As a survivor of the Bosnian war of the 1990s, I was naturally drawn to the trial of Ratko Mladić before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. The tribunal found, Mladic, a Bosnian Serb general, guilty late last month of crimes against humanity, including the mass murder of Bosnian Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica, and sentenced him to life imprisonment.
The trial momentarily took me away from my daily routines and into the memories of war, particularly memories of family and friends who perished. For the most part, conversations about any war involve attempts at trying to understand the geopolitical, social, and historical factors that drove it. These are all difficult and noble tasks. But as someone who was never a passive observer of the Bosnian war, its mention raises larger human questions.
Of course, I was glad when Mladić was caught, and glad again when his trial came to its conclusion. But I still wondered whether this was the outcome that I had hoped for — whether justice had really been done. Having survived the war and lived with its memories, I found myself so exhausted that I could barely muster any energy or emotion when the verdict came down. It’s a spiritual fatigue that afflicts every war survivor, exacerbated by the guilt of having survived when others didn’t.
Justice is really about the latter group: the dead who cannot speak. It rarely involves personal elation or happiness, because those who loved us and whom we loved are gone. We are left with the unbearable past as we move through the normalcy of the present, and no court can ease that burden.
Still, moments like Mladić’s conviction give survivors at least a chance at achieving some kind of closure. This closure will never be perfect, because one’s being is forever affected by the terrible loss. But this practical aspect of justice is essential, because it affirms that the world has recognized and punished a specific evil, allowing one part of the survivor’s existence to be at peace.
There is, however, another, far more elusive aspect of justice, and that is memory. Every time we remember the war and the lives it took, we are moving toward justice. We are not willing to give up on the dead. Their voices are no longer with us, but this doesn’t mean that their voices cease to exist. On the contrary, it is us, the living, who must choose to keep their memory alive in the present. In his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, Elie Wiesel said that “remembering is a noble and necessary act.” If the world remained silent while evil was done, then it is an all the more pressing moral imperative that we remember that evil forever afterward.
Of course, this presents a rather large existential problem for the survivor, because it is human nature to look away from the days and nights of evil, and turn our faces toward today and perhaps even tomorrow. To constantly struggle with one’s own intimate, first-hand knowledge of the darkness and heinous crimes human beings are capable of is not anyone’s idea of a happy life. While it can certainly be final, justice is never static. Every survivor wants it, but getting it means opening the wounds that we would rather leave closed and perhaps even healed. This is why it’s important throughout the process that we don’t fall into thoughts of vengeance. Such thoughts do not honor the victims, nor save us from overwhelming emotions nor increase the chances that the perpetrators will come to understand the gravity of their evil acts when forced to answer for them in public.
Reflections on justice and memory inevitably lead to the question of forgiveness. Speaking honestly, I am not sure whether I have forgiven. A survivor cannot pronounce forgiveness into thin air as if the mere utterance of it will make everything better. Our contemporary culture, especially, tends to insist on resolving every conflict this way, and it strikes me as rather naive. Just like justice, forgiveness depends on the movement and reflection of one singular human being. Only then can this become an effort in collective memory. We are under the misunderstanding that if a survivor forgives, then he can let go and move on. But that’s not so easy, nor at all desirable if it means forgetting.
My reluctance to firmly say that I have forgiven does not mean that I refuse to live in the present or look toward the future. I may be angry but my anger is just. I also accept what has happened to me, and I don’t see any use lamenting it. But what I can say with complete certainty is that I have chosen not to hate. Hatred is what perpetuates the darkness of the human soul, and if we choose to hate, then we have chosen a path that will not only cut us off from the personal and collective memory, but from any possibilities of a better future. Hatred continues the process of dehumanization, and the last thing a survivor ought to do is become like her tormentor.
More than anything, forgiveness depends on the true remorse of the perpetrator. It’s dialogic, and it demands a face-to-face encounter. Only after such an encounter can we cease to be abstractions to each other, and stand a chance of breaking the cycle of dehumanization.
— Emina Melonic is completing a Ph.D. in comparative literature. She lives near Buffalo, N.Y., with her husband, Charlie, and their son, Ray. Her work has appeared in The Imaginative Conservative, Splice Today, and American Greatness, among other publications.