Okay so I have been terrible about posting and I have had plenty of excuses. I have a week off school right now and I decided to travel without my computer, which is like having my third arm amputated, but in a good way. I still need to tell you about the rest of Bosnia, Norway, and now Barcelona. Thus I am proving my dedication to my writing by the fact that I have borrowed a PC from my hostel, on which I am currently typing. That also means I don’t have access to my photos, but I will add them later from Copenhagen.
On my morbid bucket list of life activities, is visiting genocide sites around the world, so in some ways I have always known I would go to Bosnia and consequently go to Srebrenica, but I was not sure under what circumstances. The Tuesday of my Bosnia trip was that day and it was very different from expected.
We woke at 5am to crawl to a bus, that took us three hours east of Sarajevo to the area around Srebrenica. I slept the entire time and was gently awoken by my professor as we pulled into the Identification Center. I didn’t have much time to prepare myself in the few yards between the bus and the front door. We were met by a young forensic anthropologist who heads up the program, which is in part funded by the government and the international community. The Center works to identify the over 8,000 victims from the mass graves of Srebrenica. Most of the bodies were relocated over three times, which means body parts from the same individual ended up at multiple burial sites. This produced a long and gruelling DNA identification process that is no where close to finished.
We were ushered into the cold storage room where the remains are kept. Floor to ceiling there were over seven thousand body bags containing clothes, personal affects, and partial body recoveries which are waiting to be examined. Still groggy, I struggled to process the fact that I was surrounded by the all of the unidentified victims of the genocide. I did, however, recognize the smell of death – more specifically the smell of damaged body fragments. It was the same thick ashen smell that hung in the rooms of the concentration camps.
Then we headed into the identification room. On the table were the remains of a young man who was in the process of being identified. His skull, arms, legs, and femur had been recovered, but his spine and rib cage were still missing. We stood, a group of nearly thirty, around this small table nodding in unison as the anthropologist explain the identification and testing process. We took notes. We listened. We acted as scholars and not humans. By the end of her lecture I realized I was standing in front of the body of a person who was murdered in genocide and I was not feeling anything, which was alarming. I had to remind myself to transition from academic to empathizer. Then I focused on the facts, a man in his twenties, in the military and I thought about someone who would have fit this description. Immediately a dear friend came to mind. The feelings came back and I was strangled with emotion. I thought of my friend, reduced to bones on a table, and selfishly I thought of myself, not knowing where he was, what happened to him, or having any closure about his death. The visit was over and were herded to the bus, but I was caught up in my thoughts.
The next stop was a small town where the Serbs had been persecuted by the Bosniaks. There is a memorial room in the town, where there is a picture of everyone who was killed. There is a Serbian man in his thirties who manages the memorial, and through a translator, he explained the history of the town and the space. I have a feeling some things were distorted, adjusted, or lost in translation, but he explained how the Serbian population of the town had suffered. More interestingly he created a very hopeful picture of post war Bosnia where everyone gets a long and attends school together.
We then walked through the town and it became obvious this part of Bosnia does not receive many tourists, especially busloads of young Americans. We were met with confused stares. Our guide was a young woman who is a youth activist and organizer. Part way through her tour two high school age girls got in a fist fight next to our group. It was clear that the relations between the youth are bad and quickly deteriorating. The woman walked us to the WWII memorial on the outskirts of town. The once imposing structure is now defaced in Technicolor graffiti. The guide explained that ¨"once upon a time" the ethnic groups got a long, fought together, and could even have on singular memorial. As she spoke her voice shook with conviction but she was massively disenfranchised. Stuck between a corrupt far reaching government and an overlooked enraged youth she cant imagine progress anytime soon.
On this note we headed back to the bus and made our way towards our final destination – Srebrenica. As the bus pulled up, hundreds of Bosniak women were leaving the grounds. It happened to be one of the main memorial days for the families. We meet up with a man who is a survivor of the genocide and our tour guide while were there. He walks us to the main museum where we watch a thirty minute video accounting the events that transpired during the summer of 1995. We learned that the UN peacekeeping forces, were passive at best, and have recently been tried for covering up the death of Bosniak civilians. They were convicted in the Netherlands and the case is being appealed. The video was gruesome, not only in the way it detailed the murder of Bosniaks, but also in the way it contrasted the death of thousands with the complete awareness of the international community. We knew and we were complacent. I, although just born, will forever belong to that inactive “we.”
We walked the rest of the museum, during which time some of the Bosniak women entered. Before our visit, I hadn’t realized that Srebrenica had been a genocide of men. Women and children under the age of eight were led to the left and all “men” over the age of eight were sent to the right and to their death. Everyone who had come to remember was a woman. Their husbands, brothers, uncles, sons, and fathers had been killed. Every man they had grown up with, loved, birthed, or cared for were killed.
Outside of the museum, the survivor we were traveling with gave us a detailed account of the genocide. The entire time he held intense and unwavering eye contact with me. It was a bit unnerving, but as I looked around the group of my intently listening peers, I realized very few were looking up at him. I had seen it before, and it made sense, that he decided to tell his story to one specific person, since it makes it a little easier. In big group I had never been that person before.
We proceeded into the warehouse where the locals were temporarily housed by the UN. The building is kept in its original state, except for a wall of photographs and artifacts. The objects are matched with the images of their owners, who were all killed, as well as a short description of their personality from their family.
After which is was time to go to the main memorial and burial site. There is a small stand outside the space, where a group of Bosniak women sell flowers. DIS, my university, had preordered a wreath for us to place. The women working at the stand were so excited that a group of Americans were first of all in Bosnia, and had come to Srebrenica to properly show their respects.
As we walked into the memorial complex I picked up a stone, smooth and white like the graves. I had the intention of placing it on the memorial in the Jewish tradition. The Bosniak Muslim gravesite was crafted of white simple marble and the graves are organized in perfect untouched and unending rows. It is a minimalist form of memory, that unlike the concentration camps, are not trying to manipulate a specific emotional reaction. The graves of the 6,000 identified and buried bodies are there. You may react as you see fit. Due to the precision of the space it seemed wrong to impose a Jewish tradition on a Muslim resting place. So I kept the perfect stone in my hand and kept turning it over between my thumb and forefinger.
Our professor placed the wreath and then spoke a few solemn words, and we were excused to explore. First I saw the large stone, etched with the number “8372…" and lists the towns the victims came from. This is the only image of the memorial that is available in American textbooks. So, after years, to stare at something I had only seen printed on a page, was striking. I looked over the horizon of the large stone and saw everything that the frame of the camera fails to capture – an expansive sea of graves. The 6,000 white points are bordered with a space for prayer (facing Mecca) and a wall with the name of everyone who was killed. Certain names had fresh flowers lain over them, reminding me just how recent this genocide was.
Alone, I wandered the complex with the rock still turning in my hand. I found myself emotionally muttering apologies that the dead would never hear.
“I am sorry we did this. I am sorry we let this happen to you. I am sorry we let it keep happening. I am sorry you are being forgotten, but I promise to remember you. I am jut so sorry.”
But as much as I muttered these words to myself it didn’t assuage any of my guilt or sadness. Instead I was overcome with a sense of isolating loneliness. Not that my pain or emotions in this place were unique, but I don’t really know how to describe it. Here I was in a space I had wanted to come for years, surrounded by graves and I wanted to talk to them. I wanted to hug their families. I guess I felt helpless.
I put the worry stone in my pocket and decided to take it home and put it on my shelf next to the stone from Barrack 14, Birkenau Concentration Camp, where I Holocaust survivor I know lived.
Then Wednesday April 16th I found myself with the stone it my hand again. It was Yom Ha Shoah or the Jewish Remembrance Day for the Holocaust. It marked five years since I visited the concentration camps, and in a lot of ways I use that day to measure the ways in which my life has changed. I ask myself where was I last Yom Ha Shoah and where am I now? This year with the white worry stone from Bosnia in the palm of my hand, I remembered and mourned but not only the Holocaust. I decided that from this year forward, Yom Ha Shoah, in the spirit of the Jewish Tradition I prescribe to, should be all inclusive. It should be a day on which we remember, not only the genocides that garner international attention, but also all the lost lives that we have forgotten.