This week took on another mood compared to last week. We started our morning off early by being picked up at Hotel Kovaci by three drivers and Hasan Hasanović. Prior to coming to Bosnia we had been assigned Hasan’s book, “Surviving Srebinica” for our class. It is both a tragic and amazing story that Hasan has been through. It is a tragedy what humans can do to each other and did on Hasan and the other Muslim men, boys, and a few women on the Death March from Srebinica to Tuzla. It is equally amazing at what the human spirit can do in order to survive such tragedy.
Our first stop outside of Sarajevo was at Franck Espresso to get coffee and traditional Bosnian pancakes. They are nothing like American pancakes. It would be a better description of something similar to a wheat pita pocket filled with a homemade cream cheese concoction. It was very good and everything was made from scratch. You could watch the proprietors put the dough into the wood-fired, stone oven to bake. Once everybody got their fill of food and coffee we were on our way to Tuzla and the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) office.
Once we arrived at the ICMP in Tuzla we were greeted by their senior forensic anthropologist, Dragana Vučetić. Dragana talked to us about the mission of the ICMP and how they identify skeletal remains now compared to when they first started in the mid-90s. Originally they placed the recovered remains outside in the open air for family members to come and attempt to identify based upon clothing and personal effects. They then changed their policy and started to take photos of personal effects that were associated with specific human remains and printed them out in a book for families to go through and identify. This process was long and tedious with little success. Once DNA technology became available to the ICMP their identification process became streamlined and many remains were identified each year. They have identified over 6500 of the approximately 8000 victims of the genocide at Srebenica and the surrounding villages. Dragana told us that she feels that there are still at least 1 or 2 mass graves that have yet to be found and she wished that there were more people like the Bone Man, Ramiz Nukic, who walks the hills looking for human bones. She showed us the morgue where all of the remains are kept until identification and burial. As soon as I walked through the door I felt a strong sense of sadness in the room as though I was entering hallowed ground. I was amazed and thankful for people like Dragana to continue their mission to identify every last person so families could have closure and be able to bury their relatives.
Next we went to Saliha Osmanović’s house to hear her story and eat dinner with her. The last footage of her husband was recorded by Serb forces calling his son and other Bosniaks out of the hills after he was captured during the Death March. Saliha lost her husband and two sons during the war. She told us that she has no one left to keep her company and looks forward to each summer when Ann brings her students to visit her. I do not know if I could keep living after having been through what she has. The amount of resilience that she has shown throughout her life is inspriing. She has an amazing house and garden. Her front yard is full of flowers and several different types of fruit bearing trees. In the back her garden is about as long as a basketball court and at least one and half times as wide as one.
On Tuesday we went to the Srebrenica–Potočari Memorial and Cemetery for the Victims of the 1995 Genocide. Hasan met us outside and brought us in to the museum. We started off in the media room where he told us his personal story from his childhood through the aftermath of the war. I strongly recommend his book to understand what it was like to survive the Death March and continue living your life with hope for a better tomorrow. One of the things that Hasan said that was truly amazing was that even after everything that happened with the genocide there has been no retribution by the Bosniaks towards the Serbs. I am doubtful that that would be the case in the U.S. these days. Hasan has done a great job with the curation of the museum. I was very impressed by the story and recreation of the UN base. The cemetary was breathtaking and painful. Nura Mustafić spoke to us there. She is one of the few women who started the Death March with the men. She lost her husband and three sons on the Death March before and after she was captured. Nedžad Avdić then spoke to us. He is one of ten execution site survivors. He talked about his process of working through his silence and eventually deciding to speak out about his experiences during the atrocities. The walls of names reminded me of the U.S. Vietnam War Memorial as it is name after name etched into white stone. It is clear that entire male sides of families were killed during the genocide. I walked up on the hill which is the tallest part of the cemetary to look back and saw thousands of burial markers for each person that was buried there from the genocide. The rows went on and on and until it was hard to see them anymore. It was a sobering sight.
Our last visit was to talk to Ramiz Nukić at his farm outside of Potočari. He also lost family members during the Death March. His farm sits below the site of an ambush sight that occurred while the Bosniak men were on their Death March. After he completes his chores on his farm he goes out into the woods to search for human bones to provide closure to other family members who are still waiting on their loved ones to be identified. He has found over 200 individual remains that have provided closure to numerous people. Ramiz is not compensated in any way by the Bosnian government, ICMP, or family members. He does this out of the goodness of his heart and because he knows what it feels like when you don’t have any closure or body to bury.
These two days have been an exercise in understanding the resilience of the human spirit. I have had my own trauma, though not nearly as much as the people that I have met over the past several days. It can make it frustrating to hear people complain about little things when I have heard what these Bosnians have gone through.