One day, when my children are old enough, I would like to take them to Auschwitz. I have no illusions about how harrowing it may be, but I firmly believe it represents a historical reality that must never be forgotten. I also believe that sometimes we need to see things with our own eyes and not just read about them.
Likewise, I hope to one day take them to Ovčara and Srebrenica. Ovčara is particularly close to my heart because I worked in eastern Slavonia during the war. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to move on or that Croatia and Bosnia shouldn’t either. It just means I don’t want the sacrifice of those who died in the war to have been in vain. I don’t think their lives should be forgotten.
This reminds me of what so many refugees said to me when I worked in the camps and over-zealously tried to give up some of my privileges – that if I wanted to show solidarity I should not adopt their situation. They complained that so many aid workers dressed badly and didn’t wear make-up, and said that seeing us sharing their misfortune only made them feel even more guilty that we had come halfway around the world to help them. What they wanted to see were aid workers who maintained the appurtenances of human dignity and would strive to restore normal life to them. They wanted their old lives back, not to inflict their misfortune on others.
So this desire to visit memorials to the dead is balanced by the desire to live the life that was taken away from so many. I want to take my children to the Dalmatian coast so they can swim in the enchanting waters of the Adriatic, explore Diocletian’s Palace, wander the ancient walls of Dubrovnik, and dance late into the night on one of Croatia’s beautiful islands. I also want to drink Turkish coffee with them in the Baščaršija in Sarajevo and to stand with them on the rebuilt bridge in Mostar. I dream of wandering along the Strossmayerovo in Zagreb, rambling through the Plitvice National Park, and going to Mass in Vukovar’s Church of Sv. Filipa i Jakova without being showered in plaster dust and worrying that the roof is going to fall in.
Likewise, thinking back to Auschwitz, I want to take my children to Israel to see the successful nation that has emerged from the horrors of the Holocaust and which flourishes despite enemies on every front. My first stop, however, before the Wailing Wall or the many Christian pilgrimage sites, would be Yad Vashem, where every victim of the Holocaust is remembered. It is a monumental achievement, a powerful testimony of how the act of remembering the dead can translate into a triumph of humanity over the evil ghosts of the past. In a manner similar to the forensic experts who have positively identified 6,838 of the estimated 8,000 victims of the Srebrenica massacre, the staff of Yad Vashem have meticulously collected 2.5 million pages of testimony naming around 4.2 million of the close to 6 million victims. But it’s not just a Hall of Names. The aim is to reconstruct the life stories of each person recorded in the central database. It is a race against time.
Time will also run out for Croatia and Bosnia, especially because (as far as I know) there has been no attempt at such a laborious undertaking. Unlike the Nuremberg Trials, which were held over the course of eleven months, the ICTY has largely failed to execute justice and is still grinding away after 20 years. Besides which, war crimes trials are more about the perpetrators than the victims. While there are discrete attempts to document evidence of war crimes and memorials in various locations, we are yet to see a comprehensive testimony to the individual lives that were cruelly cut short.
This is one of my dreams. If I were a rich benefactor, I would move mountains to establish places like Yad Vashem in both Croatia and Bosnia, places that are about the lives of the dead rather than merely the numbers of the dead, places that allow us to remember them even if their killers will never be identified or brought to justice. Alas, I am not rich, so it’s just an idea, but it’s an idea that I hope one day someone will make a reality… before it’s too late.