A Journey Through Bosnia’s Unwanted Past
Tim Butcher, in a travelogue of his journey through Bosnia in the footsteps of the famed assassin Gabrilo Princip, writes ‘History teaches us that it is on the margins that the greatest change often happens.’ Bosnia and Herzegovina, to use its elongated title, is in many senses located on the periphery of Europe. Its Southern European location combines with a mountainouslandscape to render it geographically isolated from the wider continent. In addition, the Bosnian war of the 1990s proved that the country was detached from the intellectual concept of ‘Europe.’
The international community struggled to conceptualise an ethnic conflict while it occurred only a two-hour flight away from cities such as Berlin, Vienna and Paris. The attendant barbarities of the conflict encapsulated genocidal ideologies and acts that post-Holocaust Europe believed had been relegated to the iniquities of the past. Evidently, though located on the margins, Bosnia has consistently acted as a catalyst for European history throughout the twentieth century, presenting a foreboding model of the devastation wrought by failed multicultural projects. Appositely, in a country where interpretations of history have been used as ammunition in order to evidence the primacy of one ethnic grouping over another, I found it deeply unsurprising to discover how contentious acts of commemoration and cultural memory have become in Bosnia.
The road from the Bosnian border into Mostar, capital of Herzegovina, winds through a hillsides overlooking the city, providing the driver with an insight into the ease with which the city was surrounded in 1993. In that year, Bosnian Croats surrounded the city after turning against their former allies, the Bosniak muslim population, infamously leading to the destruction of Mostar’s Old Bridge. Across the city, walls and electricity boxes bear the graffiti ‘Remember 1993,’ partially as a means of commemorating the loss of life but also, one might conjecture, as a means of ensuring that the Croat community’s betrayal is not forgotten by local muslims.
The bullet holes in apartment block walls and shelled out homes tell their own story. However, the most dramatic historical symbolism I found in the city was located a twenty minutes walk from the city centre in the Partisan Cemetery. The monument, constructed in 1965, celebrates the Yugoslav Partisans who resisted the Nazi occupation of the Balkans and provided Tito’s nascent state with a glorifying creation myth.
Entering the cemetery I became immediately obstructed by the tangle of untamed flora that covers the monument. Despite being declared a ‘Monument of Historical Significance’ by the Bosnian government in 2006 the site has fallen into total disrepair. To navigate the paths I needed to traverse a series of fallen trees and endure the slightly bemused stares of local teens, who have seemingly taken to using the monument as a site to kill time. A large circular fountain no longer spurts any water while the curving walls of the monument are marked by graffiti. This graffiti consists of the usual string of 90s dates to mark significant moments in the conflict. Yet there is also a spray-painted ideological battle taking place between the scrawls of ‘Mostar Skinheads’ and another group inscribing Spanish Civil War slogans to obfuscate the Swastikas. Poignantly, an eternal flame is the centrepiece of the monument, though the flame itself was extinguished during the gasoline deprivations of the war and never subsequently re-ignited.
The cemetery visit was thought provoking: How could a period of history, once celebrated with such reverence, now become totally disregarded? Did the local population know of the cemetery and if so, how do they feel about it? I took these questions to my host Emir, a Mostar native who presented the war years as the betrayal of a utopian multiethnic culture by bloody in-fighting. Emir was astonished that I had visited the monument and was curious as to my motivation. For Emir, the cemetery was a place of pre-war school trips where he remembered being taught about the Partisans in the then pristine monument. The design of the monument, Emir informed me, was undertaken by a famous Yugoslavian stonemason, Bogdan Bogdanovic. He postulated that the years of neglect and vandalism were linked to political corruption primarily. Nevertheless, the imagery of the extinguished ‘eternal’ flame and the dried up fountain bely a national approach to history that is marked by a cautious apathy.
In Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, this strange approach to history becomes even more apparent. The National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovinia has now been closed since 2009.
There is no scheduled reopening. In a the window of the museum a local has placed a sign stating ‘Bez Cultura, Bez Museo, Bez Moral,’ No museum, no culture, no morals. The History Museum, still riddled with bullet holes, consists of two exhibitions. The most notable is a striking exhibition on the Siege of Sarajevo, though those who visit will undoubtedly be struck by the poor state of the ceiling and the stark emptiness of the museum (when I went, myself and my girlfriend were the sole visitors). Other sites, such as the Srebrenerica gallery recounting the 1995 genocidal killing of 8,000 muslim men, are polished, pristine and apparently well funded. The visiting demographic is noteworthy however, when I visited most present were English speaking tourists. There is a palpable sense that history is something to be consumed by outsiders and not something for locals to engage with. The closed ‘National’ museum perhaps best represents this sentiment.
The reluctance of the Bosnian political establishment to engage with national history is understandable when one witnesses the devastation wrought by the war. The Serbs reached back 900 years in history to find justifications for their acts rooted in the historic battlefields of 12th century Kosovo. Clearly, history became an invaluable part of their arsenal. Bosnia has three presidents, one from each community: a Croat, a Serb and a Bosniak. They rarely agree on historical interpretations. Staring into the Sarajevo roses, patches of red plaster marking the sites of fatal mortar blasts, the divisive nature of memory in Bosnia becomes apparent. Nevertheless, the sign placed in the National Museum by a mercenary Sarajevo citizen suggests that there is a desire to know the past, one which bears in mind the devastation that occurred two decades before and the ‘moral’ imperative of remembrance.