The Power of Place

For many reasons, the last thing I want to write about is Srebrenica. I’m still metabolizing what I’ve seen and heard. I don’t know how to write about the horrors of the genocide which occurred there, the senselessness of hatred, or the violence and unimaginable evil.

Nor can I convey my gratitude and admiration to the survivors we met for sharing their stories with us; for their courage, dignity and resilience. For choosing not to perpetuate the kind of hatred which robbed them of their loved ones. You light up the dark. I’m honored to have met you. I want the whole world to know what happened here. I just feel nothing I can say will do any of it justice and it deserves justice…the best I can do is promise you that I will never forget. 

One of the images indelibly imprinted on my mind is the footage of the systematic execution of six men, shown during the documentary about the fall of Srebrenica. I remember seeing their hands, tied behind their backs. They stood one by one in a line, awaiting their turn to die. One by one they stepped up to the body of the man who had been gunned down just moments before. One by one they were summarily shot. Sometimes once, sometimes more. The final two men were spared but only long enough to move the bodies of those whose execution they had just witnessed. I threw up after seeing it. It sickens my heart again now. I can scarcely imagine the enduring trauma experienced by the genocide survivors as they remember these and other atrocities, “like it was yesterday…”

Through the film, I witnessed the graphic execution of six men. 8,732 individuals were exterminated in a similar or, dare I say, more shocking fashion. And that number only tells us how many people died. It says nothing about the lives that were lost as a result…each one is worth remembering.

Srebrenica

Home: It makes me think of Sunday afternoon card games, the plants that have now created a small jungle at the house, and the Hello Kitty light switch in my room that has never been switched out after all these years.  Most importantly, it reminds me of my family without whom home would have no meaning. These strong ties to home made spending this past weekend back in Srebrenica talking to survivors and listening to their stories particularly hard. My experience and reaction on the Peace March was very much about the tragedy that was committed on a broad scale, but coming back and talking to survivors made it more personal. Each survivor has a different story, but one thing is constant: each person’s life was forever changed because other humans deemed their family members were not worthy of a future. People were forced to flee their homes. The villages that housed multiple generations were burned down. The buildings that still stand no longer feel like home because the people that matter are no longer there. Home is simply a reminder of what could a been – a better future that was unjustly taken away. I’m angry that people were herded and killed like animals. I’m angry that Nura will never get the chance to play with her grandchildren. I’m angry that Saliha has to live in her home without her family. I’m angry that I’m angry. At the end of this I get to go home, but some of these people don’t have that luxury. To that I am heart broken and also at a loss.

Resilience: Lately, I’ve been having a hard time with the injustice imposed on people for just being people. This weekend didn’t give me any peace towards my feelings on human beings as a group, but it did give me some valuable insight into the resilience of people. I am amazed by how these survivors have chosen to live their lives. Even after losing their closest loved ones, these survivors feel no hatred. Hasan continues to share his story and work at the memorial where his father and brother are buried. Saliha graciously buys candy for the Serbian children. They live on. They tell their story so the rest of the world knows what happened. They do this in hopes that it never happens again to any other group of people. I’m humbled by the determination to live on, to seek justice, and to make peace with the past. These people, to me, are the faces of true resilience.

Walking in their footsteps

One week later and here we are in Srebrenica again. I thought I was prepared to come back, to visit the memorial, to hear stories from survivors, I thought, but I wasn’t. Those of us studying in Korbel, the International Studies school always joke that we don’t have feelings or emotions because if we did we would have a mental breakdown every other month. But we do feel and we feel deeply.

I always think I’m prepared to listen to survivor testimonies. I’ve heard stories from Holocaust survivors, Rwandan genocide survivors, refugees, migrants, veterans but I’m never prepared. I think I’ve heard it all but I haven’t. My heart is always ripped out of my chest and tears are always in my eyes. I don’t think I’ll ever be prepared and this weekend was not any different from my past.

First, in Tuzla we met with Nura Begovic, the vice-president of the Women of Srebrenica Association. These mothers and daughters are still fighting 22 years later to find their men and boys and the strength Nura emulated was absolutely encouraging. I felt the passion and courage in Nura’s voice as she told us about her family and the goals of the Association.

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All the men, boys, and women who died or are still missing from the Death March.

The next day, we walked the road from Srebrenica to Potocari, the same route many of the women took to the Dutch UN Peacekeeper base to escape the massacres. We stopped at the petrol station where many families made to difficult decision to split up, the husbands and sons turning left to go through the Bosnian mountains to escape to the free territory and the wives and daughters to the right to seek refuge with the Dutch UN Peacekeepers. As we entered Potocari the scene was different from July 11, there were no vendors on the street selling food and hardly anyone was outside their homes (except for a few standing in their doorways wondering what we were doing). Our solemn walk ended at the memorial and cemetery and that afternoon we heard the testimony of Nura Mustafic. Nura lost her husband and three sons to the genocide and throughout her testimony she kept saying how she wished we had grandchildren, they would have been about our ages if her boys survived. The women of Srebrenica have lost so much but they comfort one another, and they are one others’ families now. As we ate with Saliha Osmanovic that night I could see how the neighbors have come together to watch over one another. Saliha lost her husband and two sons to the genocide, the last time she saw her husband was on a Bosnian Serb propaganda video, Ramo was calling up the Bosnian hillside to their son, Nermin, at the insistences of the Serbs, telling all the boys and men to come down, that they will be safe. She was finally able to lay Nermin and Ramo to rest in 2008. But Saliha’s neighbors have helped to create a sense of home, I think. As we ate with her two neighbor boys were hanging around in her yard, riding their bicycles up and down the road, being boys. Like Nura, Saliha said that she wishes she had grandchildren, that is what is missing from her life. As we left that night I could tell she did not want any of us to leave, she didn’t want to be in her big house by herself that night.

As I woke up the next morning, still trying to process the previous day, I didn’t know how I would be able to continue. We had one more testimony to hear but I am so honored to be able to hear it. Ramiz Nukic survived an ambush on one of the hills above his family and childhood home. In 2002, after years of work and rebuilding his home, he moved back but those who died were left in his mind. He started walking the hills and he kept finding bones, and to this day he keeps finding bones. This is his contribution to life, to those who did not make it through the war and for their families who are still trying to find answers. Even though Ramiz has found hundreds of people and has helped to bring closure to families he has still not found his father and brother. For Ramiz, this is his life work now and he is proud to do it. When asked when he will be through with searching he said, “When the last bone is picked up, I will be through.”

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Ramiz, The Bone Man
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Recently found bones. Ramiz is waiting for them to be picked up by the authorities.

As our weekend in Srebrenica and our visit with Ramiz came to an end I couldn’t help to think about everyone we met over these short three days. Even though I heard their testimonies of death and destruction of life there was still hope in them, hope for the families who haven’t found their loved ones, hope for their country to heal, and hope for themselves to live a full life.

Srebrenica

Initially, I was not thrilled about going back to Srebrenica because of the mental and physical exhaustion I felt the last time I was there. Srebrenica is the location of the only genocide on European soil since WWII, and the wake up call the world needed to end the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. After spending the weekend in Srebrenica, I am once again mentally exhausted, but I have more connection to Bosnia and the gravity of our participation in Marš Mira has set in.

I first heard Hasan’s story two years ago when I had the opportunity to visit Srebrenica. His vulnerability is something that has stuck with me, and a driving factor for studying Human Rights and genocide. We also heard testimonies from two amazing women, Nura and Saliha. They lost their whole families in the genocide, and have to go on living despite this. Nura kept repeating that we are the age her grandchildren would have been, but instead of spoiling grandchildren, she is mourning her husband and sons. I think this resonated with me because my parents have recently become grandparents, and my nephews bring SO much joy into their lives. Nura will never be able to experience this.

After hearing the testimonies, I had many thoughts, but one that I cannot shake is that people are still denying the genocide happened. There will always be genocide deniers, but why? All of the victims we talked to have no hate in their heart, but I feel like I have enough for the whole country. Saliha told us that she goes to the market and buys candy for the Serb boys and girls. Maybe doing this will help alleviate some of the rhetoric they get in school about ethnic Muslims. They are not born with nationalism, and what good is doing for the country to keep perpetuating it? I think the change will come from those who experienced the war, Bosniak, Serb, or Croat, because they understand what it was like, and they have felt losses because of it.

 

Organizing Chaos

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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).

 

 

 

The Return to Srebrenica

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of those depths.”

– Elizabeth Kubler-Ross

The people of Bosnia as a whole have lost so much, but the people of Srebrenica have lost more than most people could ever imagine. Everyone we met with over the weekend suffered great loss during the Srebrenica genocide in 1995, and some of them lost everything. Nura and Saliha are two of the most courageous, brave, and inspiring women I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. For people who lost so much, from family to property to all of their worldly belongings, the positivity that they have about moving forward and advocating for justice is unmatched. As both these women said, they did not lose just their husbands and sons. They lost any hope of having a lineage; no children to watch get married, no grandchildren to watch grow. Saliha was especially brave, as she testified at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) against Slobodan Milosevic. She stared down the man who had been the president of Serbia during the time of the war as they tried to annex parts of Bosnia which led to the deaths of many, including her husband and sons, did not bat an eye, and told her story bravely.

Hasan’s story was also very hard to listen to, especially as someone who participated in Marš Mira. Hasan was a member of the original Death Column, and walked from Srebrenica to Tuzla to save his life. Being thanked for my participation in Marš Mira by Hasan was also difficult to hear. I don’t feel like I deserve that recognition. I understand what I did was difficult by any standards, and that it was in commemoration of not only the victims of the original Death Column but also the entire Srebrenica genocide, but what I did will never compare to the true suffering these people had to endure. Now Hasan works for the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial, teaching people of the horrors that occurred on the very ground upon which they stand, and advocating for justice and the hope that nobody has to suffer what he and his family did, ever again. I found it very interesting that the actual United Nations base has been turned into a museum as part of the Memorial, and gives such a beautiful, comprehensive history from the beginning of the war, to the use of the UN Dutchbat Command, to the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords.

On our last day in Srebrenica, we got to meet with Ramis, who is also known as the Bone Man. 22 years ago, he escaped an ambush by the Bosnian Serb army that occurred on the hill above his home, just outside of Srebrenica in the mountains. In 2002, Ramis returned to his home from Tuzla, where he had been living since he escaped that ambush in 1995. Almost every day, although not as frequently as he used to, Ramis has been going up into the hill behind his home to look for bones. He wants to give families the peace, happiness, and closure that he felt when his family was identified. With his help, the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) has been able to identify over 200 bodies. He is the only person doing any work of this kind, and day in and day out he goes to find those families some closure. When we met with him, he showed us some bones that he had found only two weeks prior. 22 years later, and fifteen years since he returned to his home, and he is still unearthing bones that help bring closure to people.

Through all of their pain and suffering, these people still manage to share their stories with anyone who will listen, and push for justice, even though they know that their loss is irreplaceable by a guilty verdict. They have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of those depths. It’s hard knowing that something so heinous happened in such a beautiful country, that is filled with such beautiful people. Driving from location to location and meeting with different people, it was hard not to notice how beautiful the countryside we were passing through, was. Looking at the beauty surrounding me, it was hard to remember that a genocide occurred here. And a genocide didn’t just occur here, but it occurred during my lifetime. It was recent history. Yet somehow, the Bosnian people have been able to keep pushing, whether it is their search for justice, for loved ones, or for advocacy so that nobody has to suffer like them again. The perseverance and resiliency of people is a beautiful thing. I was absolutely honored to have met so many wonderful people who were willing to spend time with us and tell us stories that are painful to tell.

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Nura (l.) smiling with our program coordinator Ann after telling her story. She lost a husband and three sons during the Srebrenica genocide.

 

“The Ground is Too Thick and the Sky is Too Far Away”

Today at my internship, my new friend and coworker stated, “the ground is too thick and the sky is too far away” when we were discussing the war, and I am still mulling through all that it represents.  She wanted to hear about our weekend in Tuzla and Srebrenica… all of it.  I wish I had been able to properly articulate the difficulties that came with this long, emotionally draining, and unforgettable 3 days, but I fell silent.  How do I tell her what I saw and heard without the tears that I have constantly fought back fill my eyes once again?  I have never experienced war or loss on such a scale, and I am still digging through the feelings that have surfaced because of it.

It’s one thing to read books and watch documentaries on the war and genocide (which we have done a lot of in preparation for this trip)… It’s another to visit sites.  To hear firsthand accounts from survivors.  To sit in memorials that you just feel death in.  To be shown around by a man whose resilience and kindness exceeds anything you could possibly imagine.  To finally fill in blanks from the peace march so I could see the whole picture. It was enlightening, confusing, and heartbreaking to learn and see these things on such a different level.

So, what does she mean when she says this about the war?  I think she means exactly how this conflict has left a lot of people feeling.  It’s not time to be buried or reach for the heavens… people survived, and what is left is to do is keep on living.  The people that we have met have done that, and many have made it their mission and life’s work to make these stories known, to seek justice for families and lost loved ones, and to send an important message about why hating and ‘othering’ people has such dire consequences.

This weekend has been a lesson to me in loss and the power of the human experience.  It not only shapes people but lets them keep walking when they thought they could walk no more.

Srebrenica Take II

Last weekend we returned to Srebrenica. A place where broken promises cost the lives of thousands after it was announced to be a UN Safe Zone in a time of desperate need. The cemetery/memorial is conveniently placed across the street from the former Dutch UN base in Potočari, sending a message to the failure of the UN in protecting the people and refugees occupying this place 22 years ago. I am happy to share these experiences and the stories that have moved me, but my words only paint a small corner of the greater picture. I was excited to revisit this part of the country in hopes to ascribe deeper meaning to the journey we embarked on a few weeks prior (the Peace March). Testimony after testimony, haunting images and abandoned places spoke volumes and I felt it. We felt it. We visited the International Commission on Missing Persons and saw where people made a career out of identifying the bodies scattered in mass graves. We saw the abandoned battery factory and the images that hung the walls felt as haunting as the place itself.

Hearing Hasan’s story (a genocide survivor and friend of our program), and getting to know his struggles over our time with him has reframed my understanding resilience. In social work we talk of this subject often and in my own experiences I have seen resiliency as the key to survival in trauma. Hasan spoke of the atrocities he witnessed, the fears and memories of losing family and friends, being hunted through the woods and survival. When I asked how he was able to live his daily life so close in proximity to the spots he nearly lost his own life and witnessed others murdered, he told us that hate was not in his heart. There is a higher power and it does not serve survivors like himself and the others we listened to to live their lives in hate and fear. This theme of resiliency carried through the weekend as we listened to Saliha and Nura share stories of the horror experienced in losing their sons and husbands to the genocide. Saliha lives without fear and has bravely testified against war criminals in Serbia without protection status. I only hope that justice comes through, but as we were told often – no amount of justice will bring back the loved ones of so many innocent people.

I am still processing the images we saw of men being marched to their executions, shot and killed in a ditch, the thin faced boys escaping for their own lives into the woods on roads we walked 2 short weeks ago, the abandoned sleeping quarters of Dutch UN officers where obscene doodles littered the walls – these images could foreshadow the lack of protection that followed. The events of last weekend struck me and proved the pain of the Peace March to be that much more of an honor.

The Politics of Memory

Walking through Srebrenica today, one would not realize that the town was ground zero for one of the worst massacres in modern European history, the continent’s only genocide since the Holocaust. The nearest public commemoration is 7 kilometers away in Potočari, where the official memorial to the victims of the genocide is located. Several execution sites are located in the vicinity, as are notable portions of the path taken by the people fleeing to Tuzla, however none of these are marked as such.

Although all of these areas lie within Republika Srpska (RS), Potočari differs in that the property dedicated to memorialize the genocide is owned by Bosnia’s federal government. The population and administration of RS generally prefer to deny that the Srebrenica genocide ever occurred, either minimizing, justifying or just plain refuting historical facts. While at one point the government of RS acknowledged the murder of over 7,000 Bosniak men and boys by Serb forces, the current leadership has since backtracked, stating that these numbers are not accurate and that the massacres do not constitute a genocide. Within the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the entity which is dominated politically by the victim group of the genocide, it is more common to see official or unofficial signs or artwork acknowledging the violence that occurred in Srebrenica.

The culture of remembrance in Bosnia differs from my experience in Rwanda (where I participated in a study abroad program in 2012), most notably in the customs of visual commemoration. The single biggest difference I’ve noticed is the on-site commemoration in Rwanda. Several locations where especially large massacres were perpetrated in the 1994 genocide now serve as memorials to those killed, and tourists and visitors to the country are encouraged to visit and learn about Rwanda’s history, including the genocide. This contrasts Srebrenica, where one could wander into the battery factory or drive past the dam and never realize that mass executions had been carried out two decades prior.

There are ceremonies held on the anniversaries of the atrocities in both Rwanda and Srebrenica, and I have now had the privilege to be present for both events. Rwanda’s official commemoration falls on 7 April, the onset of the 100-day genocide. In the weeks leading up to that date, it felt like I saw reminders of the upcoming anniversary everywhere I looked; there was an abundance of posters, adverts, and commemorative wristbands. Walking around Srebrenica four days before 11 July, the anniversary of Srebrenica’s fall to Serb forces in 1995, there was nothing. Arriving back to Srebrenica the night before the memorial, the town was more crowded with those who had just finished the Peace March, but still no visual acknowledgement of the genocide was present. While I’ve not visited the execution sites around the town, I am told that beyond refusing to recognize them, the locals make them as uncomfortable for the victims’ families to visit as possible.

The comparison of cultures of commemoration in these two places inevitably leads to the comparison of political climate, which begins to explain the respective practices of memorialization. As previously explained, RS is controlled and largely inhabited by those whose image it does not suit to acknowledge the Srebrenica genocide of its Bosniak residents and internally displaced persons. Many individuals, both private citizens and government officials, in the RS had some form of involvement in the events that culminated in the genocide, and thus probably prefer to sweep the atrocities under the figurative rug as much as possible. Rwanda, on the other hand, is now dominated politically by members of the group against whom the 1994 genocide was committed. The current President was actually the leader of the armed Tutsi rebel group that fought its way into the nation’s capital to seize control and halt the genocide, and since coming to power in 2000 has constantly invoked his anti-genocide stance in the process of building his political legitimacy, especially in the international arena. Unlike the leaders in RS, it benefits those in power in Rwanda to maintain a certain level of public awareness of the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsis (a version of history preferred by the Rwandan government that conveniently omits the war crimes committed against Hutu civilians by Tutsi rebel forces during the civil war).

It’s not exactly news that the victors write history, but that proclamation was made before we had the internet. Higher literacy rates and increased capacity for dissemination of information (in all mediums), have allowed voices that would previously have been silenced to find an audience. I can do a quick Google search from my apartment in the USA and find the other side of the Rwandan story online, an ability I wouldn’t have had a few decades ago. Organizations like Zene Srebrenice Udruzenje, and survivors of the violence in Srebrenica have worked for years to bring attention to the atrocities of July 1995; in RS, where the discourse is dominated by deniers, one wouldn’t realize that a contradictory narrative existed. But arriving at the Peace March in Nezuk, it is evident that the story of Srebrenica is known abroad. In addition to participants from all over Bosnia, there were marchers from the US, Turkey, Iran, Canada, Switzerland, Austria, Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and elsewhere. With support from the Federation and from allies and organizations abroad, the victims and survivors of Srebrenica have begun to overcome their local political culture by building collective memory of the atrocities beyond the borders of RS. It is doubtful than anything resembling justice can be achieved for this community until the crimes committed against them are acknowledged domestically. But until that can happen, the story of Srebrenica will be preserved in other places rather than drowned out by other, louder historical narratives.fullsizeoutput_1a10

Returning to Srebrenica

I was a bit apprehensive to return to Srebrenica. We had already done the Peace March and seen the burial of this year’s identified bodies on July 11th. We had watched multiple documentaries, met Hasan (a friend of the program and survivor of the genocide) and read countless articles. So what else was there to see or learn? I knew the story right?

I could not have been more wrong.  Our three-day excursion to Tuzla and Srebrenica was an experience that could never be replicated. The emotional first-hand accounts of loss, death, and fear we heard from victims and survivors while seeing the actual sites, was both emotionally exhaustive and enlightening. That is the big differentiator with this trip and visiting other sites of mass atrocities I have been to in my travels.

The ability to hear the first-hand accounts in addition to seeing the sites and reading the informational plaques or watching the documentaries. Joseph Stalin, arguably the greatest perpetrator of mass killings in history, once said, “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics”. I feel terms of Srebrenica, for most people (myself included until this trip) that this is true. You heard the actual story, you knew the numbers, but until hearing from those who survived you don’t fully grasp the pain involved. It’s difficult o hear those stories, but it makes the genocide real in a way that no amount of numbers or factual information can.

For me, in particular, hearing Nura’s story, a sweet and dignified Bosnian woman who lost her three sons and her husband, was particularly painful. Her story was not uncommon, but her telling this story and looking at me, as the only young man on this trip, and saying that it was hard for her to look at me while choking back tears because I reminded her of her sons who were around my age was haunting. I had no idea how to respond to her and still don’t. I gave her a warm smile and a hug, but how are you supposed to respond to that? It was a moment that will be etched in my mind forever.

For this blog post, I could have talked about the failures of the international community, the complex mechanisms in place, and the political theories that give sense to how this happened. That is after all my comfort zone; it’s what I study in school. What this trip taught me though is that the cold logic I approach things with at most times may not always be the best lens through which to analyze a situation. This genocide affected real people, and has a real impact those that were survivors and victims, with repercussions well beyond those immediately involved. This trip unequivocally proved to me, that no matter the number of deaths, it is never just a statistic.