I’m going to warn you before you start reading this post that it could trigger some strong feelings. If you find yourself having trouble reading about loss, genocide, and human cruelty, you should probably skip this post. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to write about my experience in Srebrenica on the blog but I’ve written about this for school, and I find it’s an important part of history that is often overlooked so here it is.
Overview: What is Srebrenica?
Srebrenica is a small town in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was the location of the biggest massacre in Europe since WW2 where some 8000 Muslims were sentenced to death. 50 years after the end of WW2, humanity still hadn’t learned its lesson regarding genocide and the atrocities in Srebrenica took place.
Why I went
I was visiting my uncle, Robert, in Sarajevo, Bosnia in 2007 and he organized a ‘field trip’ for his work while I was visiting so that I could learn more about a country and culture I knew nothing about. Other than my uncle and me, everyone on the tour was from Bosnia. They had all suffered some form of loss and hardship during the war.
Srebrenica: My eye-opening trip to the Genocide Memorial
Robert and I had to wake up pretty early that morning to head over to his work to meet up with everyone and get on the bus. The bus driver was also our guide which was a great perk because he was explaining stuff to us along the two and a half hour drive to Srebrenica. I was 18 years old at the time, still living at home with my mom and had no clue where I was going with my life. My uncle invited me to Bosnia to get me out of my suburban middle-class life and experience something different. Sidebar here, I have to give credit to that man; he knew what he was doing by bringing me to Bosnia. That trip, as you’ll see later in this post, helped shape me into the person I am today.
He introduced me to his co-workers who were all from Bosnia. They had either lived through the war or had gone elsewhere as refugees and returned once the war was over. They were all extremely nice – I have yet to meet a Bosnian person I did not like.
The drive down
Everyone was in good spirits; happy to have a day out of the office and get out of Sarajevo. Everyone shared with me some of their experiences during the war which started to set the tone for me. Our tour guide pointed many things out (mostly for my benefit I think), so I learned different things along the way.
The guide made a stop at an abandoned building and had us disembark the bus. He lined us up by the wall facing him and told us he wanted to tell us a bit more about the Srebrenica massacre. Over many months and even years, Srebrenica was under constant fire; sometimes falling under Serb control and then returning to Bosnian power. The entire area (not only Srebrenica) was a series of villages being destroyed and people being uprooted or killed. Here’s a quote from the International Criminal Tribunal at the Hague to give you an idea:
Between April 1992 and March 1993, the town of Srebrenica and the villages in the area held by Bosniak were constantly subjected to Serb military assaults, including artillery attacks, sniper fire, as well as occasional bombing from aircraft. Each onslaught followed a similar pattern. Serb soldiers and paramilitaries surrounded a Bosnian Muslim village or hamlet, called upon the population to surrender their weapons, and then began with indiscriminate shelling and shooting. In most cases, they then entered the village or hamlet, expelled or killed the population, who offered no significant resistance, and destroyed their homes. During this period, Srebrenica was subjected to indiscriminate shelling from all directions on a daily basis. Potočari in particular was a daily target for Serb artillery and infantry because it was a sensitive point in the defence line around Srebrenica. Other Bosnian Muslim settlements were routinely attacked as well. All this resulted in a great number of refugees and casualties.
During these times, many Bosnians were unceremoniously executed or involuntarily removed from their homes and lost everything. In April 1993, the UN declared Srebrenica to be a “safe zone.” In May of the same year, General Halilovic (Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina) and General Mladic(Bosnian Serb military leader) agreed to Srebrenica being a demilitarized zone (although both parties violated that agreement repeatedly).
I’ll skip most of the history behind the events that lead to Srebrenica Genocide as I don’t want to bore you but I’ll say that if you’re interested, you should read up on how it all happened.
So, our guide continues to explain that there was an area called Potokari very close to Srebrenica where many refugees were located but that living conditions were awful (no food/water) due to roads being blocked. These people were under the “protection” of the blue helmets. I put protection in quote marks because the soldiers stationed there could not interfere with the horrors they were witnessing.
We are all listening to the guide like our lives depended on it – hanging onto every word he is saying. He goes on to explain how on July 12th, the Serb forces came to Potakari and told the refugees that they would be bused to Bosnian territory. People saw the light at the end of a very dark tunnel; they would be reunited with loved ones, they wouldn’t have to suffer through rape and murder anymore. The Forces informed the now hopeful people that they would be going on buses; men and older boys were directed one way while women and children were sent another way. They were assured that they would be reunited later that day.
However, this was a lie. The men and boys were driven out to empty fields, buildings, soccer fields and told to exit the bus. They were lined up one next to other, and they were shot. Either left for dead or put into mass graves. The guide took a long pause before speaking again. When he spoke, he told us to look behind us. We turned and looked at the abandoned building, and we saw many holes in the wall that we hadn’t actually given any thought to before (holes in buildings are very common in Bosnia as remnants of the war). He told us we were standing at one of the many locations where these massacres had taken place.
This news was a big shock to everyone. One woman dropped to her knees sobbing; people were crying. I can’t even begin to understand the pain they were feeling. It hit me as well; silent tears were coming down my face. My uncle came up to me looking somber and asked if I was doing alright. I could only nod and look around at the people around me; my heart was so full of compassion and sadness for them and for everyone that had suffered during this war.
We got back on the bus and made our way to the memorial. On the bus, the sadness I was feeling was slowly transforming into anger. How could this happen again? How can people be so evil? Why was I not taught about this war in school? It was an important part of history that I knew nothing about. Isn’t it essential to pass on the bad things that happened in our past to try and prevent them from happening again?
We arrived at the memorial where we met a lady that ran the souvenir shop. She had lost both her son and her husband in the tragedy. She played a video for us and explained a little bit more about the memorial.
We then proceeded to walk around the monument. There were so many names carved into the stone – it was a very emotional experience. The group split up and I just walked around, looking at the names, the people there, just trying to wrap my head around such evil. I think everyone needed a moment of solitude to reflect.
Once everyone was ready to go, we got back on the bus. We made our way to a restaurant where we were all going to share a meal together. This place was more like a home than a restaurant, and I think it might have actually been someone just taking us into their home (I feel like it was someone the guide knew, but it was ten years ago, so my memory is getting fuzzy). We all sat at a big table and passed around food and drink. After the emotional day we all had, it was nice to laugh and enjoy the moment.
I remember thinking to myself how amazing these people were. They had lived through hell, had lost people they loved, had fled their country yet they were sitting at this table laughing and enjoying the company. My life had been nowhere near as complicated or painful, and I couldn’t even begin to understand the pain of everyone around me. It put things into perspective for me.
The impact of visiting Srebrenica had on me was quite significant. I left Bosnia with more questions than answers. I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew that my trivial issues were nothing compared to the suffering of others. It had a prominent role to play in my decision to join the Canadian Armed Forces and be part of something bigger than myself. It breaks my heart that as I am writing this in 2017, we still have issues of the same nature in the world. That people cannot accept others because of their religion or the colour of their skin. Have we, as a species, not learned our lesson? How many more lives need to be claimed for an ideology that makes no sense?
This is one of the primary reasons I love travel so much; to learn about our past, to learn about other cultures, to see how diverse and beautiful our planet is. Perhaps if more people traveled, took the time to meet people from different cultures, and took the time to learn about our dark history, we would be in a better place today.
Curious to learn some more?
Check out these pages if you want to learn a bit more about the Bosnia War and Srebrenica Memorial:
What about you?
Have you gone on a trip that had an impact on your life? Tell me about it in the comments below!
Want to start traveling so you can learn more about our world and cultures that inhabit it? Check out my post on getting cheap flights and get started.