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An Uncomfortable Position: Remnants of War in Sarajevo

Now we’ve been in Sarajevo for about a week and a half. Unlike most destinations, we are only here for three weeks. Halfway through.

The more time I spend here, the more – and I hate to say it – I can see why this is such a volatile region. There is an attitude that is evident, not so much in the everyday citizens, but in the messages and structures of the city.

In case you don’t know what happened in the 90s, there is an excellent BBC documentary available on YouTube, called The Death of Yugoslavia. It is very in-depth, so if you don’t have 5 1/2 hours to spare I’ll give you the gist of it: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, (North) Macedonia, and Montenegro all used to be united in a country called Yugoslavia. Slobodan Milosevic was an angry, nationalistic Serb. Serbia happened to house Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia. Sloby therefore had access to the Serbian army as well as the Yugoslavian army, and he used this manpower to threaten and attack other parts of Yugoslavia (Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, etc). This began a kind of ethnic warfare between the Serbs (Orthodox Christians), Croats (Catholics), and Bosniaks (Muslims). It was all a massive shitshow, and Sarajevo got the worst of it. This city was under siege by the Serbs from 1992 to 1996.

Fast-forward to now. There is a plaque on the National Library, the Vijećnicamemorializing Serbian destruction.

There is this sign in Velicki Park, recalling a story from Srebrenica, a town in Bosnia in which 8,000 Muslims were killed.

These reminders leave behind an unsettling feeling…a feeling of discomfort beyond the specific atrocities they detail. These signs stay in my thoughts, and have caused me to imagine, through a kind of abstract reverse engineering, the mind behind them. Even though English obviously isn’t the predominant language here, wouldn’t a signmaker double check the accuracy of the translation? The second “L” in “MILLIONS” on the plaque on the National Library was clearly smooshed into the word, a hurried correction after realizing the error. The black sign recounting Srebrenica is written in atrocious English grammar. These hastily installed messages indicate a kind of arrogant, hasty mind. Someone who is so consumed by grudges and emotions, that he does not bother to pause and ensure that he is best communicating his message. I mean, beyond the errors in the texts, the content is not exactly written in a diplomatic manner. It is the verbal equivalent of finger-pointing and glaring, and it reveals a person who has not observed the ways in which tragedies are memorialized in the rest of the world. A localized, insular person who lacks perspective. 

Back to the war. This mind, the mind that is so consumed by emotion that it hastily carves grammatically incorrect messages into marble, is the same mind that fought in the war. Though a Bosniak mind wrote the message on the Vijećnica plaque and a Serbian mind instigated the war, this is the general mindset in control of the region. Resentful, bitter, and isolated. Clinging to a grudge as a means of establishing a collective identity. I mean, some of the Serbs justified their actions in the war by citing a Muslim prejudice against Christianity during the Ottoman Empire…which is just insane.

Obviously, this is not the mindset of everyday Bosnians or Serbs. We actually entered the Vijećnica last night, as it is now the location of the Sarajevo City Hall (and a free, public database of reported war crimes).

Inside we met a woman, Ismena, who lived through the war and now works for the city government. She talked to us about The Hague, and the ways in which the Bosnian war is preserved in the Balkan cultural memory. She wants the Vijećnica to be “a place that objectively presents the history of the war,” without taking sides of Christian versus Muslim or Bosnian versus Serb. She spoke about her memories of Tito, the former leader of Yugoslavia, and how he somehow managed to keep the various ethnicities together…and she simply wants the same to happen again. She sees the value in gaining an objective understanding of Bosnia’s violent past, but she acknowledged the difficulties of keeping a job where she must constantly relive the experience of war.

Ismena stressed the importance of the Bosnian people recovering from the war on their own, of learning how to independently thrive and create peace, rather than relying on outside sources for aid or mediation. She was so rational and straightforward. And she acknowledged an age-old truth: people who desire positions of political authority are often the people who require authority for egoic reasons. The country of Bosnia and Herzegovina operates under three presidents: one Bosnian, one Croat, and one Serb. Milorad Dodik just won the seat of the Bosnian Serb presidency, and he is a self-proclaimed Serb nationalist. With less than two months in office, he is already proving to be a volatile, divisive figure. Ismena spoke about Dodik and her desire for moderate, compromising leaders…she believes that compromise and understanding is the only route forward.

Ismena also said some rather profound things about the after-effects of war. Beyond being physically lethal, the war against Bosnia was psychologically lethal, causing paranoia, fear, and extreme “every man for himself” attitudes. Living in a city where water required a deadly walk to a faraway pump, and food was exceptionally scarce…where mortars and sniper fire could be heard at all hours of the day….these conditions do not immediately exit one’s mind after the physical environment returns to normal. Even now, twenty-plus years removed, some people cling to what they have for fear of losing everything again. According to Ismena, the war has transformed some into selfish beings, and if you combine this with any degree of power or influence, it impedes any potential progress for the collective good of the country.

Which, coming back full circle, explains the signs. The war transformed some into more caring, compassionate versions of themselves, while it influenced others to descend into fear and selfishness. And often, the angry loudmouths are the ones who want power and the ability to make such signs, to dictate history and blame. And isn’t this a broader example of any individual’s response to pain? One can react to powerlessness by forevermore demanding power, or one can choose to learn from pain, to use an experience as a means of developing a deeper understanding of humanity. In essence, one reacts to hardship either through fear or through wisdom. I only hope that more people like Ismena exist, to perhaps rise to positions of genuine leadership in Bosnia. And then maybe these wiser people can rewrite the signs.