Enveloped by the reassuring scent of mown grass, the lilting melody of birdsong, and a pleasantly warm sun in high, wispy clouds, I wander in a quiet daze, listening to the dead. To their silent, unceasing commentary. Usually the living speak for the dead--over the dead--in newspapers, memoirs, testimonies, and eulogies. Here, the dead tell their own stories, on their own territory and their own terms. They speak through objects, inanimate yet intimate. Each white stone rises about 48 inches, tapering up toward a rounded top. On the smooth surface is inscribed a name, always male, and two dates, always ending in 1995. Although mute, these grave markers form a chorus of thousands. They tell the story of Srebrenica--a place where the agony of the past pervades the present.
Srebrenica (Sreh-breh-NEET-sah), a small town in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina, lies about 10 miles from the border with Serbia. Like that of most (if not all) Westerners, my interest relates to the infamous July 1995 mass killing of approximately 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys by Serb forces. While essentially ignoring three years of slaughter, the United Nations Security
Council did designate Srebrenica a "safe area" in which encircled Muslims (now called Bosniaks) could find sanctuary. But a few hundred outgunned UN peacekeepers from the Netherlands provided only a veneer of protection, which cracked under pressure from the Bosnian Serbs. The result was the largest mass killing in Europe since the Holocaust.
I have come to Srebrenica--as a pilgrim, a voyeur, a scholar--to participate in a workshop on conflict transformation After a two-hour drive from Sarajevo, careening on narrow, mountainous roads, our group's van arrives at the Srebrenica Potocari genocide memorial. It opened in 2003, inaugurated by former president Bill Clinton. He was granted this honor even though, during the war years Americans and Europeans left Bosnia to its hellish fate. The memorial lies two miles north of Srebrenica in the village of Potocari, which was the location of the Dutch UN battalion headquarters established to protect the "safe area," on a level area surrounded by tree-covered hills--the same hills in which Serb fighters waited to trap the fleeing Bosniak men and boys. The memorial entrance is not dramatic: a grave roadside pull-off for parking, the Bosnian flag planted at the gate, and a single Bosnian soldier. Immediately inside the entrance to the left is an open-air mosque. The cemetery lies just beyond. Surveying the thousands of identical markers stretching across the...