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What happens on a peace-building exchange in the Western Balkans?

At a dinner in a small, smoke-filled restaurant in Belgrade, Serbia, during a youth programme set up by the German War Graves Commission, I was asked:

‘So, what are the stereotypes about the Western Balkans where you’re from?’ 

Growing up in London, I have been exposed to an array of cultures. But this question revealed my alarmingly minimal knowledge on this large region. If you had asked me to draw a line around the region that constitutes as the ‘Western Balkans’ last year, I probably would have been woefully mistaken. I simply couldn’t answer.

This was precisely why I decided to embark on the project in the first place. Peace Line’s Yellow Route would take young people from across Bosnia, Serbia, and North Macedonia and bring them together to discuss peace-building in regions that have experienced historical and recent conflict. Peace Line’s aim is to encourage dialogue on cultures of remembrance and how they vary across Europe so that respect can be built within the continent and to emphasise the significance of preserving historical reminders in the promotion of European unity. This prompted reflection on the idea of the individual against collective memorialisation of the past, and reclamation of conflict via the arts, infrastructure, and legislation.

The region is undeniably underrepresented when it comes to forming the whole picture of European history, even within the nations themselves. Much of the region’s political geography has been dictated by memory politics, determining the ways in which future generations go on to remember their relatives, and how they perceive their identity with respect to ethnicity and religion. Setting a start and end-point to the Balkan Wars, in particular, is nearly impossible, and volatile narratives focus on who the ‘victims’ and ‘perpetrators’ were, rather than the appreciation of civilian loss of life. Art has become a particular point of interest in expressing both disdain and remembrance of such a past in the Balkans – its abstractness has an ability to unite in collective memoriam, yet it undoubtedly may also be used to draw attention to strong beliefs. Thus, one of Peace Line’s many facets was being able to explore the culture of remembrance through art, which I have been drawn to reflect on when considering building sustainable peace in the region.

Bosnia and Herzegovina – Sarajevo and Srebrenica-Potočari  

We began the programme in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The most notable part of the city at first glance is not a particular landmark or sight, but rather the overwhelming presence of bullet holes. This is a relic of the Siege of Sarajevo, lasting 1425 days from April 1992 to February 1996, it was the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare, and the longest siege anywhere since WWII. Many of these facades have been partially restored so that the holes remain visible, but upholding standards of building quality. These scars on Sarajevo have fed directly into local art, a way which reflects the ownership locals have of their past and reflects a modern culture of remembrance. One of these artistic methods is the ‘Sarajevo Roses’, where shelling craters have been filled with red resin, each location marking an attack where at least three people had lost their lives. The recent development of the city has led to the loss of many of Sarajevo’s Roses, taking the memory of the victims of the war with them in a country that often lacks formal memorials to commemorate their losses.  

What strikes me about Sarajevo is that although it has no singular voice, the city speaks for itself. The War Childhood Museum told the stories of those who grew up there between 1992 and 1995. It described personal – not political or martial – histories from the time of the Siege. 

The one that resonated with me most was titled ‘A Dress for Dancing’, where a brother recalled preparation for a dance competition with his sister, Nina. The museum displayed the pom-poms her mother had made to accompany a dress given to her by the dance coach. Nina had no other means to buy one but the dress then allowed her to compete. The day after the competition, 12-year-old Nina was wounded, and died a few days later in hospital, making her one of the last children to fall victim to the Siege. It is these items that, despite being of little material wealth, are crucial in generating a culture of remembrance around conflict by humanising those who fall victim to it. 

We continued to discuss the Bosnian War in Srebrenica-Potočari, in the region of Bosnia known as Republika Srpska. Srebrenica, as declared by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, was the site of the genocide of approximately 8,372 Bosniak men and boys during a week in July 1995. 

At the site, we met a woman who had lost both her husband and sons in the events of Srebrenica, and headed the organisation ‘the Mothers of Srebrenica’, who took both the UN and the Dutch Government to court over their role in the events. She owned a small shop outside of the graveyard for the victims, where she sold carefully sewn white and green flowers with eleven petals, commemorating the day on which the genocide took place. As one of the few Bosniaks to return to Srebrenica, she expressed worries that one day Srebrenica will be left behind, yet expressed fondness for her children, whom she believes can craft a future of peace and reconciliation in Europe. 

In the days after leaving Srebrenica, 30 more men and boys were buried at the graveyards following their identification, stressing the time in which it has taken for families to learn the fate of their loved ones, and have a place of individual memorial for their mourning. To date, around a quarter of the victims of July 1995 remain unidentified or missing. The Srebrenica Flower has become a symbol of resilience for those who still await the identification of lost brothers, sons, and fathers, uniting those who lack a palpable site for individual commemoration. 

Serbia – Belgrade  

Belgrade provided a stark contrast to Bosnia. Whereas Sarajevo has art intertwined into a rugged cityscape, Belgrade interlaces glossy skyscrapers and high-rises with bombed ruins of former ministries. Belgrade, like Sarajevo, bears the scars of a turbulent past, one that is felt in modern-day Serbia by murals and, in many cases, their vandalised counterparts. Depending on the day you pass Njegoševa Ulica, you may or may not see a mural of Ratko Mladič, leader of the army of Republika Srpska, who was convicted by the International Criminal Court for orchestrating genocide in Srebrenica. It was cemented a month after his sentencing in The Hague and despite numerous attempts by the building’s residents and Belgrade-based peace organisations, it remains. 

A deeper exploration of this came later that day when meeting Serbian young people, many of whom were members of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR), a Belgrade-based NGO that has had numerous members arrested in an attempt to cover the mural. A discussion with young people demonstrated how it is the walls and buildings of Belgrade that are being used as a battleground for conflicting political ideals, specifically in the furthering of Serbian nationalism. Marko Milosavljevic, head of YIHR, has stated that “the glorification of convicted war criminals has led to the fact that we have a monument to Ratko Mladič, embodied in a mural, which is protected by both the police and extremist organisations,” highlighting the lack of intergenerational unity following the breakup of Yugoslavia.  

Cultures of remembrance – the way forward 

Sarajevo’s use of art as a memorial in the centre of the city, rather than demonising a particular group as a perpetrator, has gained wide international traction for its perception of the war of Bosnia, seeing the Siege of Sarajevo as an attack on the city’s rich, multi-ethnic history. With this said, the culture of remembrance has not been perfect in Bosnia and Herzegovina, such as with the implementation of plaques in schools. The Bosniak teachers and students who fell victim to war commonly have plaques in their former schools that, whilst acting as remembering, have a dual function as accusers. Mourning of Serb losses in Sarajevo is essentially held in secrecy, rather than collectively, and many believe that Bosnia is more sectarian than it has ever been before.  

Battles may no longer be fought on the ground, but walls and bridges are marked by them as nations reckon with dealing with a turbulent past. There is a need for an interdisciplinary approach to reconciling the past that encourages communal expression of mourning and remembrance. Ubiquitous street art, for instance, paints the cities’ healing grief in the absence of formal reconciliation. Collective expression through the arts can then be used as a foundation for debate on how to better formalise collective memorial within these nations, regardless of ethnicity or nationality.

The peace-building programme in the Western Balkans was a vital learning opportunity. I found it worked as a way to memorialise permanently what has been lost to the horrors of the wars. 

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