November 01, 2017
by Louise Lawrence-IsraËls
In the summer of 2016, I went to Bosnia. I have been interested in Sarajevo for a long time.
I am honored to be part of an organization called the Educators’ Institute for Human Rights, or EIHR for short. EIHR is an organization of mostly teachers who are interested in human rights and are trying to make a difference in countries where genocide took place. They do it by working with teachers in those countries, showing them how to teach about genocide, mainly the Holocaust. If we make children aware of what genocide is, that awareness might prevent it from happening again.
Twice my husband and I traveled to Kigali, Rwanda. I participated in the EIHR conference there and did presentations. I also spent a couple of days with the participating teachers; we did a lot of talking. Most teachers had experienced the genocide in Rwanda. When they heard that I was a Holocaust survivor, they talked more openly.
When I heard that EIHR was going to Bosnia to organize conferences similar to the ones they hold in Rwanda, I was interested. I signed up to participate last year.
Before flying to Bosnia, we went to Northern Italy and Croatia for vacation. We also spent a full day in Albania, with a guide who showed us around as much of the country as one can see in just one day.
The weather during the first leg of the trip had been so hot; then, it was time to fly to Bosnia. No surprise—when we landed in Sarajevo, it was even warmer.
The conference was going to take place in the mountains above Sarajevo, but we had decided to spend the first five days in the city and visit different sites.
One wish we fulfilled was to visit the town of Mostar, with the famous rebuilt Ottoman bridge; the original dated from the 16th century.
We walked around Sarajevo’s old town a lot, which was filled with delicious smells of grilled meats and spices, outdoor restaurants and cafés, and many shops. When we approached Cathedral Square, we heard some very loud voices and saw large crowds. I am always a little afraid of crowds and voices through loudspeakers, probably caused by my background. We do not speak Bosnian and did not understand what the gathering was all about until we got closer.
What was happening was the reading of names of the murdered Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims). Family members read the names, just as we read names at the Museum in Washington, DC, during Days of Remembrance. I participate and read the names of family members and Dutch children who were murdered during the Holocaust.
I realized then that it was July 12, the day of remembrance in Bosnia. People were selling crocheted flowers as pins, and there were a lot of photographs of the murdered Bosniaks on display.
I had requested an excursion to Srebrenica, the site of the killing of 8,000 Muslim men and boys during the genocide. It is now a memorial and has an open-air mosque and cemetery. It rained on the day that we visited, which was very appropriate. It took about two-and-a-half hours to get to Srebrenica from Sarajevo.
The memorial is a graveyard with tombstones, a very large marble monument with names, and an open-air mosque. We saw some fresh graves, and I found out why: the 8,000 bodies were bulldozed all over the area and buried in a mass grave. Today, when a bone is found, DNA testing is done, and Srebrenicans find out the name of the person the bone belonged to and give that person a Muslim burial on the following July 12. This year, they buried 123 people.
For so many people, there is still no closure. That visit was so emotional for me; I put a stone on the memorial, as is our Jewish tradition. I had needed that sober experience to make my presentation during the conference more meaningful.
When we arrived in the mountains, so much cooler, I spent an afternoon writing my presentation. I tried to make a link between the Holocaust and the Bosnian genocide. I did it through the memorials and the only thing left of people who were so brutally murdered, just the way I had done in Rwanda. This time, I had a hard time getting the words out. All the teachers listened, and some even cried.
There is peace in Bosnia, but it is hanging by a thread; the different groups still do not get along. But, there is hope. The teachers we worked with are from the three ethnic groups in Bosnia, and they are working very hard to make their country a better country for all, especially the children.
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