Srebrenica’s Twenty-Fifth Anniversary from a Distance

With the twenty-fifth anniversary of Srebrenica in the forefront of her mind, Sarah Wagner will be joining faculty and graduate students at Raising Our Voices to rethink ethnographic research in Europe.

I watched the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide from my living room in Washington, DC. Up at 5:30 a.m., I fretted that I’d miss the livestreamed ceremony taking place (six hours ahead) at the memorial center in Potočari, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Everything about marking this day, July 11, 2020, from afar felt wrong. Over the years as my research migrated away from Bosnia toward other sites of study, the anniversary with its mass funeral and burials has remained a touchstone. It kept me anchored, if only on the shoals, in my ethnographic engagement with the region. This year, given the monumental nature of the anniversary—a quarter century since the atrocities of July 1995—I had planned to be there, to participate in the Peace March, to stand with friends in the crowd, and watch the city empty out in the days that followed.

Then COVID-19 hit, keeping me, like so many others, grounded and unable to attend.

A photograph of people pouring liquid into cups.
Image description: Various people sit on the ground in front of a large number of white cups, more than can easily be counted, that are closely packed together. Roughly half of the cups are filled with a brown liquid. Three people are pouring more coffee from metal containers into cups.
Caption: ŠTO TE NEMA nomadic monument on July 11, 2020, in Potočari/Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Bekir Halilovic © Aida Šehović. All rights reserved.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. Bearing witness to the scale and intensity of the genocide had particular urgency this year for survivors, families of the missing, and the Srebrenica community as a whole. Many of them were incensed by the continued mainstreaming of denialism, which seemed to reach new heights in 2019: Peter Handke’s Nobel prize for literature; Jessica Sterns uncritical, enabling portrait of convicted war criminal Radovan Karadžić; a revisionist report issued months prior to the anniversary; and the failure of the state parliament to adopt a law prohibiting genocide denial. The commemoration offered a means to respond, viscerally and visually, with tens of thousands of people assembling among the tombstones of already identified victims. Until the pandemic hit.

Ethnographically, to watch the ceremony unfold online was jarring. Not because of the mediating filter of my laptop screen per se, but for the unfamiliar vantage points—the bird’s eye view of the camera panning across this year’s sparser crowd and the close-up shots of Bosnia’s head Muslim cleric, Reis-ul-Ulema Kavazović, as he led the funeral rites. There were only nine coffins awaiting burial. The number of identified missing has diminished significantly in recent years as the work of recovering and naming the dead gradually, painfully draws closer to its end. I say “painfully” because around 1,000 victims are still missing, 25 years later. Strategic denialism hasn’t just paid dividends for the political elite. It’s also given cover to those who surely know the whereabouts of additional mass graves but refuse surviving kin that final chance at solace in burying their dead before they themselves die.

So much about the pandemic has altered our work as anthropologists. It’s exposed the contingencies of funding and access built into the ethnographic enterprise.

In recent years, the fear that denialism might succeed in running down the clock has sharpened. In July 2018, the community lost one of its storied warriors in the battle for truth and justice, Hatidza Mehmetovic. The sole survivor of her family (her husband, two sons, and two brothers were killed in the genocide), she dedicated her life to fighting for their memory and that of all the Srebrenica missing. “She is our Rosa Parks, our heroine,” explained Emir Suljagić, director of the memorial center. The pandemic’s interruption thus kept families away at a time when many felt a heightened need to gather, witness, and mourn collectively.

For all my disappointment in not “being there,” following the twenty-fifth anniversary virtually urged me to consider my own “bird’s eye” view of commemoration, centered for so many years on the forensic scientific work of identification. Months later, when I think back to July 11, 2020, it’s not the high-ranking diplomats’ messages of condolence and support or the televised scenes of the mass funeral, or even the nine coffins that come to mind, but rather images of Aida Šehović’s participatory public monument, ŠTO TE NEMA (Why Are You Not Here), that circulated on social media in the days and hours before the ceremony. In collaboration with the Post-Conflict Research Center and the Srebrenica Memorial Center, youth activists and volunteers placed 8,372 small porcelain coffee cups (fildžani)—equaling the number of the Srebrenica missing—in the field next to the former UN peacekeepers compound, across from the memorial center, and, one by one, filled them with steaming coffee. The cups had been collected over the past 15 years by Srebrenica womens associations and within diaspora communities, allowing, as the international studies scholar Dženeta Karabegović has argued, the diaspora both to acknowledge the absent and “reaffirm itself within the context of the Srebrenica commemoration.” On this anniversary in particular, more than metonyms for the missing, the cups became the conduit for remembrance for those of us kept away by this deadly virus.

So much about the pandemic has altered our work as anthropologists. It’s exposed the contingencies of funding and access built into the ethnographic enterprise. For example, I’ve watched my graduate students bound for their dissertation fieldwork agonize over how to reshape their projects to meet external funders’ COVID-19-fueled exercises in subjunctive planning. It’s made me more aware of the possibilities of digital ethnography. It’s thrown into relief long-standing ethical concerns of where, how, and when we do research. There’s much to consider—and reconsider.

With the twenty-fifth anniversary of Srebrenica in the forefront of my mind, I’ll be joining a group of faculty and graduate students from the Society for the Anthropology of Europe at the Raising Our Voices virtual meeting for the roundtable, “Rethinking European Ethnography,” on November 12, 2020. We hope to bring together anthropologists who have been researching in the European region to discuss whether and how we should rethink ethnographic research there. Please join us.

Sarah Wagner is an associate professor of anthropology at George Washington University and author of To Know Where He Lies: DNA Technology and the Search for Srebrenica’s Missing and What Remains: Bringing America’s Missing Home from the Vietnam War.

Cite as: Wagner, Sarah. 2020. “Srebrenica’s Twenty-Fifth Anniversary from a Distance.” Anthropology News website, October 26, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1522

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