The heart of a pigeon, and other postcards of Peacebuilding

By Phoebe Graham

I press my forehead against the window of our van as we enter Bosnia & Herzegovina. The landscape swills, filling my locked eyes with land and livestock. Between sheep field, sunshine and high-reaching mosques, sporadic streams of houses are punctuated by half-eaten structures, bullet-ridden ruins of homes destroyed. They linger as unwanted shadows, like a leftover carcass, but their crooked and toothless lean somehow seems quite natural, as if they have always, and will always be there. Our resident historian, Nicolas Moll, turns to us from the front seat and says that the ostensibly ordinary places that we are going to visit are transformed once their histories are unveiled, and these ghostly remnants are exhumed.


A pond of puppies rolls over, bellies up, and I learn my first words in Bosnian; I say ‘Sdravo’ to every one of them. The phrases tumble through my sieve-thin memory, but I manage to retain a scattering of common phrases within the greater meta-languages of the Serbs, the Croats and the Bosniaks. We then huddle up in a hiking lodge and learn of the post-Dayton political structure of BiH and how it compares to pre-war conditions. Just as I discerned from the inter-ethnic variations of the language, I learn that the rhetoric of these ethnic divisions and notions of ethnonationalism are more deeply ingrained than I had at first thought. These divisions underscore a great proportion of the difficulty with the country’s post-conflict politics and efforts of peacebuilding. Disheartened by those who push away and other their neighbours as a result of the war’s forced difference, I look around and am reassured by seeing half a world (local, diaspora and international together) crowded into one room, all hoping to build a better world over a Bosnian beer and an embraced unity. We leave the lecture and dance together on top of the mountain.


Sladjana flips her hair with a cheeky smile and takes me by the arm. We wind through the streets and people of Prijedor, jotting down surveys on social and inter-ethnic relations. The city pulses with the heat and emptiness of a Sundayafternoon, but we manage to find snoozing waiters, some wandering friends and the school at which Sladjana is currently educated. She tells me her story: one marked by personal discrimination, unnecessary victimization and the local authority’s denial of Sladjana’s considerate care, concern and desire to remember, but a tale that is also held together by an unshaken determination. “This is my town,” she tells me. I think of how brave Sladjana is to have the courage to share her memories and feel saddened by the unfair imposition of post-conflict divisions on this younger generation. But, arm in arm, we both know that nothing is going to stop her from remembering, or from doing the right thing.


Voices magnify through microphones under a smooth blanket of stars. Streams of dinner tables and rugs are set, waiting for our shared attention and remembrance of the closing of the Trnopolje and Omarska camps. We are told stories relating to the camp, of migration to Bosnia and the history of monuments. We witness historical parallels and rainbow lights, pockets of memory held up to illuminate the shadows of an under-memorialised conflict. Testimonies of endurance and survival are given by refugees from Afghanistan who made it to Bosnia for a fresh start, a story of lost brothers shouting their secret code from mountaintops to find each other again. My new friend Anes whispers translations into my left ear and I am warmed by how many voices and languages are interacting in this process ofmemorialisation. I lie on my side with my head on my back-pack and wish that all of my lessons could be taught under the night sky.


Blinking sweat under the heat of the midday sun, our van approaches a Mittal Steel factory, the former Omarska concentration camp. The accompanying lake fractures its looming upturned reflection. Its mirror image, like its memory, does not settle; the factory’s dark and uncomfortable shadow of its former self invades the present, forcing a rupture. We wander around a maze of slighting shifting white balloons, holding strings which attach us to those who were detained in the camp and are still missing today; the silence of these memories in flight is a subtle, gentle and heartfelt response to the silence that the affected families face every day, a silence made from the loss of their loved one and from those who refuse to acknowledge, to search or to take action to remember them. This drifting congregation lingers like lumps in the throat, whispering volumes within quietude. The founder of Most-Mira, human rights advocate and one of the strongest people I know, Kemal Pervanić, speaks of his time held in the camp. Each word stings the chest, and I think of how Kemal and hundreds of others could possibly face the annual return to a site in which they experienced the very worst of (in)humanity. But then I remember my first night spent in BiH watching the film Kemal made addressing these issues, called Pretty Village. There’s a moment when someone describes the bravery of pigeons; when they were scared away, they would always manage to come back. Akin to a pigeon, the hearts of former prisoners like Kemal are stronger than the guns of their perpetrators. The bravery to share their direct experience of atrocity, to speak out, to return and to remember this war, especially against a political backdrop orchestrated by secrecy and denial, powerfully transforms the hearts of these men into walking memorials.


My feet dangle over the edge of our patio in Kevljani, above tangled bushes and fallen apples. We are neighbours to a headless house, windowless and eviscerated. When we started to uproot Bosnia & Herzegovina’s history, in order to make sense of the ruins that I first saw, I thought there were only narratives of fear, tension, and oblivion to be found. Certainly, I have learned of a society stuck in limbo, a present moment still haunted by its intruding past. I have witnessed how the Dayton accord might have ceased the violence of the War in the 90s, but it also institutionalised conflict in its place, which is why this ruin is so easy to take in by the eye. But then I look further. I notice a tree growing from within, sprawling across the roofless abode to provide shelter: a green umbrella of helping hands. Out of this destruction, life still grows in peaceful measure; forgiveness is forward thinking which makes it harder, but always stronger than hate. These seeds of hope have been planted by people like Kemal and all those who have dedicated themselves to working towards reconciliation and a more peaceful present, so that their past can finally settle into history – Čuvaj se.

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