Universal Languages

By Margarita Maira

Until four months ago, Bosnia and Herzegovina was an entirely unknown world for me. I had a vague notion that it had been part of Yugoslavia, but that was it. When I did research about the creation of the Regional Youth Cooperation Office, RYCO, in the Western Balkans I, could grasp the depth and consequences of the conflict during the wars in the 1990s and I knew that BiH, as Bosnians call it, had been the most affected of the countries involved. But when I arrived in Kevljani in Northern Bosnia I struggled. Why did neighbors who had lived in perfect harmony all their lives suddenly turn against those with a different religion from them? Why was there no justice after the war? Why is there no official recognition and remembrance of the atrocities that happened in Prijedor? And, again, why did different ethnicities brutally fight each other if they’d coexisted as friends until 1992?

On a more pragmatic level, I was also very lost. The language here is unintelligible for me and even though there are many Bosnians from abroad here for holidays —I’ve learned they get referred to as diaspora— I don’t feeI I can get by on my own without a Bosnian speaker.

Everything around me was foreign and in need of explanations.

This was undoubtedly the aura around everything that surrounded me during the beginning of my stay here until we watched the documentary made by Most Mira’s founder, Kemal Peranovic. As I heard the testimonies about ethnic cleansing, concentration camps and missing persons, I started feeling a familiar uneasiness. All of a sudden, the Bosnian conflict was not an alien thing anymore. As the camera followed a woman still looking for the body of a loved one two decades later, it dawned on me: I have seen this scene countless times before. The landscape and the language differ but the search and the heartbreak is the same. Even though my country returned to democracy in 1990, families of the desaparecidos (“the disappeared”) during the Chilean dictatorship continue to this day waiting for corpse locations to be revealed. Then I realized: the lack of peace that comes with not being able to bury the remains of your own blood knows no borders. The frustration that victim’s siblings, parents or partners face when the perpetrators remain silent, and worse, die comfortably in their beds… the suffering that comes with justice being denied to the survivors is the same in both countries.

As the days went by, the similarities between the Bosnian war and the Chilean dictatorship haunted me. When another participant’s grandfather told us the details of how he managed to escape the Serb army and concentration camp, I couldn’t help but think of my father, whose face was printed in the cover of the newspaper among the 15 most wanted after the 1973 military coup d’état against Salvador Allende. The anxiety of hiding, the fear of escape plans going wrong. These things need no translation.

When two Bosnian survivors narrated their experiences abroad, I couldn’t help thinking of both my parents who fled to Mexico and Italy years before meeting each other. The Diaspora participants who have lived their entire lives in the US due to their parents’ escape were very active during the session. Their burning questions and the answers, with all the associated curiosity and concern of both generations —the survivors and their children— automatically put me in my sisters’ shoes. My sisters left Santiago for Mexico City as young girls, almost babies, and have lived here for over 4 decades now, only returning to Chile occasionally, for holidays.

Finally, Kemal’s courageous testimony of his detention in Omarska concentration camp took me back to friends from my (very political) choir back home. They have also had to pause in the middle of generous and intimate accounts to gather strength to finish a story about the past that they don’t often share. Overwhelmed by emotions, in Omarska and in Santiago, I saw them overcome the difficulty to voice the trauma.

Some of my questions about the Bosnian conflict have expanded, others have found the first pieces of the puzzle that their complex answer implies. I leave with many doubts that I’m hoping to look into after this mind-blowing trip. But the unexpected connection between the horrors of this war and my country’s own history leaves me with one certainty about post-conflict societies: how sad it is that the language of pain is universal.

One thought on “Universal Languages”

  1. Your reflections reveal the universality of what occurred in Bosnia in the 90’s, and the unfortunate legacy of bitterness that continues there. I appreciate learning of your family’s plight in Chile, and know how very difficult that must have been for them. Thank you.

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