At Mercyhurst College – the first stop on my OSIP tour with Fambul Tok – and there’s a small group inside the beautiful theater here, the second screening today. It’s spring break, so the first screening was a small group, too. I’m never actually worried about numbers – small audiences, big audiences, whatever – I’m just always grateful to have an opportunity to engage in a dialogue about the question that drives most of my work: What does it mean to be human?
This afternoon’s group was an engaged audience of older people, including a man who’d been a Peace Corps volunteers in Sierra Leone back in the early 1960s. I tell him when we meet that I envy his experience – I’ve often wished that I’d had the opportunity to know this peace-loving country before the war. I’m looking forward to the Q and A with this evening’s audience, which will start in another half an hour or so.
But as I sit here, I’m thinking about another country, and another time: Bosnia. I learned today that Mercyhurst College has one of the leading forensic science/forensic anthropology programs in the US. The woman who tells me this says frankly that she is squeamish about such things, that she can’t even stand to see someone get a shot on TV. And in turn I tell her a bit about the forensic anthropologist in Bosnia, the one who taught me how to be comfortable in the presence of bones.
Ewa Klownowski is a Polish-born (now citizen of Iceland) forensic anthropologist who has worked in the mass graves in Bosnia for some 15 years. During my first long-term project as a photographer (“Aftermath: Bosnia’s Long Road to Peace”), I came to know Ewa quite well, spending hours and hours with her at exhumation sites and in warehouses where she re-constructed skeletons and helped families identify the remains of loved ones. Ewa was kind to the bones, almost reverent – handling them gently as she puzzled over which bones belonged to which skeleton, apologizing to them if she accidentally stepped on one while laying them out on cold concrete floors.
For me, the exhumations and warehouses were almost unbearable at first – so full of death and sorrow. But to Ewa, this work was about life – about restoring the identities of those who had been massacred and left nameless in mass graves, about bringing the truth to the families who were still living, hoping for answers about what had happened to fathers, brothers, uncles, sisters, mothers, cousins.
Bit by bit, day after day, I began to see through Ewa’s eyes – to understand that this was a story about our humanity, a story about love. Because Ewa is one of the people who showed up after the war was over, who refused to allow the dead to be left nameless and forgotten. She refused to allow the evil of that war to be the final comment on who we are as human beings; she fought with all the science and humanity she possessed to insist that the story have a different ending – that the dead be brought back to life, in a sense, by giving them back their names.
I learned a lot from Ewa in those years. She taught me how to see – how to understand that war is only half the story, and that the stories that come after war are the stories, I think, that help us answer the question: What does it mean to be human?
Post by Sara Terry, OSIP Touring Filmmaker