A Srebrenica Christmas

Christmas Eve 2000, Eagle Base, Tuzla, Bosnia.  The last few days prior to Christmas, I had been in a foul, indeed nearly blasphemous mood.  The weather conditions in Tuzla had taken a turn for the worse: foggy and foul, thus precluding a hoped-for trip to cheerier climes.  With my family back in the States, I had a remarkable opportunity to indulge in self-pity. 

It took an off-post mission on Christmas Eve to knock me out of my funk.  This mission would be different: today we would not be meeting with local political figures or Very Important People or discussing Key Issues.  Not a single opinion would be offered, assessment made, or prediction required. 

On this day, we would be playing Santa Claus. 

Our mission was to Selo Mira, the "Peace Village" orphanage in Lukavac municipality, twenty-two miles west of Tuzla, Bosnia.  The Rudolf Walther Foundation, a German-Austrian concern, ran this orphanage, built to care for one hundred fifty children.  At the time, it housed ninety-five.

As we exited Lukavac city -- a small resort community on Lake Modrac, and remarkably reminiscent of my hometown of St. Clair Shores -- we approached the village of Turija.  At the foot of the village (for Turija is built on a hillside), there stands a large, open meadow the size of a football field.  Within it are built twelve identical buildings, facing each other in an oval, connected to one another by a loop road.  The buildings are surrounded by a tall chain link fence, topped by triple-strand barbed wire high enough to exclude those who would still come to harm the children. 

This is Selo Mira.  This is the home of ninety-five Bosniac, Croat, and Serb children, orphans of war and castoffs from what remains of the Bosnian social care system.  Two-thirds are Bosniacs -- that is, Bosnian Muslims -- from the Drina River valley on the border with Serbia.  Of these, some thirty children are war orphans from Srebrenica.  Another thirty are orphans of other wars, the children of fathers killed in action and mothers dead, lost, or incapable of caring for them alone.  The remaining thirty-five or so children are referred to with a shrug as "social cases."  These are the children of the latest holocaust and its ongoing aftermath.

Here lives a nine-year-old Bosniac girl whose father disappeared inside Srebrenica and whose mother was killed two years ago by a landmine left on her property.  They still do not know if the landmine was left over from the war or planted by hostile neighbors attempting to prevent the family from returning to live in their own house.

Here lives an angelic three-year-old boy whose mother gave him up after she started showing classic signs of schizophrenia. 

Here live five Croat children from Posavina Canton, near the Croatian border in the north.  Their parents were killed four months ago by a drunken neighbor in a rage.  The oldest of the five children, who witnessed the death of his parents, is six years old.

Here live four children, Serbs from Brcko.  Three girls, aged ten, nine, and seven, and a five-year-old boy.  They were forced to hold candles during a blackout so that their father could see what he was doing as he killed their mother with a knife.

And these are the children whom we were visiting to give toys from America.

The true Santas in our story were some Maine National Guard members, a small group of military policemen who were serving a six-month tour on Eagle Base.  The key organizer was Sgt. Scott Durst, age 47.  He found out about this particular institution from one of our translators.  Sgt. Durst contacted his wife back home, and they organized this Christmas gift drive through their church and their circle of friends. 

For each child, a specific toy would be found and given.  The toys were collected and wrapped in the United States, and then shipped in boxes to Bosnia.  Along with the fifteen boxes of toys and gifts, and additional thirty boxes of children's clothes, new and used, were gathered for donation to the village.  They even had an additional box of toys, also sorted by age group, so that any child not remembered, any child who had not been on the list sent to America in November, would still receive a gift on this special day. The boxes filled a school bus to the roof. 

Our little convoy of three vehicles pulled up the loop in front of the door.  Our group walked into the lunchroom, a large collective dining area where the children take their mid-day meals.  Today, there was row upon row of children's chairs, each filled with a grinning, excited child, ranging in age from maybe three years old in the front row to a half dozen or so over-eighteens in the back.  As we entered, the children broke out in applause. 

Soon the boxes were all inside: the fifteen treasure-laden boxes in the lunchroom, another thirty or so in a huge heap in the hallway outside.  We were ushered to our chairs, and we took our seats.  

Before us came an exquisitely lovely girl of  fifteen in a black dress, and a tall and slender young man, perhaps the same age, in a secondhand suit and tie.  A hush fell.  The two elders opened notebooks.  The boy gave a short speech in Bosnian.

When he finished, the girl took up for him, reading from a script in heavily accented but perfectly understandable English. "On behalf of the children of the Peace Village, we would like to extend our very deep thanks to you, our friends from America, who worked so hard so that we might have a happy Christmas this year.  We would especially like to extend our special thanks to Mrs. Scott Durst in Portland, Maine, in America, for her hard work on our behalf.  We have all suffered the pains of war, but we also have come to know the love that comes with peace, and we hope always to have a special bridge in our hearts between us and you in America.  God bless you, and thank you all so very much.  As a token of our appreciation, please enjoy our little program we have done to thank you."

She curtsied at our applause, and she and the young man in the suit stepped aside.  Two seven-year-olds then came on stage, dressed in the silliest costumes you could possibly imagine.  The little girl wore orange tights, an orange sweater, deeley-bobbers on her head, and little cardboard wings with dots on them: the Ladybug.  With her was a little boy, the Elephant, wearing a wrinkly gray sort of gym suit, huge gray construction paper ears, and a long paper "trunk" tied to the end of his nose.

The Ladybug and the Elephant bowed to the crowd, faced each other, and began to recite.  It was in Bosnian, of course, but I could tell that it rhymed: each child would recite four lines, and then be answered by the other with four lines, back and forth for about three minutes.  Their solemn visage and the keen concentration with which they recited contrasted sharply with the warm affection of the crowd, who chuckled as each line was chanted -- especially at the elephant's "trunk"  that waggled comically as he spoke.

Our translator explained later that this poem, "The Ladybug and the Elephant," is a traditional Serbo-Croatian children's rhyme.  The story of the poem goes something like this: The Ladybug sees the Elephant and says, I like you; would you like to play with me?  And the Elephant says, No, I will not play with you.  I am the Elephant.  Elephants do not play with Ladybugs.  The Ladybug asks, How do I know that you are an elephant?  The Elephant replies, I have a big nose and big ears, and thick wrinkly skin, and I am very big.  And you are very small.  The Ladybug replies, I like big ears and a big nose, and I am not afraid of how big you are.  Won't you play with me?  And of course the Elephant replies, Yes.  And the Ladybug takes the hand of the Elephant and they skip off stage together to play. 

This brought the house down.

Next, ten older girls came back on stage, five in blue, five in pink.  Tall and slender, around twelve years old, they were at that adolescent growth spurt that would give them the lanky and slim physiques most common to young-adult Bosnian women.  Off to one side, a teacher turned on a CD player -- the 1980s hit song from the movie Back to the Future, "The Power of Love," by Huey Newton and the News -- and the girls began to dance.

The dance was vigorous and not particularly graceful, but that wasn't the point.  They were dancing for the sake of the dance itself, nothing more -- and in a way that surely caught the attention of the boys in the crowd.  Thus they reminded us: Soon we will be women.  Soon we will have families of our own.  Rejoice with us!

In watching these girls dance, I suddenly knew I was doing something that their own fathers could not and would never do.  And tears welled in my eyes as I began to think and remember. 

I remembered the briefing I received when I first came to Bosnia.  In 1995, Srebrenica, an isolated mountain town, was Muslim-held and had been under siege for four years.  Thirty-five thousand people took refuge here from the war, cut off by surrounding Serb forces but disarmed, as it had been deemed a "U.N. Safe Area."  A small, lightly armed Dutch force guarded them.  In July 1995, as the Serbs began to lose the war, they bowled over the U.N. force without a fight and took the city. 

The city's 25,000 women and children were shipped by truck or on foot to Tuzla. 

The men were murdered.  More than seven thousand in three days.

I remembered the agricultural warehouse in the village of Kravica, where many of the executions took place.  The building riddled with bullet holes -- from the inside out -- and covered with a black mold that five years later still silently testified to the violence that had occurred there.

I remembered the official visit our team made to the Srebrenica Victims Identification Center at the Tuzla city morgue.  I remember the huge refrigerated room within, where four thousand bodies lay in plastic bags, each awaiting processing by the international forensics team assembled to determine their identities.  I remember the black plastic bags, each holding the bones of one of the lost.

I remembered the British doctor, in a Midlands accent, describing his latest responsibility, a gray skeleton on a table before him.  "He's a Bosnian Muslim, thirty-five to forty years old.  Judging by the dental work, he's working class or a laborer.  The thigh and arm bones show signs that he was very muscular.  The ribs are cracked in six places, and the tip of his hipbone is broken, so he may have been beaten.  He was shot at close range through the back of the head."

As I looked at the girls dancing, I could only think: Thirty-five to forty. 

He might have been a father to one of them. 

It was difficult not to shed a tear looking at these girls, at these beautiful faces who'd known such tragedy.

Presently, the dance ended with applause, and appreciative wolf whistles from the back row.  After the children gathered to sing us the Bosnian national anthem, Sgt. Durst, our organizer, took the stage and began a speech of thanks in response.

"My friends," he said, "I just wanted to say how much of an honor and a joy it has been for us to provide for you these gifts this Christmas.  On behalf of my wife, our church group, and the Ninety-Seventh MP Company, I just wanted to wish you all our best wishes on this joyful Christmas."  We then distributed the gifts, all fifteen boxes...with a dozen or so gifts to spare.  Not a single child went without.

Each of the men would reach into the box, pull out a gift-wrapped package, and call out names.  They mispronounced them terribly, of course, but the children didn't seem to mind.  They came up and took them from us greedily, but then they smiled and almost always gave us a happy "Ha-vaala" (thank you).  They then ran back to their seats and hurriedly ripped off the wrappings, showing their prizes off to their friends.  Dolls, coloring books, trucks, kitchen toys, soccer balls, stuffed animals, teddy bears.

Upon the giving of the final gift, the young woman in black, the one who had read to us the speech in English, stepped up to the front of the room.  Next to her was the young man in the suit, carrying an exquisitely detailed (if childishly executed) cardboard-and-construction-paper model of Peace Village.  "This is for you and your wife.  Thank you again so very much," she said, as Sgt. Durst took the model village, fighting back tears.  He was not the only one.

Afterwards, as we drove back to base, I remembered what Mr. DeGrandis, my history teacher, taught me in school some twenty years ago: you cannot escape history, he said, for history is not what happens in books.  History is what will happen to you.  And here was the proof: a whole village of children who struggled to live and grow in joy despite their harrowing inheritance, in the aftermath of that day when History, like a runaway freight train, smashed their ordinary lives.

And yet, in this village where the children of the dead grow in peace, where the sons of the missing live to sing and where the daughters of the murdered live to dance, we have learned that in spite of the hideous odds against it, we are confronted with the reality of how love still triumphs against death

And triumph it does: even in as sad a place as this transplanted bit of Srebrenica, the city that taught us that when the world said, "never again," it didn't mean it.

Richard L. Kent, Esq. is deputy political advisor to the commanding general, Multinational Division (North) at Eagle Base near Tuzla, Bosnia-Herzegovina.
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