Bosnia: The Politics of Oblivion

By Kate Wyver*

*I stayed in Prijedor as a participant in Most Mira’s Project on Peacebuilding in 2017.

Bosnia chokes on its own history. A quarter of a century on from a brutal, bloody war, this heart-shaped country still beats at an unsteady pace. Much of the truth of the past is left unspoken, as regional authorities remain in denial about the violence carried out, the contents of mass graves are dismissed, state-sanctioned memorial for war victims are lacking and local communities remain hesitant to acknowledge war crimes.

August 2017. We’re hiding from the punishing sun in our neighbour’s garage. There’s a saying in this country that an extra cup of coffee is always poured for an unexpected guest. We’ve never met before but she immediately welcomes us in.

The hot tarmac of the road is almost gooey and the crispy fields beg to be cooled by rain. Corn pushes through the dry earth and stretches out. Our neighbour’s dogs flop down in spots of shade. The farming tools rest. The air is still. Our neighbour turns to look at her land.

Twenty-five years ago, she tells us, she stood in this same spot with her two eight-year-old children. They were forced to watch as her husband was beheaded in front of them.

In Prijedor, this story is not unusual. This year saw the 25th anniversary of the start of the Bosnian war. As Yugoslavia began to collapse in 1991-2, conflict erupted between the different ethnic communities in the region. 100,000 people died, 80 percent of whom were Bosniaks (Muslim Bosnians). The ethnic cleansing took many forms. Some, like our neighbour’s husband, met their end in their own homes, as Serbs turned on their neighbours. Others were taken to concentration camps—created in spring 1992—where they were submitted to torture, rape, starvation, and murder.

Yet this violence is not often openly talked about. To walk around Prijedor and listen to the locals’ stories is to overlay multiple translucent photographs and hold them up to a light. Time keeps going, changing the images, but ghosts of the past cling on.

This region is home to three former concentration camps, Keraterm, Trnopolje and Omarska. Today, Trnopolje is a functioning school and Omarska is a functioning mine. Neither have any form of acknowledgement of their time as concentration camps. There is no plaque or marker for those killed on their grounds. For the most part, the region’s authorities continue to deny the atrocities.

August 6th, 2017 marked 25 years since the closure of Omarska, the camp that held around 6,000 people for its three months of existence. August 6th is the one day of the year the camp is open to former internees and their families. On this day in 2017, it was thirty-something degrees on a cloudless day, the kind of heat in which sweat just becomes another layer of clothing. The ground was dusty and the air was thick. The temperature was much the same in 1992, when hundreds of half-naked men squeezed into the space between the warehouse and the cafeteria, an area of maybe a hundred feet, which for the most part offers no shade.

I was with Kemal Pervanic– a survivor of Omarska, an activist and a wonderful host– as part of Most Mira’s democracy and post-conflict programme. Pervanic took us around the grounds on the anniversary of the closure of Omarska. There’s a large warehouse, a cafeteria, and two small houses. One is white and one is red. These were used as torture chambers and execution sites and today they are grim and still bloodstained.

Pervanic took us inside the warehouse. He pointed to a large industrial hook and told us how it was used as an instrument of torture. He outlined a corner of the room and explained how many people were penned into the space without food. He looked at something at the far end of the room and got halfway through a sentence before deciding not to carry on.

We walk upstairs in silence. At the end of the corridor is a red door. Pervanic hesitated in front of it. He has argued his way into the building several times before but this is the one room he has never been allowed back into. It is the room he was kept in. He said there were so many men packed into the room, there was no space to sit. They stood, squashed together, no gaps between them. One day when the guards opened the door, they were so scared that they pressed themselves tightly against the far wall. In that moment, Pervanic said, the half of the room closest to the door was utterly empty. The way they contorted themselves through fear was “like magic”.

We go to the cafeteria, where the internees were served one meal a day. After several months of the camps being in operation, international news agencies managed to get access to film. Led by journalists Penny Marshall and Ed Vulliamy, the footage shows the men eating what Pervanic says was the best meal they got in the entirety of the camp. You can see on screen how fast the prisoners eat, how ravenous they are, this skinny bunch of hollowed-out men. Vulliamy has since said they call it lantern jaw, when the men’s faces have drooped, their skin is gaunt and eyes are wide. After Marshall and Vulliamy shot their footage, international horror pressured the authorities into closing the camps. Looking back on it all, Pervanic says, “it makes you realise how resilient people are.”

Pervanic’s empathy is outstanding. Walking through the cafeteria, he remembered a female prisoner who gave out food, one of the 37 women in the camp. “What I suffered,” he said quietly, “is nothing compared to what they suffered.”

On this 25th anniversary at Omarska, around three hundred survivors and family members of the dead gathered. There were several speakers, photographic displays, white balloons and a PA system playing a recording of the names of each internee. And that was it. The next day, the site of historic violence was once again closed off to the public, the past was pushed under the fraying carpet and the miners continued their work.

The politics of oblivion resonate further than these specific sites of violence. While there are some memorials for Serbs who died during the war, those memorials list the names of Bosnian Serb camp guards, but Bosniak victims have almost no government-sanctioned memorials in Prijedor. Pervanic is one of many Bosniaks campaigning for recognition. State institutions, he says, have a duty to punish those responsible for war crimes, as well as to aid reconciliation. Little movement seems to be happening on either front.

The next day, crunching over twigs and grass, Pervanic led the way to a small memorial. The slab of concrete in the middle of a field was easy to miss. Planned and paid for by the villagers, it is built on top of a mass grave and there is little ceremonial about it. Much like after the Srebrenica massacre of 1995, the 1992 ethnic cleansing led to the creation of several mass graves across Prijedor. There are rumours of another mass grave that hasn’t yet been discovered, which could account for some of the 700 bodies still missing. As we stood around this concrete block, Pervanic noted that humanity has a habit of making sombre memorials. He would like to plant a tree for each of the dead. “It would be nice to remember with something beautiful”.

It is not hard to recognise someone’s suffering. Pain cannot be wiped away by memorials or by words, but it can be worsened by lack of recognition. The regional Serb authorities’ continued denial. The lack of official acceptance. The absence of apology. The room Pervanic isn’t allowed into. To deny an act of violence is to shed a person’s skin and prevent them from growing another. Twenty-five years later, with no form of therapy or recognition, the wound is still raw and the trauma has nowhere to go.

If you listen for long enough in Prijedor, you will hear stories about the war that push through the past. Those stories start overlapping each other, photographs held against the light to create a more complete image. The father who can’t bring himself to give his blood sample to identify his son, because he refuses to accept that he is dead. The mother who saw a young man in a cemetery and asked to take a picture with him because he looked so like her son. The bus driver whose job it was to take people on trips to visit Auschwitz, and ended up himself as a prisoner in Omarska.

Pervanic repeatedly mentioned resilience. He described a fellow inmate watching a roof at Omarska, where pigeons used to land. The guards would routinely shoot at them and shoo them away, but the pigeons kept coming back. “The guns of the Serbs were not as strong as the hearts of the pigeons,” he said.

Back in the garage in our neighbour’s garden, it’s time for us to leave. To let her story fade into oblivion, lost to history unspoken, would be to continue the dismissal of the pain of her past. To sit and listen may not be the formal acknowledgement or apology the region’s Bosniaks want or need. But on an individual level, to have your story recognised can have a similar effect to pouring another cup of coffee at the table; it’s a small effort with a far larger impact.

Before we go, our neighbour says something to my friend, who is translating the conversation back to me. I’ve only managed to learn a few words so far. There’s a warmth in our neighbour’s voice. My friend laughs and touches her hand. “She says that she wishes we were staying longer. She could learn English, and you could learn Bosnian.”

We stand. “Hvala.” Thank you.

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