A rose is traditionally a symbol of love and beauty. A Sarajevo rose is a concrete scar caused by a mortar shell’s explosion that was later filled with red resin. The mortars’ landing on concrete created many unique patterns around Sarajevo, each could look like a kind of floral arrangement. These “roses” are a unique feature of Sarajevo. They represent a collective memory through an artistic display of the physical scars of war.
It is not only symbols that offer a collective memory of a violent conflict or genocide. It is also the work of people, ordinary people — sometimes the victims, and often the women. My visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina will cover the work of the women of Srebrenica. But before I get to that, I want to introduce one of Sarajevo’s greatest roses, the fabulous Amra Celebic, my friend and guide throughout this trip, and an instrumental actor in the work of preserving the memory of the genocide that occurred in Srebrenica in 1995.
I met Amra in 1996 when she was 20 years old. She was a bubbling receptionist – the first face one sees when entering the newly-established Office of the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina http://www.ohr.int/ . Her attitude, and the image she portrayed for this multinational diplomatic office, was all about life. Like many young people in Bosnia and Herzegovina back in 1996, Amra survived four years of war. The years that most young women spend dating, enjoying parties, and studying were replaced with preoccupations of school closures and underground classes, shortages of water and electricity, or losing friends and families caught by the deluge of mortar attacks and sniper fire that engulfed Sarajevo between 1992-1995.
For over a decade, Amra worked for the Office of the High Representative, supporting six different representatives from six different EU countries. Her work on the exhumation process began in 1999 – supporting the search for missing persons and exhuming bodies from mass graves. This required visits to Srebrenica and other war crimes sites around Bosnia and Herzegovina, and frequent communications with associations, assisting the work of the local commissions in this process. Strange to have the job title of Assistant Exhumations Coordinator at the age of 24?!
Amra later worked on the coordination between the international community and the families of Srebrenica during the establishment of the Srebrenica Potocari Memorial and Cemetery. Amra served as Executive Assistant for War Crimes and Human Rights Issues where she was an active coordinator of the Srebrenica Commission, a governmental institution tasked to officially archive and report on the events of July 1995. Five years later, she coordinated the work of the Foundation of Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial and Cemetery.
Amra possesses an interesting mix of vivaciousness and humility. She doesn’t like to brag about her work, and she doesn’t want to take credit for any success, because she sees it as gaining benefit from other women’s tragedy. Amra was uncomfortable with talking about her work, but I pushed a little bit. She opened up and reflected on her work:
“How many people could work in a diplomatic institution and make a real impact? I saw this work as a way to contribute directly to MY country. How priceless is it to have a woman who lost a child during the war say to you, “thank you for helping me bury my son.”
It is not completely a success story. Sometimes the women of Srebrenica do not communicate enough with each other. Amra believes they could achieve so much more if they worked together.
“The best part of my work in Srebrenica was working with young people. So many of us in Bosnia and Herzegovina complain about everything – work, love life, money, politics. But you speak to these young victims who lost both parents, and they address their problems rather than sit around complaining. They are the real survivors, and they treasure life.”
The work of memory, as I am discovering, is often done by women. It is a form of resistance because oppressors, former aggressors, and peacekeepers who failed to “protect”, want to move ahead…they want all parties to “put the past behind them.” The Srebrenica women associations focus on memorializing the truth about what happened in July of 1995. They fight to find, exhume and bury their loved ones, but not bury the past.
Amra and I will travel to Srebrenica next week. There, I will get to hear first-hand from the women themselves about what they have done, why, and how. I will explore their forms of resistance, understand their methods, and learn what they believe is their ultimate goal.
Sarajevo roses are symbolic, concrete scars of heavy shelling and siege that people died or suffered through. And Srebrenica roses are women…living memorials of the pain of war combined with the amazing strength to persistently fight for truth and justice.