Report written by Shaina Makani, intern at the Post-Conflict Research Center, Sarajevo.
The famed American novelist, William Faulkner once wrote ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” After touring Bosnia for two weeks, visiting the sites of former concentration camps, speaking with survivors and members of NGOs, I could see how the past has yet to be effectively dealt with and how the past still continues to haunt the present.
The main points of the program were visits to Srebrenica, Foca, Visegrad, Prijedor and Jasenovac.
Srebrenica, where approximately 8,000 boys and men (and a few women) were murdered by soldiers under the command of Ratko Mladic, is perhaps the best known atrocity of the Bosnian War. As part of the Discover Bosnia program, we attended the funeral for the victims of the genocide. Eastern Bosnia in July is unbearably hot and it is not hard to imagine just how hot and miserable it must have been for the tens of thousands of civilians seeking shelter at the U.N. base in 1995.
The most moving part of the entire experience in Srebrenica was attending the Srebrenica University seminar and listening to a speech by Holocaust survivor, Rabbi Schneider. Rabbi Schneider shared his own personal story of surviving genocide and the importance of admission of historical facts. Of all of us in the room, only Rabbi Schneider could perhaps articulate what the survivors of the Srebrenica genocide were feeling on that day.
While much attention is (rightfully) paid to Srebrenica by the international community, towns like Foca and Visegrad are ignored, despite the horrific crimes committed in these towns.
During the war, rape was used as an organized tool of terror and destruction, and perhaps no town symbolized this better than Foca. In order to prepare us for the trip, we watched the documentary “Women, War and Peace” about the landmark ICTY case against Dragoljub Kunarac, Radomir Kovac and Zoran Vukovic. The case was the first time that individuals were convicted of rape as a crime against humanity, and their conviction would not have been possible without the testimony of the rape camp survivors. One of the survivors of rape in eastern Bosnia spoke to our group. Although she had gone through the unimaginable, her main concern now was taking care of her younger sisters and providing for them. I was truly inspired by her courage or her commitment to her surviving family members. She only receives a very small pension from the government, which is barely enough to make ends meet. Her story, unfortunately is not unique. After a war, the international community will quickly move on to the next big story, to the next war, while people like this survivor are often forgotten about.
Although we were unable to meet with the mayor of Foca, he is from all accounts a rare voice for tolerance and reconciliation. As progressive as the mayor appears to be, it seems to me that Foca as a whole, has yet to deal with its past. There is a statue and a room in a museum dedicated to the Serbian dead, but absolutely no mention of any Bosniak victims and certainly no mention of any rape camps. In fact, while sitting in the lot of a destroyed mosque, we learned that one of the ICTY defendants had his sentence reduced and he was back in Foca. He is treated as a hero by the local community.
We visited one of the rape camps, and the worst part for me (in addition to the horrific crimes committed there) is that there is seemingly no acknowledgement that these crimes even happened in the first place. The building appears to be nothing more than an abandoned Yugoslav era hotel, there is no memorial plaque, just an empty building covered in beer bottles and broken glass. How can you start the reconciliation process where there is no acknowledgment that any crimes even took place?
Visegrad was also the sight of horrific massacres, most notably the Pionirska Street and Bikavac fires, where approximately 130 Bosniak civilians were burned alive by Milan Lukic and his gang. Speaking with survivors from Visegrad, what stood out the most for me was the localized nature of the mass killings. It is unfathomable to imagine a man murdering anyone in the name of “ethnic purity” it becomes even more difficult to comprehend the idea of a man killing people that he knew and grew up with. As one survivor put it, in Visegrad, neighbors killed neighbors, teachers killed students and students killed teachers…
As with Foca, Visegrad has yet to come to terms with its past, this is most apparent when you see Visegrad’s newest creation “Andricgrad.” Not far away from Visegrad’s best known sight, the UNESCO protected Mehmed Pasha Sokolovic Bridge, “Andricgrad” is designed to essentially show the history of Visegrad without its Ottoman/Bosniak past. In a way, Andricgrad is a continuation of the crimes committed in 1992. Those crimes were aimed at permanently eliminating the Bosniak presence from Visegrad, Andricgrad seeks to pretend they never existed in the first place.
Towards the end of the trip, we visited the Prijedor camps. A similar campaign of destruction that took place in Srebrenica, Foca and Visegrad took place in Prijedor. In Prijedor, the educated, politically active and wealthy were marked for death. As in Foca and Visegrad, the past has yet to be effectively dealt with in Prijedor.
We visited the Trnopolje Camp, where thousands of Bosniak and Bosnian Croats were detained before being forced out of the region. A school before the war, the salute to ‘Comrade Tito’ still hangs over the main stage. Outside, there is a memorial. But, it is not a memorial to the Bosniak and Bosnian Croats who were interned in Trnopolje, it is a memorial to Serb soldiers.
We visited Omarska, the camp that perhaps better than any other place in Bosnia symbolizes the fight between memory and denial. Omarska was a notoriously brutal concentration camp where inmates were detained, tortured and killed. Two survivors from Omarska spoke to us of what they witnessed: beatings, victims being burned alive, factory machinery being used as killing machines.
Today, Omarska is just another steel plant. There is only a few weeks out of the year where visitors, including survivors can visit the infamous ‘white house’ once used as a torture chamber. Again, there is no public memorial or acknowledgement of what happened. How can a country face its past where there is no acknowledgement that awful crimes even happened in the first place?
Yet, there is another lesson to be drawn from Omarska. Yes, men and women are capable of committing horrific crimes against their fellow man, but even the midst of such horror there are heroes. Just by chance, as we were leaving Omarska, our guide pointed out that one of the factory workers helped save his life by giving him food back in 1992. It was a remarkable moment and a reminder that even in the midst of human misery, there are still people who will take great risks to help others.
Another hero we met, although he probably would not call himself that, is Bishop Franjo Komarica, during the war he and his priests helped the people of Banja Luka of all ethnic/religious backgrounds. The Bishop was an absolutely inspiring figure he helped remind me that stories of courage and compassion during the war are as important to remember as the atrocities.
On the other end of how Prijedor, Foca and Visegrad have dealt with its past is the Jasenovac Memorial Museum. The museum seeks to name every single of the victims that passed through the death camp, in that way, victims of the genocide are remembered as individuals, not just as statistics to be inflated or deflated depending on one’s political agenda. The museum includes artifacts and survivor testimony, the name of every single known victim hangs from the wall. In every way, the victims are at the center of the museum’s agenda. The brutal death camp, that for so many years afterwards was at the center of a campaign by both Serb and Croat nationalists to control the narrative of what happened there during the Second World War, can now can serve as a model for how the region should deal with its past.
Besides visiting the sites, we also held meeting with officials and NGO representatives in Sarajevo. We spoke with a reporter to discuss the media in Bosnia today and how the media covers the ICTY trials. We also met with ICTY officials, including Almir Alic who leads the ICTY outreach program. The outreach program seeks to share information about the ICTY procedures and trials with students from throughout the region. As someone who studied the ICTY trials in depth, I found the session very informative. Our meeting with a representative from TRIAL (Tracking Impunity Always) shed light on the difficulty of ensuring that war criminals face court and that victims receive adequate protection from the court and the government. On the subject of the government, we spoke to members of a watch dog organization that tracks corruption at all levels of government and society, and a representative for Bosnian President Bakir Izetbegovic. I was especially impressed his openness and honesty and willingness to answer our questions in great detail.
The most important meeting for me though, was not with an official, but with a Holocaust survivor named Greta Fenersic. She reminded us of the uniqueness that separates the Holocaust from other genocides, and her own harrowing experiences in Auschwitz. Her personal story of surviving one of the worst crimes in all of human history and then going on to thrive as an architect, wife and mother inspired all of us. She also told of us about how during the Siege leaders from Sarajevo’s Jewish community established pharmacies and soup kitchens where Sarajevans of all backgrounds could receive free food and medicine. As with Bishop Komarica or the anonymous Bosnian Serb factory worker in Omarska, stories like these help remind us that ordinary people can help make a positive difference in times of war.
What about Bosnia’s youth? In many ways the face great obstacles: corruption in all sectors of government, economic difficulties and nationalism, but we also saw another, more hopeful sign in the documentary film Uspomene 677. The documentary features young people, most born after the war, who are reaching out to kids of different ethnic backgrounds and in a small, but perhaps important way, starting the process of reconciliation and healing.
The Discover Bosnia program was an amazing and incredibly thorough introduction to this wonderful and complicated country.