Hatidza Mehmedovic is angry, very angry — and rightly so. Our conversation today began with an outburst of accusations against the UN, local politicians, European diplomats, international negotiators, and the people of Bosnia themselves.
Just three weeks ago, on the 15th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide which horrifically robbed the lives of over 8,000 men from eastern Bosnia, Hatidza finally buried her husband and two of her sons, aged 18 and 21. After many years of attending mass grave exhumations and identification sites, Hadidza was provided enough evidence and remains of her loved ones for a proper burial. Each year,on July 11th, survivors of Srebrenica formally bury their loved ones in what has recently become an internationally-recognized Resolution on Srebrenica, a day of mourning for the victims of genocide in Srebrenica adopted by European Parliament http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?type=TA&reference=P6-TA-2009-0028&language=EN. Such commemorations, memorials and resolutions are in very large part the work of the Mothers of Srebrenica, led by Hatidza Mehmedovic. She does not act alone, and today she brought with her another mother in the struggle, Mejra.
I told Hatidza that I had witnessed a mass protest back in March of 1996 in front of the Office of the High Representative, the office where I worked from 1996-1998. The protest march was impressive and shocking – thousands of women demanded action and accountability for their missing male family members. Husbands, sons, and brothers who had been separated from the women and taken by Serb forces, all within a UN-established “safe area,” were soon summarily executed over several days and buried in mass graves around eastern Bosnia. She rapidly responded to my comment about the protest in Sarajevo, “I was there. And I was there in 1997 and 1998, and several times after that, too.” I launched into questions about the women’s strategy…what were the overall goals? How did they organize? Why? But Hatidza would not participate in such technical and structural conversations about an issue that has become her heart and soul. She is tough as nails, and she would not cooperate so easily.
“The whole world shut their eyes in July 1995. The whole world knew what was happening.”
I believe she is right. But I won’t get into political debates here. There are many venues and resources that discuss the events that led up to the Srebrenica genocide and other massacres across Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1992-1995. What I am interested in are the individual stories of people — community organizers, although that may not be how they identify themselves. Hatidza explained how difficult life was, and how difficult it still is. She returned to Srebrenica after seeking refuge in Tuzla, then Sarajevo, and found that her house had been burned down completely. She finally offered a glimpse into her organizing:
“I formed an organization to bring back Srebrenica, so that people could return. But it is difficult to be here and see war criminals walking around freely. That is what life is like here. But our fight is so that this never happens again.”
Hatidza talked a lot about the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial and Cemetery and its importance for the mothers of victims and also for all of Bosnia and Herzegovina. http://www.war-memorial.net/mem_det.asp?ID=62 She also talked about revenge and how she believes that if justice is never served, revenge will take hold of the next generation, or the one after that. This is why Hatidza believes that returning to Srebrenica, existing there, and resisting the desire to forget and move on is so important for the future of the country, and to honor those killed.
“I won’t go. They want me to, but I will prove to them that I will stay. It is shameful that the Serbs now living here continue to deny what happened right here.”
She talked a little more about organizing. Hatidza doesn’t want to work on “projects.” The primary work of the association, she feels, is to preserve the memory of the events in 1995 in order to honor loves ones. Hatidza wants to tell the truth and educate people – and she will meet with anyone willing to listen. So she recently traveled to Berlin and met with German activist, Phillip Ruch. There, Hatidza shared her ideas with him about a “Pillars of Shame” memorial, something that would name and shame individual politicians, peacekeepers and diplomats for complicity in the Srebrenica genocide. Ruch liked her ideas and implemented them, most recently in Berlin at the Brandenburg Gate. http://www.euronews.net/nocomment/2010/07/11/anniversary/ In the future, Hatidza hopes to make the Pillars of Shame a permanent exhibit at the Srebrenic-Potocari Memorial and Cemetery.
Such actions seem provocative for many – to request 8,372 pairs of shoes from political leaders from around the world for a tribute in Srebrenica to United Nations and Western political inaction against the genocide. But Hatidza is provocative. She says what many don’t want to hear, she lives where she and others like her are not wanted, and she resists against silence and inaction. Visiting the memorial and cemetery left me outraged and humbled at the same time. I was overwhelmed not only with the sheer number of graves there, but also with the number of people left to be found and buried. The work of Hatidza and other mothers in Srebrenica resulted in the establishment of this increasingly expansive memorial.
To label Hatidza an organizer, an activist or a strategist is much too simplistic. If I had to choose one label to describer her, I would say she is a force.
Off to Tuzla tomorrow to visit other women’s organizations and identification facilities of the International Commission on Missing Persons to witness their heartbreaking, and heart healing, work.