Truth or Reconciliation?

Reposted from Foreign Policy In Focus.

I wasn't there to hear horror stories.

The refugees that gathered in the living room of the house in this small village outside of Sarajevo were participants in a community garden project. In urban plots throughout Bosnia, families from different faiths and backgrounds coaxed vegetables from the ground and rebuilt relationships shattered by war. The refugees I met that day were from Srebrenica. They had lost husbands and sons and brothers during the terrible bloodletting of 1995. They had escaped through the woods. They were now settled far from home, though "settled" is really not the right word since their lives continue to be profoundly unsettled by poverty and discrimination. The vegetables they now grew on borrowed land kept them alive.

I asked them questions about their gardens, how much they harvested, the difficulties of getting water for the crops. I studiously avoided questions about the past. To retell a story of tragedy is often to relive that tragedy. I didn't want to make them do that.

I was wrong. They wanted to talk about the past. Because, for them, it was not really the past. The stories lived with them in place of the relatives they lost. For Selima, the past was particularly close at hand because of the discovery of more of Srebrenica's mass graves this year. "As we were leaving and my husband said goodbye, he said that maybe we wouldn't see each other again," Selima recalled, "When they found his bones, there was no skull. When they found his bones, it was like it was happening all over again."

That day in July 1995, Nesib heard on the radio that the Serb forces would be in Srebrenica by nightfall. His cousin told him not to panic since after all the people in Srebrenica were just civilians, they had no weapons. Nesib didn't take any chances. He left the city and walked through the woods for six days. His feet were covered with blisters because he didn't have proper shoes. He survived on the fruit and mushrooms he found. And he was lucky. Serbian paramilitaries killed 20 people in his extended family, including his optimistic cousin.

Other gardeners in the project -- Serbs, Croats -- can speak of their own losses. It was wartime. Civilians suffered terribly on all sides. But the Bosnian Muslims of Srebrenica suffered the greatest: Serb armies killed around 8,000 men and boys in the worst massacre in Europe since World War II.

It was painful for Nesib to tell his story. But he told it readily and without any prompting. He doesn't, however, tell these stories to his children: "I don't want my kids to hate all the Serbs."

Huong has comparable stories of suffering to tell from her experiences during the Vietnam War. As an artist, she tells her stories in a different way: through painting. Her Peace Mural, which is now on display in Washington, DC, is a monumental work of 2,000 panels stretching over 600 square feet. The paintings contain many images of peace, such as flags turned into doves. But the images of war are particularly riveting. As Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Kyi May Kaung writes in War and Peace: An Epic Mural, "There are mothers and children in Huong's art, but they are usually portrayed in searing situations. In Of Her Treasure, a woman holds a bowl of her menfolk's bones. The Wedding Gift shows a tormented bride in good-luck red, clutching a wooden box with her husband's skull in it."

The survivors of the bombing of Laos aren't professional artists. But the drawings and stories collected in the Legacy Project are no less powerful in their descriptions of that period between 1964 and 1973 when U.S. bombers dropped a planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. FPIF contributor Channapha Khamvongsa tells the story of the rediscovery of these drawings and testimonies in Drawing the Future from the Past. "In the area of Xieng Khoang, the place of my birth, there was health, good earth, and fine weather," Khamvongsa quotes one survivor, a 33-year-old man. "But then the airplanes came, bombing the rice fields and the forests, making us leave our land and rice fields with great sadness. One day a plane came bombing my rice field as well as the village. I had gone very early to harrow the field. I thought, 'I am only a village rice farmer, the airplane will not shoot me.' But that day truly it did shoot me and wounded me together with my buffalo, which was the source of a hundred thousand loves and a hundred thousand worries for me."

And these Guernicas continue, soldiers dealing out death from below and planes dropping death from above. FPIF contributor and poet Kyle Dargan writes in Pilot to Bombardier:

why are we flying, cradling meteoric clusters,

over lands already bursting with war-

heads and small arms fire

and child soldiers and students

of battle and all their constant hopes

that the blast we carry might be

the one to eradicate enemy and enemy


We get our hands dirty in the garden soil, in the paint we put on paper, in the words we string together for poems — and somehow we try to repair what was broken in war. Several days after meeting with the refugee gardeners of Srebrenica, I found myself in a bar in Banja Luka, the capital of Republika Srpska, the other half of Bosnia. It was John Lennon night, and everybody was singing along to their favorite songs. The one that was requested the most and evoked the loudest response was "Imagine." In a country still so divided, the words of the song — Imagine all the people, living life in peace -- had special resonance. In the fervency of those Lennon-lovers, who could tell their own stories of loss, I heard that same bittersweet balance found in Huong's art or the drawings from Laos, a balance between the memory of tragedy and the desire to move forward, a balance between truth and reconciliation.

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