One of the best parts of going to school in Italy is its proximity to pretty much everything else in Europe. During semester recess, I had the opportunity to participate in a study trip to Bosnia-Herzegovina. Although it was not my first time in the Balkans, I was more or less new to the history of the region. We spent the bulk of our trip in Sarajevo and took a day trip to Srebrenica, the site of genocide in July 1995. While there, we met with the Mothers of Srebrenica to hear their testimony about their experiences during and after the war that ripped through the Balkans in the 1990s.
In July 1995, Srebrenica was the site of the biggest mass killing since WWII. In the span of five days, 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were systematically separated from their families, executed by Serbian forces, and buried in mass graves. Women and children were deported. Before the killing, thousands of civilians sought refuge at a UN base staffed by Dutch peacekeepers. Although thousands temporarily sheltered inside the base, the Dutch ultimately turned the civilians over to Serbian forces. Srebrenica represents the utter failure of the international community to intervene in the face of mass atrocities. Some of the refugees began the process of return in the early 2000s. In many instances, they confronted hostility from others in their communities. More than fifteen years after the end of the war, Bosnia-Hzrgovnia is very much a divided society and the streets of Srebrencia feel muted and subdued.
The Mothers of Sbrencia are a civil society group that works to assist survivors of the genocide. The Mothers work to financially assist returning refugees, recover the remains of the deceased, and press charges against perpetrators of War Crimes. Participants include ethnically Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian women. All of the women are united in the fact that they lost family members in the conflict.
The Mothers described the human impact of bombing of their city, the years of uncertainty about the fate of their husbands, brothers, sons, and friends. They described the harsh process of return to empty houses, a hometown without all the people that had made it a home. One of the women told us, “I am here as a protest note. I want them to know that they did not succeed. I am still here.” Most of all, they described feelings of rage, extreme frustration, and deep betrayal at the failure of the international community to intervene during the conflict and to bring those responsible to justice. Many of the Mothers said they do not feel that the world remembers what happened to them.
One of the women told us she felt it was important to address us in particular because, as students of international relations, we may hold positions of power in the future. We may be in a position to make decisions to intervene or not-intervene to stop mass atrocities. The women took up the survivor’s mantra of “never again.” If nothing can be done for the dead, let us help the living. Let us make a world where this type of suffering is not possible.
After we spoke to the women, we toured the genocide memorial in the center of town. Our tour guide lost his father and twin brother in the killing. He told us that he has chosen to dedicate his life to educating people about what happened in July 1995 because, “If I do not speak for the dead, no one else will. They cannot speak for themselves.” He described visiting schools which were the physical sites of massacres only to realize that the children learning there have not been taught what happened. I did not tell him that I had not heard of Srebrenica before I arrived in Sarajevo, nor had many of my friends. Bosnia-Herzegovnia is not its conflict, but any future the country builds will rest on its
collective understanding of the past.
The bus ride back to Sarajevo was quiet. I think we all felt the weight of the trust the Mothers has placed in us. They told their stories to us because we will grow into the world we are learning about. They told their stories to us because they needed to tell them. Bearing witness is important. It is an act of respect, of love, of faith in the future. Most importantly, it is an act of responsibility. We would not listen if we did not think we could act. We remember because we believe in a future where genocide is not possible.