Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Managing Memories in Postwar Sarajevo: Individuals, Bad Memories, and New Wars

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Managing Memories in Postwar Sarajevo: Individuals, Bad Memories, and New Wars

Article excerpt

  I cannot speak of what happened at Hocin, in the faraway Russian land.
  Not because I don't remember, but because I don't want to tell. There
  is no good to be had from talking of horrific slaughter, of human fear
  and of the brutality of both sides. It should not be remembered or
  regretted or celebrated. The best thing is to forget, to let the human
  memory of all ugliness die, and for the children not to sing songs of
  revenge (Mesa Selimovic, The fortress, 1970).

It makes intuitive sense that people's memories of traumatic events such as those experienced in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the Second World War or the recent 1992-5 war will continue to affect the social fabric in some perhaps intangible but nevertheless important way. We tend to feel that this will be the case even when, as in Tito's socialist Yugoslavia, such memories cannot, for political reasons, be aired too publicly. Most of us would further allow that the things which are often rather confusingly called 'transmitted memories', in other words the personally meaningful images and ideas of younger generations who did not experience the war but who have lived in intimate contact with elders who did, are also helping, in some less direct way, to shape the social and political environment. A number of anthropologists have built on these intuitions and tried to illuminate the role that personal memories and 'transmitted memories' of the Second World War may have played in fuelling the 1992-5 war in Bosnia (1) (see, e.g., Bax 1995; Hayden 1994; Simic 2000). These scholarly approaches take seriously the authenticity and power of personal memories and 'transmitted memories' in shaping events. Beyond academic circles, the aid and policy-making world has acted on the same intuitions. Large sums of money have been spent on psycho-social programmes which aim to soothe or resolve painful memories of the atrocities of the recent war, partly for the benefit of the individual sufferers but sometimes also in the hope of avoiding future conflicts by intervening in the process of trans-generational transmission of trauma. The slogan of a May 2003 International Training in Trauma Recovery illustrates this ambition: 'Help heal this war and stop future war. Support real healing and peace in the world'. (2)

At the far end of this general approach to questions of memory are the 'ancient ethnic hatred'-style studies which imply that everyone who experiences war is lastingly, psychologically deformed and that the deformity can be xeroxed down the generations by the simple means of repeating stories of suffering to one's children. This is what seems to be implied, for example, by the depiction of Bosnia as a land 'deeply divided and steeped for generations in tales of heroism and imbued with a quasi-religious ethos of revenge and retribution' (Simic 2000: 115). This vision makes it hard to understand why anything ever changes at all and why children do not always and everywhere repeat their parents' animosities and wars.

In this context, another branch of scholarship (and policy-making) appears as a welcome corrective. 'The politics of memory' is the label often given to the dynamics surrounding the construction of monuments, the giving of speeches, the performance of rituals, and teaching of texts practised by political, religious, and other leading figures (see, e.g., Colovic 2002; Duijzings 2000; 2002; Zanic 1998). This approach takes as its focus not the authenticity and power of individuals' memories but the frames within which assorted political interests seek to constrain and channel those memories. In the world of policy this approach finds expression, for example, in the efforts made by the Office of the High Representative (OHR) and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to restructure Bosnia's educational system. (3) Deliberations over the extent to which Serb-, Croat-, and Bosniac-dominated schools should be allowed to teach different histories which tend to underwrite mutual hostility, or be made to teach a single version which is unlikely to correspond to what children hear at home, are premised on the view that the frame (schooling) is crucial to the shaping of individual memories and thus to the future of Bosnia. …

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