Yesterday as I sat outside our little B&B in the peaceful town of Kalampaka (Greece) with the Meteora rock formations towering above, breathing the hot, dry smell of pine and cedar while cicadas ran riot with their midsummer song, I forgot for a moment how blood-soaked this continent truly is. Even here in this “thin space” where heaven and earth seem to touch? Yes, even here where the 14th century monastery Agios Stefanos monastery (St. Stephen’s) was destroyed during World War II and the Greek civil war that followed. Yes, even here, where the discovery of the prehistoric cave dwelling Theopetra gives evidence of homo sapiens vanquishing the Neanderthals who came before them.
We had thought bloodshed on a massive, genocidal, scale in “civilized Europe” had ended in 1945. We thought that, in at least this part of the world, a lesson had been learned from the horrors of Auschwitz/Birkenau, Buchenwald, Dachau, Teresienstadt, and so many hundreds more — the lesson of “Never Again!” We thought we had taken to heart the words of Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Yet just 20 years ago — within the lifetime of both my children — over 8,000 men and boys were slaughtered in and near the town of Srebrenica, Bosnia.
The cemetery at Potocari is no ordinary military cemetery. It is not the first and final resting place of brave soldiers killed in battle, like the American cemetery in Normandy. It is not the first and final resting place of veterans who lived to old age and died peacefully in their beds like so many who are buried in Arlington. In fact, Potocari cannot even rightfully be called a “military” cemetery because the majority of those buried there were civilians — including old men and young boys. They had one thing in common: they were all Bosnjaks, all Bosnian Muslims who were slaughtered on or around July 11, 1995. They were born in different years — I found dates as early as 1929 and as recent as 1980 — but they all died the same year and they all had Muslim names. And they were all killed by Serbs.
Serbs. My people. People with whom I share history, language, culture, heritage. “Serbia, that little land of ferocious heroes” was the quote under my high school yearbook picture.
Oh sure, fingers can be pointed in many different directions. All sorts of “why’s” and “yes, but’s…”: “…there were atrocities committed by all sides…”, “…there was black-marketeering within the Muslim community”, “…why did the UN stand by watching but doing nothing?…” “…why were the people of Srebrenica told that was a ‘safe zone’ without the will to back up that promise?…” “…why did the Dutch UNPROFOR commander agree to remove all the males from the evacuation convoy, naively trusting Ratko Mladic‘s assurance that he only wanted to search for ‘war criminals’?…”, “…why did the command center in Sarajevo withhold sending reinforcements?…”.
Sure, fingers an be pointed in many different directions, but one overriding fact remains: had the Bosnian Serbs (with aid from the Serbian government of Slobodan Milosevic) not started the war in the first place the other “yes, buts…” and “why’s” would be completely irrelevant. Period. End of sentence.
And for what? So that a mountainous strip of land bordering Serbia could now be called “Republika Srpska”? A strip of land in which people can drink Serbian beer and Serbian mineral water and fly nationalistic flags and have Cyrillic get top billing on road signs? So that the ethnic Serbs can scrabble out a living in an “ethnically pure” area, while the economy is in the crapper, the politicians are corrupt, and the seeds of enmity with their former friends and neighbors have now been guaranteed for generations yet to come? For what? Over 100,000 killed on all sides, hundreds of thousands of more lives traumatized — and for what?
I mentioned that Potocari cannot rightly be called a “military” cemetery because it contains the remains of thousands of civilians. I also said something about “first and final” resting place. Potocari cemetery is not the first resting place of the souls interred there. After they were systematically killed, their bodies were dumped into mass graves. Then, to hide the crimes committed there, their bodies were dug up and reburied — often twice more — in further mass graves. Their remains (mostly partial remains) and laboriously identified via DNA testing, and continue to be brought to the Potocari cemetery for proper burial each year on the anniversary of July 11, 1995. We missed the observance of the 20th anniversary by a week, but the fresh graves bore testimony to the on-going work of paying tribute to the dead.
There is only one word for this kind of systematic killing followed by an attempt to cover it up, and that word is genocide. Ironically Ratko Mladic himself said as much as he rots in jail in the Hague while his war crimes trial continues to this day: “People are not little stones, or keys in someone’s pocket, that can be moved from one place to another just like that…. Therefore, we cannot precisely arrange for only Serbs to stay in one part of the country while removing others painlessly. I do not know how Mr. Krajišnik and Mr. Karadžić will explain that to the world. That is genocide.”
So what happens now?
It’s very clear — there cannot be progress until full responsibility is claimed. Only then can the process of reconciliation begin. The groups with whom I have spoken so far get that and are doing remarkable work, but there is no official, governmental movement in that direction. Granting amnesty to the perpetrators of apartheid in South Africa without there first having been truth-telling, confession, acceptance of responsibility, would have amounted to cheap grace and would not have moved that country forward. Paradoxically, when the confessions did come in South Africa, the victims were willing to forgive — what they needed to hear was those responsible actually claiming and accepting responsibility for the evil they had done.
Here’s one of the reasons that is so crucial.
On our way back to BiH from our wonderful visit to the Plitvice lakes and waterfalls and our afternoon spent in Zagreb, S and I drove by this:
This is a monument where the Jasenovac concentration camp stood during World War II in the Nazi puppet state of the “Independent State of Croatia.” Thousands of Serbs, Jews, and Roma were systematically exterminated here or worked to death. After that war and with the formation of the Socialist Federation of Yugoslavia, no one accepted responsibility for the atrocities committed there. It was all swept under the carpet of “Brotherhood and Unity” we-all-get-along-now-because-Tito-says-we-do. And they did — until they didn’t — and all hell broke loose. And without acknowledgement of wrong-doing and acceptance of responsibility this time around, who knows what hell might break loose in the future.
No Future Without Forgiveness is both the title and the theme of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s book chronicling the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. But a basic tenet of our Christian faith is that confession always precedes forgiveness. And without that, how can there truly be a way forward?