Wednesday, August 24, 2005

St. Martin returns from Bosnia with perspective of hope.

Love, Hate, War, and Ice Cream.
by Anthony St. Martin

Since I typically travel alone, two weeks in Bosnia with a group of seven American volunteers and two Bosnian translators was a new experience for me. The trip was organized by a remarkable woman named Dolores Gunter, of the Fellowship of Reconciliation(FOR). This was Dolores' fifth trip since the end of the war, all with the same purpose - to spend time with the orphans and abandoned children of Tuzla's Home for Children Without Parental Care. Like others in our group, I went there to give of myself, but recieved far more in return from the infants, boys, girls, and young men and young women I met and grew to love in only two weeks. Their open-armed affection and sincerity knocked down defensive walls I had built up for years.
Most of the children were orphaned by the war, while others were left by parents fleeing the 45% unemployment in the town of Tuzla. For ten days, I played hide-and-seek and tag with the younger children, and played soccer and basketball with the older boys. One boy, Mirzet, had an American football, so I showed those willing to learn how to play the foreign game. They enjoyed learning to pass and catch, but it was obviously no subsitute for their beloved soccer.
Mirzet, is a healthy boy of seventeen with black, curly hair and dark, cocky eyes. He came to the home ten years ago, following the Serb massacre of his hometown of Srebrenica. He arrived among the 700 children who landed on the front steps of the Domo(Home) at the start of the genocide. "Several of the older children carried younger ones, Some were wounded." recalled Adamire, a lovely man who was there at the time. Speaking through interpreter, Edmira, he continued, "we did not know what to do with all of them. But we managed. It is still hard for us to talk about it."
For the first week, we arrived promptly at 9AM and were swarmed by tiny hands and excited voices calling "Antonio! Peter! Holly! Adrian! Kerry! Charley!". Then we were invited to take a road trip to the town of Srebrenica to see for ourselves what had become of many of these children's homes and families. We would ride in three taxis from Tuzla to Zvornik and continue along the Drina River. Our route was the same well-paved, two-lane road from which the Serbian Tigers fired their tanks and artillery at the defenseless farmhouses scattered throughout the fertil fields, lining both sides of the roadway.
We made our way south, passing through Zvornik rather quickly before coming to the Srebrenica Memorial. I had learned that International dignitaries had assembled here just two days prior to commemorate the ten year anniversary of the massacre of Srebrenica (July 11, 1995) but it wasn't until I entered the gates to the cemetary that I understood what had happened there. It took several more minutes for me to realize that I was paralyzed by it. I could not move. It wasn't that I had any physical problem, more that I had lost any reason to move. My mind went blank as chalk. I floated there for several moments, held up by legs that seemed miles away, until I heard a soft voice repeating in my head, "What am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to say?". I had no answer. I still don't.
I felt someone pass on their way to the over six-hundred open graves that lay, spread out a few yards in front of me. But, I couldn't look at them. I couldn't raise my head. I could hear the fountain waters flowing behind me, like an eternal bath for the cleansing of souls. I could even smell the wet mounds of earth still piled beside the graves, and I felt the chill left over from the rainy morning, but I could not look at the graves. I was paralyzed with shame for being human.
I knew the stories by now. I knew how the victims of the massacre came to lie here in seperate caskets, with green, wooden markers stuck in the mounded earth, waiting to be buried. I knew the Serbs had buried the men, women, and children in mass graves throughout the countryside. Others were taken by the thousands to the damn near Zvornik where they were tossed into the Drina River. Our driver told us he will no longer eat fish taken from the narrow, winding river that acts as a natural boundry between Serbia and Bosnia. To say the Serbs buried their victims is inaccurate, they concealed them, disposed of them so they might escape prosecution for their crimes.
I felt a powerful force, like radiation coming off the graves. The crime of genocide was still hot upon them. And still I could not move. Finally a tear found the strength to flow from one eye. The stones at my feet blurred, a cacoon was forming around me. I estimate nearly thirty minutes I stood there. Motionless. Dangling in space and time, without meaningful past or future. Asking myself over and over, What am I supposed to do? What am I supposed to say? It didn't matter what I thought. I was irrelevent. I hadn't been here when they needed me. Nobody was.
Directly across the road from the memorial, stood the stark, concrete warehouse where the men and women of Srebrenica were taken, bound at the wrist and stored like cattle until the time of slaughter would come. When Mladic and his paramilitary column of Panzer tanks, 60mm cannons, and "troops" armed with AK-47s first approached the tiny enclave, there was a force of Dutch Battalion Peacekeepers stationed there. They had established what were being called "safe zones"; places where the defenseless civilians could stay, sheltered from the Serbian guns. As the story goes, when the Dutch commander received word of the approaching force he called NATO Central Command and requested an air strike to deter the Serbian attack. That request was denied. A second call went to Sarajevo asking for assistance, but this request was also denied. One person told me that the government in Sarajevo effectively gave Srebrenica to the Serbs in exchange for sparing Sarajevo. If a deal was made it was obviously broken later when the Serbs attacked the capital city. For its part, the US maintained a "hands off" policy, except for an embargo forbidding the sale of arms to the defenseless Bosnian Muslims.
Denied any assistance, the Dutch Battalion withdrew from the town leaving the Bosnians to the guns, knives, and iron bars used by the Serbs to murder thousands of helpless human beings in a matter of weeks. To many Bosnians this story is one of betrayal not only of Muslims, but of humanity. To a young man I met on a later bus to Sarajevo, it is obvious that so many recent wars are killing unarmed people of Islam.
It should be noted that Srebrenica, like many of Bosnia's villages and cities, is built at the bottom of a narrow ravine, making it unusually vulnerable to attack from above. Srebrenica is especially tragic in that the town is located as if at the end of a cul-de-sac. The road leads into the town, circles the lower basin of the ravine, and then heads back out, somewhat like the eye of a needle. The steep hills surrounding the town inhibited any means for escape. Estimates are that eight thousand Bosnian Muslims disappeared from Srebrenica in two weeks. And no one tried to stop it.
Ten years later, the fractured remains of several hundred of the victims of Srebrenica lay before me, their caskets visible in the gaping holes. Finally I managed to take a step and dip my hands into the fountain waters. Again the weight of the atrocity pressed down on me. Then I saw an open air mosque, situated beyond the fountain where Muslims can pause to pray. Two women were on their knees bowing to Allah. This was their offence - being Muslim. These people will killed for having a certain name even though many Bosnians freely admit that they had forgotten their religion before the war. Communist forbiddance had effectively irradicated Islamic practice, yet the messages of hate disseminated through the state run radio and newpapers by the Milosovic government proclaimed the existance of an impending Islamic Holy war against Christians. The Bosnians deny any such Islamic plot, and I should say that I found evidence supporting their contention that several attacks on Serbian villages were actually done by Serbs in order to inflame fear and hatred of the Muslims. Whatever truth might be, it appeared that if the Bosnians were launching a Holy War it was apparantly to be waged without weapons. The International leadership had conceded that the Bosnians had no weapons of any significance and certainly made sure that it stayed that way.
Days later I would observe many striking similarities between what happened in Bosnia and the govenment sponsored genocide in Rawanda. But now, as I remained stooped near the fountain, watching the women complete their prayers, I had not yet put those pieces together. I was struggling to find a way to walk out of this place without turning my back on its pain. For certain our taxi driver would take me far away, but how could I go without effectively saying, "Oh, well. Shit happens." How could I allow my bond with these innocent dead to fade with every mile. I'd order pizza back in Tuzla and talk sadly with the others about what we had seen and shake our lowered heads to take another bite, another sip of beer. Then go for ice-cream. Then the question became clear. How could I leave here and keep my human soul? My moment of truth was temporarily delayed when I learned that we would now continue up the road to the village of Screbrenica. I was not abandoning the dead. Not yet.
We regrouped and drained back into our cars for the last leg of our trip. Everyone was silent. Srebrenica was just a short mile up the road. Toppled brick farmhouses on both sides of the road gave lasting evidence of the Serbs' thoroughness in destroying every homestead with their cannon fire. I thought, "we are not meant for slaughter." Then I remembered what Kevin, an ex-US Soldier working as a volunteer at the Home, told me. It seems that during the Serbian seige of Sarajevo, if you were a Serbian civilian, you could drive to the hills where the paramilitary forces were camped and for an amount of money you could get use of a weapon to shoot at the Bosnians darting between the buildings below. It was a form of entertainment. A real life shooting gallery. I wondered about the power of hatred to change people's sensibilities. Is war simply hate put to work?"
We entered the town of Srebrenica. The village's buildings were pockmarked with large bullet holes and missing entire floors from direct cannon fire. We were told that if we got out of the car we should be careful what we say because a majority of the men in Srebrenica are now Serb. And no photos. This was not a tourist stop. At least not yet.
The stares from locals lingering on sidewalks and sitting at cafe tables were penetrating as we rolled past. I noticed that the bullet holes dotting literally every building were usually concentrated on a balcony or window where people were most likely to be hiding. We turned the bend in the needle and headed back toward the entrance of the tiny town when the driver pulled over to get some smokes. We ventured out to stretch, trying to remain unobtrusive. It was no use. Every eye was on us.
After a short, uncomfortable stroll we were back in the cars and on our way back to Tuzla and the children of the orphanage. Back to Mirzet who had watched the Serbs chase his family and neighbors into the woods. He heard the gunshots. Luckily he and his brother escaped. Now he was left alone, to live among others of the same fate; other children with whom he shares a bond like no other I have ever seen; a bond of tragedy and pain, but miraculously a bond of intense love and caring; a bond that extends from one child to the next. It is even evident among the young Bosnian men and women promenading down the European-esque streets of Sarajevo, past the numerous crowded cafes and jutting tombstones where the victims of Serbian snipers fell and were buried in flowerbeds, parks, and even between cafe tables. Their pain joins them in a way no American has ever experienced, and hopefull never will. It is also evident that this is a very young population, since most of the elders are dead. But it was also clear to see that all over Bosnia, there was a time for celebrating their young hearts, their bodies, their peace - their survival.
I went to Bosnia to give something of myself to the children who suffered the ravages of war. But, now safely home in Los Angeles, I can finally sum up what Bosnia gave to me. It was hope. A hope we must cling to. A hope that even if humanity will always make war, that the inevitable outcome of war and hate is the rejuvenation of love and brotherhood. That those who live for conquest and incite hatred, inspire ignorance, destroy all sanity, all hope, that they are forever destined to fail. This is evident in Bosnia. The mysterious purpose of the Serbian genocide not only failed to eradicate the Bosnian Muslims, but gave birth to a generation united not only by their suffering, but also by the joy of being alive.
It is would be helpful if Americans would realize that our military is creating new orphans every day. That if we lack the courage and resolve to cease our ways of war in other lands, that some day we too, may be consumed by it.