Retribution or reconciliation?

By Stefanie Kappler

On 5 March 2018, we hosted the interreligious choir Pontanima from Sarajevo at Durham University. Pontanima are known as an important peace-maker in post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina, composed of members from different ethnic and religious groups and performing songs from Bosnia’s different religious traditions (Jewish, Orthodox, Islamic and Roman Catholic). Through this, they send a powerful message of appreciating diversity and reconciliation. The eclectic elements of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s religious heritage are thus understood as an asset and precondition in which the trauma of the war can be overcome – based on a memory of Bosnia-Herzegovina as a multicultural nation.

Nedžad Avdić from Srebrenica was travelling with the choir on their UK tour (Cambridge, London, Durham). Nedžad is a survivor of the atrocities that were committed in Srebrenica, having been shot multiple times and witnessing the killing of many others. By telling his personal story, Nedžad is trying to raise awareness of the detrimental consequences of hate of any kind. He says that he had returned to Srebrenica to “show them I am still alive”.

In that sense, one might think the combination of the choir, which emphasises a notion of reconciliation, and a survivor who expresses the need to remember the atrocities, may seem unusual. Is this about retribution or reconciliation?

But it is exactly that that Nedžad Avdić’s story and the choir may be read as: namely the need for suffering to be acknowledged so reconciliation can happen. Independent of which side the suffering has happened, it seems to be crucial for pain and injustice to be recognised and taken seriously if they are to be transformed into a creative energy (such as music, with the example of Pontanima). This does not mean that we need to look at reconciliation as a linear phenomenon or with a clear directionality (suffering > acknowledgement > reconciliation), but instead to recognise the importance for personal testimonies to be listened to throughout.

Peacebuilding, I would suggest, should therefore create spaces in which suffering can be acknowledged. Those spaces can then give rise to conversations and transformations, where the arts can deploy their special impact. This is not to say that acknowledgment alone is sufficient to overcome societal divisions (indeed, a critique that has often been voiced against the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been its lack of focus on material reparations for the victims of apartheid). Instead, it means to engage in a serious conversation with those who want or need to remember and have felt the impact of war on their own lives.

Remembering War Childhoods in New Museum in Sarajevo

By Annika Björkdahl

The War Childhood Museum on Logavina 32 in Sarajevo is a new and important contribution to the ambiguous and fragmented memoryscape of Bosnia-Herzegovina.  It is located close to the Baščaršija, Sarajevo’s old bazar and the historical and cultural centre of the city, yet hidden away, on a steep street and not easily found without a map. It focuses exclusively on memories of children affected by war.

The museum provides a careful selection of young memories describing war through the eyes of children. Through memories, testimonies, snippets of texts and video narratives, fragments of everyday life in a war zone are pieced together and as visitors we are transported back in time to the war in the 1990s and to the siege of Sarajevo.

The Museum started off as a project by Jasminko Halilovic to collect children’s experiences and memories of growing up during Sarajevo’s Siege. More than a thousand of these children, now adults and scattered around the world, responded to the call and shared their recollections and narratives, which were compiled in the book War Childhood, published in 2013.

One such narratives reveals the irony of children’s play.

 

“It is ironic that with everything around us what we loved to play most was war…we called it rat-a-tat-tat” Amir, 1987 (cited in Halimovic 2017: 100)

 

In addition to collecting the stories of war childhood, memorabilia from these childhoods such as extracts from a diary, a sad-looking, mangy teddy bear, a carefully knitted vest, a young ballerina’s pointe shoes, and a favourite book were donated making up the objects on display in the museum. In the exhibition, every artefact is accompanied by a unique personal story.

 

My brother’s “children’s police” badge is a short story shared by a sister who lost her brother in the war.

 

“How happy and proud he was the day that he received this badge with his very own name on it! Just imagine the honor! Imagine, he would be the one to protect order in our street. He could not imagine that he would carry it for such a short time. He could not even imagine that in a single day, during a UN ceasefire…in a single moment that day…in a single step…in a single misstep…that a single grenade…that a single a single piece of shrapnel…would ruin everything. Since that day, nearly twenty-five years ago, I, his sister, have carried his badge in my wallet – proudly, but with a heavy heart. Jasna, 1982 (cited in Halimovic 2017: 250)

 

Viewing the war through the memories of those who experienced it as children is powerful. The museum is overwhelming in many ways; it is backward-looking, recalling a difficult past, yet forward-looking and hopeful, it is sad and traumatic yet it reflects glimpses of children’s play, cooping ability, fun and wry humour. It is reflexive as it provides visitors from near and afar to confront the war traumas of the recent past. It holds a timeless wisdom, important messages, and it sharpens the eyes to the unique experiences of children in war zones.

In a society divided along ethnic lines it is reflexive, reconciling and forward-looking to establish a museum that avoids reinforcing ethnic boundaries and that belongs to everyone.

By exhibiting children’s memories, artefacts and narratives of war this museum holds the potential to give voice to war children of the past and the present.

Halilovic, Jasminko (2017) War Childhood. War childhood Museum, Sarajevo.

Exploring the memory kaleidoscope in Berlin

By Susanne Buckley-Zistel and Timothy Williams

When it comes to analysing the memorialisation of the past, Berlin has much to explore. The city is interspersed with sites that commemorate various victims groups of National Socialism and the German Democratic Republic: the
Memorial and Information Point for the Victims of National Socialist “Euthanasia” Killing, the Memorial to Homosexuals persecuted under Nazism or the Memorial, the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial, the Memorial to the
Murdered Jews of Europe, to name but a few. Berlin’s memorials also pay tribute to moments of resistance, such as the German Resistance Memorial Center, or to perpetrators such as the Topography of Terror, adding to the diversity of the memoryscape.  These photos from a recent visit convey the kaleidoscopic array of different memorial and education attempts which compete and coalesce in remembering the Nazi past.

Angelina Jolie’s intervention in the Khmer Rouge memoryscape

By Timothy Williams

Films matter for people’s understanding of historical events, particularly helping people understand situations which are so far removed from their everyday experiences that they are nearly incomprehensible. “Hotel Rwanda” has strongly shaped popular perceptions of the genocide in Rwanda, while “Schindler’s List”, “Inglorious Basterds”, “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” and others have substantially contributed to the popular imagination of the Holocaust. Most of these films have been critiqued significantly for various reasons related to their historical authenticity, their Hollywood sensationalism or restrictive perspectives, but their impact on popular discourse and understandings is indisputable.

In this context, “First They Killed My Father. A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers” is a new film intervention in the memoryscape directed by Hollywood superstar Angelina Jolie and co-written by her with genocide survivor Loung Ung, whose story the film tells. The production for Netflix will most likely allow for broad swathes of the international public to come into contact with this important period of Cambodian history for the first time. The film allows the viewer to see the unfolding of the Khmer Rouge regime through the eyes of Loung Ung as a young girl. The audio of the film is in Khmer with sprinklings of French, subtitled in English, and this seems to suggest a degree of authenticity. And indeed, the film does succeed in capturing the everyday experiences of people living under the Khmer Rouge regime.

Before coming to the story of Loung Ung and her family, the film sets the scene by portraying the US bombing of Cambodia on the fringe of the Vietnam War. This beginning is important as it explains to an audience who may be new to the topic the complicity of Western powers in destabilising this country, as well as showing the horrible experiences that allowed the Khmer Rouge to become so strong. After this the story of Loung Ung unfolds slowly and gradually. Interestingly, the true horror of the regime is not immediately clear, and the viewer only comes to understand what is happening bit by bit as the protagonist discovers this herself, allowing the viewer to experience the Khmer Rouge regime as it emerges.

Eventually, Loung Ung is recruited to become a Khmer Rouge soldier herself, then also wearing the emblematic red kroma, a traditional scarf. The film continues to portray her as a victim of the regime, as she is, but her recruitment highlights the complexity of roles that people took on during the regime. Many people were victims and perpetrators at once in this incredibly coercive environment. That the film manages to bring in these nuances of responsibility, agency and victimhood so succinctly is important for an understanding of this period.

It remains to be seen how this film will be received by the film-watching public, but I would hazard a speculation that it will significantly impact the global public discourse on the Khmer Rouge genocide for years to come. The popular imaginary of this dark time in Cambodian history will likely become more widely recognised, and with Jolie’s well-crafted film important nuances of history and Cambodians’ experiences can enter into this understanding.

Remembering at Sarajevo Film Festival

By Johanna Mannergren Selimovic
The Sarajevo Film Festival is held every August, bringing red carpet glamour to the once besieged city as well as opportunities to reflect upon the difficult past and present. I have been enjoying the festival several times over the last few years, and usually pay special attention to the sections on ‘Dealing with the past’ and ‘BH Film’. The festival is a fascinating ethnographic site for exploring how film as a medium engages with issues concerned with memory and the violent heritage of the past. This year I particularly enjoyed the film Nostalgia by Bosnian/Austrian film maker Ervin Tahirovic. The film is an autobiographical account of Tahirovic’s return to  the town of Foča in eastern Bosnia-Herzegovina, from where he fled as a child during the 1992-95 war.

The narrative is informed by his ill-at-ease. He portrays himself as a refugee yearning to return ‘home’ but he is also scared and a stranger. He seems to be stumbling around, trying to trace his memories of a lost childhood. He visits his old school, the river where he used to swim, his family’s former home. He runs into some ultra-ethnonationalists who boast about war criminals living in the town. By accident – it seems – he joins an event commemorating those who were killed during the war, which turns into an aggressive encounter as present inhabitants disrupt the demonstration.

Eventually Ervin will make some connections, and there will be some seemingly redemptive scenes, for example when an old couple who used to be friends with his grandparents teach him the traditional way to grind coffee. But these moments do not really turn his journey and his film into a tidy narrative that moves towards some kind of emotional closure. Rather his experiences come across as disjointed pieces and the chasm does not close between his violent war experiences and the lack of acknowledgement of this past in the present. Towards the end of the film he reflects that there should be a commemorative plaque at every place of violence. On his own house there should be a plaque with the words that would read something like: Here lived Ervin Tahirovic. He was hunted like a dog from his home. His stuff was stolen, sold at a flea-market in Montenegro.

I carry these bitter words with me as I leave the packed, air-conditioned cinema and enter the afternoon sun that is beating down on one of Sarajevos new, blank squares. They are words, I think, about the intangible heritage of traumas in the past. They are words that speak of the presence of absence.