A visit to Srebrenica
To get to Srebrenica, in eastern Bosnia, the road takes you through small villages with familiar names because of CNN reports of twenty years ago. Kravica, Bratunac and Potocari. I keep blurry images in mind, the blue spots of dazed UN soldiers, amidst a terrified crowd led by determined and serious bearded men. And I seem to recognize the background to that story. The road is winding, few cars pass us by and only a handful of small farms scatter the fields around, often abandoned. Or so they seem. You never know if you are in Bosnian or Serbian territory, with minarets and bell towers waging a new kind of war, a despicable continuation of the previous one. All these places of worship are not what they seem. They look like they were erected in haste, they reek of a confused identity and of denial of history. And then suddenly, a brown roadsign, like those that advertise an abbey or a picturesque valley. With a design of the cemetery, the sign welcomes the visitors on behalf of "the Tourism Organization of Srebrenica."
And here is the cemetery. On the other side of the road, there is a small isolated stall on the sidewalk: "Souvenirs". Behind it, there are the abandoned factories where the Dutchbat, the infamous UN Dutch battalion, had entrenched itself, welcoming and then pushing away the refugees who came to seek their protection. To enter the cemetery, you pass through a gate next to which stands a stone that indicates: "The Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial and cemetery for the victims of the 1995 genocide." The issue of whether the Srebrenica massacre was a genocide is in itself obscene. It has monopolized for years the attention of the international community, the Bosnian, the Bosnian Serb and Serbian authorities, all of which use it for political purposes. Therefore to display the word in large letters on the portal is not strictly practical. It's a way to say, attention, visitor, you're walking into a space that is more political than memorial. Like the bell towers and the minarets that compete all across the region, we understand that what took place here, this nameless horror, is not complete, not resolved. And all the opportunities to put a finger in the eye of the neighbor/enemy will be used.
I have visited several places of memory. One of the most beautiful I've seen is in Holland. It is the clearing of Westerbork, where once stood the concentration camp through which 80% of Dutch Jews passed to then finish at Bergen-Belsen or Auschwitz, among them the little Anne Frank. There is almost nothing left in Westerbork, everything was destroyed. At the entrance, small buildings contain all the necessary explanations for visitors, events, statistics, consequences. The rails in front the nonexistent terminal have been twisted up as if they were taking imaginary trains to heaven. And beyond the clearing, the government has installed gigantic, snow-white satellite dishes. They are not there in a memorial capacity, they are useful, practical. But to the visitor, they speak of opening, communication, international efforts and the future. All that was missing during those dark years, everything that is vital. And this clearing that saw what cannot be seen, these rails that carry the memory of the dead to heaven, these antennas that connect us to the living, all this both afflicts you and soothes you. It has meaning and it says that the past is past but as much as it's over, it cannot, it must not be forgotten.
In Srebrenica, you first encounter a mosque, which is a roof of about twenty meters on the side resting on four piles. And around this mosque a circular wall lists the names of the thousands of victims and their dates of birth, a way too familiar sight throughout the world. Beyond that wall, over several thousand square meters, the white marble tombs of the victims, each carrying this Surah in Serbo-Croatian and English: "And say not of those who are killed in God's cause: "They are dead." Rather they are alive,but you are not aware". The Bosnian Serb conflict took place on the dividing lines of the Ottoman Empire, which only recognized religion as nationality, a confusion that lasts to this day. That's why Tito's Yugoslavia eradicated religion and its practice, alas with a provisional success. In 1995, even if some were waving their faith to kill their neighbors, religious practice was still non-existent and it remains so today, despite the size of crucifixes and the thickness of beards. But it was set in stone that these thousands of victims fell "in God's cause". Before he was brutally murdered and then thrown into a pit, what did a little boy of 14 years know of Allah if he had never attended mosque, if his parents never mentioned the name of God in his house?
We gaze at the thousands of small white marble monuments. And that's it. I look around in vain for maps, texts, some sort of historical explanation. Or at least the heartbreaking verse from a wise 17th-century Bosnian poet, a sentence of Ivo Andric, something that would put the unspeakable into words. Or a monument that concentrates in its forms the feelings that such a place and such a story should inspire, helping us to expel from our chest the appalling pictures that this visit can, should arouse. But nothing, you come out of there like you would out of a parking lot, a cinema, you think of your keys and you wonder where you can have lunch. The Srebrenica-Potocari memorial cemetery remains in the realm of statistics and politics: July 11, 1995 - died 8372 - Genocide. Goodbye and do not forget to buy a souvenir on your way out. The monument that must speak to the world about what happened in this land is an emotional cripple and a mute. It is not minimalist and peaceful, it is silent and irresolute.
Then you get back to your car and, if you want, you drive the five kilometers separating the cemetery from the village of Srebrenica itself. And it is there, finally, that emotion came over me. A shameful anger. Srebrenica is twice a martyr: because of what occurred there, and because of the shameful way how international and local authorities have abandoned survivors. Everything is ruined, dirty, broken down by sun and dust, by inaction, and the weight of unbearable memories. The faces that I see look at me with the weariness of those who know that we will offer nothing, that we just watch them and we will leave as soon as possible, leaving them to their misery and their awful condition of living in a land where it is better to be dead.