Beba mentioned to me this morning over coffee that she did not sleep well last night. On the local news last night, the Hague released a video of a man being killed by Serbs in the Srebrenica killings. The release was in response to a man purportedly supporting Milosevic and condemning his imprisonment as unjust. The video was released as evidence of his collusion with Milosevic and basically to shut him up and show that he too is a veritable war criminal.
Beba said you could see the man’s face, his relatives would be able to identify him. He was crying and begging for his life as he was murdered. The Serb Scorpions (I think they are like Hitler’s Gestapo) videotaped some of these incidents for bragging rights.
This lead into a very interesting discussion about some of Beba’s experiences in Srebrenica. As a child her family had 6 children, but often her mother would invite a poor neighbor boy over for meals as well. He called Beba “sister”, and even called her mother, “mother”… he was a Serb, but at that time, no one thought about people in those classifications. After school, he joined the Serbian Army. He remained friendly and close with the town, coming to school reunions.
When the war broke out, he changed. He returned to his hometown as one of the leaders in the military force that was responsible for the murder of the missing men. She said something in him snapped. He began referring to Muslims in a very derogatory Bosnian word. Beba said she does not know how to translate the word to English, but it is below the lowest of animals.
I asked her how this could happen. How could the two of them grow up very similar, and take such different paths? This lead to another story. She said as a principal of the school in Srebrenica, she maintained a book of children that had problems. These could be any kind of problems, family issues, behavioral issues, anything. Basically, it was like the army got a hold of this book and each person in it was given money, uniforms, and a weapon. They had the power to take girls they never would have been able to say hello to before. They had the power to go to homes and demand anything they wanted. She asked one young man how much he was paid… the young man was given the equivalent of 10 months pay of a teacher to join the army. Who wouldn’t turn that down? People who had nothing their whole lives, but all of a sudden were given money and unlimited power over those around them….as the saying goes, absolute power corrupts absolutely. They swallowed the rhetoric that was fed to them in exchange for the opportunity to bask in the glory of their newfound money and power.
Beba said something that will resonate with me for a very long time. People didn’t believe there could ever be a war. They didn’t believe genocide could even occur in their land. But it did. And, she warns, it can happen anywhere- when you have a few leaders with bad ideas that are willing to spend the money and time to get people on their side, the can convince anyone of just about anything.
Beba was expelled from Srebrenica on 1 May 1992 to a town about 10km away. Then, she and her family were expelled again on 11 May 1992 to Tuzla where they remained. She said it was termed ethnic cleansing, which she never understood. “I am not dirty,” she said. The Serbs was intent to remove all non-Serbs, be them Muslim, Croat, or Roma. They wanted a certain radius around the river to be Serbs only. Beba believes this is the mindset that is so deadly. They were not getting rid of just Muslims or Croats, but instead were aiming to rid the area of anyone non-Serb: a small difference in semantics, but a large difference in mindset.
Sadly, this aggression paid off. The border today between Serbia and Bosnia is this river. The Serbs were able to extend their land and achieved the land grab they so wanted.
The odd thing is, as I walk around the town, I have no idea who is what race or religion. There are no distinguishing characteristics, no sign that marks one as Croat vs. Serb vs. Muslim. Just your name…I have seen a few women in headscarves that I assume to be Muslim. They are fair skinned and blue eyed. I have seen olive skinned women with dark eyes dressed in Western clothes. Something as chance as your birth and your name determined your life or death here for a period of years.
We think things like this could never happen to us, that we as Americans are far more civilized. We would recognize such aspirations in emerging leaders and the country would never stand for such actions. Well, they felt the same way here. In 1984 Sarajevo was home to the largest Winter Olympics held to that time. It was a very Western and advanced area. During the war, Sarajevo was without power or running water. Snipers and shelling killed 10,000 people, of which 1,500 were children. The city was under siege for over 3 years…
It can happen in the US. We should never be so cocksure and arrogant to believe that we as US citizens are somehow above this type of problem. Anytime you have people that are oppressed, people that believe they deserve things as a given right, and multiple ethnicities and nationalities living together, you have the opportunity for corruption, and ambitious individuals to take advantage of the situation.
The people of BiH are no different from us. In fact, I would argue many of them are stronger, more determined and seek democracy more than any American ever could. When the forces in power required people to follow their rules to receive even basic services such as food and jobs, some people said no. They were willing to stand for what they believed was right, to fight for democracy in the face of terrible hardship. Would you have done that? Or would you have just given up one more civil liberty the government asked because it was easier than fighting it? Would you have changed your name because you were so hungry and scared for your life? Would you have fled your hometown rather than stay and fight for what you knew was right and the city you loved?
These women did not. They stayed, they fought and they survived.
Posted By MacKenzie Frady Arbogust (Bosnia & Herzegovina)
Posted Jun 3rd, 2005