Kelsey Bristow

Kelsey Bristow (Bosnian Women – BOSFAM): At the time of her fellowship, Kelsey was a rising senior at Georgetown University majoring in English and Justice and Peace Studies. Kelsey’s interest volunteering began at High School when she worked with at-risk children in Appalachia. Kelsey as one of two undergraduate students in the 2009 cohort of Peace Fellows and worked closely with her advisor at Georgetown University to turn her experience in Bosnia into a thesis paper.

“To the families of the genocide victims we owe the truth – to the victims, remembrance.”

07 Jul

Just a warning: I have a feeling there will be a lot of ranting in this blog, but I think it’s necessary to convey the frustration I (and many people in BiH) feel about the 1990’s war and 11 July 1995 Srebrenica genocide.

You gotta love Hollywood for all the different kinds of movies it makes.  I’m not even trying to be totally sarcastic.  For all the romantic comedies, horror movies, and action films it produces, sometimes it does attempt to make a film about a “real” subject.  However, often times the “truth” of the event is skewed in the resulting film, because of either political issues or “artistic license.”  Hollywood has tried to take on genocide.  Who hasn’t seen Schindler’s List or Hotel Rwanda?  For all the films I have seen about different genocides, I have never been able to grasp the concept of what it really is.  Even after taking courses with units on genocide, I now know I had no idea what it means (that is not to say that I do now, but at least I’m gaining a better understanding).

I’ve mentioned in previous blogs that all the women at BOSFAM are from Srebrenica or surrounding areas.  They are all victims of the war and the genocide that occurred in Srebrenica on 11 July 1995.  For those of you (I was one of you before I came to BiH) who are not too familiar with the genocide at Srebrenica, take a look here or here.  Basically, what was supposed to be a UN guarded “safe” zone ended up being the location where over 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed on 11 July 1995.  It was mostly men who were killed, but babies, children, women, and the elderly were also tortured and murdered on that date.

Houses in Srebrenica.

The Army of Republika Srpska (VRS) carried out the genocide.  With my next statement, I by NO means think what the VRS was acceptable or even humane, but it’s one thing to kill 8,000 people, but it’s another to destroy tens of thousands of lives of the survivors of Srebrenica.  The wives, children, sisters, and other relatives of those massacred at Srebrenica are still dealing with very deep wounds 14 years later.  Two posts ago I discussed missing persons in BiH.  However awful it is to still have no idea where-in what grave, river, or valley-your loved ones are, the survivors are still rebuilding their lives and culture and grieving their losses.

Sajma and Djeva finishing one Memorial Quilt which commemorates victims of the 11 July 1995 genocide at Srebrenica.

As 11 July quickly approaches, I am becoming increasingly annoyed with reading my friends’ Facebook and Twitter statuses.  For those of you who don’t know what “FML” means, please look it up.  For those of you that do, I cannot tell you how sick it has made me to read statuses like, “I have to work a double shift today. FML,” or “I have to take an 18 hour flight to Australia. FML.”  I’m sorry, but GIVE ME A BREAK.  The war in the 1990’s and the genocide did not just claim lives, but also a large part of Bosnian Muslim culture and mentality.  The library in Sarajevo is a clear example of the culture lost, as it has yet to be completely restored.  Many mosques were destroyed with valuable writings and architecture as well.

The most devastating effect of the war, genocide, and ethnic cleansing-according to me, anyway-was the destruction of ethnic harmony in BiH.  Many people have told me that before the war Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Bosnian Serbs, and Croats lived and worked together.  However, neighbors began to turn on each other and many Serbs fled to Serbia and the Republika Srpska and many Bosniaks sought refuge in Croatia and other countries.  An ongoing conversation I’ve been having with my friend, Davor, is whether or not you can blame a war on just the leaders, just the general “people,” or both.  He often argues that, “You can’t have a war without people.”  I often retort, “But if the leaders use propaganda and other psychological strategies to turn neighbors against each other, is it really the people’s fault?”  We’re at a stalemate.  Either way, the war has really divided the country.  Tuzla is apparently the most “progressive” of BiH and people of all ethnicities live together.  Still, its population is mainly Bosniak.  Mostar, on the other hand, is extremely divided.  On the covers of the few travel guides to BiH, the bridge (Stari Most) in Mostar is usually the picture representing the country.  Its beauty, however, is minimized when you realize the Neretva River it covers completely divides Mostar between Croats and Bosniaks.  From schools, restaurants, and places of worship (of course, Croats in the Catholic churches and Bosniaks in mosques), the city is completely divided still after 14 years.

The beautiful bridge in Mostar takes on an ugly meaning when you realize it divides the city between Croats and Bosniaks.

For those of you, who think you can imagine this division, let me remind you that there is absolutely no difference in appearance between Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs.  The differences are mainly in religion.  When the Balkans was Yugoslavia, these divisions were not nearly as stark as they are now.  Now in BiH, divisions between ethnic groups, as in Mostar, are very common.  The country is comprised of two entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska (RS).  I’ll let you guess where the majority of the Serbs live.

The ethnic divisions are not only in the “people” level, but BiH’s political system was designed to reflect the ethnic divisions in the country.  A three person, rotating presidency of one Bosniak, one Serb, and one Croat is just one part of a complex and big government.  Right now, as there often is in BiH, there is political tension between the Federation and the RS, because as time goes on the Dayton Accords dictate that power from the entities must be transferred to the country of BiH.  While the war probably could not have ended without certain stipulations in the Dayton Accords, 14 years later, it is making for a very politically heated summer.

The River Drina divides Serbia from BiH's Republika Srpska.

So, that was probably the most disjointed blog ever, but I needed to try to explain why and how the divisions in BiH are still such a big deal.  On Saturday, 11 July while many Bosniaks, some Croats and Serbs, and internationals commemorate the 8,000 people who died at Srebrenica, some towns on the River Drina between the RS and Serbia will be holding a regatta.  Perhaps when other ethnic groups stop holding celebrations on 11 July, the Bosniaks who were massacred on that day will be properly remembered and honored.

Posted By Kelsey Bristow

Posted Jul 7th, 2009


  • Owen

    July 7, 2009


    That picture of the Drina is beautiful but so sombre.

    Don’t be too hard on your friends. Facebook and Twitter conversations are normal life. They may seem fatuous and trivial but that’s how ordinary life is. You’re privileged to have an insight into how fragile that is.

  • Marina

    July 7, 2009


    Thanks for all of this background Kelsey, it will help your readers to understand the significance of the July 11th commemorations this week. I feel like we, your audience, are learning right along with you as you take it all in.

    One thing that we love to see is how the Fellowship Program impacts our Fellows in personal ways, so while I agree with Owen not to be too hard on your friends, I like seeing how spending time with the women of BOSFAM is causing a shift in your awareness and priorities.

    Good work.

  • Dave B

    July 7, 2009


    I certainly appreciated your opening comment and warning about the ranting that was to come in your most recent blog. I “buckled in” and read it twice.

    It’s facinating to listen to you try to understand and grapple with the insanity of the horrific genocide. I certainly understand and share your frustration. It makes no sense. We all know that bad things happen to good people. It’s one thing when these bad things are the result of “acts of God” or accidents or even an environmental reason like the worldwide economic downturn. However, it’s quite a different issue when these bad things are intentionally inflicted by others. Your blog demonstrates we have a long way to go towards the goal of (not only accepting, but) celebrating and embracing diversity.

  • Annette

    July 8, 2009


    Kelsey – I can’t help repeating myself but I truly appreciate what we have here and now, more than ever when I read your blogs. To think that land and the way one worships can make you look and feel differently towards another person is so sad, yet, unfortunately, universal. You are experiencing the full force of how an action, once taken, can trickle down and change lives for years afterwards. Thank you so much for sharing…

  • MacKenzie

    July 8, 2009


    I was an intern in BOSFAM in summer 2005. I am interested to see your perspective on the quote from a serb general that the Dayton accords are just a pause between 2 wars. I have to say, I thought it was a horrible thing to say, but as I have watched the country (snd Serbia and Kosovo) I am not so sure it is not accurate. There is still so much division there.

    As an aside, Mostar is an amazing city to visit if you get to go there… some heart wrenching soties but beatiful scenery in that town as well.

  • Stephanie

    July 9, 2009


    I worked in the Balkans for seven years. There were many people–Kosovar Albanians, Croats, Serbs, Bosniaks–who refused to take part in the atrocities. There is always a choice. There was even a choice in the “international community” when the Serbs overran Vukovar. All of the madness could have been stopped then. I blame the leaders, the people who followed them and of course the “international community.”

  • Annette

    July 13, 2009


    Kelsey – wondering how the ceremony went on the 11th – we are keeping you and those you are working with, their families, and the victims in our prayers… aunt annette

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