The heart of a pigeon, and other postcards of Peacebuilding

A reflection of my time in Bosnia & Herzegovina, written for Most-Mira and CUNY’s Project on Peacebuilding 2018: Democracy and Post-Conflict Politics in BiH. For more info on this exceptional course: http://www.mostmiraproject.org

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 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 leftover carcasses, but their toothless and crooked lean seems strangely natural, as if they have always been that way. Our facilitator and 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.

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A pond of puppies rolls over, bellies up, and I learn my first words in Bosnian; I say ‘Zdravo’ to every one of them. The phrases tumble through my sieve-thin memory, but I manage to retain a scattering of common phrases subsumed within the wider meta-language of the Serbs, the Croats and the Bosniaks. We 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 politically charged rhetoric of these ethnic divisions, which motivate present ethnonationalistic tendencies, are more deeply and systematically 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 still push away and othertheir neighbour 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 one over a Bosnian beer and an embraced unity. We leave the lecture and dance together on top of a mountain.

*

Sladjana flips her hair with that cheeky smile of hers 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 lazy dregs of a Sunday afternoon, but we manage to find snoozing waiters, some wandering friends and the school in which Sladjana is currently educated. She tells me her story: one marked by personal discrimination, unwarranted victimization and the local authority’s refusal to allow for Sladjana’s considerate care, concern and desire to remember her cultural heritage, 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, from doing the right thing.

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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 of 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 of memorialisation. 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 stifling heat of the midday sun, our lovely sticky black-seated van approaches an ArcelorMittal 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 uncomfortable shadow of its former self invades the present, forcing a rupture. We wander around a maze of slightly 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 ones 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, Kemal Pervanić, human rights advocate and one of the strongest people I now consider myself lucky to know, 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 were forced to experience the very cruellest 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 make it 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 the falling apples of late summer. We are neighbours to a headless house, windowless and eviscerated. When we started to dislodge the past that still lies stuck in this country’s throat, to make sense of the ruins that I first saw, I thought there were only choking 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 ruined ghost-house 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, making it harder, but always stronger than hate. These seeds of hope have been planted in Bosnia & Herzegovina 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 a historyČuvaj se.

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“a pic of me taking a pic of the future leaders of BiH (Sladjana & Anes); watch out world, you heard it here first”

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PROJECT REPORT CONTRIBUTION I: “My Memories”

“I remember turkeys and Mosques, both upright and ready for the morning call to prayer. White Balloons. Oppressive heat. Glorious warmth. I remember Omarska, more than once a year. I remember dancing, arm in arm with a lot of the world. The scent of bug spray and copious squelches of sun cream. The prickle of sweat on the nape of my neck. Ćevapi. More ćevapi. Too much ćevapi (impossible). I remember not knowing a lot about the war or post-conflict landscape of Bosnia & Herzegovina. I remember feeling out of my depth. I remember spending an entire pint of Bosnian beer trying to wrap my head around the electoral system. I remember Anes’ self-devised degree in Bosnian marriage, and failing the first task of coffee preparation. I remember Nicolas Moll, our gentle giant, and Dženeta Karabegović’s star-lit lecture centred on the memory of memorials. I remember the three brothers from Afghanistan, their life-saving password and their unbelievable (but very real) journey. I will never forget Kemal Pervanić, his brave kindness and his astonishing story. I remember Pavarotti. A paradise of puppies. Mountain-top language lessons. Scribbling on any piece of paper I could scavenge from my lack of organization. I remember the personal and the political and how they could never not be inextricably linked. I remember realizing that memorials aren’t just made of stone. People can be walking memorials. I remember the difficulty of remembering. I remember wanting to do more to help, to spread awareness, to always listen beyond my borders. I remember still not knowing enough and how much more there is to learn. I remember the bubbly and heady excitement of shared laughter, shared learning, shared inspiration. I remember building our Most Mira and I am looking forward to letting this memory continue to grow.”

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PROJECT REPORT CONTRIBUTION II – The Omarska Commemoration: A furnace of forgetfulness?

“Omarska. The year is 1992. Today, the mine is closed. People are coming from all around the region. There are buses outside. Police of Republika Srpska are guarding the site. You can hear different people being called out. People are looking for their relatives and friends in the factory’s yard.

Omarska. The year is 2018. Today, the mine is closed. People are coming from all around the region. There are buses outside. Police of Republika Srpska are guarding the site. You can hear different people being called out. People are looking for their relatives and friends in the factory’s yard.”  (Anes Hodžić, POP participant)

At first, it was difficult to fathom how the Omarska concentration camp’s former prisoners and survivors could face the physical and emotional challenge of returning to a site that’s so imbued with traumatic memories. How could these victims of atrocity possibly revisit the remnants of a reality in which they were subjected to the extremities of human cruelty?

The act of remembrance is something that is so easy to take for granted; it’s a cognitive function to which many pay little attention. But in the case of BiH, there’s something radical in making the personal public. To remember is to oppose a national narrative that refuses memory, to counter a culture of ruptured amnesia. The remarkable determination of these men to return, to commemorate and to speak will never not be painful, but this bravery to share their direct experience of atrocity against a political backdrop tainted by denial, powerfully transforms the hearts of these men into walking memorials.

The Omarska day of Commemoration takes place on an annual basis. For the other unwinding 364 days of the year, the camp re-engages its guise as an ArcelorMittal steel mine, squashing the shadows of its former past in furnaces of forgetfulness. While it is cathartic to create an active and immersive space of remembrance every year, a place for people to peel open their wounds and pour out their bottled grief, there’s something unsettling about the limited window through which these memories are allowed to be officially exhumed; only a little air is let in to relieve an overheated room.

An abandoned attempt in 2005 to construct a more permanent kind of memorial for the camp on the site of the factory highlights a set of ethical and political issues that must be negotiated before Omarska can be further and adequately memorialised; these issues arise due to a post-conflict landscape that still chokes on the (now institutionalised) divisions which drove the violence during the War. Some argue that a memorial cannot be adequately constructed until all the victims are accounted for (no man gets left behind). Others believe that the entire mine should be reappropriated and dedicated to the camp’s memorial; some do not want a memorial to be constructed at all.

Until a willing collaboration takes place to find a sensitive means of memorialising this camp, then hope for reconciliation and cultural healing will keep moving away and out of reach. Until then, the memory of Omarska can only continue to bleed and be bandaged, to bleed and be bandaged, stuck and struggling on (but never moving forward), like a broken record.

Having said this, the annual commemoration as it stands also allows for an emotional and comprehensive access point for those who did not directly experience the conflict, but are inherently connected to the War through family, and the desire to understand their complex heritage a little better. Most-Mira participant, Anes Hodžić, wants to counter this silence, and he writes of the personal encounter with his family’s turbulent history:

On the fifth day of POP, we visited the iron mine in Omarska which was the site of a concentration camp for non-Serbs. It was 6th of August, the day of the beginning of the camp’s closing. The camp was open for two and a half months from May till August 1992. During this period, thousands of people, mostly Bosniaks and Croats, were held captive and 700 were killed.

Hundreds of people, former inmates, their families and other people that lived in this area before the war came to Omarska to see the sites where they or their family members were imprisoned. Among those, there were also the Project on Peacebuilding participants. We started our tour at the white house: the building in which inmates were tortured and killed every day. Kemal gave us an emotional testimony in which he talked about his experience in Omarska. Today, in the white house, two rooms were filled with gently drifting balloons that were carrying the names of Omarska detainees that are yet to be found. The third room contained an art installation that was made out of 5000 bullets that were fired in Bosnia and Herzegovina during 1992. After the white house, we spoke about the red house: the place where the atrocities were so horrifying that to date there is just one person known to have survived it. We then continued to the hangar building where the detainees were held and to the administrative building while the survivors of the camp were retelling their stories over the intercom.

For me, the visit to Omarska was a part of a painful experience of confronting my family’s past. My relatives lived in Prijedor prior to 1992. They were detainees in Omarska and Trnopolje. The day before our visit to Omarska, I saw the house in Prijedor where they used to live and later that day we went to Trnopolje. These visits and the whole of the Project on Peacebuilding helped me to better understand what happened, not only to my family members, but also to the thousands of people in this area and to come to terms with my family’s past.

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