Now Is the Time to Hear History
On my computer screen, a man with slightly greying hair wearing a stylish jacket gesticulates with wide, confident gestures as he speaks. He’s in Brussels and apologizes for speaking to us from a café. People walk by, occasionally glancing at the screen. It seems to me that the stranger’s gaze meets my eyes through the screen, if only for a second. The clatter of dishes can be heard in the background. It’s a typical Wednesday morning in Brussels, and people are calmly drinking coffee.
“In 1992, when I was roughly your age, I was taken to Omarska concentration camp” says the man on the screen. I immediately think about my age. I am twenty-one years old. I’m trying to imagine this man at the age of twenty-one as I focus my attention on the screen. And so begins the first lecture to ever bring me to tears. As I listen, the presenter and I both wipe tears from our eyes.
The man on my computer screen is Satko Mujagić, a Bosnian. He’s a human rights activist currently working at the European Commission, where he evaluates adherence to the rules and regulations of the Schengen area. The Omarska concentration camp that Satko is telling us about operated during the first months of the Bosnian war in 1992. It was set up and run by Bosnian Serb forces to torture and kill Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) and Croatian men and women. More than 700 people were killed in Omarska. The concentration camp was closed on August 6, 1992, days after journalists Ed Vulliamy from The Guardian and Roy Gutman from Newsday managed to get inside of the camp and tell the world about the killing, raping, and torture happening there. Satko was invited to Vilnius University by my lecturer Lina Strupinskienė (her conversation about reconciliation between the nations involved is available here at NARA). She asked him to tell us, students of political science here at Vilnius University, about his experience of the Balkan wars.
Satko recounts that he was born in Kozarac, a town in the current Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the territory of the Serbian Republic. Kozarac is now called “the biggest little city” due to its diaspora – its people are spread all around the world, but many return home for the summer. He doesn’t go into too much detail after mentioning the concentration camp. He says that he had already told his story in a Ted Talk, which is available to watch online. He simply mentions that during his time there he would receive a small piece of bread a day, that he was always surrounded by people screaming, that people died there every day and that, in his opinion, a fitting descriptor for Omarska is to say that it was an echo of Auschwitz.
Satko was imprisoned in this camp between May and August of 1992. He was later transferred to another camp, Manjača, where he was kept until December. His words ring deep inside of me: “My body in the camp was already dead. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t speak. But I survived because my mind didn’t die. I just knew that it was too early for me to die. For as long as I breathed, I believed, believed, believed.”
During the great Enlightenment debates about human nature, Jean Jacques Rousseau claimed that the early human only had basic needs, tried to avoid pain, didn’t think about the future, tried to avoid death, and was lazy and antisocial. But according to Rousseau, this primitive human had two passions: self-preservation and compassion. The latter is what prevented and still prevents humanity from destroying itself in a total war. The innate human compassion towards other vulnerable beings is what saves the world.
I thought about that idea a lot. Throughout my life, I have come across examples of human weakness and suffering through studying history. However, I think the problem with history and its many stories is that we can never truly feel what others felt unless this painful history had happened to us or is happening at the present moment. Perhaps that’s why these days I’ve been feeling particularly curious and immersed in the world. Strangely, I feel that people could tell me once more about the Holocaust or any war that happened a hundred or five hundred years ago, and for the first time I would truly understand it. I would understand that for some inherent reason humans keep doing this to each other, now and again, throughout the centuries.
To become open to this understanding, I needed only to live at this particular time when, as a volunteer registering family after family who had escaped war and arrived in my country, I was offered chewing gum by one Ukrainian boy while his mother recounted that their home was the first one to be shelled in their city. I can feel that now is the best time for me to hear about the pain throughout the whole world’s history, to see it anew and re-evaluate it. Other people’s pain that I’m feeling now opens the door to such strong empathy, which may finally be enough – and I believe that if our world is to be saved, this will be the reason.
The face on my screen is talking, and I am truly listening. I hear that during the last decade of the 20th century there was a genocide of Bosniaks and Croats, which in the current Bosnia and Herzegovina and the whole Balkan region is still being denied or even glorified by some people.
I hear Satko talk about the “white house” in Omarska – a building where people were tortured and killed and which still hasn’t been turned into a memorial.
I hear that the territory of the Omarska camp, which is rich in iron ore was purchased by the biggest steel manufacturer ArcellorMittal, which invested 19.2 million British pounds into building a monument for the 2012 London Olympics. It’s called the Orbit and is the world’s longest tunnel slide and the highest free-falling ride in the United Kingdom. Metal from different parts of the world was used to build it, including material from Omarska. According to Satko, this giant monument for the Olympic games may contain the remains of humans killed in Omarska.
I hear that Putin today is copying Slobodan Milošević, who was the Serbian president from 1989 to 1997, a period that includes the Bosnian War. Milošević was on trial for crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide. However, he died before receiving a verdict in the detention center at The Hague.
I have read about Serbian forces shelling the main street of Sarajevo, killing 26 people and leaving civilians without a chance to receive bread – all for the Serbians to announce that this shelling was done by the Bosnian government in order to blame the Serbs. The parallels with what’s happening today are so strong that for a second I grimace – it seems that Auschwitz isn’t the only horror echoing throughout history.
I hear Satko say, “If Bosnia managed to survive having only 12 percent of their territory and an embargo on weapons (the UN established a weapons embargo on both sides of the Bosnian War in order to reach an agreement quicker – M.V.), Ukraine will surely survive. It’s just not clear whether that will happen before or after a monstrous world war.”
For the rest of the day after this lecture I feel warm inside – the warmth which, like a miracle, I’ve been waiting for since February 24. This feeling is in my chest not because a single echo from the history shared by Satko could give me any hope about a beautiful, happy, heroic end to today’s war (as in some propaganda movies). Most likely this feeling is blossoming in me because at the end of the lecture Satko invited all of us – the students he was seeing for the first time, through a screen – to come to Bosnia on August 6 (this date commemorates the closure of the Omarska concentration camp) to remember those who suffered and died. Perhaps also because Satko says that when we arrive there, everyone will like us because we’re his friends – and people love him there. Perhaps because this person witnessed such extreme human cruelty and now embodies human kindness. Perhaps because somewhere amongst these big gestures of a person who has seemingly made peace with himself but would never tolerate injustice, he mentioned a song by the band Enigma, which I looked up later. Perhaps because the lyrics are as follows:
We came out from the deep
To learn to love, to learn how to live
We came out from the deep
To avoid the mistake we made
That's why we are here!
We came out from the deep
To help and understand, but not to kill
It takes many lives till we succeed
To clear the debts of many hundreds of years
That's why we are here!