Postcards from the Grave
by Emir Suljagic
Between their death and our survival there is no difference, because we have remained living in a world permanently and irretrievably marked by their death. I have chosen to be from Srebrenica. I dare to come only from there, just as I dared to head only there at the time I could head nowhere else. A birthplace is unimportant in comparison to a place of death. Firstly, it tells nothing about us - it is a mere geographical figure. A place of death tells everything about our views and beliefs and the choices we have made and held onto until the end.
Perhaps all this is wrong, perhaps a person really cannot choose a place of death any more than he can choose a birthplace. They died where they had been born, where in the years of war they had sought and found a refuge, and had survived day after day in a shared agony. They were not conveyed there, there was no railway train to take them away in cattle cars, nor any army to collect them all in one place with a single aim: to kill them. They did not choose Srebrenica in order to survive. Nothing that we who are alive can say is our own. Everything belongs to the dead. In death, more precisely at that moment when we cease to exist, there is no difference - gas chamber, mass slaughter or the treacherous flash of a steel blade in the dark; a painful sigh, or a gurgle and the irreducible stroke of a knife. The only way the victims can be distinguished is by their executioners. And all executioners of this world are the same.
(On Thursday, 13 July 1995, the Dutch battalion, after a Serbian request, provides a list of civilians who have taken refuge in their outpost at Poto…ari and another of UN employees. Hasan Nuhanovic, a translator for the UN, knowing that the Serbs were already separating the women from the men - who were disappearing without trace - tries to save his younger brother’s life by putting his name on the list of UN employees.)
De Haan and I took the lists to a separate building in which the factory management had once been situated and that was now being used as HQ of the Dutch battalion. Looking over some maps spread on a table stood Major Rob Franken, the deputy commandant. We placed the lists on the table, and he moved the maps with his hands to one side. First he looked at the longer list, a list of unfamiliar names to him, and perhaps it all made little sense to him. When he came to the list with ‘our’ names on it, he took it off the table and carefully studied each name. His gaze slowly travelled down and finally stopped: it stopped at a name at the bottom of the page. He lifted up his arm, which was idly resting on his hip, and pointed his fat, short, rounded index finger. ‘Who is this?’, he asked, lifting his gaze behind his glasses. Almost simultaneously we said it was our new cleaner. De Haan, with a serious expression, said that he had got his job only two weeks ago, but because of a Serbian attack it had not been possible to deal with all the formalities. ‘No, that’s not true, he doesn’t work for you’, said Franken, while De Haan blushed. He had been caught in a lie, yet he had been obliged to lie in order to save the life of a small boy. Franken laid the paper down on the table again, stretched his hand a bit further, picked up a pink highlighter - I cannot believe he used a pink highlighter, perhaps it should have been black - and crossed out the name of a man, of a life. Muhamed Nuhanovic was nineteen years old, and even today I still blame all of us for putting his name at the end of the list. Maybe Frenken would not even have noticed him if he had been somewhere in the middle of the list, hidden between our names; maybe he would have been alive if his name had been just two, three or five centimetres higher up. He would be alive, while I would not remember the sharp movement of the highlighter, a short line beneath which the name could still be seen, and I would not have the feeling that I unwittingly assisted in someone’s death. I left the assembly room, completely numbed by what had just happened. Having walked the few hundred metres across to the office, I sat at a table and began typing the final list into a computer, with the feeling that I was irreplaceably losing something important; that all of my previous life was focussed on that moment when Hasan entered the room and I, not knowing any other way to tell him, muttered: ‘Hasan, Franken took Braco off the list!’ Did my words sound cold, did Hasan hear indifference in them, feel my selfish desire to survive, so that anger burst out of him? I wanted to defend myself, although I knew that he was not screaming at me, was not threatening me, but someone else who was not there at all. Hasan kept repeating that he was going to kill him, that he wasn’t sane, and with every freshly uttered warning he kept coming closer, until I came to my senses and screamed: ‘Hey, I didn’t do it, Franken did. Go and talk to him while there’s still time!’ I saw him a few hours later, he was sitting on his own, the Dutch soldiers had already shepherded all the men and women from the factory. He was sitting alone, his head bent over the table covered with green oilskin. I scrutinized the long table in search of the pink highlighter.
The only items of post that left or entered the town were messages that went through the Red Cross: open letters resembling blank forms, with very little space to write on. The number of sentences was limited by dotted lines on one side of the paper, while the other side was dedicated to the senders’ and recipients’ addresses. Every letter went through a strict censorship in the Red Cross’s local office before leaving the town, after which many of them were unrecognizable. Entire passages would be crossed out with a black marker pen, so thoroughly that one could not even tell what was beneath those stains that penetrated the thin paper. It looked as though there existed a whole index of forbidden words, words that were crossed out over and over again: a whole little dictionary reflecting the essence of our lives. They were words like ‘army’, ‘killed’, ‘died’, ‘chetniks’, ‘executed’, ‘massacred’, ‘captured’, ‘crime’... No, these would never pass by the eager censor; perhaps our truth was not the truth the outside world was supposed to know about. Every time we sent such a letter, we submitted our lives to complete strangers, people who according to their own discretion decided what our parents, cousins and family should know about us. I know some who wrote as crudely as they could, hoping that the censor would steer clear of what he could not understand, while a mother, grandfather or father who had watched us write our first letters would still manage to read it. We received replies and realized, with disappointment, that whatever they did not understand the censors would cross out anyway, just in case. Their sin was all the greater in so far as the letters were entirely ordinary: the content mainly referred to where someone we knew had ended up, whether someone had survived, if somebody had called from abroad - the kind of thing that separated members of a family can ask or write to one another. In those letters, there could not have been any secrets: nothing was concealed in Srebrenica anyway, everything was known, just as everything was hushed up.
They would sit in dim rooms, in semi-darkness broken by an oil-lamp, making out the faces of others only when lit by the glow of a cigarette, and wait for spring. They would wait for the first rays of sun in spring, for the woods to bloom and everything to turn green, and they would beguile the time by talking about their pasts - since these were lovelier then the present, since they had no futures - and about their families, who were now somewhere far away. They would talk about that ‘far away’ and dream of what they were going to do first when they got there. They would buy a crate of beer and open a box of ‘pressed’ cigarettes and drink the beer and smoke: real cigarettes, and not that shit that turns your fingers and your hands yellow, while the stink gets into not just your clothes but your skin, so that even your sweat stinks of tobacco. They would talk about and remember the children they had not seen in years: it seemed to them that they were growing up too fast, that they looked too serious in the photographs that were taken only to be sent to Srebrenica. It might have been in 1993 or 1994: in the spring, when everything turns green, they would go towards them, through the woods, first to Tuzla and then perhaps beyond. In groups of five or six at most they would leave in the evening, wait for dawn close to the Serb outposts, then pass through them. They thought that the passage through the Serb minefields was the biggest obstacle on their road to free territory, imagining the more than one hundred kilometres of road ahead of them as an empty and burned land that nobody controlled. The road went over many hills near Zvornik, through torched Muslim villages in which they might find shelter from bad weather, and Serb villages that could be recognized by their lights burning and their barking dogs. Nobody can say for sure how many of them left the town during those three years while the ‘safe zone’ existed, just as nobody can say for sure how many of them reached their goal, but the former certainly outnumber the latter. Many left the enclave, stumbled upon the bodies of others who had left earlier, and returned discouraged. Others carried on regardless and somehow made it to Tuzla, or to outposts of the Bosnian army, where they would be taken in - exhausted, hungry and scared - just as others would be taken in later, in July 1995.
Near the camp, some hundred metres behind the town’s petrol station, there was a small, white-painted house. The old lady who lived there had no one, and two or three cigarettes were enough to keep her quiet. Every night three, four at most, Dutch soldiers would come to her garden, accompanied by a pimp. They’d sit down at the rickety wooden table, hidden from inquisitive eyes by a high hedge, waiting for the girls to turn up. In the meantime, the pimp would be arranging the price: three - or in special cases, if a ‘client’ had any particular wishes, four - packets of cigarettes. This was at a time when a packet of cigarettes on the Srebrenica market cost between 20 and 30 Deutschmarks. The job was normally arranged the day before, over the camp wire. The long building on the way out of town continued to be known to the enclave’s inhabitants as the ‘liaison office’, even after Canadian soldiers moved into it in April 1993. The Dutch battalion inherited the ‘liaison office’ from them, stationing one of their four companies in the town. From the other side the soldiers mainly bought rakija [brandy] and girls. In the beginning the girls would come of their own accord and offer themselves, without any middleman, for a packet of cigarettes. Their English consisted of a few sentences: ‘Me fuck you!’, or ‘Me suck you dick!’. Once the soldiers agreed, the only thing left was to find a place to do it. If they only wanted oral sex, they’d get on with the business right away: they’d creep down to some unlit corner, the soldier would part the barbed wire as much as he could and take off his pants. The girl would kneel down and from the other side stick her head into the thick coil of wire. She’d get up after five minutes, wiping the pants and her mouth - and sometimes the blood running down her face from long scratches made by the wire. Later they made an almost unnoticeable hole in the wire through which the girls could sneak into the camp. They’d open the wire and then carefully replace it: several of them would then take turns at one girl, like animals, against a wall. They’d pay them after intercourse. But after they’d been thrown out of the camp a few times without being given the 10 DM they’d earned, the girls began asking for money in advance. They’d normally give the money to some kid they could trust to look after, and in return they’d let them watch while the soldiers took their turns. Their pimps were young men who, by chance or otherwise, lived near the camp and had themselves done business with the Dutch in the past, knew a bit of English and could make sure that the girls got the money they’d earned. They shared the profits equally, and the pimps also had the job of finding a place. At first it was the basement of a building across the road, but even this was too exposed: there was no way to hide from the kids, interested in seeing for the first time in their lives what sex was all about. The house near the petrol station was an ideal solution: they were hidden in the garden, the girls no longer had to be afraid of the soldiers raping them and throwing them out unconscious, while the soldiers could be fairly certain of getting what they’d asked for, without anybody knowing about it.
This feature has been translated from Dani (Sarajevo), 4 May 2001. The author, who survived the Srebrenica masscre, now works as a journalist in Sarajevo.