A few years back there was a reality tv program called Fashion Police helmed by the late comedian Joan Rivers which chronicled celebrity fashion. A regular feature of that program was a segment called “bitch stole my look” which compared celebrities who wore the same outfit and sought to determine who wore it better.
When I travel, despite my best intentions, I often find myself comparing the new to the familiar, the here to there, and the this to that. I am reminded of that old television program because the comparisons I make can often become a case of “who wore it better” in my mind. For instance, since arriving I have been eating some delicious traditional Bosnian meals, and also some food that is very familiar to me. Pizza, for example, is often on the menu in Bosnia, and so far, I haven’t been disappointed once. But pizza back at home is also quite good. And so, I find myself considering which is best, or who wore it better.
I have just returned from a two-day visit to Tuzla and Srebrenica where I was able to hear survivors tell their stories of the genocide that took place in July of 1995. Each person we heard from had a heartbreaking story of extraordinary loss and survival. Although each person’s story ultimately resulted in their being able to tell it due to their survivorship, all lost many of those most near and dear to them in horrific and heartbreaking circumstances. The one thing each of the survivors we met with requested was that we tell the story of the genocide that took place here, which so many continue to deny occurred at all. As one survivor, Nedžad Avdić put it, “We don’t have our own Anne Frank book.” It was quite poignant when he said it, particularly because he pointed out that before the Srebrenica genocide he had read The Diary of Anne Frank in school and knew the story of the holocaust, as had most in what had been Yugoslavia at the time.
A lot of people may not know what happened in Srebrenica. There are those who actively deny the genocide occurred at all, preventing the story from being told. Indeed, the perpetrators went to great lengths to hide it from the world by digging up the mass graves of their victims and reburying them elsewhere in an attempt to hide their shameful actions. While many mass grave sites have been uncovered, many are yet to be found. As a result, it has been very difficult for surviving family members to lay their loved ones to rest. Thousands of husbands, brothers, fathers, sons, uncles, and friends remain among the missing.
In July of 1995 the United Nations failed in its mission in Bosnia when soldiers from UNPROFOR allowed men and boys to be separated from women and young children, despite pleas to troops not to allow it, which ultimately resulted in a genocide of approximately 8000 men and boys. As many as 8,000 men and boys are still missing. Thus, the numbers of those murdered is much higher than 8,000.
When women and children were separated from men and boys, despite protestation and pleas against it, a line was crossed. Many of the men and boys tried to escape what appeared to be certain death by fleeing to the mountains and attempting to hike, at night, in a column of thousands of people while being shot at, toward safety in a nearby city. Ultimately, many of the men and boys were tortured, humiliated, systematically murdered and placed in mass graves, along with trash and rubbish in a further act of disrespect and humiliation. Because the mass graves were later moved to hide the genocide, the victims’ bodies were disturbed to the point where they no longer remained intact, in yet another act of disregard for human life and humiliation. Of course, all of this has made identification of victims very difficult, with the bones from one victim scattered throughout several sites of mass graves and throughout dense, wooded terrain, hidden in lakes and rivers.
When I think about the genocide that occurred in Srebrenica, particularly when families were being separated from each other, I cannot help but compare it with what is happening right now in my own country. The irony of the situation is not lost on me. Here I am in Bosnia learning about the steps that led to the perpetration of genocide, which included the separation of families, and back at home my own government is engaging in what appears to me to be a very similar practice by actively separating children from the parents of asylum seekers attempting to enter the United States. The children are being placed in what appears to be cages, separated from their parents while they await trial. I’m sure there are some Americans that might disagree with my comparison of separating families and placing children in cages to the genocide in Bosnia. But I find them very similar. And so, once again I find myself asking who wears it better? Are we stealing a look? Is Bosnia’s past to become our future?