If anything can even come close to the remains of human bones in terms of testifying to the suffering of people in the encircled enclave of Srebrenica before and during the genocide in July 1995, then it is their footwear. Items of clothing strewn across individual and mass graves in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina reveal two important things from those times of horror: first, where their owners made their final steps; and second, the meagre and ill-suited footwear testifies to the protracted and almost complete absence of any broader social empathy for the people in the “soft belly” of lavish Europe.
In its full capacity, unrestrained, unimpeded by anyone, the Army of Republika Srpska turned the once peaceful lives of the local Bosniaks into their worst nightmare. Any new idea about how to add to their pain was welcomed.
Symbolically, like a dark foreboding, the Army of Republika Srpska maintained strict control of the humanitarian convoys coming into the town under United Nations protection. The army kept the town of Srebrenica under a strong, almost four-year-long siege before it finally fell, letting little else pass inside except for the so-called ‘mrtvare’ and other worthless things. That is what the people of Srebrenica called them, because they believed that the footwear sent to them by The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) were actually used in the West to bury the dead.
In Srebrenica, however, they no longer had any other choice, and whatever they may have felt about the aid that was coming in, they were compelled to make do. Their old, worn-out and tattered footwear had been exhausted for the second time, after the first round of mending. It was so worn-out, in fact, that today it can only evoke memories of people who wore these shoes in the most fateful moment of their lives.
The corpse shoes were new and came in two colours – black and beige – but they were of poor quality. They would fall apart after just a few kilometres or a couple of rainy days, which had always been common in Bosnia, especially in the spring and autumn. The soles were somewhat better, but the topline was very sensitive. To extend their usage, their owners would hem the tops of the shoes with tent canvas. Thus reworked, the shoes were neither better looking nor more comfortable; they still let in water, but at least the lifespan of their unworthy role was extended.
Many of the men and boys who set off in July 1995 on an uncertain endeavour to break out of the siege through the woods, towards Tuzla, were wearing these corpse shoes. Many of them will remain lying in the woods together with their worn-out and ill-omened shoes bearing final testimony to life and death. A life that in its final moments became agony. These shoes that came in from the “wide world out there”, intended to ease the life of people caught in the enclave, became the last and only memento, sometimes even the item by which the victim would be identified. Today, so many years after the genocide, they whisper hundreds, perhaps thousands of silenced stories, and just one glance at the remains of what once could be called footwear leaves no doubt as to the scope of the atrocity.
As if by some cruel twist of fate, all that remained of many Srebrenica victims killed in the genocide were their bones and these shoes, both strewn along the “paths to salvation” running from Srebrenica towards Tuzla and Kladanj.
The museum collection at the Srebrenica Memorial Centre in Potočari includes dozens of shoes found on the paths taken by columns of people on the Death March, or in shelters where people hid while the Army of Republika Srpska conducted mass executions. Among the recovered footwear, there are many pairs of children’s shoes.
That is why the shoes shown in the photographs of the award-winning photographer Armin Durgut are not just shoes, for they never were; they are in many ways invaluable artefacts. They are the last witnesses of a crime that may be left unpunished. If these shoes are reminders of the defeat of civilisation, in one time and place, then even more so, they are objects of warning.