This post hasn’t been easy to write. Maybe I’ve no right to write it. As a foreigner, this dilemma is one I constantly face when engaging with Bosnia. Outside interpretations tend to over-simplify. While expert reports, through their lens of objectivity, sometimes eclipse the raw accounts of those who know things first-hand. What can a non-native say? Here, all I’ll draw on is my own experience, accepting my limitations as a stranger, a strankinja. These are just jagged pieces of reflection. My meagre contribution to an infinite jigsaw of remembrance.
The most haunting aspect of our trip to Bosnia this year was our visit to Gallery 11/07/95. This exhibition centre, off the main street in Sarajevo, takes its name from the date of the beginning of the Srebrenica massacre. Its aim is to preserve the memory of the 8372 people brutally killed, over a couple of days, in that eastern Bosnian town. A place now synonymous with genocide. In Europe. In our time.
Spending an hour in a carefully planned display space can’t compare with making the journey to Srebrenica. Someday we’ll go there. When the children are a bit older – our youngest daughter is only six. Instead, we brought the three of them to the gallery. Despite Trip Advisor’s warning that the exhibition is ‘very difficult and clearly not to be recommended for kids’. But our children are half-Bosnian. Learning about war and its aftermath isn’t an optional subject, it’s their inheritance.
The travel website was correct, however, in describing the gallery as a ‘must see’. It’s more than that. It’s a must remember. The layout is stark: walls covered with the names and faces of the men and boys who were murdered in July 1995. The date struck our eldest, she was born in 2000. Then the photos of survivors – people displaced to Tuzla or strewn to other countries. Many of these were taken in 2002. The year of our second daughter’s birth – still too recent to be history. But Srebrenica is an unfinished tragedy. A running sore, the black and white images remind. An unearthed skull stares out, admonishes. Among shots of cracked family pictures, decomposing clothes, forensically identified remains, legions of coffins… After almost two decades of burial, the search continues for traces of the missing.
There’s a lot crammed into this wooden-floored tunnel of a room. In its annexes, multi-media installations are presented. Barbarism meets state-of-the-art technology in the interactive mapping of mass graves. While a video plays, on loop, its few minutes of documentary. Again the irony – Srebrenica caught on camera. But this was the mid-nineties. The advent of reality TV. Far too horrifically real… The testimony of mothers, sons, wives subdues the huddle of viewers. As they talk of last goodbyes and of farewells left unsaid, we pretend we’re not crying.
Perhaps the saddest thing is that Srebrenica was totally avoidable. It wasn’t some freak natural disaster. People made it happen. Through their actions: the footage shows Ratko Mladić seizing the town as a ‘gift’ to the Serbian nation he claimed to represent. And through inaction: that of the UN peacekeepers, who failed to protect civilians, and of the world’s leading powers, who let carnage engulf Bosnia in the three years before Europe’s worst atrocity since World War II. The inadequacy of the international response was admitted in 1999 by Kofi Annan, then UN Secretary General. In 2012, his successor, Ban Ki-Moon, visited the memorial centre and victims’ cemetery in Potočari. ‘We must learn from the lessons of Srebrenica,’ he said, making specific reference to the war in Syria. A year later, the conflict there still rages. And crimes against humanity are perpetrated on a daily basis in less-reported combat zones. Which town will be next to share Srebrenica’s grim accolade as a source of global shame?
An outsider’s visit to Gallery 11/07/95 is nothing but a meaningless gesture unless it’s followed by a commitment to act. The gallery is envisaged as a place both for ‘the continuing remembrance of the innocent citizens of Srebrenica who were slaughtered’ and ‘for the articulation of voices against all forms of violence in the world’. It challenges its visitors to respond to this call for commemoration. To bear witness, to speak out, so that horrors such as 11/07/95 can never be repeated. Even the smallest effort – the writing of a letter or joining a campaign – could be significant. For each marks a personal step, it adds to the groundswell of human will that could finally relegate genocide to the past. It won’t ease the grief of the bereaved of Srebrenica. But it might spare another family from enduring a similar nightmare. To save a single life is to save the world.
When in Sarajevo, visit Gallery 11/07/95. For contact details see its website: http://galerija110795.ba/