The Eyes of the Dead

A journey to the mass graves of Srebrenica and an exploration of the failure of modern human rights

Opinion | Gregory Weeks | May 2009

Secondary mass grave in Budak, Srebrenica (Photo: Gregory Weeks)

So many cases of genocide have passed unchallenged that perpetrators do not believe they will ever be held accountable. In fact, there has been a consistent pattern by the international community neither to intervene nor to take seriously the implications of grave human rights abuses that do not directly affect the interests of individual states.

To change this situation, a concept of a Responsibility To Protect (R2P), was developed by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty in 2001 and pioneered by Canadian government and its then foreign minister, Lloyd Axworthy. To date, however, there has been little discussion, much less an implementation of this concept at the international level.

As a researcher into genocide and political violence visiting the killing sites and mass graves in Bosnia and Herzegovina that are currently being excavated by the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), I always have the eerie feeling that the eyes of the dead are watching me. They are immovable, and they wait patiently for an answer from us. Will we do better the next time? If they were still alive, perhaps they could tell us, but that will never happen. They will never be able to give us the guidance we seek or the answers we so desperately need.

For me, visiting mass graves in Bosnia and Herzegovina has brought many of these questions into sharp focus and guided my efforts to find answers about whether modern human rights are currently failing, not only in the developed world but also in the developing world.

Stony-faced and silent, the victims’ skulls protrude from bits of clothing. Remnants of flesh hang from the surface of their bones. The eye sockets are empty, yet they bear silent witness to the cruelty of the killers who carried out these ghastly deeds.

Parts of one man’s body were found in four secondary mass graves after excavations were begun by the ICMP. The killers had tried to destroy the evidence by bulldozing and moving bodies, and this man’s corpse was contaminated with parts of others. It took nearly two years to piece together his remains.

Suffering, hardship, misery, sorrow – not only for those who were killed but also for those who remain behind. The thirteenth anniversary of the genocide in Srebrenica in 2008 has passed, and this summer we will see the fourteenth.

As bodies are identified, the families gather at the memorial and cemetery in Srebrenica to pay their respects and bury their loved ones. The tears flow. There is wailing. The wind blows, and it is silent except for the reading of the names. The coffins are passed from hand to hand, until they reach the graves, which look like slit-trenches. There, the families wait and watch as the coffins are lowered into the ground. It is a proper burial, and there is a sense of relief that there is finally closure. These families have been waiting so many years for news of what happened to their relatives, the burial is at least something tangible.

An experience like this suggests that human rights are not merely a philosophical concept to which we should pay lip service. These rights must be upheld through individual moral and ethical stances.  For if we do not believe in human values, are we truly human? Each one of us has a chance to play a part in the battle to end human rights’ abuses. We have to be eloquent, for the dead can no longer speak for themselves. Someone must do this for them.

Some of the dead were suffocated with plastic bags, which lie next to their bodies. Bullet holes are clearly visible in their skulls. My shoes are caked with brownish mud, and it is raining. I hear the cries of mothers who have lost their sons, of wives who have lost their husbands.

"Will we do better next time?" I ask myself as I turn to leave. I hope so, but there are no guarantees. The next genocide is already happening, and the world has been nearly silent since 2003, turning its back on the mass crimes, rapes, and atrocities of the Janjaweed militias in the Darfur region of Sudan. The Government of Sudan continues to kill its own people, and still, there has been no intervention.

As we again stand idly by, the eyes of these new dead will soon remind us of our failed duty, just as they did after Srebrenica. Apparently, an international community that will stop human rights abuses remains very far from any country on earth.

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