1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Three Sarajevans and their social milieu
  4. Memories handed down?
  5. In conclusion: the possibility of reconciliation
  7. Résumé

In the wake of the 1992-5 war in Bosnia a number of anthropologists have written about the role of memory in creating and sustaining hostility in the region. One trend focuses on the authenticity and power of personal memories of Second World War violence and on the possibility of transmitting such memories down the generations to the 1990s. Another focuses less on memory as a phenomenon which determines human action than on the ‘politics of memory’: the political dynamics which play on and channel individuals’ memories. In this article I use the example of three Sarajevo Bosniacs whom I have known since the pre-war 1980s in order to propose the merit of a third, additional, focus on the individual as an active manager of his or her own memories. I briefly consider whether work by Maurice Bloch on the nature of semantic and of autobiographic memory supports a strong version of the first interpretative trend, or whether, as I suggest, the conclusions of this work instead leave room for individual memory management and for change down the generations.

I cannot speak of what happened at Hoćin, in the faraway Russian land. Not because I don’t remember, but because I don’t want to tell. There is no good to be had from talking of horrific slaughter, of human fear and of the brutality of both sides. It should not be remembered or regretted or celebrated. The best thing is to forget, to let the human memory of all ugliness die, and for the children not to sing songs of revenge (Meša Selimović, The fortress, 1970).

It makes intuitive sense that people's memories of traumatic events such as those experienced in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the Second World War or the recent 1992-5 war will continue to affect the social fabric in some perhaps intangible but nevertheless important way. We tend to feel that this will be the case even when, as in Tito's socialist Yugoslavia, such memories cannot, for political reasons, be aired too publicly. Most of us would further allow that the things which are often rather confusingly called ‘transmitted memories’, in other words the personally meaningful images and ideas of younger generations who did not experience the war but who have lived in intimate contact with elders who did, are also helping, in some less direct way, to shape the social and political environment. A number of anthropologists have built on these intuitions and tried to illuminate the role that personal memories and ‘transmitted memories’ of the Second World War may have played in fuelling the 1992-5 war in Bosnia1 (see, e.g., Bax 1995; Hayden 1994; Simić 2000). These scholarly approaches take seriously the authenticity and power of personal memories and ‘transmitted memories’ in shaping events. Beyond academic circles, the aid and policy-making world has acted on the same intuitions. Large sums of money have been spent on psycho-social programmes which aim to soothe or resolve painful memories of the atrocities of the recent war, partly for the benefit of the individual sufferers but sometimes also in the hope of avoiding future conflicts by intervening in the process of trans-generational transmission of trauma. The slogan of a May 2003 International Training in Trauma Recovery illustrates this ambition: ‘Help heal this war and stop future war. Support real healing and peace in the world’.2

At the far end of this general approach to questions of memory are the ‘ancient ethnic hatred’-style studies which imply that everyone who experiences war is lastingly, psychologically deformed and that the deformity can be xeroxed down the generations by the simple means of repeating stories of suffering to one's children. This is what seems to be implied, for example, by the depiction of Bosnia as a land ‘deeply divided and steeped for generations in tales of heroism and imbued with a quasi-religious ethos of revenge and retribution’ (Simić 2000: 115). This vision makes it hard to understand why anything ever changes at all and why children do not always and everywhere repeat their parents’ animosities and wars.

In this context, another branch of scholarship (and policy-making) appears as a welcome corrective. ‘The politics of memory’ is the label often given to the dynamics surrounding the construction of monuments, the giving of speeches, the performance of rituals, and teaching of texts practised by political, religious, and other leading figures (see, e.g., Ćolović 2002; Duijzings 2000; 2002; Žanić 1998). This approach takes as its focus not the authenticity and power of individuals’ memories but the frames within which assorted political interests seek to constrain and channel those memories. In the world of policy this approach finds expression, for example, in the efforts made by the Office of the High Representative (OHR) and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to restructure Bosnia's educational system.3 Deliberations over the extent to which Serb-, Croat-, and Bosniac-dominated schools should be allowed to teach different histories which tend to underwrite mutual hostility, or be made to teach a single version which is unlikely to correspond to what children hear at home, are premised on the view that the frame (schooling) is crucial to the shaping of individual memories and thus to the future of Bosnia.

There is a danger that, pushed too far, this more ‘top-down’ approach to issues of memory could give the implausible impression that human minds are endlessly manipulable and that schooling or the broadcasting of nationalistic commemorative ceremonies can fundamentally alter personal memories of strongly emotional, life-changing events such as violent bereavement. This impression may be created partly by a somewhat imprecise use of the word ‘memory’, since studies in the domain of ‘politics of memory’ often say a lot about politics but not so much about memory; a monument is not a memory. The danger is that ‘[w]hen historians attempt to interpret evidence of memory from a representation of the past, the risk of a circular argument … is high’ (Confino 1997: 1397).

This approach follows in the tradition of the great French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, who was a colleague of Émile Durkheim and who has been closely associated with the phrase ‘collective memory’ (Halbwachs 1925; 1950). Halbwachs pointed to the fact that memory is constructed within social frameworks. No contemporary psychologist or social scientist would dispute the central role of the social in memory, in what is silently recalled in the presence of imagined listeners, in what is encoded in the mind by the listener, and in what is narrated. Halbwachs, however, went further, seeming to deny the existence of individual memory and to view the social context as all-determining. From this approach flows much sociological and anthropological writing on memory, which, at the expense of a focus on memory as a personal experience, tends to exalt the political nature of social memory and the importance of commemorative practices for buttressing particular group identities.

Both of the approaches that I have outlined can yield important insights, but in this article I attempt a third, additional, focus which is neither on memories as things that control individuals, as in the first approach, nor on the political dynamics which seek to control individuals by shaping their memories, as in the second, but on the individual's awareness of memory and his or her desire to control it for the perceived benefit of self and others. Like Selimović's fictional protagonist in The fortress, the three real-life Bosniacs depicted here all manage and work with their memories and are able to reflect on the role of memory and ‘transmitted memory’ in their own lives and the lives of those around them. They are no less conscious than the anthropologist of the implications of imparting or not imparting information to the young.

Without highlighting the individual, Keith Brown and Stef Jansen point in the direction of memory management in their works on the Balkans. Jansen's Serb and Croat villagers attempt to ‘exert a minimum of control over their own version of history and thereby over their everyday lives’ (Jansen 2002: 90) while Brown's Macedonians hand local knowledge down ‘from knee to knee with successive generations’ but reveal a ‘nuanced awareness’ of the havoc that might be wreaked by injudicious narration of their recollections (Brown 2003: 212, 233). In foregrounding the individual, the approach that I adopt here shares elements with that of Stoler and Strassler on what they call memory ‘work’ in postcolonial Java. Having set out to investigate ‘colonial memory’ among former servants and hoping thus to discover alternative, subaltern histories to those propounded by the Dutch colonists, the ethnographers found that ‘[o]ur attention was instead arrested by the ways in which people moved … from recipe ingredients and dry shopping lists to dramatic re-enactments of pointed dialogues … [T]hese accounts refused the colonial as a discrete domain of social relations and politics, of experience and memory’ and differed from individual to individual (Stoler & Strassler 2000: 38). Within the same anti-reductionist interpretative vein Lambek has described memory as a ‘moral practice’ or a form of ‘practical wisdom’, and suggested that ‘[t]he value of articulating a particular version of the past … [is] … explicitly connected to its moral ends and consequences for relations in the present’ (1996: 239). The individuality and unpredictability of memory and the moral and interpersonal aspect of its management emerge strongly in the three Bosnian cases considered below.

These cases cannot in themselves disprove but do pose a challenge to those anthropological interpretations which rightly accord significance to emotion-laden personal memories of trauma but wrongly suggest that these can be transmitted in any simple way down the generations, causing renewed wars. Towards the end of this article I will consider one small corner of the rapidly expanding field of cognitive psychology which could potentially be used to buttress the ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’ school of Bosnian interpretation. A recent article in this journal concerning second-generation mental representations of the Second World War massacres in Tuscany cites Maurice Bloch's work on autobiographical and historical memory, arguing that ‘there is no difference between the representations of autobiographical memory and those of historical accounts’ (Cappelletto 2003: 241, my emphasis), and that therefore the representations of the younger generation are the same as those of the older generation whose accounts of witnessing massacres they have imbibed and made their own. I will suggest that a closer reading of Bloch does not entail this conclusion or give support to an ancient ethnic hatreds interpretation, and that, rather than thinking of memories as actively handed down by elders and absorbed wholesale by passive youth (as the phrase ‘transmitted memories’ tends to suggest), it is more helpful to think of them as actively inferred by the younger generations, whether Bosniac, Tuscan, or other, on the basis of information emanating from the elders. This approach allows for the fact that, just as people manage their own personal memories, so they manage and work with the ideas and images they have acquired through proximity to elders (‘transmitted memories’).

The three Sarajevans on whom I focus are people I have known since the pre-war mid-1980s, but there is nevertheless, of course, a possibility that I have over-interpreted these most inaccessible of data about people's innermost concerns and memories. Except in the clear-cut case of ‘Hamida’, I have not here attempted a detailed tracking of changes over time in the way these three individuals have expressed memories. My general observation is that, as time has passed since the war ended in 1995, wartime incidents have been narrated less frequently and less spontaneously and that many individuals appear to narrate the same one or two episodes repeatedly, and to narrate them in a more organized, ‘story-like’ form than previously. This observation fits with psychological work on the way in which trauma survivors impose narrative structure on memories about experiences which themselves lack essential narrative elements (Barclay 1996). It is important to stress, however, that, contrary to the tacit implication of some works in the ‘politics of memory’ genre, memories are not limitlessly vulnerable to alteration through narration or social pressure: ‘Narrative patterning does not “get in the way” of accurate autobiographic reporting or interpreting, but rather, provides a framework for both telling and understanding’ (Bruner & Fleisher Feldman 1996: 291).

Three Sarajevans and their social milieu

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Three Sarajevans and their social milieu
  4. Memories handed down?
  5. In conclusion: the possibility of reconciliation
  7. Résumé

‘Hamida’, ‘Amra’, and ‘Omer’ are all Bosniacs who lived in Sarajevo both before and during the war and who derive some status from this. In socialist Sarajevo the concept of the dobra, stara porodica (good, old family) was an important one (Sorabji 1989; see also Brown 2003: 213-14 on Macedonia). Part of its significance lay in the characteristic Bosnian and wider former Yugoslav disdain felt by urbanites for rural dwellers (see also Bringa, 1995: 58-60). The many Sarajevans whose parents had moved to the town from villages did not advertise this image-tarnishing fact, and during the war there was a widespread urban tendency to blame the seljaci (villagers) or papci (bumpkins) for the violence.4 Combined with urbanity, longevity implied that the family in question somehow pre-dated socialism. This conferred prestige not because of widespread disapproval of or resistance to Communist rule but because longevity was seen to imply the containment and contextualization of socialism within an older and deeper moral tradition which, from the Bosniac perspective, also contained Islamic piety.

Amra was always closer to good, old family status than Omer or Hamida but war has blurred such distinctions. This is in part because some of the previously good, old families are perceived as having become over-associated with the corrupt business-political elite which emerged out of the war. It is also because old status distinctions between Sarajevo residents have been challenged by the arrival of two new categories of resident – the in-migrated Bosniac displaced persons (DPs) from ‘ethnically cleansed’ villages, and a new wave of religious believers who have adopted a version of Islam widely associated with some of the Arabs who participated in the war (see Bellion-Jourdan 2001). This manifestation of Islam, sometimes pejoratively dubbed Wahhabi, is experienced by many believing Muslims in Sarajevo, and particularly by those closer to the pre-war dobra, stara porodica end of the spectrum, as an attack on Bosniac national identity, familiar values and practices, and their own sincerity as believers and legitimacy as religious authorities. Against such perceived new threats (corrupt elites, in-migrated villagers, Wahhabis) there is a tendency for pre-war Sarajevo Bosniacs to play down status divisions between them in the interests of unity. Thus Hamida, Amra, and Omer are socially less distant than they were before the war.

All three also have a certain threadbare status as people who remained in Sarajevo during the siege. In the early days of the war staying was squarely understood by Bosniacs as the brave and patriotic choice. As the war ground on, resentment towards departed Bosniacs became more tempered with understanding of their motivations. None the less, in 2003 few Bosniacs claimed that, given the choice again, they would stay in besieged Sarajevo. In retrospect staying is seen as having been pointless: justice did not triumph in Bosnia, and those who left have returned with educational qualifications, language skills, and money.

Amra is employed, Omer is self-employed, and Hamida has an employed daughter. All three are linked to pre-war neighbourhood communities which offer a degree of mutual support and have managed to build upon the remains of pre-war and wartime networks of veze (connections) which, now more than ever, are of vital importance for gaining and retaining employment, expediting medical treatment, registering a child at a desirable school, and so on. While aware that their situation is far better than that of most DPs, people from this milieu are more consistently conscious of what they have lost than of what they currently have. Before the war most felt themselves to be upwardly mobile. Regaining economic ground lost in the war is now seen as an aspiration for the next generation. Relative economic hardship is compounded by the lasting sorrows of war – injury, bereavement, broken relationships (the divorce of war-separated couples, family quarrels over resources), lost ambitions (vanishing career plans and marital prospects), and sometimes tarnished self-images (discovery of one's limitations). During that war Sarajevo was encircled, sniped at, and shelled from the surrounding hills so that, as the Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladić put it, ‘they can’t sleep, so we drive them out of their minds’ (‘da ne mogu da spavaju, da im razvučemo pamet njihovu’, see BBC 1995). Omer, Amra, Hamida and many thousands of Sarajevans live now with this legacy.

Omer: unwelcome memories

Before the war Omer was a married man with a young son and was self-employed in one of the small private businesses allowed in socialist Yugoslavia. He had a car and drove his family to the coast most summer weekends. When the war began he and his wife, who was not a Yugoslav citizen, agreed that she should take their son to her homeland for safety. Omer did not go; he felt it a duty to stay rather than shirk and, in any case, like almost everyone in the town, he did not think the war would last so long and be so brutal.

Sarajevo was militarily unprepared for the attack upon it. Its defence was initially drawn from the ranks of the Territorial Defence, from the police force, from the Patriotic League military organization established in 1991 under the wing of the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), the Bosniac party within the pre-war coalition government, and from local volunteers, some of them organized into units known as ‘Green Berets’ (zelene beretke). Eventually all troops were merged into an army, the ‘Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina’ (ARBiH), of which the First Corps was that operating in and around Sarajevo. Between 1992 and 1995, 6,585 First Corps soldiers were killed, over half of them within the beseiged city.5

Owing to a lack of weaponry and other equipment, the ARBiH operated a military shift system and Omer spent periods ranging from two days to two months on the frontline, interspersed with similar periods spent at home. His longest stint was on Treskavica mountain, which he reached by first walking the long, snipered miles from his home to the airport, then making his way through the hand-dug tunnel under the airport runway to Butmir, then climbing Mount Igman. During the climb he and his fellows were given chocolate and cigarettes ‘to keep us happy and keep our minds off the frontline’. They were then picked up by helicopter and flown to Treskavica, being shot at en route. On the frontline the soldiers built log bunkers for shelter. The food was terrible and frozen in winter, but more plentiful than in civilian life. Hoisting themselves up by rope to the literal frontline for two days at a time, they carried water bottles and rations on their backs or in their teeth. None the less, Omer says he found life easier at the front than in the town below because on the line he was unable to worry too much about his loved ones. During his spells back in town, Omer, without his wife and child, strengthened his relations with neighbours. They cooked, washed, mended, and were company for him while he shared with them food parcels sent by his spouse and news brought from other parts of town which he had gleaned from fellow soldiers.

In 2003, thanks to his energy and ingenuity, Omer's business was still alive, but ailing. His marriage was over. Omer was never especially religious and after the war professed himself even less inclined to faith as a result of the ‘thievery’ (lopovluk) of religious functionaries he witnessed during it. He saw much post-war religious observance as ‘battery-powered’ (na bateriju) hypocrisy designed to curry favour with the political and business elites but was respectful of those whom he viewed as sincerely devout.

What of his frontline memories? Most of them he does not enjoy or talk about and, as he told me, ‘You can’t forget but you try to wipe it away (izbrisati). They are not pretty memories. Mostly we recall funny or strange things that happened’. His words echo those of the Greek Cypriot refugee Petris interviewed by Loizos in 1975: ‘I want to forget, not to remember. But you can’t forget completely, you just can’t’ (Loizos 1981: 130).6 Both during the war and after, Omer has indeed tended to tell me curious anecdotes and funny stories of the frontline. He told me of how they all laughed when a self-consciously pious comrade tried to perform abdest (ritual washing before prayer) in the dark in what he thought was a pile of snow but was in fact ashes from a camp fire. He told me of a dog who dug up a land-mine and stood in the doorway of the newly built log bunker with the deadly weapon in its jaw, causing the men to demolish the back wall of their just-completed handiwork and flee. He told me of a rain of artillery fire battering the forest during the Geneva Peace negotiations and how a fellow soldier lay flat on the ground yelling ‘sign, Alija, sign!’.7 He told me of a conversation between Serb and ARBiH troops on the frontline where they were close enough to hear each other, jocular and friendly, until one of the Serbs lobbed a grenade. He also spoke of an ARBiH sniper who shot a cow, waited until its owner came out to check on it, and then shot her too.

This last tale, told to me in 1994, was recounted in the same appalled but humorous tone as the rest but it was obviously morally darker and was perhaps a sort of test balloon. For, as Omer was later to explain, he spent five hundred days in the army and felt proud that in all that time he was never promoted from the rank of ordinary soldier. Those who were promoted were ‘villagers’ who had ingratiated themselves with their commanders by performing terrible acts ‘inside the houses so you didn’t see’. In contrast to most of Omer's talk about the war there was no anecdote here, and no punch-line. When others left the room, Omer told me that ‘we were just as bad as they’. He did not mean this numerically or strategically (few outsiders and no Bosniacs could accept the all-sides-equally-guilty thesis), but it seemed clear that he wanted me to know something that is not easily spoken of in public or, I suspect, in mixed-civilian/soldier or mixed-gender company. Although he waited until the other two women were out of the room, I felt that his voice was not so quiet that it would be impossible for them to overhear.

I present Omer as someone who would like to forget certain things but cannot. He tries to focus his recall on selected amusing tales and to ‘wipe away’ the rest. However, his desire to forget conflicts with his wish not to let certain things slip from the record. In telling me (and the other two women?) about the darker side of the heroic defence of Sarajevo, he challenged what he saw as the Bosniac elite's version of events, which lines its own pockets while belittling the lived reality of those who actually fought on the frontline. Omer was cautious in this, partly out of respect for the different perspective more characteristic of civilian women, whose experiences were statistically less perilous but often marked by a terrible sense of powerlessness. He tries to manage his memories with a view to his own emotional well-being, his personal relationships with others (including me – a ready ear for war narratives, and less likely than insiders to become upset), his animosity towards an elite perceived as corrupt, and his desired relationship to ‘History’ and ‘Truth’ (as an outsider I probably play some role here as a vessel for fragments of a future version of history not to be asserted in the public space of today's Sarajevo). I doubt that I have really captured the complexity of Omer's thought processes and motivations, but what I think is clear is that he is consciously trying to work on and with his memories rather than being fully compelled by them or allowing them to be controlled by the official version as purveyed, for example, by the dominant SDA or the religious establishment, the Islamska Zajednica.

It would, of course, be possible to argue that Omer's narratives, although not determined by the dominant Bosniac political discourse of the day, are in fact conditioned by a minority Bosniac perspective as propounded by sections of what is called the ‘independent media’. My purpose is not to claim that Omer's recall or narration is entirely divorced from any social context or influence, but to highlight the individual and self-consciously reflective nature of his memory management techniques.

Amra: the problem of what to pass on

Amra is in her late thirties and has a husband, children born at the tail end of the war, and a professional job in the public sector, where her pay is well above the average. She was brought up in a house in one of the oldest Sarajevo neighbourhoods, to which she still feels strongly tied, although she and her husband have bought and live in a modern flat in another part of town. Both have been practising Muslims since long before the war and are also café-goers and globe-trotters. With her education and contacts she could probably have secured one of the much-coveted jobs with the UN peacekeeping forces during the war, but she preferred to remain in the state sector in order to build a professional role and stake in the post-war Bosnia she believed would endure. She now has this stake but, like many, feels that the Bosnia she stayed for does not actually exist. As she put it, ‘In the war it was simpler; you knew who was your friend and who was your enemy’, but today she feels it is hard to trust anyone beyond one's own immediate circle who is not personally vouched for by that circle. Amra's husband told me: ‘If ever a single shell falls on Sarajevo again I’ll be the first out of town’. ‘Oh no you won’t’, Amra interjected, ‘you’ll be second, behind me’.

Like many, Amra is troubled by what she sees as the betrayal of past Serb friends who left without warning on the eve of war or during it (see also Maček 2000: 139-51). Serbs who remained in Sarajevo during the siege face difficulties in negotiating new relationships in the post-war city, and therefore in procuring necessary papers or permissions, but they are not subject to the suspicion of pre-war Sarajevo friends, neighbours, and colleagues who know their wartime pedigree. Those who left the town, however, are often seen as having put themselves na njihovoj strani, ‘on their side’, that is, the side of the enemy.8 Amra knows that not all Serbs who left did so with the active aim of shelling the city, but argues that being ‘on their side’ is not a complex mental state but a simpler positional one; it is about having been used for an immoral purpose and allowing those who stayed to suffer the consequences. Bosniacs who left Sarajevo may be viewed as shirkers,9 but Serbs who left were, regardless of their own personal motives, used by the enemy propaganda machine as evidence of a policy of violent ethnic cleansing of Serbs from the town.10 Their departures therefore helped bolster the Serbian political claim that, rather than attacking Sarajevo, Serb forces were merely defending against Bosniac or Islamic persecution. This claim affected popular perceptions and decision-making processes in wider Bosnia, in Serbia, and in the international community, and is one component of the uncomfortable logic behind the Sarajevo Bosniac phrase na njihovoj strani. Such a logic of polarization was fully comprehended by the orchestrators of war, whose aim was precisely to divide Bosnians into ethnically determined ‘sides’.

In 2002 Amra was particularly troubled by her chance meeting with an old college friend, ‘Biljana’, a Serb who had left for Serbia at the beginning of the conflict. During the seige Biljana had sent Amra a food parcel, and Amra was genuinely pleased when she ran into her friend at a ski resort on the edge of town. She expressed to me her certainty that Biljana was not in any way anti-Bosniac and had never wanted to attack Sarajevo. However, a close relative of Biljana's was at that time an important figure in the administrative structure of ‘Serb Sarajevo’, the semi-rural suburb which Bosnia's Serb-dominated ‘entity’ (Republika Srpska) ambitiously claims as a counterpart to the actual city.11 Amra raised with me the topic of her meeting with Biljana on various occasions, obviously turning it over in her mind, but I felt that she was ultimately glad that Biljana did not intend to return to live in Sarajevo since any such return would entail far more frequent thought on a painful set of issues.

This reluctance to dwell on emotionally difficult issues is relevant to Amra's stated desire to ensure that her children know what happened during the war. Although she feels it her duty to pass on her knowledge, and told me in some detail of the experiences of her relatives who were expelled from the suburb of Dobrinja, when she started to talk of her own wartime experiences she tended to become agitated and come to a halt, dismissing the topic with the claim that ‘we hardly talk about that any more … we used to talk about it all the time’. Amra did not enjoy talking about the war and also appeared convinced that her children would not understand anyway. She cited the example of her own grandfather, who, in the 1980s, warned the family that the Dobrinja flat was too close to the airport, which would be the first location to be captured if a war broke out. At the time, said Amra, she merely laughed at what seemed a fantastical concern of an old man, but in retrospect she feared that her own children would laugh in the face of any warnings she offered them.

From a social science perspective this view may seem ‘defeatist’; Amra's historical interpretations will receive more support in the public sphere of Bosniac-dominated Sarajevo than did her grandfather's in socialist Yugoslavia. They should therefore, arguably, have more chance of influencing her children. Perhaps, however, part of what Amra and others are expressing is the impossibility, in any political circumstances, of truly conveying memory with all its attendant emotions. In 1996, one year after the war's end, another woman, ‘Suada’, joked to me about how she herself was becoming like a foreigner, unable to believe how bad the war had really been; ‘another year and I’ll be denying there ever was a war!’, she laughed. Both Suada and Amra were perhaps expressing the disjunction between the experience of a world turned upside down by war, and that of trying subsequently to describe that experience. When past events already seem vaguely unreal to those who actually experienced them, it may indeed seem impossible that the next generation should ever grasp their reality. Lawrence Langer, speaking of the experiences of Holocaust survivors, writes of an ‘underlying discontinuity [which] assaults the integrity of the self and threatens the very continuity of the oral narrative’ (1991: 161). It may be due to such a sense of discontinuity that, despite her desire that her children should ‘know’ what happened, Amra has at one level given up in advance on transmitting her memories down the generations.

Hamida: memories not narrated

Hamida was born in a distant village before the Second World War and moved to Sarajevo with her husband and in-laws in the 1960s. She retained all her traditional village domestic skills, habits, and industry while watching her upwardly mobile children acquire educational qualifications and white-collar jobs. I knew that the area where Hamida had grown up had been subject to attacks by Serbian Chetniks during the Second World War, and during my first fieldwork in the socialist 1980s I occasionally asked her about those days. She was never very forthcoming and would only reply that her family had fled to the woods when the Chetniks came. Then she would change the subject or fall silent. It did not seem right to persist since I was already studying one topic that was potentially politically sensitive – Islam – and I did not want to discomfort people by pursuing a second and even more politically sensitive one.

After my Ph.D. fieldwork, the taboo on public discussion of the atrocities of the Second World War imposed by Yugoslav socialist ‘brotherhood and unity’ (bratstvo i jedinstvo) gradually lifted.12 Although relevant statistical research had been published in London and Zagreb in the 1980s (Kočović 1985; Žerjavić 1989), it was the 1990 publication of a volume entitled Genocid nad Muslimanima 1941-45 (‘Genocide Against Muslims’, i.e. Bosniacs in today's terminology) that brought the issue of Second World War Bosniac suffering to public prominence in Sarajevo (Dedijer & Miletić 1990). A long annexe of this work listed the names of all the known Bosniac victims of Chetnik forces, including eight members of Hamida's village family. Other writing on the topic followed (see Imamović 1991). During the 1992-5 war the systematic killing and exiling of Bosniacs resulted in indictments for genocide and other crimes at the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY).13 In this context, writings about genocide and persecution of Muslims proliferated (see, e.g., Sućeska 1995), culminating in the polemical thesis of the historical ‘ten genocides against Balkan Muslims’ (Spahić 1996).14

Despite this change to public discourse, Hamida recounted nothing of her Second World War memories until 2002, when, out of the blue as we sat together, she began to tell me about what had happened in her village at that time. ‘I can see it before my eyes now’, she said of the burning tapers that had been applied to the roof of her family's house to burn it down. She told of family members who had escaped when the Chetniks were distracted from their task by the sight of a stash of gold ducats, and of others who did not. Her narrative involved flight to the woods, a mother's desperate thought of strangling a toddler whose cries might reveal their position, and eventual rescue by an Italian truck which drove them to the nearest town. A baby sister had been left behind in the home of a sympathetic Serb who was later forced by Chetniks to kill the baby. After the war Hamida and her remaining family had returned to live in the village and she told me also of the Serb neighbour's grief and his conviction that God had punished him for the killing by making his own children sickly.

Why did Hamida tell me her recollections in 2002 and not before? Discussing the case of a woman who revealed her rape during the Greek civil war fifty years after it took place, Riki van Boeschoten (2003) has suggested that the timing of the revelation was partly the result of the political context surrounding the 1998 interview, which included the increased international focus on human rights as a concept and value. In contrast I want to suggest that far more private and personal reasons influenced the timing of Hamida's narration, for I believe that she told me of her childhood experience primarily because she felt older, closer to death, and more in the mood to review her life, and because it happened to be a quiet day with an atmosphere conducive to confidence. She spoke for reasons which were personally strongly emotive.15 Such an interpretation would also seem to apply to the case of Pashkalina, a citizen of Greece from Macedonia who vehemently and even litigiously denied any ‘Bulgarian’ roots, only, in deep old age, to reveal that her natal village had been burned down by the Greek army in 1913, and that her family had fled to the safety of a Bulgarian village in Serbia (Karakasidou 1997: 126-31). Both cases, of course, challenge Halbwachs's view that what is not narrated is forgotten. In Hamida's case, political manipulation or social pressure would surely have been expected to produce a narrative far sooner than 2002, given that the Second World War Chetnik atrocities had been a topic of public discussion for over a decade. It is of course possible that had socialism endured and the 1992-5 war never occurred then Hamida might never have told this Second World War story. In this sense it can be said that the socio-political context affected the timing of the narration, but it needs to be emphasized that even this claim is a more modest one than those frequently made or implied by the ‘politics of memory’ genre.

Memories handed down?

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Three Sarajevans and their social milieu
  4. Memories handed down?
  5. In conclusion: the possibility of reconciliation
  7. Résumé

I cannot exclude the possibility that Hamida had narrated parts of her story to her husband, whose family came from the same region and would therefore have known of the killings, but I am fairly sure that she had not told this tale to her children. The degree of Hamida's discretion towards them was made evident to me by a separate incident in 2002 when Hamida revealed to myself and one of her daughters that a scar on her leg was the result of flying debris from Second World War bombing (by Germans against Partisans, she thought). Hamida's daughter reacted angrily, complaining that Hamida had never explained the scar before. On a less painful topic, Hamida also revealed to her surprised daughter that she had had a secret Shari’a wedding in the socialist era in addition to the secular state ceremony. A large part of the reason for Hamida's silence on the events of the Second World War seems to have been a desire to protect her children from distressing thoughts: ‘a child … what do children need with that?’ (dijete … staće im?), she replied when I asked her why she had not told them. This is not to say, of course, that her children would not have inferred anything from her silences. Describing the effect of silences, the psychologist Daniel Bar-On, citing Spence, offers the analogy of the young man trying to avoid looking at the picture of a naked woman on the wall; in so doing he offers bodily evidence of his avoidance to onlookers (Bar-On 1999: 157). Perhaps Hamida's avoidance of the topic, combined with socialist Bosnia's periodic vilifications and purges of people suspected of Serb, Croat, or Bosniac nationalism, had the effect for children of a large finger pointing towards the unseen and unspoken horror.16

What I want to consider in conclusion is whether and how explicit, narrated memories may be handed undiluted down the generations in the manner Simić suggested in his ‘Nationalism as a folk ideology’ article referred to in the opening section of this article. Hamida's children did not, I believe, hear about the Second World War from her, but they had not been completely shielded from tales of wartime violence. Hamida's mother-in-law used to tell stories in front of the children not only of the two World Wars but also of the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913. In her village in the 1980s I encountered the only person I have ever met who might be used as evidence of a land ‘deeply divided and steeped for generations in tales of heroism and imbued with a quasi-religious ethos of revenge and retribution’ (Simić 2000: 115). ‘Tarik’ was an elderly but lively man whose wife, four children, parents, sisters, and several other relatives had all been burned alive by Chetniks in one of the village houses during the Second World War. He did not speak of Serbs with venom, but freely claimed that it would be a mistake to trust them or differentiate between them: ‘if you seated one Serb at your table and tied another in a sack and sat on him, both would think just the same of you’. He made no secret of this opinion to his son (he had remarried), to me, or to the neighbours. He told me of the past and of his views while walking through the very landscape where the killings had occurred, and presumably this was also the major context in which he had narrated events to his son.

Work by Maurice Bloch (1996) on the process of memory transmission merits discussion in the context of Southeastern Europe, where it might be read as lending support to claims that members of contemporary nations have the exact same ‘memories’ of past wrongs as the memories of long-dead ancestors who actually experienced those wrongs. Bloch considers a Zafiminary village in Madagascar which had been burned down by the French army in response to the 1947 rebellion. Three villagers had died en route to a concentration camp, while the rest had fled to the forests, where they had hidden out for two and a half years. The terrible events were recounted to the anthropologist not only by a man who had personally witnessed them but also by Zafiminary children who had not been alive in 1947 but who had heard narratives of the past. The children used the ambiguous pronoun ‘we’, making it unclear whether they wanted to convey that they themselves had been present in 1947, or that family members had been, or that the whole moral community of ‘we’ had been.

Did the children really have the same memories as their parents? Bloch suggests this was the case ‘in the nature, if not the content’ (1996: 124): ‘Their memory of the period of hiding was not of a fundamentally different kind to that of those who had lived then’ (1996: 121). Underlying his assertion is the argument that what psychologists call autobiographical or episodic memory (i.e. memory of episodes in one's own life) and what they call semantic memory (i.e. memory of learned facts) are not as different as is often thought. Bloch argues that the children did not learn about 1947 by remembering their elders’ narratives as narratives, in the way one might remember a phone number or the text of a poem. Rather, they listened to the narratives and then mentally fleshed them out with inferences they themselves made on the basis of features of the landscape they knew so well – the landscape in which they had listened to the narratives and in which the traumatic events had originally occurred – and with inferences based on the emotions they perceived as belonging to the elders from whom they heard the tales. Bloch therefore argues that we should not imagine a gulf between elders and offspring in which the former have an endless store of memories which they recall ‘in their mind's eye’ (autobiographical memory) while the latter have but a bare text (semantic memory), because the children ‘in spite of the poverty of the original input … can, when remembering, search an almost unlimited and vivid memory of the events contained in the story in exactly the way that an individual can do this when recalling autobiographical memories’ (1996: 123).

This argument initially appears to imply that, as Francesca Cappelletto has phrased it in the context of the memory of the Second World War massacres in Tuscany, ‘there is no difference between the representations of autobiographical memory and those of historical accounts’ (2003: 241, my emphasis). A close reading of Bloch's argument, however, makes it clear that this implication does not hold. Bloch's suggestion is not that the content of the children's memories is the same as that of the elders who lived through the events of 1947 but that the process by which they search their minds is the same. Within those minds they have a rich store of images and emotions on which to draw when thinking about 1947, just as their parents have. This argument does not have the same implications as the ‘same content’ argument.

Tarik recounted Second World War events to his son in the landscape where they occurred and, in this respect, the way in which he conveyed his memories was similar to that of the Zafiminary witnesses of the 1947 atrocities. Following Cappelletto, there should be ‘no difference’ between the memories of Tarik and of his son. However, the cognitive evidence marshalled by Bloch does not suggest the possibility of identical content of ‘memories’ down the generations. While Tarik's son may have been able to imagine (or ‘recall’) the past events richly and without great deviation from factual accuracy, his imaginings or recollections would also have been partially constructed from other images and ideas which formed part of his experience, and not of Tarik’s. His contemplation and relation of memories would have depended on his own memory management techniques, not on Tarik’s. In practice Tarik's son did not appear to have what could be called the same memories as his father, and he certainly was not ‘imbued with a quasi-religious ethos of revenge and retribution’. Like other villagers, he seemed to understand why a man who had suffered such devastating losses might feel the way Tarik did about Serbs, but he also viewed his father's convictions and open expression of them with some amusement (see also Stoler & Strassler 2000: 15).

In conclusion: the possibility of reconciliation

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Three Sarajevans and their social milieu
  4. Memories handed down?
  5. In conclusion: the possibility of reconciliation
  7. Résumé

One compelling question arising from this discussion is of whether a focus on individuals can shed light on the prospects for reconciliation of some sort in Bosnia in general, or in Sarajevo in particular?17 It is often thought that a major obstacle to reconciliation, however defined, lies in the fact that Bosnians now have fixed memories and generic, blanket interpretations of the nature of the enemy which tend to militate against reintegration. In earlier work (Sorabji 1994; 1995) I argued that the brutal, personalized face-to-face atrocities inflicted by neighbours upon neighbours, particularly but not exclusively in villages, served not only the immediate purpose of removing unwanted people from the territory to be ‘cleansed’, but also the longer-term purpose of impressing on victims (and perpetrators) a simple, hardened, flashbulb-type memory of a familiar place transformed into a wholly unfamiliar nightmare. Leaving expellees with this final image so different from all their previous experiences of the landscape and the neighbours could in some cases, I suggested, prompt a mental re-interpretation of the pre-war past. Thus, instead of concluding that ‘we all used to live happily together but then they changed’, some would draw the conclusion that ‘they always hated us, they were always waiting to be rid of us’. I suggested that this sort of re-evaluation of the pre-war past might pose even greater obstacles to subsequent re-integration than a ‘they changed’ model.

A decade on, the Sarajevo material I have presented here highlights that interpretations are only one of the obstacles to reconciliation or re-integration. Parts of the city like Grbavica, Stup, Dobrinja, and Ilidža did witness face-to-face ethnic cleansing, but the neighbourhoods where Amra, Omer, and Hamida lived were never under the control of Serb forces and it is possible to speculate that this may make it slightly easier to re-assess and re-interpret the past over time. I think that there have indeed been gradual changes to common interpretations of the meaning, motivations, and portents of the violence. For example, in the early days of the war many Sarajevo Bosniacs had espoused a view of the conflict as one between urban civility and rural aggression (Sorabji 1993: 35). As the war progressed and in its immediate aftermath, more Sarajevo Bosniacs entertained theories about the innate or semi-innate aggression of Serbs, speculating, for example, that there could be something in Serb culture or child-rearing patterns that made them prone to violence. Since 2000 I have witnessed a growing tendency to view Serbs, including even the wartime Serbian President Slobodan Milosević, as mere dupes and instruments of greater global powers; prone to stupidity and greed but not necessarily to evil.

Despite changing interpretations there remains widespread popular reluctance among Sarajevo Bosniacs to see Serbs return to the city. The material I have presented in this article points to an additional, important reason for this reluctance which lies not in fixed ideas or interpretations but in the simple unpleasantness of the memory management process itself (Omer: ‘You can’t forget but you try to wipe it away’). A typical Sarajevo Bosniac response to returnees in the workplace or (less frequently) the neighbourhood is to feel deeply uncomfortable, to make no overtly hostile gesture, and to keep interaction to a minimum. As one acquaintance, ‘Mirsada’, put it: ‘I will tell my son that it is OK to talk to them but that they can never be household friends’ (kućni prijatelji). Mirsada, Amra, and others are aware that not all Serbs who were na njihovoj strani –‘on their side’– were hostile to Bosniacs and believe that, in purely moral terms, every individual must be judged individually. However, in many individual cases they lack specific knowledge on which to base such judgements, and even thinking about the Serbs who left raises such painful memory management issues that, like Amra, who was relieved that Biljana would not be returning to Sarajevo (see above), many would rather avoid having to do so.

It is not uncommon to hear from a Sarajevo Bosniac the story (perhaps urban legend) of how, riding the tram or walking the street, they or an acquaintance spotted a Serb returnee known to have been an ardent wartime enemy of the city and its inhabitants. In these narratives the witness breaks into a sweat, is frozen to the spot, or feels sick to the stomach. The prevalence of such stories helps illustrate that, from the perspective of many Sarajevo Bosniacs, the challenge posed by returning Serbs is not – or is not only – one of an interpretative scheme about what Serbs are supposedly like as a group. It lies in the fact that it is often not possible to make an individual judgement about who might be guilty of what; behaving with social warmth towards a returnee whose wartime pedigree is unknown therefore risks giving an unwitting welcome to a willing participant in sniping, shelling, looting, or worse. The returnee whom one Sarajevan treats with warmth could be the same returnee whose presence in the tram caused another Sarajevan to creep home trembling like a leaf. The possible implications of this fact for judicial, economic, or other measures that should be taken by local or international authorities lie beyond the scope of this article.

  •  This article is based on fieldwork done before, during and after the war, from 1985 to 2003. That work has been supported, inter alia, by grants from the Economic & Social Research Council and the British Academy. I am grateful to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office for allowing me time to write up this material. The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the FCO. Three academic institutions have hosted my efforts: the Centre for Policy Studies, Central European University; the Department of War Studies, King's College London; and the Anthropology Department of University College London. I owe debts to Xavier Bougarel, Christian Moe, Frances Pine, and Michael Stewart for conversations and comments, as well as to the JRAI's editor and four anonymous reviewers and to Omer, Amra, and Hamida. I alone am responsible for the result.

  • 1

      The official name of the country is now ‘Bosnia and Herzegovina’, but this is unwieldy and I have used plain ‘Bosnia’ instead. In late 1993 a decision was made by the Congress of Bosnian Muslim/Bosniac Intellectuals to officially rename the former ‘Muslim’ population ‘Bosniac’. This decision was internationally reflected in the Washington Agreement in March 1994, and later enshrined in the General Framework Agreement on Peace (GFAP, commonly known as ‘Dayton’ after the place where the peace was negotiated). I use ‘Bosniac’ except in those cases where I am indicating specifically religious affiliation, but readers should bear in mind that prior to the war ‘Muslim’ was the correct terminology and that even today it is common in ordinary conversation.

  • 2

       For the May 2003 Training in Trauma Recovery slogan see the Bosnia/Munich website initiative ( n.d.). Some psychological and psychiatric work has disputed the value of psycho-social aid programmes for victims of war (see, e.g., Summerfield 2000a and contributions to Losi 2000). The proposition that war-provoked mental disorders may be transmitted down the generations is disputed in Summerfield (2000b). Stubbs (1999) describes the rise and fall of the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) movement in Bosnia and Croatia in the 1990s.

  • 3

      For further information on education see OHR (n.d), OSCE (n.d.), and Perry (2003).

  • 4

      For a critique of this approach see Bougarel (1999).

  • 5

      Mortality figure cited in Ajnadzić (2002: 236). Some details of the genesis and operation of the ARBiH, and the relationships between its formative constituent parts, remain unknown or controversial. The question of the relative contributions to defence made by the Patriotic League and by the Territorial Defence remains contested. See Divjak (2001); Gow (2003: 241-56); Halilović (1997); Hoare (2001; 2004), Lučarević (2000).

  • 6

      Many other phrases from Loizos's poignantly entitled The heart grown bitter ring bells in Sarajevo. Loizos says that listening to Turkish television was ‘another obsessive strand of their relationship with the enemy’ (1981: 145) and notes the ‘inner compulsion’ of DPs to talk of the past although it distressed them to do so (1981: 129). The Cypriot view that ‘Western powers have manipulated our differences’ (1981: 142) was increasingly echoed by Bosniacs after 2000.

  • 7

      Alija Izetbegović was the founding leader of the Bosniac political party, SDA, and after the 1990 elections became President of the Presidency of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Geneva was the site of 1993 peace negotiations conducted by the EC- and UN-chaired International Conference on Former Yugoslavia (ICFY).

  • 8

      In the Sarajevo context Serbs rather than Croats are viewed by Bosniacs as the major aggressors and betrayers, but this view does not hold, for example, among Mostar Bosniacs.

  • 9

      In a detailed study of wartime Sarajevo Maček outlines three coping modes – those of ‘soldier’, ‘civilian’, and ‘deserter’– and presents the deserters as the ‘morally astute’ who ‘feel personally and morally responsible for their acts’ (2000: 238-40). This interpretation clashes with the Sarajevo Bosniac critique, which sees deserters as having left others to carry responsibility for the protection of their homes and families.

  • 10

      Serb propaganda claims of a Bosniac- or Islamically inspired programme of ethnic cleansing of Sarajevo were not founded, but there were killings of a still unknown number of Sarajevo Serbs, most notably by members of the Tenth Mountain Brigade commanded by Mušan Topalović‘Caco’ (see AIM [Alternative Information Network] of 18.11.97 at AIM n.d.; Dani magazine, 7.1.2000 and 4.2.2000).

  • 11

      In March 2004 Bosnia's Constitutional Court declared unconstitutional the use of the prefix ‘Serb’ attached to place names, including Sarajevo.

  • 12

      See Denich (1994) and Hayden (1994) for accounts of how the 1990 and 1991 exhumations and re-burials of Croat and Slovene victims of the Partisans and of Serb victims of the Croatian Ustashe provided grist to Croat, Slovene, and Serb nationalist mills.

  • 13

      On 17 December 2002 Biljana Plavšić, one of the leaders of the wartime Bosnian Serb polity, told the ICTY that she had now ‘come to the belief and accept the fact that many thousands of innocent people were the victims of an organized, systematic effort to remove Muslims and Croats from the territories claimed by Serbs’ (see UNICTY 2003: 25; for a full English-language translation of her statement see Plavsić 2002). So far one indictee, Gen. Radislav Krstić, has been convicted by the ICTY for aiding and abetting genocide (see UNICTY 2004).

  • 14

      The first of Spahić's ‘ten genocides’ is the period 1683-99, after the Ottoman defeat at Vienna. Not all of the ten were perpetrated by Serbs or against specifically Bosniac Muslims, and most are not what might widely be termed ‘genocide’.

  • 15

      Emotions other than those of contemplative old age may also be the catalyst for renewed narration of memories after long silence. The emotion of fear, prompted by a new set of political circumstances, is highlighted in Jennifer Cole's examination of the Madagascan Betsimisaraka and their memories of the 1947 rebellion (2001: 223-73) and in Michael Stewart’s work on the re-evocation of Hungarian Roma memories of the Holocaust (2004: 565).

  • 16

      The exact manner in which such finger-pointing might operate in the complete absence of any narration remains something of a theoretically unelaborated black box. Michael Taussig has proposed the phrase ‘implicit social knowledge’ to denote a ‘non-discursive, essentially inarticulable and imageric knowing’ (1987: 367; taken up by van der Port 1998: 100; 1999, in the context of Serbia) while Valentin Vološinov (1976) has written of an ‘unofficial conscious’ (explored by Cole 2001: 282-4 in the Betsimisiraka context), but in each instance the extent to which second generations could be said to share in a ‘conscious’ or ‘knowledge’ without having heard at least some scraps of narrative remains unclear.

  • 17

      A discussion of reconciliation lies beyond the scope of this article, but see Borneman (2002; 2003), Falk (2003), Nader (2003), Sampson (2003), and Wilson (2003) for debates on the issue.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Three Sarajevans and their social milieu
  4. Memories handed down?
  5. In conclusion: the possibility of reconciliation
  7. Résumé
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  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Three Sarajevans and their social milieu
  4. Memories handed down?
  5. In conclusion: the possibility of reconciliation
  7. Résumé

Après la guerre de 1992-5 en Bosnie, les anthropologues ont été nombreux à se pencher sur le rôle de la mémoire dans la création et l’entretien de l’hostilité dans les Balkans. Une première école de pensée se concentre sur l’authenticité et la puissance des souvenirs personnels de violences pendant la seconde Guerre Mondiale et sur la possibilité de les transmettre au fil des générations jusqu’aux années 1990. Une seconde s’intéresse moins à la mémoire comme phénomène déterminant l’action humaine qu’à la « politique de la mémoire », la dynamique politique agissant sur les souvenirs individuels et canalisant ceux-ci. À partir de l’exemple de trois Bosniaques de Sarajevo qu’elle connaît depuis les années 1980, avant-guerre, l’auteur souhaite mettre en avant les mérites d’une troisième approche complémentaire, centrée sur l’individu en tant que gestionnaire actif de ses propres souvenirs. Elle aborde rapidement la question de savoir si les travaux de Maurice Bloch sur la nature de la mémoire sémantique et autobiographique peuvent aller dans le sens d’une version forte de la première tendance interprétative ou si, comme elle le suggère, leurs conclusions laissent une marge d’élaboration des souvenirs individuels et de changement entre les générations.

Cornelia Sorabji did her Ph.D. fieldwork in socialist Bosnia in the mid-1980s and received her doctorate, supervised by the late Ernest Gellner, in 1989. Her research interests include political ideologies, conflict and violence, religious belief, Islam, and the role of social sciences in policy-making. She is currently an honorary fellow at University College London and a research analyst at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.