Seeing war criminals as Buddha too – Mirko Gaspari

Mirko Gaspari – Serbia

Introduction and personal background

Had the former Yugoslavia been a country based on the premise that the citizen is sovereign and central to a state’s very existence, and the citizen’s ethnic background (or racial or any similar “blood and soil” or religious affiliation) secondary or even irrelevant, it probably would not have broken-up as violently as it did – or it would not have broken up at all. But it wasn’t – and ethnicity did and still does hold sway in the region of the former Yugoslavia, now mainly referred to as the Western Balkans. Try as you may to go beyond ethnic boundaries and be “just a human being”, a plain citizen of a country, ethnicity has a way of catching up and pulling you back into its confines. And in such an environment particularly damned are those who are inadvertently of a mixed ethnic background and whose loyalty is being vied for by two or more competing ethnic blood strains.

A Christian killed equally needlessly as his fellow Muslims.

I am of mixed ethnic background – my mother was Serbian (actually, Serbian-American, but being American is not an ethnic affiliation – it is a citizenship), and my father was Slovenian (mixed with Italian and German backgrounds, hence the surname Gaspari). Therefore, Yugoslavia, as the “common state of all South Slavic peoples”, was by its very definition the closest to a country that i could truly relate to or call home. Its violent dissolution was thus inexorably also a personal traumatic experience even though i did not personally take part in any of the hostilities, nor did i directly experience any family tragedy (well, at least not great family tragedy like many other people in this region have).

i am also a citizen of Serbia and while Serbia cannot solely be blamed for the break-up of Yugoslavia, it does bear a lion’s share of responsibility for its violent dissolution. If rabid nationalisms were the order of the day (and other nationalisms among the South Slavic tribes were also in heat in the 1990s), the feverish nationalism of the largest and (militarily) strongest ethnic group was bound to wreak the most havoc. As its citizen, i am therefore not only painfully aware of Serbia’s share of responsibility for the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, but also feel acutely the country’s present-day inability to face-up to its own recent past. The dominant social and political climate and culture of Serbia today is still, after all these years (and it’s now been a little over a quarter of a century since the wars in the region began), one of strong denial and impunity for war crimes. This is especially true in relation to the genocide in Srebrenica in Bosnia (in using the term ‘genocide’ i take my cue from the ICJ and the ICTY rulings on the matter, both being UN courts), the urbicide of Sarajevo, mass atrocities in Prijedor (also in BH), and the mass war crimes committed in Kosovo.

Bearing witness to the siege of Sarajevo, Bosnia

This was the backdrop of my personal history when i was provided with the opportunity to join the Zen Peacemakers Order (ZPO) Bearing Witness Retreat in Bosnia-Herzegovina in May 2017. But before i recount my experiences with the ZPO Retreat in Bosnia itself, let me just mention two more things by way of background information that i think are relevant for this account.

From the time of the political assent of Serbia’s strongman Slobodan Milošević in 1987 until well after the end of the Yugoslav Wars in June 1999 and the ouster of Milosevic in October of 2000, i opted for and was actively engaged in the anti-nationalist, pro “civic option” resistance (Belgrade Circle and Civic Alliance). Then, in 1991, with the full outbreak of the Yugoslav Wars, i joined the fairly vibrant but still ultimately ineffectual anti-war movement in Belgrade. But by 1993, in many ways the peak of the Bosnian War, i grew increasingly frustrated and tired of the inability to make any kind of headway against the wars through this movement and decided, partly through the American citizenship passed on to me via my mother, to join American diplomatic efforts to achieve peace in the Balkans by accepting employment as a political specialist (on local, ex-YU and Serbian affairs) with the Department of State at the American Embassy in Belgrade. In other words, during the entire period of the Balkan crisis and wars i was actively swimming against the current – against nationalism, against ethnic hostilities – and fully engaged in peacemaking efforts.

Graffiti at abandoned bobsleigh track from the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics, testifying to the suffering of children in war.

All this while – as a matter of fact since my early youth in the late 1960s – i was at the same time a practicing Zen Buddhist. i have been practicing meditation, basically of the Zazen kind, for over 40 years now but nevertheless still consider myself to be an “absolute beginner”. i do not really belong to any school or lineage of Zen Buddhism, but my personal preference leans towards Soto Zen as, for example, has been practiced and taught by roshis Suzuki and Maezumi and their lineages in the United States. Nevertheless, i took what life offered and thus studied under various teachers including: during the ‘70s, ven. Myokyo-ni, the founder and head of the Zen Centre in London (this was Irmgard Schloegl of Austria, a Rinzai Zen Buddhist nun who was, along with the likes of Gary Snyder, one of the early Western Zen students in Japan in the 50s and 60s); then in the ‘80s under roshi Philip Kapleau of the U.S. who visited Belgrade in 1984; and finally, as Korean Zen master Seung Sahn also visited Belgrade in 1989, under one of his students, a Serbian Zen monk who had spent over 18 years in various Korean Zen monasteries and who recently returned to Serbia. Because of this Korean Zen connection, i feel a strong affinity for the Korean Zen lineage, and especially for Zen master Seung Sahn’s central teaching of Zen Mind as “Don’t Know Mind”. But, ultimately, i repeat, i do not formally belong to any particular tradition or lineage of Zen Buddhism and feel most comfortable with this “non-denominational” and lay status.

If you were a practicing Zen Buddhist in socialist Yugoslavia, but especially more recently in nationalist Serbia – and even amongst one’s own crowd of anti-nationalists and anti-war activists in the 1990s – you were, in one way or another, simply put – weird! So i mostly kept my “religion” (although like most people of the same persuasion i really consider Zen Buddhism as something closer to a philosophy and a way of life) – to myself. Amongst my peace activist friends and certainly among my colleagues in the American diplomatic service (especially there!), my marriage of social engagement and Zen Buddhist practice was best kept a strictly private matter. This was so to such an extent that the Zen Buddhist part of my character almost felt like i was an LGBT+ person who had to keep his sexual preference a secret. In other words, though an explicit social activist, i was for years very much a “closet Zen Buddhist”.

Mirko with ZPO Spiritholder Barbara Wegmüller.

Therefore, the ZPO BW Retreat in Bosnia – as a particular form of the practice of ‘Engaged Buddhism’ in general – provided the perfect personal opportunity to finally “come out in the open”, realign and bring together these two main and enduring strains and preferences in my character – social activism and Zen Buddhist practice. i had been (unsuccessfully) searching for something like this all my life!

Bearing Witness in Bosnia

During the five-and-a-half-hour ride on the minibus from Belgrade to Sarajevo, as part of the practice of accepting the discomforts of the journey, i reflected on (“rode with”) the Three Tenets of the ZPO – not-knowing as a way of nurturing a non-prejudiced mind, bearing witness and taking appropriate action arising from the previous two tenets (and based on a “commitment to heal oneself and the world”). But i also tried to delve deep into what roshi Bernie Glassman had suggested and then put into practice during one of the earlier Auschwitz Bearing Witness Retreats that had initially stirred something of a controversy but that best reflected the all-inclusive approach of Buddhism to peacemaking and that had ultimately become, at least to my mind, something like an “extra tenet” for these kinds of retreats. Roshi Glassman’s suggestion was that in bearing witness to “the pain and joy of the world”, and especially to poverty, disease, war and death, and most particularly, to the incomprehensible horrors of a place like Auschwitz with its victims and tormentors, we are really bearing witness to two extremes of the human mind that are ultimately Buddha-mind.

In order to bear witness to the suffering of the world, it was essential to aspire to the mind of Avalokiteshvara or Guanyin, the “One who hears the cries of the world”, in order to try to be sensitive to and feel the unimaginable suffering of the victims. This was the way to recognize, acknowledge and honor the pain and suffering that the victims had undergone. But in order for the bearing witness to be truly inclusive, whole and complete, one must also try to understand the place the perpetrators, tormentors, executioners and war criminals were coming from. How does the human mind, and that means Buddha-mind, become so twisted and contracted that it ceases to see the world as One Body, proclaims a part of it the enemy Other, and is even willing to go about exterminating it? This is the Buddhist version of trying to understand the “origin of evil”. It is important to bear in mind that in trying to understand, to compassionately understand, the contracted, warped mind of a particular perpetrator or executioner one is not seeking to absolve him/her of their individual moral or criminal (judicial) responsibility for a given (war) crime. No, one is trying, on a deeply human level, to compassionately understand how ANY human mind could become so alienated from its true nature that it would seek the annihilation of what it perceives as the enemy (or, even worse, the inferior) Other. In other words, this was to compassionately understand how any one of us – you and i – could potentially become a tormentor or executioner or war criminal and that we in fact start going down that road every time we have a hateful thought and objectify another human being as the (enemy) Other. And from that understanding not only to bear witness and tell others about this potential for “evil”, for insanely contracted consciousness in all of us, but to remain perpetually conscious, alert and vigilant so as to not go there oneself.

As the minivan approached Sarajevo, i somewhat cringed at the prospect that i would soon attempt to put myself in the mind-set of general Ratko Mladic, the commander of the Bosnian Serb army who laid siege and indiscriminately shelled civilians in Sarajevo for more than 1400 days, proclaiming that he is not interested in militarily taking over the city but only in making its citizens “go out of their minds” (“Ne zanima me da osvojimo grad, ja hoću samo da ih raspametimo.”)

i arrived in Sarajevo a day late – on May 8th.   i had missed the visit and bearing witness at the National Library – a distinctive Bosnian cultural monument from the Austro-Hungarian period (19th century) that originally housed over a million volumes of books, rare books and manuscripts but which had been almost completely destroyed by artillery fire during the siege of Sarajevo in 1992. The majority of the books and priceless manuscripts were lost in flames and forever destroyed but the original glory of the building (in the, for the region unique, neo-Moorish style that had its origins on the other side of Europe in the Islamic art of Spain and North Africa) was structurally repaired and refurbished in stages and completed in May 2014. History is replete with these kinds of examples – in acts of blind and senseless hatred attempts are made to wipe out the cultural identity of the perceived enemy Other by burning books and by rampant, wholesale urbicide – the killing of a city.

After the collective Orientation meeting of all the ZPO participants that made it to the hotel where we were staying, we saw a documentary on life in the city during the siege called Miss Sarajevo. This is a deeply moving film about human resilience and the incredible lengths people are prepared to go to in order to preserve human dignity. More than that, it bears witness to boundless human creativity in putting up resistance and demonstrating defiance (in the local language a kind of “defiant spite”: “inat”) against all attempts to subjugate and break the human spirit. Women fought back against grenades with “beauty” – by wearing their best clothes, going to great lengths to fix their hair and adorning make-up as they went out in the freezing winter to gather firewood and water only to lug them back up endless stairs in apartment buildings with no water or electricity; and organized beauty pageants (“Miss Sarajevo”) under artillery fire exploding around them. The Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra performed in dark and damp cellars, pitting the sound of symphonies against the whizzing and exploding sounds of artillery shells hitting their targets randomly. Ballet and theatre performances and jazz jam sessions were held in make-shift venues in front of rapt audiences who doggedly ignored the horrors of their everyday lives, looking only for that one-moment-of-Zen in the one moment of a poetic word, a dance gesture or a musical note. And the children, oh the children, their undivided hearts dead-set on having a childhood no matter what, no matter if it meant playing in the burned-out chassis of a car making believe they’re on their way to the Adriatic coast for a summer vacation, no matter if their only toys were empty grenade shells. As if the whole universe was conspiring through these little human beings just in order to say – the playfulness is all no matter what! Is this too not the finest expression of Buddha-nature?

Mount Trebević above Sarajevo – bearing witness and chanting circle liturgy.

The next day we went to Mount Trebević, the strategically located mountain above Sarajevo that commands a panoramic, bird’s eye view of the entire city. Given its sprawling location in a series of adjoining valleys surrounded by hills and mountain tops, Sarajevo is practically the perfect city to lay siege to. And Mount Trebević the perfect location to lay the siege from – to one-sidedly and haphazardly shell and shoot sniper fire at a defenseless city and its defenseless civilian population, women, children, the elderly, and all. Just to make them “go out of their minds”. And not just for a limited period – but for almost four long years. Of the siege of Sarajevo we can read that it “was the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare… The siege lasted three times longer than the Battle of Stalingrad and more than a year longer than the Siege of Leningrad.”

When we got to Trebević it turned out to be quite cold, much colder than in the city, and much too cold for the month of May. But at the very mountain top, a kind of plateau, it was beautiful, the air alpine-like fresh and crisp, the smell of the belated mountain spring in the air, the swaying of pine trees, and the birds chirping away at their joyous, timeless song. Such stillness and tranquility – peace everywhere. We all sat around in a rough circle at the very top and there was a little time for a short meditation. And in an instant – the mind enters this wondrous Spaciousness in which all things have room to breathe and have their being, brimming with a deep intimacy, an inscrutable togetherness of everything. And then one of our local participants and guides, a peace activist herself, lead us gently into the bearing witness narrative – the hardships and downright horrors of daily life of the civilian population under siege down below. Living in high rise apartment buildings with no water or electricity for months on end; people cooking and eating grass, tree bark and leaves to stave off hunger; and going down “sniper alleys” just to find a little food, wondering whether one would make it back alive; and cutting the trees in city public parks for firewood in winter; and then burying their dead without any markings in those very same city parks or using soccer fields for cemeteries. All this in the middle of Europe, at the very end of the 20th century? All after Europe having vowed „Never Again!“?

And then this strange juxtaposition: in and out of the horrors and terror, in and out of the spaciousness, the tranquility, the bird song, the wonder… Turns out the mind can hold both, simultaneously. Even on the ground beneath the feet, empty casings falling from the fired artillery shots, the projectiles spinning towards their innocent victims below. Yet the ground holds firm, strewn with grass and small forest flowers, innocent like it was the first day on Earth. Human experience is never really only black and white – “opposing” feelings, sensations, images co-exist peacefully in this space of Presence.

The third day of the retreat was spent in the central part of Sarajevo visiting the War Childhood Museum and the Srebrenica Memorial Gallery (“July 11, 1995”).

View of Sarajevo from Mount Trebević.

By now i already felt at home in downtown Sarajevo – it was the same warm, hospitable, bustling, somewhat exotic – because of the Islamic cultural influence – but definitely familiar city i had known from before, from the time when Yugoslavia was still one country. And after all, albeit with different dialects, we all spoke a common language – Serbo-Croatian or Croat-Serbian was the name we used for it before we were forcefully divided up and four new languages invented where there was no sound linguistic foundation to do so (Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin). There is nothing spoken or that could be said amongst ourselves in these four new languages that the other person would not understand. We understood each other perfectly well and could only, through the different dialects, more or less precisely tell from what part of the former Yugoslavia each one of us was from. And during Yugoslavia’s existence, the differences in dialects were simply the inimitable and precious charm of diversity and multiplicity.

On the day i arrived, after all the activities were over, and just before bed-time, i walked out of the hotel and into the cool, fresh Sarajevan night, intent on taking a stroll in the central, old Ottoman part of town known as Baščaršija. It’s a neighborhood full of people, small shops, restaurants and cafes that all stay open well into the night. i wanted to see how ordinary people – small shop vendors and waiters – would react to my audible Ekavian dialect of our common language. This is something that would immediately give me away as coming from Serbia proper, possibly even that i’m from Belgrade. Bosnians, on the other hand, speak the local language in the Ijekavian dialect. In detecting that i’m from Serbia i could by their reaction also gauge whether – and possibly to what degree – there was any ill-will or hostility towards people from Serbia. In my view, if there was – in many respects it was justifiably so. Even though practically all of the fighting against the Bosniaks (Bosnian, Slavic Muslims), who were undoubtedly the victims of the Bosnian war, and the Bosnian Croats, was waged by the Bosnian Serbs, Bosniaks new very well that Serbia proper was the source of overwhelming and crucial political, financial and military support for the Bosnian Serb war effort, including the siege of Sarajevo. i was somewhat apprehensive as to how they would react and whether i would at all be welcome.

i struck up conversations with three local people – a shopkeeper, a waiter and a random fellow pedestrian (asking her for directions on my way back as i had slightly lost direction). As i spoke to them there was at first this tense little moment when eye contact was made and of surprise when they realized not only that i was not a local, but that i was from Serbia proper. In all three cases however, to my surprise and relief, after that one awkward moment of tenseness, their eyes opened up wide and they broke into a smile, followed by what seemed like a torrent of friendly words and warm gestures (the woman who gave me directions even took me by the hand and thus pointed out the right way). Everything in their eyes and body language and in their tone of voice, even though nothing to that effect was said explicitly, spoke of „ah, welcome back!“ and „good to see you again!“ and „we’re so glad to have you back!“ i walked back to the hotel along the cold, fast running, mountain-stream-like Miljacka River deeply impressed and moved by these simple, unmediated, everyday human encounters. i was so grateful that the capacity of human beings to forgive and renew expressions of benevolence, simple kindness and warm heartedness towards other human beings in spite of everything, even if they had been wronged by them, seemed in that moment to be inexhaustible and everlasting.

Marble plaque at entrance of Potočari Memorial Center in Srebrenica, Bosnia, May 2017.

In the War Childhood Museum there is the same sentiment about children as in the documentary film Miss Sarajevo – in spite of the depravations and horrors of war children will spontaneously but doggedly insist on having a playful childhood – but there is so much more of it and concentrated in one place in this unique museum! Makeshift toys, patchwork graduation dresses, improvised instruments and balls, small written or drawn mementos of endless hours spent in shelters, tokens of childhood friendships – these ragged and often broken pieces act like distilled symbols of war childhoods left behind, and together with the short story they tell, they will break your heart in an instant. Is there really evolution of human consciousness? Will human beings ever come to know, as with death itself in and by war – and there were some 1600 children alone killed during the siege of Sarajevo – that even one childhood in war is one too many?

The Srebrenica Memorial Gallery (“July 11, 1995”), also in downtown Sarajevo, was a grim overture and introduction to the stomach-churning bearing witness events of the fourth day of our retreat – the visit to Srebrenica. i had seen the documentary films on Srebrenica that are given in continuous screenings to be seen after reviewing the memorial exhibit before. They – as the Gallery itself – are testimonies to the incomprehensible massacre – characterized as genocide by two UN courts (a characterization also upheld by resolutions in the European Parliament and U.S. Congress) – of more than 8,300 men and boys during a period of less than ten days in July 1995. This was on average the mass killing of one thousand men and boys per day – the sheer logistics of which practically defy imagination. A veritable “factory of death” that one UN report described as “the worst crime on European soil since the Second World War”. The forcible separation, transfer and abuse of between 25,000 and 30,000 Bosniak women, children and elderly which accompanied the massacre was also found by the UN courts to constitute genocide, when accompanied with the separation and killings of the men. But in the documentaries i also saw what most of my fellow ZPO companions missed – the footprints of the covert involvement of Serbia proper in this crime against humanity. If nothing else, and there was more, many of the buses used for the mass relocation of women, children and the elderly had on them license plates from Serbia proper that i could visibly distinguish and recognize. (In 2007, in the Bosnian Genocide case held before the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Serbia was cleared of direct responsibility for, or complicity in, the massacre, but was found responsible for not doing enough to prevent the genocide and not prosecuting those responsible – which also constitute breaches of the Convention on Genocide. The party named directly responsible was the Bosnian Serb Army under the command of General Ratko Mladić – a military officer whose salary, we now know, was directly paid by Belgrade.)

Going into the night before we travelled to Srebrenica – i felt the weight of my own responsibility too for this massacre. If nothing else, if i had been involved in the anti-nationalist resistance, the anti-war movement, and peacemaking efforts via the American Embassy – i still paid taxes in Serbia (e.g. property tax) and paid V.A.T. every time i went into a shop or supermarket in Belgrade. And some of that money must have made its way into the pockets of officers like Ratko Mladić, or must have paid towards the rental expenses of those buses.

i felt the need to communicate this to one of my newfound friends amongst the local Bosnians who were our co-participants, our guides and in many respects our hosts. In one way or another, they were all also peace and reconciliation activists and the person i befriended was also our lead guide. In a setting that was also public, with other people as witnesses, i told him how i felt and what my reasoning was behind it. i told him that, in spite of my background, i too, as a citizen of Serbia, felt responsible not only for the Srebrenica atrocity but also for the Bosnian war as a whole. And i asked if he could find it in his heart to forgive me. He broke into tears and said: “i had been waiting for more than 20 years for someone to come from Belgrade and tell me that. This has meaning for me which is deeply healing.” We embraced, feeling a deep understanding and connection, a bonding in our common humanity that was also immensely healing.


It was a warm and sunny spring day for the long bus ride to Srebrenica. The countryside was mountainous and plush, almost alpine-like and the abundant green foliage, grass and flora spanned the whole range of possible greens: from spring bud, apple, lawn and chartreuse green to moss, olive, pine, fern and dark green. The sky an immaculate azure, “boundless-void” blue – like the Tibetan Buddhist descriptions of Buddha-mind – with only a few clouds here and there. One of our local Bosnian fellow travelers, co-participants and guides joked – with their inimitable, very specific and dark sense of humor – that the countryside was so lush and green and beautiful because of all the blood that it had soaked up over the region’s troublesome and tumultuous centuries of history. Indeed.

Rami Efal’s photo of Potočari Memorial Center, Srebrenica.

Our first stop was Kravice, a small village in the municipality of Srebrenica, where war crimes had been committed by both sides of the conflict in this, the eastern part of Bosnia: Bosnian Serbs had conducted mass executions of Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Bosniaks had killed Bosnian Serbs. But the village was marked by the tallest commemorative monument in the region: a massive black marble cross erected on behalf of Bosnian Serb victims. The ZPO bears witness to, honors and respects all victims equally and impartially – even one victim of war is one too many and human life has intrinsic value, not least because all human beings, all sentient beings have the potential of Buddha-mind. We respectfully formed a circle around the monument and began our liturgical chanting of Islamic, Hebrew, Christian and Buddhist prayers. These inter-faith chanting rituals – and we did similar ones on Mount Trebević, in Potačari, the memorial site of Srebrenica itself, and elsewhere – are beautiful, moving, deeply healing and convey a strong sense of the “brotherhood and sisterhood of wo/man”.

But there was something amiss, incongruous and out of joint with this Bosnian Serb monument in Kravice. The place, although relatively newly built, was deserted, abandoned, unkempt and dirty – as if no one ever came there to pay their respects, as if the Bosnian Serbs didn’t really honor their dead there but somewhere else. As if the monument had been erected just to counter and balance out what was so shocking and stunning in nearby Potočari. This is not to say that the Bosnian Serbs didn’t have their victims in this tragic war. Of course they did. But i was not alone in noticing that this place was somehow hollow and deserted – echoing an impression that it was a memorial no one comes to visit or honor anymore. Other ZPO participants later confirmed my impressions.

The Potočari Memorial Center consists of a massive Islamic burial ground; the vast “factory of death” where the Dutch UN contingent was housed and later, during the peak of the crisis, several thousand Bosniak civilians, mainly women and children; and a memorial museum documenting the events of the massacre.

There are over 6,500 inscribed white marble Islamic-style tombstones in the Potočari Memorial Center of victims that have been fully identified (with some 2000 known victims still awaiting full identification). It was a veritable sea of white marble tombstones shooting up towards the void of the blue sky and surrounded by a sea of spring green foliage. A walk among the dead in silence – with only the white, the blue, the green colors as far as the eye could see, and a breeze, some bird song and tranquility – abundant and deep tranquility. And nothing really to suggest the horrific, cruel death these men and boys suffered (autopsies reveal that the vast majority died from bullet wounds in the back, many of them with their hands tied behind their backs).

Rami Efal’s photo of ‘factory of death’ photo of woman who hung herself.

The old vehicle-battery factory that housed the Dutch UN battalion during the Srebrenica crisis is vast and spacious – a monument to oversized defunct socialist industry going back to the “good old Yugoslav days”. Apart from some telling, deeply ironic graffiti left by the Dutch UN soldiers – young men, practically boys, with little military experience who were in no way equipped to handle a crisis of this magnitude – the factory is now the site of an exhibit of giant photographs showing sequences of the gruesome, grisly, harrowing Srebrenica massacre. A testimony of blind and destructive hatred, violence and man’s inhumanity to man, on one side, and endless fear, horror and grief, on the other. Mass graves upon mass graves, bones and skulls, wailing women and children, the sweltering, insect infested heat of those July 1995 days, more bones and skulls, dirt and death, and more death. And one photograph especially that leaves an indelible imprint on the mind, a well-known photograph that became almost a symbol of the grief of Srebrenica. A young Bosniak woman dangling motionless from the branch of a fragile looking tree – she had hung herself stricken with grief upon hearing that her husband was dead, leaving behind a boy of 10 and a girl of 12. Distilled grief beyond the grave.

In the adjoining Srebrenica Memorial Museum – a short walk from the “factory of death” in the warm sun of that spring day, May 11, 2017 (July 11, 1995 is officially recorded as Day One of the Srebrenica massacre – 22 years and 2 months ago, i calculated) – there is yet more horror and death. Inside is a permanent exhibit of photographs related to the events of and around the massacre and then several stringed documentaries recounting the events and places, naming the “killing fields”, the execution agricultural compounds, and telling the story of the plight of the separated women and children, day by long, miserable day. i had seen most of these documentaries before during my American Embassy Belgrade days – and especially the one at the very end of the presentation. The one that most tangibly and gruesomely bears witness to Serbia’s involvement in the Srebrenica events – but i didn’t know it had become a part of the permanent exhibit in the Memorial Museum. Although considerably shortened and edited for this exhibit, it tells the story of the Serbian paramilitary unit called The Scorpios that came from Serbia proper, consisting of Serbian citizens and not Bosnian Serbs, and who were dressed, armed and equipped in Serbia (they had even been part of the Serbian Interior Ministry until 1991). Even though this edited version of the documentary omits, for example, the scenes of the unit being blessed by a Serbian Orthodox Church priest before leaving for their incursion into Bosnia, it most explicitly and directly shows scenes of actual shootings and killings of young Bosniak males who were allegedly “prisoners of war” (in the video footage it is obvious they were all in civilian clothes; and they were all shot in the back, many with their hands tied). The video was taken by one of the members of the unit and for a while it circulated in the Serbian town of Šid as a video rental „snuff movie“. The truly disturbing and harrowing thing about this documentary is that it in reality tells the story of what in Serbia were called „weekend warriors“ – men who, apart from a rather petty criminal and profit motive, would make, usually with the knowledge and cooperation of the Bosnian Serb Army, sporadic forays and marauds into Bosnian territory for „macho sport and fun“. In other words, the film shows killings of helpless young men not in the name of a twisted ideology like „ethnic cleansing“ or „ethnically pure territories“ – but for fun and pleasure, for pure sport.   i thought that this must be the ultimate twist in the constriction and collapse of human consciousness, the ultimate alienation of Buddha-nature from itself. i felt sick to the stomach and had to go out of the Museum and into the fresh Potočari air.

What does the ZPO do – members take long walks in solitude in cemeteries and bear witness – Mikko Ijas’s photo of Julianne Funk walking at the Jewish Cemetary in Sarajevo.

And the air outside was fresh and clear, the spring breeze blowing in my face and hair, the green Potočari valley resounding with serenity and quietude, ever broken only by bird song. We all walked back to the Memorial burying ground in silence, each person bearing the weight of what had been seen in their own way. We gathered in the open air Islamic praying gallery, took off our shoes, formed a circle and sat down on the ground strewn with prayer rugs. And then went into a chanting liturgy, alternating the prayers and chants of the different religions. Chants that were especially heartfelt for this powerful place of so much hatred, cruel violence and grief. And then there was a half hour of meditation.

As one enters into the “frequency” of Presence and Spaciousness, somehow things finally fall into their rightful place. Yes, both as human beings and as aspiring bodhisattvas – beings aspiring to tap into “wise compassionate energy” – we must do everything in our power never to walk down the road of prejudice and hatred. And to the degree that we can, we must help others not take that road. Frequently that means to just bear witness to the possibility of going down that road. For once you start going down that road very little separates you from ultimately becoming a war criminal or executioner, a Ratko Mladić or one of the Scorpions. Prejudice and hatred begin with judgemental thoughts and hate thoughts. And this means that you are identified with your thinking mind and that you don’t see the other human being anymore (or yourself) as One Body with the world – but only your own concept of that human being. And to reduce the „aliveness“ of another human being, his „One Bodyness“ to a concept – this is already a form of violence.

From this it then also holds true that it is important to see war criminals and tormentors, executioners and all kinds of hate perpetrators as also being Buddha-mind. For once we start to see them differently, once we objectify them as an excluded Other and start generating hate thoughts or revenge thoughts towards them – we soon become them, we become the objects of our hatred or revenge.

How could i overlook or ever forget that there are always also “flowers on the edges of (mass) graves”?

Rami Efal, Mirko Gaspari and Michel Dubois, Sarajevo.




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