Divisive Memorials Are Holding Back Bosnia


July 24, 2014

As people in Prijedor mark the anniversary of their relatives’ wartime deaths, are ethnically exclusive memorials – designed to fit one narrative only – hampering reconciliation in Bosnia?

Commemoration event at the former Trnopolje camp.
Commemoration event at the former Trnopolje camp.

A commemoration of the 22th anniversary of the deaths of innocent civilians from the Prijedor municipality is being held on Thursday in front of the former Keraterm death camp on Thursday. On the same day in 1992, between 150 and 200 people were killed and 50 wounded.

Memorials in Bosnia and Herzegovina take on many forms and are erected by members of all ethnic groups. However, all types of memorials have one thing in common: their purpose is commemoration rather than reconciliation. Instead of setting in place a common historical record that helps to piece the country together, they are ethnically divisive. Instead of helping people deal with, and move on from, the past, it forces them to defend it.

Take the former Bosnian Serb camp in Trnopolje in the Serb-run entity Republika Srpska, for instance. Today it looks nothing like a death camp. No evidence of its former function remains, nor is there any kind of memorialization of what happened there. No one would be able to tell that hundreds of Bosniaks were tortured and starved here, awaiting death.

This starkly contrasts with the way that concentration camps are maintained elsewhere. In Germany, above all, they serve as a historical reminders of what took place. The only reminder of the war in Trnopolje is a Bosnian Serb army statue standing at the entrance, which commemorates fallen Serbian soldiers. Subdin Music, a camp survivor, says that it is like “putting up an SS sign in Auschwitz”.

Music took us to his home village and to the graveyard that rapidly expanded during the war. He pointed out multiple plots where three generations lie side by side – grandfather, father, and son – all killed on the same day. There was a memorial to the dead next to the graveyard.

Music told us that private donors and families affected by the tragedy had funded everything, as the government of the Republika Srpska would not contribute any cash. They are planning to build a small educational centre next to it, where films, photographs and other materials will be used to instruct youngsters and other visitors.

Although they help people come to terms with their past, such memorials also exacerbate divisions between the ethnic groups. They only fit into one narrative, and therefore encourage the maintenance and repetition of the different narratives from different ethnic groups.

The Republika Srpska often denies – as do many Serbs – that Serbs committed any war crimes against Bosniaks. Many who do accept that such acts took place often point the finger back at the Bosniaks, saying that they committed crimes against Serbs, too.

In Visegrad, where the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY, says thousands of Bosniaks were murdered, victims of the war constructed a memorial on the Muslim cemetery that contained the word “genocide”. To the great consternation of the camp’s survivors, the Bosnian Serb mayor of Visegrad ordered the word to be removed, as it was offensive to Serbian people.

Bosniak women rewrote the word in red lipstick after it was scratched off. Such memorials, put up by one ethnic group without any recognition or support from other ethnic groups, hamper reconciliation efforts.

Even the Srebrenica memorial was no easy task to establish, although it has received massive international attention and although it is widely acknowledged that Bosnian Serbs committed genocide there.

Hasan Nuhanovic, a survivor of Srebrenica, told me that it took more than ten years of struggle for the memorial in Potocari to be built. Since then, groups of Serbs have protested against it, wearing shirts with the face of General Ratko Mladic – the man behind the Srebrenica massacre. Others sing Chetnik songs at the anniversaries of the massacre.

In 2005, police even found two bombs at the site. The Republika Srpska funnels tens of thousands of euros to an NGO, the Srebrenica Historical Project, which claims that Srebrenica was not in fact an act of genocide. In 2010, it gave the NGO 60,000 euros, more than twice the amount of money it allocated towards finding missing people and convicting those responsible for war crimes.

Memorials in Bosnia and Herzegovina are used to confirm ethnic narratives and are therefore used by politicians whose legitimacy depends on these narratives. This is the inevitable outcome when people who have been implicated in war crimes are able to participate in politics. Therefore, when memorials in the Republika Srpska do not fit into the Serbian narrative, such as the ones in Visegrad or Srebrenica, it deepens resentment between the leaders of ethnic groups. The same is true for memorials in the Federation.

The narratives in Bosnia are starkly different: they are created by political motives, held in place by ethnic hatred and distrust, and exacerbated by the contentious issue of memorialization.

Memorials in Bosnia can, and should, serve a different purpose. They should be participatory, for one thing, and create a dialogue between ethnicities rather than push them further apart from one another.

This can take place through different means: either through people from different ethnicities putting up a memorial together, or having memorials that are inclusive of all ethnicities. Either way, it is important that a common historical record is accepted by Bosnians as a whole. Establishing memorials in an inclusionary and participatory fashion is a good first step.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s