What you need to know
Though confronted with the depth of human depravity, I never felt true desperation during my time in Bosnia. It is the wanton destruction in Ukraine that is impossible to stomach.
This essay speaks of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
I lived in Sarajevo for close to two years and worked as a Human Rights Officer for the UN Peacekeeping Mission, four years after the ended the Bosnian War. My colleagues and I worked out of the Sarajevo Regional Office and covered the area from the capital to its Eastern border. The furthest office was in Višegrad, made famous at least twice: once by the Nobel Literature Prize winner, for The Bridge on the Drina set in the town, and then again at the start of the brutal Bosnian War, when the Drina River ran red.
Once, in 2000, at the end of a meeting with the UN and local police in Višegrad to go over arrangements for Muslim returnees, my colleagues and I went for a meal overlooking the Drina. Sunny. Beautiful with the sounds of the rolling water. Someone asked me, in a voice so soft but direct that I think I was the only one who heard it over the boisterous chatter, if I had known there were so many of Muslim civilians — men, women, and children — around the town that their bodies were dumped into the river. The river bled for days.
Yes, I read about it. I know.
You didn’t see it - pictures of it?
No, I didn’t see it.
In truth, I didn’t have to see pictures of it. Are there even pictures of those days of massacre? The images were already so horrifying in my head that, to this day, I am unable to finish Andrić’s novel. It’s as if my head auto-steers, preventing me from investing too much in the characters. I know how the story will end, the way that Andrić couldn’t possibly have foreseen, with the Drina that runs through it.
Sarajevo, for me, is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It sits in a valley, surrounded by hills. My favorite way to get to work was to take the hill road. In the morning, sometimes I got to see Sarajevo as it was just waking up, with the sun emerging on a settling fog, casting its light on the cross-cultural structures poking out of the mist. I loved the part of the drive where I could see the National Library, the Cathedral and the Synagogue in quick succession, as if they were friends looking up from chatting and bidding me a good morning.
The devastation of Sarajevo was so great during its because the city was so open, trusting and defenseless – like a child. From the hillside, I could look into windows if I wanted to. But one was taught and constantly reminded not to linger on the roads, not to ever walk off, not to ever drive off-road.
Simple three-point turns became almost comical because we would manoeuvre our giant beasts of white sports utility vehicles, courtesy of the Japanese government, in multiple turns, nudging it forward and back, only inches at a time on the tarmac. One would laugh at the scene if it weren’t so serious – not to accidentally set off a landmine.
Mines. Easy to plant, . The roads were cleared but the same guarantees then didn’t extend to any bit off the roads. Don’t ever go off the road was so drummed into me that, even well after leaving Bosnia and landing in cushy Boston for graduate school in 2001, I intuitively avoided walking on grass for many months. My first winter in Boston, with snow so deep that it came to my waist, an irrational fear bubbled, “How would I know where the grass began?” Tarmac was my friend.
Hell Hath no Fury
I once started a talk on restorative justice with the familiar adage, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” My comment on it was simple. William Congreve, when he wrote this in 1697, had clearly not met a mother who had lost her child and was in the middle of grieving and seeking justice. I was talking about the , who have for the last three decades looked for answers about their killed loved ones in Beijing, June 1989.
In 2007, ten women whose male relatives were killed in and Mothers of Srebrenica, a Dutch association representing some 6,000 survivors, brought a in the Netherlands against the State of the Netherlands and the UN. In 1995, Bosnian Serb forces under General Mladic overran Srebrenica, then a designated UN safe haven and guarded by a small contingent of .
Muslim men and boys were separated from the women and brutally executed. About 8,000 to 10,000 men and boys . Once, I told my husband so he could file it away for future reference, if we were ever in a situation where men are separated from the women, if our family is cleaved in two, then we cannot accept and hope for the best. Run. Hide. Keep our children safe. Nothing good ever comes out of the men being forcefully separated from the women.
Scary stuff from Bosnia, he asked?
A short documentary had just been on about in Bosnia, many years after the war, still finding and piecing together human remains – painstakingly retracing the existence of the person to that one moment, when he was still whole. When his family was still whole and couldn’t possibly have foreseen, the furious brutality that could run through people.
Open Olfactory Question
Around the time I was in Bosnia, there was a special corps of investigators criss-crossing the country, looking for evidence and testimonies for war crime prosecutions. They worked for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the first of its kind to be established by the UN Security Council since the Nuremberg and Tokyo Tribunals. ICTY investigators had a separate from international peacekeeping, but our broken worlds sometimes intertwined.
Once on a field visit, my international police colleague asked if we could quickly swing by a recently unearthed mass grave, to do a spot check that it was properly guarded before international investigators arrived. The idea filled me with fright, but then the heavens opened and poured.
“Looks like we don’t have time to stop,” my colleague said as the muddied roads slowed down everything. I nodded, secretly relieved, except he did forewarn me that sometimes the smell could be worse than the visual cues. And now I have an open olfactory question in a forgotten corner of my mind, lying dormant except when awakened. What is this nasal imprint of past atrocities, in the rain, mixed with the smell of mud?
De-Mining the Human Heart
Reports are now emerging of rape as a weapon of war in Ukraine. Bodies of women half burnt, naked and left in the open. The indignity upon many, piled upon assaults and a reign of Russian terror. The Guardian that “women and girls have come forward to tell… of…[g]ang-rapes, assaults taking place at gunpoint, and rapes committed in front of children are among the grim testimonies collected by investigators.”
The same article cited Sasha Kantser of the Lviv Feminist Workshop, an organization that has helped displaced women and girls since the war broke out on February 24, 2022: “When a woman gets away it looks like she’s safe, she’s far away from the guns and the man who raped her…But the trauma is a bomb inside her, that follows her. The scale of what is happening now is heartbreaking.”
I should have known better than to hope that such deliberate mining of women’s heart through sexual assaults would not also take place in Ukraine. No one sane would want more towns to go the way of Foča, a place infamous for wartime sexual violence and whose name is synonymous with a landmark judgement at the ICTY that broadened the scope of the crime against humanity of enslavement to include sexual enslavement.
The trial began in March 2000 and contains twenty witness testimonies of women who bravely spoke of the unimaginable and depraved harms they suffered. They spoke of being forcibly held in various localities around the town, where they were raped or gang-raped by Bosnian Serb soldiers. They were taken to hotels and private apartments, sometimes sold and traded. Soldiers who they wanted. Many had to clean and cook amid the routine of sexual assault and violence.
The youngest victim was twelve years old, a child forcibly separated from her mother on a bus in 1992. Reading the materials on the “” (The Prosecutor v. Dragoljub Kunarac, Radomir Kovač and Zoran Vuković), details of the girl would appear in different testimonies, like raindrops. One could sense the investigators trying to piece together her movements and, metaphorically, return her to her mother, who stood in front of the bus and for her child. The investigators know where the child was last seen and then never again.
World Made Broken
Perhaps it is odd to say, but I never felt true desperation during my time in Bosnia. Not even when we visited places like Foča, Visegrad, Pale, or Prijedor and without any illusion about the depth of human depravity. Not even reading sitreps (situation reports) that spoke of mining accidents of a footstep too far or houses laden with booby-traps.
Hope is a strange thing, and I believed in the project of a world made new. The of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognized that “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind,” and then called for “the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.”
Every day, mines were being found and removed. Displaced families may return. Another café opened. Life and normality started to fill in the many thousand cracks. Once, while waiting for the light to change in Sarajevan traffic, I saw a father on the sidewalks, pushing his daughter on a bike with training wheels and flying a small replica of the new Bosnian flag, blue and yellow. They were laughing.
It is the reverse, the wanton destruction, the one-way tour of atrocities that is impossible to stomach. Text messages with humanitarian colleagues are punctured with pithy lines and broken hearts. A former student wrote of Srebrenica, and I don’t know what to say or if it is of any use to point out the long road of rebuilding.
To make whole again of places and people will be more difficult the longer this war continues. A Chinese proverb captures this for me: The longer the night, the more frequent the dreams (nightmares) [夜長夢多]. In early April, the Red Cross came out and said the organization has to describe the horrors at Mariupol.
Long, Boring Love
When I left Bosnia for graduate studies, my good Sarajevan friend Nedim sent me off with a strange wish. He wished me “a long, boring love.” I thought he was joking. He would deliver his jokes in a completely understated tone, and I wouldn’t know if he was being serious or mischievous. He has his own grand love story spanning across the globe, as he and his wife sought refuge continents away from Sarajevo and then returned to rebuild the country. He said it was what I deserved.
It has taken me a while, but as I watch the news now, it is his words that come to my mind. His beautiful wife sends me photos of Sarajevo in springtime to remind me what could grow again. It is true. I want families to have a long, boring love, where toddlers’ stubby little feet make cute imprints on the grass, where children can chase after footballs and butterflies without care, where the only smell of fire is one of summer BBQs, where the only drama is the hectic, social lives of young adults and not the gut-wrenching wails of staying alive. Where we can almost take each other for granted — the constancy of each other and of the homes we have built.
So we go forth, lands and hearts to de-mine, and try to reach the point in time when we were still whole. And we try, together, to leave the layers of hell behind.
The author is grateful for conversations with Family Sarač and J.L. that helped to bring this essay to life.