“Never Again,” Again and Again

A year after the international community said “never again” in response to the Rwandan genocide, more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys were systemically murdered in and around Srebenica, eastern Bosnia. The killings carried out by the Serbian Army took place in the first ever UN safe zone, and were part of a larger campaign to “cleanse” the region of Bosniaks and create a united Serbian ethno-state. The events of July of 1995 were a culmination of political propaganda, the normalization of hatred, and divisive ethno-nationalism, and remain the worst mass atrocity on European soil since World War II.

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Just over three weeks before the 23rd anniversary of the Srebenica genocide, we found ourselves at the home of one of the wars most well known survivors, Saliha Osmanović. She greets us all with eager warmth; connection and community have become the foundation of her healing. Saliha lives nearly an hour outside Srebenica proper, in a simple but immaculate country home, painted white with apricot trim. Pear and plum trees grow in the front yard, and the garden out back is ripe with green beans, potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes and green onions. Raspberry vines grow tangled on a wooden fence, and a lush forest buttresses the garden. If you stay silent for just a moment, you can hear birds singing and trees swaying in the breeze. It feels profoundly idyllic. And yet for Saliha, who only returned to her village and family home in 2009, tragedy and heartache underscore much of her life here. After an incredible meal together, we gather to hear Saliha’s story. Before she begins, she lights a cigarette, inhales slowly, and wrings her hands together. You can see the sorrow in her eyes as she speaks of losing her entire family in the genocide; her son Edin, was killed by a Serbian grenade and was buried in the summer heat of July, 1995. Her other son, Nermin and her husband, Ramo, were captured by Serbian forces just a few days later. Saliha, along with thousands of other women, waited at a refugee camp for their husbands and sons to return, but they never came. Both Nermin and Ramo were eventually found in a mass grave and were permanently laid to rest in 2008.

The following day, our guide, Hasan Hasanović, brings us to the Srebenica Memorial Center in Potoćari. Hasan, a man who oozes warmth, humor and graciousness, is a survivor of Srebenica, and the museum curator. The museum, which is housed in an old battery factory, was most recently the headquarters of the UN Dutch battalion charged with peacekeeping in Srebenica. It seems fitting. When we enter the auditorium, Hasan asks us to sit down in front of a series of blank televisions. He pulls his chair close, and begins telling his story in calm and calculated detail. He recounts his childhood in a rural village near the Serbian border; his days were marked by never-ending chores, such as drying plums and tending to livestock, and when his grandfather was away for work, escaping to nearby fields to play football with his twin brother Husein. He tells us of his deep connection with his brother, who was outgoing, charismatic and excelled in math and art. He speaks of being shy, and blushing when girls at school would greet him. He speaks of having Serbian friends and neighbors. His memories are vibrant and timeless, and seem crystallized by the pain and tragedy that would follow.

During the war, Hasan and his family moved between the homes of relatives and friends, somehow surviving the unforgiving winters and sweltering summers with limited food and water. He survived the shelling of a schoolyard in a refugee camp in 1993, where he waited his turn to play soccer. When the black smoke from one of the shells finally cleared, he could see the gruesome aftermath; dozens of bodies were strewn about the field, flesh torn from their bones, pools of blood forming beneath them. He described seeing one child’s head severed from his body, and the frantic chaos of looking for survivors. Ultimately, 74 people died during this attack, many of whom were children.

Two years later, when the UN failed to fulfill its promises of keeping peace, Hasan joined the column (otherwise known as the Death March) with his father, brother and uncle. They marched with thousands of other men and boys fleeing violence, in hopes of reaching Tuzla, the nearest free Muslim territory. When they finally entered the forest, the Serbian Army unleashed a barrage of bullets from atop a nearby hill, striking people from every angle. The gunfire seemed never-ending, and as bodies fell and the forest slowly became a graveyard, Hasan ran. He eventually lost his family, but prayed they would be reunited along the way, or at the very least, once he reached the refugee camp in Tuzla. Miraculously, he managed to avoid the nearly constant gunfire and ambushes by tanks and soldiers. He ran for six days and nights, with very little water, no food besides tiny bits of sugar, and intermittent, restless sleep. He speaks of the pure exhaustion and confusion as though it was a waking dream; at one point, he laid down by a river to sleep, when another man urged him to get up: “If you sleep now, you’ll sleep forever,” he said. Although Hasan was barely conscious, he heeded this man’s warning and and is here to tell about it. The rest of his family, however, did not share his fate. Hasan buried the remains of his father in Potoćari in 2003, and his brother two years later.

Later, at the Srebenica Memorial Cemetery, where more than 6,000 bodies from the genocide are buried, we meet two other survivors. We are first introduced to Nura Mustafić, who lost her three sons and husband in the genocide. Nura sits between Ann and Hasan and draws a long, deep breath before she begins her story. As she speaks, she squeezes Ann’s hand and tries to steady her voice. Nura remembers fleeing to the forest with her family in hopes of safely reaching free territory. Along the way, however, her sons were injured and eventually taken from her  by Serbian soldiers. Nura wipes her tears and exhales slowly. She speaks only briefly, but her heartbreak is salient, palpable, unmistakable. Before she leaves, she asks us to share her story and then joins our class for a photo. Next to me, Nura pats my knee. She puts her arm around me and kisses my outer cheek. I can feel her warmth and kindness surround me and in that moment, I wish more than anything that I could take away her heartache. I wonder if when, reliving her story over and over, her heart ever feels like it might collapse. It never does.

We then meet Nedžad Avdić, who is only one of ten survivors of an execution site. He describes his story in vivid detail. He remembers being forced into the back of a truck with dozens of others, including his uncle, and nearly suffocating from the heat and lack of oxygen. A small hole in the canvas covering the truck allowed him to draw breath every few minutes. When the lorry finally reached a nearby school, Nedžad was thirsty, exhausted and terrified. He was brought inside by soldiers, and somehow survived their indiscriminate gunfire. Before he was taken to a nearby field for execution, he was forced to remove his socks and shoes. As he walked through the hallway of the school, he stepped between dead bodies and felt the sticky warmth of blood on the bare soles of his feet. Once outside, he was forced to interlock his hands behind his head and quietly wait for the squad to fire. He remembers the stinging sensation of being shot in his leg and his right side, and the smell of gunpowder hanging in the air as he laid in the grass, surrounded by other men and boys drawing their final breath. He tells us that he worried his mother would never know what happened to him. He tells us that he wished for death. Nedžad was silent about Srebenica— he tried desperately to erase it from his memory—for nearly twenty years. Now, no matter the pain of his story, he promises that he will be silent no longer.

These stories are but a glimpse into the lived experiences of Srebenica—there are more than 8,000 others. And yet despite the mounting physical and forensic evidence, and despite the testimony of survivors and the confessions from perpetrators, genocide denial is commonplace in Srebenica. The current mayor of the town, Mladen Grujicic, is an avid genocide denier who claims that it is Serbs, not Bosniaks, that face discrimination. The genocide is not taught about in schools in Srebenica, there exist few accurate books about the massacre, and anti-Muslim graffiti marks the walls of abandoned buildings on the outskirts of the city. In nearby Serbia, the amplification of ethno-nationalism is undeniable; many of the war criminals that orchestrated the genocide in Srebenica are celebrated as heroes by Serbian leaders and civilians alike, and calls for a Greater Serbian State are becoming more and more common. The political system in Bosnia, which is separated along ethnic lines, continues to entrench division and normalize intolerance, while doing little more than lining the pockets of politicians. The peace in Bosnia is tenuous, at best, and rampant Islamaphobia has grown dangerously contagious throughout the region. In light of all this, many wonder: is history doomed to repeat itself? Can renewed ethnic violence be prevented when the current political system bolsters hatred and hardens disparity? Can healing exist without truth?

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Since the fall of Srebenica in July of 1995, genocide has happened in various places around the world, and continues to happen today: the Rohingya in Myanmar; the Yazidi’s and Christians in Iraq and Syria; Christians and Muslims in the Central African Republic; Yemeni’s in Yemen; and various ethnic groups in South Sudan. We continue to promise “never again,” and with each passing day, mass atrocities claim the lives of thousands upon thousands. How many more times will the world watch and do nothing? When will we decide that enough is enough?

Since returning from Srebenica, I’ve spent a lot of time in silence. I keep revisiting the warmth and the kindness, the humor and generosity, the depth and resiliency of every single person that we met. Despite the profound and unique loss of each survivor, none of them have ill-will for their perpetrators. None of them wish for revenge. They seek justice where it is due and they hope their suffering and loss will not be forgotten. They also dream of building a world where love and kindness will finally prevail over intolerance and hatred. Similarly, what they asked of us was simple: Share their stories with the world so that Srebenica never happens again. Continue, against all odds, to speak truth to power.

And while it hardly feels like enough– could anything ever be enough?—it seems the least we can do.

It is the least we can do.

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The People Make the Place

Traveling to new places is always full of rich experiences, but for me, the most meaningful experiences are usually the conversations I have and the connections I make with people along the way. Language, however, can either facilitate connection or make it more challenging. Throughout the last few days, I have found myself wishing that I could speak Bosnian more than once; while I am so very grateful that we have the luxury of a constant interpreter, there is something about hearing everything through a third party that creates a slight feeling of detachment. Interaction is limited when it happens through a buffer, particularly because language is nuanced and complicated and so much can get lost in translation.

And yet, at the same time, we still manage to find ways to share and connect with one other. Much as we experienced with Nino–our bus driver on Thursday and Friday—generosity and kindness transcends words. Nino went out of his way to share knowledge with us about Bosnia—even stopping at interesting historical landmarks that were not planned or on our itinerary– to make sure we had plenty of bathroom breaks and group photos, that we got to our destination as quickly and safely as possible, and that we were all feeling comfortable and well. He was warm and kind and so unbelievably patient. It was really nice that he joined us for dinner in Neum Thursday night—I hope he felt as appreciated as he deserved.

Yesterday, our guides on the hike to Lukomir were absolutely wonderful as well. Adis was not only helpful and knowledgeable, but really charming and funny. It felt like such a treat to be able to ask him questions directly… to learn about his parents (his mother is a social worker!) and his family, his various jobs since high school and his passion for the outdoors. Adis also had a very sarcastic sense of humor– which I appreciate—and while we chatted and teased each other on the hike, I realized that even something as simple as laughing with a stranger can deepen an experience and help you feel more connected to a particular place. Later, when we were taking shelter from the rain and resting inside, I was struck by how thoughtful and generous Saliha’s family was, and how much time they spent making sure we— a group of 16– were warm, dry, comfortable and fed. The food and coffee were amazing, to be sure, but the hosts were definitely the best part of the meal.

After lunch, I chatted with Saliha’s daughter, Edina, and we bonded over our love for animals—particularly cows, and their remarkably gentle nature. She told us stories about being a six-year old girl, in the heat of summer, wandering the hills in Lukomir with her grandparent’s cattle. She talked about how her father fought in the war, and how her mother spent the better part of two years without any word from him, being left to draw her own conclusions about his fate. She told me about her mother getting pregnant after her father’s long anticipated return and how this was fairly common for Bosnian women whose husbands worked on the frontlines. When her father left again, her mother would walk almost 27km (one way) to the Tunnel of Hope, while pregnant, with her older sister in tow. She would carry up to 40 kgs, through a city that was raining bullets and artillery shells, simply to buy and sell goods to feed her family. One time, her mother fell in the tunnel and broke all the eggs she had traveled so far to sell—and with one egg costing the equivalent of nearly 10 marks at the time, this was an unimaginable loss. She seemed acutely aware of the sacrifices her parents made to ensure that she and her sister were safe, and expressed a love and gratitude for her parents that was both earnest and salient. And although she also talked about her frustrations with Bosnia’s current system of governance and the manufactured ethnic divide (and tenuous peace) that has come to typify much of the country, she also had so much love for her homeland. Things aren’t perfect here, she said, but she is committed to staying, and doing whatever she can to make a better future for country—a country that her parents, and thousands of others, fought so hard to save. Hundreds of thousands of educated Bosnian youth are leaving the country every year to seek employment in places like Germany and Sweden, but Edina won’t be one of them.

After the drive back, we walked to Bascarsija together and she showed me videos of her cat and pictures of a pet rabbit, and as we laughed about the bunny’s ridiculously fluffy ears, I was reminded of the importance and beauty of simple human connection. Bosnia is an unexpectedly magical place; from the rolling green hills carpeted with wildflowers to the dramatic mountains and the clearest rivers, from the country’s vibrant and complicated history and trauma from war to its undeniable energy, vibrancy and soul– it really is hard not to fall in love. And yet still, the most memorable experiences of this last week truly have been the people we’ve met and the moments we’ve shared with them. Tonight, when we paid a quick visit to Hussein’s whimsical tea- shop, it once again became clear that no matter how beautiful or interesting a city or country might be, it’s really the people that make the place.

Sarajevo: Resistance and Resilience

I’ve been sitting here, on the patio of Hotel Kovaci, for at least an hour, trying to wrap my head around everything I’ve seen, experienced and felt since arriving in Sarajevo. Sometimes words are not enough.

War, for many people, is nothing more than a concept—something that happens in other countries but not our own; something we have opinions about, study in school and dissect as theory but never actually live. One can spend an eternity studying models of war and peace and yet nothing can prepare you for the trauma and devastation of watching your city burn or seeing your neighbors, friends or family members shot by a sniper as they run across the street. Nothing can prepare you for 1425 days of life under siege. Yesterday, when we visited the Tunnel of Hope, something that I read really struck me: during the siege of Sarajevo, the main aim of the Serbian Army was to enact as much devastation—to cause as much catastrophic loss to Sarajevo as possible: those who were not direct casualties of war would certainly succumb to madness and lose their will to live. It seemed that no one expected the citizens of Sarajevo to survive for as long as they did. The human spirit, it turns out, is remarkably hard to kill—even with three thousand shell attacks in a day.

So much of what we’ve encountered in the last two days has been complicated, nuanced and emotional. I’ve found myself listening to Jadranka speak, getting lost in her words, trying to imagine what the city looks like through her eyes. I’ve watched people quietly in the streets, wondering if they too, were here during the siege. Did they fight on the front lines or lose someone they love? Did they risk their lives to find food and water for their family, over and over again? Do they think about the war as much as we are now, in all our earnest effort to (marginally) understand it? And at the same time, I’ve found myself feeling conflicted for having these thoughts. Am I tokenizing people through these contemplations? Is our presence here meaningful or transactional—or a combination of both? How can we remember and learn about the war without defining people by it? War is tragic and violent by nature, and leaves a legacy of trauma in its wake, and yet remembering it seems paramount to healing and reconciliation. But even memories are complicated—particularly in a country with three separate versions of the truth, and many more ideas for the best path forward.

Today, the screening of Scream for Me Sarajevo and subsequent Q and A reminded me of the importance of art as a form of protest and resistance—- but also of self-determined political/social agency: how we create the future, in many ways, hinges upon how we view stories from the past. Who is controlling the narrative? What kind of story do they want to tell, and who is listening? Jesenko talked briefly during the Q and A about how he sought tell a different story through the production of this film– one that differed from all the other film portrayals of the siege. And while many people in Sarajevo didn’t know about the concert, the symbolism of the event was both remarkable and undeniable, especially in a city that much of the world chose to ignore– even in light of the longest siege of a capitol city in modern warfare. What we were left with was not just a powerful anti-war film, but a reminder that even in times of unimaginable tragedy, forgetting about war and losing yourself in music, even for just a night, can also be an act of resistance.