On Feb. 22, I visited the Brčko District of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Don’t ask me to explain all of the administrative, political, geopolitical, ethnic, and religious divisions within BiH—it’ll make your head spin, even if I get it half right. Starting with the most recent of the country’s dark history is the three-and-a-half year Balkan War that ended in December 1995. It was a war that left communities traumatized until today, and wondering whether it brought anything but pain for everyone.
Vive Žene, a torture treatment center based in the Bosnian city of Tuzla, took us to visit a partner organization in Brčko. While there, we also visited the Association of Bosniak Concentration Camp Survivors in Brčko District. A more specific mission I can’t imagine.
The president of the association spoke with an intensity I’ve seen only in people who have been in face-to-face battles around the world. Looking into his clear blue eyes as he spoke of his two years in concentration camps in Brčko, never breaking eye contact, I felt as though I might learn something important about life if I didn’t look away, that I might live differently from that moment on.
But I had to look away. I had stopped breathing.
After lunch we went out to the restaurant’s patio overlooking the Sava River and into Croatia. The mood was light as we took a group photo with “Flat Stanley,” a common U.S. classroom activity that encourages children to learn about the world. Colored brightly with crayons, the drawing of a little girl mounted on cardboard was front and center for our photographic occasion.
As I tucked the figure back into a padded shipping envelope, the president of the association pointed to two hangars on the right across the street. I had been expecting a more unremarkable lesson in history, not the description of a nearby concentration camp where he had been held. Not the details of how many people entered through those doors over the course of one short month. Not the shocking number of those who didn’t leave alive.
While walking to the office, he pointed to buildings we passed and described the horrors that had occurred there. An organization operated entirely by volunteers and their own contributions, they work in a modest room with minimal resources. Nonetheless, they’ve managed to make their voices heard. He and three others have provided testimonies at The Hague to prosecute some of those who organized and conducted the nearly 1,000 killings of mostly men and boys in that community alone. They continue to document evidence as more perpetrators are arrested and held accountable for their crimes.
Two walls were nearly covered with pictures of people who had survived the camps. Their faces had the solemn gazes of people who have been to hell and back. Another line of photos sequenced a Bosniak man being shot in the back and head multiple times, hunted like an animal on the street. The shooter eventually received a prison sentence, the length of which satisfies no one who seeks justice for those he killed.
In the corner of the room were pictures of a mass grave being unearthed by a front-end loader, the kind of tractor we used on the farm to clear snow from the road. Bodies on top of bodies, limbs lifelessly splayed this way and that, dressed in the clothes they wore on their final day. I’m told that the exhumation of mass graves is done with care for the integrity of the bodies they uncover. But the killers were not so kind, moving mass graves from one site to another, hoping they would never be found.
I remembered as a child how my father would ask me to dig for earthworms for fishing bait. It was gross. I would pull the worms from the dirt, stretching them longer and longer until they were loose. Inevitably, as I dug through a patch of moist earth, I would slice worms in half with the spade. Worms survive when cut in two. People do not.
That’s all I could think about. That’s still all I can think about.
He showed photograph after photograph of those who are believed to be responsible for the planning and the executions. Some still live in the community. Like the buildings, seeing them is a daily reminder of what was lost. And a daily doubt about what was gained.
In a place that has experienced so many wars, people are at times resigned to the idea that war will continue at regular intervals. Each year that passes without a war, some think the odds for the following year increase. Criminal tribunals continue with no real end in sight. Mass graves are still being discovered. Politicians appear incapable of establishing sincere dialogue. People feel stuck. They enjoy their wines and breads and cheeses, but a deep sadness flickers across their faces at the mere mention of war. It has been only 16 years.
And so, coal smoke rolls by, steam rises from a cup of tea, and people live. One day, just one day at a time.