Sarajevo: Witness to History




Two exhibits in Sarajevo urge the viewer to bear witness to the Bosnian War: the Memorial Gallery 11/07/95 and the Tunnel Museum. This is a city where buildings still bear the scars of artillery fire, sidewalk holes created by grenades were filled with blood red cement and called “Sarajevo roses,” and the occasional mine continues to be discovered in the surrounding countryside. To bear witness to history is a very different thing from disaster tourism or being intrigued by suffering. It asks the viewer to observe the historical record so that others can’t deny it, so that witnesses won’t allow injustice to happen again, and so that the call for healing and justice is shared more broadly. I was immediately reminded of Shoah, the epic, 9 hour documentary of Holocaust survivors, bystanders, and perpetrators giving testimony.

At Galerija 11/07/95, a permanent exhibit of the Srebrenica massacre begins with a wall of the names of the victims: 8,372 names is a dizzying amount.

Then, large black and white photographs by Tarik Samarah depict haunting images after the genocide, including a doll with it’s throat slit and left as a warning, dead bodies of men and boys, mourning mothers, and a flock of birds dispersing in the silence. We see the cool efficiency of medical examiners, staging remains, trying to identify victims. And chilling, racist graffiti by the boy Dutch soldiers guarding the town before the massacre:

“no teeth…?
a mustache…?
smel [sic] like shit…?
Bosnian girl!”

Later, I met a girl from Amsterdam who is studying transitional justice. She said the Dutch were deeply ashamed that the incident occurred under their watch and explained that they had requested support that didn’t come, were ordered not to return fire, etc. She compared the inexperienced young soldiers to those depicted in Waltz with Bashir, an incredible animated film that depicts Israeli soldiers during the Lebanon War.

The exhibit also includes a short film about the massacre. Women describe the paralysis of fear as their sons and husbands were separated from them and the lack of consolation that persists to this day. General Ratko Mladic describes his vision of Greater Serbia from the battlefield. There are maps indicating locations of mass graves. Another monitor has extended video interviews of survivors.

The exhibit is small but intensely powerful, gut wrenching, and important.

Next post, the Tunnel Museum.


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