IN MEMORY OF THE BOSNIAN GENOCIDE 1992-1995
Visiting Srebrenica was not a journey I undertook lightly. During my time in Bosnia, I traveled to many of the villages and towns where war crimes had been committed—their present-day loveliness standing in sharp contrast to the horrors these places had witnessed. During my graduate research, and later when writing The Unquiet Dead, the names of these towns would flash up in survivor testimony, in war crimes reports, or in desperate statements made before an immovable Security Council. It was strange, then, though only to be expected, to find that life had gone on, and that these communities had tried to move forward.
Under the bright glare of the sun, I couldn’t see how it had been achieved. Without reconciliation, with denial by the aggressors—with so little justice for these crimes, what could life be like in Srebrenica now?
The countryside was incongruously beautiful, the genocide memorial and cemetery a quiet oasis. The tombstones stretching into a boundless distance, starkly white against a green horizon, made the number etched in stone difficult to comprehend—8372 murdered in a matter of days, more than two thousand bodies still missing. And this number is not a final count. When asked about the missing, the woman who led our tour defiantly told us, “They aren’t missing. We know what happened to them. If someone hasn’t come back, he isn’t coming back.”
She described the difficult work of recovering the remains. One of her family members’ remains had been scattered over six different burial sites, and recovery still wasn’t complete—an attempt by the Bosnian Serb Army (the VRS) to cover up its crimes. A recent reburial was of a man whose remains had been identified at thirteen different locations.
And the work of identification and dignified reburial will continue into the future. I’m reminded of this by a billboard I see in the town of Ahmici.
In 1993, the Croatian Defense Council (or the HVO) joined the war against Bosnia, the carving up of Bosnia on behalf of a Greater Croatia and a Greater Serbia, the subject of the “deepest mutual understanding” between Croatian president, Franjo Tudjman and Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, a full two years earlier. In the spring and summer of 1993, two armies now attacked an arms-embargoed Bosnia, each perpetrating war crimes that defy human understanding—as we see in Syria today.
I didn’t write about this pincer movement of the HVO and the VRS in The Unquiet Dead—I had too much material as it was—but I mention it now because I visited Ahmici—site of an HVO massacre in Bosnia. Its small cemetery is full, its mosque was strategically bombed, its minaret toppled. A billboard with the faces of the dead has another side as well: the names and faces of thirty men and boys whose bodies have never been found.
With Bosnia’s official tripartite presidency—the office rotating between a Bosnian Muslim, Croat and representative of Republika Srpska every eight months—a national memorial on the genocide that encompasses places like Brcko, Visegrad, Prijedor, and Banja Luka, along with the concentration camps—is unlikely to be sponsored by the state. The Bosnians I interviewed said: “It’s impossible. There is too much denial that these crimes took place. We’ll talk about the war if you ask, but those who committed the crimes won’t. There’s an ongoing silence.”
This proved true in Croatia, as well. Those asked about the Greater Croatia project went silent, unwilling to talk about the past. No one was easy on the subject. I asked a Bosnian friend who is a professor at the Faculty of Islamic Sciences, about the publication of The Bosnian Book of the Dead—an official tally of war dead on all sides, and whether he accepted the finding of approximately 100,000 dead compared to the previously circulated and generally accepted figure of 200,000. His face solemn, he said to me, “I accept the methodology, the names, the conclusion. Is one hundred thousand dead not enough?”
I talked to men who fought in the war or whose fathers had, on the side of the Army of Bosnia Herzegovina (the ABiH)—Bosnian Croats and Muslims alike, and heard similar sentiments. Those I spoke to said the people had never wanted this war. They called it a war with no winners. They had always lived with others and would gladly do so again. They believed it was a war waged for economic motives, and they were certain they knew who’d benefited from waging it. A Bosnian Croat who’d commanded a platoon of Muslim soldiers in the ABiH spoke frankly about war crimes. “If we committed them, we must be tried. If others committed them, they should be tried. Whoever is guilty is guilty and must answer for it, it doesn’t matter who they are. But we were prepared to die to defend a country where we could live together.”
Every Bosnian I spoke to about the war made sure I understood that not all Serbs had wanted this war, not all Serbs had waged it. Serbs had weathered the siege of Sarajevo together with other Bosnians, Serbs had participated in the city’s defense. But that was Sarajevo. In “safe area” Srebrenica, cut off and besieged on the eastern border, the story was painfully different.
Visiting the town of Srebrenica after I visit the genocide memorial at Potocari, I'm struck by how small it is, how empty—how divided, though the tiny new mosque and the Orthodox church stand within easy distance of each other. The flag of the self-styled Republika Srpska flies in the breeze. The town is heavy with unspoken sorrow, the faces of its inhabitants deeply lined. No one smiles, no one greets visitors. And looking at the surrounding hills, I ask myself, “For this? To fly this flag and inhabit these few streets, the VRS killed eight thousand Muslim men and boys?” And I wonder who among the faces in the streets, if any, participated in the killing, as so few have answered for the crime of Srebrenica.
One of the Bosnians I interview has a Croatian mother and a Muslim father, an inter-mixed family like many Bosnian families. He has a Croatian name and dual citizenship. His brother and father with Muslim names do not, another of the Balkans’ post-war realities. As he drives through Republika Srpska—he calls it “an oil-stain that has spread through every corner of Bosnia.” Viewing a map of the post-Dayton Bosnian Federation and Republika Srpska, I’m hard-pressed not to agree.
The much-lauded and deeply flawed Dayton Accords of 1995 rewarded the genocide with the territory “ethnically cleansed” to achieve it—a ratification of genocide—with Srebrenica now part of Republika Srpska. The memorial recognizing the victims was made possible only at the insistence of an implicated international community.
The cemetery is a devastating place to visit. What is there to say about the sight of so many gravestones and so many grieving families? The former UN base at Potocari is just as haunting, the deserted factory converted into a memorial. Several scenes in The Unquiet Dead are set at this base. It is empty of everything save memory—pockmarked, shelled, the fence that was the dividing line between life and death now in good repair. My memory populates the field and the base with thousands of desperate refugees, and dozens of hopelessly inadequate UNPROFOR troops: the infamous Dutch battalion or Dutchbat. I see the abandoned buses that were used to deport Srebrenica’s women and children. And in the base itself—among the graffiti left by Dutchbat and others—a small exhibit. A series of black cases hold personal items recovered from the execution sites: spectacles, cigarette lighters, ID cards, Qur’ans and rosaries (tesbihs) that must have been desperately thumbed in those final hours. I ponder what it means that when you flee with nothing—doomed because of your religious identity, you take with you the keepsakes that mark that identity plainly.
I am able to keep my composure throughout, numbed by the graves and the long list of names memorialized in stone, until I see the ragged, recovered tesbihs. My mother uses hers after every prayer, my father’s use of his is etched in my memory. These men of Srebrenica were fathers, grandfathers, sons, brothers, husbands—they were beloved, just as my father, husband and brothers are beloved to me.
I pray—of course, I pray for the dead and their families—but I can’t find answers that make sense of the violence. All these years later, I haven’t. As I walk through the cold halls of the former UN base, staring at the photograph of the young woman who hanged herself—a photograph that inspired scenes in The Unquiet Dead—again I think, for this? How could so many men be killed for a flag that now stands only for their murder?
On the road into Srebrenica—the same road traveled by the Bosnian Serb Army during the days of the fall of the enclave—a single brave Serb whose house can be found along the way has painted a bold sign in tall Cyrillic letters. It is translated for me loosely as: “Even God finds us difficult to deal with.” The young Bosnian who drives me past it tells me he finds it reassuring. He laughs as he says, “This guy has guts.” And he recounts episodes from his life as a child refugee. Another Bosnian man speaks of living in his basement as a child to escape the bombardment of Sarajevo—confined there by his mother, desperate to escape into daylight, even if daylight was filled with artillery fire and snipers picking off people waiting in line for bread and water. I’m reminded of a Bosnian statement before the Security Council: “On Tuesday, there will be no bread in Sarajevo.”
And of Srebrenica, a Serb soldier once said: “In fourteen days, Srebrenica will be gone.”
Visiting the town, you realize it’s true—the old Srebrenica is gone. Walking the base at Potocari, you understand the how of it—how it was done, how it was achieved so quickly and with such finality. But the why of it remains as elusive as ever.
Later, I will visit Mostar, southwest of Sarajevo—once heir to a lovingly preserved Ottoman heritage. As Srebrenica was besieged by the Bosnian Serb Army, Mostar fell prey to Croatian forces—the HVO. Driving along the back roads into this part of Bosnia, Croatian flags fly, the letters “HVO” can be found spray-painted along the way, the entry into the town itself is quiet, and to me, Mostar—though thronged by tourists—seems shuttered and unbearably sad.
The Old Bridge that spans the Neretva River gorge—Stari Most—the city’s architectural treasure was destroyed by the HVO in 1993. Built in 1566, it was the last of Mostar’s seven bridges to fall. Mostar’s Muslim population traversed the bridge at night in search of water, during the siege of the city. It was rebuilt in 2005, but for the price of one Euro, you can watch a short film showing the destruction of the bridge, stage by stage. I was remarkably detached throughout my tour of grave sites and memorials, but here in a crowded store filled with tourists, watching the bridge fall again and again, I feel the grief of others catch at my throat.
If our culture and our heritage represent who we are—what does it say when that heritage is destroyed? How do we begin again? And why would we trade a generous and peaceable co-existence for this?
I ask myself these questions because of what’s happening in American politics today, and because of how often I hear my community, my friends and myself reviled, alongside other demonized groups. And I’m reminded that the genocide in Bosnia didn’t begin with the Srebrenica massacre—it began with the instigation of propaganda that targeted and dehumanized the Other. It’s a salutary lesson, and one to remember when any community is singled out for unworthy distinction.
I dig out my old war crimes reports, rereading the history of what happened in Mostar, and how it remains an unofficially divided city today—Muslims on one side (the east), Croats on the other (the west)—and I realize I can’t tell which side is which. There seem to be minarets and crosses on both sides of Stari Most. How and where are these invisible lines drawn? But Bosnians tell me they know. One man despairs of a place where families won’t let their children know each other.
“We don’t drink in their cafés, they don’t drink in ours,” he says.
Throughout the trip to Mostar and back, I don’t see a single Bosnian flag. And though we ask, we can’t find anyone to tell us the official Croatian narrative of the assault on Bosnia. In Dubrovnik, we tour the Homeland Defense Museum, and find an admirably succinct account of the Greater Serbia project as it pertains to Serbia’s war against Croatia, and Serbia’s concomitant war crimes. But on the Greater Croatia project, nothing. Our guide, a young Croatian woman, is troubled by these omissions. “There are no heroes,” she says. “This was a war where nobody won. What happened during the coordinated attack on Bosnia—no one likes to talk about it.”
First the crime itself, then the denial of the crime, then the silence. This happens in other places too—my parents were taught nothing about the Partition of India in their respective schools (at least a million dead on either side of the Partition lines), and I’m told that some schools in Bosnia simply don’t teach history because there are three different versions of history—so better to say nothing at all. But that classes can still be entirely segregated by ethnicity or religion doesn’t bode well for the future.
Somewhere at the back of a souvenir store in Mostar, I find a dusty t-shirt with the old Bosnian flag—the white and blue one with the Bosnian lily, and I feel a quick lift of my heart. My husband wore a similar shirt every time we organized a protest as student activists. This was before Srebrenica had fallen, when silence and inaction seemed abysmally criminal, as they always do to the young.
Twenty-four years later I’ve come full circle—relieved to find the Bosnian enlightenment still in existence despite everything done to stamp it out. For the Bosnians I speak to, there is nothing grand or defensible about the war. Or as David Rieff once called it, the slaughter.
I’m humbled by the frankness of answers to probing and sensitive questions. And I respect the silence of those who choose not to speak at all, for reasons a decade of research has made apparent. As happens in Pocitelj, when we ask questions about the destruction of the mosque. The vendor in the mosque’s courtyard shakes his head and looks away.
On a small hillside at Pocitelj, where the destruction of the Hajji Alija mosque is narrated by a poster, I see a sight that always heartens me. The Imam is seated in the forecourt, chatting warmly with a group of Bosnian women who have just performed ablutions before the call to prayer. There is a 500-year-old cypress tree from Lebanon in the courtyard, and in this tranquil communal space, I am made to feel welcome. The same vendor loans me a headscarf, and I enter from the main door and pray in the main space without being redirected.
In so many places, I meet people with my name or the names of my family members and we share a smile of recognition—brushed by the same sweep of history. At the Gazi Husrev Bey Mosque in Sarajevo, I’m offered a scarf by a young man with a wide smile who gives me the “believers-enter-free” discount. It reminds me of a similar encounter in Jerusalem, many years ago. Someone who comes to pray from a different part of the world is welcomed as a member of the ummah. My prayers include photography and no one seems to mind.
In Jajce, I posed with my husband in front of a sparkling waterfall, surrounded by schoolchildren on a tour, but I thought of a letter written by the Bosnian presidency to the UN Security Council in 1992: “The besieged city of Jajce has fallen to the aggressor.”
Ahmici, Travnik, Bihac, Vlasenica, Han Pijesak, Kladanj, Zenica, Bratunac—all names gleaned from war crimes reports—are now towns and villages I travel through or by, searching for signs of what has been lost. Places I don’t visit are mentioned again and again in terms that become definitive: Prijedor, Brcko, Visegrad. Every Bosnian I meet asks if I’ve visited Srebrenica—but more than Srebrenica, they reference the killing in Visegrad like a touchstone.
The cousins Milan and Sredoje Lukic were convicted of war crimes in Visegrad for, among other things, locking Bosnian Muslim men, women, and children in a house, and burning them alive—but in addition to Visegrad’s 3000 dead—killed in the early months of the war, three years before the fall of Srebrenica—there was also widespread torture and rape. A local hotel and spa, Vilina Vlas, was used as a rape camp by Bosnian Serbs. Victims of the camp allege that some of the perpetrators still work at the hotel. Milan Lukic—who was implicated in sexual assault but not charged with it—was arrested in Argentina in 2005, his cousin turned himself in a week later. But many perpetrators of atrocities at Visegrad remain at large, a deterrent to the re-integration of survivors.
There is a documentary on the “ethnic cleansing” of Visegrad that some have likened to a horror film. The words of the Head of the Republika Sprska’s Special Police are telling: “I was in the war and I saw a lot, but the information and stories about the Lukićes were such that even I was appalled by the things they did during the war. Nobody talks about the fact that these men killed hundreds of innocent men, women, children, and who knows who else, in a cold-blooded and brutal way.”
And of Srebrenica, even a figure like Milosevic said, “I cannot find words for what happened there.”
My thoughts return to Srebrenica. In his Statement of Guilt before the International Tribunal, Dragan Obrenovic offered these words: “I apologize to the victims and their shadows. I will be happy if this contribute[s] to reconciliation in Bosnia, if neighbors can again shake hands, if our children can again play games together…”
A genuine answer to this would be to repudiate the flag that symbolizes the killing, admit the truth about the genocide, and tell the families of the dead where the bodies of their loved ones are buried. Many are still searching. There are unmarked gravestones in the cemetery at Srebrenica, waiting for those who have yet to be found. I walk from Parcels 9 to 13, an effective numbering system for those who come to visit their dead, but one that is emblematic of horror.
As I cross the memorial complex, a Bosnian family traces the list of names, searching. A teenage boy hugs his brother, and tries to get him to smile. In the kiosk across the road, I find a CD of Sura Yasin, a chapter of the Qur'an recited for the dead. And at the Srebrenica exhibit in Sarajevo, a young woman cries silently in a booth that runs a short film on a loop. When you are a visitor untouched by tragedy, these are the small things that break you.
I write books to make sense of a suffering I can’t quantify, but there are some things I have no choice but to leave with a higher Power.
There is never real peace without justice, so a reckoning is owed to the people of Bosnia. I say this despite the war crimes trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Trials that have left too much pain unaccounted for, when the wound is still fresh, and the injury repeated by decades of genocide denialism.
Inside Bosnia and around the world, there are those on the side of the angels, who continue to work for justice. A formidable advocate for refugees, my Bosnian-Syrian friend in Ireland has now suffered the depredations of war twice. I pray for those like her not to lose heart...or hope.
And I think of the former soldier and erstwhile adventurer, who greeted the sight of a beautiful girl in Bihac with a proclamation of love for the city she came from. The last thing he told me was this: “We want to live together. It’s what we’ve always known.”
Ausma Zehanat Khan
Updated from June 9, 2016
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Ausma Zehanat Khan