Remembering and Learning from Srebrenica

We attended the July 11th commemoration in Potočari for the victims of the 1995 Srebrenica genocide. This a difficult blog post to write. In so many ways this is not my story to tell. It’s not my memories or loved ones or past life. But, I am deeply impacted by the gravity of the haunting reality that thousands of defenseless people were hunted, murdered and, nearly 25 years later, still missing. To stand on that ground among survivors of the death marches and the people who lost loved ones invariably impacts my understanding of the world.

I think the place to start is a place of gratitude. First and foremost I need to thank the people who allowed us to be in their sacred space. The commemoration is also an extremely complicated and painful funeral. I don’t have a frame of reference for this, but I cannot imagine inviting strangers to a funeral of someone I loved who suffered senseless violence. I think I would resent the cameras, the crowds and the other distractions from remembering my loved one. So I am deeply moved by the invitation to be there. I am also so thankful for the people who organized the logistics of getting us there and the hospitality of everyone we met. From the guest house owner and her family who welcomed us with family-style dinners and a rare warmth to the driver who had lost family in the genocide but spent hours transporting us to the cleaning staff in Sarajevo who lost family in the genocide, to Hasan who runs the memorial and lost his twin brother and father in the genocide (for more on his story, see his book “Surviving Srebrenica”)  to Ann who set an example of how to be respectful in such a complicated setting to each person who cared for us, welcomed us or included us. This event was not about us, and yet somehow us wanting to understand and connect with Bosnians was appreciated. I really don’t have the words to express my appreciation for the small ways we were included and welcomed.

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The memorial in Potočari on July 11th. Thousands of people came to commemoration.

In addition to attending the commemoration, we were there on the 10th when the participants of the Peace March, the cyclers and motorcyclists who had been criss-crossing Bosnia in memory of the events of Srebrenica arrived at the cemetery. Despite large crowds, the place was largely silent as people laid flowers on graves and grieved in their own ways. Survivors led the peace march and as they arrived covered in mud, remembrance and a kinship forged in tragedy, there was a palatable collective heaviness. Some of my colleagues wrote about the peace march in detail, but the moment that struck me was watching people finish a massive 60+ mile hike that usually brings relief and pride at having completed something physically demanding replaced with a shrinking of physical discomfort and outpouring of emotion. There was pain and remembrance and guilt and loss and grief and injustice and gratitude for survival and those gut wrenching questions of why life had to come out the way it did and so many other difficult to understand emotions. I think that moment revolutionized my understanding of restorative justice in a way that no book ever could.

Beyond this there isn’t a lot I feel comfortable saying since it isn’t my story to tell. I guess I feel as if the U.S. and NATO should have intervened earlier since there was an abundance of evidence suggesting something like Srebrenica was around the corner. I think our inaction cost people their lives, but that is a heavy and complicated burden to lay on anyone’s doorstep besides those who perpetrated the violence–and I mean the individuals that ordered or participated in the violence, not any group at large as collective guilt helps no one. I think the politics of intervention seem ridiculous in comparison to the damage that occurred there. I feel those hallowed and haunted grounds are a lesson and warning for the U.S. as nationalism takes root in the hearts of people I know to be full of love.

 

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Spacial Studies

Recently a co-worker’s daughter told me she was graduating from college with a couple majors and a minor in spacial studies. I had never heard of spacial studies and asked her what it meant. It was the idea that the physical geography of where we live is intricately tied to the way we experience life. For example, Denver is popular because of the Rocky Mountains, would the city of Denver be as popular without them? Would the economy experience such growth? I would argue that Denver’s fate is somehow linked with the physical geography. And, by extension, this realization amplifies the value of what the U.S. stole from both Indigenous Groups and Mexico. Another example are the fates of Jamaica and Guyana. Jamaica’s physical location and beauty have been habitually exploited; whereas, Guyana’s dense forest and dangerous wildlife protect it from the same forms of exploitation. Of course, the idea that our fate is tied to the geography of where we live and sometimes literally to the dirt we walk on, is not my idea. In addition to the emerging field of spacial studies, this concept has been widely accepted by native people all over the world since humans were around.

That said, it made me wonder about how the physical landscape of Bosnia impacts the fate of the people living here. Bosnia’s physical location has deeply and sometimes gravely impacted the identity of the people living here. Empires from the East and the West have occupied this land bringing with them their religions. As early as the 9th century–before “Bosnia” is mentioned in any historical text,  Bosnians were introduced to Christianity. Catholicism took root under the Franciscan Order in the late 1200s, and the Ottomans brought Islam to Bosnia in the mid-1400s. Bosnia is truly a point where East and West fought for identity. These labels from hundreds of years ago tied so dramatically to the value of the land, are the same labels that divided the country during the war in the 1990s. We see this again, at the end of the Ottoman Empire when the Young Turk government lost the Balken Wars, it changed the course of history for the Ottomans–most dramatically for the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire. Again, in WWII and the following years of the USSR, Bosnia (then part of Tito’s Yugoslavia) was outside the iron curtain, but wholeheartedly communist. Again, a point where East meets West, and Bosnia, due to its physical placement and vast resources, stood in the gap between. I’m skipping through over a thousand years of history so forgive me for the brevity and simplicity of this argument, but it holds that historically Bosnia is a point between East and West, and the identity of the people here are tied to this quasi-transient location.

Then there are the specific geographic features of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosnia is forested with plenty of rich arable land with a small but important coastline. To talk about Bosnia and fail to mention water, would be to wholly miss an identity of this place. So many of the roadways and cities fall along the rivers of Bosnia. Clean, crisp natural water flows through the country and is stored in the vast old-growth forests of Sutjeska National Park–known by some as the “lungs of Europe.” And this water, made ever-more significant by the hills and mountains, dictated where people built cities. The cities and most notably, Sarajevo are built along the rivers. There’s an obvious practical reason for this–people need water to survive. So all of this brings me to a point about Sarajevo: if the water wasn’t in the valley, if the land was flat, if the land was dry, if so many other things happened, Sarajevo may not have been built in a valley and the siege may have played out so differently.Image may contain: sky, tree, outdoor, water and nature

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There’s an inescapable truth that our surroundings have a hand in our fates, but walking along the river in Sarajevo, it is so beautiful and tragic that water, this necessity of life, would be both the strength of the city and a tragic flaw that made Sarajevo so vulnerable during the siege.

First Impressions… Well, Second Impressions

I have been to Bosnia before–more specifically I have been to Mostar in Herzegovina before and so I have a matching passport stamp, but have never really been here.

In many ways a stop in Mostar on a backpacking trip and beginning a summer internship in Sarajevo could not be more different. For one, in Mostar it was so hot that I spent my day running from shade tree to shade tree and eating all the čevapi my belly could handle–we even brought some on the bus. This trip, my umbrella is slowly 36318887_10216674092748433_8217154808214192128_nbecoming an extension of my left arm in addition to the extra layers of clothes. But, these are superficial changes. In the summer of 2016, my world was very different than it is now. I was returning to the U.S. after my Peace Corps adventures excited to return to working in refugee resettlement. Now I am on the other side of several immigration policy shifts that are fundamentally changing how the U.S. views immigration, and I moved across the U.S. to begin a new life in Denver. It has not been an easy few years, and I am intrinsically different than I was in 2016. These changes have impacted the way I travel and the way I see Bosnia in that each interaction seems to carry a significance. There’s the heaviness of knowledge that makes this trip deeper, more meaningful and complicated. This same knowledge also makes me feel more connected to the physical spaces of Sarajevo. Stories live in the stones of the bridges and the paint on the walls. This city is alive and infinitely complicated. I am meeting the city the way you meet a new friend.

In Mostar, I knew very little about the wars in Bosnia. My love for Aleksandar Hemon’s books cast some insight into Bosnian-American identity, but he is not a historian.  I knew the basics of the war, but not many complexities. Now, I have studied Bosnia in small pieces–though I am definitely no expert on it, I am learning as much as I can as quickly as I can. One of the biggest differences is an awareness of the ground I walk on. I recognize the locations that were instrumental in war. I can see the parliament building that burned, the bright yellow former Holiday Inn built for the ’84 olympics that was damaged, the market that was shelled, the bridges that people had to cross to get water from the still-operating brewery, etc. The siege is omnipresent here. Perhaps, these are thoughts based on my role as student, and I’m a bit hyperaware, but it feels unescapable.

As far as Sarajevo, to me, it seems a city of impact. I went to a tea shop ran by a 36343724_10216689534334463_9045525983817367552_nwonderful man named Hussein. He speaks a few words of English, and I speak very few words of Bosnian, but even without language he welcomed us with compassion. He floated from table to table attending to guests, making jokes, meeting people, walking them in and out of his shop. There was a warmth to his place that is very rare in the states. Time here is fluid, and people make time to greet each other. Coffee and tea are served as a center piece for conversation, not on the run. There is a sense of community that makes the states feel lonely. But, there is also a rigid divisiveness that prevails at moments. For example, Sarajevo has lots of street art and some graffiti. The messages range from pronouncements of love to pronouncements of hate. There seem to exist multiple realities in one space.

This contradiction of love in a space of tragedy can be seen in the Jewish Cemetery overlooking the city. A cemetery is a place for resting in peace, for honoring those who came before us, to say that someone was loved and someone mattered. This Jewish cemetery in particular has a memorial to those lost in WWII with special sympathy toward people who were in concentration camps. And this beautiful memorial is the sight of a particularly deadly sniper nest during the world. A site of peace became a site of war. There are bullet holes in gravestones and chunks of missing marble blow away in the war. The point of highlighting these seeming inconsistencies is to say that Bosnia is tragic and beautiful and loving and rigid and complicated beyond my understanding.

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So in closing, I will say that I am grateful to everyone who allows me to be here and I am excited to learn as much as I can while I am here. And, as a disclaimer, these are my first impressions and I do not speak with authority on matters of Bosnia.