Shadows of Srebrenica

As I was writing my last post, it became pretty clear that I would need to separate my weekend in Bosnia into two installments. Here I will pick up where I left off, at the end of the conference on Saturday.

(I suppose my posts will get a bit less heavy after this one. I just feel the need to fully flesh out the events of the weekend in the hopes that anyone reading this might learn and feel as I did.)

After a gut-wrenching day, I had to take a second to gather myself. The room had a certain steely, sobering energy to it. Feeling all sorts of emotionally compromised, I made my way over to Amir, looked him in his eyes and shook his hand. He smiled grimly, and I did the same. Sharing his story surely wasn’t easy. The same can be said for Emina, who was still crying. She was surrounded by Munira and a host of others whom were offering their comfort. In the commotion I couldn’t get to her, and never got a chance to tell her how her story made me feel.

The group spilled out into the hotel lobby. We shook hands and bid farewell to many of the conference-goers. A small group would be continuing on to Srebrenica for the night, including me, Dad, his ILC colleagues, Elmina, Erwin, Munira, and the other Mothers of Srebrenica. We piled into two vans and hit the road.Screen Shot 2016-05-23 at 12.21.46 PM

Shortly into our drive, Elmina alerts us that we have passed into Republika Srpska, the second constitutional and legal entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the other being the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Republika Srpska (Serb Republic in Serbo-Croatian) was formed in 1992 when the Serbs called to officially sever ties with Bosnia-Herzegovina. At that time a large migration of Serbs occurred as they moved into the newly formed Republic. The resulting breakdown of societies across the country and attempted territory grabs from both sides were principal reasons for the start of the Bosnian War. Today, the Republic operates with relative autonomy within Bosnia & Herzegovina, and the two entities remain ethnically divided.

As we traverse the countryside, I look out the window and see small agricultural communities and villages. I wonder what the people there would have to say about what was discussed at the conference that day.

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On our way we pass by the warehouses where hundreds of Bosnian Muslim men and boys were murdered, and where Munira and Kada were assaulted by policemen. We pull over to see the buildings for ourselves. I wasn’t sure if Munira and the other Mothers would join us. They did. I really never should’ve doubted their fierce resolve.

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Munira approaching the warehouses with Dr. Petric

I am told that the men were shepherded into the warehouses and, once they were all gathered inside, grenades were thrown in to kill them quickly and efficiently. Apparently of the hundreds that were assembled and murdered, two Bosnian Muslims actually survived and escaped. They were far enough away to withstand the first grenade throws, and used the dead bodies around them as shields to endure the following explosions.

During the second half of the conference that day, David Scheffer joined the group and delivered his thoughts. Scheffer was the first United States Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues during Bill Clinton’s second term in office. During Clinton’s first term he served as senior advisor to Madeline Albright before President Clinton created the position that Scheffer would fill. Scheffer participated in the creation of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and currently teaches law at Northwestern University.

I ask Scheffer how just a handful of Serbs could overpower hundreds of able-bodied Muslim men. His response was concise and harrowing.

“They were the ones with the guns”

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In total the trip to Srebrenica was about 2.5 hours. It was dark when we arrived at the house of the Mothers of Srebrenica, where we would be staying for the night. As we approach, Elmina says “I hope you’re ready to eat a lot of food”. I was.

A plethora of smells filled the air as we entered the house. The Mothers had clearly been working the kitchen all day in preparation for our arrival. They welcomed us with big smiles and enthusiastic, kind words that I did not understand in the slightest.

We are then shown our room for the night in the attic, which I would be sharing with Dad, Mathias, and Scheffer (the first and possibly last time I would be bunking with a former Clinton staffer). The house is charming and surprisingly modern. Updated flooring and tiling and paint is seen throughout the home. A spacious porch wraps around the back and sides of the house’s exterior. Erwin tells me they have made many updates over the last few years to make the living quarters more comfortable for guests.

When we get downstairs I am ushered into the dining room with hand motions and more illegible words. Immediately plates of piping hot food are set in front of us. A variety of soups, salads, breads, vegetable plates, and meat platters fill the table. I almost can’t fit my plate in front of me due to all the food occupying most of the tabletop real estate.

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Mathias, Dire, Scheffer, Dr. Petric, and Amin

The meal is deliciously filling, with a variety of savory and salty flavors. I mostly listen to the conversation that the brilliant and accomplished men sitting with me are having. They talk about the state of their world, their work, and about the challenges of the region and elsewhere, in light of what was discussed that day. I realize that men in this arena don’t really have an off switch. Their jobs are their life’s work, and their life has been married to seeking out justice.

(I liken it to what I think the Avengers would talk about in their downtime. What else would Captain America, Bruce Banner, and Thor talk about other than saving the world?  The weather? Superhero fashion? Celebrity gossip? The latest Scandal episode??)

I probe Scheffer on a book I finished recently, Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan, in which the author is particularly critical of the Clinton administration’s inaction during the Bosnian War, that the US should have intervened much sooner. I ask him if he has any lingering regrets about the administration’s decisions. Scheffer said he has read Ghosts, as has President Clinton, and that he has his own reservations about the author. But he does give me some candid thoughts.

“Of course the regret is there. It’s something I think about often, what we could have done differently”

It was and still is a very complicated issue, I don’t envy that he had to be in that position. I don’t question him further as the conversation moved on.

The discussion turns lighter as the food begins to settle and dessert is served (delicious homemade baklava). Scheffer beams as he talks about his daughter, who is my age and currently working as a zoologist in Madison, Wisconsin. Dire Tladi tells me he’s impressed I’m self-funding my tour through Europe. I tell him this trip makes being a workaholic the past three years worth it. Dr. Petric pokes fun at my “hometown” of Washington D.C., saying it is the city where old and powerful men go to find the very young women of their dreams. I laugh and challenge that this happens all over the world.

After dinner we join the rest of the group and the Mothers in the living room.

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Dr. Petric calls Munira the “flower of Srebrenica”

The night ends as Kada regales us with old Bosnian songs of love. She has a beautiful voice. I don’t understand what she’s singing about, but that makes it all the more entrancing.

Elmina helps explain what some of the songs mean. They are generally about a longing for love lost. I ask her why all of the songs are so somber.

“Most Bosnian love songs are sad”

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Kada and Elmina

The following morning we are given another heaping meal at breakfast. That weekend was the best I had eaten in weeks after consuming mostly pasta and sandwiches in pricey Scandinavia.

We then walk down the street to the Srebrenica cemetery and memorial.

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Munira leads a presentation of the cemetery, and is joined by other Mothers as they tell the stories of their husbands, sons, and other family members who are buried there. All the graves are those of Muslims, save for a single Christian, whose grave is shown in the picture at the top of this post.

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Though the international community has declared the number of deaths in Srebrenica to be 8,372, Munira challenges that the true number is closer to 10,000

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We are led through the grave sites, mostly in silence, as we pay our respects to the departed.

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After the cemetery, we make our way to a warehouse nearby, which was declared a UN-protected safe zone for Muslim refugees. Unfortunately, the UN was unable to withstand the Serb onslaught and the site was eventually overrun. It now serves as a museum with informative plaques of victims, war criminals, and the like.

Writing found on the wall of the UN sanctuary (left), later used in a viral national advert (right).

Stories of the victims are displayed on the walls, among them is one about Kada’s husband. His story is below:

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Kada’s husband, Sead.

We are shown a video that features more accounts of the victims. Kada is interviewed in the video. She sits in the room and watches with us. I wonder how many times she and others have had to relive their pasts; like shadows that follow them around every day, everywhere they go.

Some of the Mothers weep and mumble somber cries that I don’t understand, while others sit in silence.

At another exhibit, a second video shows first hand footage of Bosnian Muslims being forced to their knees, shot and killed. Some of the victims were forced to move the dead bodies of their comrades away from the road before they, too, were murdered. The video also shows footage of the aftermath, including some testimonials filmed at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the Hague (ICTY).

Mark Harmon, another conference attendee who joined us in Srebrenica, is featured in the video. Harmon served as a Senior Trial Attorney at the ICTY for 17 years and prosecuted many war criminals. He lived and worked in the Hague while my Dad was working at the US embassy. They collaborated together many times and the Embassy provided Harmon with resources when necessary. His wife and my Mom also became friends. The last time they saw me I was a wee lad of 6 years.

In the video Harmon is shown listening to a young Serb man who is feeling remorseful about what he did during the massacre of Srebrenica. The man tells Harmon about several locations where the bodies were moved after the killing was over, so that they may be recovered and properly buried. I asked Harmon how much effort he had to put into getting the young man to confess.

“Virtually none. He was ready to talk as soon as he got off the plane.”

He also commends the man’s lawyer, who didn’t try to get in the way of his client trying to redeem himself.

This got me thinking about the Nuremberg trials, when Nazi war criminals were prosecuted, and about groupthink. After the Holocaust, many former Nazi’s came out as feeling deep regret for what they did. They posed that they were simply following orders at the time. I imagine that being part of such a large movement, working with their peers, fueled by the powerful oration of Adolf Hitler, made it difficult to put in perspective the horrific crimes they were committing. It was groupthink at work on a large scale, much like what happened during the attempted ethnic cleansing of Bosnia.

The group posed for a final photo before leaving in the afternoon for Sarajevo to make our respective flights.

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At the airport I said goodbye to Dad and his colleagues. I’ll be seeing them in about a week in Geneva.

My journey took me on an ironic next step: to a 20 hour layover in Belgrade, Serbia, before my flight to Athens the next day. It was storming when I arrived, which was not conducive to exploring the Serbian capitol, so I hunkered down in my hotel and had a meal while re-watching Game of Thrones.

Later in the night, the kind and receptive host who greeted me got off work and joined me for a beer in the hotel bar. I told him where I was this weekend, what I learned, what I saw, and how I felt. He silently met my eyes and nodded his head as I talked. With an open mind, I asked him about his thoughts.

Romanislav served in the Serbian army for over a decade. He explained that, while he did not see combat, he saw the aftermath of war in many forms. He saw the faces of dead Serbian men, women, and children. He claimed the war crimes were hardly one sided, but that the international community has framed Serbia as the “bad guys” and that their story is also one of pain and suffering. His wife was horribly disfigured during the war. He did not describe how it happened, but that she now cannot leave the house due to her condition. They were going to move to South America. Because of her ongoing medical challenges, they are unable to afford such a relocation for him, her, and their son.

“I am a proud Serb…”

I ask him about Srebrenica. He denies that the Serbs had the resources to carry out such a systematic massacre, and that the population of Srebrenica did not even amount to 4,000 at the time. He says the total number of Bosnian Muslims killed in Srebrenica numbers around 1,900, and that they died fighting which does not constitute a massacre.

The one thing Romanislav and the people I spent time with this weekend would agree on is the future of region. That Saturday after dinner I asked Erwin what he thinks will become of Bosnia.

“I see only two possible futures: joining the European Union…or war”

Romanislav echoes his sentiments, that war will return the Balkans once more in the near future. The ethnic divisions run too deep, and the anger has built up over generations. He says it will only take a severe crisis, economic or otherwise, to send the region back into violent conflict.

Though dormant, the shadows of war linger on. I hope for peaceful resolution. I also hope that I can return to the Balkans someday, the beautiful but troubled land where the east meets the west, so that I may continue to learn and to listen. I pray that others will choose to learn and listen as well.

 

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