I imagine some people may be offended by the following, but to commemorate the conviction of Radovan Karadžić in the UN War Tribunal yesterday, I decided to get a tattoo to facilitate the continual symbolic remembrance of victims of genocide.
The style I chose harkens to the tattoos Nazis imposed upon Jewish Holocaust victims during WWII. This tattoo, at its symbolic foundation, is intended to honor and remember those victims.
When I was a child, I recall an elder Holocaust survivor visiting my high school to explain the horrors she experienced. Her shocking demonstration of the tattoo stamped on her forearm left a bigger imprint on my memory than her words, sadly.
Yet for most of my adult life, the tattoos of Holocaust victims as portrayed in films and books continue to be a catalyst to remember the personal impact of this unknown Holocaust survivor.
As the pang of the needle drove repeatedly into my arm for a brief five minutes, I imagined her experience. The chaos of the camp. The smells. The smoke. The disease. The death. The fear in the eyes of everyone around her. Perhaps prisoners had to hold her down while another prisoner tore into her arm with some crude, unhygienic rusty implement.
Conversely, I wonder what went through her mind after speaking to a roomful of snot-nosed Grunge-era tweens in a Podunk backwater town in Washington State?
As she gave her talk, she probably observed an audience of poorly dressed ne’er-do-wells. Most fidgeting in their seats, scratching their poorly dyed heads, rudely passing notes, staring blankly, mouth-breathing through yellow, plaque-caked teeth as she described terrifying events for which we had no context. One ocean, one continent, and over fifty years removed from her experience. Perhaps she wondered if we could even find Europe on a map.
Since nearly all Holocaust victims have now passed, I go forth into the world wearing this on my arm in the hope that children of future generations will ask me about this tattoo and it will open the door to a conversation about several important historical events that must never be forgotten. Perhaps my contemporaries will inquire and it will have the same effect. I imagine I’ll be refining my response to these queries for the rest of my life.
I’ve heard that after WWII the international community symbolically declared, “Never Again” to the horrors of the Holocaust. So footage from the Bosnian War in the 90’s demonstrates why it was so unfathomable to many that genocide was once again occurring on European soil in the early-to-mid 1990’s.
Sarajevo, the capitol of Bosnia, endured a 3.5 year-long military siege, the longest in modern European history.
In Bill Carter’s iconic documentary film Miss Sarajevo, a citizen of Sarajevo is interviewed from within the siege during the war and he describes the city as an “super-modern concentration camp.” That line always stuck with me. Sarajevo was a super-modern concentration camp for 3.5 years, because of Radovan Karadžić.
When I woke up on March 24, 2016 I read that the UN Tribunal finally came down with the verdict that Radovan Karadžić was criminally responsible for war crimes, including the Siege of Sarajevo, and including the murder of over 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica. This tattoo is in the memory of the Muslim men and boys of Srebrenica as well.
The number 11541 represents the number of Serb, Croat, Muslim, atheist, agnostic, Roma, Jewish and international victims who died during the siege in Sarajevo. 11541 is a number determined by the Research and Documentation Center in Sarajevo, and the number was commemorated with 11541 empty red chairs aligned down Maršal Tito street in Sarajevo in April, 2012 as the city marked 20-years since the beginning of the war. I had a surreal moment that day as I walked along those chairs with my friend Alma, the inspiration for the U2/Passengers song “Miss Sarajevo”, while a children’s choir sang that very same song.
The tattoo is in memory of all who perished in Sarajevo during the conflict. It will be a constant reminder of the so-called, “Spirit of Sarajevo.”
During the past several years I’ve met many people who either currently live in Sarajevo, or had to escape Sarajevo because of the war and now live in America, or even selflessly defended the city and its people during the siege.
The tattoo is in recognition of them, too.
Finally, this tattoo is a commitment to recognize and speak out against individuals who threaten to revive the hateful politics, racism, fascism, xenophobia and religious extremism of failed leaders from previous generations. History has many examples of hateful people who come into power and the results aren’t pretty.
In the former Yugoslavia it’s demonstrated in the vacuous commentary of contemporary leaders like Dodik, Vučić and Šešelj.
In America, it’s seen in politicians like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, both of whom have suggested absurd policies towards Hispanic or Muslim Americans. Cruz recently suggested we should have special police forces to monitor our own citizens based solely upon their faith.
Those ideas, absurd as they are, may have earned them a promotion had they been underlings working during the reign of Radovan Karadžić.
But in the event Trump gets elected I’ve already picked my own identification number – and that’s just fiscal responsibility right there.