Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Writing the IWPR special report on memorials to mark places of suffering connected to the 1992-1995 Bosnian war, I had the opportunity to talk to a large number of victims from different ethnic groups and heard many hard, emotional stories.
But one feeling remained with me whenever I spoke to the victims: the impression that what had shaped them and their experience most was fear. Fear to speak openly, fear that the crimes committed against them might be completely denied.
Among the bravest people I met was Emsada Mujagic from Prijedor. Herself a former prison inmate, in August 2010 she had acted as a guide to me and some friends, taking us to see some of the worst places of suffering in the Prijedor area, such as the Omarska, Keraterm and Trnopolje camps.
Prijedor is a large municipality in north-west Bosnia and an important regional centre, where prior to 1992 the ethnically-mixed population and administration included Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats.
During the war, the municipality was the site of a number of crimes, including the murder, deportation and imprisonment of non-Serb civilians, and the crimes in the camps of Omarska, Keraterm and Trnopolje have led to the conviction of several people at the Hague tribunal.
I recall how, at Trnopolje, Emsada was visibly shaken by having to go through the traumatic experiences again, sharing her pain with us. She remembered the horrible events she witnessed, showing us the place at the entrance to the camp where she had seen a young mother and her two-month-old baby killed when a Serb soldier simply opened fire on them.
She showed us places where rapes had been carried out, telling us how those summer nights of 1992 were filled with horrifying screams as weeping children and families were separated. It seemed to me as if I too were hypnotised by the pain of all that she had been through.
"We victims appreciate knowing that somebody not only cares about our suffering, but that somebody cares about having the memory of our suffering preserved," Emsada told us.
"And it's not just for us, it's first and foremost for our children. All our children. So that they all may learn from it,” she added.
The most difficult part was to get comments from people who had returned to and were currently living in their pre-war places of residence, as minorities.
They were living in areas where they had been subjected to horrible crimes, and were clearly marked by a fear of openly discussing ways of reclaiming public space to have their suffering marked and remembered.
It was striking how, when talking about their fears, they would keep saying that the people who had arrested them, imprisoned or tortured them, were still freely living side-by-side with them, and had not yet faced justice.
"How do you expect me to openly speak about this - if one of the persons who arrested me is still serving in a very important position in Prijedor municipality?" a woman called Sabiha Turkovic, who was detained at Omarska, Trnopolje and Keraterm, told me. While imprisoned, she was raped, beaten and tortured on numerous occasions.
Another man, Drago, a Bosnian Serb by nationality, whom I met on a September afternoon in a café in Sarajevo, told me the same thing. He was born and had grown up in Sarajevo, and told me about the traumatic events he lived through while imprisoned in a collection centre in Sarajevo between late 1993 and March 1994.
Drago told me he supported the construction of memorials for all victims, regardless of their ethnic origins or national identity. However, he still feared talking publicly about it.
“I have children and grandchildren. The people who arrested me, who violated my rights, are still freely walking around me. So why should my family have to suffer the consequences of my suffering during the war?” he told me.
There were many people like Drago who felt unable to talk openly about what had happened to them, telling me that they would only be free to speak when “the criminals were arrested and taken away from their surroundings”.
I felt motivated in my work – as I always do - knowing that one little story, reflecting hundreds of other stories, can make a major contribution to finding solutions for momentous issues.
I believe that personal stories, once told, could help create the atmosphere people like Emsada are fighting for, and people such as Sabiha and Drago are hoping to live in one day; an atmosphere where memory is treated with dignity, justice taken for granted and where peace is based not on denial, but on victims being able to freely express their pain.
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