By Elina Maria Kuusio
As part of Most Mira’s Project on Peacebuilding, we attended the annual commemoration on 6th of August at the former Omarska concentration camp in northern Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Omarska camp was located in the still operation mine during the summer of 1992 and the estimates of the total number of inmates varies from more than 3,000.
Walking around the notorious death camp, I felt shocked that it has only been 25 years since its closure. How could this happen in the heart of Europe? Omarska was shocking but there were over 600 detention centers and camps set up throughout Bosnia in the 1990s. This happened during our lifetime and it was not that far away from home.
Part of the Omarska commemoration was an art installation by Anita Zečić, who is a refugee from Prijedor. With the installation, Zečić was trying to trigger the feeling of being captured and locked in, aiming to recreate a fraction of the feelings inmates experienced whilst they were held at the camp. Zečić represented all victims regardless of their religion or nationality. It was a powerful message to the next generation that such acts of cruelty should never happen again.
I believe that it is important to understand the underlying message of different commemorations. Are they remembering all of the wartime victims or just some of them? And if they convey a message that this should never happen again, does this also include the people who were responsible for the suffering during the war—even those who ignored what was happening in their neighbourhood?
Our guide to Omarska was the founder of Most Mira, Kemal Pervanic. Kemal was detained during the summer of 1992 when the camp was still running. Two weeks prior to the Omarska commemoration, Kemal’s film Pretty Village was shown as a part of Sarajevo International Summer School program. After the film screening Kemal told about the process of making the film: “I didn’t want my own suffering to be in vain…We have the need to reclaim this past because it was taken away from us. And if we want to own this past ourselves, we must not use it as a weapon to strike a balance, we have to use it as an educational tool.”
I believe that art can challenge our thinking in a post-conflict society and enable us to cross the barriers that divide us. It can reach new audiences since it doesn’t necessarily require a mutual language; instead it can be felt and seen. When it comes to peacebuilding, the way in which art is used becomes crucial. Art is a tool for touching our deepest feelings, but it also becomes a powerful way to decide whose voices are being heard and which narratives are being excluded. In this process, both local communities as well as diaspora can play an important role in bringing people together and providing a platform to discuss painful topics. However, representing different survivor experiences through art can also be challenging since neither local community nor diaspora are a monolithic group with only a one view on how to repair their communities torn by the war.
After spending a week in northern Bosnia, it became more clear to me that for many Bosnians the war didn’t end 20 years ago. It is still part of their everyday life because the consequences are painfully present in their lives. Yet, the public confrontation of the past is something that is still often ignored.
At the Omarska commemoration, there was a woman desperately searching through the photographs in Zečić’s installation remembering the victims from Prijedor. She was looking for the photographs of her son and husband who were lost during the war. For her and many others, the trauma of what happened in the 1990s still continues.