Photo credit: Sanja Vrzić
After the war, and all throughout these last 25 years, the need of the people to heal after the traumatic experience of having their lives ripped apart, and being subjected to violence and killings, has been tangible. People needed to have their experiences of the war acknowledged. They needed a public recognition of their suffering, both at the communal and individual level, and they needed this recognition to be a result of a societal dialogue.
Dealing with our past through international criminal justice, framed exclusively through neoliberal understanding of individual criminal responsibility and consideration of the war through the identitarian prism of ethnic conflict, was simply not enough for recognising and addressing violations and harms suffered during the war. Not having a minimum consensus about the war, and the insistence on individualisation of justice claims , made space for private and individualised approaches to memorialisation, (re)creating contradictory, and very often arbitrary, narratives about the past.
After the war, memorialisation practices, reminiscent of those widely used in the aftermath of World War II, started to surface all around Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). The practices included building memorials, museums, and monuments as places for memorialising events from our recent past and for holding commemorations. However, unlike World War II memorials, the memorialisations of the 1990s war became individualised and privatised. In our references to private and individualised approaches, we include everything that is not part of a commonly agreed and endorsed framework for remembering the war.
This essay focuses on critical examination of these private practices that have neatly integrated into the neoliberal politics of disintegration of a society, insisting on positioning individual narratives of suffering in opposition to each other. Devised in this way, these practices fit perfectly into the Dayton Peace Agreement’s (DPA) political solutions of inviolable rule of ethno-nationalist elites.
The lack of a common framework for dealing with the past has left people in BiH with only one option: to each claim for themselves the public space needed to tell the stories about the harms they’ve suffered.
The DPA does not foresee any framework for memorialisation, truth telling, or fact finding, except for the establishment of the bizarre Commission for Preservation of National Monuments (Annex VIII). This glaring gap could have led to silence, in a sense that no crimes are addressed through commemorative events in order to keep the “peace” in the society, as has happened in, for example, Spain. However, the opposite happened in BiH as different victim collectives (created by a flawed process through which the collective was first grouped based on ethnic belonging and individual crime, and then homogenised as such) pushed to enter the public space and commemorate certain events. Unlike in Spain, where such were prohibited, privately initiated commemorative practices were also encouraged by the ethno-nationalist elites. The lack of a common framework for dealing with the past has left people in BiH with only one option: to each claim for themselves the public space needed to tell the stories about the harms they’ve suffered.
The privatisation of the memorialisation has manifested in multiple ways, commemorating particular persons, events, crimes, battles, places, etc. These commemorations have included building memorials, monuments, religious buildings, and symbols in public spaces, putting up plaques, (re)naming of streets, and holding ceremonial or protest-like gatherings. These interventions and practices have been initiated by different actors, from individual persons, activists, different civil society organisations (whether advocacy groups, victims associations, or veteran associations), smaller administrative units such as local community councils and municipalities, to political parties and individual politicians. The initiatives run by administrative units have been limited to the local contexts, and despite their looking as if they were of institutionalised nature, they have often been detached from established facts (if those exist), creating their own private memories.
To illustrate, in the village Liplje, in the municipality of Zvornik, a number of people, including many women and girls, were held captive in a concentration camp. Many were tortured and killed, while women and girls were raped. To date, nobody has been indicted or prosecuted for these crimes, leaving the victims and families of the victims in need of recognition. A private person decided to fill that gap by erecting a memorial at the site of the concentration camp. The inscription text on the monument commemorates “the many raped mothers and sisters” who were killed, along with some 400 other tortured people.
We don’t know much about who erected the memorial other than it is a man from the village. We don’t know what story he wants to tell. We do note, however, that the only women being commemorated through this private initiative are those who are defined as either sisters or mothers. Women who survived rape were not allowed to be anything else, or to simply be women. The monument that was built reminds of a gravestone, alluding, in a very problematic way, that no matter the fact that there were survivors, women who survived rape are being considered dead. However, no matter that this monument was built by a private person, it has become one of the central places of commemoration. The inscription on the monument, written by one person with all his (in this case patriarchal) prejudices, has become part of the public narrative.
Not everyone has managed to claim public space for individual commemorations, as that has been dependent on the ability of various victim collectives to make themselves visible.
In a context where everyone seems to have their own version of truth, the privatisation and individualisation of memorialisation has been caused by insecurities among the victims that their stories will not be told and will end up being pushed into oblivion. Not everyone has managed to claim public space for individual commemorations, as that has been dependent on the ability of various victim collectives to make themselves visible. This has put different victim collectives, already shaped by the limitation to individually claim redress for the harms, in opposition to and competition with each other.
To show this, we use the example of Prijedor. The city of Prijedor was subjected to systematic and organised persecutions of its citizens who were, by the perpetrators, identified as non-Serbs. The DPA’s division of the territory, agreed amongst ethno-nationalist elites, created the situation in which Prijedor ended up in Republika Srpska. However, the crimes in the area were perpetrated by the Army of Republika Srpska. Consequently, the victims were for a long time prohibited from any form of memorialisation, or if allowed, were looked at with animosity.
In the absence of any form of institutional support or strategic approach to memorialisation, the need for recognition of people’s sufferings has been great. In the vicinity of Prijedor there were four concentration camps that were marked with torture, rapes and killings; numerous villages were burnt to the ground with the majority of their inhabitants killed during raids and take overs; and many people were forcebly deported. In the city itself, all non-Serbs were asked to wear white ribbons or mark their houses with white sheets, after which many were taken away to the concentration camps, killed in their homes, or are still considered missing. Prijedor is the city where the biggest single mass grave in BiH was discovered. Most of the crimes occurred in the period May–August 1992.
Importantly, Prijedor was the area in BiH to see the first prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity before the ICTY, and also the area that has seen the most war-related prosecutions in general. However, the distances of the courtrooms, coupled with the general disinterest by the state to find adequate memorialisation practices that acknowledge the suffering of all civilian victims, resulted in numerous victim associations starting rituals to commemorate the most significant events and dates for them personally.
So now, during the period from beginning of May until the end of August, Prijedor becomes a place with numerous commemoration practices, commemorating events such as the opening and closing of the each concentration camp individually; each village commemorating the date when it was attacked and when massacres in the villages occured; commemorating the date of missing persons; commemorating the date when non-Serbs were ordered to wear white armbands, etc. There is mutual support amongst the different victim groups. For example, camp prisoners and families of missing persons participate in each other’s commemorative events. However, there is also competition between many about whose personal experience is the most “truthful,” the most “relevant,” or the most “deserving” of becoming a part of the public narrative.
Many times, those opposing commemorative practices seem to be pushed into the public space to instigate a “who started the war” debate rather than to be about dealing with the past and healing trauma.
For the Serb ethno-nationalist elites in power in Prijedor, all the commemorations are seen as threatening to their power. So, parallel and opposing commemoration practices have been deployed within the framework of private and individualised initiatives. Many times, those opposing commemorative practices seem to be pushed into the public space to instigate a “who started the war” debate rather than to be about dealing with the past and healing trauma. The opposing practices have been designed to excuse and justify the crimes committed.
Another example of a multiplicity of competing voices for public space is memorialisation of the siege of Sarajevo. During the war, Sarajevo, the capital of BiH, was physically divided. Most of the central parts of the city were under siege by the Army of Republika Srpska, and under control of the Army of the Republic of BiH, while the majority of the suburbs at the outskirts were occupied by the Army of Republika Srpska. The siege of urban areas involved arbitrary and targeted shelling and sniping of civilians and civilian infrastructure; cutting off water, electricity, food, and gas supplies, etc by the Army of Republika Srpska. Even though the political leadership of the Republic of BiH proclaimed zero tolerance towards war crimes in the areas under the siege, there were some war crimes committed by the members of the Army of the Republic of BiH. The occupied parts were marked with the Army of Republika Srpska’s persecution of civilians that involved arbitrary and targeted killings, detention, torture, and rape of people that were either identified as non-Serb or were objecting the persecution of civilians. Civilians living in the occupied parts were also exposed to occasional shooting from the military positions of the Army of the Republic of BiH.
Memorialisation of war events in Sarajevo has taken on a selective, but also randomised, form. Given that there is no commonly agreed narrative about the war, and even about the siege of Sarajevo (no matter the ICTY’s live trial broadcasting of important parts of trials and court-established facts), there are numerous layers of competing narratives. They compete over the dates when the siege started; whether certain events such as stopping the military convoy withdrawing from the army barracks were marked with war crimes or not and how many people were killed; whether people killed were soldiers or civilians; who was doing the killings; and so forth.
Some of the events in which a significant number of civilians lost their lives (e.g. Markale market, line for bread in Ferhadija street, or shelling of the school in Alipašino polje suburb) are commemorated, usually organised by their families or by the victim families’ associations, and sometimes even by the majors of the municipalities where crimes happened. A monument remembering children killed during the siege is erected in the central part of the city, but not without its controversies (e.g. not all the names of all children killed are listed; especially omitted are the names of children killed in the occupied parts, whether by the occupier or the shells fired from the besieged Sarajevo). Across the city, numerous plaques have been erected by different individuals, companies, organisations and institutions commemorating their employees killed during the siege, either as soldiers defending the city or as civilians. The plaques are also erected at the sites where civilians or soldiers were killed, usually by the municipalities or lower level administration. The places where the mortar blasts killed someone were preserved and coloured with red. This symbolic memorialisation became known as “Sarajevo roses”. The sufferings of civilians under the siege was great and the crimes were many. Thus, because they are individualised and private, the memorialisation and commemorative practices are also many.
Recently the city of Sarajevo has made a decision to erect another monument memorialising some of the civilians killed in the parts under the siege by the soldiers of the Army of the Republic of BiH in Kazani. This intervention is an important one as it is understood to be one of the first, if not the first, monument to memorialise “their” victims of “our” crimes. It is important to note that the site where the memorial was erected is physically inaccessible and invisible to the wider public, excluding it from the discourse of memorialisation of the siege. The proposed inscription on the monument is “Memorial Kazani (1992–1994). We will forever with sadness and respect remember our killed fellow citizens,” followed by 17 names of the victims that have up until the date been exhumed from Kazani and identified.
While this might appear as an official intervention, it is still a private one. The Mayor of Sarajevo came up with the “artistic” solution, the place where the monument was erected, as well as the inscription on the monument, without consultations with the larger society. Even though her suggestion was approved by the city council, there was still no societal dialogue—the only dialogue the mayor had was with army generals, who unsurprisingly supported her suggestion. But even this took place post factum and only once complaints were voiced.
Since the inscription on the monument was not publicly discussed, the space was opened to numerous (personal/private) opinions. Given there is no agreed common understanding about the war and its memorialisation, everyone voicing the opinion immediately takes the “right moral” position. So the side identifying itself as Serbs claim that the monument should memorialise exclusively civilian victims who were Serbs—no matter the fact that the civilians killed were of all ethnicities or did not ascribe themselves the ethnic identity. Consequently, this side wants religious symbols to be included in the monument, e.g. the Orthodox cross, and to have the perpetrators identified by their nationality. Then there is the side that objects to naming the perpetrators. This is the side identifying closely with the Army of the Republic of BiH, which claims the crimes were committed by individuals and that the Army as such holds no responsibility. The third side objects for not naming the perpetrator on the inscription. Some of the people from the third side also question the chosen location for the monument.
The fact that there was no public discussion preceding the decision on the form and content of the monument created space for everyone to voice their personal opinion. All these voices understand the victims within the ethnically-defined framework of “ours” and “theirs,” not as civilian victims of war. So no matter whether the voices are in favour or against such a memorial, they all confirm the ethno-nationalist elites’ imposed narratives about the war. Moreover, the mayor’s suggestion raises more questions than it answers. It relegates the monument to an architectural intervention into the public space rather than being an intervention into dealing with the past.
All of the individualised and privatised memorialisation practices have created numerous parallel approaches that in the end create a cacophony of voices, where there is no communication and everyone speaks (or yells!) over the other.
Instead of having a common framework for dealing with the past that allows for everyone to have their experiences of suffering acknowledged and enables us to build a sustainable future and peace, a situation is created where everyone insists their experience, and their way of dealing with the past, is the most adequate and important one. All of the individualised and privatised memorialisation practices have created numerous parallel approaches that in the end create a cacophony of voices, where there is no communication and everyone speaks (or yells!) over the other. The commemorative practices are sufficiently similar in their performance that it appears as if they are not a result of private and individualised efforts but rather a part of the same, institutionalised framework. Then it does not matter whether the facts have been established or not; all the narratives, even the conflicting ones, have the same strength and influence in the public space.
What is taking place is that everyone remembers and creates narratives as they see fit. In the end all this “talking” either produces monologues or conflicts. Everyone argues with everyone, and no one gets satisfaction. In this way the conflict, as well as the personal traumas, are perpetuated. There is no constructive dialogue that can lead to mutual understanding and empathy. It is devoid of context, preventing the achievement of justice or dealing with the past.
Individual satisfaction is an important part of building sustainable peace, particularly from the perspective of victims’ families seeking restorative justice. Thus, not all of the private and individualised memorialisation practices are per se bad in the message they are trying to convey, or the ways they are commemorating events. Nonetheless, if they are not part of a collective effort to deal with the past and without a commonly agreed framework, the limitless right to speak, where everyone can say whatever they want, no matter the consequences, creates space for competing narratives. Each group or private person can claim supremacy over other narratives and very often the space is used for relativisation and justification of “our” crimes. It also creates space for what the Croatian publicist Viktor Ivančić, during his presentation at the Korčula after Party in September 2021, called “commemorative instigation of conflict and violence”.
As with everything else in BiH, the private commemorations represent a good opportunity for ethno-nationalist elites. The majority of the practices have been a mimicry of the commemorative practices developed during the socialist era, when the commemoration of World War II events were in the function of strengthening the ideological foundations of the society. This time around, the ideological foundation is different.
The performative usage of symbols helps each ethnic group to “claim” its victims and contributes to furthering the narrative of “us” and “them”.
The commemorative practices usually contain religious symbolism and performances in order to make visible ethnic differences. In addition, given that the only visible signifier of difference (apart from religion) among the ethnic groups are flags, the flags are accompanying props for each commemoration as a way to demonstrate their belonging to a certain ethnic group. The performative usage of symbols helps each ethnic group to “claim” its victims and contributes to furthering the narrative of “us” and “them”.
With the framework of common interest being defined through ethno-national belonging, as structured by the DPA, the competition of individual narratives of suffering has easily translated into narratives suitable for ethno-nationalist elites’ manipulations. In fact, the encouragement for private commemorations in public spaces came with the ethno-nationalist elites’ eventual realisation that they could benefit from most of the commemorative events. So, numerous commemorative events were quickly filled with jostling ethno-nationalist political elites, eager to demonstrate their support for this or that event. The more ceremonies the ethno-nationalist elites can claim, the more space they have to infuse the ethnic group they claim to represent with the victimhood position, which they can conveniently instrumentalise as a mobilisation tool and for consolidating their echelons. But their interest for the victims and victims’ demands for justice vanish as soon as the ceremonies finish and cameras are turned off.
On top of that, some of the commemorative ceremonies are manipulated with the aim of relativising war crimes. By juxtaposing two different ceremonies commemorating two different crimes (committed against people identified as belonging to two different ethnic groups), the ethno-nationalist elites tend to claim the chain reaction of crimes, as if one crime caused the other and as such was justified.
The ethno-nationalist appropriation of the memorialisation practices for creation of counter-narratives go as far as genocide denial.
The ethno-nationalist appropriation of the memorialisation practices for creation of counter-narratives go as far as genocide denial. For example, some commemorative events and narratives are designed to juxtapose court-established facts and existing commemorative events for the genocide in Srebrenica. They include erection of memorial plaques and monuments celebrating war criminals and are part of the politics aimed at relativisation of war crimes and direct denial of genocide. These politics of genocide denial have been going on since the genocide was committed in Srebrenica, day by day opening more and more space for militarisation of extreme ethno-nationalist politics and groups. We can compare this to the increase of Holocoast denial in Europe, or the USA, and the space it has created for (re)emergance of militarised neo-nazi groups.
What is taking place is that everyone remembers and creates narratives as they see fit. In the end all this “talking” either produces monologues or conflicts.
The commemorative practices are sufficiently similar in their performance that it appears as if they are not a result of private and individualised efforts but rather a part of the same, institutionalised framework. Then it does not matter whether the facts have been established or not; all the narratives, even the conflicting ones, have the same strength and influence in the public space. What is taking place is that everyone remembers and creates narratives as they see fit. In the end all this “talking” either produces monologues or conflicts. There is no constructive dialogue that can lead to mutual understanding and empathy. It is devoid of context, preventing the achievement of justice or dealing with the past.
Furthermore, ethno-nationalist elites craftily abuse memorialisation, and in particular commemoration practices, to mark territory and “reserve” it for themselves. Everything from memorial plaques, (re)naming of the streets and institutions, to appropriation of historic monuments (especially those from World War II) are used to (re)shape and redefine the purposes of public spaces—in particular to help ethno-nationalist elites claim ownership of certain territories. In some ways, this is a continuation of the war for territory without lethal means. All of these “efforts” are directed towards constructing the narratives around ethnicity, (re)defining ethnic identity, and (re)inventing traditions so the territories can be marked and claimed. Based on all that, the ethno-nationalist elites can claim/fortify their power.
If we look at what is being commemorated, many of these initiatives are contributing to further militarisation of society. Some of the commemorative practices even romanticise the war. This is specifically seen in commemoration of fallen soldiers, battles, and randomly proclaimed war heros. The commemorative ceremonies are packed with military symbolics and performances. Given that there is no commonly agreed framework about the war, no matter the established facts by the ICTY or domestic courts, the privatised commemoration practices have easily been manipulated to (re)tell narratives of great battles, or even to turn a war criminal into a war hero. And commemorative ceremonies seem to have stronger resonance with the people than courts.
Many times the commemorative practices and memorial sites ignore soldiers’ motivations for joining various militaries, e.g many soldiers were subjected to forced conscription or joined an army as there was no other choice to survive. At the end of the day they were men subjected to the patriarchal understanding of war and their role in it. Yet they are commemorated as fallen soldiers for religious or ethno-nationalist causes, even though many did not have any of those identities or motivations.
Memorials celebrating the sacrifice of fallen soldiers and supposed war heroes are placed in public spaces, often by the roads, on high grounds, schoolyards and playgrounds, and in parks.
Memorials celebrating the sacrifice of fallen soldiers and supposed war heroes are placed in public spaces, often by the roads, on high grounds, schoolyards and playgrounds, and in parks. BiH is littered with memorials depicting men who “gave their lives” for the cause, always framed as a patriotic ethno-nationalist defense of an ethnic group. Most prominently they are depicted against religious symbols, the most visible signifiers of the ethnic difference. Taking a road trip through BiH is a peculiar experience in that way. On the side of the roads one can see memorials to various heroes that come in short succession. They come in various sizes and forms but they all tell the same narrative of a heroic death.
One such prominent example can be found in a village between the cities of Vlasenica and Bijeljina. The men (soldiers) killed from (supposedly) that village are commemorated by a memorial, placed central to the village and by the road so it is visible for those passing by. The memorial depicts the map of BiH, but only the entity Republika Srpska (for which the men supposedly gave their lives) is visible while the rest of the BiH is carved out and replaced by a cross. In that way the memorial carries a double symbolism—the entity of Republika Srpska being carried by the cross and the men commemorated having died both for the cross and the entity.
Militarisation is a constituent part of the ethno-nationalist narrative about the necessity to sacrifice oneself for the greater good of the ethnic group, instilled with children from their very first day of school.
And it is not just about physical placement of memorials but also about naming schools and playgrounds after the supposed war heroes (some of them convicted war criminals). This blunt practice of militarisation has led to normalisation of war. Militarisation is a constituent part of the ethno-nationalist narrative about the necessity to sacrifice oneself for the greater good of the ethnic group, instilled with children from their very first day of school. This practice has been so normalised by now that the ethno-nationalist elites have taken a step further and are not only using war heros/war criminals from the ’90s in their campaign towards the construction of ethnic identity, but also fascists from World War II, elevating them to heroes (and by doing so reinventing history in the way that fits ethno-nationalistic narratives).
In recent times, we have seen a proliferation of commemorative practices in relation to fascists, war criminals, and ethno-nationalist colaborators of Nazi Germany. The process of the rehabilitation of the World War II war criminals that primarily has been taking place in neighboring countries (sometimes even through judicial process) has spilled over to BiH. This is mainly visible through extremely militarised commemorative lining-up of ethno-nationalist troops from World War II, religious commemorative sermons, or renaming of schools, streets, and public institutions. We have also been witnessing the usage of murals as a new form of commemorative practice. Walls at the entrance of some of the cities have been painted with “welcoming” faces not only of the war criminals from the 1990s war but also of the World War II war criminals. In such a way, each of the ethno-nationalist elites are trying to demonstrate the historical “relevance” and continuity of their ideological projects.
The peace agreement, which did not create a space for social dialogue but rather for monologues and confrontations, failed in its primary aim, that is to create conditions for building sustainable peace.
The way in which memorialisation practices play out in BiH through private and individualised claiming of public space further shows how the DPA failed to contribute to building society, but rather enabled the formation of different groups and hyper-individualisation. The peace agreement, which did not create a space for social dialogue but rather for monologues and confrontations, failed in its primary aim, that is to create conditions for building sustainable peace.
The private and individualised memorialisation practices that dominate BiH public space did not end just with commemoration of the consequences of the war in the 1990s. Rather, once co-opted by the ethno-nationalist elites (who sometimes now even take the lead in organising commemorations) the topics for commemorations widened. So now in addition to rehabilitating war criminals from the war in the 1990s and World War II, and rewriting historical facts about World War II, we have gotten to a point where we have commemorations of the events from the Middle century and further back in the past. Those are all used for imagining ethnic groups and proving their existence beyond the time the concept of ethnicity and nation even existed.
Without the dialogue and commonly agreed narrative about the past, private and individualised competitions for public space for commemoration are reminiscent of market economy practices and competition for a share of the market.
To this we need to add the global context of the uncritical spread of neoliberalism. Without the dialogue and commonly agreed narrative about the past, private and individualised competitions for public space for commemoration are reminiscent of market economy practices and competition for a share of the market. Only profit is not defined through financial gains, but through the primacy and domination over public space. The competition has become about who reimagines and constructs the narrative about “their” ethnic group the most effectively, so that the ethno-nationalist elites can benefit from it—that is, through which commemoration the etno-nationalist elites can have the greatest use for their personal benefit.
The individualisation of the memorialisation process is firmly embedded in the neoliberal context that frames our post-war reality. In fact, neoliberalism is present throughout all political, economic, social, and cultural aspects of our lives, commodifying our memories and cashing in on our experiences. Through private and individualised commemorative practices and building of the monuments in public spaces, only certain memories and experiences have been given a voice, while most others either remain invisible or are assimilated into the dominant narrative.
The DPA provided ethno-nationalist elites with power and tools to influence the narratives of both the past and a neoliberal future. They have been using this power to extensively manipulate the narratives of the past to distort concepts such as heroes and villains, war and peace, victims and perpetrators. These manipulations have been an effective tool for ethno-nationalist elites to remain in power. Thanks to this, we have been “talking” about and “dealing” with the past for the last 25+ years with no visible justice in sight for either the people or the society.
Nowadays we can find many individual, uncoordinated, project-driven interventions supported by the international community, creating even more chaos in an already chaotic scene.
In addition to this, the powers provided to the international community by the DPA have given them space to use BiH as a testing site for experiments with the neoliberal concept of peace, including when it comes the process of memorialisation. Nowadays we can find many individual, uncoordinated, project-driven interventions supported by the international community, creating even more chaos in an already chaotic scene. In some cities of BiH you can even rest your legs on “peace benches” aimed at commemorating (!) peace funded by the United States Agency for International Development and International Organisation for Migration.
Today, the concept of memorialisation has become elastic. It is stretched and contracted by the ethno-nationalist elites as they see fit. We have become tolerant of plaques glorifying war criminals, of monuments and memorial sites that distort or hide the past; we have adapted to the fact that the ideologies and structures that once led us into war and enabled mass atrocities have become our new normal; and we have learnt not to question the neoliberal frame given to us for dealing with the past.
It did not have to be like this. This path was not set in stone. But when a peace agreement does not conceptualise and include mechanisms for dealing with the past but is instead firmly set in a neoliberal framework, everything but dealing with the past seems to be on offer.
There are many commemorative events and memorials in BiH through which people of BiH are seeking recognition for victims and their suffering, both at the communal and individual level.