Guest post by Martina Sola
Our adventures continued together that night in this tiny town only a few kilometers away from the border of Serbia, a town which US President Barack Obama would later refer to as a place which “forever will be associated with the darkest acts of in history.” Despite the experiences which haunt the minds of those who remain, we were greeted with great hospitality. We dined with new friends in local restaurants and mixed with soldiers, locals, political dignitaries, and international visitors in simple cafés. We were each different but had come for the same purpose and a valuable common bond was established.
July 11th marks the official yearly memorial ceremony for thousands who were killed in Srebrenica in July 1995. This year, 520 people were buried along side another 5,000 already resting in the nearby village of Potocari. 2,000 people remain unaccounted. One of the longest ongoing human excavation efforts in modern day history continues in surrounding areas.
It was another fiercely hot afternoon and the town had now filled with thousands who had come to pay their respects. We walked through mounds of dirt which had been dug to make space for the new caskets. Despite the heat, women sat with their heads covered and bowed in prayer. Men greeted one another and stopped to touch the caskets. Politicians arrived with escorts, police kept close watch on the crowd, and all I could think was that this didn’t have to happen.
The emotional day continued as we visited two large factories originally meant to be UN Safe Haven’s for refugees attempting to escape Serbian forces. Tragically, they were no place for peace and instead marked the locations where families were dramatically torn apart. All men and young boys were sent to their deaths, some women were thrown into buses, and others were kept behind to service the impulses of enemy soldiers. We continued to a more remote area up narrow, curvy roads and onto nearby mountains which provided breathtaking views. We met with two older women who had lost their entire families and had been participants of the Women for Women program. They offered us simple, yet delicious homemade pastries and traditional Bosnian coffee. We sat on their hand made rugs beside a tiny home where they showed us their garden and shared their stories. At times their voices wavered and their eyes filled with tears. At other moments they teased each other and smiled warmly upon us. Their hearts were broken but the strength of virtue in their spirit remained, and while they thanked us generously for our time, it was each of us who walked away with the gift of hope.
Onwards we went with our journey, returning to Sarajevo, a city filled with layer upon layer of history. The streets were filled with exotic bazaars selling colorful scarves and glimmering copper coffee cups. The beats of Bosnian music could be heard from nearby shops during the day and by night every corner buzzed with the voices of beautiful people. It’s hard to imagine that this was a city under siege, but a look closer reveals scars in the forms of shell marks on buildings, eerily abundant gravesites, and wounds on the bodies or in the hearts of many who I spoke to.
It’s been said that tragedy begets passion and progress forward can be seen. Attending Women for Women International training centers in the heart of Sarajevo and in nearby Zenica provided examples of women who wanted to create. It was visible in the form of the clothing pieces I saw being knitted in partnership with international fashion brands such as Kate Spade and Anthropologie. It was visible in the enthusiasm of women who draped me with beautiful jewelry they had made by hand. It was evident in the intensity of a legal training session regarding farming cooperative contractual agreements. It was seen by the proud support of men waiting for their wives to finish their classes.
We finished the week by attending the Sarajevo Film Festival and by taking part in an inspiring dinner with many of those we had met along the way. Gifts were shared, speeches were given, business ideas exchanged, friendships forged, and vows declared to return again.
I think back upon the woman I met during my first evening in Srebrenica standing on the side of the dusty road. An older man walked by the procession with tears streaming down his face. She reached out to him and said,
“Don’t cry…everything will be OK.”
This type of strength is a reminder that while we may not always understand the actions of others, we know where we are now and we have a choice. Women for Women International provides opportunity and through such an organization I have received far more than I could ever give.