The Burdens of History: Remembering Sarajevo

How one commemorates death in a manner that is respectful yet not sentimental is humanity’s great challenge. Do the dead live, their memories throbbing sensations of the mind?  In numerous cultures, the dead are all present, pulling the strings of the living – the Jewish custom where books are placed on burial sites to allow the dead to read; Japanese tales where the living is simply a subordinate world for the dead spirits to affect and wander through.  Or the Bhagavad-Gita, where the soul is theorized as never dying because the soul never lived, a fixture of the eternal world.

In Sarajevo, the memories of those who perished during the Yugoslavian Civil War of the 1990s were commemorated through vacant red chairs, decked with flowers. They numbered 11,541, the number who died during the siege lasting 1425 days.  As theatre director Haris Pašović, one of the organizers, explained just prior to the event, “From the stage near the Eternal Flame down the Marshal Tito Street [the main street] 11, 541 red chairs will be set in 825 lines”. (Balkan Insight, March 28).

The siege, which began on April 6, 1992, was the longest of the last century, ignominiously bypassing those of Stalingrad and Leningrad.  The two latter sieges both took place during the Second World War.  It was instigated at the behest of the Bosnian Serb army, and led at stages by Stanislav Galić and Dragomir Milošević.  Both were subsequently sentenced by the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia for their roles in overseeing the siege.

The emptiness of the red furniture pieces – the lack of a corporeal being -as precisely their most potent presence.  To the dead, claims Voltaire, we owe the truth.  What that truth is can often be grim and matters little as to justification.  Often, it is reprehensible.  The attacks on Sarajevo were vicious, but the entire war was vicious, battering and then severing family ties with an awful sense of permanence. It also was symbolic of the broader savagery of the racial experiment that had been the socialist republic of Yugoslavia, before that a monarchy of Slavic races that was meant to, but did not, keep peace in the region.

In time, such diversity was too much to bear.  The siege of cosmopolitan Sarajevo suggested the reassertion of ancestral hatreds and needless cruelties.  To document them and render them legible for the students of history seems a futile task.  One is reduced to writing, as Barbara Demick of the Philadelphia Inquirer did, about the minutiae of human misery, the details of Lagovina Street, and those of such couples as Jela and Zijo Džino (Guardian, April 3).

The other reaction is filled with bromides, trite assertions such as those paraded in In the Land of Blood and Honey, an Angelina Jolie effort that came about after her visit to Bosnia in 2010.  The underling premise of the film seems one of unrelenting hopelessness, mental and spiritual atrophy, though the project was one that received praise from such personalities of the theatre as Pašović. Intolerable crimes should be treated as such.  That said, Bosnia-Herzegovina received attention again, but it was the repeated narrative of the mental patient who never finds the light, the sadist who can never abandon cruelty, the victim who can never forgive the trespass.

Bosnia was the pulsating soul of Yugoslavia, and the nationalist sentiments that became feverish with the end of the Cold War led to various ethnic groups taking sides in 1991.  .  That soul has departed, leaving a region caught up in a spiritual mission it may never satisfactorily fulfill.  Republica Srpska remains a breakaway, fragile entity.  There is peace, but there is also misery. Relatives are still on the hunt for the missing remains of family members.  The economy is in the doldrums, with unemployment running at 46 percent.  Wages are low.

Administering the various cantons of the Bosnian political entity has taken effectively 14 governments with a good degree of chaos and complexity.  With a degree of stock standard pessimism, the refrain from Jela and Zijo is the same as it has been for years – nema ništa – “there’s nothing”.  Yet, it would not – could not – ever be too foolish to believe that another Sarajevo will, in time, assert its multinational heritage.  To prosper, there can be no other way.  The burdens of history need never be forgotten, but sometimes, they need to be lightened.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.