In Bosnia, I remember, they spoke about a holocaust. I went to Bosnia to see. I felt, if it is, I must move heaven and earth.
October 21, 2014
When I was in school studying creative writing at the University of North Carolina, my obsession with the Bosnian War sprang back to life. I wrote half a dozen short stories based on accounts that I’d read and heard. I spent dozens of hours in the massive Davis Library, researching the war. I wrote down quotes and cites and made notes in my neat, small handwriting which I filed away in a tabbed three ring binder. Some of the tabs were names: “Milosevic”; “Mladic”; “Tito.” Some of the tabs were places: “Srebrenica”; “Sarajevo”; “Tuzla”. And some of the tabs were atrocities: “Rape camps”; “Siege of Sarajevo”; “Genocide at Srebrenica.”
The library research was much different than it had been when I was eight. The internet made things easier, but harder too. The amount of information we can take in quickly using the internet makes it easier to become scarred. I watched videos. In the videos were Muslim men wearing ragged, dirty clothing, lined up next to one another. And Serb soldiers walked up and down the line and shot them all in the head. One by one they fell into graves they’d dug for themselves.
Nightmares, which I’ve always been plagued with, got worse. I would wake in the middle of the night screaming and sweating, grasping at my chest, sure that I’d just been shot. I was starting to experience symptoms of post traumatic stress from a war which I’d never lived through. But I pushed on, because I wanted to tell these stories and because I felt weak and guilty. I shouldn’t be affected like this, it wasn’t my war. I was just a passerby. These weren’t my horrors to suffer from. I was just telling the story. Or trying to.
The following is one of the many stories that would follow. It was written after I’d graduated college. It was the first story I’d written about Bosnia since I graduated. When I wrote it, I thought I’d put my pen down. I thought I was done writing about war, especially this war, but as it turns out, I’m never really done.
July 9, 2012
I’m naming them now, the bones, that is. I didn’t do that before, but now I think I hear them speaking to me.
This one over here, this is Fatima. We have her femur and a couple broken pelvis bones. I estimate she was about 12 when she was killed. She suffered trauma to her pelvic region, suggesting a violent rape. Because we don’t have her skull, we don’t have dental records to identify her. We’ll have to send some DNA from the bones to the lab, which could take months, maybe years, maybe forever. For now, I call her Fatima and dust the dirt off.
This is my sixteenth summer in Bosnia. Each year I tell myself I won’t go back, that I have done enough, but there are still more bones being found, so every year, after the snow and the ice has melted in the hills, I get on a plane in Philadelphia and fly to Sarajevo, to take a bus to Tuzla to dig through the bones found around Srebrenica.
I’m working on Amir now. He was most likely in his mid to late thirties. He’s unusual because we have almost a complete skeleton and some shreds of clothing. I am proud of Amir. He will be identified quickly as long as he still has family coming here, looking for him, as long as he still has family at all. When I have him cleaned up, we will put an identification number on a yellow piece of cardstock. My assistant will write it in his big, blocky lettering and carefully attach it to the body bag. When he is done, he will create another identical tag, and we will lay out the scraps of clothing along with the Swiss army knife, the silver chain from a pocket watch, and the lighter we found around Amir. My assistant will put the tag on the top of the blanket we assemble the items on. The blanket will be in a room the size of an auditorium, and the families of the missing will walk up and down the aisles of shreds of clothing and items and tags, searching for something that sparks a memory from nearly two decades ago.
Amir was a smoker, I can tell by the state of his teeth. If we had found him sooner, we may have been able to find the brand of cigarettes he smoked, which would have led his family to him quicker. But the years have worn away the paper cartons, taking the fibers back into the earth and leaving the bones behind.
One day, the bones are going to disappear like that paper, and I will never have to come to Bosnia again. But if the bones disappear before I am done, that means I have failed, so I force myself to work faster, longer, harder. Every year there are still more bones found, but less people to tend to them. The unidentified line the catacombs of Tuzla, waiting.
The site that has brought me to Bosnia this year was found like many others. A Serbian man, who was a boy then, came to us, no longer able to bear the guilt, and led us to The Place. The Place was not much different in appearance than many places in Bosnia. It was forested and green, the trees just beginning to bud after the frost. The soil was rich and smelled wet. A tree had fallen nearby but had not yet begun to rot. The Place was just inside the forest, bordering a field which had to be swept for land mines by a canine unit before we went in. Our man’s eyes darted, and he wrung his hands while he waited for the dogs to finish their patrol, insisting that there were no mines, that these fields were farmed and that the mines had been tripped long ago, not by dogs, but by people. Still, there are codes and procedures that need to be followed. The living must always come before the bones.
When we came to The Place, he pointed to the ground and said one word, “Dig.” And so we called in the excavators and began to turn the soil. It didn’t take long for the bones to show up, this grave was shallow, and it surprised me that it took so long to find; we found the shallow ones first, years ago. I told the excavator to stop and examined the bone closely. I shook my head, tossed it aside and told the excavator to continue on. It wasn’t a human bone, but a pig bone, a common occurrence. The Serb commanders told men like our man to cover the graves with slaughtered pigs to hide the bones, which were bodies then. Our man shifted his weight and looked around and wrung his hands while the excavators began to dig again.
Eventually, we found the bones we were looking for, and when we did, we sent the excavators away and proceeded with shovels and brushes. The first thing I teach all of my assistants is that they must be respectful of the bones.
That’s where we found Amir, who would be close to fifty now, had he not been shot in the back of the head, buried in The Place and covered by stuck pigs. As I brush the dirt out of Amir’s eye sockets, I wonder if our man had killed Amir. I used to stop myself from thinking these things, but now I let the thoughts wander. I have found that if I do not let them have free reign during the day, they come back to torture me during the night.
While I prepare Amir, my assistant comes in for Fatima. He asks me if this is it, and I nod without looking away from Amir. I can hear him placing the bones in the bag. The noise of the hard calcium hitting the metal table is muffled by the body bag, so I have to strain to hear it. I know he is being gentle. The zipper slowly creeps its way up the length of the bag. It zippers smoothly, because there isn’t much to fill the bag. I’ll miss her.
My hands no longer twitch to do the sign of the cross when I hear the zipper. In this place, my religion is the enemy, so I give the bones the respect they deserve and still my habitual hands. At first it was difficult, now it isn’t.
My assistant exits almost as quietly as he came in. I like this one; he doesn’t bother me with useless questions and philosophical blather. Perhaps that’s because his English isn’t very good. He comes from Rwanda, which confuses me, because there are many bones there, but I don’t ask him why he’s here. I leave him to his thoughts, because he leaves me to mine. What’s important is that he is gentle with the bones, and he gives them something I cannot – prayer. Before he sets them on the truck to be delivered to the catacombs, he says a prayer over each one. Sometimes, I stop my work to listen to his deep voice mumbling the Muslim prayers, but not today. Today, there is too much work to be done, and I cannot break, not even for Fatima.
When I am finished with Amir, I move onto Halim. I have a skull, four ribs, a femur, assorted foot bones and both lower arm bones, though the radius is missing from one. I estimate Halim was about 13, one of the younger boys from The Place, though not younger than the youngest, my Fatima.
Years ago, when I first came to Bosnia, I asked how so many girls ended up in these graves. I was just out of medical school, and when they briefed us, they told us to expect many men and possibly boys. The women and girls had been separated out and put on buses to Tuzla, they told us. It was just the men who were left behind. But it didn’t take long for girls to start appearing in the graves. When all of the stories were sorted out, we learned that the mothers of the bones tried to disguise their girls as boys to protect them from rape. They cut their hair and smeared their faces with mud. They removed their headscarves and put them in their sons’ clothes and watched while they boarded the buses with their fathers and brothers.
Sometimes, on the way to The Place, the girls would cry or speak, and the soldiers would discover them, and they would end their days like Fatima. Other times, they stayed silent, and they would end their days like Halim, who was beaten and then shot through the temple. An example killing – held up in front of the other prisoners and executed in plain sight. He was most likely not killed at The Place, but before, to keep the Muslims in line, flocked like the sheep they used to tend.
I smile and pet Halim’s skull. What a brave boy. He must have been a fighter, or he tried to escape. The mammalian instinct to survive never ceases to amaze me. I cannot gaze on Halim for long, I have to hurry, there are many more bones to get to before the morning.
Tomorrow, the auditorium will fill up with the sound of wailing. Many will come, and some will leave clutching a yellow tag that will allow them to collect their bones from the catacomb. Mothers, wives, siblings and children will line the room, supporting grandmothers and more mothers and more siblings and wives. A few will not cry. A few will touch the things gingerly, then pick up the tag and bring it to my assistant, who will use a translator to get the story and try to match the bones.
It won’t be long now before the three day march begins, where buses carrying the bones will flood out of Tuzla and descend upon Srebrenica. Those who are able will walk over 60 kilometers. The army will follow behind as the Muslims enter the Serbian territory. Some tourists will come and some reporters, but not many, not like the first five years. Only those like me still come. Those like me, and those who have no choice.
They will say prayers and bury the bones that I have cleaned for them, whatever we have been able to give back to them. And their hatred and their screams will shake the once Bosnian, now Serbian city so that not even the bravest of the Serbs will leave their stolen homes. Some will go back to the homes that they remember their fathers building. They will go back and confront the Serbs who live there now, who eat off of their dishes and sleep in the bed they shared with their dead husbands. But most won’t. Most will just go to Srebrenica to bury their bones and then get back on the buses like they did seventeen years ago, headed for Tuzla once more.
On that day, July 11th, when the bones reach their final destination, I will sit at a Serbian bar in the center of Srebrenica and drink the sweet wine until I can’t stand up. And then I will yell at the bartender, a Serbian who is barely eighteen, who was only a baby when it happened, and I will blame him for what has happened here, in slurred Serbian fragmented with English. At first, he will tell me that he hasn’t done anything, but eventually, he will just listen to me and pour me another drink, because he really doesn’t care what I say as long as the money keeps coming. Srebrenica is a very poor city now. When I can no longer remember the language, the bartender will help me out the door and walk me as close to the buses as he dares, and I will board the bus and sit next to my assistant who doesn’t drink because he is Muslim, and I will speak more words to him than I have spoken all summer.
And the next day, I will give myself back to the bones.