Stunned was the immediate feeling I felt when I arrived in Srebrenica. Walking around seeing the houses destroyed and the bullet and shell holes marking the walls made me realise that I was no longer sat in a comfortable armchair in a safe and warm house watching a film or reading a book, I was no longer objective. This was reality and it was staring me right in the face, it was in my world. Initially I was in a sombre state of mind, maybe I felt overly sympathetic to the point of patronising the people. As time passed this state of mind diminished and I remained aware but it didn’t interfere with the job I was there to do.
I was in Srebrenica for two months as a civil foreign presence volunteer for the British ‘Srebrenica Justice Campaign’ and the Dutch ‘Workgroup Netherlands-Srebrenica’. The organisations work towards reconciliation and reducing the tension between the returning Bosnian Muslims and the Serbs. The activities that the other volunteers and myself undertook were aimed at trying to help create positive relationships between the two groups. Some of the volunteers tiled floors and painted walls, some led drumming classes and some taught drama, I organised and taught two English Courses, one for adults and one for children; I DJ-ed at the town’s nightclub which encouraged Bosnian Muslims to come into a mostly Serb environment; I also set up a football training programme which has planted the seed for the reforming of the Srebrenica Football Club. The ‘Workgroup Netherlands-Srebrenica’ organisation is now looking into reconstructing the football stadium, which is a positive step towards bringing the community closer together.
Like many people I had heard the name of Srebrenica in the news and knew something important had happened there but did not know exactly what. Even now that I know it is still hard to understand. The ‘Safe Haven’ of Srebrenica, which included the town of Srebrenica and the surrounding villages, such as Potocari, witnessed the massacre of 8000 Muslim men and the expulsion of all the Muslim women and children. This was done in the name of Serbian expansion – ‘ethnic cleansing’ would be the more appropriate term – an all too familiar process in the 20th century. It was carried out as if herding sheep in a field. As the Bosnian Serb Army systematically advanced through the countryside, destroying the villages, the buildings and lives, they drove the people from the villages towards Srebrenica, fleeing in terror as they ran, literally, for their lives. Soon the people from the villages were herded together through the streets of Srebrenica, not driven by sticks or by dogs, but by artillery shells and soldiers.
As I walked in the hills surrounding Srebrenica it was difficult to imagine the feelings and scenes of 1995. For someone who has not lived through a war the closest I could get were images from films such as ‘Band of Brothers’ or ‘The Thin Red Line’ but with the uniforms and landscapes altered. Even this didn’t come close to the truth and it is as far as my experiences could take me. From that point onwards all I could do was to listen to the stories from the people who make the journey through their memories everyday through feeling and remembering.
The destroyed buildings and bullet holes become everyday sights, but it is the stories that leave the impression. I heard many harsh and terrifying stories, the details like nightmares. The man who remained in the enclave and had no food or water, boiling socks for the salt and eating grass; the father and elder son who fled to the hills, separated from their families and pursued by an enemy intent on destroying them; the women and children who were herded into the overcrowded DutchBat compound uncertain of what the next few seconds holds for them; and a woman who lost four of her seven brothers and sisters as well as her parents. The stories formed the tip of the iceberg for them but for me that tip was and still is a lot for me to take in. It is the fact that these stories and experiences are being told by someone who is sat in front of you or they are about someone you know, this makes it a very personal experience and has had a greater effect on me.
An enormous sense of respect also emerged from listening to the stories. These stories are amazing examples of the human spirit. The people that have returned have so much strength of mind and soul. There is one particular woman who I will remember; she had the most beautiful smile. As I was told her story, the tears began to come because I could picture her having those experiences. After hearing about what she had gone through her smile meant so much more. And then for her to return to the place where it all happened, to begin to rebuild AND to smile again, that was strength. By listening to the people I was aware of one recurring theme, it does not matter what you have or have not got, materially, as long as you have community, resilience and strength of mind.
For many of the Muslims women the war is still not over, eight years later. They wait for news of their missing husband or sons, believing them to be ‘missing’ rather than dead. As new mass graves are found and identifications are made that confirmation comes and their hope is destroyed as they acknowledge the grief that has been repressed for eight years. The truth is a lot for them to take in. Many of the people cannot sleep at night, they are disturbed by the nightmares and wake up screaming. Whilst visiting them and talking, they will often start to cry, I could see in their eyes that the memories are still very much on the surface. The people have to live with the memory every minute of every day
Srebrenica now is a strange place, and it is difficult to imagine that there were once 36,000 people living here, because Srebrenica was known before the war. The concept that it was an unknown town thrust into the limelight, like Auschwitz in Poland, is a false one. Pre-war, Srebrenica was a tourist town with a good economy created by the natural springs in the hills east of the town. The local people thrived on the tourists who would come from all over Yugoslavia to relax in the natural spring water or stay in the luxury hotel. Even though the water still flows from the spring, the hotel is now a concrete shell and has a ghostly atmosphere. But then Srebrenica has a general ghost town like nature now. The tourists still come but for different reasons and many come with misguided preconceptions. They come believing they will see a living memorial but like the town of Auschwitz, life goes on as best as it can now in Srebrenica.
On my last day I visited the memorial at Potocari. The memorial that had been opened by Bill Clinton only weeks before. I had decided that it would be better to visit at the end of my time in Srebrenica because a visit at the beginning would have affected the work that I wanted to do. I wanted to be looking and working forward rather that start by looking back. It was the best thing for me to do because it put everything into context; I began linking the gravestones to the people I had been working with. Walking amongst the graves of the small amount of men that have been found and identified, I realised that I had been there for those people, the people that I would never know. I was there to help the ones that they had been so cruelly taken away from.
I left Srebrenica feeling anxious. With many of the international donators and Non-Governmental Organisations (N.G.O’s) beginning to pull out of Srebrenica I think about what lies ahead for the people I have lived and worked with. The teenagers, although a lot of fun to work with, have little direction and motivation, the parents try to give the children as much of a normal life as possible, and the men are mostly unemployed. Families live in extreme poverty, often in a single room, warmed by a small stove. This room acts as a bedroom, kitchen and lounge because they have not got the money to reconstruct and renovate the other five rooms in the house. They worry about having enough wood and food for the winter. They worry about what will happen when the water and electricity is cut off because of the disrepair of the water plant and electricity generators. Having worked and socialised with the people of Srebrenica it is hard to walk away and leave them knowing that so much more can be done and that they deserve it.
Also the threat of hostilities is still evident. Some Serb families bring their children up with nationalist beliefs. There are Serbian nationalist bars where images of Karadzic and Mladic are proudly placed. Chetnik symbols are painted on playground climbing frames and some of the children proudly give the nationalist three-fingered salute. It seems unbelievable that having been condemned by the international community for their nationalist actions there are still a significant number of people who believe in Serbian nationalism. I find it hard to imagine a central bar in a German town proudly displaying an image of Hitler. I felt sickened seeing the honour that Karadzic and Mladic are given. I am also told that the war is still going on under the noses of S-FOR, but for the moment it is with words.
From a personal point of view I felt anxious because it seems very difficult to take everything I’ve seen, heard and experienced back to a western culture. I had an amazing time but how can I explain to my friends and family the stories I’ve heard and the about the people I’ve met? It is perhaps similar to the soldiers returning from war who only spoke about their experiences to the people that went through the same thing because anybody else that they told would not understand and appreciate the full experience. All anybody can do is to empathise and understand that the experience is a personal one and that it takes time. The silence is not because you’re being unsociable, it’s because you’ve just spent two months in a former war zone, listening to people who have had their lives destroyed. It’s a lot to think about.
Our presence there didn’t seem like a great amount of effort, but as we were leaving I began to understand the impact of the other volunteers and myself have had over the three years of the project. We were told that a woman (who I didn’t know) had said that “seeing us walking passed her front window everyday made her feel safe and gave her comfort.” Another woman, Sija Mustafic, with tears in her eyes, said, “Thank you very much for coming to Bosnia and staying at my house because I can now buy a new stove and washing machine. Thank you, thank you”