The monotone voice of the translator in my headset cannot hope to match the raw emotion of the young woman who sits before me speaking Bosnian. I am told this is the first time Emina, 23, has spoken her story in front of a crowd. She is crying from the moment her microphone is turned on. She tells her story as the tears stream down her face. She is my age, but has endured far worse than I can even imagine in her young life. Her story is one of pain, anger, and suffering. It is a story the world needs to hear.
Stavanger -> Oslo -> Istanbul -> Sarajevo
Last Thursday I bid farewell to Dakota, and to Norway. I then began a long and onerous transit to Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina.
My journey took me from Stavanger to Oslo (decided to fly instead of taking the train, great decision), then onward to Istanbul, where I had a ten hour layover. After an uncomfortable sleep in the Ataturk airport, I flew to Sarajevo the following morning.
The customs agent at the Sarajevo passport control asks me the reason for my visit. I tell her I am attending a conference on Crimes Against Humanity with my father, who serves on the International Law Commission (ILC) and will be speaking to the attendees. I tell her I’m here to learn and to open my eyes. She looks up from my passport and her eyes light up.
“I’m glad you are here. I hope you leave with good understanding”
After arriving at Hotel Europa, our accommodations for the night and also the conference venue the next day, I decide to explore the city for a bit. Dad arrived later that night so I set out on my own.
Sarajevo is a beautiful city; it has an attractive mix of both old islamic and new architecture, and it is surprisingly lush. Everywhere you look the views are framed by mountains covered in trees and foliage. The streets are ripe for exploring, with tons of colorful specialty shops featuring glassware, metalworking, clay sculptures, tapestries, souvenirs and more. People sit and sip coffee, smoke hookah, and eat, while kids play in open plazas. Enticing smells of cooking and flavored shisha fill the streets.
Not long into my exploring I stumble into what I quickly realized was a museum. As I turn to exit, a clerk asks me for my ticket. I tell him I didn’t know it was a museum, that I haven’t converted my money yet but will come back later. He asks me where I’m from and I tell him I’m an American. He puts one hand on my shoulder and ushers me into the museum with the other. I was surprised and thankful. I get the feeling there is a collective desire within the Bosnian community for the Western world to understand their history and their struggles.
The museum was about the life of Gazi Husrev-Beg, a nobleman and decorated war veteran during the Ottoman Empire, who served as Sanjak (governor) of Bosnia during the early 16th century. While ruling in Sarajevo, Husrev-Beg bestowed a Waqf on the city, or a religious endowment in Islamic law. Having inherited a great amount of wealth and assets from his noble family in addition to his own fortune, Husrev-Beg’s charitable trust was able to lay a foundation for Sarajevo to grow into a great city. I visited the mosque which was erected as part of the Waqf. To this day it is the largest mosque in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The mosque is the central object of Husrev-Beg’s endowment, but it also included a maktab and a madrasa (Islamic primary and secondary schools), a bezistan (marketplace), citywide plumbing system, drinking fountains (still functional) , and Sarajevo’s first hammam (public bathplace). He is celebrated as one of the most influential figures in the history of Bosnia.
After much more walking it was time for a late afternoon snack. I indulged in a visually-appealing and deliciously salty potato on a stick.
In the evening I return to the hotel and relax, struggling to stay awake but wanting to greet Dad. He finally arrived around 11 PM. I meet some of his colleagues from the ILC, including:
- Dr. Ernest Petrič – A judge, jurist, professor, author, and the Slovenian representative from the ILC. He has served on the ILC for nine years and spearheaded their involvement in this conference. An accomplished diplomat, Petric grew up in the former Yugoslavia and spent a lot of time in what is present day Bosnia. He was able to converse with the Bosnians in the Slavic tongue
- Mathias Forteau – A professor of law at the NYU School of Law and French representative to the ILC. He is based in New York but has also taught in Paris. He has served on the ILC since 2012.
- Dire Tladi, South Africa – A professor of law at the University of Pretoria and South African Representative to the ILC. Tladi is also an accomplished author of more than 50 scholarly publications and the novel Blood in the Sand of Justice. He is an avid NBA fan, specifically of the Miami Heat and Dwyane Wade.
For our (very late) dinner we are joined by some Bosnian officials from the UZSG (Association of Victims and Witnesses of Genocide), including Elmina Kulasic, a young woman not much older than me who speaks flawless English and Bosnian. She does most of the translating throughout the meal. Later in the weekend she tells me she left Bosnia as a child at the start of the war in 1992. She went to Germany as a refugee and eventually ended up in Chicago where she was thrown into the 5th grade. She learned English, got her degree at Chicago-Loyola, and even worked on Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008. She returned to Bosnia three and a half years ago and now serves as a Senior Advisor for the UZSG.
I also meet Ermin, another member of the organization, whom I would get to know over the weekend.
The meal’s discussion is mostly centered around recent ongoings both locally and in the Hague, Netherlands, where a number of alleged war criminals are standing on trial for the crimes committed in the 1990’s during the Bosnian War. Some of their trials have been going on for a long time, others went into hiding and were just recently brought before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), and others are still at large. A hot subject was the recent acquittal of Vojislav Šešelj, whom any rational person would consider a criminal who needs to be brought to justice. The fact that he is a free man is particularly angering for the Bosnians.
The following morning I have breakfast with Dad and one of his former students, Sarah, currently living in Sarajevo with her husband, Ross, who is in the foreign service based out of the US Embassy. Ross tells me a bit about the struggles facing young people in Sarajevo. Namely, a massive unemployment rate of 60% for 18-35 year olds. There is a lack of available jobs, even for those who are college educated. Sarah tells me her colleague’s daughter is 26, has a degree, and simply can’t find a job. Young people are leaving Bosnia in droves.
The conference begins shortly after 9. We all take our seats, equipped with headsets to get the translation of what people are saying in their respective dialects.
Elmina serves as moderator and introduces Munira Subašić, President of the Mothers of Srebrenica. She delivers the first of what would be several moving speeches detailing the horrors beset upon the Bosnian Muslim community during the 1990’s, specifically the massacre at Srebrenica. She lost 22 members of her immediate family in the Srebrenica massacre.
Very long and complicated story short, the international community has generally accepted that over 8,000 Bosnian Muslims, mostly men and boys, were killed in July 1995 during the Bosnian War. The killings were perpetrated by the Bosnian Serb Army of Republika Srpska.
Munira’s life’s work has been rallying the survivor community, organizing activism efforts, attending conferences across the world to spread her message, and educating the younger generation. Munira is a very powerful speaker (she speaks in Bosnian).
“In 2014, I buried two tiny bones of my son Nermin, found in two mass graves, twenty-five kilometers apart. And yet, I did not give birth to such a child – my child was born with hands and feet and eyes, a head and all”
She found the bones of her son almost 20 years after he was killed.
Next up to speak is Serge Brammertz, Chief Prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). When we walk into the conference room in the morning, cameras are surrounding him as he fields questions. Clearly he is a pretty big deal.
Brammertz details the recent progress of the ICTY, as well as the challenges that lie ahead. This was a key objective of this conference: to better understand the obstacles in prosecuting war criminals. These are very complex trials that can often go on for several years, and many still are at large, as mentioned. This is the primary aggravation for survivors such as Munira. Not just toward the Serbs, but toward the law community that hasn’t been able to bring all these criminals to justice.
Brammertz is followed by a Bosnian professor who explains a paramount struggle in prosecuting these criminals – grappling with those who have dual citizenship and have sought safe haven in other countries.
The trouble with the former Yugoslavia, and specifically Bosnia, is that the last 20 years are so confounded with horrific crimes from all sides. Each ethnic group has merits to their angers, such that many will deny or downplay the magnitude of their compatriots’ crimes. Many serbs in Bosnia deny that genocide occurred at Srebrenica, and challenge that the number of Bosnian Muslims killed was far less than 8,000.
At lunch, Erwin tells me that Bosnian history “ended in 1992”, that there are three histories perpetrated by the three main ethnic groups (Bosnian Muslims, Orthodox Serbs, and Croats). The fact that they have a three-member presidency (one from each ethnic group) does little to dissolve these disagreements.
Erwin lived in Sarajevo during the Bosnian War. As a child when the city was under siege, he had to weave in and out alleyways to avoid sniper fire and fetch water for his family in a water reservoir, since the Serbs cut off the plumbing to the city. He lost his grandfather and his best friend to sniper fire. Even today he says he fears for his life. The ethnic tensions still run deep, especially outside of Sarajevo, which is a relatively diverse city.
“The shooting stopped but the war never ended”
Erwin shows me, Dad, and members of the ILC around the city after lunch. I had already seen several of the landmarks he brought us to, but he points out several plaques that I had missed detailing three separate mass killings of a dozen or more during the war. He also shows us the location of the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, sparking World War I.
As we walk I talk to Erwin in great length. I ask him whether he still thinks about his best friend.
“All the time. Especially in the good moments. Like when I bought my car, I thought about whether he could be sitting next to me, or that he could be here in my place instead of me.”
He tells me a bullet once grazed the back of his neck, that he was mere inches away from death. He tells me of a family friend that had his baby daughter killed by sniper fire. The man told Erwin that he would like to meet the man that killed his daughter, not to hurt him, but to have coffee with him. He wants to understand how a man could look through the scope of his sniper, see a child, and pull the trigger.
Re-convening at the conference we get a presentation from a representative of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). He shows some promising statistics of the progress that courts are making in prosecuting war criminals from the Bosnian War. Clearly he is trying to shed some optimism on the situation.
This aggravated another member of the Mothers of Srebrenica, Cada. She lost her husband and her sons during the massacre. She dismisses the numbers as irrelevant; that there are still many who have yet to be brought to justice and roam around freely. She cites a time when her and the Mothers paid respects at a warehouse outside Sarajevo where hundreds of Muslims were massacred. While laying down flowers, her, Munira, and others were cursed and beaten by policemen. Her voice elevates while describing the events.
A student in attendance echoes Cada’s sentiment. She asks the Bosnian judges and prosecutors sitting at the table:
“How can the law keep us safe?”
This is a microcosm of the tension between the victims and the men and women of law. From the victims side, not enough is being done and they don’t see the urgency. I can imagine that when you’ve lost your family and friends, it can be difficult to put the complexities of prosecution into perspective.
My dad and his colleagues speak next. They present an overview the ILC’s Crimes Against Humanity initiative, of which dad is serving as Special Rapporteur. In summation, the initiative is intended to alert the international community for a “need for a comprehensive international convention on the prevention and punishment of crimes against humanity, the analysis of the necessary elements of such a convention, and the drafting of a proposed treaty”.
Such a treaty would mobilize local judicial frameworks across the world to, say, prosecute a criminal from another country who is on their turf and has allegedly committed a crime against humanity. Also as mentioned, it would establish a comprehensive convention on crimes against humanity, much like the conventions that already exist on genocide and war crimes.
Ultimately dad makes the argument that this treaty would help the international community respond to and mitigate crimes against humanity, perhaps preventing future atrocities akin the to ones that happened in Bosnia.
The last session of the conference was a swell of emotion.
First we hear from Amir Omerspahic, a survivor who describes the time he spent in a Bosnian Serb-held concentration camp. There he was barely fed, made to work, beaten, and slept with dozens of others in their own defecation. He reveals that he lost a finger at the hands of the criminals. His speech ends abruptly, as if he had more to say but couldn’t go on.
We are then showed a documentary titled “A Shot in the Soul”. It was a series of accounts from witnesses of the horrific acts during the Bosnian War. Throughout the movie I fall more and more into a state of melancholy, and of anger. For anyone who wants to understand more about the atrocities of the 1990’s in Bosnia, I highly recommend this film.
Near the end of the documentary we learn more about a woman whose husband was killed at the onset of the war. At the time he was murdered she was due to give birth very soon. She manages to escape and arrive at her cousin’s place.
Months later after giving birth to a daughter, the woman goes out to get milk one afternoon. Bosnian Serbs see her, assault her, and drag her to a concentration camp where she was kept for many months.
She was beaten and raped countless times. The kept her alive only to have her to rape.
Her daughter had lost her father before she even came into the world, and now her mother was gone as well.
When the documentary ends the room is silent. After a few moments Elmina speaks up while choking back tears.
“The daughter you just learned about is sitting right next to me”
My gaze turns to Emina. I am shocked and overcome with emotion. Tears are streaming down her face, but she begins to speak nonetheless. For the first time, she tells her story in front of a group of people. In front of all the high-profile people mentioned above who have Wikipedia pages, in front of her fellow survivors who share her pain, in front of strangers like me.
At age 5, Emina miraculously meets her mother. She came a long way and found her daughter. The joy that she carries by having her mother alive is clearly outweighed only by her desire to see the people that hurt her brought to justice. Moreover, she questions the current state of denial for many Bosnians and what it says about the future.
“How can we move on from our past, as Germany did, if we don’t recognize what happened?”
I cry because I don’t have the answers. I don’t know who does. I feel overwhelmed and heartbroken.
I don’t know what lies ahead for Bosnia and the rest of the Balkans. There is a grim amount of hate there that has built itself up over generations. The denial of what happened will continue to fester. Witnesses are dying off and eventually all future generations will have left are the whispers of their forefathers, truthful or not.
One thing I do know is that Emina, Amir, Munira, Erwin, and everyone affected by the horrors of the Bosnian War deserve justice.
Although I take solace in the fact that great men like my father have poured their life’s work into bringing righteousness to the world, I feel a deep sense of powerlessness. What can we do in the face of such evil?