Remembering the Past in Sarajevo: Why Remember? – George Foden, George Talks To Himself

George Talks To Himself
Wednesday, 4 July 2018
George Foden at 15:54

Remembering the Past in Sarajevo: Why Remember?

One of the images in Pierre Courtin’s excellent Sarajevo Storage exhibition depicts a packet of king-size Drina cigarettes with a unique warning label: “To forget kills.” Amongst many other powerful images, this stood out. The 2018 WARM Festival, held in Sarajevo and part-organised by the Post-Conflict Research Center, dedicated much of its time to tackling the issue of remembrance in a post-conflict society. Whilst interning with PCRC this was a topic that I also attempted to grapple with.

History weighs heavy on the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina. 20 years after the Dayton Agreement bought an end to the most brutal fighting seen in Europe since the end of the Second World War the ramifications of that conflict continue to influence daily life in Sarajevo and beyond. The young people of BiH are the first generation that do not remember the fighting, but still they live with the burden. As Srđan Šarenac’s film Two Schools Under One Roof demonstrates, today’s youth continue to live in a society divided by ethnicity and religion. The 1995 Dayton Peace Accords are often criticised for reinforcing the ethnic division that led to war in the first place, and the fact that in many parts of BiH students still largely attend different schools based on their ethnicity, studying entirely separate curriculums, shows that not much has changed since the fighting officially stopped on the 14th December 1995. Even the children of the war generation are not immune to the repercussions of violence.

As artist Aida Šehović puts it, the young people of BiH are the generation that inherited the trauma of the 1990s. Though they do not remember living through the conflict, the memory of violence continues to haunt them. People of my age, 2-3 at the time at the time of the Dayton ceasefire, continue to experience the violence through shared memory. Their parents are often still scarred by the barbarity. Some were victims, some were perpetrators, many were both. Inevitably, they pass that tension on to the next generation. In that circumstance it is surely better to put the past behind us and to forget the horrors of war in a bid to make a go at peace. If remembrance leaves us with the bitter aftertaste of post-conflict divisions, why do we continue to dwell on the past?

Why should we remember conflict?

Aida Šehović’s Što Te Nema art project is a global roving monument to the 8,373 victims of the Srebrenica genocide. As Šehović explained at the insightful panel discussion on “The Role of Visual Art and Aesthetics in (Re)building Post-Conflict Societies” at WARM, the idea behind Što Te Nema was to provide a safe space for people to talk about Srebrenica and its effect on their own lives, no matter how big or small. The project is taken to cities around the globe, where 8,373 cups of Bosnian coffee are prepared and laid out on the street, one for each victim of Mladić’s soldiers on 11/7/1995. The concept for the project was developed through conversations with the wives and mothers of the Srebrenica victims, who said that they missed their husbands and sons the most when they made coffee and had nobody to drink it with. Što Te Nema allows those affected by the massacre to talk about their feelings (and as Aida explained, once they start talking about it they often cannot stop) and lets those with no direct connection learn about what happened.

Art alone cannot change the past or affect the future. But, when done well, it can provoke a response and hopefully it can inspire others to make change. The incredibly powerful film that closed the festival – Silent War, directed by Manon Loizeau and detailing the systematic use of rape by the Syrian regime to destroy the morale of the resistance following the 2011 revolution – features a particularly moving scene near to the end where one of the courageous victims of torture and rape addresses the director, and the audience, directly. She states that people will watch the film, be shocked and saddened by what they have seen, and then leave the theatre and get on with their lives. In the discussion that followed an audience member asked exactly what it was that we, as individuals who are not directly affected or involved in the horrors we had just witnessed, could in fact do. Short of picking up arms and taking on Bashar al-Assad’s forces ourselves, it seemed like a hopeless situation.

Tanya Domi, Professor at Columbia University and President of the Board at PCRC, went some way to answering this question in a debate that occurred earlier in the festival. The closing of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) last year sparked debate over whether or not justice had in fact been served to the perpetrators of so much human suffering over the course of the conflicts that tore the Western Balkans apart. As Tanya put it, even when the judgement laid down by the courts on perpetrators of crimes against humanity is seen as sufficient (and in many cases it is not) then even that is only the beginning of real justice and reconciliation. The victims of conflict live with the trauma forever, and even when the law and politics fail to bring them the justice they deserve, seeing people around the world remembering their suffering and acknowledging their humanity can be extremely cathartic.

I started my trip back to Sarajevo in the Jewish Museum, where I learned about the individual stories of those targeted by the Nazi regime on Kristallnacht and later throughout the Western Balkans as the occupiers spread their brutality around Europe. After WARM, I found myself returning to the quote that stuck with me on that first day, “’Never Again?’ Hardly. The world has stood by and done nothing countless times since 1938, and will doubtless do so again.” It is very easy to say that there is nothing that we, as ordinary people, can do to tackle those who are willing to commit genocide. But accepting that is equal to standing by and doing nothing. What we can do, whoever we are, is challenge the rhetoric of hate and violence when we come across it. What we can do is listen to the stories of survivors and learn from them. What we can do is recognise the warning signs that people are being targeted in everyday life, long before it gets to the point of violence experienced in Srebrenica and being seen today in Syria, and speak out against them. What we can do is acknowledge others’ suffering and stand beside them. What we can do is recognise the basic humanity in those who others do not.

I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to return to Sarajevo and I am inspired by the amazing people who put together the WARM festival and continue to work in such difficult situations around the world in order to shed light on the stories of those we might otherwise forget. Whether those stories inspire us to act right now on a particular issue, or whether they just encourage us to think differently about the news as it continues to unravel from warzones around the world, what matters is that we pay attention, and we remember them. To forget kills.

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