voices from other bearing witness retreats

Remains of the Serb civilian victims
The valley of Srebrenica
Belgian zen teacher Frank De Waele Roshi discusses with one of the retreats’ spirit holders Vahidin Omanovic from the Center of Peacebuilding (CIM) in front of the battery plant that was used as an UN headquarters in Potocari, where the Srebrenica massacre really began. Survivor Hasan Hasanovic on the right side of the image.
Buildings with sniper marks are still everywhere you go. The marks are always next to windows, since their targets were the ordinary civilian citizens in their homes.
The young peace builders of CIM and Frank De Waele Roshi

The Bosnian retreat organized by the Zen Peacemakers Europe was a very different kind of a retreat compared to the previous retreats organized by the Zen Peacemakers International, like the ones in Auschwitz, Rwanda and Black Hills. The Zen Peacemakers always urges us to have the courage to let go of our preconcieved notions and ideas, to just listen, to open our hearts and to Bear Witness. The people are encouraged to see through their fears and fixed ideas and to see ourselves as others and others as ourselves. The Buddhist practice teaches us to see and experience how the whole world and all life is interconnected. It is all one body. For this reason we cannot separate things into dualistic categories such as “right” and “wrong” or „good“ and „bad“. It is all a matter of perspectives and opinions and there is suffering on both sides of all arguments. This perspective is extremely challenging to maintain in a place like Bosnia.

During our trip we were mostly immersed in accumulating information instead of self-reflection. There was very little time for reflection and moments in silence, instead we were constantly traveling to new places and listening to the stories from all sides of the conflict. Some participants who were more familiar with the previous ZP projects seemed to feel like that this was the biggest difference.

From my own perspective, accumulating this new information was important and necessary. The Yugoslav Wars and especially the war in Bosnia was a very complex event and it is difficult to grasp. At first I thought it was a very simple thing. I thought that it was only the Bosnian Orthodox Serbs who inflicted a horrible genocide on the other Bosnian ethnic groups, especially the Muslim Bosniaks. As the information accumulated during the retreat, I became much more aware of the sufferings of the so called “perpetrators”. On our last day in Sarajevo we payed a visit to a center in Eastern Sarajevo that still houses the remains of the c. 250 Bosnian Serb civilians who were brutally killed and thrown in to mass graves. It has been extremely difficult for the Bosnian Serbs to get DNA test results from the international communities, since they had lost the war and it was them who are been sentenced The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in Den Haag, Holland. But although the numbers on their sides were minuscule compared to the several thousands of Bosniak casualties, it doesn’t matter. All casualties are someone’s father, mother, child or some other dear member of a family. All pain should be treated equal, and people need to be understood, helped, discussions, resolutions, reconciliations, and eventually peace.
The most moving experiences for myself were the personal accounts by the local Peacebuilders who had been children during the war. Especially the story of Hasan Hasanović who survived the Muslim genocide in Srebrenica, made a very big impression on me.

Srebrenica was a small town with only 5,000 citizens. The raging war brought about 50,000 Muslim refugees into the town. The Bosnian Serb military sieged the town from its surrounding hills for almost four years turning it into a modern day concentration camp. The UN peacekeepers arrived in 1993 and declared Srebrenica as the first UN safe area.

In July 1995 the UN ultimatum failed when the NATO decided not to make the demanded airstrikes. The Serb military invaded the town on July 7. lead by its commander Ratko Mladić and the massacre began with UN Dutchbat standing helplessly. Hasan Hasanović was only 19 years old when he and about 10,000 men fled the sieged city of Srebrenica. On their 100 kilometer trek to Bosniak territory he bore witness to the killings of thousands of his fellow escapers including his uncle and father.

The Srebrenica memorial site is huge. There are still plenty of unidentified remains found from the mass graves. The identified victims are buried here every July

About 25,000 refugees from Srebrenica sought refuge from Potocari compound held by the UN Dutch forces. After two days the UN gave in and ultimately assisted the Serb army to separate women and kids from the men and boys. The women and small kids were transported, but the c. 9,000 men and boys (over 12-14 years of age) were left to the hands of the Serb military. Not many of them survived. Hasan Hasanović is again living in Srebrenica and works as a curator at the Srebrenica Memorial Center.

Many of the young Peacebuilders had lived through the four year siege of Sarajevo as small kids. The whole city was cut off from communications, electricity, water, food and access to the outside world. There was no way in or out. About 70% of the buildings were destroyed, 11,000 people were killed and over 50,000 wounded.
During the siege, the people of Sarajevo built a tunnel, that was half a mile long and a bit over five feet high. This was their only access to the outside world. It was used to transport mail, food, guns and people. This cramped and dangerous tunnel was extremely necessary for the survival of the people of Sarajevo.

The president of the Serb republic Radovan Karadžić wished to eradicate the Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) of the whole country. However, there were plenty of other ethic groups living inside the sieged city. They all suffered equally.

The country is still governed according to the Dayton peace treaty, which acknowledges the three major ethnic groups; Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs and the Catholic Croats. The country isn’t even fully independent. It is governed by international community through UN. The Dayton treaty is used as a foundation for the Bosnian constitution. It is problematic as it excludes all the individuals who have mixed ethnic backgrounds, and also the Roma people.

The county is still divided into two equally big constitutional entities: Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and a separate autonomous entity with Serb majority known as the Republic Srpska, which has its own president. Interestingly enough, the Republika Srpska does not want to be a part of Serbia, but somehow still dreams of one day becoming an independent country. At the same time, it probably benefits from its current role as a symbiotic state within Bosnia.

Personally for myself the experience of bearing witness to an interfaith and multiethnic society with majority of Slavic Muslims was the most important one. Our western world is currently demonizing the whole Islamic culture and it felt important to make long lasting personal relationships with the Muslim community.

I feel honored to consider the Peacebuilders of Bosnia as my friends. Especially their founders Vahidin Omanovic and Mevludin Rahmanovic (both Muslim Imams) made a huge impression on me and I am proud to have had this chance to learn from both of them.
The emotions that arose from this experience are complex. There wasn’t enough time to let the massive amounts of information to seep in and bear witness to it. I guess I can call this experience as a plunge in to the ethnic conflict and war in Bosnia. For now, I have to bear witness to the emotions that are arising on my own and see what comes up. It is still too early what that might be and what actions I might take because of it.

The initial sense that I got, was the frustration of the fact that the international community did nothing while these atrocities happened. Especially it felt impossible to comprehend how the genocide in Srebrenica happened within UN Safe Area. How it is possible that UN let almost 9,000 muslim men and boys being massacred under their noses in few days in July 1995?

The saddest part of this all is that the same thing happens now in several other countries like Syria. After this experience I am not so sure if international intervention makes situations better or worse. The conflicts are very complex and there are always victims on both sides. Everyone is affected. Fighting violence with violence is not necessarily a wise move.

The young and inspiring members of the Center for Peacebuilding gives me a lot of hope. They are all traumatized by the war, but they still look hopefully into a peaceful future. They do not necessarily believe another war is possible, and they will do everything they can to prevent it by actively building peace by interaction with all sides of the conflict. They also wish that the Bosnian government would one day start a reconciliation project to serve the people of Bosnia who all suffered tremendously. So far, this is not happening, but luckily there are organizations such as CIM with amazing people working for peace with all their heart.

”May we always have the courage to bear witness, to see ourselves as other and to see other as ourselves.”

Center for Peacebuilding
Survivor story by Hasan Hasanović
Center for Council
Zen Peacemakers International

Inshallah (if God wills)

Bearing Witness Retreat in Bosnia Herzegovina by Mikko Ijas Read More »

My experience of the bearing witness retreat on Lampedusa in 2016 was in many ways a turning point in my life.

The direct contact with the concrete evidence of the mass suffering of people fleeing their unsafe, but loved, home country became very tangible, became a lived experience instead of a distant news report. In that year we all felt, standing on that rocky island in the Mediterranean, that what had happened so far was just the beginning. Indeed, various conflicts in the world have led since to waves of refugees to Europe that few people could have imagined.

It was equally touching to speak to those on Lampedusa that had been involved in rescue operations of refugees shipwrecked at their coast, shipwrecked often on purpose by the people traffickers. The compassion of the inhabitants of Lampedusa for those that arrived from far away was for me a warm experience compared to the hostile reactions of the population of many European countries towards refugees.

Our zen peacemakers group, under the spiritual guidance of Frank de Waele, provided me with a safe home when we shared our experiences in the not-knowing circle meetings, and whenever we spend time together during the meals, meditations, meetings, walks, and ceremonies.

The whole experience has led for me to deep understanding and wisdom about conflict and refugees, while still not knowing often what to do, and lasting personal friendships. I am looking forward to renew this experience on the Ecoretreat in Germany in 2022.

Ruud Baanders

More about Ruud Baanders see on his website: https://www.mahakaruna.org.uk

Picture by Ruud Baanders

Lampedusa – pictures and reflections by Ruud Baanders (2016) Read More »

Evi Gemmon Ketterer wrote these lines after her Bearing Witness retreat in Auschwitz Birkenau with the Zen Peacemakers in 2013. It was published later in the book „Pearls of Ash and Awe“. The book includes some testimonies and reflections from other retreat participants and gives some background. This is in appreciation of the 20 years of Bearing Witness in Auschwitz with Bernie Glassman and Zen Peacemakers.

Auschwitz – a Place of Cruelty and Hope

by Evi Gemmon Ketterer

In 1942

none had the vision

that in the gas chamber at Auschwitz

a German Zen Buddhist woman

would take an American male Rabbi

in her arms

till he stops crying and comes back to life.

In 1944

none had the vision

that an American male Rabbi

and a German Zen Buddhist woman

would sit behind the fence together

both sobbing and bearing witness

to those inside the fence

exposed to the new victims arriving

seen as prisoners while they knew the destiny

of those walking on the road of death.

In 1945

none had the vision

that an American male Rabbi

would comfort a German Zen Buddhist Woman

in her heartbreak about those liberated

who had to find a way back to life

by telling her stories of his family history

and their mastery of survival.

In 2013

it happend.

Let´s not deny the evil and cruelty of this place

nor the good and love that arises here.

We would deny humanity.


More about Evi Gemmon Ketterer see on her website: https://brunnenhofzendo.ch/

The book “Pearls of Ash & Awe” is published by Edition Steinrich


Auschwitz – a Poem Read More »

Bearing Witnessa - a reflection by Evi Gemmon Ketterer

“I, Gemmon, practice to devote myself to not-knowing. I will practice to open myself to the insight, that the ungraspable life is always more than the power of my eye of study and practice can see.
I practice to devote myself to bearing witness. I will practice to realize that the ungraspable life manifests itself in ungraspable many expressions. Therefore I will encounter all creations with respect and dignity and allow myself to be touched by the joys and pain of the universe.
I practice to devote myself to healing. I will practice to be in relationship with everything, to strengthen my capacity to love and acceptance and to use my life and love for healing myself, the earth, humanity, and all creations.”

That’s what I vowed in 2001. I changed some wording, yet, the intention is an unbroken line until today. I added “devotion” as it is the heart of all three tenets. Devoting the everyday experience of my small self to the greater Self of the source of life which I am an expression of – ass far as my eye of study and practice is able to see. But as this self sees just such a small section of what life itself is, I practice to get deeper, so I will be more able to strengthen my capacity for love and healing. Bearing witness is the tool to bridge the tenet of not-knowing and healing.
As we are mammals, our brain is inclined to survive by running away, fight or playing dead when discomfort arises. A pure survival strategy, that granted your species to survive a view thousand years. It taught us for generations, that our small life is threatened if we trust the wrong way. Just those of our ancestors survived that had the capacity to fear at the right time. And yet, we went beyond of the boundaries of what is needed. Fear created hatred and greed and now we are in a position, we are the thread. We created a vicious circle and now we run away from ourselves inside and out.
Bearing witness is to face the thread, to widen our insight of the Oneness of life, including all we fear and all we love. Going beyond, we realize that there is no such thing as a small, separate self that lives out the deluded idea, that we will survive by subduing everything else.
Sitting in Auschwitz, Lampedusa, Srebrenica and now the coal mine in Germany, we sooner or later realize this delusion. By facing the outcome of our survival strategies, we are able to hear the cry of mother earth and of the victims of ignorance. We strengthen our capacity to stay and see, to widen the circle of what our eye of study and practice is able to see.
As we run away from this crying, we also run away from the beauty and love this life offers. In my opinion, this is the reason, why at one side we experience in bearing witness the heaviness of our hearts and at the same time the deep interconnectedness of all. At the end, we might feel a much deeper sense of true compassion and our vows to enlighten might see, that diversity and oneness are just the two sides of the same token. Therefore Bearing witness is the bridge between radical openness and healing.
And maybe, one day, maybe even through our small death, we might be able to realize, that all we see and have will end, but the oneness of life will find ungraspable new ways of expressing itself. It would be sweet and loving, if we would realize it now and be able to devote the life of this small self to interconnectedness of all life.

More about Evi Gemmon Ketterer see on her website: https://www.brunnenhofzendo.ch

Picture by Peter Cunningham

Bearing Witness – a reflection by Evi Gemmon Ketterer Read More »

Pearls of Ash and Awe

I wrote these lines after my first Bearing Witness retreat in Auschwitz Birkenau with the Zen Peacemakers in 2014. It was published a year later in the book „Pearls of Ash and Awe“. The book includes some testimonies and reflections from other retreat participants and gives some background. This is in appreciation of the 20 years of Bearing Witness in Auschwitz with Bernie Glassman and Zen Peacemakers. The editor is Kathleen Battke. Thank you Kathleen for your effort in compiling this!


Matzes of Humanity. Fragments of Life

by Svenja Hollweg

First the fear, then the war, now annealed into our Human cells: the seemingly eternal mode of attack no defense.
So much, so convinced of something,
That we turn blind for what is, for the human being, the situation that is present.
Concealment through predominance of concepts.
The unconceivable hell is possible. As man.

Suddenly, in the middle of acting.
Like frozen.
Missend – missed as a human being.
Remaining stock-still.
In the middle of a breath humanity is
halted –
extinguished –
paused –

Breathing out is missing.
Deep cultures are slowed down. Peoples ´soul full of pain.
Human-Culture fragmented Frozen in the middle of a breath.
Giving space to the stories of the past. Listening to the stories of now.
A call for breathing out:
Breathe, humans!
Breathe for all these humans
Out with them
So that time gets moving!
„We ´ve all eben together before
Dancing in starlight upon the same shore
Soul weavers of sound and light
Gather together once more“ *
Peace-making – parts and the whole.
And in this ist is as of I ´d walk the ground of my Self.
Everything inside of me
Through me, through
In Auschwitz-Birkenau I picked up an acorn.
During the retreat I held it in my hand, in my coat pocket.
After a couple of days, the acorn burst open.
The Skin.
Through warmness.
Will to live, tender vitality, joyfull forwardness
One might think that in a place like this, nothing would eher grow again,
And now there ´s a green sprout, insistently welling up from its paring.
What now? This sprout indeed wanted me to act
I gave it a pot, gave it garden mold and water
And surprisingly – I now take care of a little oak tree
Promising a whole forest
Peace-making – parts and the whole.
I will dare to advance further into the mazes of humanity.
I believe it is worthwhile, because I sense there ´s more than just a confusing labyrinth.
A new culture, in case.
In silent days I can see it grow and hear it breathe
Breathe humans!
Breathe for all human beings
Out with them
So that time gets moving!

*a Song from Hawaii


More about Svenja Hollweg see on her website


The book “Pearls of Ash & Awe” is published by Edition Steinrich


Matzes of Humanity. Fragments of Life Read More »

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