Bearing Witness in Srebrenica
by Yael Hammerman
Clear blue sky, fresh green grass resting on rolling hills, and a bright yellow sun to top it all off: summer days are only this ideal in children’s story books. Tens of thousands of tan men, floral-scarved women, and laughing kids milled around, in search of uncles and nephews. The displaced milled between porta-potties as bus loads of aunts, brothers, and nieces streamed in, weighed down by their picnic baskets and rainbow umbrellas. As the sound system blared, I experienced my usual large-crowd anxiety at what could have been an afternoon summer concert in Central Park. But it was July in Srebrenica.
The sound system was blasting announcements in Bosnian and Muslim prayers in Arabic. On the fresh green grass laid row upon longer row of 500 caskets: men waiting to finally rest after eleven years of anonymity. Women and children waited to bury their long lost friends, uncles, and nephews. Aunts, brothers, and nieces burned in the sun, as their pain burned within them, and burst out in wailing sobs. The unusual anxiety I experienced was small-Jewish-American-girl-in-a-vast-crowd-of-Bosniak-Muslims-in-mourning anxiety.
I was taught to proclaim “Never again” before I learned to locate Poland on a map. And yet before this past July, I had never heard of the massacre at Srebrenica. Eleven years ago, when I was eleven myself, about 8,000 Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) men from the town of Srebrenica were brutally castrated, starved, shot, and killed by Bosnian Serb forces in about a week. The women and children were sent away and were re-born as refugees overnight. While Srebrenica was not the only such massacre of Bosniaks in the mid-90’s, it was one of the most severe.
The process of finding and identifying the bodies of the dead Bosniaks continues today since the men were buried in mass graves, some of which were moved by the Serbs to prevent non-Serbs from finding the corpses. Looking out at the rows of caskets, my friends and I wondered about the wives who had to identify the bodies of their husbands. How would it feel to see the decaying body parts and realize that they belonged to their former lovers? Would these women finally feel closure, or would they experience inexpressible anguish, knowing that they could not continue to hope that their partners would one day miraculously return to their side?
Too far for the eye to see, thousands of Muslims bowed and bent in utterly silent unison. After prayers, the sheikh preached to the masses, and shared a gospel truth of Islam: to kill one life is to kill all of humanity and to save one life is to save all of humanity. It was as if the sheikh had been a student of my rabbis, attended my religious summer camp, was a member of my Jewish youth group, and lived in my house. I too had been taught this exact same truth, and yet at that moment it was very clear that all of humanity had not been killed, and neither had all human lives been saved.
As 500 individuals were put to rest one by one by their fellow countrymen and families, my friends and I sat on a hilltop, watching the scene unfold below. I ached to be more than a bystander. I wanted to share their umbrellas and picnic lunches. I wanted to understand their laughter and tears, and the Bosnian announcements and the Arabic prayers. I wanted to pray in the fraternal lines alongside the men. I wanted to help bury the dead and comfort the mourners. But I was a Jew, a foreigner, and a woman; and so I remained watching from the hill.
After the service, I timidly entered a warehouse that was directly across from the memorial site. Now filled with junk, this abandoned building had once served as a slaughterhouse. There, hundreds of Bosnians were murdered by Serbs. On July 11th, 1995, the warehouse was filled with awful screams and tears of terror; on July 11th, 2006 it was filled with silence. Oppressed by this silence, it was impossible to ignore the presence of death.
Death’s lingering presence had surrounded me once before: a year earlier in the gas chambers of Maidanek. In Maidanek there had been a warning, an overwhelming, overbearing stone memorial at its entrance. In Srebrenica, there was no imposing memorial statue at the building’s entrance to warn visitors of evil. The only warnings were too-real bullet holes and blood stains that splattered the walls: fresh wounds of a nation still in mourning.
Staring at the blood-stained walls, I saw myself back in the gas chambers of Maidanek, where I mourned for my great grandparents killed in nearby in Auschwitz.
Though as a Jewish American woman I remained physically separate from the picnic baskets and caskets below, it was as a Jewish American woman that I mourned from the warehouse and from the hill in Srebrenica.
I mourned with wives who still wait for their husbands, and with children who were too recently orphaned.
I mourned because bodies are still being buried, blood still stains walls, and there is no memorial to help heal the still-fresh wounds.
I mourned because I believe that killing one life is to kill all of humanity and saving one life is to save all of humanity.
I mourned because I say Never Again, but may never be able to fully live by it.
Sh’mei raba… Ponar
B’alma di-v’ra chirutei…Babi Yar
Uvchayei d’chol beit yisrael…Kovno
Ba’agala uvizman kariv…Srebrenica
V’im’ru—And let us say: “Amen.”
Yael Hammerman is a senior at Barnard and the Jewish Theological Seminary studying Sociology and the Bible.
Originally published in The Current, Fall 2006