Back in the USSR (Day 15)

18Jul08
Thursday, July 10, 2008.

I’m convinced I have the plague.

We say goodbye to Vahidin as we board the bus for Srebrenica. Almost immediately, my head begins to hurt. Soon I’m sleeping fitfully and coughing fits rack my chest. I wake up shivering, even though it’s about 90 degrees out.

When we arrive in Srebrenica, I feel like I’m dying – my entire body aches, my throat is raw, my head is pounding, and I’ve officially got a fever. Lunch consisting of one scoop of strawberry gelato doesn’t help much. Neither does hiking up a hill to some therapeutic spring (which turned out to be a creek bed stained red by iron deposits).

When we get to our host’s house, I barely have the energy to realize that I’m getting ready to attend a genocide memorial. We have a huge homemade dinner and the food really helps. My head and throat still hurt, but I think my fever’s gone.

After dinner, Miki walks us to the burial ground and memorial center where tomorrow’s ceremony will be held. They have already started laying the bodies out for tomorrow – the shrouded bones sit on wooden slats with nylon covers. As each new truckload arrives, every man willing lines up to pass the bodies. They are placed on the grass with such sad precision and covered women weep gently, some violently, as their sons, husbands, and brothers are laid out for mourning.

It is such a somber evening that even the bugs in the field aren’t biting. The sun continues to sink and the evening gets cooler as more and more bodies arrive. All told, there will be 305 men buried tomorrow. Each body is numbered, and 305 bodies take up an enormous amount of space. The emotional atmosphere of the field in indescribable.

We walk up the hill behind the ceremonial, open-air mosque to get a panoramic view of the field. The entire north end is lined with white, marble headstones. Even though they stretch as far as I can see, so far there have only been around 1,725 men buried here. Tomorrow’s 305 will being the total to just over 2,000 and already they’re running out of room. The official tally of deaths in Srebrenica between July 10 and 14, 1995 is 8,372. That leaves about 6,000 bodies yet to be found, identified, and buried and perhaps only an acre left in which to bury them. (The ample farmland next to the memorial site of course has enough room to bury the remainder. It is also, of course, owned by a Serb who refuses to sell.)

The sun sets as the last of the bodies is placed in line. This evening’s call to prayer, normally a very comforting chant, sends chills down my spine and, despite my best efforts to maintain emotional control, forces me to breakdown and cry. To the northeast, just over the hills, I can see Serbia and I’m shocked by the bitterness and intolerance I’m capable of feeling towards a people who have had no personal impact on my life. I cry a little harder and wonder how it’s possible for humans to treat each other so cruelly.

By now, I’ve forgotten how sick I feel and instead I’m only conscious of just how exhausted I am. We walk about a kilometer back to our host’s house and the mood is one of general weariness. We are all emotionally, spiritually, and physically exhausted. And tomorrow is going to be a long, hot day.

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