A photograph of an old Bosniak woman — a survivor of the genocide which took place in Srebrenica — standing in front of a poster of a young Anne Frank outside the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam is just one of the powerful images which make up photographer Tarik Samarah’s exhibit in Sarajevo entitled “You Are My Witness.” As a citizen of the world, and particularly as a Jewish woman, this image struck a deep chord with me. What of ‘Never Again’ and its hollow promise? How quickly were the painful lessons of the Holocaust, unbridled prejudice and unchecked ultra-nationalism forgotten?
Thanks to my academic studies in transitional justice and my identity as a Jewish South African, I have always been fascinated by the interplay between trauma, memory and narrative. The complex historical legacy that these dual heritages hold has shaped who I am today, and I have always sought to explore the issues of justice and transformation wherever I travel. And so, on a recent trip to Bosnia, I decided to see the exhibition “You Are My Witness” currently showing at the Galerija 11/05/95 in the heart of Sarajevo — which is where I first saw that image of the older woman and the young Frank. Their image embodies my struggle to understand how the world, under the long shadow cast by the war crimes of World War II, did not do more to stop the slaughter which gripped the Balkans from 1993 to 1995. This image, just one of many on display in “You Are My Witness,” creates a profound connection between the genocide in the Balkans and the other great crime against humanity, the Holocaust, which took place on European soil.
As I entered the exhibit, I was greeted by a 16 meter wall covered in names of those massacred in the genocide of Srebrenica. This marked the beginning of a collection of photographs all taken by the talented Semerah, a Bosniak photographer from Sarajevo. Part art and part documentation, his work puts into pictures what cannot be described in words. He spent months accompanying international teams of missing persons units in 2002 as they uncovered the mass graves of Srebrenica and performed the grim task of identifying and burying the dead. Taken nearly 10 years after the genocide, Semerah’s photography not only documents this process but also the lives of the women and children who survived the genocide and now live as refugees.
Srebrenica had historically been a small town. Located in the mountainous region of eastern Bosnia, the population grew nearly six times during the war as people from the countryside came to Srebrenica for safety. In 1993, with the brutal conflict that engulfed the Balkans following the dissolution of Yugoslavia raging near Srebrencia, the area was declared a “safe zone” by the United Nations. The international community — a Bosniak majority town in a Serb enclave located near the Serbian border — promised to protect the desperate residents of Srebrenica as the Serb army advanced towards the town. Dutch soldiers were stationed in its center to act as peacekeepers. In July 1995 the town was finally captured by Serbian militia; over 8,000 people were brutally murdered in a matter of days. Among the victims were teenage boys and elderly men. The Dutch soldiers that were present, a paltry 400, had already demilitarized the local population and were themselves largely unarmed and bureaucratically constrained. In many cases they seemed to harbor their own dislike of the locals, as evinced by Semerah’s photographs of their insulting graffiti left on the walls of their barracks. Like the Holocaust, the world knew what was going on and did not step up to confront the carnage.
It has been 18 years since the genocide and still more mass graves are being uncovered. The phenomenon of primary and secondary graves complicates the process further, as perpetrators buried parts of their victims in various sites in order to mask their crimes. Over 5,000 bodies have been identified whilst over 3,000 are still waiting to undergo this process. Each year, on July 11, a collective funeral is held for the victims who have been identified. A funeral was held this year for over 409 people, including a baby just days old. Two weeks ago, I had the macabre experience of watching the graves being dug at the cemetery. This is no museum of atrocities; in Bosnia-Herzegovina the dead are still being unearthed and buried.
“You are my witness” has travelled the world telling a tale many would rather forget — much like the Holocaust. The politics of memory in the Balkans is challenging. On the rare occasion when a school group visits the gallery, the guides tell me that most of the students do not know the story of Srebrenica. This is a remarkable link to the Holocaust, too, which was not widely discussed until the 1960s, nearly two decades after the events took place.
In Bosnia today, Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks learn different syllabuses in separate classrooms. From this perspective, it is not only the events in recent history that shocks the visitor but also the way in which the country has dealt with the aftermath of the war and undergone little conflict transformation. In South Africa, our recent history is entrenched in the academic syllabus and I have had the privilege of never knowing racial separation at school. How can we as South Africans and as Jews, with the lessons of our recent histories, assist societies in moving from conflict to the type of social, economic and political transformation that, whilst not perfect, has allowed a new dispensation to be born?
“You Are My Witness” starts with portraits of the dead and ends with the heart-breaking testimony of those who endured. By moving through loss to the stories of those still with us, we are motivated to focus on learning from the past and moving forward to deal with our current reality as best we can. A timeless lesson not just for Bosnia and Herzegovina; South Africa and the Jewish people but surely for us all.
Alana Baranov is a freelance writer and human rights activist with a background in Transitional Justice. She is currently based in Durban South Africa.