The mountains seemed endless as we rode in the comfort of our coach bus from Sarajevo to Tuzla. We were almost all sleeping on the bus, but I remember willing myself to keep looking out the window so I would not miss a single thing. “You won’t ever be here again,” I kept telling myself. I would not let myself forget anything.
I was on my Sophomore Residential Seminar (SRS) trip with an incredible group of students. None of us had ever been to Bosnia and Herzegovina and we were excited to be in a new and interesting place. Between Sarajevo to Tuzla, two relatively large cities, we planned to stop in the rural town of Srebrenica, which was the site of a genocide during the Bosnian War. We arrived at the memorial site, not sure what to expect. What we saw was essentially an abandoned warehouse. We were led inside by a native Srebrenican, a man who survived simply because he was 13 at the time of the genocide; the age at which Serbian troops executed men was 14. Walking around the warehouse that used to house the Dutch UN soldiers, I felt like they never left. The walls were filled with bullet holes; the smell was musty and the cold was penetrating. The warehouse was bare, except for some scattered photographs depicting all kinds of pain, suffering and grief.
Hearing the story of this survivor was incredibly emotional, but it was only the beginning. The next day we went to the Luka camp memorial site. A group of survivors, with the help of a wonderful translator, shared their stories. You could tell it was the first time they had spoken in such a way. At first the words trickled out slowly and painfully. As we engaged them with questions, many more began to speak. In response to some questions their voices would come together in a harmony, yearning to speak, yearning to be heard.
They wanted their stories to be told. As hard as it was, they wanted us and the world to remember. I believe these are the kind of stories we must never stop telling. We must be able to come together in ways that transcend any of the linguistic or natural boundaries that separate us. These were people I would not have otherwise met, and stories I might have never heard. Yet both parties were willing to cross the boundaries. In doing so, we were able to come together in a way that allowed for a genuine human connection to emerge. History connects us. Remembering connects us. Even the most painful stories must be shared and heard. I cannot imagine what these people experienced or fathom what these people have overcome, but engaging in such dialogue, I now carry their stories with me.
As we spoke with the Luka survivors, I was struck by the power and strength they drew from each other and from their hope for a better future. These people witnessed the worst kinds of human behavior, yet they still feel that peace and kindness are possible. Their faith in each other was infectious, and made me feel as though the world was not so dark or sinister. Sometimes when we look towards the future with hope, we are dismissed as being naive. Yet, it takes courage to have hope. To be able to look towards the future and imagine something out there is better than what it has been or what it is today. The stories of the survivors were filled with bravery and strength. To have hope in the midst of remembering a traumatizing past is a powerful sign that allows for us to overcome the trials and tribulations.
History is far more than a tabulation of dates and events. We can never fully understand who we are and who our neighbors are if we cannot appreciate the history we all hold and carry within us. It is also an outline of who we may become. By remembering the past, we get to know ourselves and the people around us just a little bit better. I thought about this as I rode the coach bus back from Tuzla to Sarajevo. I saw the same mountains and the same houses outside my window. But, they were different. I could see a history in them; I could see the pain of war that these people endured. There is always a story out there that is different than your own. It reminds you of where you stand in the world and how you should carry yourself. If we all carried more stories, we might be able to work together towards a future that is filled with hope. Do not be afraid to listen to these stories. Do not be afraid to tell your own stories. And, most importantly, do not be afraid to remember.
Contact Anna Pluff at [email protected]