Provocative Memorials

By Meliha Grbic

Reflecting on the past week, I have had several emotional moments. As a Bosnia-Muslim refugee, I couldn’t help but compare my experiences to those experienced by the people in the Prijedor region. During one specific incident, the Most Mira team and I stopped by a memorial in the city of Omarska. Instead of feeling mourning and grief for the civilians of Prijedor, I felt fearful and angry. The memorial had been built as a symbol for Bosnian-Serb nationalism, rather than to commemorate the civilian victims of the Prijedor region.

The people in Prijedor suffered tremendously during the Bosnian war, most notoriously in 1992 when the local Bosniak and Bosnian Croat population was forced into the concentration camps of Trnopolje, Omarska, and Keraterm. Despite hearing heart-wrenching stories of survivors of these camps during the past week, there has been no permanent memorialization for the camps. Survivor organizations have made several efforts toward producing either a memorial or a memorial center but none have been successful yet.

Instead of a memorialization for the victims, Bosnian Serbs have memorialized the death of Bosnian Serb soldiers that served in the war, some of whom were perpetrators of the war crimes committed in the concentration camps. In front of Trnopolje, there is an eagle to commemorate Republika Srbska soliders who died. In the city of Omarska, a cross structure with the names of Bosnian Serb soldiers protrudes from the ground, topped with the letters SSSS (which stands for Samo Sloga Srbina Spasava, or “Only Unity Saves the Serbs”)—an ethnonationalist phrase often used for propaganda and discrimination.

Through the workshop on memorialization, our group learned that naturally, the victors decide what kind of memorials are built after a conflict. And while many Bosniaks have returned to their pre-war homes in Prijedor, they now find themselves a minority in a municipality with a Bosnian Serb majority. Thus the efforts to build a memorial for Bosniaks and others detained in concentration camps are ignored. In many cases, when a minority group with less power tries to assert their rights after a conflict, the group with more power will build provocative memorials. These provocative memorials serve to remind the minority of the power imbalance and instill a sense of fear and hopelessness. A similar comparison can be made to the Confederate statues built in the southern U.S. during the civil rights movement. These statues were built to intimidate blacks as demonstrated by the time and place they were made. Provocative memorials are more likely to be built when minority groups mobilize in order to show the power of the majority.

But the question remains: what are we to do with these provocative memorials? To destroy or remove them could incite violence (as seen in Charlottesville, U.S., last year) but to leave them as they are is offensive and re-traumatizing for victims.

Instead, a good alternative is to transform, contextualize, or move the provocative memorials to museums. These measures are great for explaining past conflicts and their development through history while minimizing negative reactions. Currently in Prijedor there are no official plans to do anything about the provocative memorials.

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