Final Thoughts About My Experience in Bosnia

I have now been home for a week and have been trying to get back into a routine. At times this is hard because of how impactful meeting the survivors throughout Bosnia was to me. When friends and family members ask how my trip was I respond with, “Amazing and sad at the same time.” Bosnia is such a beautiful country yet it has such a dark past that is still very recent compared to how long Bosnia has been mentioned in historical texts. When discussing the genocide with friends and family I emphasize to make sure that they realize that it was the Orthodox Christians and at times Catholics who were waging war and death on Muslims. I feel like this is important especially in current times with the Islamophobia that is occurring in the United States at present time. This was further emphasized by the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision upholding the administration’s travel ban 3.0. Many of my friends and family have little to no contact with Muslims on a daily basis so all they know is what Fox News, CNN, or other media platforms tell them about the religion. Each person who hosted or spoke to us in Bosnia was a follower of the Islamic faith and their hospitality and generosity was like nothing that I have experienced in my three plus decades of life in the U.S. It is my hope that people in the U.S. would take time to get to know someone who is not like them and maybe we can move forward from where we are now.

As the division continues in the U.S., it becomes more and more parallel to how it was in Bosnia in the early 1990s. The “othering” of a different population than your own is exactly what happened in post-Tito Yugoslavia with the breakup of the different countries based primarily along ethnic lines. In the U.S. members of the left are telling their followers to protest individuals just because they work for the administration and we have members of the right supporting a policy that separates children from their parents at the southern border. Similar to present day Bosnia, the political ideologies need to understand as people we aren’t that much different than the next person. We may have different thoughts about what right looks like and we can still be civil. Bosnia has not been able to make effective strides forward in reconciliation due to the fact that the perpetrators of the atrocities refuse to acknowledge that they happened. It is going to take some strong leadership on all sides to do what needs to be done to take positive steps forward and be civil with each other. Unfortunately, in both countries, there is little encouraging politicians to act in a manner that would advance their country towards compromise and effective governance. Until this status quo changes there will be little confidence in either country’s elected representatives.

I will forever remember the beauty and tragedy that is Bosnia. There is still hope that reconciliation can occur. My biggest takeaway is the amount of resilience that the human spirit can show is amazing. It further reinforces to me that we can be bothered by the little inconveniences of life because there are others that wish that that was the worst thing that they would be dealing with at the time. My experiences have caused me to be introspective to realize what is important in life. Listening to the mothers who lost their sons and husbands I realize that my time with my family is what is most important and the little things like projects, papers, and other school/work related tasks are secondary.

 

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Back in Sarajevo- Reflections and Concerns

After 6 days of relative relaxation while visiting friends in Dubrovnik, I’m back at Hotel Kovaci in Sarajevo. Its as if nothing has changed, and simultaneously everything has changed. None of our cohort is here, so I am reflecting alone. As I type I can hear the last call to prayer coming from the nearest Mosque. It’s a comfort to me, and somehow makes me feel less alone. I had a fairly enjoyable van ride back to Sarajevo from our friend and driver Muhamed, and when we crossed the last checkpoint into Bosnia, I realized I was oddly comforted by the sight of Mosques again, which had been noticeably absent in Croatia.

I’m struck by my reaction to this, because I disclosed to our cohort halfway through the trip that I had never before seen a Mosque in real life, and it was an entirely new and foreign experience for me. I’ve been an atheist since my early teens, but my time in Bosnia has often made me feel impressed and humbled by the quiet, respectful faith of the Bosniak Muslims we have met. A lot of my family is Catholic, so it seems reasonable I would feel more at home in largely Catholic Croatia, yet all I could think about when I saw Catholic cathedrals there was the absence of any Mosque. I think it really drove home the point of how divided the Balkans are on ethnic and religious lines. While Yugoslavia was, perhaps in someways, an idealistic utopia that could not last, I think Tito was headed in the right direction. Yugoslavs lived in a mainly secular society, but where they were still welcome to privately practice their own religious ceremonies and beliefs. They did not burn down churches, temples or Mosques. They did not attack others on ethnic or religious grounds. Apart from, perhaps, Sarajevo, all that I have witnessed of the Balkan region seems highly divided. The disparities can be subtle, yet I cannot help to notice them, and feel the tensions hanging in the humid air; these tensions seem to be quietly tucked away, but ever present.

I think it would be impossible for me to fully express how grateful I am to ever person I have encountered on this trip. It is even more impossible to express how grateful I am to the people I was not able to meet, will never be able to meet- those who have passed on, who lost their lives to various tragedies and atrocities during the war. I don’t feel grateful in the way that some might feel towards the soldiers of their country, who they feel lost their lives valiantly in an effort for the ‘greater good.’ I don’t think that there were many ‘martyrs,’ because the majority of the dead wanted no part of a senseless and cruel war. They were innocent victims, who lost their chance at living a full life. So what I am grateful for is their continued presence through their loved ones, through their stories, through their experiences that were captured by photojournalists. Their memories are valuable and important. They existed- even if some Serbian officials and civilians would like to pretend otherwise. Their lives mattered and their deaths mattered.

Tomorrow I will make the long journey back to the U.S., and while I’m excited for the comfort of home (and seeing my dog) I cannot help but feel apprehensive, and even a little sick at the thought of returning to a homeland that is following a trend of nationalism and racial hatred, not unlike such sentiments that led to brutality and genocide in Bosnia and other former countries of Yugoslavia. Muslims are similarly targeted and ‘othered’ in current American society, and the welfare of any person who is presently undocumented in the U.S. is at serious risk. People from neighboring countries to the U.S. (especially Mexico and Central America) are being treated as if they are less human, less worthy of dignity and respect than those that reside slightly north of them. I fear we have already begun to repeat many of the steps that were taken by certain Serbians in the early 90’s, which led to death, destruction, and moral and cultural decay. Why does the greater community state “Never Again” after a genocide, and then state the exact same phrase a few years later? After the Holocaust, after Cambodia, after Rwanda, after Bosnia, after Kosovo…is there an end in sight, that can be found intellectually or otherwise? Or are humans merely doomed to repeat the past, and form new tragic histories? I don’t have the answer to these answerless questions, so I can only be more steady in my resolve to challenge myself and others to have courage in the face of fascism, and to not give into nationalist rhetoric that preys on the the civilian fears needed to uphold them. I will not forget what the people of Bosnia have taught me, and I will not forget the warning echoes from the graves.

Thoughts

Here…in this lifetime… her story …about her sons and husband touched my soul. I can’t believe this happened to her. She lives all by her self in this house all alone Because of a stupid war that killed her sons and husband. Everything was a symbol to me. The house represents whats left of her family. She lives in it not for shelter but for love. Her guardian represents life.  Her guardian to me is whats keeping her a live and stable. She used to take care of her boys and husband, and now she takes care of he guardian. I feel like her guardian took the place of her family. The rose juice, was amazing by the way just to throw that out there. The rose just kinda reminded me of the rose that we saw on the streets the represent people that died. The rose just was red just like the streets. I felt like I was drinking the souls of the victims but not in a bad way, but in a way so that I can be close to them. The other juice represents the kindness of every survival, it represents the strength of everyone who survives. Honestly, the meal was soooooo good. But it felt off to me. I felt like I was eating a meal after a funeral. It made me feel happy and sad, all at the same time. I was happy to eat enjoy company but I was sad because she told us a sad story. The woman that told us about her sons and husband kinda reminded me of my mother. I feel as if this was to happen, she would be the result of my mom’s feelings. My mom is one of the strongest people I now until that day I met this woman who lost everything. It took me coming to another country to find someone who was strong like my mom. She I don’t understand how she can wake up in the morning and not want to harm herself…; like she lost everything. I guess looking from her perspective is that she lives to tell her story so others want to have to suffer from war. She lives to advocate and to tell others to be grateful. One thing that I will never forget is to not take things for granted. I use to take a lot of things for granted. Especially a good woman when I was younger. I learned that life is too short and we have to be thankful for the things we have and who we have in our life. Being around her brought me this new energy to want to do better and live my life how I wanted. I feel like there is a lot of things in this life that would try and stop blessings. But we have to fight through the evil’s hand.  The things we do in life can shape our future. We have to live a full life by taking the negative things that happened to us as energy for better things. I really enjoyed the warmth she brought. I got like this home feeling with her. I felt right at home. I didn’t feel like a stranger. This really made me think about myself and how I made other people feel. I want to make people feel at home like she does. This can bring positive vibes and go a long way for the world. I thought about something interesting while visiting the graves later in the trip. on the tune stone we see the bith date and we seee the death date. I learn its not about your birth date or your death date… but it matters what you do in between those dates. Becuse the bith and death date can speak for itself. But the middle can not… thatts the wold you lived in job.. to tell your storry.

The End.

This trip is medicine for the world. The world is so small and yet so big. Learning about strength and how survivors live their lives is priceless.  How can we have peace if our past hunting us? These people lost everything and most people can’t even handle the pressures of everyday life. What the point of hearing these people stories some might ask. History can repeat itself. We learn by learning from others. The smart person should always listen to the wise person. We should be able to learn and apply what we lean by setting examples. I feel like this trip has taught me a lot about love and passion for others. I ‘m thankful to everyone that talked to us. I’m really thankful for the bone man. The bone man is an example of how our world should be. The bone man finds bones not for money, not for fame. He finds bones for love. He loves and understands what it means to be human. He gets it! He really understands the true meaning of love and passion for others. I wonder what motivates him to work for free with love. I’m thankful for  the bone man and how he is a great example for the world. I feel like most people would expect money or some type of wages to do what he does. I also want to talk about what it means to watch the film we watch at the museum.  The film we watch was a wake up call. the wake-up call that say hey!!!! this is the world we live in. It so sad to me that humans can hate and kill others. I don’t understand it but then again it makes plenty of sense. If we can love and be kind to each other, than of cousrs people can hate and kill people. The world to me its not made to be all good. The world to me is not made to be all bad. The world is made to balance itself out. Why you think we have night and day.  I hate to say this but there are people out there who are killers and who prompts segregation with small minds. Then again, there are people that are kind and full of social justice and understand human value. What if the world was perfect… How would we learn and  be able to feel these emotion that was put on this earth to feel. Feeling emotions is the biggest gift of all times. So bad or good its all emotions which either one is a blessing to feel and learn to understamd. Life is deeper then the ocean and understanding life is the key to living. Death is around the coner, so we have to experience pain, love,  and happyiness all in once to get the true meaning of life. And when we get the true meaning of life we get this direction that takes us on this path that shows us our purpose and who we are . This tripp is bigger than a lot of things. This trip teaches us how to not to give up even when life puts you in a dog house. This trip teaches us how to have humor even when life is against you, by understanding that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. This trip can make a blind man see colors inordeer to appreicate life. The biggest thing ill take with me is to tell thses stories so this can not happen again. I will lift my head up high even in the rain and storms, becuse I to will understand that it rains for sunny days.  In order to live we have to understand life. THE END.

“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 peace and love will finally prevail over violence 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.

Bosnia And I

I grew up in Jackson MS. All my life I grew up with one race. (African American) I grew up with the hip-hop culture. My High school was 98 percent African-American. Then I went to MS State where all the races majority of the time only interacted with themselves. Moving to Colorado away from the south really made me jump the gate that I was fenced in. Colorado has shown me mountains and deep snow. Colorado has amazing people. Bosnia made me think about death, war, and how we treat people. Death: I learn that we are all born to die. This past couple of days, I learned that we have to live life to the fullest. Let’s call the word death (mark) in the blog to help me explain. When the mark is around people are saddened. Every Bosnia Muslim Person I met, are saddened when Mark is around them, but they welcome it with open arms by living life to the fullest. To me, it seems that they are not afraid of Mark, You see Mark, was born/ produced by hatred of people who wanted power. The Muslim people here don’t want revenge on Mark’s maker because they value human life. Mark/Death away there love ones but here true revenge is to live with happiness.  War: I thought about war here in Bosnia, and I thought about the war in the USA. The civil war in America is one of the bloodiest war in America. I find it interesting the wars that happen with inside their own countries are the bloodiest. The civil war was about freedom because people wanted power over others. The Bosnia war was over power and control. We might believe in different things but we all bleed, drink, poop, and eat. Most importantly we are all born to die. One is going to happen, but we don’t have to determine how it happens. We don’t have to birth another mark if theirs already a mark for us. Living this life is about peace until we meet our maker. Why have war? it’s soo much blood. Is it worth proving who has the better race or religion? everybody should just do them and ignore what they disagree with or learn more to disagree to agree. Yess my ancestors were slaves do I want people to learn yes, but I don’t hate nobody. I’m living to learn, explore, and reproduce my bloodline so they can do the same. Whatever you do make it peaceful. I also thought about this umbrella method, Why cant Bosnia be Bosnians and American be Americans, because with the Olympics and outside we are a whole. People in Bosnia don’t look at me as African American, they look at the fact that I’m just an American. I feel like that’s how countries divided by not having just one umbrella. I thought about, what if America had Bosnia’s form of politics. Keep in mind Bosnia has 3 presidents to represent each identity. This just like having a president for the black community, having a president to represent the Mexicans, and having one for the whites. The]is method would divide the country up in ways that we would couldn’t image. Segregation is the root of death in educating and learning about history. Segregation limits us to have resources with others.  We live in dark times but we can not have Day without night. Sometimes evil teaches us the lesson that peace can not. Learning is the key to life. Exploring in the nutrients we need. Starting a family is the air we breathe. Just life people.

the faces of genocide

Our time spent in Tuzla & Srebrenica was relatively short but left me with an immense amount of information and emotion that I suspect will last –and haunt– me for a lifetime. One of the primary reasons I wanted to take this course was because it seemed like it might be a rare opportunity to get a closer look into the topic of genocide; one which I fortunately have not personally experienced but have always had an interest in.  And it’s been just that. One can read as many texts as she can get her hands on, watch all the documentaries available and study the topic from those who teach it the best. But there is nothing like hearing the accounts from those who experienced it first-hand and lived to tell the stories. Ann has built such strong relationships with these individuals, over the years and because of this rapport and trust built, we were able to hear these stories. These individuals were willing to share some of the most horrific, raw, and mortifying details of their lives with us. It was truly a pleasure to meet each and every one of them, and again, I was so pleasantly surprised by how quickly I took to them. How could I not be? They are some of the most friendly, welcoming, down to earth individuals I have ever encountered. And given that they’ve experienced some of the most unimaginable and dark experiences one could ever go through, I found myself that much more aware of how wonderful they –and their willingness to share—is. These are (some of) the faces of genocide.

Hasan Hasanović

Hasan is a long-time friend of our professor Ann’s and, as I understand it, has been an essential link in connecting Ann and DU students to some of the survivors of the atrocities that took place in Bosnia during the early 90s. Hasan is a genocide survivor himself, and after losing his twin brother and father, he was 17 when was forced to walk in the Death March in order to escape further persecution + a looming brutal death. After being in the woods for many seasons, he survived and is here to tell the story. Not only that, he has a very warm and welcoming demeanor about him– always smiling and completely willing to answer any and all questions we had for him. Asking someone to recall the darkest, most unfathomably horrific time in his life is something I quickly learned can be uncomfortable, and understandably so. But Hasan is an open book and given that he is a good friend of our professor, we were given the opportunity of connecting with him on a more personal level. He shared deeper personal details with us than he said he typically does, as he now works at the museum of the genocide of Srebenica and give tidbits of his story each day. His energy is truly contagious. During our time with him, he found a way to be light, tell jokes and be goofy— so much so that one might not know that he is someone who has experienced the worst that could ever happen. But during the time when he recounted his story for us, it was easy to see how his spirit had once been broken – the dark room and echoes of heavy rainfall aside. It’s hard, or nearly impossible, to fully grasp what happened to him and even imagine putting myself in his position. But he showed no signs of hatred towards those who changed his life, and ended the lives of those he loved the most. He described himself as “psychologically destroyed. Totally” but also noted that he holds no hatred in his heart, and a man like this is one everyone could learn a thing or two from. His resilience, strength, and courage to get up each day and tell his story is something I did not take for granted, and will never forget.

Saliha Osmanović

We were lucky enough to spend an evening at the home of easily one of the warmest, most gracious, and sweetest women I have ever met, Saliha Osmanović. Although we could not communicate with one another through a common spoken language, I was instantly touched by her presence and her inviting nature. I was also quite taken when Sladjana translated Saliha expressing that she wished she could speak to me; in that moment, I thought ‘add to the list of wonderful for Saliha, she’s a mind reader!’, as I was thinking the exact same thing. Saliha lives on the outskirts of Srebrenica in the same home she resided in during the war, but now she lives alone. She is a widow and a mourning mother of 2 boys who were killed during the genocide. Knowing what she had been through, I cant imagine even having the will to get out of bed each morning and if she at all felt the same, you wouldn’t really know it. She keeps a beautiful home with one of the most magical and expansive gardens I’ve seen. She cooked a wonderful meal for the 16 of us and treated us with such kindness, generosity, and indescribable hospitality. In just a few hours I found myself having the same reaction to her as Ann said she did at their first meeting: totally fell in love with her. You really couldn’t not. She’s just one of those people you are instantly drawn to and want to be around. She also was graciously willing to tell us her story of the war, her losses and how she has gone on. It was just unfathomable for me. I just cant imagine or fully wrap my head around her pain. But was so humbled and thankful to have spent time with her. And per her request, I will share her story—and the narrative of what took place during the war—with others for as long as I can.

 

Nura Mustafić

Once we reached Potočari, we were again given the rare and indescribably eye-opening opportunity of hearing from more survivors of the genocide in the Srebrenica area. Nura Mustafić came to speak with us and for the first time, I found myself recognizing her pain in a way that I could imagine would be similar to my own, had I been in her position. Unwilling to revisit it without breaking down.  Somewhat unlike the others we spoke to, Nura was visibly heartbroken as she struggled to get the words out between catching her breath from sobbing. To me, it seemed as though her pain was truly palpable . And unfortunately, contagious. She explained that she was “left behind to live” without her husband and 3 sons, as they were killed during the mass executions carried out by the Serbian Army. After having her children literally ripped out of her hands (SOUND FAMILIAR? Aheeeem, Trump administration), she found herself alone with unanswered questions, so she scoured the mass grave sites and anywhere she felt she might get information about their well-being. Eventually, the results of DNA tests showed that her 2 boys and husband were slain in the mass-killings, but she has yet to get definitive information about her last son. He has been missing for 20+ years and it is likely he was also brutally killed, but the lack of closure must eat at her every. single. day. That coupled with her unquantifiable loss, I was even more touched by her willingness to meet with us and make herself vulnerable by awakening the pain by recalling her story for us. Her tears and vulnerability showed her strength and resilience. Just as I was by the others, I was so honored to meet her; and to say I was touched by her words would be an understatement. They certainly helped me to see my life, my struggles, or any pain I have experienced in a different light and with a new perspective.

 

Nedžad Avdić

After Nura spoke, Nedžad Avdić took the floor and I can confidently say his words have changed my outlook on my life, as a whole. Nedžad is one of the 10 identified survivors of the mass execution sites and with every word that came out of his mouth, I found myself more and more enthralled –and truly horrified—by what he was describing as his reality. When he was just 17 years old, he was rounded up with many other men, crammed into a truck for 2 days with no water, space or much air to breathe, and brought to the place where he thought would be his last. He described the setting as “chaos” and I couldn’t help but paint a picture in my mind of the torture and horrible conditions he and the others endured. The men were lied to, fed falsities of how they would survive and things would get better if they just cooperated, in an attempt to calm the chaos, I suppose. He explained that they were ordered to remove their shoes, clothing down to the waist and lined up face- down with their arms bound behind their backs. He waited to die. He wanted  to die. After many rounds of fire, screaming, excruciating anxiety awaiting his final bullet, he described turning his head to the side in a way that would be more comfortable to be shot. His recollection of detail was astonishing and very telling. His description painted the most vivid image of the atrocities that we had heard yet, and I could feel my skin crawling and blood boiling, as tears streamed down my face. Even writing this is extremely difficult and I’m finding myself short of breath recalling only what I had heard. Imagine living through it.  It’s truly heart-wrenching and makes me feel so discouraged about mankind is capable of. And I am only recounting the story second-hand. He lived it, and although he was shot multiple times that day, he managed to hold on and live another day. Another decade. And continues to get up, go about his life—and thankfully, and luckily for those of us who want to know, tell his story. The bravery, courage and again, great showing of resilience is truly in a league of his own. It is just truly truly unimaginable to me that man can be such a brutal beast, at times. Then, and NOW. And if there’s one thing I feel I can do to bring a tiny sliver of justice to Nedžad and the others’ stories, it’s to spread it around, it far and wide. He asked this of us, and I will make it my mission to speak about this with anyone who will listen.

 

Ramiz Nukić

Finally, we found ourselves high up in the hills at the home of Ramiz Nukić, or the bone man, as they call him. Ramiz is also a survivor of the genocide, and he also lost many many loved ones to the Serbian’s ethnic cleansing of the land. He lives with his wife, children and grandchildren in a home that boasts stunning views, and soothing sounds of silence that can only be found in remote locations—well, between the almost inviting tune of the clanging cow, or sheep, bells as they grazed. With the numerous animals and people combined, they greatly outnumbered our fairly large group of about 20 and one might imagine it gets a little tight in such close living quarters. But they didn’t seem to be bothered; they greeted us with ear-to-ear smiles and his grandchildren’s curiosity was endearing. Ramiz is known as “the bone man” because he, as he explained, has made it his life’s mission to continue to search for the remains of those who were killed during the war in the 90s. And not without success, either. He has found and helped identify over 200 (maybe more at this point) individuals who died at the hands of the Serbs. Since the beginning of our studies, it has been stressed that so many who managed to survive the war are still not at peace for many reasons –one of which is that they don’t have answers to the question of how their loved ones passed away. Closure, in so many circumstances, is so important and if you’ve experienced this open-ended feeling, you likely know how crucial it is to feel as though the healing process can begin. Ramiz is truly an amazing man, and not just because he survived some of the worst atrocities imaginable. But also because he cares enough to help others find peace. And without any compensation, I might add…which is a disgrace in itself. We didn’t spend as much time with him as some of the others, but his warm welcome and amazing spirit is enough to stick in my memory, just as any of the others.

As I do my best to reflect on this, I find myself having a really difficult time processing everything. And have a steady feeling of overwhelm; first, I want my recollection of this experience to do some justice for those who were willing to let us in. And secondly, the war, the genocide, the atrocities, they’re all so disheartening and I find myself discouraged. There’s no clear silver lining, as far as I can see –at this point, anyways. Additionally, I am truly disturbed and horrified by some of the parallels drawn between the situation that took place in Bosnia and the current state of affairs in the US.  History has a way of repeating itself, over, over and over again and it seems we don’t want to learn from our mistakes—which is probably one of most discouraging and upsetting aspects for me. Either we don’t recognize the repetitive patterns, or simply choose to turn the other cheek. Unfortunately, I am fairly confident it’s the latter. And more generally and obviously from what’s described above, I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the brutality of mankind. Hasan, Saliha, Nura, Nedžad and Ramiz’s stories were all recounted to us in a matter of about 24 hours, and it’s been about 24 hours since then; that said, I hope with more time and reflection, I will find a way to feel as though I can make a difference. Not that any of us can really do anything now that would change the suffering of their past. And the lasting effects of their trauma now. But I, we, have got to make sure this does not happen again. Not without a fight, anyways. I plan to honor their requests of spreading awareness. So, for now, that’s where I will begin.

Hasan. Saliha. Nura. Nedzad. Ramiz.

I have been sitting here trying to find the right words to eloquently describe what I have experienced these past few days but everything I write doesn’t seem to be good enough. All that was asked of us from the survivors was to spread the stories of those that survived and to share what happened in Bosnia. Many still don’t acknowledge what happened here, but believe me, it definitely happened. Out of the war, the genocide, the grotesque inhumane treatment of people, and the lack of international support rose the survivors.We travelled to Tuzla and Srebrenica with Hasan Hasanovic. Hasan is many things, but is most known for being a survivor of the Death March. Hasan lost his father and twin brother when they tried to escape the Serb forces by joining the column which came to be known as the Death March. The UN base was full and slowly the Dutch began to abandon the base and those seeking refuge. Hasan, along with an estimated 15,000 other men and a few women began to make their way to Tuzla in July of 1995. The death march was approximately 70 miles and around 3,500 survived. This was due to several attacks on the column by the Serb army. The Serb army forced a father to call his son to surrender, only for them to be later killed. This is a well-known story in Bosnia as it was caught on video by the Serbs. Ramo was forced to call out for his son Nermin to come down and surrender. This is also the last footage Saliha was able to see of her husband and son. It is still unclear how and where they were killed by the Serb forces. Saliha, the wife to Ramo and the mother to Nermin was able to share her story with us when we traveled to meet her in her home outside of Srebrenica. She proudly showed us her garden and offered us food and drinks as she welcomed us to her home. Despite the language barrier, I could feel the outpour of love and kindness as she warmly greeted us all. That evening, after sharing a meal and talking with each other, Hasan translated as she told us of her experience during the war . She lost her family, and it has taken years for her to be able to find the bones of her loved ones.After the war, she returned to her family home and was able to rebuild. Saliha lives alone, but still has rooms dedicated to her children she lost during the war. Listening to Saliha broke my heart, but also made me realize how incredibly strong and inspirational she is. In an area that denies the genocide, she lives her life. After taking her family, her home, and forever altering her life path, Saliha proves to those around her that she will persist. Everyday Saliha looks at the hill that her family escaped to, and everyday Saliha tends to her garden and lives to tell her story.
The next day, Hasan brought us to the memorial in Srebrenica and the museum of genocide in Srebrenica. We were able to listen to Hasan as he told us his story of surviving the war and the death march. Before the war, he lived a happy life. He lived with his family on their farm, and attended school nearby with is twin brother. He described the close relationship he had with his twin, and the everyday experiences he had before the war. He told us about the subtle ways in which he knew something was was about to change. The police accusing them of having weapons, and his neighbors stocking up on weapons. He told us of the struggles his family went through as they ran from their family home to escape the Serbs. He told us that his grandfather hung himself after seeing their home up in flames and being destroyed. He shared the emotions and feelings he had when he marched through the woods and hid from Serbs as he searched for his brother and father.He described the condition of the refugee camps, and the kindness that strangers had shown him. Hasan has since poured his time and energy into connecting with those that have survived, and sharing his experience. He has written a book, and is currently working on another one with Ann. They have connected with survivors and interviewed them the past few years. Due to this relationship with several survivors, we have had the privilege and honor of meeting several amazing people in Bosnia. Hasan has also curated several exhibits in the museum that depict what happened to the Bosniaks during the war. Hasan is truly an amazing and incredible human that has worked so hard to share the stories of the survivors, and to help wherever and whenever he can.
At the memorial, we were able to listen to Nura Mustafic share her story. Nura is one of the few women who joined the men on the death march. Nura, her three sons, and her husband fled to the woods to join the column. She was separated from her husband two sons during the death march. After being captured by Serb forces, she was separated from her other son. Nura’s husband and two sons have been found and buried 8,000 bodies have been found but still approximately 1,000 people are still missing. Nura’s son is one of those still missing. Nura is still searching for her other son. My heart broke with Nura as she told us all she wants is to find at least one bone from her other son and to find out what happened to her family. Nura wished us good health as she wiped away the tears that fell as she spoke. She hopes nothing like this will ever happen again.
After Nura spoke, Nedzad Avdic told us the brutal story of his survival. Nedzad was one of the very few who survived an execution site. He spoke as if it happened yesterday, even though it has taken him 20 years to want to speak about his experience. As he spoke, he made the movements of his hands being tied behind his back as he and others were forced to shout, “This is Serb land, and will forever be Serb land.” He told us how the Serb soldiers would ask the pile of bodies if anyone was still alive. The few that were, often pleaded the officers to kill them. Nedzad said he kept asking, “why am I not dead yet?” He had been shot several times but still managed to remain alive among the dead. After the soldiers left, he realized there was another survivor. He told us that after several hours, they were able to pull themselves out of the mass grave and make their way to the nearby woods. In the morning, he said he was able to see the destruction as he looked down at the hundreds of dead bodies. Nedzad managed to survive and today he has a wife and three daughters. It is unbelievable the amount of strength and resilience he has living in Srebrenica. His daughters are not taught about the war and genocide in school. Local authorities were perpetrators during the war. Yet Nedzad is still speaking about his experience and sharing his story to those who will listen.
From the memorial, we traveled to see Ramiz Nukic. Ramiz walks the hillls near his home everyday in search of bones. He was also a survivor of the death march, and after the war, he decided to search for his missing family. He was able to find the bones of his family, but has since vowed to help others find the bones of their family. Ramiz has helped find over 200 bodies. When he approaches a mine, or a bomb, he swiftly and safely disarms it so he can continue his search. He told us that “nothing will get on his way of finding bones.” Although Ramiz doesn’t have much, he gives to other survivors in his own way. Ramiz has never been compensated for his work, and has aided the ICMP greatly. When we saw him, he had recently found another set of bones and was waiting on the ICMP to come pick them up. Ramiz is one of the many unsung heroes of the war.
These survivors are such incredible humans. Everyone should know their names and stories.

the beauty in detours

Almost a week into our trip, and I still feel as though I don’t know quite what to expect from each day here. The twists and turns on the roads we’ve traveled seem akin to our daily routines, or sometimes lack there of! There seem to be surprising factors abound here in Bosnia, and I actually (mostly) enjoy the detours along the way.

I have also noticed that the weather we’ve had has been unpredictable, much like the feel of the trip sometimes. As noted last post, I didn’t have many expectations for the trip; I had the basic background for the topics we would be covering, but quickly found that what little I had expected, would not always play out. The weather has been the same. It has been raining off and on for a few days now, but once the claps of thunder and raindrops roll through, we’ve been left with warmer temperatures and beautiful sunsets. This seems to also ring true regarding some of the landscapes we’ve come across; some tell stories of the many empires of centuries past, or the visible damage from times of war. But it’s also important to note how through the ups and downs of the past, the people seem resoundingly resilient and have rebuilt and attempted to move past some of the not so pleasant history.

The town of Mostar is a place where I felt this the most. Old City, Mostar was one of the most beautiful and vibrant small stretches of land that I have seen in a long time, maybe ever. Although crowded and full of tourists, it was still so exhilarating to experience the buzzing of the markets—full of the greatest variety of vibrant colors, wonderful smells, different textiles and sounds. And then we came upon the old bridge, which sits above the stunning turquoise waters of the Neretva river. Walking across the bridge was sliiiightly daunting, as one must take each step with caution, as the marble is quite slippery! The bridge is beautifully constructed and the difficult feat of its construction is easy to see. From the top, there is one of the most stunning views I’ve ever seen. I found myself walking around in awe of the beauty + unfamiliar sights and sounds—with a smile plastered on my face. It was an exciting, new, and exhilarating experience. Very easy to only focus on the current state of its wonders and forget what happened there not long ago.

Once we reached the other side, we viewed a quick 5-minute film about some of the history of the bridge and the city itself. It was humbling and immediately I felt the energy within myself, and of the group, come down a bit from the highs of what we’d just experienced as we walked through the market leading up to the bridge. I was quickly reminded just how important it is to recognize the history of Mostar’s past and perhaps equally as important, to ask questions about things I didn’t have answers to regarding its current situation. The people we came across in Mostar were all so welcoming, friendly, and many of them had truly been through such an ordeal in the last 20 some years –it’s sometimes hard to imagine. They’ve worked to rebuild so many of the physical aspects of the city’s beauty and have done such a marvelous job that it can be easy to forget what had occurred there, given how it sits today –aesthetically speaking, anyways.  We had been told that the Bosnian people were resilient and extremely friendly before coming, but I still find myself pleasantly surprised with every day that goes by.

Time Does Not Heal All Wounds

I have been struck, horrified, and amazed over the last three days. It would be impossible to put every experience into words- some things simply have no verbal expressions powerful enough to describe them. Up until our trip to the greater region of Srebrenica on Monday, things have been able to remain somewhat lighthearted. We learned about how painful and violent life was in Sarajevo during the war, but we have also experienced a lot of joy and liveliness here. That was not the case in Srebrenica.

We were met by Hasan for our journey. He is a remarkable person, and exudes a steady and strong confidence in his presence, despite having endured a tragic life. Having survived the Death March of Srebrenica as a young teenager, it does seem fairly appropriate that he would not be fearful of much else in life.

We drove through steep and winding roads to get there, and with my habit of motion sickness, I took a dramamine and tried to close my eyes for most of it. I wish I didn’t have this affliction, so that I could have seen all of the countryside and territory that we crossed. What I did see when we closer to our destination, further northeast of Sarajevo, that many houses were standing empty, blown out, and burned out. They looked like that had been uninhabited for years, and that is exactly why they looked that way. After the genocide and mass deportation of Bosniak Muslims in the area, many homes were destroyed and never returned to. It is an eery, depressing environment, surrounding by beautiful landscapes and lush greenery.

Our first important stop that day was at the ICMP- International Commission on Missing Persons, located here in the town of Tuzla. It is so small and unassuming, without clue as to the immensity of the content inside. Human bones. So many human bones. It was overwhelming in every possible way to the senses. Sight, smell, sound…listening inside of the tiny to Dragana (a woman who is instrumental in running a ridiculously underfunded DNA identification program) I can hear something else in the background. It’s a light clattering sound, and somewhere in the back of my mind I know its the sound of bones being moved around, though I’m trying to and hoping to think its anything else. That is later confirmed for me though, when the tour of the unimaginable is over. At the far end of the room the door is open and I walk into a room that is largely empty except for several bags of bones tied up in material that you can see them through. Earlier I must have heard someone moving them around. These are the bones that are mysteries to the analysts, not knowing who they possibly belong to. Many mass graves were dug up and moved around by the Serbian army, as a way to try and cover up their brutal crimes.

Our final important stop that day was at the home of Saliha, another incredible survivor. Her home was a beautiful oasis in the sad landscape, with the most amazing garden one could imagine; an amazing feat in my eyes, as she lives alone and does this entirely herself. Saliha lost her entire family in the genocide of Srebrenica- a husband and two sons. She wakes up everyday reminded of her pain and loss in beautifully and humble home that was rebuilt, and that is empty. She has withstood the most unbearable experiences imaginable. And she does not keep a fence around her garden to keep deer and other creatures out, because she says simply that she grows enough food for everyone.

The same remarkable presence can be said of the two other survivors we met on the following day, at the genocide memorial in Potocari. Nura was another mother of Srebrenica, who lost four sons and her husband during the Death March. She was one of few women to attempted to walk it herself, in her determination to not be separated from her beloved family. She cannot speak about this without crying, and you can see how heavily it weighs on her still. I’m crying along with her, as many of us are.

Nedzad is a survivor of an execution site, of whom there are only 10 survivors like him. He was only 17 years old when this happened to him. He is brave enough to tell his harrowing tell in an effort to make the truth known, and bring consolation and recognition to the loss of loved ones to so many- so narrowly avoiding death himself that he many times wished it upon himself in the grueling and torturous hours of his experience. I find myself so amazed at his poise and presence as well, and I feel that he must be one of the strongest men alive today, living on to be a husband, father, and presenter on his experience of the crimes and genocide of Srebrenica.

I will never forget any of these people. Their only wish is for others like us to spread their story so that their loss and their loved ones are not forgotten. The truth cannot be denied, though many try to suppress it. I hope to be able to honor their wishes, and help to combat hatred in society that leads to such violent ends. The simple passing of time will not be enough to heal the wounds of Srebrenica, and the world needs to be a part of offering some hope for healing.