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Memory versus history

  • Published at 06:51 pm March 12th, 2016
Memory versus history

As I mentioned in my previous article “Where it all began,” Sarajevo’s Historical Museum is divided into two very different parts. The first part is a paean to Tito’s communist, multi-ethnic federation in which the fractious history of the Balkan states seemed to have finally worn itself out in WWII.

One would have inferred from that history, as displayed in the museum, that true harmony prevailed throughout the federation.

Yugoslavians had reason to hold their heads high in post-war Europe, as it was the only occupied part of Europe that basically freed itself from Nazi Germany. By the time the Soviet Army reached the Balkans, Tito’s communist partisans were in control of most of the region, and the Wehrmacht was retreating westward.

That led to Tito’s ability to insist on a Balkan face to his communist regime -- a luxury that none of the other occupied countries of Eastern Europe could manage (all of which soon fell under the Soviet thumb). In fact, none of the occupied countries of Western Europe could claim to have liberated themselves either. Tito’s communist partisans were the only real successful resistance against the Axis powers.

In the light of this history, the paean to those “halcyon” post-war days is quite understandable. But the enthusiasm for the federation begins to ebb after Tito’s death in 1980. Amid the proud descriptions of Sarajevo’s entry onto the international stage with its successful hosting the Winter Olympics of 1984, there begins to be subtle mutterings about Sarajevo, and Bosnia, not getting its share of national resources.

And as the grumbling becomes louder, the viewer slips into the 1990s when the museum records the dissolution of the Yugoslav federation. After 1989, its various parts, influenced of course by the break-up of the Soviet Union, begin to break away from the federation to declare their independence as sovereign states. The first half of the museum’s historical exhibition ends with the Bosnian declaration of Independence in early March 1992.

The second half is about the war, and especially about the siege of Sarajevo. And the heroism and the grit of the Bosnians during this horrendous siege is a very compelling story. Sarajevo has rebuilt much of the damage and new modern buildings sprouted throughout the city. I found one building which had not been touched after being shelled into rubble. Evidently, many resembled it 20 years ago.

From what I can make out, the war was fought over territory -- which side was going to control what territory. This tone perhaps started when presidents Milosevic of Yugoslavia and Tudman of Croatia agreed in March 1991, a year before Bosnia declared independence, that Bosnia-Herzegovina would be partitioned between Serbia and Croatia.

If this seems reminiscent of the Hitler-Stalin pact to partition Poland in 1939, it must have seemed even worse to the Bosnian Muslims, and such an agreement was certainly against post-WWII international standards, which forbid changing borders by force.

Later that year, to keep Bosnia form being drawn into the war, the EU proposed a plan that essentially divided Bosnia between the Muslims, Serbs, and Croats in a proportional way. The Bosnian president, Izetbegovic, signed the agreement but then withdrew it, saying he would not agree to the ethnic division of Bosnia, although this plan would have given Muslims their share of Bosnia which the earlier Milosevic/Tudman agreement would not have. But it was not a good deal.

It was a vicious and brutal war, characterised by targeting civilians in an attempt to get the Bosnians to give up, by ethnic-cleansing bordering on, and sometimes becoming, genocide, and mass rape, mainly of Muslim women by Serbian fighters. Its heroic episodes include the sieges of several cities, and the tremendous spirit and will of the Bosnians not just to survive but to give better than they got despite their inferior equipment and armaments.

The siege of Sarajevo began on April 5, 1992, and lasted for 1,425 days, until February 29, 1996 -- three times longer than the siege of Stalingrad. It was the longest siege in the history of modern warfare.

A Bosnian Serb force of 13,000 surrounded Sarajevo, remaining in the hills which overlook the city from which they could bombard the city with artillery and tanks without being directly contested even though there were 70,000 Bosnian troops in the city. This was mainly true not only because of their position on the commanding heights above the city, but because the Bosnians were poorly armed.

Almost 14,000 people were killed in Sarajevo during the siege, including about 5,500 civilians. The population dropped from over 500,000 in 1991 to somewhere between 300,000 and 350,000 today. To the visitor, the heroism of the entire population is unimaginable.

The Serbs had snipers in the city (at one point the Serbs were in control of one part of the city) who raked the broad streets and avenues with bullets, firing at pedestrians. One didn’t walk or stroll down the streets, one ran for one’s life. The siege cut off food supplies and people had to line up for bread and water. The Serb artillery found these lines easy targets, and hundreds were killed while standing in line.

The only way in and out of the city was through a tunnel that the citizens had dug, that ran under the airport runway. I talked to a man who said he had been through it five times during the siege.

Why, I asked. He said: “Because I was young, I could do it.” It meant going through water, sometimes waist high, and bending over because of the low ceiling, but holding one’s weapon up out of the water. After emerging from the tunnel, he had to walk 17 miles up a very steep mountain to avoid the Serbs. I didn’t ask what he was going to do after he got past the siege. I really didn’t want to know.

The citizens of Sarajevo have memorialised some of the heroism. And they remember it too. There is a difference between memorials and memory. Memorials are to remind us of an event or a person. Memory is how we see the past, and whether we see it honestly. Nations build memorials to their heroes, or to commemorate their successes, but some also build memorials to their moral or political failures. 

Statues of famous presidents and generals dot the Washington landscape. But the Vietnam memorial is to a terrible and costly mistake that most Americans now remember as such. Germany builds memorials to the Holocaust, certainly a monstrous moral failure, but many Germans have yet to admit their parents’ or grandparents’ responsibility for it by just looking the other way. Japan builds memorials for its war victims, but refuses to acknowledge its responsibility for the war or for the atrocity of, inter alia, Nanking.

After the Sarajevo siege ended in 1996, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia convicted two Serbians for crimes against humanity during the siege, sentencing one to life imprisonment and the other to 29 years’ imprisonment. The court indicted Radovan Karadzic, of 11 counts, one of which is for the siege. Sarajevo has had some redress.

One of my favorite authors, Ian Baruma, wrote that “failure is more typical of the human condition than heroism.” After a visit to Sarajevo, I have to, for the first time, disagree with him.