not know how. I knew that they were going to be emotional, but I had no idea how emotional. Tears streamed down their faces as they crossed the finish line. I know that being there was the best thing that I could do, but I wanted to help more. I wanted to be more for them.
After my friends crossed the finish line, from behind the safety of my sunglasses I observed the many other people that crossed the finish line. Old men, young boys, teenagers, one man was an amputee. And that is when I felt shameful. There were people of all ages completing this insanely difficult march and yet I did not. I know that I had a good reason as to not participate, but yet I still felt ashamed and weak for not doing it. My friends were emotionally and physically beaten down, men twice my age participated, and yet I did not. I just felt bad. I felt like a shitty person. But I knew that the best thing that I could do was be there for my friends in any way that I possibly could be. And that is what I did for them. I hugged them when they wanted hugs, I was a shoulder to cry on when they needed to cry, and I listened when they wanted to talk, and I hoped, with every bone in my body, that that was enough. At least for them. It is the least that I felt that I could do.
On July 13th I was given an experience that I would never forget. Ann invited me to join her, her amazing friend Hasan, and a group of women known as the Srebrenica Mothers to visit the execution sites as the mothers laid flowers at each of the sites. Ann knew that I was upset that I was unable to participate in the peace march so she invited me on this journey. She talked to me and prepared me for an experience that was not going to be easy in any way. I said yes, and while this was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do in my entire life, I am extremely glad that I did this.
There were 8 execution sites that were to be visited. 2 schools, 2 fields, a soccer field, an old agricultural building, an earthen dam, and the worst and most horrifying, a building termed “the cultural center”, which was just that’ a building that used to hold town plays and musicals and performances.
We left Sarajevo early Wednesday morning, and by the time that we arrived to the first site I honestly did not know what to feel, or what to expect to feel. We chatted the entire bus ride and when the first place crept its way into our view Ann said, “Oh god, we are here… So it begins”. It was the destroyed agricultural building. Bullet holes were pronounced across the building. Inside, the roof was charred and black from a fire meant to harm and destroy. The Srebrenica Mothers, and others, gathered around a spot in the front of the building and places flowers and wreaths honoring their deceased sons, husbands, and fathers. The Imam led them in prayer. TV and news cameras filmed the entire thing. At first, shock hit me. I did not know how to react. Similar to viewing the coffins. I listened to the prayer and before I knew it we were walking back to the buses. Things were happening too fast for my brain to process.
As we climbed onto the bus I thought about what I had just seen. A place where people had lost their lives. In one of the most horrific and disturbing ways a life can be taken. As I processed we drove to the next site, and what a strange experience this was. We talked about what we had seen, but slowly the mothers began talking and laughing. Ann, Hasan, Lory (a wonderful friend of the aforementioned friends), and I chatted and laughed as well. Just as I was feeling somewhat stable, we reached our second site. A school in the R.S. A school where children go to learn… and play. A school where children are named “student of the month”. And then I was thrust into this daze and confusion of emotions all over again. And then we boarded the bus… and talked and joked… just like before.
As we continued to each site the more horrific and awful these sites became. The earthen dam still contained shell casings from the brutal execution that took place there 21 years prior. One of the most surreal feelings was as I was looking out from this dam there was this insanely beautiful view of the rolling hills, mountains, and scenery. And I thought, “these men, these boys, the last thing they ever saw was their home country. A place they believed to be safe. A place they believed they could call home.” Fear, horror, shock, and terror. Knowing their family may never find out what happened to them. I climbed back on to the bus… tears welled up in my hidden eyes.
The site following the dam is to this day once of the most gruesome and horrific places I have ever been. The ironically named “cultural center” is where plays, musicals, and performances took place in the small village that we were in. A place where hundreds of men and boys were robbed of their lives. As we entered I noticed trashed purposefully placed outside of the location. Trash inside the building. Feces intentionally littered the ground. And bullet holes, countless bullet holes EVERYWHERE. The stage where the victims tried to hide was blown to pieces. The roof was blown to pieces. I felt like I had been punched in the stomach, had the wind knocked out of me, and was going to vomit all at the same time. I am going to fucking throw up. You could feel the sheer terror. You could feel the panic. You could hear the screams. You could imagine the ground soaked in blood. Where am I?! And then, that is when I lost it. Tears rolled down my face. I sobbed. Lory grabbed me and hugged me. Which almost made it worse. How were the mothers doing this??
After the next two sites we finally headed home. I chatted with Ann and the mothers, and then I finally sat in silence…
Misery. Grief. Depression. Anguish. Distress. How do you react after seeing all of the places? How do I even begin to process my emotions and feelings? How do the Srebrenica Mothers do this every year?! Well… I am still figuring all of this out. I never thought I would be able to feel so empty. So alone. So scared. I felt empty. But these places did all of that to me. They showed me a side of humanity that I never wish to see. Talking to friends help. Talking to them about the emotions and feelings that these places have given me, placed some light back in me, but how do I begin to understand. For me, going to those places was a choice. Not for the men and boys that lost their lives there. I should not have to go to those places. The mothers shouldn’t have to go to those places.
“…Collective recovery is a creative and emergent process; its content and form are constructed over time through cycles of collective action, reflection, and narration.”
-Jack Saul, Collective Trauma, Collective Healing
So, to say the least, it has been an extremely difficult week. Where do I start with all of this? And what do I do with all of this?
I believe the mothers to be the secret. The feelings that push them are why this country has survived all of this. Their friendships are more than just friendships. They have a bond that connects them. Heals them. Their shared experience is what helps them to place the flowers and wreaths. It is what drives them to continue. I am sure they have their demons and their own dark places, but through each other they find the light that they need to. And observing this, seeing this connection, is the most remarkable thing that I have ever seen. They push themselves for their husbands, sons, and brothers. They do it all for them.
Seeing this gave me hope too. Hope in humanity again. Hope when I did not think that there was any to be found. The mothers developed this way to show that they have not forgotten their loved ones, and neither will I. I have a responsibility. I will remember this for my entire life, and I too will do my best to honor and remember those that lost their lives. I will do my best to remember why I went to those sites and who I went for.