VILNIUS, LITHUANIA – FEBRUARY 24: People hold flags and posters during a protest against Russian attack on Ukraine near the Russian Embassy, on February 24, 2022 in Vilnius, Lithuania. Overnight, Russia began a large-scale attack on Ukraine, with explosions reported in multiple cities and far outside the restive eastern regions held by Russian-backed rebels. (Photo by Paulius Peleckis/Getty Images)
By Tom Squitieri
WASHINGTON — The first massacre victim I met was really two, an elderly couple still holding hands three days after an ambush along a dusty Bosnian road left them and a dozen others dead.
The only way to find out who they, and the others who were slain — to give them their voice, to tell their story — were was by getting close, looking at any documents they may have had, trying to piece together the bloodied event that left innocents baking and rotting in the hot August sun, or those who never made it out of the bus they thought would bring them to safety.
Moving their hands from pockets, rolling them over, whispering questions in their ears hoping for answers to help me tell their stories and, ideally, make them the last to suffer like this.
In the dust was Veselinka Masic, her birth certificate in her left front pocket; Mlade Todorovic, atop a school diploma and working papers; Veselinka Todorovic slain nearby, her bankbook showing 77,000 dinars – then around $385; Ninela-Nia Galvanic, 16; Dragica Pljevaljcic, 84; Joka Ikohic, 65; Dalibaor Matovic, 11; Dragon Spasogevic, 24.
And a baby, tiny, helpless, whose name I was never able to get.
It was called a small war, Bosnia. The elderly couple and those murdered with them would be faces of hundreds I would see, smell, touch, ponder, come far too close and internalize far too much.
Here is some of what I learned, no matter if it was in Bosnia, Haiti, Burundi, Rwanda, Iraq, Corsica, Afghanistan, and dozens of other places where innocents were murdered, bullied, raped, and tortured:
First, those who commit the crimes always say they did not do it. Second, the war crimes we journalists learn about – or discover on our own — are just a smattering of the horrors that have occurred.
The war in Ukraine has from the start been like those I had covered, one reason I considered steps to get to Ukraine, to get to besieged cities, to follow the flow of weapons from the United States to the hands of Ukrainian troops to their use. I knew, like others who crouched and ran with me in past wars, what was going to happen in Ukraine — and it did — and what is still to happen as that war worsens.
Destroyed buildings, attacks on schools and hospitals and shelters, hundreds fleeing, lawless troops. We knew that once the Russians arrived and then would retreat, greater horrors would be unleashed.
One of the biggest single horrors of the Bosnia war was the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre, where more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslim boys and men were slain and dumped in several mass graves as the area was “ethnically cleansed” of all Muslims. A war term to soften the horror, “ethnically cleansed.”
We found some of those mass graves and relayed the information to authorities. We trekked across mine-strewn roads and wound up arrested, but we did not stop.
Be a “voice for the voiceless,” my first editor told me again and again. So I, and others, did.
Those victims of those wars needed us to give them a voice. Just as those who are deep in Ukraine reporting are doing for these latest victims.
The world always wants to look away. It does not want to hear about the grandmother who dropped to her knees to kiss my muddy boots as she begged me to take her grandchildren to safety.
It does not want to hear about the trembling voices from the pre-teen girls who were raped. It does not want to hear the boasts of the bullyboys who chortled — when I asked how they knew who the “others” are — said “they smell differently” and it made it easy to pick them out to murder. It does not see the bodies bobbing in an eddy of a river, after floating downstream from a Rwanda massacre site or the Burundi bodies chopped by “pangas” — machetes — to finish them off after first being gunned down.
And it never even seems to know of the bandaged bodies of the wounded, the bloated stomachs of the starving infants, and the soft whimpers of those slowly dying.
The world does not want to be the ones going through the pockets of rotting corpses to find out who these people were, the precious lives they led, before they were ruthlessly ambushed, now strewn for animals and nature to dismember their remains on that dusty road.
We do it for you. As uncomfortable as it is, at least you can do is look and act.
Tom Squitieri is a veteran journalist based in Washington D.C. His work appears occasionally on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.
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