What happens after war? The following is part of an ongoing project that features the voices and narratives of refugees in America. I’m interested in how people rebuild or reinvent their lives after war and displacement, what enables people to transform pain, and what keeps them fragmented by the past.
In early April of 2012, thousands of red chairs were lined up on Sarajevo’s main thoroughfare in remembrance of those killed in the city’s siege by Serbian forces between 1992-95.
Aerial footage of the “Sarajevo Red Line” blurred the tight rows into a river of red, one that stretched for what looked like a solid mile through the city’s ancient center. At the river’s head in downtown Sarajevo, musicians performed mournful operatic and sevdahlinka ballads on a scarlet stage. They sang place names – Banja Luka, Srebenica, Prijedor – all sites of massacre of Bosnian Muslims during the war, while black-clad dancers wove in between the chairs, bending back and freezing mid-fall.
The Red Line memorial marked what the first sniper shots of the siege heralded: the official start of the Bosnian War, a 46-month internecine binge of genocide, mass rape, and political bumbling described by war correspondent Anthony Lloyd as “a playground where the worst and most fantastic excesses of the human mind were acted out.”
The conflict resulted in the violent rape and sexual torture of over 50,000 women, left 2 million people displaced and over 100,000 dead, ending formally and far too late with what one Bosnian refugee calls, “something on a piece of paper,” the Dayton Agreement. Brokered by Balkan and western political leaders in Ohio, the peace treaty carved up the former Yugoslavia along ethnic and nationalistic lines in 1995.
Almost twenty years later, mourners walked silently beside rows and rows of red chairs, sobbing under a Balkan spring rain, placing white and red roses, teddy bears, small gifts, and letters for friends, relatives and children who they lost to the conflict.
“One cannot describe the feeling,” said one woman of the crowd shuffling mutley through the streets of the city. “It’s not hatred. It’s not anger. Just endless sadness.”
There are two contrasting narratives of the Bosnian War.
The first came with waves of searing images and stories sent back from Bosnia by the horde of international journalists who descended on the burning country at the outset of the war: Bewildered refugees fleeing their rural villages en masse and holding their possessions in a single bag, wearing the mismatched layers of clothing that mark sudden flight. Buildings with their facades torn away, civilians dodging sniper fire in the alleys of Sarajevo, or children collecting water in gas cans from a crowded pump.
Women, some rendered preverbal by trauma, gathered in aid shelters after being released from “rape camps” set up by Serb forces. Violently assaulted by sometimes dozens of men for months at a time, the women were released after their resultant pregnancies were too advanced for safe termination. In a landmark ruling, the War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague would deem this systematic and psychically shattering method of mass rape a tool of genocide in 2001.
Finally, there was footage from the concentration camps, paradoxically the most stunning and familiar evidence the international community had of human evil since World War II: emaciated men milling silently in dirt yards behind chicken wire or bent in rows and cuffed to iron hitching posts in cattle sheds. Starved and beaten into passivity, their elbows draped over their knees, they blinked with hollow eyes in to the Red Cross cameras the Serbs admitted to prove that the camps were ‘humane.’
The men, many of them Muslim civilians rounded up from villages, might have believed for an instant that the cameras, wielded by foreigners, were there to record and inform the world of their circumstance. They might have believed they would ultimately bring liberation, peace, or in the absence of peace, at least an end to the abuse and mutilation meted out in the camps. They might have believed the cameras would finally bring intervention.
‘Never Again,’ the unofficial motto that capped the horrors of the Holocaust for millions of European Jews, was often invoked as images from the Bosnian camps and reports of ‘ethnic cleansing,’ a term employed by the Serbs and the international community to sidestep the more exacting charge of genocide, streamed back from the front lines through the world’s media.
Bosnia’s declaration of independence from an increasingly fractured Yugoslavia in March of 1992 was backed verbally by the United States government who then vetoed, under Bill Clinton’s leadership, resolutions to lift a UN-imposed arms embargo that crippled the Bosnian military and ultimately left thousands of civilians vulnerable to attack.
US diplomatic policies proposed dividing the country along ethnic lines, a strategy that played directly into the nationalist agendas of Bosnian president Slobodan Milosevic, Serb president Radovan Karadzic and Croat leader Franco Tudjman.
An imposed cantonization of the country – which has subsequently been its fate – smashed what had previously been Yugoslavia’s crowning jewel, the equable blending of faiths and peoples in its city centers, a blurring of blood ties that made them all but invisible.
Carving the map of the Ex-Yugoslavia, went to the very center of the wound. The new frontier lines ensured there would be no place of true belonging for mixed couples or families, and made permanent the ruthless demand of war: to pick a side.
The lack of military intervention in Bosnia on the part of the International Community and the subsequent atrocities it enabled led then Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke to declare Bosnia “the greatest failure of the West since the 1930s.”
The malignancy of Nazi Germany was blamed in part on a lack of knowledge on the part of the world community. But Bosnia was full of journalists when the war started.
Charles Lane, reporting from Sarajevo four months after the beginning of the siege writes of being badgered by two girls in a freshly shelled neighborhood with “the one phrase in English they seemed to have mastered ‘U.S. military forces, U.S. military forces.’” When Lane tells a young Muslim man whose house and businesses have been destroyed by Serb mortars that he doesn’t believe the US will rescue the city any time soon, the young man replies, “Maybe we should discover oil.”
These two narratives – of horror (at bearing witness) and abdication (of responsibility), were sustained in part by the place Bosnia occupies in the public’s moral imagination.
Situated in the bumping ground between East and West, in the romantic but shadowy terrain of the Ottoman Empire, Bosnia, though a part of Europe, was remote enough culturally to the west to hover somewhere behind God’s back.
Stitched and held together by Tito’s Pink Communist dream and haunted by 14th century demons, it was enveloped in folk-histories, clannish warfare, socialist rhetoric, abstruse political structures, and consonant-heavy names.
Perhaps most problematic, Bosnia was full of blue-eyed Muslims who practiced a relaxed, even secular version of Islam. Sarajevo, hosting the world community only eight years previous during the ‘84 Olympics, was at that time considered a miracle of cosmopolitanism, comprised of interfaith couples and ethnically and religiously mixed mahalas or neighborhoods.
But with the outbreak of war, and in the absence of an easily digestible identity, existing historically on borderlands, cultural overlaps, and fragile alliances, and now reveling, it seemed, in rape, fratricide, and bloody mayhem, it was easy to confect a narrative for this country’s war that justified inaction.
The WW II equation for genocide had clearly repeated itself: a splintering government and failing economy make fertile ground for the nationalist agendas of fundamentalist politicians.
But the complex root causes of the war were swept under the language-rug of “ancient ethnic hatreds” and Bosnia’s preventable descent into hell could be framed as a sad inevitability: the result of long-suppressed and inherently ‘barbaric’ forces unleashed to settle old scores.
John Paul Lederach, a celebrated leader in conflict transformation, writes that what he calls the ‘art of peace building’ is an “act of the imagination.”
In his view, sustainable change is the product of a clear-eyed understanding of the broken present and an ability to hold intact a vision of a peaceful future.
The interior, imaginative life of an individual – and a culture – might be the most vital instrument of its transformation.
Beyond spontaneous flights, or the involuntary images and associations that percolate up through the psyche into our conscious awareness, acts of memory and imagination both require an inward-looking gaze and share the same source.
One of the most potent acts of war is the destruction of a culture’s repositories and symbols of collective memory: libraries, religious institutions, monuments, and historic buildings. It is no coincidence that artists, intellectuals, writers, philosophers and spiritual leaders are rounded up, imprisoned, and executed during times of war. The very elements that gave birth to the culture, its ‘wells’ and sources of inspiration, its spiritual and philosophical texts, its sacred landmarks – that might offer perspective, and a blueprint for resurrection – are made invisible. Collective ‘spaces’ of memory are destroyed so that a people can no longer gain nourishment from them.
This ‘memoricide,’ as Juan Goytisolo calls it, is often coupled with the creation of a false narrative, the replacement of a demolished history with a revisionist lie.
The Final Solution of Nazi Germany was as much about the destruction of the “Jewish soul” as the annihilation of the Jewish body. Sacred and philosophical texts, the ‘containers’ of Jewish culture, were systematically destroyed.
Books were gathered for mass public burnings, their pages ripped out and distributed to the homeless, or used as toilet paper. Sacred texts were urinated and spat on in an elaborate performance of desecration. The ‘creative’ sadism inflicted on human bodies in both Nazi Germany and during the Bosnian War, mirror this gleeful defilement of memory.
There are books and artifacts, art and cultural talismans that hold memory, evidence of the collective imagination of the past. There is also embodied memory, the imprint of the personal, physical and emotional trauma of war, ‘spaces’ in the mind and body a survivor may no longer be able to ‘enter.’
In the years that follow war, the most dangerous terrain for a survivor might be their own psyche. Acts of interiority like remembrance, dreaming, and imagination are no longer safe. In not being able to enter the space of memory, the ability to imagine into a different future might be similarly compromised.
Conversely, this is why remembrance can also become a creative and healing act, because what is found within must be ‘transformed,’ – felt, reframed, and expressed – so that a survivor can move forward.
Lederach notes that artists – the imaginative ‘professionals’ of a culture – are often asked to channel collective grief and create memorials after war, but are rarely called to the table for the discussion of how to resurrect or re-imagine a culture following the destruction of war.
The antidote to Lederach’s formula of clarity and imagination is what many refugees enact: a consciousness pinned to the present, and a healthy dose of nostalgia for the ‘ex-country.’
Distance enables memoricide, the ‘willful amnesia’ of a people who believe they must keep forgetting in order to survive.