In the final chapter of Imran Garda's Bosnia memoirs, he visits the memorial of the Srebrenica massacre before bidding farewell to his hosts at Islamic Relief and leaving Bosnia-Herzegovina with both happy and painful memories.
By Imran Garda**
Freelance Journalist – South Africa
Vedad was now our guide. A soccer referee in Bosnia's 1st Division, Vedad hails from Tuzla, and has a passion for soccer and music. After the war he spent two years as an interpreter for US peacekeeping troops, which explained his heavily Americanized English.
Vedad was a teenager during the war. He had the unfortunate luck of seeing many of his friends go up in flames on a Saturday night in 1995, when a Serb bomb targeted an open area frequented by youngsters in Tuzla. Seventy-two people died, and over a 130 were injured.
Vedad also told of his neighbor and close friend, a Serb, called up to join the Serb army during the war. He refused, even after his fellow-Serbs threatened his life. Vedad related his friend's words: "We grew up together; you're my friend. What am I supposed to do now, go up into the mountains and shoot you?"
The story was inspirational. In the midst of every wave of ideological hatred, when hordes of people are mobilized through propaganda to rise up and kill, some will consult their conscience, some will never waver in doing what is right.
The drive to Srebrenica was made tense by news we'd received two days before: 35 kilograms of explosives were found in sewerage near the Memorial Center, only six days before the ten-year commemoration of the July 11 massacre. Upwards of 50,000 people were expected to attend the memorial. Did an extremist Serb nationalist plant the explosives and hope to detonate them on July 11, creating another horrendous tragedy? Perhaps someone planted it there and then directed UN troops to the spot, hoping to deter visitors. The latter somehow seems more plausible.
Nevertheless, we were keen to go, and although we would leave Bosnia before the memorial, going four days before would still be worthwhile, and we wouldn't have a crowd to contend with.
With Srebrenica forming part of the Republika Srpska, Vedad advised us that not everyone there would respond well to "Asalaamu `alaikum." He said there was a general bitterness among many Serbs that very few people remember the 3,500 deaths on their side during the war. And although some Muslims were now returning to their old homes that they had been evicted from during the war in the Republika Srpska, Muslims still weren't really welcome in some areas. I could understand: Even in South Africa, ten years into democracy, there are still some areas untouched by policy, where right-wing white supremacists maintain economic and moral authority in their communities. It happens on a larger scale within Bosnia-Herzegovina, in the Republika Srpska.
The town of Zvornik, which we drove past, was a sight for sore eyes. Utopian natural beauty makes the border between Bosnian territory and the Republika Srpska a scene that could grace a postcard. A river snakes through and divides the two pieces of land, which are lush and green, dotted with white homes. We went up the mountain on the Bosnian side, at least a kilometer above ground level, to visit an ancient, dilapidated Turkish fort. There, we heard stories of men hurled through the windowpanes and plummeting to their deaths in the river below. The stories started from as far back as World War II and ended with this latest war.
Further along the route to Srebrenica, we passed the village of Kravica, where Serb troops held over a thousand men in a large warehouse, in asphyxiating conditions. With the men locked inside, Serb troops opened fire with bullets and rocket launchers through the doors and windows, and hurled in grenades. For a day and a half, they continued killing anyone who had survived the initial massacre. The remaining prisoners were taken to Zvornik and murdered the next day.
* * *
We weren't far. "Only twenty more minutes now, guys," said Vedad.
My colleague’s cell phone bleeped. He lives in London; he'd received a text message from a friend. Bombs on London buses and trains had just gone off… Havoc.
No family or friends of his were victims of the terrorist act. There was a moment of relief, and some more thoughtfulness before Srebrenica. There were no histrionics from any of us. All that we'd already seen in Bosnia may have desensitized us.
I was on another plane, a different context, with wavering emotions. On one hand, I was horrified at the thought of the bombings, and kept thinking that if it was proven to be Muslims who’d done it, the entire Muslim world’s progression would once again be halted by a fringe bunch of fanatics. But I also felt a gut-wrenching irritation, foreseeing the media circus this was going to be, where once more it would probably be demonstrated, by the magnitude of coverage, that a British or American life is indeed far more valuable than the life of an Iraqi or Palestinian or Rwandan or Bosnian. Perhaps this would trigger another illegal invasion, to collectively punish a nation for the lunacy of a few.
Near the end Bosnia’s 43-month war, within the space of just over a week, the Serb army conducted calculated acts of genocide against the population of Eastern Bosnia, in and around the area of Srebrenica. When the attacks commenced, the majority of the civilians fled from Srebrenica into neighboring Potocari. But up to 8,000 men and boys were systematically murdered in Srebrenica, in a UN-proclaimed "safe area," designated as such by Security Council Resolution 819 and protected by 400 Dutch "peacekeepers.” This was the main sight of the nightmare. The Dutch “peacekeepers" did nothing to stop the massacre. Absolutely nothing.
"The world is burning," I thought, "People are burning the world." The Serb nationalists were fundamentalists. The Hutus were fundamentalists. Al-Qaeda are fundamentalists. The War on Terror is a fundamentalist movement masked as something else. Even the lessons of Srebrenica stop no one.
* * *
At Potocari, the site of the memorial, we noticed the heavy presence of both Serb and international forces in the area, due to the discovery of the bomb, and the impending commemoration. The Memorial Center itself is about the size of three football fields, with a stone plaque that reads "Srebrenica – July 1995," gracing its entrance. The area is little more than a huge cemetery, hungry for more inhabitants, as over 6,500 victims of the massacre have yet to be identified. Little Leijla's father and grandfather are among them.
We hovered around the Center, absorbing the mere notion of what had happened on the very land we stood on. I thought about what must have gone through the minds of those men and boys, blindfolded, hands tied behind their backs with copper wire, who’d lived days without food, before being marched like cattle to this spot, and made to turn around with their backs to their captors… and then shot.
How did the man who pulled the trigger feel? Or the Dutch bystander, sent to protect the population? I wonder if they are loving husbands and fathers, if they go to bed with contentment in their hearts.
We moved on to a plaque with a Qur'anic inscription in Arabic and a Bosnian translation on opposite sides. It reads:
"And call not those who are slain in the way of Allah "dead." Nay, they are living, only ye perceive not. And surely We shall try you with something of fear and hunger, and loss of wealth and lives and crops; but give glad tidings to the steadfast." (Al-Baqarah 2:154-155)
* * *
Another 610 Bosnian Muslims were laid to rest on July 11 at the Memorial. Many mourned inconsolably at the tragedy of Srebrenica. As expected, over 50,000 people attended, and once more speeches were made by dignitaries, urging that the world should never forget, just as Bill Clinton had urged, at the April 22, 1993, opening of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, when he said, "Mass deaths were left to occur, enshrouded in our denial… The evil represented in this museum is incontestable… We cannot permit that to happen again." Bosnia was burning while Clinton spoke in 1993. Sudan, Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan… they continued to burn while the men in suits spoke on July 11.
Bosnia will never be the same, for however wonderful our help in eradicating poverty, we can never replace human beings. Human beings died in Bosnia, over two hundred thousand of them. Human beings continue to die, children continue to be orphaned, and wives are made widows with every passing second.
There was a deafening silence for most of the drive back to our hotel in Sarajevo. I had no more questions to ask. I'd heard everything I needed to hear. We said our goodbyes to Vedad, and then I bade farewell to my colleagues and friends and made my way to the airport, reflecting on a trip that had been happy and educational, yet painful and thought-provoking.
Once more, I found myself irked by the discomfort of "transit" traveling, and when I stopped in Dubai Duty Free, I set about acquiring gifts for my family in the five hours available to me.
My three-and-a-half-year-old nephew Isa would doubtless have been shattered if I didn't get him anything, so I added a $30 Spiderman car to my shopping cart. "Isa loves Spiderman,” I mused. “It'll make him happy, although he'll probably discard it within weeks."
Then Samir's long, dejected face came to my mind. I wondered if he'd ever get his football, or if that simple piece of leather would be too much to ask for yet another child whose life had been ripped apart by the awfulness of war. These children live in a new world, where simple playthings don't exist; only expensive, unattainable luxuries.
I know Samir will never get his father back. But I hope he gets his football.
** Imran Garda is a freelance journalist based in South Africa.
Muhammad Saley contributed additional research to this article.