“One death is a tragedy. One million is a statistic.”
11 July 2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Srebrenica that claimed the lives of more than 8,000 Bosnian men and boys. On this occasion, the victims’ families gather to mourn the loss of their loved ones and to bury those unearthed from mass gravesites discovered throughout the country each year. Such enormous tragedy can be difficult to visualize for those who did not directly experience it, but the Post-Conflict Research Center (PCRC) in Sarajevo has stumbled upon a project that can help address this issue.
On June 8 2013, the world watched as thousands of volunteers from across the United States gathered on the National Mall in Washington DC to lay out 1,000,000 handcrafted bones. This symbolic mass grave was part of the “One Million Bones” project and served as a collective protest against ongoing genocides and mass atrocities in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and South Sudan, Burma and Somalia. Word of the project soon reached the PCRC where the organization’s team began to contemplate: “What if we brought this project to Bosnia-Herzegovina?”
From 8 – 11 July 8, PCRC will gather more than 100 Bosnian, regional and international youth to lay 100,000 handcrafted bones in a location where thousands of Bosnian civilians were held against their will, starved and brutalized. These bones will occupy the very place where many Bosnians saw their family members alive for the last time in 1995.
“We want the ‘Laying of the Bones’ to not only serve [as] a way to connect the youth to the experiences of the victims and survivors, but to also serve as a platform, which will allow survivors to share their pain with the world,” explains Velma Šarić, Founder and Executive Director of PCRC. “This will be a difficult and emotional event, but we hope it will be something that our participants will always remember.”
In addition to this collective volunteer action, PCRC has planned a series of activities centered on increasing the youth’s involvement in the peacebuilding process and educating participants on topics related to moral courage, inter-ethnic cooperation and genocide prevention. The youth will then attend the 20th Commemoration Ceremony together on the 11th.
“We also have long-term plans for these bones,” explains Velma. “PCRC will be working with the Srebrenica Municipality, the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial Center, victim’s associations, local and international NGOs, and artists to develop the plans for a permanent art installation and memorial that incorporates the handcrafted bones into its design.”
Velma adds, “PCRC is continuously working to bring young people to Srebrenica and I am always sad to see that there isn’t enough content to help people fully understand the gravity of what happened. This project elicits an undeniable visual and emotional impact on the viewer, and our plans to create an educational component as a part of the permanent memorial can help remedy this issue.”
The effort to bring the bones to Bosnia has not been an easy one for PCRC. Many donors saw the project as either too sensitive or too risky to support. The National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the Council of Europe (CoE), the Swiss Embassy in Sarajevo and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were among the few that saw this project’s potential and have played a key role in making the initiative possible. In addition, the Office of the High Representative (OHR) has provided in-kind support. PCRC has also set up an online campaign to raise additional funds to help support the participation of the project’s youth participants. PCRC’s greatest accomplishment to date, however, was gaining the support of Srebrenica’s leading stakeholders, including Mayor Čamil Duraković and the (civic association) Mothers of Srebrenica.
Mayor Duraković stated, “Many projects related to the Srebrenica genocide have been done, but very rarely do initiatives come along that have long-lasting impact and plans for future sustainability. This is a historical project that has the power to visually present the consequences of genocide, not only during the commemoration, but also in the years to come. This event marks the beginning of a memorialization project that solves an issue we’ve had about how to adequately relay the message of such an atrocity to future generations. We are honored that a local organization has brought this project to us and is willing to donate these bones in an effort to leave behind tangible results.”
Hatidža Mehmedović, Founder of the Mothers of Srebrenica who lost her two sons and husband to the genocide, tells PCRC that she deeply supports its initiative to bring young people from across the region and the world to commemorate the lives lost alongside the victims. “When we victims are gone, we want young people to know what took place here and we want the world to forever remember our sons, fathers, husbands and brothers that were lost to this senseless atrocity. I believe this project will help keep their memory alive.”
The Art of Revolution
The organization behind the creation of the One Million Bones initiative is the US-based Art of Revolution (AofR). Located in Albuquerque, New Mexico and founded in 2011 by Susan McAllister and Naomi Natale, the organization uses art to transform public opinion and aims to inspire creative action towards social change.
Natale, the Artistic Director of AofR, explains that the idea for One Million Bones came as a result of her work on The Cradle Project, a community based arts practice designed to visually represent the plight of the estimated 48 million children who have been orphaned by disease and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.
“It was during this work that I recognized the power of combining education with the physical act of creating an artwork. It was an approach that could change people’s beliefs and motivate them to action,” Natale explains.
Shortly thereafter, One Million Bones was initiated with a series of awareness-raising campaigns and activities, including two preview installations of 50,000 bones in Albuquerque and New Orleans, Louisiana. Following these installations, AofR began its Road to Washington campaign, which enlisted volunteers in the making of the bones and the hosting of mini installations in capital cities across the US. School children, college students, artists, activists and citizens all took part in hands-on art making workshops to generate the 1,000,000 bones that were eventually displayed on the National Mall.
“We view the One Million Bones project as a way to address an issue almost impossible to fathom. The overwhelming nature of genocide often leads to hopelessness and the belief that one person’s efforts can’t make a difference. This project shows that many small efforts can add up to a profound statement, and this has become one of the guiding principles of our work,” expresses Natale.
“When we were approached by PCRC in early 2014, we knew that Srebrenica was the Bones’ next call to action. We believe the world ought to mourn with the Bosnian people, and it is our belief and hope that the presence of this artistic installation of bones will bring attention from the wider world to the anniversary,” explains Natale.
Balkan Diskurs would like to thank Danica Radisic, Central & Eastern European Editor of Global Voices, for her editorial assistance in the publication of this article.