Back in the USSR (Day 16)

Friday, July 11, 2008.

Fifty-thousand people walking in one direction creates quite a scene. Women are dressed in traditional dresses with simple hijabs and men wear trousers and shirts. Despite the fact that this is one of the most important and religious ceremonies many of these people will ever attend, this is also Bosnia, and the dress code is considerably lax. I see exposed ankles (and toes) and most men and some women abide by the weather and wear short sleeves instead of the more traditional long sleeves.

The ceremonial mosque at Srebrenica is an oddity in global Islam: it is one of the only mosques that allows men and women to pray together; and it is one of the only mosques whose only function is to perform the funeral prayer. The bodies with their green tarps are laid out perfectly in the southwest corner of the field, their families gathered next to them, facing east towards Mecca.

The noon prayer is followed by the funeral prayer and the participants move, almost as one, prostrating themselves in mourning. It’s like a wave, or like seaweed being moved by the surf; 50,000 bodies bend first at the waist, then the knees, until they are all still with their hands and heads against the grass.

It’s impossible to understand the ceremony, as it’s done in Arabic, but I’ve been to enough funerals to get the gist. It’s interesting though, because towards the end, the Grand Mufti asks the families and observers if they have any grievances with the dead to forgive them so that they may be buried in peace.

The names of the dead are read as the male family members lift each body to be carried to its grave. It’s hard to believe that, with 8,372 men and boys executed, there are any remaining male family members left to do the carrying. Each body is carried through the field, weaving in and out of headstones until the body’s family finds its grave. It takes quite a while for any of the bodies to reach the graves in front of us. When they do, I’m surprised to see them being passed hand-over-hand above my head. I know better than to try to help pass them; these are men being buried, therefore only men can carry them.

There are at least two dozen graves in front of me and soon their respective bodies are laid to their eternal rest. There are several shovels per grave and any man willing can help with the burial. Nic and York take turns helping one family bury their father or brother. Women weep as their husbands are finally given a proper burial. Some women faint, others just shake. Most of these people have been waiting 13 years to lay these men to rest and this ceremony is quite a beautiful way to do that.

It is absurdly impossible to even try to capture the mood and scene of this 11th Annual Memorial Commemoration Ceremony. I expected to cry, but I’m not sure why – I’ve never cried at a funeral before. I was moved, certainly, and profoundly aware of the communal grief moving around me.

If there is one place in Bosnia where the war is still present, it’s here in this tiny rural village. From the hillside where I watched the ceremony, The Republic of Serbia is visible, no more than 20 kilometers to the north. Theoretically cleansed of its Bosniak population, Srebrenica was incorporated into Republika Srpska during the Dayton Peace talks. The RS can and does (though I doubt its legality very much) turn off the water supply and cell phone infrastructure during this weekend. (Our hostess has her own water tank, so we are not affected by the water shut off. However, cell phone coverage has been shifted from the Bosnian network to the Serbian network, meaning that locals must pay international rates to call their neighbors and family.) How this can possibly be legal, I have no idea. And anyway, it’s never been contested. And despite the fact that significantly more Bosnians than Serbs were killed here, the Serbs stage their own commemoration each year, here in Srebrenica, to memorialize the supposed 800 Serbs that were killed here in the days leading up to July 10, 1995.

I realize that there are always two (or more) sides to a story. But considering the amount and style of propaganda coming out of Serbia during the war, I am significantly distrustful of anything they represent as fact. Most Serbs are still denying that Srebrenica even happened; or at least advertising the number dead as only around 2,000 or 2,500.

Almost all the concentration camps used between 1992 and 1995 were located in what is now the Republika Srpska. Conveniently, the RS is working to turn the camps back into their original function – as factories and farms. Any attempt to memorialize or remember what happened in Bosnia is rejected or denied completely. There is no sense of a shared history or common experience. And the identity of Bosnia as a tolerant, love thy neighbor environment has been completely destroyed.


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