Somebody had to.

Des Moines really is the center of the universe.  I know, I know, there are a few doubters out there.  If you are cosmopolitan, or worldly, or perhaps a model for Abercrombie & Fitch standing shirtless outside the store at Jordan Creek, the center of the universe is wherever your perfectly sculpted abs land.  But it’s not true.  Des Moines is home central.  The rest of the world is OUT THERE.  The rest of the world is populated by PEOPLE-NOT-FROM-DES MOINES.  The rest of the world is covered by BBC World News, while the Boone News-Republican is pushing the edges of any sane person’s geographical comfort zone.

You need some proof that Des Moines is the center of the universe?  Let me tell you a story.

In 1992 a war erupted in a place I couldn’t even have identified on a map: the Socialist Republic of Boznia and Herzegovina.  This tiny country was born out of the split-up of Yugoslovia in 1991.  It was populated by Muslims Bosnians, Orthodox Serbs, and Catholic Croats.  Things turned south almost immediately between these groups, with the countries of Croatia and Serbia making the mess tragically worse.  Horrible things happened.  The words bandied about are “ethnic cleansing,” “mass rape,” “concentration camps,” and “genocide.”  Not pretty words.

A particularly gruesome part of this puzzle was the massacre at Srebernica in July of 1995.  More than 8000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed.  The killers were primarily Bosnian Serbs and paramilitary units from Serbia.  By the way, Srebernica was a safe area under UN protection during this massacre. That didn’t go so well, did it?

Here is a small excerpt from the summary of the trial judgment in one case:

“The prisoners were forced to surrender their property, which included identity cards, wallets, watches, and food. They were kept in cramped conditions and received some water, although hardly any food. Members of Bosnian Serb Forces did not ask or record names. . . .  Some [of the prisoners] were blindfolded and their hands were tied, and at one detention site they were given a final cup of water. Then they were transported to nearby locations, and shot. This scene played out at a field in Orahovac, a dam at Petkovci, a gravel pit at Kozluk and a farm in Pilica. In addition, hundreds were killed inside the Pilica Cultural Centre, an execution for which there are no known survivors. . . .    Loaders and excavators were either already at the sites at the time of the executions or arrived soon thereafter to bury the dead in mass graves.”

In a guilty plea in another case, a soldier admitted to being part of a firing squad at the farm in Pilica.  He and seven other solders executed Bosnian Muslims from 10 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon.  Ten victims at a time were unloaded from the buses and shot.  He estimates that he personally killed 70 people.  Men and boys from 17 to 60 years of age.

Believe it or not, a couple of victims survived.  Two survivors told a UN investigator of giving all their money to their guards (they were told they could buy their freedom), being placed on buses, taken to a farm field, and then shot.  These two faked death among the corpses.  And then miraculously fled before the excavators bulldozed their bodies.  Yup, you heard me correctly — they were actually buried alive under loved ones.  It is unimaginable.

Over 8000 murdered at Srebernica in total.


The guy running the show for the Bosnian Serbs was a sweetheart named Radovan Karadzic.  Karadzic is presently being prosecuted for various things, including the Srebernica massacre, at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.  And my wife is helping in this prosecution.

Okay, you got it?

My wife spent a week helping prepare a Serb witness for trial on behalf of the prosecution.  The witness needed a translator for the preparation.  A cultured, elegant woman working for the Tribunal as a translator was assigned to the job.  As you can imagine, a conversation about the execution of 8000 people is not a particularly light-hearted topic.  Grim transcript after grim transcript were reviewed with the witness for two days.  At a break, my wife began to talk to the translator.  Slowly this led to further conversations.  The translator was a professional, who was serious and talented and correctly cautious.   And, by the way, from Serbia.  She gradually shared parts of her life with my wife.  Her job, her family, her life in Belgrade.

Eventually, the translator asks my wife where she was from.

“From the United States,” says my wife.

“Where in the United States?”  The translator pushes.

“Iowa,” my wife says.

And then out of the gloom of facts surrounding this horrible massacre, in the midst of all this senseless death, the translator says: “You must come from Des Moines.  Somebody had to.”

Whaaaat?  My wife is dumfounded.

This woman sees my wife’s confusion and smiles.  “You know.  Bill Bryson.”

Lo and behold, the opening two lines of Bill Bryson’s 1989 book The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America: “I come from Des Moines.  Somebody had to.”

So, there you have it.  From the far reaches of Serbia and The Hague.  Proof.  Des Moines is the center of the universe.

By the way, wandering around Delft the other day, I saw a mother and daughter holding hands while biking.  That’s how a story should end.












6 thoughts on “Somebody had to.

  1. Joe – I am so sorry that your wife has to spend countless hours being exposed to the darkest side of human nature, but happy to hear that even through dealing with these most tragic of situations she has been able to make connections with the goodness that crosses all cultures and ethnicities. I continue to enjoy your writings and look forward to breaking up parts of my day with insights that I would not otherwise be cognizant of. Keep writing! Steve

  2. I remember when all of that was going on. I was in the 82nd Abn at the time. I guess in a way the American soldier is sort of like a Templar Knight of old….we had no dog in that fight, but it was killing us that we weren’t doing something about the violence going on there. I have never felt more useless than I did during that period.

  3. Ah, just when I’m thinking “now how is Joe going to pull this one off and make us feel good at the end?” And then you go and do it. So much sadness, so much good.

  4. After starting with Jordan Creek Mall, I didn’t expect your piece to take us where it did! I was expecting something about the hundreds and hundreds of Bosnians who now live in the Des Moines area, several of whom are Srebernica survivors. Thank you for sharing this. . . .

  5. Joe.

    Thanks for sharing this story. It’s extraordinary life an experience for many of them who came from Bosnia after horrible war had happened. I’m personaly glad that so many other people in Des Moines will be able to educate them selfs about the real truth happened in Bosnia, and more importantly their life experience and sacrifice.

    God blass what u do !

    importantly their life

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *