I wrote the following on July 24th after visiting the Srebrenica memorial cemetery and museum in Potocari, Bosnia & Herzegovina. My commentary, written today, is below.
“Memorials are always hard to see, though being walked through the Srebrenica memorial by a survivor of the genocide was far and away the most impactful site visit I have participated in.
To explain: we visited the site of the Srebrenica genocide while on our way to Belgrade for the second leg of the trip. In 1993, the town of Srebrenica had been declared a UN safe zone, but UN forces ultimately failed to protect the area from Serb control. Residents fled to the nearby UN base in search of safety, but many were not allowed to enter and therefore were forced to seek safety in neighboring cities. Those who were allowed inside the base reached a similar fate; after living in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions for several days, the Dutch peacekeepers expelled everyone from the base – women and children were bussed to safety while men (and many boys) were held back. They were later forced to exit the base on foot and left to their own devices, leaving them powerless to defend themselves against the Army of Republika Srpska which was waiting for them to come out into the open. Over 8,000 people were killed.
The Srebrenica memorial houses the graves of over 6,000 victims and a burial ceremony is held once a year for newly identified victims. Since we visited the site within days of the anniversary of the massacre, there were dozens of fresh graves.
As we spoke to Hassan, a survivor of the attack, I could see the raw emotion in his eyes- the pain that will forever sit just below the surface as he recites his story over and over to visitors He spoke quietly, but with force. At one point, he he looked above my head and his entire face changed- he asked a man (who was wearing both shorts and sneakers while standing with our seated, modestly dressed group inside the mosque) if he was filming. The man replied “yes” confidently.
I was floored- as Hassan seemed to be. Visibly shaken, he told the man that it was against the policy of the memorial for him to film any speakers and asked him to delete the footage. The man nods but says that he will only use a small piece of the recording. I glared at him. My professor attempted to help by explaining the request in another language, but the man didn’t seem to understand what he was being asked- or what he had done to warrant anger. The hostility rolling off of our group was palpable as he eventually turned to leave.
Hassan seemed to center himself, then continued.
Hearing a first hand account of the events was incredible powerful and for the millionth time on this trip I was reminded of 9/11. The events in no way mirror each other, but similarities in the anguish, anger and memories are indisputable. I think this is why I was so struck by the memorial- much like at the 9/11 memorial, I felt like I was trespassing in a graveyard.
My mannerisms changed as a result: my hands were almost constantly checking that my hair and shoulders were covered, I felt rude taking photos (but also knew the image of all of the headstones would be an important one when explaining the genocide back home), and I remained silent. Out of respect or for lack of adequate language I’m not sure, but I’d like to think it was a bit of both. Regardless, I feel both sad, and thankful to have been able to walk through the cemetery and pay my respects, or, more accurately, to express my sorrow.”
I took three photos that day because I knew that my words could not adequately convey the experience of visiting the memorial without them. They are below:
This experience and the words I wrote the following day still resonate deeply with me and only serve to strengthen my belief that, given the state of the world today, it is more important than ever to learn from the past.
May we as a global community strive to do better, and we, as humans, recognize humanity in others.
The museum as a whole was striking. The most impactful work, in my opinion, was Ziyah Gafić's 'Quest for Identity'; explore it here.