The trip that brought me to Europe was a course called "War Crimes Prosecutions in the Former Yugoslavia." I went with 2 professors and 13 other students to The Hague, Bosnia and Serbia to study the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and meet with defense attorneys, judges, prosecutors, media personnel, NGOs and international organizations that are all working to bring reconciliation to the former Yugoslavia after the wars that divided the country into 6 (almost 7) independent states.
I've always bee interested in the former Yugoslavia since I worked as the liaison to te Bosnia and Kosovo offices for an NGO that works with women in conflict and post-conflict areas. Depsite the fact that the war ended 17 years ago, I've always been interested in the conflict because although the violence has stopped, the lingering effects of the war are still very, very prominent in the countries of the former Yugoslavia.
In traveling to Bosnia and Serbia, this was very evident. From bullet holes and shell casings that adorned the buildings of Sarajevo to the stray dogs that roam the streets hungry left over from a time where one had to give up their dogs to feed their families. But nowhere were the effects of war more prevalent than in Srebrenica.
To give you a brief history lesson: In July 1995, during the Bosnian War, 8,372 Bosnan Muslim men and boys were killed in a horrifying genocide under the command of General Ratko Mladic who, if you read the news, was finally captured this past May. The massacre started on July 11 when between 20 and 25,000 Bosniaks (the term for Bosnian Muslims) gathered at the UN Compound in Potocari to seek protection from the United Nations. With nearly 1,000 people in the old battery factory that was being used as a compound, the Dutch military had to turn the Bosniaks away as the compound was already full beyond capacity. The next day, Serb military forces invaded the compound and began separating the men and boys from the women. Knowing that in the hands of the Serbs lied certain death, many of the men and boys took a treacherous march through the woods and hills to find safety. Most of them were killed along the way. The Bosniak men and boys of Srebrenica were killed in some of the most horrifying ways. Many of them stood in line waiting for their turn to be killed as they watched their friends, neighbors, brothers, sons, fathers, uncles, cousins, etc. go ahead of them. Many of them were forced to dig their own graves in which they would be shot in. The mass graves that have been exhumed since the war ended demonstrate only the most heinous, unimaginable crimes.
Since the war ended, mass graves are being uncovered all the time. In fact, while I was in Bosnia, another mass grave had been found. Yes, 17 years after the war, mass graves are still being found. A fantastic organization called the International Commission on Missing Persons does a lot of the exhumations of the mass graves and, by testing the family members of victims, have been able to identify over 7,000 human remains that were found in mass graves related to the genocide at Srebrenica. Each year, a Peace March is held to commemorate those men and boys and the march they made to try and get to safety. The march ends at the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial which is on the same field where many people last saw their loved ones. On the final day of the Peace March, the remains of those who have been identified over the course of the year are finally laid to rest.
I left Bosnia three days before the march started which made me really angry actually. I felt like our professors should have incorporated it into the trip but they didn't think it was relevant to our course of study which made me even more angry but that's another issue in itself. Because it was so close to the Peace March, they were preparing for the March in which over 600 people would be laid to rest...which meant that while we were there, they were digging graves.
It broke my heart. At one point, I just knelt on the ground sobbing. There were just rows and rows and rows...and rows of graves. That I expected to see. But to see all of the open graves and to realize that the people who have been, or will be laid to rest in this cemetary were all killed in a period of 11 days...that destroyed me.
After we left the Memorial, we walked across the street to the old battery factory turned UN compound which has been turned into a museum. We watched a video in there which just put everthing into such a different perspective and made it all so so real...and so scary. There was also a photography exhibit that we looked at as well as a rotating display of things that were found with people whose bodies were exhumed in the mass graves along with small vignettes about them. To know the story then see the Memorial site and then read these vignettes and put names and faces and stories to everything that happened just made it so much more real. It was devastating.
|The old battery factory turned UN Compound|
We left the battery factory and made the long, silent trip back to Sarajevo.
It's not easy to write about a topic like this, which is why I think I've been putting it off for so long. But I think it's important because the sad truth is that this happened in Europe 17 years ago and in Rwanda 18 years ago and is happening in Sudan today and in so many other places where the legal term of genocide has yet to be applied. After the Holocaust, the world promised, "Never again" But I guess those were just empty words. And I guess that's why I'm in this field.
Thanks for reading.