Bearing Witness

This past weekend I had the opportunity to meet a fellow American for koffie at a local cafe.

We were enjoying a gorgeous Indian summer spell of warm, sunny weather. It seemed as though everyone in The Hague had decided to reorder their day so that they could spend their time outside, soaking up the sun’s rays and reveling in the fresh air.

My friend is a young law student from the western US, here in The Hague with her husband for five months while she completes a legal internship with an international court.

In her search for information as they prepared to come to The Netherlands, she’d found my blog and contacted me with a few questions. I answered what I could and provided some additional sources, but for the most part I guess I was what every expat-in-the-making looks for: someone there ahead of you who knows the ropes and might be able to help if needed.

As we sipped our drinks in the dazzling sunlight, it’s apparent that both of them are settling in nicely. They’ve got their housing situation arranged, have figured out how to carry out the errands and tasks necessary for daily life. We even shop at the same Albert Heijn (our local Dutch grocery store chain). Her husband is taking a Dutch class, making an effort to learn some of the language even though they’re only here temporarily.

They’ve been exploring the city, and have made good use of their bicycles, cycling around neighborhoods and further afield as they get to know the surrounding area. Despite only being here six weeks, they’ve spent several weekends traveling to nearby countries.

As we chatted about life here in The Netherlands, initial impressions and settling in, talk eventually turned to her work that brought them here.

She’s doing an internship with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. The ICTY is a criminal court set up here in The Hague by the United Nation’s Security Council to prosecute war crimes such as genocide and other violations of international humanitarian law stemming from the Balkans conflict of 1992-1995 (although cases have dealt with crimes occuring as early as 1991 and as recently as 2001).

To many around the world, the Balkans conjures hazy memories of complicated ethnic and religious fighting for territory and scurity by Bosnian Muslims, Croation Catholic and Orthodox Serbians in the aftermath of the break-up of Yugoslavia.

Indeed, my friend is too young herself to remember any of the television coverage and reporting from the region during those dark years. It is estimated that some 100,000+ people died in the conflict, with another 2.2 million displaced from their homes, making it the largest, most devastating conflict in Europe since the Second World War.

Yet for others, merely the names (Bosnia, Srebenica, siege of Sarajevo) conjure up repressed memories of ugly brutality, ethnic cleansing and horrific atrocities perpetrated against military forces and innocent civilians alike.

I am not too young to recall the news reports: they sickened me, sickened any decent human being. In the later years of the conflict I worked a few hallways away from the Pentagon’s Bosnia Task Force. Passing by on the way to or from meetings, I always found it a beehive of activity, people continually entering and leaving the cipher-locked door. Everyone knew they worked in shifts, around the clock, rarely with good news to offer a glimmer of hope.

A couple years later I worked in the same office as a military lawyer who had helped negotiate the Dayton Accords which ended the Balkans Conflict. A kind and gentle man, he didn’t speak often about it, but when he did you knew that he was honored and humbled to have helped in his own way to end the conflict.

Being in northern Europe, we are closer to the scenes of such anguished turmoil and horrendous violence; for many, memories are vivid and no less painful despite the intervening years.

Given the nature of the cases handled by the ICTY, my friend was circumspect and didn’t go into detail about her work. But it was clear that she is greatly moved by what she is doing, seeing, hearing. As I sat listening to her, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my friend Expatcalidocious‘ deeply personal and harrowing post Remembering the Women of Bosnia, written a couple days earlier about a project she did for Doctors Without Borders while she was in Pecs, Hungary during the conflict.

Her story is beautifully written and restrained, the subject matter anything but. The systematic rape and murder of men, women and children, the rape camps, the torture, the unimaginable cruelty – it is all too difficult to take in. You cannot even begin to imagine witnessing it, living through it, dying during it.

Sitting there basking in the warmth of a sunny morning, I thought again how fortunate I have been. To be born in a time and place nowhere near the depths of such hellish brutality is a privilege with which some of us have been blessed. It is not a matter of being more deserving and never has been; we must all take great pains to remember that.

And with that privilege, whether you call it God’s will or a karmic roll of the cosmic dice, comes responsibility. We must raise our voices, recall, remember, share, bear witness.

We do so that others do not forget, that the victims are not forgotten. I am profoundly grateful that life has led me to two friends, born in different countries years apart, who are doing just that.


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