409 Souls to Rest in Potocari

It’s been a long time since I posted – too long – maybe over a year. But today I need an outlet so today I start writing again.

It’s 11 July 2013. It’s eighteen years after the massacre in eastern Bosnia – the UN safe zone of Srebrenica – started. The ICTY has concluded that the systematic slaughter of over 8,000 men and boys (and women, children and elderly who either got in the way or who were simply picked off for the perpetrator’s fun) was genocide. 

Today, 18 years later, 409 new individuals’ mortal remains will be buried alongside nearly 6,000 identified people. For whatever personal reasons, families have chosen to bury their 409 loved ones this year – perhaps they found the skull of a father or the leg bone of a son that will complete the skeleton – at least complete it enough to bury it and find some sort of tenuous closure. The sad fact is that the longer we go on without finding those other 2000 remains, the less likely we are to literally piece them together. That’s 2000 people who had family and friends who most likely need that burial ceremony to start mourning and attempt to move on. 

11 July in Srebrenica is always a rather insane event. The international community and journalists flock to the memorial center and cemetery in Potocari. For one day they “remember” what happened, and send pictures through wires like AP throughout the world. But the captions get smaller each year on the photos. And the news stories get put lower and lower down in the newsfeeds. But people in Bosnia and Herzegovina can’t and won’t forget. The mostly women who come to cry and to say goodbye to their boys – their wailing and fainting or their silent prayers – that’s all that I remember from the past three burials I’ve attended. And their stories and lives go on, before and after this day. In Tuzla and Srebrenica, in Sweden and St. Louis. But the newspapers don’t capture that complexity, because who wants to read about an old woman who makes jam from the Podrinje berries while she speaks about her dead son? 

Yes, it’s a hulabaloo today. A lot of skeptics and cynics vent their frustrations at the way Srebrenica draws tens of thousands of people today, while towns that also experienced massacres like Foca or Prijedor hardly get noticed. I understand that. I’ve lived in those towns, and I’ve lived in Srebrenica. But you know what these folks don’t seem to get is, the mourning of the people living there is the same. The tears shed are the same. The Bosnians and internationals alike who mourn for Srebrenica – seemingly only for Srebrenica  – they do it because it’s the only way we know how to. How can one go one each day, mourning publicly or privately, for each horrendous murder that took place during that horrible war? It’s not that people, the informed ones at least, don’t recognize the tragedies in other towns. It’s that Srebrenica has been elevated to a symbol of tragedy. 

Srebrenica is Bosnia’s chosen trauma (well, part of Bosnia, since some still deny it even happened). The Hague seems to think it too difficult to define genocide in other areas – those of us living in Bosnia know that genocide indeed did occur all over the country. Because of this, Srebrenica represents something bigger than itself.

11 July provides an opportunity for individuals to remember the conflict and process the fact that their people were targeted for destruction. Now, I know political manipulation is rife in Bosnia, and Srebrenica has been used over and over for various causes. But I also think the public mourning and memorialization of Srebrenica gives people and communities a space to face the past – and this is critical because this public space does not exist otherwise. In a country where memorials are ethnicized and numbers of the dead are inflated or deflated depending on who is using them, people are desperately seeking a space for reflection.

People need a day like today. Bosnians need Srebrenica because they know what it means for their country on a broader scale. Maybe the internationals aren’t nuanced enough to get that, but Bosnians are a lot smarter than that – they know that their tears are for the children in Srebrenica but also the men who died in the Omarska Camp in Prijedor and the women raped in Foca. Until we have that official space to recognize the gravity of such crimes (which, it seems, the ICTY will never provide), then we must use the opportunities recognized throughout the world as a true tragedy. 

So today when we say Ne Zaboravi – Never Forget – we mean Srebrenica. We also mean Sarajevo. We mean Mostar and Travnik, Banja Luka and Tuzla, as well as Bijeljina and Prijedor. For the souls in Srebrenica and all others  – 11 July 1995.