The Burden of Memory

By Professor Janine Natalya Clark

In the centre of Sarajevo, close to the Eternal Flame, there is a large wall mural with the words ‘Remembering Srebrenica’ and the image of the white and green flower that has become the symbol of the 1995 genocide. 

A street in Srebrenica

Two days ago, a local bus passed by with ‘Srebrenica’ and the iconic flower on its front window; and close to the cathedral in Sarajevo, the 11/07/95 gallery was established in 2012 in order to 'preserve the memory of Srebrenica's suffering'. I feel frustrated by these omnipresent appeals to remember. Who is going to forget? Those who lost loved-ones? Those who could have intervened and yet did nothing?

A bus in SrebrenicaEvery year on 11 July, an annual commemoration event – attended by numerous State dignitaries – takes place at the Potočari Memorial Centre where many of the victims are buried. Nobody is going to forget what happened, and indeed the persistent appeals to remember are only partly about remembering the dead and missing. The reality is that the victims of Srebrenica and the memory of what happened are repeatedly instrumentalized and manipulated for political ends. In particular, they feed a meta war narrative that allows for little acknowledgement of victims from other ethnic groups. 

In a recent event, I listened to a high-ranking Bosnian politician speaking about the use of sexual violence during the Bosnian war. She spoke only about ‘women and girls’ and focused solely on the sexual violence (narrowed down to rape) against Bosniak women. Rape was used as a weapon to destroy Bosniaks, she stressed, and she invited visitors to visit Potočari, Prijedor, Korićanske Stijene – all places where Bosniak civilians suffered. What about crimes against Serbs, Croats and others? Twenty-four years after the Bosnian war ended, it is a deeply depressing state of affairs that the same nationalist parties are in power and discussing the war ad finitum using the same ethnic frameworks and narratives. CSRS is about resilience; it is exploring the resilience that some women and men who have suffered conflict-related sexual violence demonstrate in dealing with their experiences. One of the reasons that resilience discourse remains critically absent in BiH is precisely because it lacks political utility. Does it strengthen ethnically-competing meta war narratives to portray those who have suffered diverse forms of sexual violence (and specifically women because men have been consistently neglected) as strong and resourceful individuals who want a better future – and who have a crucial role to play in building that future? Or is it more useful to utilize them as reminders of a nation’s suffering and victimhood?

A couple of days ago, I had the honour of listening to Brigadier General Marti J. Bissell, the commander and military representative at NATO headquarters in Sarajevo. Speaking about women, peace and security in South-East Europe, and providing fascinating personal insights into her 31-year career as a soldier, she described a particular experience that had remained with her from her time as a NATO helicopter pilot. She had flown into Korea and at one point a young girl of 15 or 16 years of age approached the helicopter. Brigadier General Bissell recalled that as she removed her helmet and gloves, she will never forget the astonished look on the girl’s face; she could not believe that it was a woman who had flown the aircraft rather than a man. ‘This is what it is all about’, the Brigadier General reflected. ‘It is about making women aware of what they can be’. These words will stick with me for a long time. In BiH, where there is a prevalent victim discourse, there is little space for making those who have suffered conflict-related sexual violence aware of what they can be. More broadly, in a country where constant appeals to remember crimes of the past keep ethnic narratives at the forefront, there is similarly little space for making society aware of how it might collectively move forward and gain a new post-war identity that transcends ethnic suffering and divisions.