By Brad Mazon
During the early to mid-1990s, when Bosnian Serbs committed genocide against their Muslim friends and neighbors, and as the world stood by doing nothing to stop it, I felt helpless to do something, anything, to try to ease the pain of what was occurring in contemporary Europe, a Europe I had visited and lived in.
Oh, yes, I remember one time at an art installation sending a letter to a child in Sarajevo, but that was the extent of my activism. I was disgusted to learn about the massacres in Zecovi, Prijedor, Brcko and countless other communities throughout Bosnia.
I learned about the brutality of the Omarska, Trnopolje and Keraterm concentration camps, and read in disbelief about the nightmare that was the 1,425-day siege of cosmopolitan Sarajevo, where the 1984 Olympics had taken place not even a decade earlier.
I watched and waited as world powers did nothing to stop the carnage in the heart of Europe, where on one day, Bosnian Muslims were listening to Madonna, and on the next, they were being shot at, forcibly removed from their homes, starved and raped.
It’s likely that my Jewish upbringing had sensitized me to the scope of what was occurring there, that the genocidal acts of such war criminals as Dusan Milunic, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic were not dissimilar from those of Hitler’s regime.
I understood how Slobodan Milosevic’s nationalism, and feelings of historical injustice, stoked the flames of “othering” and scapegoating, turning families of mixed Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian heritage against their neighbors, classmates and each other. I had read about the region before, but somehow this was personal, more wrenching on a gut level.
Then, over a period of 11 days in July 1995, the Srebrenica genocide was carried out by the Bosnian Serb Army of the Republika Srpska under the direction of Mladic. Over 8,000 Bosniak boys and men were massacred, while some 25,000 women, children and elderly were transferred and abused.
After hiding in the woods around Srebrenica, starving, bare-foot and dying of thirst, Nezdad Avdic and his father gave themselves up to Serb soldiers, and were loaded onto trucks to take them to a field where they would be shot.
Nezdad survived being shot in the stomach and right arm, ultimately making it to Bosnian-controlled territory by crawling through the woods. His father and other relatives did not survive, even though they had sought shelter at a Dutch base in Potocari.
In 2007, Nezdad returned to live in Srebrenica with his wife and children. His return was an act of strength in the face of ongoing tension driven, among other things, by a lack of recognition on the part of Bosnian Serbs that a genocide had occurred there.
I am now in contact with Nezdad. We follow each other on Twitter, and have exchanged emails. I initiated the contact with him with the hope that, somehow, I might be able to help in a direct way, unlike my inability to do so back in the ’90s.
On July 11, the 22nd anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, I will be thinking of Nezdad and his family, and of the Srebrenica mothers who lost their husbands, brothers and sons. I will reflect on the importance of peaceful co-existence, and will pray for the lives lost during those fateful 11 days.
And on that day, from one Jewish American father to one Bosnian Muslim father, I will send an email to Nezdad to share both a warm greeting, and to express my respect for him in a way that would have been impossible back in 1995.