I’m honestly not sure where to even begin describing my reactions about our group trip to Tuzla and Srebrenica. The Tuzla trip was, for me, heartwarming on many levels. Having spent almost a year at Eagle Base during my deployment with NATO’s SFOR (Stabilization Force), it was an opportunity to revisit one of the locations that spawned my love for this country. Simply having the opportunity to stroll around town brought a torrent of fond of fond memories cascading to life; the smells of fresh baked bread triggering an almost Pavlovian response to thinking about the Nutella filled croissants I’d pick up at a small bakery in the heart of city, the people strolling around causing me to recollect the friendly welcome from the city’s residents, or the charming ‘old-world’ feel exuded from the buildings themselves reminding me of time spent throughout Europe. The opportunity to listen to Amir Kulaglic (an electrical engineer from Srebrenica who was one of the lucky twenty-five percent to survive the grueling trek to Tuzla) discuss current approaches to transitional justice was phenomenal. The way he wrapped up what I’d spent the last few days looking at for a project with the PCRC (Post-Conflict Research Center) was certainly timely and appropriate. His description of transitional justice being built on four pillars (judicial action, truth telling, reparations, and institutional change) succinctly rolled the information into a manageable concept. Our visit to Nura Begovic (Vice President of the Women of Srebrenica Assn who had lost her husband and son in the Srebrenica massacre) reinforced several similarities among many of the widows; her frustration and quest for justice were driving factors in her aggressive stance to ensure the Srebrenica massacre is not simply swept under the rug of international disinterest or ignored in hopes that the underlying societal tensions will somehow simply resolve themselves. The opportunity to visit the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) gave me an appreciation for the extent of the forensics involved in helping families find some modicum of resolution to the vacuum which remains with the disappearance of their loved ones during the genocide.
After driving from Tuzla to Srebrenica first thing the following morning, we had an opportunity to walk from Srebrenica to Potocari. The idea of following the very footsteps of tens of thousands of people as they fled toward what they thought would be the safety of UN protection during the fall of the city to the Bosnian-Serb army was disconcerting, but not as disturbing as walking into the abandoned battery factory (and former Dutch compound) now serving as part of the memorial. The silence of the place somehow added emphasis to the photos placed on its walls; each of the caskets which had once been here during their journey to the cemetery still haunting the cavernous room. The powerful sense of place was reinforced by listening to Nura Mustafic recount the tragedy of losing her husband and sons in the genocide; her pain not diminished by the passing of time.
The last day was emotionally rough and I am grateful to have started the day with a walk along the cobblestone path to the old spa. While it’s one thing to study genocide from a purely academic perspective (or watch propaganda videos of the perpetrators enacting their deeds from the comfort of an air-conditioned building), having first-hand experience of rocket attacks and the tangible, visceral, and catastrophic results of armed conflict changes the dynamic on a very personal level; the sounds, the smells, the dazed and confused sensation wrought by the initial concussion from indirect fire yielding to an awareness of dirt, debris, and shrapnel suddenly consuming the very essence of space and time. It was the testimony of Hasan Hasanovic which thrust the emotions associated with my own past to the surface of consciousness; the heart-wrenching account of his time in Srebrenica (and the experiences living through the Bosnian-Serb siege of the city before he fled to Tuzla) somehow enabling me to feel a connection, even if very insignificant, with his experience. The contrast expressed between life during the siege (along with his subsequent terror of being hunted through the forests of the Bosnia’s Balkan Mountains) and his description of childhood experiences which would be similar to those of any other child growing up in rural community presented an almost incoherent dichotomy; one side being perhaps utopic and the other a nightmare. That evening, our trip to visit Saliha Osmanovic was somewhat of a respite. I was struck by the presence of history on the drive to her house while passing the excavation of a Roman fort along the Drina River in the village near her home. Knowing the story of her husband and son ahead of time (Ramo caught on film calling to their son Nermin to come out of the hills and surrender to the Bosnian-Serbs who had promised they wouldn’t be harmed) helped a bit, but it was her fearlessness that was most inspiring; everything she loved had been stolen from her and being an active participant in the process of war criminal prosecutions was reflective of her life’s mission. However, she was not filled with anger. Rather, she still sees good in the very people who had participated in the conflagration; some of whom were her own neighbors.
A demonstration of this culture’s quest to find its missing, over 500 of who were gunned down in one Bosnian-Serb army ambush alone while attempting to escape to the safety of Tuzla, is exemplified by the work of the “bone man”, Ramiz Nukic. Visiting him on our drive home on Saturday certainly added credence to the ongoing work (and the work that remains) in the quest for justice as he has personally found the remains of over 250 victims of that particular ambush; remains which eventually make their way to the ICMP in the hope of bringing closure to those families who yet wrestle with doubt and uncertainty.