Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ And he said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ And the LORD said, ‘What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! (Genesis 4:9-10)
Once you have tread over that blood-soaked ground, the voices never stop crying out.
Two years ago I travelled to Srebrenica, the city in Eastern Bosnia where 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed in a span of three days. My entire experience there was chilling; confronted with the grotesque evil humans are capable of committing, I remember feeling like the stories I heard from victims in that place would stay with me for a long time.
Emira’s story certainly has.
A beautiful woman in her late 20’s, Emira goes to work every day at the very place where she lost her father. She works as a guide at the Srebrenica Memorial and recounted to us the events of July 11, 1995. Packed into an old battery factory designated as a United Nations Safe Zone, Emira and over 5,000 other Bosnian Muslims sought sanctuary from the Bosnian Serb Army. But instead of sanctuary and protection, they were met with desertion. As the noose formed by General Ratko Mladić’s forces tightened around the small Dutch platoon, those charged with protecting the unarmed masses of Bosnian Muslims turned and fled.
A horrifying scene erupted when the Serbs reached the camp. They divided the men and boys from the women. Emira recounted the last moment she saw her father; he was pulled away from her by Serb soldiers, loaded onto a bus, and driven away.
Over ten years have passed since that moment. So far, authorities have only been able to locate about fifty percent of her father’s body.
Lands soaked with that atrocious combination of genocidal wrath and innocent blood resist any attempt at meaning making. Our questions and pleas for justice fall endlessly into the abyss without so much as an echo.
Yet Emira ended her story with a claim about justice that remains lodged in my memory like a stone embedded in a well-worn path. Her question causes me to trip anytime I move too quickly towards any simple explanation of justice.
Her claim was that the International War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague isn’t justice enough. To hold the generals and politicians accountable is one thing, but the soldiers who actually carried out the atrocities get off scot-free. I remember the cold chill down my spine when she suggested that the perpetrators of these crimes could be her neighbors, they could be living in the village next door, they could be the shopkeeper down the street.
Unless these people are held accountable, how will justice ever be served? Or for that matter, how can she ever find peace?
Institutions like The Hague are necessary components in our pursuit of justice in this world. Though not perfect, the slow advance of international law that holds genocidaires accountable is an ally in this fight. But Emira’s story shows that institutions like these are simply never enough.
When it comes to the depths of human brokenness, something more is needed than statecraft and criminal courts - something that reaches deeper into the guts of justice than even the long arm of the law.
Monsignor Zovkić, a priest in the Catholic Archdiocese of Bosnia, shared with me the advice Pope John Paul II offered Croatian Catholics in light of the atrocities of this region. “Forgive, and ask to be forgiven.” This simple phrase resounds deeply with the monsignor. To his mind, only a handful of religious leaders have offered forgiveness to their penitent enemies; far fewer have risked the even bolder action of asking to be forgiven.
“They would see it as an admittance of their guilt.” And guilt is the last thing any side wants to admit.
Though Zovkić’s superior, Cardinal Puljić, has not officially asked for forgiveness for his flock’s complicity in the war, the monsignor did refer to a recent event in central Bosnia near the site of the most severe Catholic on Muslim fighting. At this nationally televised event, the Cardinal simply agreed to show up at the memorial that commemorated the Muslims who lost their lives to Catholic forces in the early 1990s. Though it wasn’t a verbal apology or an official request for forgiveness, Zovkić contends that the Cardinal’s silent presence said it all.
What would it look like for religious leaders on each side to ask for forgiveness on behalf of the members of their faith community who committed atrocities? Could it motivate a wave of similar requests from local parish priests and imams? Could that trickle down even further to the individual soldiers, those human beings tormented by the voice of their murdered brothers that cries out incessantly from the black soil of Srebrenica?
Hebrews 10:24 reads – “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.”
If religious leaders took the prophetic responsibility to ask their enemies for forgiveness, it may not be enough to provoke a similar confession from the members of their community who committed the atrocities of Srebrenica. But at the very least, it would give those perpetrators who killed Emira’s father one less institution to hide behind.