Bearing Witness retreat Bosnia and Herzegovina 2017
– by Evi Ketterer –
Monday, May 22, 2017, Affoltern am Albis, Switzerland
In my job as a Palliative Care nurse, I was so challenged before the retreat, I could not read anything about real-life death experiences. But I chose to read the novel The Derwish and the Death by Meša Selimović. My intention was simply to learn what was the process that led to the war in this country. The story was told through the experience of a Derwish in the 18th century. What I encountered was the war in a person that leads to war in each society, written in a beautiful language – and that person is also me. This was my first act of Bearing Witness to this conflict and it was a shock.
I was in my early 20th, when the siege at Sarajevo took place. I did not know that there was a siege. A siege that lasts for four years is unimaginable anyhow. This beautiful town in a valley, with old Bazars, mosques, catholic and orthodox churches, was in my mind a city of the Olympic games.
When we arrived in the hotel, there was a wedding party with hundreds of people, all so joyful. The next day we started with the documentary Miss Sarajevo. Then I knew what a siege was. I sat in my hotel room, broken hearted and looked at these beautiful hills that surround Sarajevo. I imagined that all of a sudden, I would fall in the cross-hair of a sniper’s gun and would be shot dead.
I wrote the following poem…
Room with view
From the hill outside my window
twenty-five years ago snipers shot
on people who look out
– like me now.
As opposed to Auschwitz, we listened to a lot of contemporary witnesses. It was hard to notice that these war-witnesses (Zeitzeugen in German) were younger than the most of us, at least younger than me. I can’t even imagine what would it be like to spend your childhood in a sieged town. Those of us who couldn’t cry yet, began to cry at the Childhood War Museum. Toys and cherished things given to the museum revealed what it means for a child to grow up in basements, seeing friends die, being hungry most of the time. At the same time the wonder that they still could play. And yet, the glimmer in the eye of Miss Sarajevo was extinct after four years. Probably forever. Who cannot understand afterwards a visit to this museum the Syrian mothers and fathers who are prepared to almost anything to save their child from this dreadful destiny.
We prepared for Srebrenica. Damn shit! Nothing can prepare anyone for this. The ugly United Nations headquarters next to an aesthetic memorial cemetery, where the bones of those of who could be found and put together again, were collected as a one corpse and buried among the others. Often there were some parts missing.
It was like stepping through the gate in Auschwitz Birkenau. My heart just stopped beating for a moment and then there was nothing left besides my bitter tears for these boys and men. Who cares about ethnicity in such a moment? I can’t imagine the pain of the mothers, sisters, grandmothers and friends being deported, leaving the men behind. ‘Not knowing’ in a different way than what we usually practice. This was existential not-knowing: knowing that this will end with death.
Then the loud voice of Hassan, who was nerve-racking in his way of speaking, giving orders, staring at people when he spoke about the history of the place in 1994. This went on until he said: ‘I will now show you the movie. I will leave, as I cannot watch it. I was on the Death March from Srebrenica to Tuzla.’ He could not have been older than in his teens! Shock, even before the shocking pictures of the movie, footage that was filmed at the time when it happened and was available to us, in our comfortable living rooms.
How for god’s sake could it still happen? And yet, it happens in Syria right now, in plain sight, in front of all of our eyes. I let my helplessness sink to the bottom of my heart and all I could do was to go out afterwards and lay down on the ground were so many tears were fallen into blood, bones and sweat of fear less than thirty years ago. Where to find comfort? For us in collected grieving, sitting under the beautiful roof of the prayer place at the grave site. Writing afterwards the following poem…
My first regular cigarette after fifteen years
Getting nauseous after a half
And clear, this will not change anything
– I’m in Srebrenica
So much suffering, so much death, so much violence
Until it gets quieter in my broken heart.
Then becoming one with your earth,
prostrating down as far as I can
May you rest in peace.
The retreat in Bosnia was hard for me. But the real comfort were the Peacebuilders of the Bosnian group. So young, yet already so wise and so engaged. A grim sense of humor that shocked me at the beginning, but later on I competed with Amra about it. We often do the same in my palliative care work, when we face death. The kindness of Vahidin, the calm support of Mevludin, all their hospitality to make us feel welcomed and also see the beauty of their country. We saw it, in their land, but more by bearing witness to their will to live, to go forward, and in their joy. We saw it in their engagement for building peace although the politics are making the country continuously unstable. And we saw, how our simple interest in how they are doing was so encouraging for them.
What I take home is a quote from Tamara, when they finally told us their religion and ethnic background at the last evening: “My mother is a Muslim Bosniak, my father is an Orthodox Serb, my religion is Goodness.”
Tarama will embark on a peace walk in July from Srebrenica to Tuzla. I would love to join her next year. Maybe some of you as well. By all that happens in the world, nothing is guaranteed.