Srebrenica: The Scars of Genocide

Photo by Rosa Menkman
Photo by Rosa Menkman


Enveloped by the reassuring scent of mown grass, the lilting melody of birdsong, and a pleasantly warm sun in high, wispy clouds, I wander in a quiet daze, listening to the dead. To their silent, unceasing commentary. Usually the living speak for the dead—over the dead—in newspapers, memoirs, testimonies, and eulogies. Here, the dead tell their own stories, on their own territory and their own terms. They speak through objects, inanimate yet intimate. Each white stone rises about 48 inches, tapering up toward a rounded top. On the smooth surface is inscribed a name, always male, and two dates, always ending in 1995. Although mute, these grave markers form a chorus of thousands. They tell the story of Srebrenica—a place where the agony of the past pervades the present.

Srebrenica (Sreh-breh-NEET-sah), a small town in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina, lies about 10 miles from the border with Serbia. Like that of most (if not all) Westerners, my interest relates to the infamous July 1995 mass killing of approximately 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys by Serb forces. While essentially ignoring three years of slaughter, the United Nations Security Council did designate Srebrenica a “safe area” in which encircled Muslims (now called Bosniaks) could find sanctuary. But a few hundred out-gunned UN peacekeepers from the Netherlands provided only a veneer of protection, which cracked under pressure from the Bosnian Serbs. The result was the largest mass killing in Europe since the Holocaust.

I have come to Srebrenica—as a pilgrim, a voyeur, a scholar—to participate in a workshop on conflict transformation. After a two-hour drive from Sarajevo, careening on narrow, mountainous roads, our group’s van arrives at the Srebrenica Potočari genocide memorial. It opened in 2003, inaugurated by former president Bill Clinton. He was granted this honor even though, during the war years, Americans and Europeans left Bosnia to its hellish fate. The memorial lies two miles north of Srebrenica in the village of Potočari, which was the location of the Dutch UN battalion headquarters established to protect the “safe area,” on a level area surrounded by tree-covered hills—the same hills in which Serb fighters waited to trap the fleeing Bosniak men and boys. The memorial entrance is not dramatic: a gravel roadside pull-off for parking, the Bosnian flag planted at the gate, and a single Bosnian soldier. Immediately inside the entrance to the left is an open-air mosque. The cemetery lies just beyond. Surveying the thousands of identical markers stretching across the grass in even rows, I wonder whether the dead are resting peacefully here.

Certainly, the living have no peace.

Thousands of the surviving widows and mothers long for the meager solace of burying their dead. Despite the seemingly endless rows of marble markers, the memorial is far from complete. Three thousand victims are either missing or unidentified. Each year, survivors inter newly recovered remains on July 11, the anniversary of the genocide. The new graves are recognizable as muddy, raw mounds topped by temporary green wooden markers and brass name plaques. The guide, a young Bosniak man with worried eyes, explains that only rarely do searchers find intact remains. Families must reconcile themselves to burying only bits and pieces scattered by the killers; forensic evidence and DNA testing help identify remains, as do personal possessions recognized by relatives. One nearby plaque is inscribed with a name and the dates 1980–1995; Fikret was 15 years old. Farther on, a marker for Ramo, born in 1919. Seventy-six years old. In the distance, one cross stands out amid the thousands of graves—a Croat who died in the massacre.

Soon after my arrival, a few mourners appear. Two men approach the mosque and prostrate themselves repeatedly in prayer on a patchwork of rugs positioned in a corner of the space. They ignore a small group of Western visitors standing on the polished marble at the edge of the mosque. I regret my ignorance of Muslim beliefs and practices, which seems inexcusable in the presence of these devout men, grieving for their loved ones.

Across the road from the cemetery and mosque is the second part of the memorial, a former battery factory where UN peacekeepers were stationed at the time of the genocide. The Dutch soldiers assigned to protect the safe area parked their vehicles in the factory building: painted numbers indicating parking spaces are visible on the walls. When the Bosnian Serbs, led by General Ratko Mladic, breached the so-called safe area, nearly 5,000 terrified Muslim residents fled to the factory. Within days, the Dutch forces had expelled the refugees, forcing them to cross the Serb checkpoints that ringed the UN camp. Here, the Serb soldiers separated the boys and men, destined for death, from the women and children.

The factory site is chilly and dank. Broken ducts hang from the ceiling, and rusted machinery is piled in a corner. The ghosts of the refugees haunt the space. I picture them packed in here, lacking adequate water, food, and sanitation. The querulous children, exhausted mothers, stoically suffering grandparents. The uneasy fathers, sons, and brothers, filled with foreboding. My footsteps sound small and precise in the cavernous building.

I enter a small, darkened room and gratefully rest on a wooden bench. A video begins. I wince at the images of the haggard boys and men who escaped the dragnet here at Potočari, tramping through the surrounding hills. The camera zooms in on the torn bare feet of a young man. Irrationally, I hope the movie will end differently this time, that the human prey will escape the Bosnian Serb soldiers hunting them down. I want an uplifting story of survival against the odds. Or of a daring rescue by NATO forces, UN peacekeepers, or any of the many other observers who turned their heads from the suffering, as I am tempted to do. Instead, I see corpses on the screen. And mothers nearly dead with grief. Narrative after searing narrative. Finally, the film ends. I leave the vast, cool, dim building and am blinded by the sun. I reel dizzily, stunned by the human capacity for evil.

As I exit the museum late in the afternoon, a school group arrives. Two jumbo tour buses have ferried about 50 Bosniak students on a six-hour trip. I estimate the age of the children from the height of my own boys. About even with my 11-year- old. Many of the girls wear traditional Muslim headscarves in a jumble of patterns and colors. I feel dread as they process in ragged formation, wandering and jostling, as children do, toward the ruins of the factory. I know the horrors they will witness. Will they really watch the movie in which a mother recounts the last words screamed out to her teenage son, and his final anguished look as the soldiers drag him away?

The film’s brief clip of Mladic particularly haunts me, even though it lasts only 20 seconds. The Bosnian Serb leader speaks in Srebrenica on July 11, 1995. The safe area has fallen, and the victorious Mladic prepares his followers for the coming bloodshed. He boasts to an audience back home: “We give this town to the Serb people. … The time has come to take revenge on the Turks.” His proclamation references a 19th-century Serb revolt put down by the Ottoman Empire (the Turks) and, through some perversion of historical interpretation, implies that killing Srebrenica’s Bosnian Muslims 200 years later avenges that perceived injustice. I cannot imagine how those 20 seconds will affect these Muslim children. What will they say, once back home, when their parents and siblings ask about the field trip? What emotions will assault their unready psyches: anger, despair, victimhood, hate? Children are being asked to carry a collective memory that predates their birth—a heavy burden.

I approach the roadside hut that serves as the museum shop. It is not irreverently trivial, as I feared. An old woman who lost her husband and son in the genocide runs the shop. She cheerfully invites me in. Most items seem directed toward a local audience: books in Bosnian, prayer beads, scarves, cigarette lighters—smoking seems to be a national pastime. Inevitably, some T-shirts, mostly in Bosnian. I can’t picture myself wearing a T-shirt from the Srebrenica memorial. I purchase a scarf with handmade crochet work made by a Bosniak woman.

I stay at one of the two hotels in Srebrenica. The shaded veranda attracts locals and visitors for endless cups of coffee—and cigarettes. A slender minaret rises from the mosque next door. A bit behind it is the spire of the Serbian Orthodox church. To the right stands a six-story building, completely gutted. In the afternoon, the call to prayer echoes mournfully off its bullet-scarred walls. Using my camera, I make a video of what I cannot comprehend; perhaps listening to the playback will reveal some meaning in this suffering. The hotel is clean and comfortable. Exhaustion grips me. Nevertheless, the night is far gone before I sleep.

My travel itinerary incorporates an unusual juxtaposition. It begins and ends in Rome. There a series of academic workshops complements the Bosnia field research. Prior to my departure, I expect two discrete experiences, colored by my own preconceptions—the cosmopolitan, burnished magnificence of Rome and the post-war, post-Communist wreck of the Balkans. To me, the combination seems ideal. I have always longed to visit Rome, and Bosnia perfectly fits my research agenda. Naïvely, I fail to predict how quickly my tidy mental compartmentalization will crumble into bewildering complexity. I begin my journey with the uncomplicated thrill of Rome, and after several days, I am blissfully saturated with the glories of the city’s breathtaking churches; in particular, the scale and rapturous beauty of St. Peter’s Basilica humbles me and heightens awareness of my own spirituality.

Somewhat dazed from the surfeit of marble, gilt, and mosaics, I board a flight to Sarajevo with other seminar participants. Two hours in a plane lands me in another universe; the sun-drenched days in Rome fade into a surreal, dreamlike memory. For a week, I inhabit, as best I can, the world of a trauma-scarred people. People who cling to their faith and are torn apart by religion. During the war, fighters invoked religion to imprison, torture, and rape with spiritual impunity. The conflict among Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, and Muslim Bosnians still smolders. For political leaders, religion continues to function as a path to power and a call to arms. Feeling heretical, I wonder whether the world might be better off without organized worship of a higher being. Abstract theological assurances about the peaceful roots of all religious traditions seem an insipid response to the tragic abuse of God that pervaded Srebrenica.

Back in Rome I can almost regain my normal mental ease. I stroll the narrow cobblestone streets, stopping for a gelato made from Sicilian pistachios, and gradually comprehend the reason for this tranquility: the absence of an atrocity narrative—both individual and collective. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, everyone I met had a story. The taxi driver, the waitress, the shop owner, the tour guide, the NGO worker. They bore scars of war. Sarajevo itself exists as a memorial to the longest siege in modern history. Rome’s picturesque ruins testify to ancient architectural genius, a fallen but magnificent empire. Bosnian ruins depress with their modernity.

The evening before my departure, I am drawn again to St. Peter’s Square. As I walk at dusk, the air sticks to my skin. The grandeur that once captivated me now seems tarnished, ambiguous, unsettling. In a disturbing flashback, I see again the thousands of small vertical grave markers stretching across the grass. Alone in the Roman twilight, I remember the voice of the young guide at the memorial, his halting yet insistent narration of loss, my initial incomprehension as he speaks a phrase in Bosnian, and his obvious frustration as he struggles for the English translation. The sting of bitterness when he finds the words: “Never again.” He pauses. “Never again. Isn’t that what you say?”

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Sarah Kenyon Lischer is an assistant professor of political science at Wake Forest University. She is writing a book on atrocity narratives and reconciliation after genocide.


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