In the Literary Balkans: From the ICTY to Modern Sarajevo

Srebrenica Genocide Memorial landscape[photo: Srebrenica Genocide Memorial landscape.]

This past July, I embarked on a trip that began in the Hague at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), extended through Nuremberg and the now-historic Courtroom 600 where the Nazi war crimes trials took place, and ended in the Republika Srpska territories in the northeast Bosnian village of Potočari, where the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial now stands. Seventeen years earlier, more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed by the Bosnian Serb Army in an area that had been deemed “safe” by the United Nations, and the city of Sarajevo had lain under uninterrupted siege for more than three years. The salient bullet and mortar wounds in the concrete facades along the Ferhadija and banks of the Miljacka contain traces of Sarajevo’s recent past, while the road that leads from Sarajevo to Srebrenica (from the Federation of BiH and into Republika Srpska) weaves through extraordinarily lush green hillsides consistently betrayed by the skeletal remains of homes and farmhouses destroyed during the war, and red skull-and-crossbones signs that warn their readers to watch out! in both the Bosnian Latin and the Serbian Cyrillic alphabets—pazi, пази—for the landmines that make those hills now impenetrable. Yet too, the edges of these peaks are dotted with colorfully painted wooden beehives, boxes producing thick and sweet Bosnian honey for baklava, tefahije, and other sweets that line the shop windows in Sarajevo’s baščaršija.

Republika Srpska honey
[photo: Republika Srpska honey]

In the early 2000s, Aleksandar Hemon’s first book, The Question of Bruno, sparked my interest in literature from the former Yugoslavia, and it later shaped my legal focus on international human rights law. Thinking about literary descriptions of the city of Sarajevo and the experiences of war in Bosnia, I carried images from Hemon’s novels, as well as those from the earlier works of Danilo Kiš and Ivo Andrić, with me on this strange trip layered with history, literature, and law.

On May 26, 2011, Ratko Mladić, Colonel General of the Bosnian Serb Army, was arrested for crimes against humanity and genocide in Bosnia—specifically for his role in the killings in Srebrenica—for which he had been indicted more than ten years prior. Less than a week after his arrest, he was transferred to the ICTY in the Hague, where his trial commenced on May 16, 2012. Beginning in mid July, I observed this trial behind the plate-glass walls that separate the tribunal proceedings from the viewing public. The ICTY courtroom space stands in sharp contrast to its precursor in Nuremberg, which convened at the Palace of Justice from 1945-46 near the physically destroyed center of Bavaria.

At the ICTY, all observers arrive before the trial day begins and sit facing a dark-curtained wall, fumbling with earpieces that translate between English, French, German, and Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian (BCS). When the clock (digitally) strikes the trial’s commencement, the curtains electronically pull back, revealing the panel of judges, the attorneys, and the defendant, already seated with only a small number of feet between all of us. My eyes moved immediately toward the man I assumed to be Mladić, sitting in the back left of the courtroom, physically framed by uniformed U.N. guards. I had seen numerous photographs in newspapers and news stories from the 1990s, but I hadn’t seen an aging man in ornate glasses gripping a book, free from handcuffed confinement, with a small water pitcher and glass at his table. Occasionally, he smiled. I thought of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem and her reports from his 1961 trial that emphasized the banality of evil. I had expected Mladić to look like a monster. I am still unsettled by his physical normalcy, even as I recall him yelling in stark and disquieting Serbian to his attorneys seated below.

Images from Mladić’s trial followed me to Sarajevo as I meandered through the streets in anticipation of my trip to Srebrenica. I spent time in the city’s historical archive, which contains objects from the siege, collected and saved by the residents of Sarajevo. The building itself bears few traces of postwar restoration, save for the replacement of broken windows and doors. Inside, the floors and ceilings are marked with discolored holes and larger mortar marks—indentations one is forced to step upon to move throughout the space. Around the rooms, small tables and cases are filled with makeshift cooking appliances, homemade weapons, improvised military uniforms with puma sneakers from the early 1990s (which I remembered from my American classmates’ feet during gym), newspaper clippings, photographs, and so many objects—large, small, and seemingly banal—left behind on the streets by victims killed during sniper fire. A small sign in the entryway refers to the space as a “living museum.”

Ferhadija Facade
[photo: Ferhadija Façade]

As the only route to Srebrenica is by an unreliable bus running once per day, the owner of the Sarajevo guest house where I was staying would be doing the driving. On July 26, after a nearly four-hour journey through the winding roads carved out between Sarajevo and the northeastern banks of the Drina river, I arrived in Potočari, where uniformed Bosnian police officers and photojournalists had lined up along the paved walkways of the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial and its cemetery. The Muslim grave markers weave across this otherwise-desolate area, interrupted only by newly dug graves and number “markers,” set aside in piles, in wait for yet more victims to be uncovered and later buried here. The almost-anthropomorphic grave markers stand resolutely (or perhaps, I hope they do). For the first time since the genocide in 1995, a U.N. Secretary-General would be visiting this site, in conjunction with a trip throughout the regions making up the former Yugoslavia. Before Ban Ki-Moon’s helicopters touched down on the plot of land where U.N. soldiers had stood (also resolutely, I imagine), as the Bosnian Serb Army killed more than 8,000 people, I overheard a conversation among a few reporters and a man with keys to a bulldozer. I learned that more bodies had been found just outside the cemetery, and they were to be excavated upon Ban Ki-Moon’s departure. After Ban’s speech, which focused on the seemingly parroted phrase that “we must learn from the lessons of Srebrenica,” he boarded a U.N. helicopter, and I saw the bulldozer begin to break ground, so to speak, in the close distance.

[photo: Memorial grave markers (left), Leaving Srebrenica (right)]

Upon arriving back in Sarajevo, I spent time tracing some of Aleksandar Hemon’s steps from his New Yorker short story, “Mapping Home,” in which he describes his 1997 return to the city after years of living in Chicago. In the meantime, images from the Ban Ki-Moon visit to Srebrenica, unsurprisingly, showed up on a number of news media sites. My driver had seen himself in a Free Radio Europe clip, prominently walking among the graves. “My family says I’m famous,” he laughed.

[photo: Sarajevo. All photographs taken by the author, Audrey Golden.]

  1. susan golden said:
    on January 26, 2013 at 7:47 pm | Reply >

    What a great article. I felt as if I was traveling with you. Great detail. What an experience!

    Did you get to eat some of that honey? Looked delicious!

    Love your pics!

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