Sunday, July 25, 2010

Journalist Peter Lippman Bosnia Journal #8

Bosnia journal #8
Srebrenica
July 25th, 2010


THE MARŠ MIRA

I embarked on the “Marš mira” (march of peace) to Srebrenica on July 8th, three days before the annual commemoration of the 1995 massacre. The trail of the march retraces, backwards, the escape route that thousands of men and boys took to avoid capture by Serb forces in July of 1995 as the Srebrenica enclave fell. Out of 10,000 to 15,000, only five thousand arrived safely to free territory.

Since 2005, people have been walking the route back into Srebrenica, specifically to Potocari, wartime location of the Dutch UN base and now the memorial cemetery for the massacre victims. There, each year newly-identified remains of exhumed victims are reburied.

The march has been growing every year. Last year there were almost 5,000 participants. I have heard estimates upwards of 6,000 for this year.

Participants gathered on a hill above Nezuk, a village near Sapna, well to the north of Srebrenica and east of Tuzla. This was the end-point of one of the two main escape routes. The other went westward, emerging from Serb-controlled territory near Kladanj, south of Tuzla.

There was a sense of disorganization at the beginning when the head of the march, Camil Durakovic (deputy mayor of Srebrenica) admonished the crowd to get in formation, and people yelled back at him. But the main elements of the march were organized; all we really had to do was walk. At the opening, we listened to the Bosnian national hymn (without words) and held a moment of silence for the victims of Srebrenica.

After a while, around 9:30 a.m., we walked down through Nezuk and south towards the inter-entity borderline between the Federation and the Republika Srpska.

I have fifty-eight years behind me. Every day I take my customary post-prandial walk of approximately a half hour. During the weekends I engage in rampant physical activity as a carpenter. With this regime, before the march I gave myself a 50-50 chance of making the whole thing. A hundred-odd kilometers in three days is not so small.

I knew members of a couple of groups of foreigners and, it seemed, all the Bosnians. I never lacked for company in the crowd. There were the university students from Denver under my friend Alison Sluiter’s capable guidance. There were other scholars from Europe and the US. There was Julia, my colleague from the outback north of Seattle, who arrived from North America the day before without a trace of jet lag. For that matter, there were foreigners from everywhere between Sweden and Australia, Turkey and Canada, Italy and Poland.

Meanwhile, the majority of the march was composed of Bosnians and Herzegovinans from Tuzla and Kljuc, and Mostar and Sarajevo, and everywhere between. There were also participants from Croatia and a contingent of Women in Black from Belgrade and other parts of Serbia.

We hurried up and then waited at bottlenecks in the woods where a massive crowd simply could not pass quickly. Things moved more smoothly after a while, as the group spread out.

Someone near me looked up at the sky and remarked on the light cloud layer: “On these days before the anniversary, the sky should cry.”

I met Sahman, originally from Srebrenica. He had made the march out in 1995, and now comes back every year. I asked him if it was hard for him. He told me, “There are nights when I don’t sleep.” For the march, he said, “I take a couple of pills and that helps me keep calm.”

After a couple of hours we arrived at the first village, a collection of just a few houses. By the time the men were trying to escape in 1995, Serb forces had emptied and torched all the villages on the route. Now most of them have been at least partially repaired and there has been significant return. All the villages we passed in the first two days were populated by Bosniaks. The region of Podrinje, alongside the Drina River (the border with Serbia), had a majority Bosniak population before the war. Srebrenica municipality was 70% Bosniak. Only one town, Cajnice, did not have a Bosniak majority.

Villagers came out to greet us and to offer coffee and water. Teta (aunt) Hanifa came from the next village over. She told me that she had a daughter in the United States, but she could not remember exactly where.

I got some coffee around 11:30 and got my first wind. My old friend Zulfo Salihovic from Srebrenica, earlier a strong leader of return and now a member of the Srebrenica municipal council, was participating in the march with his ten-year-old daughter. I made friends with a young imam from Sarajevo, Mehidin. Later Alison and I fought over whether Mehidin was her imam or mine.

Young men who traveled with ease made up a large minority of the crowd, running back and forth as the rest of us trudged along. I met some youngsters from Gracanica in north-central Bosnia. They were born in Srebrenica but now displaced. One of them told me his father had been killed in the warehouse massacre at Kravica.

I met Ruweida and others from Toronto. They sang the Canadian national anthem, which was not as bad as the American one. Italians walked into the forest and came back holding big mushrooms.

At another village I spotted an old man talking to a couple of marchers, a man and a woman. The woman, Serifa, was from Vitez, central Bosnia. Serifa wore around her neck a photo of her handsome young husband, killed in 1993. She was marching for him. The man, Sabahudin, told me that he had lost his ten-year-old son. The older man told us how all his relatives were killed or else living abroad, and then he broke down, crying.

We marched on through the hills, some of the most beautiful countryside in all Bosnia. As we passed the dense beech forests, my friend Sarah Wagner and I agreed that we felt reconnected to Bosnia in this way. I looked out at the dark green upon green of Podrinje and hoped that I would live long enough to see Bosnia a happier place.

On the first day the weather was warm, but not scorching. It was a long day. The best estimate I heard was that we walked 35 kilometers that day. People seemed unsure about it; the route has changed slightly over the years. We walked ten hours. I didn’t eat much, focusing more on getting water. I kept moving, without undue hustling. In the crowded places, I felt carried along by the tide. The mood was supportive and sometimes buoyant. There were pensive moments too; never much singing; occasionally some chanting.

That night we arrived to a camping place near the village of Kamenica. Soldiers from the Bosnian army set up dozens of UNHCR tents that held ten or fifteen people each. Alison’s students went to sleep in a house, but I wanted to be “with the narod” (people). I didn’t end up sleeping much; there were presentations, then there was noise; it took until midnight for people to settle down. At 4:00 a.m. there was the prayer call.

On the second day we marched several hours until we came down to a river, maybe the Jadar, and rested there. I shaved in the river. We then started the big hike over Udrc mountain, 1200 meters in elevation.

Somewhere on that hill, above Cerska, I heard a young man speaking about a local legend, and I caught up with him. He was pointing to the dense fog in the valley below. He said, “There is a legend, I don’t know if it’s true because I haven’t investigated it. But people used to jump into that fog, thinking that it was a pile of wool.” Adem was from Cerska himself. He pointed in the direction of a cave that could hold 500 people, and said that he had hidden there during the war. Both of his parents were killed.

Adem said, “Tell the world about this march and ask people to come next year.”

I sat with Adem and a couple of other new friends at a villager’s house along the way and drank coffee. The man of the house told me that he and his family had returned to this village and rebuilt their house eight years earlier. There were a dozen-odd kids in the schoolhouse. Some days during the winter they had to walk to school through waist-deep snow.

Once or twice a day we would come up to a big truck where men and women were standing in the flatbed and throwing out kifle (bread similar to hot-dog buns), bottles of water, sometimes cookies, to the crowd. There seemed to be enough food; mine was augmented by nuts and dried fruit that I had carried. In some places the local people had made cookies for the marchers. There were villagers who were just working all day to serve water and coffee.

Periodically we would pass a concrete fountain built by the villagers; some of these fountains, with their Arabic inscriptions, had remained from Ottoman times. People would crowd around them but tended to wait patiently for their turn to get water. I figured out that where there was one fountain, you could skip it and there would be another one, less crowded, a little further down the trail.

I made friends with Jovana from Leskovac, Serbia. She is a member of the valiant Women in Black. I told her that I admired her for coming from Serbia. She talked to me in her endearing south Serbian accent. I asked her why she had come on the march, and she said, “I wanted to be with my friends…maybe that’s not the answer you wanted to hear.” I said, “My job is just to listen.”

The second day was a bit shorter, maybe 25 kilometers. I was tired and dirty that night, and opted to stay in a house with Alison’s students. Several dozen of us foreigners gathered at Djile’s place. There, the women of the house made us a dinner that never seemed to stop, ending with watermelon.

At one point one thing that upset me took place, and I didn’t really realize how shocked I was until later.

A man asked me why I was in the march. Instead of giving the two-hour answer, I just said, “Solidarity.” After a while he asked, “Why here and not…” I finished his sentence: “Palestine, Rwanda, Bolivia?” I explained to him my connection to the region. Then he told me that he had been with DutchBat in 1995, with the UN troops that had failed to protect the enclave of Srebrenica. I shook his hand.

I had heard that some DutchBat soldiers had been participating in the marches over the years, and was glad to meet one of them. “Alonzo” told me that he was there to work out his guilt and his responsibility. I told him, “Yes, a lot of people are not taking their part of the responsibility for the good of this world.” He said, “Maybe.” I insisted, “Definitely.”

Alonzo had been participating in the march since the first year. I asked him if he had read certain books about the fall of Srebrenica, and he said that he had, and that he had participated in a Dutch-produced film about the place.

Then Alonzo began to criticize certain survivors who were active in preserving the memory of the genocide. Of one person, Alonzo said, “He should move on. He’s always crying about the Dutch. He could take better care of his family, and make something of his life. I am going to tell him this myself.”

Here is where I was quite upset, especially later as I thought about it. Alonzo was dealing with his own trauma. But he was not thinking rationally about a survivor’s response. I am convinced that survivors, especially those who have lost family members, have little choice but to fight for the rest of their lives for the establishment of “truth and justice” about what happened. For us who have not had to live through this terrible experience, those words may sound like platitudes. But they are deeply meaningful in this situation.

Alonzo was not up to the task of understanding that situation, I’m afraid. Although he was traumatized, and although he was making an effort to work out his feelings, still he was cushioned by his own privilege to come and go, and to survive with much less pain and loss than the survivors of Srebrenica.

*

On a lighter note, at that same dinner I met a couple of older Italians and a couple of younger ones. Donata is a 76-year-old woman who uses a cane to help her get through the march. This was her fifth time. Last year her husband started accompanying her. Donata and I hit it off because she is also a Palestine solidarity activist.

I spent that night at Smail’s house in Krke, a village near Konjevic Polje. Smail and his wife welcomed me and the students from Colorado with tea and walnuts, as we took turns showering. Smail showed me his farm, full of squash, cucumbers, eggplant, and a heavenly raspberry plantation. Up in the hills Smail also cultivated apples and plums.

There was plenty of chance to talk politics, history, and all related things. Smail was in the Srebrenica enclave throughout the war and made the march out with the column of men. I asked him, “Why did the army remove Naser Oric (one of the main commanders of the resistance against the Serb-held siege) shortly before the fall of the enclave?” Smail said, “That is the question that never gets answered. But I know a couple of things. Naser took a pile of gold out of the enclave with him when he went. And the enclave had to fall. We all knew that, those of us within the enclave as well as outside…this was all planned.”

Smail is moving on in life. His two sons are educated and one has a good job in nearby Milici municipality, the other in Srebrenica. Smail earns enough to live from his farming. He explained to me that there in Bratunac municipality farming was more viable than in Srebrenica, since the land was somewhat flatter and transportation was better-developed. I asked him about refugee return, whether it was mostly older people who had returned. Smail said no, there were plenty of children in the villages along the route we had walked.

The weather got warmer on the second and third day. The terrain coming through the hills in Bratunac municipality, between Konjevic Polje and Potocari, was not as difficult as the day before. We walked farther, maybe 33 kilometers. You started seeing the same people again, walking with different groups at will, even though there were probably over 5,000 of us. The march took on the air of a roving social gathering, one in which everyone was your comrade.

Although the march commemorated a world-class crime and a tragic event, it couldn’t help but be light-hearted at times. I don’t think that was disrespectful; it was simply the nature of such a gathering, with many young people, full of energy. And those young people will go back to Bihac and Visoko and remember the signs noting the mass graves that we passed: Crni Vrh, Cancari, Glodi, and many more. They will tell their friends about what they saw, and more people will come on the pilgrimage next year.

I asked two older men from Olovo what made them come on the march. One said, “I came in order to feel at least a little of the suffering of the people who passed this way before.” The other said, “I came to honor those who came out in 1995.”

A young Turkish man was scrambling around, taking many photographs. It turned out that he was a professional photo-journalist and a member of the IHH, the Turkish humanitarian organization that supported the aid convoy of ships that tried to sail to Gaza in late May. This man, Sarkan, was supposed to go on the Mavi Marmara as ship photographer. At the last minute, work responsibilities kept him from participating. The photographer who took his place was shot in the head by the Israelis.

I also met a couple of men from northwest Bosnia who had spent two hundred days in Manjaca concentration camp, near Banja Luka. One of them was from the village of Hrustovo near Sanski Most, and was the next-door-neighbor of some Bosnian immigrant friends of mine in Seattle.

We neared our goal mid-afternoon, passing through the village of Pale in the hills above Potocari. We stopped there for coffee. We slowed down a bit, savoring the last part of the march. It had been an effort, but not a torment.


THE COMMEMORATION AND MASS FUNERAL: JULY 11TH AT POTOCARI

As we descended the steep last part of the trail on Saturday night, we walked out of the hills into Potocari, right alongside the northern fence of the memorial cemetery. The cemetery is a large compound, big enough to fit the more than 8,000 victims killed during the massacre. Since 2003, over 3,700 identified remains had already been reburied there. Looking through the fence, we saw some of the pits dug to receive another 775 remains the next day.

During the massacres in July of 1995, Serb forces buried the victims in quickly-dug mass graves in dozens of places around Srebrenica and beyond. In the following months most of the graves were dug up and the remains reburied in “secondary graves” to conceal the crime. The complete skeletons often fell apart, the bones becoming mixed up with others. The remains have been discovered so far in over seventy graves. One victim’s remains were retrieved from eleven different locations.

We walked out onto the main street in front of the cemetery, the road from Bratunac to Srebrenica. It was late afternoon and just then, a long double line of men was relaying the coffins out to a field in the memorial compound from where they had been stored, in one of the buildings in the defunct battery factory across the street.

They are not coffins, actually. The Bosnian word is “tabut.” I don’t know an English equivalent for that word. The tabut is a wooden board or tray with a framework coming up from it that is covered with green cloth after the remains are laid inside. This is part of the Muslim tradition. The tabuts are very light, because all they are carrying is bones.

The carrying of the tabuts to the field took a long time. Throngs of marchers and other people, mourners and visitors, sat on the ground or milled around during this time. Eventually we were able to go settle down for the evening.

Sunday warmed up quickly as I trekked down to Potocari from Srebrenica. Non-stop traffic slowed down, eventually to a standstill, as tens of thousands of people arrived at the cemetery. By late morning people had given up on their buses and started walking the rest of the way. And by that time it was almost impossible to enter the compound. Thousands of people waited, seeking a little of the scarce shade around the edges of the factory across the street.

As I entered, Haris Silajdzic was speaking about the need to prohibit the formation of any fascist or neo-Nazi parties in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The US Ambassador, Serbian President Boris Tadic, the Turkish prime minister, and the French foreign minister all had spoken before Silajdzic. No official attended from the Republika Srpska.

President Tadic, attending the ceremony for the second time, said that he had come “as an act of reconciliation.” Srebrenica survivors present had mixed feelings. Some welcomed him, and others asked, “Where is Mladic?” Ratko Mladic, the fugitive wartime general indicted for genocide regarding the Srebrenica massacre, is believed to be living in Serbia under the protection of supporters. About his continuing evasion of capture, the German daily Die Welt wrote, "In a time when the whereabouts of every mobile phone can be traced using global positioning satellites, when satellites can take pictures of the tip of a match and when Google records every street lamp on its maps, this sort of disappearing act is incomprehensible. Serbia obviously still lacks the will to accept the past. How long will they need before they find Mladic?"

Meanwhile, in Belgrade a demonstration celebrating “the liberation of Srebrenica” had been banned. And in Bosnia, SDS, the party founded by Radovan Karadzic, awarded him a special decoration (presented to his wife, since he’s on trial at The Hague for genocide) in celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the founding of that party. The party also honored Momcilo Krajisnik, now serving a twenty-year sentence for crimes against humanity. (For more on unreconstructed Serbian nationalism, see http://www.glypx.com/balkanwitness/SerbianNationalism.htm.)

On the other side, Women in Black organized a temporary monument in Belgrade with thousands of shoes, representing the Srebrenica victims.

Finally Bosnia’s chief imam, the Reis Mustafa efendija Ceric, spoke before a prayer, and again at length after a prayer. The central dova (prayer) of the ceremony was the most powerful one I had ever heard -- I experienced it, more than just hearing it. All the emotions of the fifteen years of waiting and the loss of one’s family members seemed to be contained in that Arabic prayer which, as I felt it rather than understood it, united, soothed, and encouraged, all at once.

Masses of praying men and women stood, bowed, and kneeled as the tradition indicated. Then the Reis spoke again, longer than before. In fact, everything about the day’s event was bigger: more people attended; more than ever before were interred; the speeches were longer; and it was hotter. People started fainting and being rushed to the first aid station. Some people became impatient with the Reis as he was speaking angrily in both English and Bosnian about the faults of the international community. Most just waited.

Numerous Srebrenicans I talked to resented the speechifying and politicking that has taken over the anniversary commemoration. There have been protests against the mixing of campaigning for elections and geopolitical maneuvering into such a solemn event. But it seems that the political manipulation that takes place is unavoidable.

Finally around 2:00 p.m. the speeches ended and family members began carrying the tabuts to their final destinations throughout the grounds. Rows of the green-clothed tabuts wound through the crowd and up the hill, each one carried by five or six men. Readers announced the full names of each victim over the loudspeaker, one by one, as the remains were being moved. This reading took a couple of hours.

Mothers cried for their sons at the burial sites.

As the tabuts were delivered to the gravesites the crowd thinned out. Family members lowered the tabuts into the earth and began to shovel soil into the pit. The work went very quickly and in an hour or so, 775 more victims rested in the Potocari soil.

One of these was a Catholic; all the rest were Muslims. The Catholic victim had been killed while trying to escape from Srebrenica, just like thousands of others. He was given a burial at Potocari with a wooden coffin, by a priest, just before the rest of the ceremonies had begun. Even so, the heat and the crowd were such that the victim’s mother was overcome and was not able to attend her own son’s funeral.

Hakija Meholjic buried his father and one of his brothers. Hasan Nuhanovic buried his brother Muhamed and his mother Nasiha.

After the shoveling, an imam reads a prayer at each gravesite. Then the family sits silently for a while. Never have I seen anything as quiet and inward as that particular moment.


TAXI DRIVER

That evening Sarah and I hired a taxi driver, a local man from Srebrenica, to drive us up to the war-wrecked Guber mineral springs spa in the hills above Srebrenica. The first thing the driver said was, “My wife is Muslim,” implying a couple things: 1, that he was not Muslim, and 2, that he was open-minded. The first implication turned out to be true.

The driver was a local Serb. He soon began to share with us his version of local history, saying that the memorial cemetery at Potocari contained many bodies that had been moved from other cemeteries. That the Serb troops who had taken over Srebrenica had only numbered 500. That the Muslims who were killed were all soldiers, and that they had more weapons than they could carry -- “that’s why they threw them in the river.” And that since they were soldiers, it was legitimate to kill them, as “they would have killed someone.”

The taxi driver told us, “I’m not on one side or the other.”


MONDAY IN BRATUNAC

On Monday Sarah and I went to the Serb observations of the July 12th saint’s day, Petrovdan. This day is observed annually in the Srebrenica region in several ways. In the Orthodox churches there are religious ceremonies starting in the morning and lasting several hours. Local and entity-level officials also take advantage of the day to commemorate the Serb war dead of the “Birac” region (including Srebrenica, Bratunac, Milici, and Vlasenica municipalities), which they number at somewhere around 3,200 for the entire war period.

Then there have been the hardline Serb nationalists who call themselves “Chetniks,” who come to Srebrenica on the day after the anniversary of the massacre and strut around in their black tee-shirts bearing the photo of General Mladic and trying to make local Bosniaks feel bad. For some footage of this, see the YouTube clip “Četnička orgijanja u Srebrenici 13 juli” from 2009, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hSZF7TRTZu4&NR=1 (from minute 3:31). The clip is in Bosnian, but the visuals show clearly what’s going on. The Chetniks are chanting “This is Serbia.”

I saw some of this last time I was at the commemoration, in 2006. Someone plastered Srebrenica with posters at that time, showing war crimes suspect Vojislav Seselj’s face (as I have recently seen in Foca). Thankfully, this year the Chetniks were apparently prohibited from entering Srebrenica.

We went to the military cemetery in Bratunac to observe the Petrovdan commemoration there. It was posted as starting at 1:00 p.m., but nothing happened for at least an hour. A few dozen people were huddled up against the cemetery administration building, trying to get some shade. We walked around the cemetery containing a few hundred graves of Serbs killed during the war. After an hour priests, politicians in grey suits, and bodyguards started arriving.

A dozen-odd young people (“activists?”) wore Seselj buttons. An old man wore a šajkača, the traditional Serbian military cap. One mother cried by a tombstone.

The suits and their assistants gathered under a long canopy, the priests under a nearby kafana umbrella advertising Tuborg beer. Sarah pointed out to me that some people were being refused entry to the ceremony.

After we had waited nearly two hours there was a crowd of two or three hundred. Then Prime Minister Dodik showed up and spoke to the press for quite a while. Finally, the ceremony began with people lighting sweet-smelling wax candles. The priests chanted their harmonious liturgy, and Dodik spoke.

We weren’t able to stay around much longer, but Dodik spoke about “the legitimacy of the Republika Srpska” and “preserving the memory of the liberation war.” He was also quoted as saying, “Republika Srpska does not deny that a large scale crime occurred in Srebrenica, but by definition it was not genocide as described by the international court in The Hague…If a genocide happened than it was committed against Serb people of this region where women, children and the elderly were killed en masse.”

As we were leaving I spotted a few of the black-shirted Chetniks, who had been barred from attending the gathering. I asked one of them if I could photograph him. He consented, but his comrade jumped in and said, suspiciously, “Who is it for?!!” Another comrade, an older man with a long beard, said, “Let him, anyone can take our photo who wants to.” So I took the photo.


SINCERITY

Reading back through notes and reports on the anniversary events, it occurs to me that perhaps Dodik’s comments were the most sincere. He is a liar and a manipulator, but he is far less of a hypocrite than the scads of politicians and diplomats, domestic and international, who speak much sweeter words than Dodik’s at the anniversary events.

For example, Valentin Inzko said:
“But we should not only remember. We should not simply be passive observers.
We have a duty too.
Our duty is to act.
First, to establish the truth and that those who participated in the killings at Srebrenica are punished and that justice is done…”

Valentin Inzko is the international community’s High Representative (something like a viceroy, without the teeth) to Bosnia-Herzegovina. The international community is aware of the 800-odd soldiers, policemen, and other government officials who participated in the Srebrenica massacre, who are still on the payroll of the Republika Srpska today. But the international community is not acting.

For another example, Samantha Power, advisor to President Obama, attended the Srebrenica memorial and gave an interview to the conservative populist daily Avaz, in which she announced that “President Obama has created a new office here in the White House, specifically devoted for atrocities prevention, the genocide prevention, and what that means is - that, at least here, we have the ability to react quickly, to process intelligence, to move through the chain of command quickly...”

I wonder what bombing weddings in Afghanistan is, if not an atrocity? Or bombing civilian residences in Pakistan with drones?

And US Ambassador to Bosnia Charles English read President Obama’s message, which in part went, “We recognize that there can be no lasting peace without justice...Justice must include a full accounting of the crimes that occurred, full identification and return of all those who were lost, and prosecution and punishment of those who carried out the genocide. The United States calls on all governments to redouble their efforts to find those responsible…”

--I wonder if it’s possible for there to be a time when politicians speak what they mean or else just zip it. I guess not. It’s nice to hear about justice from Barack Obama, but beyond the wonderful words, his policies in Bosnia (nor Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine…) don’t show any interest in justice.

1 comment:

Owen said...

Peter has the knack of re-creating the scene in a way that makes you feel you're looking at it just over his shoulder.