Many scholars, historians, survivors, journalists and others have said many things about the worst massacre in Europe since WWII. None of those words -- including the ones to follow -- truly capture what it is to stand in this place. To see how up-close and brutally personal this tragedy was.
Among the many things I never knew about this event was that not even those 5,000 people got away. The UN actually made those people leave, made them place themselves in the hands of the Serbs. They too were "cleansed."
Together we listened like tourists to a young man who guides visitors around the memorial. This guide shared the historical facts. He explained how the women -- the wives, mothers, sisters and daughters of the dead -- came up with the concept for this memorial. How they agreed not to bury their loved ones in their home villages but in one place. A place to remember forever. Then this very polite young man explained that he himself was among the 25,000. He was 13, but kind of small. So the Serbs let him stay with his mother. Other boys as young as 12 were hauled away with the older men. Our tour guide's grandfather and his 16-year-old brother were not so fortunate. The guide points." My grandfather is buried over there," he says. "They still have not found my brother."
We asked our hosts, why the green wooden markers?
Well, those are the NEW graves. Those are the people whose remains have been identified in the past year. According to Muslim tradition, these wooden markers must stay for a year before they get the distinctive white headstones. It was stunning to fully understand that this was no dusty old memorial to the victims of past generations. This was an active, evoling place. In a lot of ways, this ugly chapter in history hasn't quite ended yet.
It was at this time that I was reminded that there are large rooms in the city of Tuzla that to this day are still lined with racks of body bags filled with yet-to-be-identified remains. The DNA testing goes on -- and spaces between the stones have been left for the missing.
Turns out that the effort to identify bodies from this massacre actually advanced the science of forensic DNA identification. And it turns out that Nijaz actually worked for three years in that project. He actually did some of the testing that could have identified a cousin, a neighbor, a friend. I tried to imagine standing in that lab, holding that pipette, running those analyses under such circumstances.
So then, we walked across the street and my camera (filled with video clips of these discussions) ran out of memory. So you won't see the inside of the battery factory, where a visitor can stand exactly where 5,000 people once stood thinking that the UN might protect them. You won't see the disarming black boxes built inside the sprawling space. You won't see the video they show in one of those black boxes.
But we watched. I sat side by side with Nijaz, who told me he had visited the cemetery part of the memorial several times but had never seen this video. It was exactly the kind of dramatic, powerful video you might expect to see in a place like this. It was amazing -- and disturbing -- how much of the whole thing was actually captured on film. There's "live" coverage of Gen. Mladic strolling through a ruined village on his way to Srebrenica. He is shown smiling and boasting about taking revenge against the Muslims for what the Turks allegedly did centuries ago during the Ottoman conquests. There are images of huge masses of people begging the UN soldiers to help them. There are images of groups of men being led to mass graves, forced to kneel and guns raised to the backs of their heads. The film editors clipped the film but only just before the shots are fired. But tell me...who shot that film? Under what warped outlook could the killers want to document their deeds? If the Serbs had won the war, would they be showing these films somewhere? Like maybe a school? "Look kids. Here's how we got even!"
Interspersed among the archive newsreel-esque footage are the personal tales of survivors. The man who still wants a decent explanation for why the UN let this happen. The peasant woman, looking lost in the lab-office as officials confirm to her that the remains they've found are of her son. They hold up the boy's muddy shirt, along with other items pulled from a mass grave,
There are many faces that appear in this video. Crowds of scared people on the wrong side of the guns. Agonized survivors. And when it ends, I ask Nijaz: Did you know any of those people? Yes. I saw three or four people I knew.
And I could do nothing but marvel at this man's lack of visible anger. Just the day before, I saw this man laughing and dancing after a big dinner at the hotel. I shared lunch with this man. We talked about his visit to Cincinnati. We talked about the many differences between our city and theirs. This was a guy who sincerely meant it when he said he was proud that Muslims and Christians find ways to live together here in peace. He said it before seeing that film. And he more importantly, he said it again after.
After all, the Serbs were pushed back. The war ended a few months after the Srebrenica massacre. The Bosnians give deep credit and thanks to Bill Clinton for getting things done on that front when the UN had so utterly failed. The Bosnian Muslims got their homes back. Mostly. Assuming there were any relatives alive to sort out the ownership and estate disputes. Assuming there was a house left standing to claim.
And when those lands were returned, there wasn't much stopping the Muslims from ripping down every church in the region. Yet reprisals were surprisngly few. Orthodox and Catholic crosses still share the skyline with minarets in many, many places. And when Gen. Mladic was finally extradited from Serbia -- just this year (May 31, 2011) -- somehow there were no mobs seeking to tear him to pieces. No suicide bombers bent on vigilante justice.
This open desire to avoid endless cycles of revenge and reprisal seems very heartfelt here. I found that to be profoundly encouraging.
There are some who caution that tensions still lurk not far beneath the surface. All it might take is another match. And that could be so. It would be naive to think "all is better now." It's not.
Still, Nijaz told us -- even with all his personal history -- that basically, people here don't want to live in the past. They choose to live in the future. And I choose to take him at his word.
No, the folks in Bosnia prefer not to be remembered solely for this awful war. They want us to see the present: the young people walking hand in hand, chatting in the cafes, enjoying strong coffee and good beer. (If you ever get a chance to drink a bottle of Tuzlanski, don't pass it up.) Now this may sound almost trivial, but then again maybe not. The same week I was there, a whole bunch of silly people in Tuzla set a Guiness record for aquadancing. It was in all the papers and all over the news there -- if I could have understood the words. A Guiness record. Imagine that.
Choosing life. Chasing the future. That's Bosnia, too.