Cities / Towns Visited: 61
Countries Visited: 17
Steps Taken Today: 10,466
Steps Taken Around the World: 2,131,701
The morning saw us rising early, scoffing down our breakfast, and very appreciatively being driven to the bus station by our ever gracious hosts. The morning would be spent crammed, once more, into a bus, as we trundled off towards our next destination; the country’s capital, Sarajevo. The uncomfortable conditions were eased, if only marginally, by the stunning scenery passing by outside the windows, and before we’d gone totally stir crazy, we alighted into a new town. A short taxi ride brought us to our hostel, and we were soon checked in.
With the formalities out of the way, we decided to head into town to try and tick a few things off the list to ease the sightseeing load of the following day. As we made our way along it was striking to see the difference in recovery between here and Mostar. Whereas Mostar sits largely still ruined, Sarajevo has been, for the most part, repaired and rebuilt. This place was under siege constantly for 1425 days during the war, and barely an inch wasn’t effected, but they have clearly secured the funds to fix most of the damage done. I can only hope Mostar’s time will come soon. That’s not to say that you can’t see that this place took a huge economic hit, as it certainly appears to be less of a bustling capital city, and more of just a large regional centre, but regardless, it hides its scars much better.
All things aside, and after grabbing a quick ćevapi for lunch in the bustling shop filled streets, we made our way towards our first stop; the town hall. The story of this rather striking striped Ottoman style building is, like many here, a tragic one. During the aforementioned siege, the building was set ablaze by Serbian soldiers, completely gutting the building, and in the process destroying over two million books and documents, many of which were important historical records of the city and are irreplaceable. Destroying a city is one thing, but purposely destroying the written history of a place is a special kind of evil.
After the war, they defiantly rebuilt the hall to match the appearance of the one they had been stripped of, and it was this that we walked into. Entering the hexagonal heart of the building you are delivered to a central point, flanked on all sides by two storeys of stunning arches reminiscent of a Turkish mosque or temple. Once more, it was clear the deep connection these people have with their Ottoman ruled past. As you look up you are greeted by a breathtaking hexagonal stained glass ceiling, spilling brightly coloured rays of light through its kaleidoscopic pattern.
At this point we scurried around to discover what this place had to offer. The walls and ceilings are hand painted with beautiful coloured patterns, all highlighted by the glow of the delicate chandeliers. A couple of the open rooms are your standard council style layout, however there are a few exhibits in others. One which gives a brief history of Bosnia and Sarajevo, from its beginnings in the 12th century, through the Ottoman rule, the Austo-Hungarian Rule, the Nazi Occupation, the communist years, and finally the Bosnian war. Another holds a collection of the photos of past mayors of the city; a room in which I took a moment to look at the faces of men who have seen this country through hard times, including the men who saw them through the world wars and the Yugoslav war, and a notable gap where the city had no mayor as the country was under Nazi occupation during WWII. There is also a small display of period furniture set up as a sitting room set for tea, as a memorial to Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, who as you probably know, were assassinated in Sarajevo by a Serbian rebel in 1914; an act which became the catalyst for the commencement of WWI.
The main exhibition is in the basement though, and covers the history of the city in depth from 1914–2014, and it takes great pride in showing off its flourishing time in the 1980’s when it even hosted the Winter Olympics; an event which was thought to be one of the best by the competing athletes and officials of the time. It of course finishes by touching on the Yugoslav war and the long destructive siege by the Serbs on the city for almost four years straight, and the restoration efforts that raised this building back up from the rubble. It was a highly educational way to begin our visit to the city, and helped to set the scene for the things we would go on to learn about for the remainder of the afternoon and the following day.
On our way to the next museum, we took the time to walk down the riverside road, following the very same route that the Archduke and Sophie had taken, turning at the Latin Bridge, just as they had. Parked just around the corner isa replica of the car they were travelling in when they were shot, which sits parked beside a plaque signifying the spot where the shooter had been standing amongst the crowd, pistol in hand. It seems such an unassuming spot for such a world altering event to have occurred. The war that would follow would see a centuries old dynasty crumble. It would see one of the biggest changes in European country border lines in the Slavic nations, freeing a number of countries from monarchical rule, for example: Czechaslovakia, and Yugoslavia. It would also be the main force behind the improvement in women’s rights in terms of allowing women to work in their own right and be somewhat more independent, due to the necessity of women to take up typically male professions like farming and machine work and proving themselves more than capable. This in turn further fuelled the fire of the suffragette movement. It’s a rather morbid but inspiring reminder that one single person can change the direction of the world; whether that is for better or worse is, of course, entirely up to you.
Grabbing a quick chimney cake to satisfy our sweet tooth, we finally we reached our destination; the 11/07/95 Museum. If you have no idea about the significance of this date, fear not, as we also did not upon our arrival, but we were soon to have a rather confronting and macabre crash course which would steal away any of the remaining sweetness from out sugary treat. Now, as I’ve explained before, Bosnia did not fare well during the Yugoslav war and the ensuing Bosnian War, largely because their country directly joins onto Serbia; the main aggressors, and the side with the massive Yugoslav National Army now running as the Serbian Army and using its massive arsenal. After the Yugoslav countries broke apart at the end of the Yugoslav war and agreements were being made about borders, Serbia was in disagreement and refused to sign, as they believed they were entitled to more of the territory which was to become Bosnia, mainly the parts closest to them which had a high population of Orthodox Serbians residing there.
Although the fighting was essentially a land grab; much like in Nazi Germany in regards to the Jews, the Serbians chose to victimise the Muslim population of north-eastern Bosnia. So what was this museum in remembrance of, you may ask? Well let me set the scene, Serbia was invading Bosnian territory, attacking towns of eastern Bosnia to claim land, and killing countless Muslim Bosnians as they went. It was a state of humanitarian emergency and the UN had sent in Dutch soldiers on a peacekeeping mission, setting up ‘safe areas’ within Serbian occupied lands, including in Srebrenica, to try and provide aid and refuge to affected Bosnians while trying to persuade and enforce peace sanctions on the Serbs. Tens of thousands of Muslims were living as refugees in these areas, but with rations dwindling the situations worsened. Serbia refused to lay down their arms, or withdraw their heavy weapons, and despite international pressures they pushed ahead with attacks on the ‘safe areas’. The refugees and soldiers retreated to Srebrenica as the Bosnian Serbs moved in, ethnically cleansing towns as they went. Eventually even Srebrenica was no longer safe and around 20–25,000 refugees retreated towards Potočari. A few thousand pressed inside the UN compound before the Dutch closed the gates, leaving thousands stranded outside. The UN soldiers essentially locked them outside with no military aid knowing that the act would result in the death of many.
On the night of the 11th of July a large number of the Bosnian Muslim men decided to head into the forest covered mountains to try and make it north to Bosnian held territory in Tuzla, as they thought they would have a better chance of survival than staying at Potočari, knowing that the Serbians were killing military aged men. Only around one third of the men who set off made it to safety, the rest were killed in the following days in Serbian ambushes and attacks, died of exhaustion, or committed suicide out of fear. There was even evidence that the Serbs used chemical weapons to induce hallucinations and erratic behaviour leading to more suicides and men turning on each other. The Serbians also lured men out by promising safe passage to Tuzla, using stolen UN and Red Cross equipment. The men who surrendered were then murdered; others were lured out by the calls of captured friends and family being forced to beckon them, or by the promises of Serbian forced that they would be used to swap in exchange for Serbian soldiers being held prisoner by Bosnian forces. Again these men were also murdered.
On the 12th of July, the Serbian soldiers arrived at Potočari, and many of the Muslim Bosnians were put on buses to be sent to Bosnian occupied territory, but these buses arrived without any men or boys on them as the Serbians were separating them out and murdering them.; and some of the buses never arrived at all. Many of these murders, as well as the rape and abuse of Muslim women, occurred under the view, or at least under the knowledge of the Dutch soldiers with no intervention. The UN operation was ill conceived, understaffed, and under supplied, but it was also discovered later that many of the Dutch peacekeepers thought very poorly of the Muslims they were supposed to be protecting, writing slurs on the walls in the compounds which were later discovered, and led many to believe that their lack of protection was at least partly racially motivated. In the end more than 8000 Bosnian Muslims, most of whom were men and boys, were murdered in the genocide, then buried in mass graves by the Serbians.
Now that was just a very brief and basic overview of the events, and I would encourage everyone to study and learn about this atrocity. Almost all of us are taught about the horrors of the holocaust, but very few of us ever learn about any of the other mass racial killing or ethnic cleansing which has occurred throughout history, especially in the last 100 years, and have hugely affected the lives of many minorities and victimised civilians.
Back to the museum though. We entered the first room with our audioguides; a room which has its walls covered with the photos of just a fraction of the people known to have been slaughtered in the genocide. These haunting black and white images is all that is left to remember some of these poor souls by, as many have not been found or only parts have been uncovered. The guide has a small interview with one of the Muslim Bosnians who survived the war, but who’s mother, father, and brother were all killed, and who’s photos are amongst those hanging here. He heartbreakingly tells of the day, not that long ago, that he was called in to identify clothes found which belonged to his brother.
As you pass into the main exhibition space you are led past a series of black and white photographs taken by the photographer Tarik Samarah in the aftermath and up until the present day in and around Srebrenica. It was awful to learn that there are still countless mothers and wives who still wait day after day, even now, hoping that the remains of their loved ones will be identified, so that they can have some form of closure, regardless of how painful that news would inevitably be. You see, as the guide explains, most of the bodies were thrown haphazardly into mass graves to hide the atrocities. Some witnesses even remember the sounds of some people being buried alive in the jumble of bodies. In the weeks following, the Serbians relocated some of the mass graves into secondary, and even tertiary graves, meaning that by the end they were less skeletons than jumbles of bone fragments. As a result when they were dug up, remains were places in bags (yes literal bags of bones), to be taken to the lab for DNA analysis. It is a slow and arduous task. Some bodies will probably never be found, and many of these broken families will probably have little more than a single bone, or just a fragment, to bury of those they lost.
The somewhat artsy photos really evoke the strong emotions of pain and grief; from rather solemn photos of crows flying off from the ghostly streets of the town, to a single old woman walking down a lonely path in the rain; and from a scientists gloved hand holding the semi-preserved hand of one of the unfortunate bodies found, to row after row of filled coffins lined up in a warehouse awaiting collection, and shelf after shelf of bags of remains in a morgue fridge. The most confronting ones to view of course, are the ones of the people left behind; a photo of two women crouched in shock beside the rotting remains of victims found behind a building; and an enlarged photo of the weary wrinkled face of a woman who’s long worn grief is etched into every line on her face. If a picture says a thousand words, these say a thousand more.
At the end of the room plays a loop showing image after image of the effects of the Srebrenica genocide, which cut your heart with every one that flashes up on the screen. From the immediate aftermath, right up to present day, with everything from the exhumation of the mass graves, the identification of the bodies, and the funeral and memorial services. There is also a few shocking photos of racial slurs written on a wall by Dutch UN soldiers, in regards to the Bosnian women’s appearance. It was truly abhorrent to see such hateful things written by the very people who were sent in to help them, and brings into question even more, their actions, or lack thereof during the events in Srebrenica on that fateful day in July 1995. The walk to the exit is lined with the names and birth years of the victims; row after row.
Thoroughly emotionally drained we took the long arduous walk back up to our hostel. Our walk filled with a mixture of shocked indignant rants about what we had just learnt, and quiet reflection on the events. A simple homecooked meal, and we were tucking ourselves exhausted into bed soon enough. As I, once more, reviewed everything I had just learnt, I clearly recognised the emotion in my heart. It was the same deep mix of anger and sorrow that swirled deep within me at Sachenhausen and Auschwitz concentration camps, threatening to swallow me up; it was the feeling of emotional overload to the point of feeling hollow and the cold emptiness which follows it. It is the stuff depression is made of. I couldn’t, and still can’t, imagine the personal hell those left behind must be living through in the aftermath of such atrocities; both their own tortured memories and the unanswerable void filled with not knowing the fates of their loved ones, or having the remains to lay to rest. They live in a world without closure, without consolation, without hope; they were the lucky few who survived, and yet in doing so they were handed a life sentence. The genocide may have resulted in the senseless murder of some 8000+ Muslim Bosnians, but tens of thousands had their lives torn asunder by the acts of soldiers fighting a war so that leaders could have a chance of drawing a line on a map somewhat more in their favour. Their actions were utterly evil, but at the same time we must acknowledge the wider lack of aid provided by the UN and all of its affiliated nations. Its is not enough to simply call out the actions of a violent force; peer pressure isn’t, nor ever will be, the way to triumph over this level of cruelty. It didn’t work before World War II, it didn’t work in this instance, nor will it work in any future circumstance when some genocidal maniac decides his land or power grab should have racist, xenophobic, or homophobic roots. We must take action, we must provide ALL of the necessary assistance, regardless of what it costs. If the innocent and the vulnerable cannot rely on the strong and the good to do the right thing, then are we strong, and are we good, or are we just as guilty as those who seek to cause harm?