Aftermath: Bosnia's Long Road to Peace: Chapter Three: Love and Death
Love and Death
If I have become comfortable in the presence of bones, it is because of Ewa and Piotr. I have spent many long days with them, as they examine the skeletons they have helped exhume from mass graves, victims of the 1992 ethnic cleansing campaign waged by Serbs against their Muslim neighbors. Neither Ewa nor Pitor is Bosnian – they are Polish-born forensic anthropologists – but they are committed to the people of Bosnia, to finding their hidden dead, so that they may finally be laid to rest. On my first trip to Bosnia, in the fall of 2000, I walked into a warehouse in the town of Sanski Most which was full of skeletons, laid out with the clothing which had been found still clinging to the bones in the mass graves where they had been hastily buried. People came and paced the aisles that day, looking for something they could recognize of a loved one – a shirt, a shoe, a lucky charm – the first step in the identification process, which could then be confirmed with a DNA test. Ewa and Piotr were there, although I did not know them then. It wasn’t until later, after I’d met them during another trip, that I recognized them in the background of a picture I took that day. That first time, I only stayed an hour or so – overwhelmed, I suppose, by all those remains, by the stench, by the awfulness of what had been done to them, by the heavy sorrow of those who came looking for those they had lost, by the muffled sob of recognition of the woman who knelt at the feet of one skeleton, picking up the sweater she knew had been worn by her husband the last day of his life. I cannot believe now that I stayed so short a time, but then I was still new to the story of Bosnia, still uncertain of the pictures that were waiting to be seen.
It was on my next trip, in July of 2001, that I met Piotr and Ewa. I spent days at exhumations of mass graves, and in warehouses where remains were cleaned and autopsied, then laid out, each one numbered and marked by the location of the grave where they were found, so that families could come to try to make identifications. It’s the shoes that make me cry, a pile of them on a stainless steel table, some torn, some missing a lace. I ask Ewa why they are so poignant, and she says it’s because they are so personal, like a handprint or asignature. For Ewa, this work is a mission, I think. She says, “These people were killed and stripped of their identity. They have a right to their identity. We are trying to return their identities to them. These bones are somehow living.” It’s from Ewa and Piotr – who say to the skeletons, Excuse me, or, I’m sorry, if they accidentally step on a bone – that I begin to see this part of Bosnia’s story as something more than a tale of death. Piotr says, “It’s about families. It’s about Bosnia. It’s a story about life. These were people who were living. They cannot tell the story that brought them here. But their skeletons tell stories – where they were shot, what happened when they were killed. And the story of these remains is part of the story of the living – of the families who have been searching, waiting, needing to know.”
It wasn’t until more than a year later – on another trip, in the fall of 2002 – that I finally began to see this story as a story of love. I was with Ewa and Piotr again, this time at one of the mass graves of victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of some 7,000 Muslim men and boys. This grave was huge – with at least 300 bodies – and the exhumation had been going on for weeks by the time I arrived. I had come on this trip, knowing that I had yet to take a picture of an exhumation that I felt was a definitive image. And I knew why I had failed. I hate exhumations. I hate the smell, the muck of the pit, the horror of decomposing bodies, the thoughts that stream through your mind about what it must have been like for these people in the final frightening moments of their life. Most of all, I hate the hatred that put them there. Up until this time, I had kept my distance from the exhumation pit, taking pictures from the rim, or of the people who gathered to watch. And the pictures showed that detachment, that reluctance. I was prepared to be closer this time – but not as close as Ewa wanted me to be. She called me into the grave one cloudy afternoon, on to a dirt patch surrounded by partially exposed skeletons. She and Piotr had spent hours working to free the partially preserved arms and hands of what had once been a teenaged boy, and she wanted me to take a picture for her with her small cheap camera. Reluctantly, I balanced myself in the grave, and looked through the lens. I nearly threw up. But I looked again, and saw Ewa’s white-gloved hand and arm as it reached to lift the decaying hand of a long-dead boy. What I saw, I realized, was the image I had been waiting for. I lifted my own camera and snapped a few frames. I knew what I had, and it felt right. Today, when I show this photo to people, they often flinch and turn away. But I always say, Please, look again. For me, this is a photo about life, about love. Yes, the dead hands are horrific, unbearable. But there is also a living hand in that grave, gently drawing the dead from an anonymous pit back to the possibility of life – of identity restored. This hand tells a different story of aftermath. It speaks of an unyielding faith in the human spirit. It speaks of a living goodness that does not cower before the evidence of evil, one that refuses to give the final word to death, or to the hatred that caused it.