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On today’s date in 1945, Partisans liberated Sarajevo from fascism. On the same date in 1992, Sarajevo was attacked by the Yugoslav People’s Army and the Army of Republika Srpska and this became the longest siege of a city in modern military history. Although the war was complex, and allies sometimes became enemies depending on the place of fighting, my intention here is not to clarify or simplify the complexities, but rather to share some of my thoughts on the siege of Sarajevo, twenty years after it started.
Today, in a personal narrative, I remember the aggression on my hometown and the capital city of my country. Next year again, this will repeat: with one side remembering, and the other pretending that the sound of death was just firecrackers in the distant mountains.
As I prepared to write this, I had several objections from older people who refused to engage in any discussion about the past. Denial was rampant, and arguments ended with weak commentary about young people not knowing anything, our place not being in politics, and general logical fallacies.
My story, incomplete and fragmented
I was young when the war started and I remember seeing protests on television and asked my parents what was happening. “Nothing” was the answer, but I recall clearly that something was wrong and very soon after, my mom, my sister and I had to leave Sarajevo while my dad stayed behind. I trivially remember wearing turquoise sweatpants. There were times where my mom did not eat so that we could. She looked nearly anorexic, but her strength was that of Samson (even though she cut her hair). We had no idea where my dad was or if he was alive. We had no light or heating, and my mom’s resourcefulness continues to amaze me to this day.
I ran around the neighborhood with my cousin, collecting various sizes of shell casings – we found one that was as big as we were, but we were excited that this large shiny object was now in our possession. Our mothers would tell us, don’t go into any [abandoned, looted] houses, there are snipers everywhere! But we went anyway, we were curious to see what was in people’s homes. The doors were open and the howling of the wind added to the strangeness of abandoned homes of our neighbors. We collected colorful paper napkins, and once we saw a soldier who rudely told us to leave. I don’t know where he was aiming his weapon, but I am certain that the adult me would have asked him what he was doing and asked him to leave. My mother would say again, don’t get involved!
I remember only a short period in the first grade in my hometown and then we moved to a new place. We moved again, and again, and again, and I lost count. I started a new school, and that was going to be my life for seven years. I moved between borders, places, ideas, hyphens, and labels. Refugee. Internally displaced. Victim. Newcomer. Immigrant.
I am still trying to find words to express the strange and empty feeling of being an adult woman, learning about my hometown years after I had to leave, asking other newcomers where streets and famous landmarks are. There are places I should know, the essentialization and homogenization of Sarajevan citizenship say that I must innately feel some sort of a spirit, or soul of the city. But I only hear different dialects, people complaining about newcomers, ex-patriates eagerly awaiting to eat their portion of ćevapi and speaking languages of their new homelands. Sometimes, when I’m alone in my thoughts, I think, do they know? Can they hear my differences?
I don’t even remember the exact story of our exodus other than what my parents and neighbours have told me, but even they don’t like talking about it. I remain curious and I continue to ask questions. My mom warned me to not get myself killed by asking around too much, but what am I supposed to do? Silence is not an option and neither is forgetting. A child never understands the complexity of war, but a child can feel that something around him or her is wrong and can empathize with people experiencing pain and tragedy. A child with a difficult past reflects as an adult, and for some people like myself, war has become an important theme. While I refused to let it define me, its impact was significant enough that the only logical option now seems to learn more, to ask, to understand.
Why else would people be saying never forget and never again, or do we casually enjoy clichés?
The painful part of my history is veiled by a wall of fog and fear, where those with clearer memories refuse to talk and I am left to invent new ways to question them without them noticing. I jump around the subject, hoping to find a transparent window, maybe someone will tell me or maybe even draw pictures. I will take pictures too, I will take anything that makes sense. And I seem to be seeing a manipulation of facts and history, and emotions taking place of serious inquiry and investigation as far as the media is concerned.
I think, maybe if I ask a question this way, they won’t notice and they won’t die without telling me what happened. I have to know. I want to know. As I reconstruct the past, I remember stories from others, I remember the cries of women who lost their husbands, boyfriends, brothers, sons, and I remember the hypocrisy of apparently God-fearing war profiteers and criminals in our hometown and in other parts of the country. I am told not to speak about that either – they continue to prosper, by the way. They hold positions in all levels of government and their children live in privilege unknown to most young people in Sarajevo. Here, I am reminded by the words of Seneca the Younger: “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”
I reflect on other people’s stories, and somewhere between those stories, there is fear, hate, resentment, and the silence which veils the truth. I eagerly listen when someone tells me their story, and sometimes I rehearse the questions in my head – I want the stories, but I want to ask questions carefully, respectful of individual history and memory and its place in the collective memories of our peoples.
Silence and denial
Since we were children, the stories and fairy tales always had a moral message, with a mandatory fight between good and evil. I suppose during the war, they wanted to surprise us and have the evil win, to keep us on our toes. There was a clear distinction between the villain and the hero, the winner and the loser. But there are also attempts to erase history, to equate the aggressor and the victim, a clear barrier to justice and reconciliation. Ethnically cleansed areas and party control of media sources with no journalistic integrity are yet another barrier to peace and reconciliation. Even Hollywood stereotypes us, romanticizes our experiences as something that happened in an exotic part of the world.
I am however not angry at Serbs as a group of people, I am not angry at Croats as a group of people, I am not angry at Bosniaks as a group of people. The war happened and the real truth will likely always remain hidden because there are people who want to keep it hidden and soon, those who know it will die, and we will create and recreate the truth, and we will continue doing so until people have justice, until there is a sense of catharsis. I have to remind my friends that the aggressor is not the same as the victim and that the aggressor also killed his own in the process of destruction. I am however disappointed in individuals who refuse to accept that evil was done in their name and that many refuse to critically examine the information which they were spoon-fed for years without alternative viewpoints. The anti-intellectualism of some individuals, parties, and professionals is so concerning, that I have to remind myself to breathe, that the future generations will understand that (for example) Croatia’s crimes in Jasenovac are not a justification for Srebrenica or any other war crime, that an eye for an eye will be a forgotten model of “justice”.
I am disappointed in people like the award-winning filmmaker Emir Kusturica who continues to use his visibility for spreading hatred and ignorance. Today, Sarajevo is displaying 11 541 empty red chairs to commemorate the victims of the Sarajevo siege and it seems that they were made in Serbia. He decided to use this opportunity to post on Facebook: “In Sarajevo, there is a day of red chairs. I guess we can use this as an opportunity to say “buy local’ “. In this case, local refers to Serbian, since the chairs were made in Serbia, and as of a few years ago, he started identifying as a Serb, because he discovered that his Muslim family was once Serb but converted to Islam during the Ottoman colonization. Not only is he ignoring the meaning of this day and the symbolism of the red chairs, he is also mocking the thousands who perished in this aggression and those who are living today and whose lives were impacted by it. The President of Bosnia’s entity Republika Srpska also refuses to commemorate this day and denies genocide completely, and a writer for a newspaper Glas Srpske, Svjetlana Tadić refers to the siege of Sarajevo as “so-called siege”. She asks how come there was a siege , if from the 160,000 Serbs, only 6000 are left, while ignoring the role of Serb forces also killing their own people and directly or indirectly forcing their relocation, including the existence of East Sarajevo (which is not even the eastern part of the city). Her post was shared over 2800 times at the time of this blog post, and amidst general denial of atrocities, she ends her piece by saying that everyone who had a soul left, and now there are only people without a soul living there. In Belgrade, a feminist group Women in Black (Žene u crnom) remembered the aggression and reminded people that this indeed was an aggression, and not a civil war.
The radicalization and polarization of the political space remains a concerning factor and probably the largest barrier to a sustainable peace other than economic development. As long as the national discourse is shaped in the absence of citizens and as long as their voices are discouraged and silenced, there will be no sustainable peace. Please remember Sarajevo, remember Bosnia-Herzegovina. Speak out against war, speak out against injustice and don’t allow a vocal ignorant minority to dominate the public space and ruin people’s lives and futures.
Please share your stories with me. Connect with me via hello [at] thepeaceblog.org, I would love to hear your views and understanding of the war in Bosnia. You can write to me in English, French or Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian. Thanks for reading. See you soon in Sarajevo.