Article – Ed Vulliamy on the search for mass graves and commemoration in Bosnia and Herzegovina

The brilliant Ed Vulliamy has written another thought-provoking piece in this weekend’s The Observer discussing the ongoing search for human remains buried in the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) following the 1992-5 conflict. There are a number of interesting and important aspects to this piece. The first is the unfinished nature of this hunt for remains, long after the violence was perpetrated and international interest (from some quarters) has waned. The continuation points to importance invested in finding material remains, returning loved family members and marking graves. The centrality of burial to the process of commemoration is underscored every year at the Srebrenica Commemoration Day on 11 July when newly uncovered bodies are buried at the Potocari Memorial.

The article also links to the mundane spatiality of commemoration and the barriers that have emerged to appropriate commemoration, particularly in the Omarska steel complex. This is an important point but in some respects reflects a wider discourse against commemoration that characterised the international response to the violence from the outset. In some senses the work that should have gone into commemoration (of thinking about how trauma, violence and loss would be marked in the landscape and the functions this would serve) was invested in other forms of redress: namely in legal processes of transitional justice. But (as emphasised in much of my recent work on transitional justice and space) there is a significant difference between the kinds of individualised retribution enacted through the courts and the more communal and social forms of truth-telling and redress that may be fostered through acts of commemoration. One of the key points in such acts is their placement within cultural and economic landscapes — in this case a mine workings — illustrating the ways in which these mundane sites became violent sites of trauma. Vulliamy is right: failing to mark this is a retrograde step that allows the possibility of forgetting and repetition.

But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the discussion is contained in the remarks by Refik Hodzic from the International Centre for Transitional Justice and someone I interviewed back in 2009 when I was first embarking on research into the war crimes trials in BiH. Refik links the absence of appropriate commemoration to the wider political and economic malaise in BiH: that public debate in the country has been poisoned by revisionist histories that celebrate mythologised pasts, breed hatred and allow a corrupt elite to pursue personal enrichment. This is an important and often side-stepped point linking what I have heard being called the ‘soft issues’ of commemoration with the ‘hard issues’ of political and economic life. They are interconnected fields, though the interconnections are poorly understood and have been ignored for too long.

Alex Jeffrey, August 2015


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