My account of the Bearing Witness retreat in Bosnia Herzegowina – Mikko Iljäs

– by Mikko Iljäs, Finland –

I believe the Bosnian retreat might have been a very different one from the other retreats the Zen Peacemakers have previously organized, like the ones in Auschwitz and Rwanda. The ZP always urges us to have the courage to listen, to open our hearts and to bear witness. We are encouraged to see through our fears and preconceived notions and to try to see ourselves as others and others as ourselves. Our Buddhist practice teaches us to see and experience how the whole world and all life is interconnected in one way or another.  For this reason we cannot separate things into categories such as “right” or “wrong”. It is all a matter of perspectives and opinions and there is suffering on both sides of all arguments. This viewpoint is extremely challenging to maintain in a place like Bosnia.

During our trip we were mostly immersed in accumulating information instead of self-reflection. There was very little time for reflection and moments in silence, instead we were constantly traveling to new places and listening to the stories from all sides of the conflict. Some participants who were more familiar with the previous ZP projects seemed to feel like that this was the biggest difference.

From my own perspective, accumulating this new information was important and necessary. The Yugoslav wars and especially the war in Bosnia was a very complex event and it is difficult to grasp. At first I thought it was a very simple thing. I thought that it was only the Bosnian Orthodox Serbs who inflicted a horrible genocide on the other Bosnian ethnic groups, especially the Muslim Bosniaks. As the information accumulated during the retreat, I became much more aware of the sufferings of the so called “perpetrators”. On our last day in Sarajevo we payed a visit to a center in Eastern Sarajevo that still houses the remains of the c. 250 Bosnian Serb civilians who were brutally killed and thrown in to mass graves. It has been extremely difficult for the Bosnian Serbs to get DNA test results from the international communities, since they had lost the war and it was them who are been sentenced The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in Den Haag, Holland. But although the numbers on their sides were minuscule compared to the several thousands of Bosniak casualties, it doesn’t matter. All casualties are someone’s father, mother, child or some other dear member of a family. All pain should be treated equal, and people need to be understood, helpeed, discussions, resolutions, reconciliations, and eventually peace.

Remains of the Serb victim

The most moving experiences for myself were the personal accounts by the local Peacebuilders who had been children during the war. Especially the story of Hasan Hasanović who survived the Muslim genocide in Srebrenica, made a very big impression on me.

 

Srebrenica was a small town with only 5,000 citizens. The raging war brought about 50,000 Muslim refugees into the town. The Bosnian Serb military sieged the town from its surrounding hills for almost four years turning it into a modern day concentration camp. The UN peacekeepers arrived in 1993 and declared Srebrenica as the first UN safe area.

 

The valley of Srebrenica

 

In July 1995 the UN ultimatum failed when the NATO decided not to make the demanded airstrikes. The Serb military invaded the town on July 7. lead by its commander Ratko Mladić and the massacre began with UN Dutchbat standing helplessly. Hasan Hasanović was only 19 years old when he and about 10,000 men fled the sieged city of Srebrenica. On their 100 kilometer trek to Bosniak territory he bore witness to the killings of thousands of his fellow escapers including his uncle and father.

 

The Srebrenica memorial site is huge. There are still plenty of unidentified remains found from the mass graves. The identified victims are buried here every July

 

 

 

 

About 25,000 refugees from Srebrenica sought refuge from Potocari compound held by the UN Dutch forces. After two days the UN gave in and ultimately assisted the Serb army to separate women and kids from the men and boys. The women and small kids were transported, but the c. 9,000 men and boys (over 12-14 years of age) were left to the hands of the Serb military. Not many of them survived.

 

Hasan Hasanović is again living in Srebrenica and works as a curator at the Srebrenica Memorial Center.

 

Belgian zen teacher Frank De Waele roshi discusses with one of the retreats’ spirit holders Vahidin Omanovic from the Center of Peacebuilding (CIM) in front of the battery plant that was used as an UN headquarters in Potocari, where the Srebrenica massacre really began. Survivor Hasan Hasanovic on the right side of the image

Many of the young Peacebuilders had lived through the four year siege of Sarajevo as small kids. The whole city was cut off from communications, electricity, water, food and access to the outside world. There was no way in or out. About 70% of the buildings were destroyed, 11,000 people were killed and over 50,000 wounded.

Sarajevo
Buildings with sniper marks are still everywhere you go. The marks are always next to windows, since their targets were the ordinary civilian citizens in their homes
The Tunnel of Hope

During the siege, the people of Sarajevo built a tunnel, that was half a mile long and a bit over five feet high. This was their only access to the outside world. It was used to transport mail, food, guns and people. This cramped and dangerous tunnel was extremely necessary for the survival of the people of Sarajevo.

The president of the Serb republic Radovan Karadžić wished to eradicate the Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) of the whole country. However, there were plenty of other ethic groups living inside the sieged city. They all suffered equally.

The country is still governed according to the Dayton peace treaty, which acknowledges the three major ethnic groups; Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs and the Catholic Croats. The country isn’t even fully independent. It is governed by international community through UN. The Dayton treaty is used as a foundation for the Bosnian constitution. It is problematic as it excludes all the individuals who have mixed ethnic backgrounds, and also the Roma people.

The county is still divided into two equally big constitutional entities: Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and a separate autonomous entity with Serb majority known as the Republic Srpska, which has its own president. Interestingly enough, the Republika Srpska does not want to be a part of Serbia, but somehow still dreams of one day becoming an independent country. At the same time, it probably benefits from its current role as a symbiotic state within Bosnia.

Interfaith Sarajevo

Our Bosnian multi-ethnic and interfaith Peacebuilder hosts felt that the fact that their country is divided into separate autonomous areas is a problem. However, they did not feel that there is an active threat for another war, but tensions were evident. The police couldn’t guarantee our safety in Srebrenica for many days, so we had to change our schedule a bit only a bit before our trip. The population lives peacefully in diverse culture, but I got the impression it is the politicians and their own interests that makes the peace a bit more complex.

 

 

The young peace builders of CIM

 

Personally for myself the experience of bearing witness to an interfaith and multiethnic society with majority of Slavic Muslims was the most important one. Our western world is currently demonizing the whole Islamic culture and it felt important to make long lasting personal relationships with the Muslim community.

 

 

 

I feel honored to consider the Peacebuilders of Bosnia as my friends. Especially their founders Vahidin Omanovic and Mevludin Rahmanovic (both Muslim Imams) made a huge impression on me and I am proud to have had this chance to learn from both of them.

CIM leaders imam Mevludin Rahmanović and imam Vahidin Omanovic with their peace ambassador Elma Softic-Kaunitz who is a peace activist and the leader of the Bosnian Jewish community

The emotions that arose from this experience are complex. There wasn’t enough time to let the massive amounts of information to seep in and bear witness to it. I guess I can call this experience as a plunge in to the ethnic conflict and war in Bosnia. For now, I have to bear witness to the emotions that are arising on my own and see what comes up. It is still too early what that might be and what actions I might take because of it.

The initial sense that I got, was the frustration of the fact that the international community did nothing while these atrocities happened. Especially it felt impossible to comprehend how the genocide in Srebrenica happened within UN Safe Area. How it is possible that UN let almost 9,000 muslim men and boys being massacred under their noses in few days in July 1995?

Srebrenican genocide memorial at the front of Potocari compound

The saddest part of this all is that the same thing happens now in several other countries like Syria. After this experience I am not so sure if international intervention makes situations better or worse. The conflicts are very complex and there are always victims on both sides. Everyone is affected. Fighting violence with violence is not necessarily a wise move.

The young and inspiring members of the Center for Peacebuilding gives me a lot of hope. They are all traumatized by the war, but they still look hopefully into a peaceful future. They do not necessarily believe another war is possible, and they will do everything they can to prevent it by actively building peace by interaction with all sides of the conflict. They also wish that the Bosnian government would one day start a reconciliation project to serve the people of Bosnia who all suffered tremendously. So far, this is not happening, but luckily there are organizations such as CIM with amazing people working for peace with all their heart.

May we always have the courage to bear witness, to see ourselves as other and to see other as ourselves.

-Bernie Glassman, founder of the Zen Peacemakers

Center for Peacebuilding

Survivor story by Hasan Hasanović

Center for Council

Zen Peacemakers International

Zen Peacemakers Europe

Inshallah (if God wills, as the Bosnian Muslims say)

 

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