Fragments of a City, Remains of a Day

Ozlem Ezer

Fragments from a woman’s memory
Fragments from a broken people who hurt.
Tears which heal, tears which bond
Tears as antidotes for poison of hatred.

In the first week of May 2015, Sarajevo hosted an unusual mix of locals and foreigners. Although most participants (myself included) could not help to refer to it as conference out of habit or practicality, this gathering was not a conference. It was an initiative, a dialogue among international agents, activists, academics, peace negotiators, and officials of religious affairs and artists. Respecting confidentiality, I will not identify by name the attendees or donors of the event, the exception being our incredible host, Sabiha Husic.

I will retell the story of my week in Sarajevo as if it were a dream. The venues for the cross-cultural dialogue were Sarajevo, Srebrenica and Zenica. Traveling along the roads connecting these cities, all you could see were green, and then more green, daisies, villagers and then more daisies….

Once upon a time, there was a pretty white house atop a hill, named La Casa de la Paz, or, the House of Peace. It faced the Pacific Ocean because the breeze from the ocean has magical, cathartic qualities that help women peacemakers from around the world tell their stories of war and peace.

These peacemakers told their stories to designated women writers, called “peace writers,” for three months. Although this was a time for rest and reflection, the peacemakers’ minds and hearts might not have been as restful as the creators of this program had hoped. It is fine. There is no cost to participate; everything has been provided.

Just tell me your story and let me be your mouth-piece, or mouth-peace, in English. I wish we could communicate in your mother tongue but still…

Some of the women (Pakistani, Afghan, Kosovar, Serb, Bosnian) hosted at La Casa de La Paz are now among us this week in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is a special occasion for many of us. Sarajevo is still in the process of healing.

Not many people laugh but most smoke, even indoors. Some women who suffered sexual violence and torture during the war, who lost many loved ones, are around us, enjoying the food and chatting, telling us over and over again that they are not victims, but survivors. Life goes on, and their stories need to be heard and shared. They do not want to be forgotten. Stories can be quickly buried when they are not recorded or retold.

Srebrenica: A senior forensic anthropologist and the head of the Identification Coordination Division discuss how the remains of human bodies and bones are treated, recorded, and finally, buried.

We enter in a cold, gray and malodorous depot. The shelves are filled with body bags holding remains of the dead. Many people take pictures, an obsessive and now easy habit of recording images of everything they lay their eyes on. Unfortunately, they cannot capture the smell. When are they going to discover a way to capture the scents of places and people? Soon, I hope. Then all archives will be less fragmented, and closer to “the real thing.”

Thousands of white tombstones in Srebrenica lay around us like white caps of brown and green waves sprawling from the ground. Women rush to cover their hair—no use, no need. The dead don’t care. God doesn’t care. The respect should have been due to the now dead Bosnians perhaps when they were alive or just before they were killed. Covering my hair won’t bring any atonement. A young and beautiful refugee from Syria begins to curse the UN. She tells me the story of a UN soldier she recently met in Sweden who had been on duty in Srebrenica during the siege and who told her about his never-ending despair and nightmares.

In the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial Center, there is a documentary on display for the visitors. A few representatives of “The mothers of Srebrenica” sit next to me. After 10 minutes or so, as the story in the documentary begins to unfold, one of them becomes restless and upset. I can tell that she is uncomfortable. She leaves the auditorium, and is followed by three others, including our moderator. The mother is dressed in white from head to toe. Her face is as white as her scarf and her light blue eyes cannot take the sounds and the images from the giant screen anymore. I follow them as well. I, too, cannot take it anymore.

From one perspective, it can be said that I am the one among the group who was the weakest. Poetically speaking, I was the Cassandra, in the sense that I knew that the severe images (taken from real footage) would escalate and calamities would follow. There is no spoiler in this story: What followed the siege of Srebrenica, one of the most atrocious events in recent history, was a Bosnian tragedy, not a Greek one. None of the elements of Greek tragedy (hubris, tragic error) are applicable here, except for perhaps dramatic irony.

I talk to one of our translators who chose to remain outside during the viewing of the documentary. She is in her early twenties, and tells me how challenging it is for the Bosnians to visit the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial and Cemetery for the Victims of the 1995 Genocide. It does not matter how many times one comes, one cannot be desensitized, it is impossible. She lights a cigarette and I talk about my diary entries from when the news of the massacre had arrived in the Turkish media. A younger shadow of myself glances at me, the college student whose rage could not be subsided by heavy metal or grunge sounds. I tell the translator why I had to leave the documentary mid-way, and wonder out loud whether it is healthy to have the mothers watch the documentary with us, the international dialogue group. She says it is about recognition and remembering. They want the whole world to see and not to forget. No hatred but no amnesia, either.

What if the white caps in the massive graveyard decide to overturn one day? What if the souls of the white caps have cursed us already? One of the Bosnian NGO directors told us in a very bitter voice that she is not going to forgive us unless we share these stories with the rest of the world and remind people what happened here. I felt that she cursed us too, all humans who were not there when things happened. She does not care that the crowd who gathered there with her, our crowd, are among the last ones who deserve to be cursed. Yet, here we are, witnessing and sharing the shame of humanity. She has every right to curse us. What was the motive behind my mentioning the passages from my diary to the young Bosnian translator, who was only a child at the time? She was just five years old, and her parents kept everything from her so that she grew up sane.

The Day in Medica Zenica with Sabiha Husic, the founder: Medica Zenica is a 20 year old non-governmental organisation (NGO) that has been offering psycho-social and medical support to women and children victims of war. The post war violence, including survivors of war rapes and other forms of torture, sexual violence in general, as well as victims of trafficking in human beings are incorporated in its agenda.

Sabiha Husic’s story is a story of strength and hope. One of her strongest motives is the hope that each human being has an unbroken, healthy part within them. It is that part that needs nurturing and to be focused: “I was like every human being, made up of both good and bad ingredients. I was a child with many questions about Islam and God. As a 6 year-old girl, I asked my mother about gender inequality, but her answers were never satisfactory. That is why I went to religious school (medrese) despite my parents. In my second year of university (Department of Theology), the war broke out. It was shocking, nobody expected it. I refused to be a victim from Day 1 at the refugee camp and began to organize the women. When I found out about Medica Zenica, I thought, that is exactly what I want to do. We did not know about what an NGO was or other fancy terms back then. It was my call, it was instinctual that I became a peace-maker.”

These final words and their various versions, we heard over and over again during the panel with women peacemakers. For the reasons which I am not going to discuss now, this tone of genuine modesty is very common among most women activists. Almost all the women (Jewish, Christian, Muslim) from various backgrounds told us that they are not really sure why they were invited here, that what they were doing was simply natural and necessary. Some were almost apologetic about sharing the panel with the others whose stories and achievements they consider more highly than their own.

Although it was disappointing to hear that the progress on women’s rights in Bosnia was very slow and that the laws and regulations mostly remained on paper, and that extremism is on the rise (with the financial help of Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia), at the end of the day, I consider meeting these women peace activists in person was one of the most empowering experiences I have had in recent years. Although they are frustrated, they still manage to gather energy from transforming the lives of the women and girls they help. They know how to create ways of knowing, how to provide safe spaces, thus converting the Kafkaesque system they function. Each of their stories would make a book of its own and being the person that I am, I wish I had the funds to hire biography writers and initiate a whole series of books on peace & women’s life-writing, an all-inclusive genre of non-fiction regarding all genres related to Life, including the blogs.

The courtyard of Medica Zenica: Local musicians welcome us after a long day. The courtyard of the NGO is prepared for us. Plastic chairs and the simplicity of the place remind me of Cyprus. The songs are sung and guess who among our dialogue group can understand the lyrics, sing along and cry? Bosnian, Serb, Kosovar… Ironies and the bonds. The halay folk dance begins, everybody holds on to one another by the hand and tries to imitate the ones who really know the steps. I look at the growing circle and hear the laughter: the only American male in the group, a tall, blond former white supremacist doing his best (bare foot!) dancing together with a British-Pakistani woman who was formerly member of a terrorist organization (now a peace activist). She comes back, happy and sweaty, and says half-jokingly: “Don’t tell my husband!” Survivors of wars, rape, domestic violence, the Christian mother of a young British convert to Islam, who is now serving a lengthy prison term because he was caught before executing a terrorist attack, are also dancing in the courtyard. The Kurdish peace activist, who was once engaged in a well-known extremist group, whose entry to the country of his origin is still banned today, was among the first who joined the circle of amateur dancers. After all, the melodies and the rhythm are so familiar to him. Musicians, how much I envy you, you bond people who cannot speak one another’s language so quickly and warmly, unlike us, the writers. The Finnish and Norwegian peace activists stay aloof, watching the scene, smiling. Who knows what they have been thinking, being voluntarily removed from their comfort zone, hanging out with “former criminals” in Bosnia? The healthy, unbroken part that Sabiha mentioned in her story definitely relates to them. Young people who grew up in the relatively small and peaceful countries where women can freely camp out in the forests or run their own organic farms also want to be connected to trouble-zones and the troublemakers in order to trigger the healthy, unbroken fragment across the world.

After enjoying the day-long hospitality, local food, and story-sharing, we thanked and bid farewell to the host organizers and got on the bus which took us back to Sarajevo. Everybody was so moved with the events and the people of the day. I have been troubled by the memories of other women, the process of internalizing them, and the question of how taking agency becomes a possibility after the war.

As the more images flew by from my window seat, I was thinking of Jasmila Zbanic’s “Images from the Corner.” Zbanic is a feminist Bosnian documentary film-maker who chose to narrate the story of Bilja, a Bosnian woman who was 20 years old in 1992, without the visual images of the narrative. Bilja was shot at and wounded in front of her apartment building and lost her arm as a result. A French photographer took her pictures while she was bleeding and needed help desperately. He did not assist her, but photographed her instead and became famous for the photograph. Jasmila Zbanic’s film follows the search for Bilja and reconstructs the time when news became more important than life. I wondered if her work played any role in the fact that I have not taken any pictures during the day, hardly any during the entire 4-day event. When we arrived at the hotel, nobody went upstairs to enjoy the view of the roof-bar. Hardly anyone spoke. The all-white and clean linen of our hotel-bed or the individual other worlds (virtual spaces of familial and collegial connections which can be established by a click) offered temporary comfort zones to all the participants, who probably had nothing more to say after being exposed collectively to the body bags, bones and tombs of the dead, the tears and facial expressions of Mothers of the lost and murdered families. All happened just 20 years ago and is happening right now in Syria, our neighbor, and in other parts of the world.

The horrors of the war left permanent marks on the people and the cities of Bosnia. The feeling of identity among people living in Bosnia is connected to their religion and nationality. Fear is present. It will be a long journey until trust returns.

These were some of the fragments of my memory. My sincere gratitude goes to Inci A. (editing) and Bjørn M.J. Ihler (images) to make this blog entry more meaningful and complete. The rest (as Hamlet says) is silence for now.

11 July 2015: Many columnists in Turkey wrote essays and commentaries after their visit to Srebrenica.
The following one has very vivid descriptions: