Growing up in the U.S I heard very little about the Balkans. It seemed to be a unknown part of the world in the circles I was raised in. Despite my lack of understanding, this past year I tossed myself into an unknown void in hopes of it being a fruitful venture. I can now say without hesitation that I made the right decision, the void I jumped into has cleared into a very real world I did not know existed. I have learned that not only has the Balkans been a very pivotal location in world history but a very breathtakingly beautiful location with kind and hospitable people. In Croatia the Adriatic Sea has crystal clear waters and old cities with cobble stone streets. In Montenegro the jagged mountains stretch impressively toward the sky and old turquoises colored rivers flow far down bellow them. In Bosnia Herzegovina, which is the country closest to my heart, the landscape changes from rolling hills to rocky mountains, the climate changes from humid to arid, the vegetation changes from palm trees to pine, and the culture changes from mosques and hookah shops to cathedrals and crepe stands.
Wings of Hope is a small NGO with big ambitions. It was founded in 1994 in response to the war. Everyone suffered during the war but WoH originally focused on the children’s experience, and this is still a central part of the organization today. Children during the war suffered in a variety of ways, the obvious was being subjected to varying levels of violence and hardships i.e seeing death and lack of food but there are others as well. Children were displaced, many lost so many family members they had to go through foster care, poverty was an issue both during and after the war, and education was interrupted for countless children. All these issues left hundreds of thousands of children in need of therapy, financial help, and education. The large amount of children who did not get mental health care after the war has led to a large portion of unstable adults today, the large amount of children living in poverty after the war has led to a large portion of adults that have no finances to rely on today, and the large amount of children who did not make up their lost years of education after the war has led to a large portion of adults who are not qualified for jobs today. Since its founding WoH has been providing free therapy, tutoring, scholarships and countless other services for the children marginalized during and post conflict to combat these issues. As times have changed in the 22 years since the war ended, WoH has expanded to include other marginalized groups in their projects, for example the LBGT community which is subjected to much discrimination in Bosnia.
I personally did not know what to expect from my internship this summer but it has been a very pleasant experience. Our environment is very laid back and from day one I felt like I was surrounded by a little family. Our days involve drinking coffee and discussing everything from politics to relationships between brainstorming sessions on new projects. This summer we have helped research a variety of topics from Bosnian population counts to gay pride parades across the Balkans. We are currently helping to build up sources for a new project that focuses on LGBT rights here in Sarajevo.
April 1992- start of Bosnian Herzegovina Civil War and the beginning of the siege of Srebrenica by the Bosnian Serb army
*Little to no access to the outside world resulted in shortages of food, clean water, and medical supplies. There was also no electricity unless people were smart enough (and had the supplies) to set up their own source via stream or crank est. The U.N would drop food and supplies on the surrounding hills periodically (this was very dangerous, a few individuals were crushed by the falling supplies) these deliveries and the communities willingness to take care of one another is the reason the people of Srebrenica did not starve in the early part of the siege.
March 1993- An influx of people pour into Srebrenica from surrounding towns as the Bosnian Serb army closes its ranks and the U.N started making moves to make Srebrenica an official “safe zone”
*At this time all of the residential houses were full so people started living in public buildings like schools and gyms, and eventually out in the streets.
April 1993 – Playground shelling by the Bosnian Serb army next to the Srebrenica public school killing 74 children and teenagers and Srebrenica was declared an official “safe zone” of the U.N (the playground has been built up again and today it looks normal, the schools beside it believe that the genocide never happened and it is likely the children in those schools do not know that anything bad ever happened in that playground)
*The U.N started building structures for everyone living in the public buildings and on the street, they also collected all of the weapons the people of Srebrenica were using to hold back the Bosnian Serb army.
September 1994 – A new school was built by a Swedish Humanitarian Organization so the children of Srebrenica could go to school again
*There hadn’t been a functioning school in Srebrenica since before the siege so this new school opening was a big deal, it was barricaded with sandbags to protect students and teachers from potential shelling. Also, because of the U.N’s presence and the higher flow of food from them, people were relaxing some and setting up little dance clubs (where you paid to get in with cigarettes) and chess tournaments, sports teams, and make-shift movie theaters.
Summer of 1994 – the World Cup. The people of Srebrenica set up a T.V on top of one of the hills surrounding the town to get a signal and the Bosnian Serb army was doing the same on the opposite hill.
Spring 1995- the Bosnian Serb army started to intercept humanitarian aid deliveries so Srebrenica fell into major food shortages again. the Bosnian Serb army also started shelling more and more often and the U.N never made a move to deter these actions.
June 1995- The Bosnian Serb army attacked a U.N checkpoint 6 kilometers south of town and the U.N peace keepers stationed there fled from it and offered no resistance.
July 6th 1995- Srebrenica started to be shelled daily by the Bosnian Serb army and U.N check points were falling one by one to them with, again, no resistance from the U.N
July 9th 1995- thirty U.N peace keepers are taken hostage by the Bosnian Serb army
July 10th 1995- the Bosnian Serb army broke into the main part of Srebrenica causing great panic and driving everyone to the outskirts of town and toward the U.N base. Many were trampled as thousands fled the town and stayed the night between Srebrenica and the U.N base in Potocari deciding what to do the next day. The U.N’s Colonel Karremans files his third request for air support
July 11th 1995- Srebrenica officially fell to the Bosnian Serb army. 20,000 refugees flee to Potocari in hopes that the U.N would protect them from the advancing Bosnian Serb army. 15,000 people, mostly men and teenage boys, attempt to run the 90 kilometers through Bosnian Serb territory to Tuzla (which is free territory). Colonel Karremans’ request for air support is met (after a delay over paperwork) but canceled almost immediately when the Bosnian Serb army threatens to kill the U.N hostages and to shell civilians if they carry out any airstrikes. General Ratko Mladic gives his famous speech to a camera crew in the middle of Srebrenica stating that the Serbs are now finally taking vengeance on the Turks and that they will go on to Potocari. Mladic gives an ultimatum to the U.N stating that all Muslims must hand over their weapons to guarantee their lives.
July 12th 1995- the Bosnian Serb army started separating people at the U.N base. Women, young children and the very old were put on buses to Tuzla while males who looked between 12 and 77 were pulled aside to be questioned as potential “war criminals”. There were too few U.N peacekeepers to control this. Meanwhile the 15,000 that left Srebrenica on foot the previous day were running through landmines and being hunted down by the Bosnian Serb army.
*the people on the buses saw loved ones and people they knew on the side of the streets dead or nearly so on their way to Tuzla, a countless amount of women and girls were raped on this trip as well by the Bosnian Serbs driving them. Many of the men and boys separated at the U.N base in Potocari were executed in what is known as the “white house” just down the street from the base (this house is residential today, I saw the man who lives there now, he was lounging in the front yard).
July 13th-16th 1995- the original 15,000 that first fled Srebrenica through the mountains start to reach the Tuzla area around 6 days after departing Srebrenica. Around 8,000 died from dehydration, exhaustion, getting shot, shelling, landmines or getting captured and executed.
* Those who did the”death march” had little to no food, water or the proper clothing for such a journey. (when I traveled the path these individuals took to try and save their lives I saw countless mass graves marked were bodies were dumped after executions)
December 1995- the war ends with the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement
*Srebrenica is still Serb territory and even though Muslims are allowed to live there again, the local mentality is that the massacre never happened and any Muslim deaths that may have occurred were out of self defense. (there are Serbian national flags everywhere in Srebrenica).
Growing up my family spent a lot of time driving back and forth across the country to visit far away relatives. During one of these trips I remember having a realization of insignificance. We passed through random towns where I saw schools that looked like mine and I found myself wondering what it would be like to go there? what kind of kids went there? what did they do for fun in this little town I knew nothing about? These thoughts then got me thinking about all of the towns and schools and kids I would never know but even so they live their lives every day and they are unaware of my existence and the daily goings on of my school and town. I remember feeling overwhelmed and small in the middle of a vast sea of lives, I pondered this feeling and to be honest I am still pondering. Explaining this realization as a feeling of insignificance may seem pessimistic but I find it to be fascinating. Now a days, as an adult, I find myself traveling to places like Bosnia and looking at people’s homes and shops and wondering the same thing. What would it be like to live here? what are the people here like? what do they do for fun and how do they spend their days? What would it be like to live in Dubrovnik’s old town where you string your laundry over a 400 year old cobble stone street and make your way through narrow, stone paths to the grocery store through thousands of tourists constantly weaving in front of your doorway? what would it be like to live in Lukomir which is a population of 25 and some cows and sheep, where the roofs are made of a hodgepodge of metal and the fields where the animals graze scale up the mountains surrounding the village and the only way in or out of the village is a hike or a very long, bumpy dirt road? What would it be like to live in Sarajevo after living through the siege here, where the shell holes on the side of your apartment building are a constant reminder of those days? I can only speculate and try and imagine all of these different homes and lives, all I know is where I have been, everyone only knows where they have been.
I chose to write a story instead of describing the Mars Mira (Peace March) we endured this past weekend, partly because others will likely do a better job than myself in their descriptions and partly because the experience inspired these thoughts and I wish to use these blogs as a creative space to express my true thoughts and feelings.
“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.” – Primo Levi (Holocaust survivor)
Once upon a time there was a very old and beautiful country. In the country lived both blue people and red people. The blue and red people had been sharing this country for many, many years and besides their skin color they had everything in common. They roamed the same rolling green hills, they farmed the same fertile ground, they drank from the same turquoise colored streams. These were happy days and it seemed they would last forever. But, one day, a blue person looked down at themselves and thought, “how beautiful my skin is, it is so cool and calming but how dreadful that red skin is, it is so harsh and alarming, what an eye sore it is to see those red people everyday.” This blue person shared their feelings with other blue people and they thought “why yes, our blue skin is rather nice.” Blue people then started making fun of red people. The red people patted their crying children and just smiled at the blue people when they told their jokes and thought, “Let them have their fun, they are only jokes, this will pass.” However, the jokes kept getting harsher and now children were coming home, not only crying, but with bloody noses and broken arms. Adults were even starting to fight. One night, there was a very bad fight and a blue person got so mad that they killed the red person they were fighting. The country became very tense. The red people got very angry and the blue people very defensive. In fear of red people’s retaliation the blue people started organizing in secret, they gathered up all of the weapons in the country and made plans to keep themselves safe from the red people. Meanwhile the red people huffed and puffed, excluded from all blue people circles, and unaware of the blue people’s actions. Slowly, blue people started arresting red people, with excuses of alleged violence or vandalism. As the arrests increased the red people started to get scared, they knew it was wrong but still they did nothing. Most did not fight, most did not run, they kept their families close, and again, waited for it to pass. The blue people were getting away with arresting so many red people that they stopped giving excuses and started arresting red people without warning or explanation. All the arrested red people never returned to their homes and families, they were forced to work to death or were killed outright. At first all of this was done subtly but over time the emboldened blue people started doing it out in the open. The blue people thought, “how nice it is to get these criminals off the street and how nice it is to see less red people in our towns, let’s try to get the rest of them out!” Red people were no longer arrested in twos and threes but rounded up by the dozens. Red people’s homes were destroyed, their possessions were looted, their families were ripped apart, all the red people who was too old, young, injured, or sick to walk and anyone who protested was killed in broad daylight in front of everyone. All the rest were herded into small camps and forced to stay there living on top of each other in their own filth with little food or water. The rolling green hills were now full of graves, the fertile ground was now littered with bodies, the turquoise streams were now red with blood. For the red people, it is as if they simply blinked and this was what their country had become. It was so much worse than any of them had predicted, but it was too late to fight, the blue people had all the weapons, it was too late to run, the blue people surrounded them. Now, there was nothing left for them to do but wait as they always had. Meanwhile the blue people thought, “it is so nice to have those red people out of our towns but what a nuisance those camps are, so smelly, such an eye sore in our pretty country, wouldn’t it be nice if they just didn’t exist?”
My story of blue and red people is, of course, an oversimplification of the process that leads to mass killings and is in no way supposed to capture the exact details of the Srebrenica genocide or any other specific mass killing, it is fiction. However, sometimes I believe simplicity and fantastical stories are the best way to express the complicated and serious topics of genocide and war, especially for those lucky enough to go through life without ever experiencing them.