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The Story of Rasema


Laila Zulkaphil | Posted August 28th, 2010 | Uncategorized

Bosfam has been very quiet since the commemoration of the Srebrenica massacre. The women who had a painful experience of burying their relatives on July 11 are taking some time off from work to relax and re-center, while many others decided to stay at home to fast during the month of Ramadan. One of the very few women who have been coming to Bosfam regularly during this quiet period is Rasema Germic. She is the youngest one among the Bosfam women and a very talented and dedicated weaver.

Rasema is from Bratunac, a small town in eastern Bosnia. She got married shortly before the war and moved to live in a nearby town called Milići. When her town was ethnically cleansed in 1993, she fled to the UN-protected “safe area” in Srebrenica with her husband and two-year-old son. After seeking refuge in Srebrenica for 11 days, Rasema arrived in Tuzla with her son on a humanitarian aid truck. It was the first vehicle to transport refugees from Srebrenica to Tuzla. Since men were not allowed to get on the aid truck, Rasema’s husband remained in Srebrenica. She did not see Mustafa until after six months.

Upon arriving in Tuzla, Rasema stayed in a school building in a nearby village called Banovići. Her father-in-law, who was living and working in Germany at the time, came to Bosnia to take Rasema and her son to Germany. Rasema was stopped in Kladanj on her way to Germany and was not allowed to travel further as she did not possess the necessary paperwork; she had not been able to take all the documents with her when she was expelled from her home. Therefore, she returned to Tuzla, obtained the necessary documents, and made another attempt to leave the country. Once again, the attempt was unsuccessful because all the roads had been blocked by Serb forces.

Meanwhile, Rasema’s husband, Mustafa was trying to escape from Srebrenica. He stayed in Srebrenica for about three months following Rasema’s departure and was able to exchange letters with her through the Red Cross relief workers. Then he fled Srebrenica with a group of approximately 90 men. They traveled at least 110 kilometers (68 miles) between Srebrenica and Tuzla on foot. This extremely dangerous journey took three months, and only 30 out of the 90 men managed to survive. While some men died from hunger, sickness, and exhaustion, most were killed by attacking Serb troops. Mustafa says that a common trap used by Serb troops was to cover themselves up and dress like Muslim women and when the refugee men approached for help, the troops immediately shot them.

Finally, Rasema and Mustafa were reunited in Tuzla and have been living there since then. Mustafa got a job at the police station and Rasema has been working at Bosfam. They now have two children – a 19-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl. The loss of many relatives, friends, and neighbors in the Srebrenica genocide of July 1995 exacerbated Rasema and Mustafa’s pain and suffering. Nevertheless, they are working hard to rebuild their lives and are trying to stay optimistic.

One Response to “The Story of Rasema”

  1. Evelyn says:

    I really appreciate making this post of a real life story about what had happen during those past time. It is really hard for all the war victims to start again out from nothing. This is really painful to think of. For us men, when this article mentioned about the guys must stay and doesn’t have to be in the truck, I will cry probably seeing my wife and son vanishing from my sight. I can’t imagine what sacrifices they made by this time. :(

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Bosfam’s Director


Laila Zulkaphil | Posted August 2nd, 2010 | Uncategorized

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Munira “Beba” Hadžić, the director of Bosfam, had a very comfortable life before the war. She was a math teacher and the principal of the Srebrenica primary school. She had a beautiful apartment in the center of Srebrenica and a vacation house by the lake, where Beba and her family spent every summer weekend swimming and relaxing.

The Srebrenica primary school, where Beba used to be the principal and a math teacher before she was expelled
The Srebrenica primary school, where Beba used to be the principal and a math teacher before she was expelled

When the war started in 1992, her life changed forever. In May of that year, Beba gathered her family in her apartment and switched off the lights in order not to attract attention. They were sitting in the darkness silently, when the Bosnian Serb soldiers broke into the apartment and expelled them from Srebrenica. The women were deported on a bus to Bratunac, while the men were taken away for massacre, just like the Srebrenica genocide which would take place 3 years later. Fortunately, Beba’s husband escaped death with the help of a Serb friend who drove him out of Srebrenica. Her sisters were not as lucky as her, and the bodies of their husbands today rest at the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial Center.

Beba and her husband were reunited in Bratunac and stayed with a friend for about 10 days. They finally managed to arrive in Tuzla after hiding in the back of a truck for 24 hours, without any possibility to eat, drink, or even move. When the truck stopped at checkpoints, Beba could hear the Serb soldiers laughing and pounding on the back of the truck.

Beba could not believe that war, something that she only saw on the news, was happening right in her own country. For the first time in her life, she felt like she had no control over her life. Then, a small incident in Tuzla altered her perceptions. When Beba was visiting the Tuzla stadium which was used as a refugee camp during the war, one of her former students from Srebrenica recognized her and called her “Director!” Someone calling her a director meant so much to Beba at that moment. She realized that although she was deprived of her material possessions, she was not deprived of her skills and qualifications. She believed that she could do something to change things, to make things better.

Soon, Beba joined the British relief agency Oxfam and started helping out the war-affected civilians. When Oxfam left Bosnia, Beba stayed and established her own NGO named Bosfam, which today provides psychosocial and economic assistance to women displaced by the war. “Bosfam is an organization for Bosnian women, not just Bosniak women. That is our biggest strength,” says Beba.

Beba speaks at an international conference in Sarajevo
Beba speaks at an international conference in Sarajevo

Even in the midst of the turmoil, violence, and atrocities in Bosnia, Beba never thought of leaving her country. She was invited to speak at the World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. An Australian couple who was very moved by Beba’s presentation offered to “adopt” her. They wanted to take her directly to Australia and promised to find a way to bring Beba’s husband and son from Bosnia. However, Beba politely declined the offer. She tells me, “Bosnia is not the best country in the world, but it is my country. I have the responsibility to stay and work towards the well-being of Bosnia.”

Beba is certainly one of the strongest women I have ever met; she is strong in all possible meanings of the word – emotionally, physically, intellectually, and so on. During the war, she lost everything that she owned and it took her years to rebuild her life. She cannot celebrate national holidays anymore because every holiday is a day when her relative died or a horrendous massacre took place. Despite all the pain and hardship she has been through, Beba is quite a cheerful woman. She even tells jokes about the war. I simply cannot help but admire her.

Beba looks for her relative at the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial Center
Beba looks for her relative at the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial Center

However, Beba is not an exception; she is only one of the many strong Bosnian women. All the members of Bosfam have their own incredible stories. Those are the stories of women who, despite losing their husbands, sons, fathers, or brothers in the brutal massacre of Srebrenica, brought their young children safely to Tuzla and raised them as well-educated men and women. Those are the stories of women who are helping each other and others struggle against economic difficulties and psychological trauma that have been haunting them since the war. It has been a great pleasure for me to be among these amazing women.

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A day in a refugee center


Laila Zulkaphil | Posted July 24th, 2010 | Uncategorized

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The Bosnian war led to the displacement of over 2 million people or half the country’s population. Many of these people have returned to their pre-war homes, while 117,000 people remain internally displaced and 7,500 of them are still living in refugee centers.

Mihatovići refugee center
Mihatovići refugee center

I visited Mihatovići, one of the main refugee centers in Bosnia and the largest one in the Tuzla canton. Nezira, a Bosfam weaver, has been living in Mihatovići for the past 14 years. Two of her daughters have married and moved out, and she now lives with her youngest daughter, Almedina. Almedina brought me to Mihatovići and showed me what has become her home since she was six years old.

For a first-time visitor like me, getting to the refugee center was quite a challenge. As Mihatovići is situated on a hill about 10km from the city of Tuzla, our trip involved riding a crowded bus for 30 min and hiking for about 20 min. Climbing up a steep hill in the heat of 35°C (95F) was certainly no fun.

Refugee women under the shade
Refugee women under the shade

Mihatovići was built in 1993 with Norwegian aid. Once, the residents of this collective center numbered in thousands, but now it is a home to approximately 500 people. Most of them are from Srebrenica and the nearby towns such as Bratunac and Zvornik. The center consists of two-story houses neatly lined up in rows and colored in blue, pink, or yellow. Each house has four apartments, and each apartment is occupied by one family. However, when a large number of people arrived in Mihatovići in 1995, three families had to live in one apartment. This meant that up to 20 people shared a small two-bedroom apartment with an open kitchen and a bathroom.

At the refugee center, I saw mostly women, children, and elders. The prevalence of households headed by females is partly explained by the fact that many of the Mihatovići residents are survivors of the Srebrenica massacre. Employment among these women is very low; they support themselves and their families based on limited social welfare payments.

Besides the refugee houses, Mihatovići has two little grocery shops and a primary school. When children finish the primary school, they start commuting to Tuzla for continuation of their education. A doctor comes only on Tuesdays, despite the large number of sick elders who need regular medical care. When I visited Mihatovići, the residents hadn’t had running water for three days; a nearby spring had become their only source of water. There is no government representation or a person in charge of the collective center. If people have a problem such as lack of water, they try to solve it on their own or simply wait until the problem is resolved by itself. The government used to provide food, clothes, and bus tickets, but now accommodation is the only thing that the refugees receive free of charge.

Bosnia plans to close all collective centers by 2014 in order to facilitate the return of refugees. However, many refugees, especially those from the Srebrenica area, do not want to return. The complete destruction of the town’s economy, drastic change of ethnic composition, and the occasional harassment of returnees make Srebrenica nothing like what it was before the war. The government and some aid organizations provide assistance to the refugees only if they want to return to their pre-war homes. If they choose to live in a different place, they are on their own.

If Mihatovići is closed down, Nezira will go to Srebrenik to live with her elder daughter, instead of returning to her house near Srebrenica. Every day, she will have to commute to Tuzla for an hour and a half to work at Bosfam. The condition in Mihatovići is not pleasant, but closing it down and pushing the refugees to return to a dead town like Srebrenica is not a durable solution to displacement. It seems like the world has forgotten about Bosnian refugees. Perhaps it is because Bosnia is no longer a hot spot like Afghanistan or Sudan.

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Hope for lasting memory


Laila Zulkaphil | Posted July 14th, 2010 | Uncategorized

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The women of Bosfam, most of whom lost their relatives in the Srebrenica massacre, have finished weaving 15 Memorial Quilts before the 15th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. The quilts altogether commemorate about 300 victims and are intended to keep the memory of the massacre alive, raise awareness of the tragedy of Srebrenica, and serve as an advocacy tool for justice. The 14th Memorial Quilt commemorates 20 child victims under the age of 16 and is woven in white symbolizing the children’s innocence, while the 15th Memorial Quilt commemorates 20 women who were killed because they decided to stay with their husbands and other male relatives.

Srebrenica Memorial Quilts displayed at the 15th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre
Srebrenica Memorial Quilts displayed at the 15th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre

“The relatives of the victims are concerned that their loved ones will soon be forgotten because they are dead. By writing the victims’ names on carpets, we make sure that the world does not forget them,” says Munira Beba Hadžić, the director of Bosfam. “These Memorial Quilts are our hope for lasting memory.”

The Srebrenica Memorial Quilts were displayed on July 11th just across the street from the Memorial Center, outside the building where the bodies of the 775 victims were kept before they were transported for burial. A number of victims commemorated by Bosfam’s quilts were buried at the ceremony on Sunday. Among them were Rudolf Hren (Memorial Quilt 9), a Catholic victim whom I mentioned in my previous blog, and the family of Hatidže Mehmedović (Memorial Quilt 11), the president of the association “Mothers of Srebrenica.” One son of Hatidže Mehmedović was buried without his head, while the other son was buried without arms and legs.

Hatidže Mehmedović (courtesy of the Srebrenica Genocide Blog)
Hatidže Mehmedović (courtesy of the Srebrenica Genocide Blog)

Also buried on Sunday was the family of Hasan Nuhanović (Memorial Quilt 1), who worked as an interpreter for the Dutchbat during the war. Many people know Hasan Nuhanović by his book Under the UN Flag: The International Community and the Srebrenica Genocide. When Mladić’s army separated the men and women of Srebrenica who sought refuge at the Dutchbat headquarters in Potočari, Hasan asked Dutchbat for protection of his family. However, his request was refused and his family was ordered to leave the base. Hasan’s father, Ibro Nuhanović, was identified and buried four years ago. He was found in one of the 13 mass graves at Kamenica. This year, his mother and brother were identified and buried. The mother, Nasiha Nuhanović, was exhumed from under the garbage at the creek at Jarovlje. All his life, Hasan has regretted that he hadn’t done enough to save his family. He regrets that he hadn’t put a gun to the Dutchbat general’s head and said, “No, my family will stay here.”

We cannot do anything to alter the horrific fate of the Nuhanović family, and we cannot do much to alleviate the pain and suffering of Hasan Nuhanović. But what we can do is to make sure that the world knows their story and that a similar fate will not fall upon anyone else. I am glad that Bosfam is doing this, and I am glad to be part of that effort.

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The world commemorates the 15th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre


Laila Zulkaphil | Posted July 13th, 2010 | Uncategorized

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Two days ago, I attended the largest mass burial in the modern history of Europe. 775 newly identified victims were buried at the Memorial Center in Potočari on the 15th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. The youngest person buried on Sunday was 14, while the oldest was 78.

775 victims were buried on 11 July 2010
775 victims were buried on 11 July 2010

This year’s ceremony was special also because a Croat victim was among the persons buried. Rudolf Hren’s burial was led by a Catholic Priest from Tuzla, while the burial of 774 Muslims was led by the Grand Mufti of Bosnia.

Despite the extreme heat of the day, the ceremony was attended by more than 50,000 people, about twice the number of last year’s attendees. The event also gathered a large number of heads of states and other senior officials, including the presidents of Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Slovenia; prime ministers of Turkey and Belgium; foreign ministers of France and Malaysia; and the US Ambassador to Bosnia.

All the speeches delivered at the Memorial Center had a common message – the world shamefully failed to prevent the Srebrenica massacre and we need to make sure that such a tragedy will not happen again. In his address read by Ambassador Charles English, President Obama called the Srebrenica massacre “a stain on our collective conscience” and stated that “there can be no lasting peace without justice.”

President Obama continued, “We have a sacred duty to remember the cruelty that occurred here, and to prevent such atrocities from happening again. We have an obligation to victims and to their surviving family members. And we have a responsibility to future generations all over the globe to agree that we must refuse to be bystanders to evil; whenever and wherever it occurs, we must be prepared to stand up for human dignity.” It could not have been more beautifully said. But then again, easier said than done.

More than 50,000 people attended the commemoration
More than 50,000 people attended the commemoration

The attendance of Serbian President Boris Tadić received quite some attention. He was even seen weeping during a meeting with a group of mothers who lost their relatives in Srebrenica. I do not know if his tears were sincere, but I commend his attendance. I commend the message he was trying to send the world by his presence and his meeting with the families of victims. Whereas the Serbian Parliament apologizes for the Srebrenica massacre and the Serbian President attends the commemoration, Republika Srpska still claims that the numbers on Srebrenica are manipulated and accuses the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) for being biased and identifying a disproportionately large number of Muslim victims. How can they be biased when all they find in the mass graves are Muslims?

When I saw a group of women wearing black dresses and holding a large black cloth which said “We will not forget the genocide in Srebrenica” (Da ne zaboravimo genocid u Srebrenici), I immediately recognized that they were Women in Black from Belgrade. Women in Black are the only group from Serbia which has been attending the anniversary of the massacre every year. They only missed the first such commemoration in 2003 because the Serbian border control did not allow them to enter Bosnia and Herzegovina due to the purpose of their travel.

Women in Black from Belgrade
Women in Black from Belgrade

After the 10th mass burial of Srebrenica victims on Sunday, there are now 4,524 graves at the Potočari Memorial Center. About 3,700 body bags are awaiting identification at the ICMP morgue in Tuzla. In addition, 400 persons have been officially identified but were net buried on Sunday as their families decided to wait until more body parts are found. The ICMP and local authorities have started excavation of a new mass grave under a garbage dump near the village of Zalazje.

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Horrors and Hopes of Srebrenica


Laila Zulkaphil | Posted June 28th, 2010 | Uncategorized

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I have lost count of how many papers I have written and how many books I have read about the Srebrenica massacre. I probably mentioned the name Srebrenica in almost every paragraph of this blog. Only last week, however, I had the chance to visit the site of this most horrible atrocity in Europe since the Second World War.

It normally takes about an hour to get to Srebrenica from Tuzla, but the trip I took with my director lasted longer as we had a couple of stops on our way. Our first stop was the contentious “Fata’s church” in a small village named Konjević Polje in the municipality of Bratunac. Fata Orlović is a Bosniak Muslim who was driven out of her home during the ethnic cleansing of Eastern Bosnia. When she returned to her pre-war home in 2000, she found a Serb Orthodox church in her front yard. Since then, Fata has been struggling to remove the church from her land despite persecution and physical assault. Three years ago, BBC reported that the government of Republika Srpska had promised a solution and that the church would soon be relocated. The fact that the church is still standing in front of her house indicates that Fata’s battle is not yet over.

"Fata's Church"
"Fata's Church"

Then we took a moment to look at the warehouse in Kravica village where an estimated 1,000-1,500 Muslim men and boys from Srebrenica were massacred on 13 July 1995. The Bosnian Serb forces locked these individuals in the warehouse, fired with machine guns, and threw hand grenades into the building. The bodies of the victims were found in several different mass graves in the region, including the 80th mass grave discovered recently. I did not dare to approach the warehouse; simply looking at it gave me enough chills. I was surprised to see residential houses in the near surrounding. How can one wake up every morning and look at this slaughterhouse through their bedroom window – that’s something I cannot understand.

Perhaps the most overwhelming sight was the Memorial Center in Potočari where more than 5,000 persons killed during the Srebrenica massacre are now buried. When I entered the Memorial Center, I was immediately surrounded by perfectly lined up white marble tombstones; there were so many of them that I could not see the other end of the cemetery. As I took a walk in the Memorial Center, I read the names and birthdates on the tombstones. Sometimes almost an entire row consisted of family members with the same last name. In some rows I saw an open spot reserved for a missing person, so that he could be buried next to his father or brother once his body is found and identified.

Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial Center
Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial Center

Just across the road from the Memorial Center is the former headquarters of the Dutchbat – a battalion of Dutch peacekeepers responsible for defending Srebrenica which had been declared a UN safe area. It is also where more than 400 fully armed Dutchbat soldiers simply stood and watched as Mladić’s army separated the men of Srebrenica from the women and young children and took them away for mass execution. I took some photos of the site of the international community’s failure to prevent yet another genocide and continued to move towards Srebrenica.

Former Dutchbat Headquarters in Potočari
Former Dutchbat Headquarters in Potočari

As we approached Srebrenica, I could not help but notice the buildings shelled, bombed, and destroyed during the war. Not far from the road, I saw a staircase; it used to lead to someone’s home, but now it stood alone marking the horrors of the recent war. The forest and mountains surrounding Srebrenica were breathtaking, but the town was by far the saddest place I have ever been to. On the other hand, progress of reconstruction was visible. Not a single mosque survived the war in Srebrenica, but I saw at least two new mosques in the town center standing next to Orthodox churches. The returnees are slowly settling down and contributing to the recovery and reconstruction of Srebrenica. I could tell that Srebrenica was once a beautiful and harmonious town, and hopefully it will be again soon.

Srebrenica - houses bombed and shelled during the war
Srebrenica - houses bombed and shelled during the war

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“Working with dead people is easy”


Laila Zulkaphil | Posted June 18th, 2010 | Uncategorized

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The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) was established in 1996 to address the issue of missing persons due to the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. Although its mandate has been expanded geographically, ICMP’s largest project remains the identification of persons who went missing during the Srebrenica massacre of July 1995. The Tuzla branch of ICMP is responsible for this lengthy and complicated process.

My new friend Laura, a Canadian anthropologist who works at ICMP in Tuzla, was very kind to spare some time to give me a tour of her workplace. The first room we saw was a large morgue which had about 5,000 body bags representing more than 1,500 persons awaiting identification. Human bones were placed in white bags, while yellow bags contained the victims’ clothes. I had seen photos of the ICMP morgue many times before, but being there myself and standing in front of those 1,500 individuals – once sons, brothers, and husbands but now mere bones lying on the cold shelves of a morgue – was nothing like looking at pictures. The feeling was indescribable.

ICMP has so far identified 732 persons since July 11 of last year and expects that the number may reach up to 750 by the 15th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. This is the largest number of persons to be buried at the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial at once.

The books and reports I read about the Bosnian war several years ago indicated that 7,000 Bosniak men and boys were killed during the Srebrenica massacre. The international community has recently raised the number to 8,000. However, we know that 6,000 persons have already been identified and buried, and another 1,500 persons are awaiting identification in the ICMP morgue in Tuzla. Still more mass graves are found around Srebrenica almost every year, and local authorities are exhuming another one at this moment. This easy math makes me think that even 8,000 is too small a number.

These numbers also disprove the Bosnian Serb explanation of the Srebrenica massacre. Serbs have argued that persons found in these mass graves are not victims of a single massacre, but were brought from different parts of Bosnia during the war and buried around Srebrenica to make it look like a serious mass crime had taken place. The fact is that people from Srebrenica and the nearby towns reported their missing relatives after July 1995, and these missing individuals have been identified with more than 99% accuracy using DNA samples.

Before the DNA method was introduced at ICMP in 2001, it tried to identify missing persons using clothes and other belongings. ICMP printed a thick book containing the photos of clothes and belongings obtained from exhumed bodies and asked people to identify their missing relatives by looking at the items. However, many of these items were not unique. For instance, a large number of the victims had exactly the same black shoes which they obtained from aid agencies when they were refugees during the war. This slow and inaccurate identification process was completely transformed with the introduction of the DNA method. Whereas only 52 persons were identified in 2001 with the old method, 518 persons were identified in 2002 thanks to the new method. The first person to be identified using DNA was a 16-year-old boy.

. The book of clothes from victims

Even with this much superior method, identification of the Srebrenica victims has not been a simple task. One relative of a victim is usually not enough to issue a DNA matching report. However, it is difficult to obtain DNA samples from multiple relatives because many Bosniaks left the country during the war and those who are in distant countries like Australia do not often come back to visit Bosnia. Some victims will never be identified because their entire families are dead.

Another challenge is that not all parts of a human body can give a useful DNA sample. Better DNA results are obtained from teeth and lower body parts. Those parts from which a DNA sample cannot be obtained are called ossuary material and can range from toe bones to entire upper part of a human body.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is that it is extremely rare to find the Srebrenica victims’ whole bodies. The Bosnian Serb Army dug up the primary mass graves and reburied the bodies in secondary and tertiary mass graves in order to conceal the extent of the crimes they had committed. Bodies from primary mass graves have all been identified. By contrast, bodies from secondary and tertiary mass graves are hard to identify because the body parts have been not only separated but also damaged. The Serbs most probably dug up the primary graves with large machines and dumped the bodies in a truck to move them somewhere else, as a result of which the bones were broken and completely mixed.

Due to this challenge, many people decide to bury the partial bodies of their relatives. However, ICMP has found the remnants of 500 persons already buried at the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial. Some families decided to re-exhume the graves of their relatives to add the remaining body parts, but they later regretted that if they had known how traumatic this process would be, they would not have opted for re-exhumation.

. The remains of an already buried person

My tour of ICMP ended with a room where the exhumed bodies are washed and dried. After hearing all these details from Laura and seeing the bodies of the victims, my voice was trembling and hands were shaking. I told Laura that her job must be very hard and depressing. She answered, “People always ask me if my job is hard. But working with dead people is easy.” The case managers, who are responsible for communicating with the families of identified persons, have the hardest job, she said. Of course, it must be an emotionally challenging task to call someone and say that his son, brother, father, or cousin has been identified – or worse to say that a part of his body has been found but his head, arm, or leg is missing. I could not even imagine what is felt at the receiving end of such information.

. Where the exhumed bodies are washed and dried

6 Responses to ““Working with dead people is easy””

  1. Dear Laila, thank you for commenting on my blog. To answer your question, the title of Hasan Nuhanovic’s book is: “Under the UN Flag: the International Community and the Srebrenica Genocide.” It is available in both English ans Bosnian. You can find more information about the book here. Thank you for raising an awareness about the Srebrenica genocide. I will link to your blog.

  2. Good blog with some useful information. I will be back.

  3. Adrienne Henck says:

    This is very interesting, Laila! Thanks for sharing your experience!

  4. iain says:

    Very strong blog post. Makes me feel as if I were right there with you….

  5. Laila Zulkaphil says:

    Thanks Karie. I’ve been following your blog too and like it very much. I really hope that your visa problem will be resolved soon. Take care!

  6. Karie Cross says:

    It strikes me that although working with dead people may be easy, living with their memories certainly is not! This thought goes back to your earlier post about your conversation with a Serbian guy, who said that it may take 5 or 10 years for Serbs to open up about this. Humans have selective memories, and sometimes we don’t even acknowledge things that have happened.

    People like you have to keep telling the story so that the women you’re working with can live in peace! I’m enjoying your great blog. Good luck in your work.

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Srebrenica will never be forgotten


Laila Zulkaphil | Posted June 12th, 2010 | Uncategorized

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On the 11th of every month a peaceful protest is held in Tuzla against the international community’s failure to arrest the leaders responsible for the Srebrenica massacre which took place around 11 July 1995. Yesterday, I had a chance to witness one of these protests.

At 12pm a group of more than 100, consisting of the victims’ relatives, NGO representatives, and other members of the community, walked from Tuzla’s famous salt lake to the town’s main square which was recently renamed “Victims of the Srebrenica Genocide.” They circled around the square, prayed together, and were interviewed by the media. The participants were holding over 300 cushions with embroideries of the names of missing persons.

. “We are looking for our missing”

The cushions were made by Bosfam weavers as part of a project “Love in Embroidery.” Bosfam started the project in 1996 to make an embroidered cushion for each missing person containing his name, date of birth, and hometown. “To our dearest who have not come yet – let us write their names again, let us write them in love” is the motto of the project. The women of Bosfam have so far made thousands of cushions, which are used at the monthly protest to show the immensity of the tragedy of Srebrenica and demand accountability for the mass crimes.

I have heard so many times from practitioners, academicians, and journalists that the survivors of the Srebrenica massacre are trapped in the cycle of victimhood and are living in their past. They would say that such protests only serve to perpetuate the perception of victimhood and would prevent the society from “moving on.” But how can you simply “move on” after such a massive life-changing tragedy? There is a woman named Hajrija in Bosfam who lost about 50 relatives – virtually all of her closest family. Is it even humanly possible to ask her to “move on”?

The relatives of several Bosfam members will be buried on the 15th anniversary of the massacre on July 11. A weaver called Sadeta was about to bury his son this year as some remains of his body were found and identified. However, the Missing Persons Institute told Sadeta that the rest of her son’s body might be found in a recently-discovered mass grave, so she decided to wait until next year (The Bosnian Serb Army dug out the mass graves and reburied the bodies in secondary and tertiary graves, so one person’s body can be found in several different graves). I have not met Sadeta yet because she is not coming to work these days. I cannot by any means understand the depth of pain she is going through right now, but I understand why she would be unable to work at this time. After all, how can you concentrate when part of your own child’s body is kept in a bag in a cold morgue while the rest of his body is being excavated in a new mass grave?

3 Responses to “Srebrenica will never be forgotten”

  1. Owen says:

    The “cycle of victimhood” is an offensive notion. As you say, how can people “move on” when someone else tells them to?

  2. That is very intriguing. It presented me a few ideas and I’ll be posting them on my web site shortly. I’m bookmarking your website and I’ll be back. Thanks again!

  3. Washington says:

    Thank you for a great post

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Vruće


Laila Zulkaphil | Posted June 12th, 2010 | Uncategorized

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“Vruće” is the word I have heard most since I came to Bosnia last week. It means “hot.” It’s been constantly above 35°C (95F) lately, and today is 39°C (102F). Coming from a cold country like Mongolia, this is by far the hottest temperature I have ever experienced. I remember teasing the AP fellows going to Africa when they complained that DC was hot, but Bosnia is currently much hotter than much of Africa.

Downtown Tuzla

Despite the heat, I am greatly enjoying my fellowship and my time in Bosnia. People keep asking me, “Everything must be so new to you. Are you getting used to living here?” In fact, I got used to Tuzla the moment I set foot here because it is very similar to the Bulgarian town of Blagoevgrad in which I lived for four years, except that in Tuzla you hear the adhan (the Islamic call to prayer) five times a day. What I love most about Tuzla is that it is home to a number of international organizations and thus has a large international community. I have already made friends from the US, Canada, Austria, Germany, Portugal, Peru, and so on. However, I might be the only Asian in this town of nearly 200,000 people.

Trg Slobode – Square of Freedom

Bosfam is busy preparing for the 15th anniversary of the fall of Srebrenica. By July 11, Bosfam will have 15 Memorial Quilts which will commemorate nearly 400 victims of the massacre. On that day, the Quilts will be displayed at the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial Center where the newly identified bodies will be buried. Bosfam might eventually join all 15 Quilts into one massive display and make a permanent exhibition.

At the same time, Bosfam is working to open a branch in Srebrenica and hopes to have it up and running by the end of this month. Beba, the director of Bosfam, lost her house in 1992 when she was pushed out of Srebrenica and got her house back in 2001. The Serbs destroyed her house before they left, so it was in need of complete reconstruction. Now Beba’s house is being renovated into a new Bosfam center that will give legal advice to returnees and provide various workshops for women. Beba says that the women survivors of the Srebrenica massacre are often misperceived as passive victims who simply sit and wait for foreign aid. The mission of this new center is to challenge this misperception, raise the voice of educated and motivated women, and show that the survivors of Srebrenica are not merely passive victims but can be active proponents of social change.

As for me, I am helping Bosfam publicize the Srebrenica Memorial Quilt project, serving as a liaison between Bosfam and AP, and playing the role of an IT person who manages the English content of Bosfam’s website. I find myself busier than expected as I have certain obligations to AP as well. Overall, my fellowship is starting well and will be even better if the weather gets less “vruće.”

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“…I wanna know what happened. And I am sorry.”


Laila Zulkaphil | Posted June 8th, 2010 | Uncategorized

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Flying to Sarajevo turned out to be much more expensive than I expected. So, I decided to fly to Belgrade and take a bus from there to Tuzla. My itinerary also allowed me the opportunity to meet some old friends from Serbia.

The people I met in Serbia were interested to know the purpose of my stay in Bosnia. I noticed mainly two kinds of reactions when I told them about my fellowship. While most people simply changed the subject as soon as they heard the name Srebrenica, others became defensive and emphasized “their own” suffering. One of my acquaintances said, “Your fellowship sounds very interesting, but I am afraid that you might hear only one side of the story. It is true that more Muslims were killed in Srebrenica, but a lot of Serbs also died during the war. You should remember that every story has at least two sides.”

However, something very surprising happened on my last night in Belgrade. A friend of mine suddenly told me, “I am sorry.” “For what?” I asked without understanding what he was referring to. He said, “It is very sad that most Serbs avoid talking about anything related to Srebrenica. They simply don’t wanna know what happened. It will probably take another five or ten years until Serbs can finally talk about this subject. But I do wanna know what happened. And I am sorry.”

This short conversation truly touched me, perhaps because it was genuinely sincere or because I never expected to hear something like this from my friend whom I tended to see as a Serb nationalist. I wish more people had the same attitude as my friend – not necessarily the apologetic attitude but the curious attitude – because we can learn from the past and build a better future only by wanting to know about what happened free from personal and group prejudices.

One Response to ““…I wanna know what happened. And I am sorry.””

  1. Owen says:

    Your friend had the ability to allow other people’s suffering to have his attention, instead of insisting on “his own”. It’s people who are themselves prepared to listen whom we feel comfortable listening to in turn.

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Fellow: Laila Zulkaphil

BOSFAM in Bosnia


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