Memorials and Politics in Trnopolje

Photo by Alyse

By Iván Merker

The politics of memory and remembrance is a hot topic in Bosnia, as it should be in any country. However, in the Bosnian political situation, the politics of memory has a more prominent and indeed more problematic place.

After the Bosnian War, the country was left with memorial sites and events that we think of as deserving memorials. However, often these sites and events do not get the remembrance they deserve, but are often contradicted by the methods of memorialisation. For example, in front of the site of the Trnopolje concentration camp, a memorial has been built to the fallen Serb soldiers in the war in the form of a concrete Serbian eagle. Within one of the camp’s former buildings, there is a room also commemorating the local Serb soldiers. There is nothing else in the site remembering whatever happened there during the war. If you wander there, you get the impression that nothing special happened there, but this isn’t the case. In Trnopolje, more than 30,000 Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) were detained (7,000 at a single time) in 1992 by the Serb army – and 90 of them died. However, in this Serb-dominated area, the local leaders think these events deserve no memorials – or worse, they believe it didn’t happen. In Trnopolje, only the perpetrators can build their memorials.

If we do not commemorate what happened with Trnopolje, we will fail to do justice to what happened there and give the survivors and their family a place to remember their sufferings and mourn. If a physical memorial was built, the events at Trnopolje would be evident for anyone passing the site, and it may stay there long after the last survivor has died.

There is a more abstract issue, one that I think is probably the most important issue when it comes to memorials. When you pick a historical event to be memorialised, you inevitably make it look like a more important event than those that do not get their own memorial. Similarly, how you memorialise an event – how you present it – will influence how people understand it. Memorialisation, in other words, is key in promoting some historical narratives over others. As an illustration, I think of the memorial for the victims of Nazi occupation in my hometown, Budapest. This presents Hungary as the Archangel Gabriel being struck down by the German eagle. It presents Hungary as an innocent victim, when in fact the state was collaborating with the Nazis during the Shoah quite voluntarily. Similarly, by failing to put up a memorial in the Trnopolje site, the Republika Srpska government advances a narrative of the Bosnian war that sees Serbs as the heroes and ignores the atrocities committed there as necessary acts to protect Serbs. This is magnified further by the Serb memorials.

Historical justice demands this situation to be changed.

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