Category Archives: Bosnia-Herzegovina

EIHR interview

On Friday, December 2, Drew Beiter and I gave an interview on genocide education and the work of the Educators’ Institute for Human Rights on WILI AM radio’s The Wayne Norman Show. To hear the interview, click on the link below (also posted to the right).


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Filed under Bosnia-Herzegovina, genocide education, holocaust, human rights, rwanda

Ramo the Baker

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One of the best aspects of attending Summer University Srebrenica was staying in the community.  Srebrenica is small.  Even a tourist staying for a week quickly runs into the same faces around town.  For us, this was made personal through our connection with Semso.

 Semso is a graduate student studying in Trieste.  His brother was killed during the genocide, and he and his parents refugeed to Italy when they were able to leave the UN camp in Tuzla.  Semso joined the Summer University Srebrenica program as a student, but it also constituted his first return to Srebrenica in sixteen years.  Spending any afternoon with him walking through town brought a barrage of warm greetings and open invitations.  A whole post devoted to Semso is in order, but let’s start with this one: 

 Early in the trip, my power converter blew.  Semso walked me through three different businesses in search of a replacement.  The first had nothing, the second included clerks who feigned ignorance as they didn’t want to help a Bosniak and an American, and the third honestly told us that the best place to look was up the road in Bratunac.  Semso promised we’d take care of it through his friends.  Once all avenues had been exhausted for the day, we sat down for coffee with Semso’s Imam, who returned to the Serb-dominated hamlet with his wife and small children to restore the mosque in 2005.  He invited us to services, as well as the dedication ceremony of the new mosque to take place in a few days.  We did attend service, but found ourselves in a workshop on the day of the dedication ceremony. 

 Later that evening, Semso introduced us to Ramo.  Known as the “Bread Man,” Ramo worked in a bakery just before the invasion in 1992.  He knew the back roads well from driving his delivery route, and managed to continue bringing bread to the Bosniak soldiers and civilians as the Serbs invaded.  He is best known for one particular event, though.  There was a point early in the war when peace appeared to have been achieved.  School children ran out on the playground to celebrate.  Serb soldiers picked them off with sniper fire from the nascent hills. Ramo begged the Canadian soldiers then in residence for a helmet, ran onto the black top, and carried injured children to the hospital. 

 Ramo joined us in the twilight for a trip just south of Srebrenica to a memorial being built to the Bosniak soldiers at the front line of the first assault.  On our way up the hill, we stopped to pay respects to the grave of the Dutch soldier lost in the conflict.  Our party included both Semso and Ramo, as well as Ynse, a former Dutch Batt UN soldier who’d been taken hostage by the Serbs.  After taking a moment at the gravesite to remember Ynse’s brother-in-arms, we stopped at the farm of one of Ramo’s friends…an impressively fertile piece of land with a tarp-greenhouse.  Nicholas welcomed Ramo with open arms, and brought us all into the green house to admire his abundance.  Outside once again, Ramo explained that they had fought against each other in the war.  They take pride in their friendship now.

 Ramo extended an invitation to stay on his farm, but we returned to the town of Srebrenica.  He told me he thought he might have an adaptor to fit my American plug, and if so, he would bring it to the hotel the next day.

 True to his word, Ramo arrived on the patio of the hotel at nine in the morning.   He didn’t find an adaptor, but would drive me to Bratunac to find one.  Semso encouraged me to jump into the van, and off we went…about ten miles to Bratunac.  We did not speak one word beyond “OK?” for Ramo and “Fala” (thank you) for me, in common.  Still, as he pointed out important sites along the way, we seemed to do fine. 

Our first stop was the cell phone store.  He needed to get a repair, and they might have the adaptor I was looking for….no luck.  We moved on to the marketplace.  It reminded me of the market in Morogoro, Tanzania, where my daughter served in the Peace Corps….but European.  Crowds parted before Ramo…glad handing, back slapping, patting the heads of small children…we stopped at a couple of vendors to enquire about my adaptor with no luck. 

 Finally, we came to a kiosk at the back of the market.  The men swarmed around my computer cable, murmuring and shaking their heads.  A woman at the cash register stopped, took one look, and pointed at a bin at floor level.  There they were.  A whole tray full.  Ramo gestured to buy two…I agreed, paid, and we left with much thanks to the woman at the register. 

Ah, but we were not done…

 Back to the cell phone shop…his phone was not yet repaired.  So we drove around a couple of blocks to a, um, restaurant.  Ramo introduced me to a friend of his seated at a table on the outdoor patio.  They both offered me a beer.  By this time, it still was not yet ten in the morning….the lamb was roasting on the spit, plenty of men were enjoying the fine weather, and I decided that the bottle of water I had with me would suffice for the moment.  Ramo loaded the van with small tables, presumably for some other bistro back in Srebrenica…and joined us, holding two beers in his hand.  Again, I opted for the spring water.  After a bit, Ramo gesture that the man I was sitting with had been an adversary during the war.  They both laughed, smiled, and indicated that they were now friends. 

Next, we stopped for gas…not just in the tank, but in a five gallon jerry-can tucked into the space between the café tables in the back.  I will own that the question of safety crossed my mind as we left the station…Last, we picked up Ramo’s repaired cell phone and headed back to Srebrenica.  All in all, a productive morning, free of incendiary incidnent.

More on Semso’s story to follow….

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Filed under Bosnia-Herzegovina, genocide education, human rights, Uncategorized

Starting the notes from Vienna

I’m parked at a table with a power hook-up in the Vienna Airport, with pages of notes, my iPod, and a bottle of water.  Time to start filling in the gaps.

Inbound, I started reading Richard Holbrook’s book, To End A War and taking notes. I won’t go through the content here, but do recommend it.  An Amazon link is in the sidebar as a resource.

Sakiba and Bakir

Certainly everyone you meet in Bosnia brings a personal story.  Bakir and Sakiba were recommended as owner/operators of a reliable travel agency in Sarajevo (Sirius Travel, again, link in sidebar).  Their story is remarkable.  Bakir served as a tank commander in the Yugoslav military in the ‘80’s and in Central Command during the Balkan War.  Sakiba gave birth to their son in the midst of the siege of Sarajevo in 1992, during a black out as the hospital was being bombed.  Later, she worked as a translator and coordinated convoys for the UNHCR, steering negotiations between Serb, Bosniak, and Croat middlemen on a regular basis.  After the war, they moved to Florida for ten years, returning to Bosnia in 2005 to start their business. 

National Library under renovation

In the photo, the building covered in scaffolding shows the National Library under renovation. Targeted for destruction in an extensive bombing campaign early in the war, Sakiba vividly remembers this event.  Charred leaves wafted from their bindings into her yard for days afterward. 

All these years later, the travel business does well, and their son returns to the States to attend college this fall. Bakir guided my travel from Srebrenica to Sarajevo, where we met up with Sakiba for dinner on the last night.  As you can imagine, his perspective on the landscape, both political and geographic, was invaluable.  Together, they are impressive ambassadors.

Upon arrival in Srebrenica the first day of the trip, Bakir and I discovered Muhamed Durakovic, the director of the Summer University Srebrenica , on the hotel porch.  He brought me to a lecture in progress on the nature of multi-culturalism , for which I was unable to write coherent notes (apologies). 

Our presentations took place in the battery factory which served as the UN “Dutch Batt” barracks during the war. Some of the space is dedicated to museum exhibitions on public display; on a couple of occasions, we sat in the small film theater within the larger hall, sometimes in a meeting room in the area which housed the medical facility for the base. 

Dutch Batt base

The first full presentation after arrival came from an investigator for the Bosnian State Prosecutor’s Office, Team 6 Srebrenica (and once again, linked right).  Simon Farmer recently retired from the West Yorkshire Police in the UK and applies his experience as a detective to uncovering evidence of genocide and mass atrocities.  Unlike working on recent, individual crimes, investigating such large scale killing sixteen years later presents a unique set of challenges, as one might imagine.  For instance, the day before his presentation, he’d arrived in Srebrenica responding to a report from locals to recover human remains dragged to the earth’s surface by feral dogs. 

For those of us who have read James Waller’s work or heard him speak, several parallels appeared.  Investigator Farmer stated anecdotally that the difference, from his perspective, between military training in the democratized west, which allows some room for recognition of the limits of authority, and that from a Communist model, where, when orders are not followed, the potential for mortal consequences prevails, accounts to some degree for an ability to submit to becoming perpetrators of mass atrocities.  His office recognizes that the personnel they interrogate are often those same “rank and file” men we’ve learned about from both Waller and Christopher Browning.  While questioning, Team 6 tries to take into account the subtleties between those who “followed orders” and those who were “more than shooters”, although of course the analysis of that distinction is determined at a higher level.  Reviewing Waller’s “Model of How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing”, all three of the proximate influences he suggests clearly match Investigator Farmer’s experience.

Investigator Farmer fields questions post-presentation

Working with victims presents its own challenges.  The balance between the need to build a preponderance of evidence and to respect the trauma that recounting such evidence causes victims requires personal diplomacy and compassion. “To me as an investigator, it’s a frustration, but I can understand their position,” he told us.  Two weeks ago, for example, a primary witness received word that her husband’s remains had been found.  He and their oldest son died during the marches in Srebrenica.  She and their younger son, a special needs child, had remained at the compound.  In the chaos, a Serb soldier killed the younger son “in a particularly brutal manner” in front of her, in retaliation for a dispute with her husband 11 years before the war.  She just couldn’t talk about it, she told Investigator Farmer, because it was “too much to bear.”

Some victims still may be the target of threats, as well. On some occasions, witnesses testify to one set of events with the investigator, but then change the testimony once they are in court.  Evidence of intimidation is hard to come by, so this poses additional obstacles to holding perpetrators accountable.

When asked about the role of the state court in relation to the ICTY, he stated that lesser charges tend to come to the state court to avoid “double jeopardy”.  Even so, while of course the primary purpose is accountability for offenders, this office also gathers information that collectively contributes to a larger picture, such as the current case against Radko Mladic. For example, interviewing a witness who is a driver, the line of questions might start in response to a statement about a purchase of fuel:

            What was the fuel for?

            -an excavator

            Why did you need an excavator?

            -to dig a hole

            What was the hole for?

…and you can take it from there.

Investigator Farmer shared the power point presentation slides, including mapping details and staff structure within the office (number of teams, responsibilities, etc.).  Especially history teachers, please do touch base and I can pass along more specific detail from that material.


Filed under Bosnia-Herzegovina, genocide education, human rights