When I walked through the door, I knew that I was 11 years late. About 20 Muslim women, all of whom were survivors of a war crime, inspected me with watery eyes. They knew I was late, too.
When the Bosnian war started, I was in high school. On April 16, 1993, when these women’s families and friends were killed before their eyes, under their roofs or in their front yards in the small, central Bosnian village of Ahmici, I was seven days away from turning 18 years old. At the time, I knew little of what was unfolding in Bosnia, much less in Ahmici. For me, war meant arguing with my middle-class parents in a small, crime-free mid-western town about receiving a car for my birthday.
A Yugo, I had cried – I’ll even take a Yugo.
By looking at me, they knew this American story. They knew my American story: I had never left my dead family strewn on a lawn. I had never given a blood sample so foreign scientists could match my DNA with bones buried in mass graves in hopes of finding my father. I had never screamed out of fear of dying. I had never cried out of fear of living.
Holding only a pen, notebook and mini-cassette recorder, it was as if I had some Western vaccine that these women had been waiting for. They lined up to talk to me. The questions that I had prepared to ask were insignificant. Our age and cultural differences were irrelevant.
I was a curious journalist, and they still had something to say.
My name is Dzemila. I am 38 years old. … My mother-in-law and father-in-law were killed. I was taken to a concentration camp. I was raped twice… I saw everything there. Dead people. I can’t even describe that…. It’s always on my mind. It will never leave me. I have to go on. I have to live.
My name is Samra. My brother, husband, brother-in-law and nephew were killed. I have three children – on that day, the youngest was 1 year old, the middle child was 6 years old and the oldest was 10. I spent 16 days in a concentration camp…. I don’t know where my husband is buried. I would like to know that; the kids would like to visit…. Most of our neighbors could help me, and they didn’t….
War isn’t a woman’s world, but somehow it becomes theirs. And in the case of all of these women, the war was fought in each of their homes.
After the war, they are left suppressing their own memories and their own horrors more and more because they have to move on and they have to raise a family. How do they move on? They forgive, they say. They forgive the men who killed 116 women, men and children in one morning in their village.
I wasn’t too late to ask them how they were. And it wasn’t too late to learn that I believe in the strength of women.
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