by Janaki Challa
“Countless contradictory analyses have seen the light of day about the ensuing bloody events in the territory of the former Yugoslavia, on whose embarrassing convolutions there is no need to dwell. Because it is clear that what is above all missing from all the explanations is the human being. Or — if we can put it that way — the poet. Because the poet doesn’t get lost here either, where death has become customary. More precisely: where death appears, there the poet must put up his tent.”– Balint Szombathy
Summer of 2010. The FIFA World Cup was underway, and it was the first time Serbia was represented as an autonomous nation in the tournament. Serbia finally won a victory against Germany, 1-0. I still remember the vivid image of the team flailing their arms and embracing in excitement, euphoria overcoming what was arguably more than an athletic victory–it was, like many international and regional sports contests, a social and political moment. But at a Bosnian mosque in Connecticut that hot afternoon, the atmosphere wilted under an awning of grief.
A dead silence reigned in the mosque that afternoon. Usually when I pulled into the empty parking lot, an entourage of boys would be playing soccer with nets they’d lifted from a nearby park. The day Serbia won was a humiliating reminder of loss for many Bosnians. It was also the day when the members of the Bosnian community in Hartford stood upon a stage for the 15th memorial of the Srebrenica genocide, and read poetry, in remembrance, and even as prayer.
When pain is combined with injustice, and when injustice is impossible to bring to punishment, when the bodies of these refugees’ fathers and brothers remain simply anonymous, rust-colored bones collected into white bags, still lying unclaimed underground—it’s not difficult to sense that under the surface of every moment, there’s a deep yearning, impenetrable and dark as onyx, that may never be absolved.
And so, there is poetry.
The theory of maintaining distance
was discovered by writers of post-scripts,
those who don’t want to risk anything.
I myself belong among those
that on Monday you have to talk about Monday,
because by Tuesday it might be too late.
It’s hard, of course,
to write poems in the cellar,
when mortars are exploding above your head.
It’s only harder not to write poems.
2010 was also the year Serbia offered an “official apology” for the 1995 Srebrenica massacre—what many call genocide—an institutionalized ethnic cleansing of over 8000 Bosnian Muslims. If one Googles Srebrenica, most pictures that appear are graphic photographs of charred and disfigured corpses, and defunct buildings that were used as sites for concentration camps. There, journalists and civilians documented thousands of makeshift graves, which appear as squares of land tessellated and separated by wooden beams. Over 30,000 Bosnian women and children were forcefully removed from the area, legal proof that this military action by the Serbian government was “of genocidal intent.” In 2004, Theodor Meron, President of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), said in an address at Potocari Memorial Cemetery that “by seeking to eliminate a part of the Bosnian Muslims, the Bosnian Serb forces committed genocide. They targeted for extinction the 40,000 Bosnian Muslims living in Srebrenica, a group emblematic of the Bosnian Muslims in general. They stripped all the male Muslim prisoners, military and civilian, elderly and young, of their personal belongings and identification, and deliberately and methodically killed them solely on the basis of their identity.” Secretary General Kofi Annan called this massacre “the worst crime on European soil since the Second World War.”
The United Nations had attempted to make Srebrenica a “safe area” in 1995, deploying about 400 Dutch soldiers who did not, as it turned out, prevent the violence that would overtake the region. In fact, the UN headquarters in Srebrenica became a locus of systematic execution. It echoed back to the World Wars and the terror in Sarajevo a few years earlier. Eastern Europe is no less a stranger to such catastrophe than many other areas of the world—but perhaps this well-documented case in Srebrenica exemplifies the gruesome reality that countless such stories are unheard of, un-immortalized in media. Outside its specificity, it remains a testament to the incidents of war and brutality left unheard in vast regions of the world.
On the day of the Serbia-Germany game, I was two months into a research assistantship with a professor who’s spent a decade studying various Muslim refugee populations in Hartford and their resettlement experiences. Tucked within the multiethnic atmosphere of Hartford’s metropolis are folds of displaced refugee populations thriving in the margins of this urban center. The previous summer, I had worked with Muslim refugees of Sierra Leonean, Meskethian Turkish, Somali Bantu, Bosnian, Kosovar Albanian, Afghan, Kurdish and Iraqi backgrounds. I did a series of life-history interviews, charting their kinship systems, and doing participant-observation in their homes and communities—hanging out with them. A common bonding point for many of these refugees, regardless of nationality, was sense of nostalgia, and common narratives of trauma. The architecture of each cultural matrix was built on imagined and recreated kinship systems. The exact number of Bosnian Muslim refugees is unknown, though as of the 2003 census report Hartford’s population is about 8% Eastern European. That number includes diasporas outside of the Bosnian Muslim refugee community, and since many refugees and asylum seekers are not properly documented, an exact number is hard to determine. However, within the mosque itself, my research partner and I interviewed a couple of dozen people of all age groups, both men and women. Most of the victims of the genocide in Srebrenica were men. The people I had interviewed were cross-generational–and they tended to be the surviving women and their now-gown children and sometimes, grandchildren.
After I buried my mother
and ran from the cemetery in a shower of shells
after I gave back my brother’s rife to the soldiers
when they brought him back in twisted canvas
after I saw the flames in my children’s eyes
as they fled into the cellar amongst horrifying rats
after I wiped an old woman’s face with a rag
fearful that I might recognize her
after I saw how a hungry dog
licked his bloody wounds on a street corner
after all of this
I’d like to write poems like news reports
that are so empty and uninteresting that I could forget them
the moment someone asks me on the street:
why do you write poems like an indifferent news reporter?
I had read facts and news reports about the Bosnian genocide. I had watched Christiane Amanpour’s impressive reports from Bosnia during the war. I had seen the footage: prisoners in concentration camps, interviewed behind barbed wire; stacks and stacks of corpses, thousands unidentified still and left numbered and stored in underground salt mills that seemed to extend for miles; shot after shot of army trucks and exploding grenades; weeping women with voices barely audible under non-emotive English translators.
One doesn’t comprehend much of human suffering through these stoic news reports. I had also read the U.N. official statements, like too-late lamentations, one dossier filed away after another. NGOs, like the ones I worked with in central Connecticut, continue to assist displaced populations with basic relocation needs. Tents are raised. Tears are wept. Books are written. And it all seems to repeat itself onwards and without apology, “like the insistent out-of-tune of a broken violin,” as T.S. Eliot might put it. I could only understand the meaning and gravity of a dark human condition when standing before it. Conversation over coffee, or holding the hand of a weeping survivor, are examples of the sort of immediacy that compels one to encounter the suffering of another person. The human narrative in those moments takes precedence over sociological data, or anthropological thick description. There is, strangely, a perverse and beautiful poetry about it.
I spent months in the Bosnian community in Hartford, building contacts and friendships. An imam allowed my research partner and me a conference room in his mosque for interviews. We spent countless hours in that air-conditioned room that hot summer in conversation with survivors. Most were strikingly beautiful, with a particular set of Balkan features that, in my estimation, crossed the visages of Turkish miniatures with the virile build of Eastern Europeans: high Slavic cheekbones, malachite eyes, golden skin, broad-shouldered and statuesque, with straight Roman noses. They seemed warm, curious, slightly taken aback that they were subjects of interest. They wept in my presence with abandon—without pretense—with trust. Many women held my hand as they retold their stories—and it was clear they relived every word as they spoke of their lives, their loves, their loss.
By day, refugees and survivors of war cope with the guilt of survival, begin again in a new country as outsiders, learn a new language, rebuild community and kinship bit by bit. They find themselves on virgin streets, with nothing but memories of their dissolved past, returned to an undesirable, conscious infancy. They were first at the mercy of an exterminating militia, then at the mercy of the legal asylum process, then at the mercy of the limits of their own capacities. By night, many of them are plagued with sleeplessness, intrusive memories, nightmares of bloody, rugged roads, the last cry of a loved one. A young mother cannot erase the memory of her infant child taken by the arm and beheaded at their doorstep. She cannot forget being raped multiple times and thrown, bleeding and broken, on a pile of decapitated corpses. This woman’s eyes lost their color as she told me how she lay there, pretending to be dead for days among the decaying bodies until the coast seemed clear. Or the young man, now getting his master’s degree at a state university, who could never shake the memory of his father being shot as he was forced to watch, or walking alone across a hill only to hear a wave of maternal wailing for dead sons. Many young men recounted a childhood of hiding behind produce carts, disguising themselves to escape, injuring themselves to be eligible for a night of safety at a makeshift hospital.
Many phrases appeared over and over in my interview notes: “rebuilding shattered lives,” “essentialized poetics of memory,” “trauma,” “uncertainty,” “nostalgia,” “dislocation” and “separation” were just a few terms I noted down in shaky penmanship as I attempted to weave together their narratives of severance. But I also realized these terms are symptoms of our own conditions of grief and otherness. Change, like death, can come without ceremony, cutting clean and quick without warning or mercy. “It was God’s will,” I heard many times that summer, “It was God’s plan.” I think of this fatalism, this attempt at divine rationality, as the ultimate irony: it is still surprising that people have the capacity for both cold murder and compassion, for both monstrosity and forgiveness. cruelty and faith, delicacy and resilience.
I felt I could offer them nothing. I felt presumptuous and ashamed to write down their lives in cold, academic jargon. “Thank you,” many of my participants said to my surprise, “Thank you for listening to us. Thank you for feeling our pain. God is with you.” It was as though an empathetic ear was catharsis. “We need people to hear our stories. Nobody asks us about our stories.” I remember that when someone said this to me, I was overcome by a bizarre entropy; I shuffled demographic charts, some IRB paperwork, and quickly wiped my wet eyes, helpless. This is the power of narrative, of language and poetry–to speak it, and to hear it. Narrative is the way we fashion our cosmologies, worldviews, and ultimately our lives.
How do we begin again? How to rebuild shattered lives, or trust again, when our basic seamless consciousnesses can be so profoundly shaken and displaced? How does one buy bread in Srebrenica on the same dirt road day after day, see that same road paved with corpses, and then never see that road again? How to reconcile with memory, heavy as granite, whose circumference can never be navigated? How to live with a lack of reason, carry on with the mundane motions of daily life within the incorrigible shadow of uncertainty, waxing and waning without warning? How can we work with only our abstract imaginaries in the absence of true closure?
In the Sarajevo
Spring of 1992 everything is possible:
you get into a line
to buy bread
and end up in an emergency ward
among torn-off legs.
And still you can say
that you were lucky.
As the memorial began that evening in Hartford, there were only tears. It became evident, from the poetry I heard that day, and from my conversations with members of the Bosnian community, that they all have one common denominator: faith.
I too, have been a stranger on a new horizon. I did not lose my limbs, dodge through the trenches of war, or witness murder—but I did connect deeply with some of the experiences the refugees described to me: their insatiable longing, their loss, their yearning and struggle with closure when nothing is palpable anymore. We long for things we cannot, and will not, ever reclaim. The reactions we share are metaphorical, transposable—the circumstances—whether war or far less dramatic situations—are simply the vessels that house them. I wonder how faith arrives in this equation.
It seems impossible, after hitting a certain degree of pain, to imagine compressing it into verse. Yet, on that day, as young men and women read poetry, there was the thunder of audacity. As meaningless or meaningful as it sounds–the capacity to believe in a better day. The dead do not come back, the nightmares won’t stop overnight, wounds heal slowly, inexactly, if ever. At the limits of my own resilience—the conversations I had with my Bosnian friends are still my points of reference. No sentence, ethnography, or poem can encompass the full implication of what those forms attempt to represent: what a human being has experienced. But perhaps to persevere, to dream, to dare to write, is the final unencumbered poem. To define an emptiness (or even a darkness) within oneself can be a point of departure once loss is actualized in language. Either way, it is kinetic.
I’m still alive. In Sarajevo.
For now that means: living in the past.
To talk of the future means: to dream.
A white paper is my final home
whereas my pencil is my religion. 
When I remember these poets of Srebrenica, I still struggle to comprehend the gravity of what they ask us to ask of ourselves. About how to assume an armor of kinetic momentum when tendrils of stasis grow up around us in times of woe. Severance is merciless. No preparation is preparation enough. I asked so many people why they still believe in God, how they can still have faith after all that has befallen them, why they even bother writing poetry?
The answers were like this: Why have faith? To have faith. Why write poetry? What else is there to do?
Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard believed two things: First— there is really is no reason to have faith, it can’t be understood, much less understood rationally; Second—the poet will be immortalized. I’m still not sure about the point of origin or function of faith. But I have never been able to argue against poetry—it is here, in our veins and voices, written or not, a compass as we pass through seasons of loss, or as seasons of loss pass through us.
A political apology, as many of the refugees noted, does not bring back 8000 people. But at a Bosnian-owned café near the mosque that evening, men huddled around a small table, they smoked cigarettes, drank coffee and debate politics over the lull of television playing in the background. This was the beginning of recreating a sweet familiarity, of home—if only partial—in a new world. The boys resumed playing soccer in the abandoned parking lot, as though on Balkan streets on a sunny day. There are no grenades here. For refugees, much of the alienation is literal. It is written on their political paperwork, it is on their tongues, in their final attempts to rise, quite literally, from the ashes of their old, lost lives. For now, there is a café down the new street and there is, at least for the moment, the resonant sound of laughter. There are games of soccer with new friends, and there is poetry.
“God is good,” many of them said, despite living through atrocity, “God is great.”
How do we begin again, have faith? We just do.
I don’t understand. But perhaps that’s far from the point.
“… poetic declarations…are buds springing from human tragedy, a lyrical harvest more substantial than their size, whose unquestioned value is human closeness that points even beyond authenticity.”
1. “It Can Start All Over After All”- Goran Simic
2. “A Theory of Maintaining Distance”- Izet Sarajlic
3. “Good-Luck, Sarajevo Style”- Goran Simic
4. “A Message of Thanks”- Goran Simic
5. “AFTER AUSCHWITZ, AFTER SARAJEVO: Poetry of Three Sarajevian Poets”; Balint Szombathy
1) *In no way must we forget the Serbian civilians and victims who suffered a great deal due to unrest and war in the region.* Unfortunately, I did not speak to any Serbians (which I hope to do in the future)– hence, this piece is dedicated to and focused on the conversations I had with the Bosnian Muslims and their stories.
2) I am unable to provide real names, interview transcripts, or anything other than a careful paraphrasing of my conversations with the Bosnian refugees, as I have not sought explicit permission from my alma mater or my interview subjects to do so. Most of the experiences I write about and mention were in conversations off-the-record.
3) The poems quoted in this piece were written by published poets (as cited above) in response to the war in Sarajevo between 1992-1993, not the Srebrenica genocide shortly after in 1995. I think this is important to note given the title of my piece. I have alluded to the poetry I heard from the Bosnian community in July 2010, but have not quoted exclusively from them given confidentiality restrictions. However, during the memorial, many participants did read Sarajevan poetry as it is more or less identical to the experiences many had in Srebrenica.
4) Painting: N. Pieskin: “Hard Times” (1941)
Janaki Challa is a writer and graduate student in the NYU Religious Studies Program.Her most recent research focused on transcontinental identity formations of “third culture” populations (Grossman Global Studies Fund). She will be a research fellow at the Howard & Edna Hong Kierkegaard Library this year.
With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.