Thursday, April 28, 2011

Well maybe Bogdan Bogdanovic was right

Or at least about some things.
On our way to Bosnia (Republika Srpska/RS to be specific) about a month ago, we stopped at the site of the WWII concentration camp in Jasenovac. Unlike a lot of other sites of memory we had visited (such as the house of Adem Jasheri in Kosovo--something I should write more about later--we'll see when that happens), the camp had been completely destroyed at the end of the war, as the Ustasa, supported/supporting the fascists in Europe, began to lose the war, and hadn't been rebuilt. We entered by driving past a huge, empty field, with some mounds, which, I later found out, mark where buildings had been.
I was eating a sandwich. and afterwords visited probably the cleanest, most well equipped bathroom in the Balkans.

oh the irony.

The camp played and in many ways still plays a large role in politics, and especially perception of victimhood, in the region. Across the river from the camp is now RS, and was the site where many of the prisoners were executed, in really gruesome ways, mostly involving bludgeons and unbelievably close proximity to those being killed. But what makes Jasenovac so important/contested is that many of the victims were Serbs--a narrative that especially post 1990s wars, Serbs are eager to bring up. Problematic for me is that the way it has been framed in popular discourse--Ustasha (usually code-word for Croat) concentration camp for Serbs. One, this conflation of the Croats with their war time leadership (or any entire  people with their political leadership--especially in the context of a violent regime) especially in hindsight, had/has horrible consequences. Secondly, Serbs weren't the only victims, a significant number of Roma, Jews, Communists, and anti-regime Croats also died there.

The museum attached to the site had inscribed the names of all the known and identified victims of the camp on glass plates which hung above the exhibition space. I think there were eighteen or so people listed who had the same surname as my host family in Belgrade.

Bogdan Bogdanovic, a renowned Yugoslav architect who made scores of monuments (spomniks) across the former Yugoslavia, was in charge of the memorialization of the space, and in the middle of the field was a concrete structure, in the shape of a flower about to blossom. The Flower Monument was supposed to symbolize the ultimate failure of the fascist regime to destroy the multi-cultural nature of Yugoslavia. (pictures can be seen at if you're interested). Seeing Jasenovac, especially in spring, that sentiment really rung true.

The only other time I had heard of Bogdanovic (other than seeing another of his colossal spomniks---looming on the hillside above Mitrovica in Kosovo) was an essay I read of his, "The City and Death" last semester. The essay was in a collection of writings by authors from the former Yugoslav space, all writing about the war. I think it was published in 1993, but could be wrong. Bogdanovic's piece focused on the destruction of urban spaces--what he termed urbanicide (intent to destroy in whole or in part urban spaces/culture)--by the uncultured peoples on the hills. When I read it I couldn't quite verbalize why that made me so uncomfortable.Was it my own rural upbringing? I didn't know.

But thinking of projects of ethnic cleansing as ultimate failures because we can't destroy life--lives yes, but not life itself--resonated with my optimist self.

But Bogdanovic and I weren't over yet.
As part of our study abroad experience, we each had to design a research question and jump into the field to find out more. After hours of driving through empty/emptied villages, houses with no roofs, and with trees in the driveway rather than cars, past red hazard signs marking land not yet cleared of land mines, I chose to explore the process of returning to communities utterly devastated by war. I'll let you know how things turn out.
But in my research I again came across Bogdanovic and urbanicide. and I realized why that bothered me so much--the war wasn't just over urban spaces. Yes people living in urban spaces, and unbrnity it self was targeted by the war, but they most certainly weren't the only victims. While the siege of Sarajavo received more prime time than the war in other places, the fact that the TV cameras weren't looking certainly didn't stop the destruction. That's something that, especially living as I am now in a village just outside Sanski Most, I'm really internalizing.  In contract to urbanicide, some authors proposed "domicide"--the intent to destroy home (physically, socially, emotionally) as an integral part of the project of ethnic cleansing.

I can't even imagine what Sanski Most was like during or shortly after the war. Even though my research centers around this question of leaving and coming back, there are things I can't imagine. (Thank you mom and dad for not having a TV in the house, for allowing me to grow up without a violent imagination). But the stories I'm hearing are more than enough.

But then I look out the window of the Center for Peacebuilding, a local NGO where I am volunteering/based, and I can see men biking to work in the fields with their sickles hooked over the handlebar; or children returning from school, backpacks bouncing; tulips grow; neighbors visit, drink coffee, smoke cigarettes and talk about the price of tomatoes. Bogdanovic was right, however disgusting, brutal, unthinkable ethnic cleansing is, the living are proof of its failure.

wow. I'm an optimist.
And I'll have to write about Republika Srpska some other time.

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