When I think of our time in Srebrenica, it’s not the gravestones I remember, rows and rows of white obelisks dotting long grassy mounds climbing halfway up the surrounding hills, nor the slanting walls of names that glittered even under gray skies. Nor is it the gorgeous forested mountains, the Dinaric Alps covered with beech and pine and reminding me of Switzerland, through which we drove to get down to the memorial commemorating a massacre of over 8,300 people.
In fact, when Hasan Hasanović invited us to join him as he testified about what he and his family endured almost 20 years ago, among more than 50,000 who came for refuge in what was the United Nation’s first “Safe Area,” to be protected by “all necessary means, including the use of force,” I thought that was it. What is more powerful than the testimony of a genocide survivor? We sat outdoors by the entrance to the gigantic cemetery on a large rug alongside Muslim visitors, as Hasan—black hair and eyes, and a profile sharpened by experience—recounted how, when Republika Srpska army units (VRS) overran Srebrenica, thousands of Bosniak men and boys decided to try to make it to Tusla, in safe territory, on their own. Joining them, he made his way through 55 kilometers of rugged, mountainous terrain in the summer heat, with little food or water, all while being shelled and ambushed by the VRS. Those taken prisoner were removed and executed though they were civilians, so that in all, only about one-third of those who began the trek to safety made it, haggard and emaciated, haunted for life. Those who stayed behind underwent selections. Most of the men, including young boys and the old, were taken away and never seen again.
A friendly, yellow sun appears to beam on some 8,300 obelisk-like gravestones marking the final resting place of those whose tortured bodies were finally found, identified through DNA, and interred here. July 2015 will mark 20 years since the Srebrenica massacre, and families are still searching for the remains of their loved ones. Not only were their boys and men murdered and buried in mass graves, their bodies were disinterred a short time later and hurriedly hidden away in smaller, better concealed graves. As a result, limbs from the same body can be found in different locations, mixed with many others, violation upon violation upon violation. When discovered, they were disinterred once again many years later, identified through DNA, and buried for a last time here, in the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial Cemetery.
“By planned and well-thought out combat operations, create an unbearable situation of total insecurity with no hope of further survival or life for the inhabitants of Srebrenica,” were Radovan Karadžić’s instructions to his soldiers. That “unbearable situation” meant very little food, no running water, terrible overcrowding, and few medical supplies for 50,000-60,000 starving refugee families who fled from neighboring towns and villages to the UN Safe Area of Srebrenica. And when VRS troops overran Srebrenica, at least 20,000 terror-stricken men, women and children began to run to the base where 400 UN Dutch troops were based at Potočari, just outside the city. That’s when thousands of males, including Hasan, his father, uncle and brother, decided to try to make it through the mountains to Tusla, with only about one-third reaching Tusla at the end. Hasan’s father, uncle and twin brother were not among them. The others stampeded towards the gates of Potočari, where the Dutch soldiers barred most from entry. Then VRS soldiers arrived and selections began—of men and boys for killing, of women for rape.
But Hasan’s testimony was not what struck me deepest. It was visiting the old Potočari barracks of the UN forces, an enormous former battery factory complex that housed 400 Dutch troops. Their quarters were as cavernous as airport hangars; standing by one wall, you must look far to see the opposite wall. “They put 5,000 of them here in this room,” Hasan says, “but then they made them leave.” I try to imagine this many men, women and children here—did they have food? Did they have blankets? And what terror struck them when the Dutch gave them up to the VRS soldiers waiting outside?
In the Memorial Room are photos of the dead and a film on the massacre, but my head kept on turning around to take in that gigantic desolate space. The work is to be attentive, to bear witness—to voices, stories, photos, diaries, eyes. There are the old echoes of messages we heard at Auschwitz and in Rwanda:
Nobody knew about the ethnic origin of the neighbor, nobody cared, till the media and politicians kicked in their messages: Beware, they’re coming to kill you.
There’s the denial:
I found a notebook with my teacher’s writing names of Bosniaks. I confronted him and he said no, it’s not his.
I told my neighbor that I saw what he did—now he doesn’t say anything to me.
There are the questions: Where was everybody? Where were the UN and its promises of Safe Areas? What about the Dutch soldiers who, with little international backing, didn’t protect Srebrenica nor the thousands of refugees who begged for refuge, even throwing some out after taking them in? What do they carry inside them to this day? Where was Europe, where this was happening—not in secrecy but in light? For the Balkans are Europe, including the 1.5 million Bosnian Muslims whose ancestors became Muslim in the 15th and 16th centuries. If you thought that Muslims in Europe are recent arrivals, think again.
There is an ongoing edginess here, a wariness of more war. Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia, and Montenegro—six countries so linked by people and history that violence in one spills over into the others. Peace and stability here are fleeting and fragile. Right now there is nervousness over the protests against Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski in Macedonia. There has been too much experience of dictators using the power of their office and the media to broadcast messages of national patriotism, revive historical grievances, and send people out to the street before marching them across the border for the purpose of ethnic cleansing or revenge.
“The radio began to broadcast that the Muslims will start a jihad and there will be massacres everywhere, and people felt they had to defend themselves.” Vahidin Omanovic, a Muslim imam, has been doing peace and reconciliation work through his Center for Peacebuilding for a long time. He began his adult years committed to taking revenge of Serbs for what they’d done to his family, until he met Paula Green, of the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding, who came to train local activists in making peace. That changed his life. He trained with her there and then got a Masters Degree in her program at the School for International Training in Brattleboro, VT. He is our welcoming and delightful host, meeting us in Day 1 in Sarajevo and taking us northwest to the city of Sanski Most in northwest Bosnia, where he lives and works, giving us a better sense of the texture of things while on the road. Most Bosnian Muslims don’t owe allegiance to other Muslim authorities, he explains; their sense of home isn’t located in Pakistan or the Middle East, they are home, Europeans who became Muslim almost a millennium ago. How long has your family been here, I ask him. As long as anyone can remember, he says, and then adds with a twinkle that there’s a very old cave in the hills of Sanski Most, and they came out of that.
The Bosnian Catholics are very different from the Croatian Catholics, the Bosnian Orthodox different from their counterparts in Serbia, and everyone borrows something from everyone else, he adds. Six different countries, 5 different nationalities, Jozo Novak tells me, who is from Croatia, all creating a complex mosaic of religious, ethnic, and national identities that is hard for us outsiders to really fathom, though Jozo and Vahidin, from different lands and religions, speak the same language with only minor differences in intonation, and seem to understand each other at a glance. The Dayton Accords rewarded the Republika Srpska for its ethnic cleansing by giving it 49% of Bosnian territory. The rest comprises the Federation, referring to Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the entire thing is known as Bosnia.
What are not complex are the shells of farmhouses dynamited to prevent their owners’ return that one finds around Sanski Most, itself only a short distance away from Prijedor, a city in Republika Srpska. Many houses have been rebuilt by families who fled the area to other parts of Europe; the properties and homes have been in their families for generations. “We can build more than they could destroy,” Vahidin says. At the same time, many of those families, even after rebuilding, are still not coming back. We pass graffiti on a shelled house that simply says London.
The old streets of Sarajevo are dotted with Sarajevo Roses. These are cracks in the concrete caused by shelling during the siege, and when the siege was over they filled those cracks with a red dye to indicate that death had taken place there: maybe a mother picking up milk for her family, a factory worker on his way to work, or a small child picked off during play. Sarajevo is a jewel. Famous for its long tradition of cultural and religious co-existence, it was sometimes known as the Jerusalem of Europe. This Balkan Jerusalem was encircled and besieged for 1,425 days, the longest siege of a civilian city in modern history. Its people suffered an average of 329 shells per day lobbed at its buildings and streets, and estimates run as high as 18,000 people killed, including 1800 children. They died doing what children do: playing football, going off to school, waiting for a bus. It’s estimated that every single building in the city suffered some damage between 1992 and 1995, and some 35,000 were totally destroyed, including hospitals, the town hall and main government buildings. The renowned National Library burned down, taking thousands of rare books with it.
The religious harmony Sarajevo is touted for extends to its ancient buildings, bazaars, and stone walkways. The neighborhood of Ferhadija Walkway includes the Gazi Husrev Begova Mosque originally built in the 16th century, an old Orthodox church dating back to the same time, the Stari Hram synagogue built by Sephardic Jews escaping from Spain, and the more recent Catholic cathedral. All are within footsteps of each other. East and West meet here in so many ways. In Baščaršija you can drink strong Turkish coffee and smoke a water pipe in shaded cafes in gardens off the street, or visit art galleries and shops that show the Viennese influence from more recent times. But many buildings still carry bullet holes or cavities where shells had penetrated the walls, and everywhere are the Sarajevo Roses, reminding you of the death by artillery that came from the surrounding mountains.
We stand high on top of those mountains now looking down at Sarajevo, much as VRS troops had looked down from where they encircled the city over 20 years ago. They thought it would be easy to tire people down and cause them to surrender. There’s a magnificent view of the city, but once again, my eyes are drawn to the blue-gray skies above, skies that can be so empty and so full all at the same time. Sarajevo below seems vulnerable and fragile, bursting into flame with each shell, and at the same time was so strong and resilient, outlasting the besieging forces for close to 4 years till they themselves withdrew.
Perhaps I’m drawn to the big cavernous spaces in Potočari and the cloud-muffled skies over Sarajevo to remind myself to avoid Western simplifications and ideals. The narrative about Bosnia and the Balkans isn’t as simple as: There are people who want to live together in equality and diversity and there are those who don’t, or it’s a swamp of ethnic and religious conflict, or it’s always been a place of diversity and peace. When I bear witness I have to beware of ears that listen to what they want to hear or eyes that see what they want to see. The hard part is listening to voices that don’t fit any neat category: Serb inhabitants put to death in the pit of Kazani in the very mountains where we’re standing, even graffiti marking the bobsled run used in the Winter Olympics that took place in Sarajevo in 1984. All the voices are there, often seeming to conflict to my black-and-white mind, and when I hear too many I start shaking my head as if to say, it’s just too much, it makes no sense. And still, we can’t turn away, we can’t turn deaf. So I stood in the cavernous hangar space of Potočari and on the mountains above Sarajevo, and searched not for silence, but for the voices beyond speech, beyond tears, and recalled what the apostle Luke said, in quoting Christ: You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.