I would like to acknowledge the victims of Srebrenica since yesterday was the 15th anniversary of the tragedy. Yesterday afternoon as I sat in a crowded cafe in Sarajevo, I watched the extensive news coverage of the memorial events at the site a couple of hours away. Around 50,000 people gathered in Srebrenica, including many world leaders and the presidents of all the countries of the former-Yugoslavia. They buried 775 victims next to the 3,749 bodies already in the cemetery. Leading up to the ceremony, 5,000 people marched for 68 miles through the Bosnian mountains. This march takes place annually, and the participants walk the same journey (except backwards) that around 15,000 people took to escape the mass killings.
Not surprisingly, the United Nations cowardly did not send any representatives to the anniversary ceremony. During the war in 1995, the UN declared Srebrenica a safe area for civilians, but this “protection” resulted in the largest mass murder since World War II. Fifteen years ago, 30,000 Bosniak Muslims sought refuge in Srebrenica, but the Republika Srpska forces arrived and made the Dutch peacekeepers let them inside. The Serbs sorted out the Muslim men and boys and killed over 8,000 of them in a massacre. A few months later in an effort to conceal what happened, the Republika Srpska army dug up the mass graves and moved the victims. The bulldozing tore apart the bodies, causing some victims’ remains to be spread across different sites. Many bodies still have not been found.
While fixated on the news coverage of the political speeches, flashing images of coffins and people overcome with emotion, one story stood out to me in particular. I learned about the project of a German NGO to build a memorial for the victims and to point blame at the UN for the massacre. Called the ‘Pillar of Shame,’ the monument is certainly not subtle. Its design features massive letters U-N made out of plexiglass, which are to be filled with 16,744 shoes representing the 8,372 victims. It will measure eight meters high, and the shoes will even have a few spaces that look like bullet holes. As the campaign in Germany for shoe donations from around the world continues, the huge collection was placed in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin this weekend for the anniversary. A small version of the letters was placed on top of the pile. When completed, the final monument will stand on the hill next to the memorial center/cemetery in Srebrenica, which opened in 2004. The Mothers of Srebrenica, a Bosnian organization for families of the victims, will decide the names of Western politicians and military leaders “to shame” by including their names on the monument. Construction should begin in May 2011.
I feel that the strongest aspect of this tribute to the victims of the massacre is the idea to include the shoes. After visiting Auschwitz/Birkenau a couple of times while living in Krakow, the part that resonated with me the most was the room that showed the personal belongings taken from camp prisoners. It would be impossible to see this display of collected shoes, or the chopped off hair in a huge pile, or the pile of eyeglasses without feeling sick over the sheer number of these objects reflecting the number of victims. Perhaps this is the origin of the idea for the inclusion of shoes in the forthcoming Srebrenica memorial. Using everyday objects to represent the number of victims will be a powerful statement in itself.
However, I am rather uneasy about the memorial’s blatant assignment of blame. These massive letters will completely change the landscape of the site and in my opinion, distract from the cemetery and memorial already in place. When I visited the memorial last year, I was overcome by the amount of names written in a stone semi-circle in a similar fashion to the Vietnam Wall in Washington DC. The number of pristine white headstones was overwhelming and even on that particular afternoon last summer, they were burying victims. Seeing the temporary headstones of the latest burials and the way the graves extended up the hill as if they ran out of space for everyone was truly a powerful sight. In a few years, people who visit the memorial will only be able to look at the massive U-N monument which will take the focus off of the victims themselves.
Pointing blame at the UN is understandable, but I think writing names of individuals who did not intervene is a step too far. The whole world knew about the war in Bosnia and ignored the tragic events that took place. Is it really necessary to list individuals? I do not think this feature of the plan should be included because I think its unfair and unnecessary. Since the purpose of this tribute is to assign blame, it should only refer to the UN or other big collective groups that should have intervened in Bosnia. In my opinion, a better option would be to blame the world in general for allowing genocide take place.
No monument, no matter how big or angry, will ease the pain of the relatives of the victims. With the Chief of the Republika Srpka army during the war Ratko Mladic still at large, justice cannot take place. Several of the speeches at the ceremony yesterday stated the urgency of his arrest and trial. The people of Bosnia cannot move forward with their grieving while knowing that a man responsible for so many deaths is still alive and free in the world. The assignment of blame should come from the Hague trials for the war criminals, not from an eight meter high monument.
The powerful images from the news combined with my discovery that the Bosniaks who live in Sarajevo are very willing and open to talk with me about the war provided a powerful first few days of my relocation to Bosnia. For more information or to support the Pillar of Shame project, please visit the website provided below.