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Brave witnessing in Bosnia

Image of the Srebrenica Memorial Room

The Srebrenica Memorial Room, Potocari, Bosnia Hercegovina: two black towers sit in the former UN headquarters. In one a film explains the course of the genocide, in another showcases tell the stories of twenty of those killed. Jasmin Agovic.

Wood-smoke curls through the darkness as I make my way to Sarajevo’s bus station for the 7am daily bus to Srebrenica.  It’s my first visit to Bosnia since 2007 when the Srebrenica Memorial Room opened, a project initiated by Lord Ashdown, then High Representative in Bosnia Hercegovina, and supported by the IWM.

Once on the road, it’s good to see the familiar landscape – even if it is through a haze of rain.  Substantial brick houses dot the fields – they’re usually shared between families with one on each floor.  Each has a pile of logs outside – ready for the winter.

Arriving in Srebrenica, the rain is now torrential.  A man who had been on the bus asks me where  the Srebrenica cemetery is – he’s roaming Europe and has somehow made it to this out-of- the-way part of Bosnia – wanting to see the cemetery at Potocari where the victims of the 1995 genocide have been progressively buried.

Much has been written about this terrible event.  The key protagonists are now either in gaol or at the Hague – justice having been meted out by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.   But many of those involved remain free – to the upset of the victims’ relatives. The work of excavating, identifying and burying the bodies continues.  So does the writing of the conflict’s history, and the provision of places to mourn and remember.

The taxi arrives at the Battery Factory and we enter  the complex, passing the UN Dutch Battalion headquarters sign – in the same place as it was in 1995.  Amra Begic, Head of Visitor Services, greets me warmly.  Together with the Director, Mersed Smailovic – she updates me on the last four years.  Two new historians have joined her team – Hasan Hasnaovic and Azir Osmanovic. Both survived the genocide of 1995 and lost close family members, as did Amra.

Hasan takes me to see the memorial space where two huge black structures soar into the roof-space of this 1980s Communist-era factory.  One tower contains a series of personal stories, illustrated by personal possessions of twenty of those murdered.  The other has a film, featuring the widows and mothers telling visitors something of what happened on this very spot in 1995.  The IWM helped facilitate this project – paid for by the British and Dutch governments.  But most of the work was done by Bosnians – who delivered a sensitively conceived memorial room, an important sign to relatives that their tragedy was acknowledged.

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