We attended the July 11th commemoration in Potočari for the victims of the 1995 Srebrenica genocide. This a difficult blog post to write. In so many ways this is not my story to tell. It’s not my memories or loved ones or past life. But, I am deeply impacted by the gravity of the haunting reality that thousands of defenseless people were hunted, murdered and, nearly 25 years later, still missing. To stand on that ground among survivors of the death marches and the people who lost loved ones invariably impacts my understanding of the world.
I think the place to start is a place of gratitude. First and foremost I need to thank the people who allowed us to be in their sacred space. The commemoration is also an extremely complicated and painful funeral. I don’t have a frame of reference for this, but I cannot imagine inviting strangers to a funeral of someone I loved who suffered senseless violence. I think I would resent the cameras, the crowds and the other distractions from remembering my loved one. So I am deeply moved by the invitation to be there. I am also so thankful for the people who organized the logistics of getting us there and the hospitality of everyone we met. From the guest house owner and her family who welcomed us with family-style dinners and a rare warmth to the driver who had lost family in the genocide but spent hours transporting us to the cleaning staff in Sarajevo who lost family in the genocide, to Hasan who runs the memorial and lost his twin brother and father in the genocide (for more on his story, see his book “Surviving Srebrenica”) to Ann who set an example of how to be respectful in such a complicated setting to each person who cared for us, welcomed us or included us. This event was not about us, and yet somehow us wanting to understand and connect with Bosnians was appreciated. I really don’t have the words to express my appreciation for the small ways we were included and welcomed.
In addition to attending the commemoration, we were there on the 10th when the participants of the Peace March, the cyclers and motorcyclists who had been criss-crossing Bosnia in memory of the events of Srebrenica arrived at the cemetery. Despite large crowds, the place was largely silent as people laid flowers on graves and grieved in their own ways. Survivors led the peace march and as they arrived covered in mud, remembrance and a kinship forged in tragedy, there was a palatable collective heaviness. Some of my colleagues wrote about the peace march in detail, but the moment that struck me was watching people finish a massive 60+ mile hike that usually brings relief and pride at having completed something physically demanding replaced with a shrinking of physical discomfort and outpouring of emotion. There was pain and remembrance and guilt and loss and grief and injustice and gratitude for survival and those gut wrenching questions of why life had to come out the way it did and so many other difficult to understand emotions. I think that moment revolutionized my understanding of restorative justice in a way that no book ever could.
Beyond this there isn’t a lot I feel comfortable saying since it isn’t my story to tell. I guess I feel as if the U.S. and NATO should have intervened earlier since there was an abundance of evidence suggesting something like Srebrenica was around the corner. I think our inaction cost people their lives, but that is a heavy and complicated burden to lay on anyone’s doorstep besides those who perpetrated the violence–and I mean the individuals that ordered or participated in the violence, not any group at large as collective guilt helps no one. I think the politics of intervention seem ridiculous in comparison to the damage that occurred there. I feel those hallowed and haunted grounds are a lesson and warning for the U.S. as nationalism takes root in the hearts of people I know to be full of love.