“In the name of God the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate
We pray to Almighty God,
May grievance become hope
May revenge become justice
May mothers’ tears become prayers
Never happens again
To no-one and nowhere.”
-Srebrenica Prayer, July 11, 2005
Eighteen years ago, on July 11, 1995, as I celebrated my second birthday, the town of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia–which was considered a UN-protected “safe zone”–fell to the Bosnian Serb Army. Despite the presence of a Dutch peacekeeping force, the Muslim residents of Srebrenica, as well as refugees from nearby towns, were forced onto busses. The women were separated from their husbands and sons. The women were bussed to the Bosniak-held Federation (although many suffered sexual abuse), but the men were taken to nearby football fields, schools, and factories, where they were systematically executed. Over the course of the next few days, even more men were killed as they tried to escape from Srebrenica by walking the 55 miles to the town of Tuzla.
In total, over 8,000 men and boys were killed at Srebrenica. In 2004, the International Criminal Tribune for the Former Yugoslavia declared that the Srebrenica massacre constituted an official act of genocide. Nevertheless, there are many within Serbia and Bosnia’s Republika Srpska who deny that Srebrenica was a true act of genocide. Furthermore, Srebrenica became part of the Republika Srpska at the end of the war, and is now a predominantly Serb area. The few Bosniaks who have returned to the area face severe discrimination. Schoolchildren in Srebrenica are taught that the town was “freed” in 1995, and that all massacre victims were enemy combatants.
Last Sunday, I travelled to Srebrenica with a contingent of students from the University of Sarajevo to visit the Potocari Cemetery and the Memorial Centre (a museum exhibit about the massacre and its victims). At first, I was a little unsure about visiting the site at all, especially with students from the University who had grown up during the war. I’ve never been very good with dealing with the after-effects of mass tragedy–I live 15 miles away from the World Trade Center site but have never even passed by it, much less visited–and part of me wondered if it was even appropriate for me to visit the site. After all, Srebrenica was Bosnia’s tragedy, not my tragedy.
Visiting the cemetery and Memorial Centre completely reversed my assumption that Srebrenica was Bosnia’s tragedy. Srebrenica is not just Bosnia’s tragedy, or the UN’s tragedy. It is humanity’s tragedy. At the cemetery, I saw sights I would never forget. I noted the range of ages of the victims, from young boys born in the 1980s to old men born in the 1890s. With growing horror, I realized that many of the victims–often twenty or thirty–shared the same last name; I’ve learned from my host family that most Bosnian extended families are extremely close, and I can’t imagine the emotions of the women who lost their entire extended families in the massacre. I noted the graves being prepared for the individuals identified from the mass grave sites that were reburied this week at the anniversary of the massacre. Four hundred and nine victims, including a newborn baby, were reinterred on Thursday.
The Memorial Centre–a museum which includes information and personal artifacts owned by several of the victims, as well as video interviews with relatives and survivors–was even more moving. The Memorial Centre is housed in the Potocari Battery Factory where the Dutch peacekeeping force was headquartered and some of the victims were killed. I immediately noted the bullet holes on the inside walls of the factory. I’ve become accustomed to seeing bullet holes on buildings in Sarajevo, but these holes were all around six feet tall, almost in perfect lines–I was looking at the final reminders of an execution line. I broke down again reading the biographies of men who had been killed, along with pictures and artifacts such as their prayer books or “lucky” amulets rescued from the grave site. I couldn’t help but imagine what would happen if Srebrenica occurred in America–what if it was my father or boyfriend’s pictures on the wall?
Before visiting the site, I wasn’t sure why the disagreement over whether Srebrenica had been an act of genocide or not really mattered. Now that I’ve seen the graves, seen the marks in the wall, and talked to my Bosnian friends about it, I know it really does matter. What happened in Bosnia was not the same as what happened in Nazi Germany or even Rwanda, but in many towns–most famously Srebrenica, but also in Zepa and many other municipalities–but it was genocide nevertheless. The victims must be recognized as such, and it’s important that people worldwide learn about what happened here.
For further reading, see: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2012/07/2012710133138811312.html
(Also, as a personal update: I am going to have lots of time to update my blog this weekend because I’m recovering from a nasty cold/breathing problems that resulted in me spending some time in the emergency room yesterday. I’m well on my way to recovery, but my next blog post might be a reflection on how terrifying it is to visit an ER in a foreign country).