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….