This month, peace activists in Bosnia-Herzegovina placed memorial plaques commemorating victims of the Bosnian war of 1992-95. It is part of broader efforts to recognize the suffering of war victims that were subjected to torture or other inhumane conditions. Despite their intentions, activists have run into challenges regarding these memorial plaques partly due to the high tensions in post-war Bosnian and regional politics.
Activists from the Bosnia-based Centre for Non-Violent Action, the organization leading its “Marking the Unmarked Sites of Suffering” campaign, placed plaques “in the Zenica, Doboj and Zepce areas of Bosnia, [including] a former grain storage [and] school buildings,” according to Balkan Transitional Justice. The group also said that in these locations “from June 1993 to March 1994, the Bosnian Croat wartime force [and] the Croatian Defence Council detained several hundred Bosniaks [Bosnian Muslims].” Other locations in the region, such as a correctional facility in Zenica, were also marked with plaques where people were held under extreme conditions.
Balkan Transitional Justice also reports that for the past several years, activists have focused on expressing solidarity with war victims, and they have argued for permanent memorials. However, the wartime era demographics have changed, meaning that “Unfortunately, in many cases, these communities are now the minority, so they are not allowed to mark the places of detention, torture or murders,” said one of the activists, Tamara Zrnovic.”
Moreover, the political nature of the topic has also made it a challenge to pursue permanent memorial installations. For instance, activists explain that “people commemorate their ‘own’ victims but not those of other ethnic groups, whose suffering is ignored, forgotten, or even denied.” These actions stoke tensions among the various ethnic groups in an already unfriendly political environment, which makes it difficult to cooperate on various fronts, including the creation of memorials.
The challenges that organizations like the Centre for Non-Violent Action face are not new. Since the end of the war, the ethnic tensions in the country have not subdued. This has made it difficult to create memorial sites because they can get defaced or vandalized by other ethnic groups who feel that the suffering of others is not as important as theirs. For instance, almost 26 years since the Srebrenica genocide, there are still accounts of genocide denial. At the 25thanniversary in July 2020, “Sefik Dzaferovic, the Bosniak chairman of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, called for legislation that would ban denial of genocide,” according to Reuters. This highlights the fraught situation that locals, activists, and politicians are navigating. The local and regional politics highly based on one’s ethnicity has caused legislative gridlock daily, meaning that introducing legislation may not be as effective.
An important step to change this is for voters to elect new officials that will be less focused on working for certain groups but rather opening up to collaboration with others. Some of this is gradually happening given the opposition’s modest gains in the December 2020 elections. Currently, ethnic-based parties have mainly focused on their constituencies and not a broader group. If the opposition continues making inroads, it will help local peace organizations promote their efforts more easily. Memorials honouring war victims can then promote a greater anti-hate and anti-war message.
Following the fall of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, preexisting tensions between the ethnic groups of the country’s republics intensified and culminated in armed conflicts, with the Bosnian war being among the costliest. From 1992-95, Bosniaks, Bosnian Croats, and Bosnian Serbs engaged in war with one another, targeted religious sites, neighbourhoods of other ethnic groups, and captured people of all ages to be placed into poorly maintained sites. The war ended with the brokered Dayton Peace Agreement, but that did not completely alleviate tensions among the groups, which remain high to this day.
Since the end of the war, people from the ethnic groups in the country and external organizations have sought to commemorate war victims through various means, such as films, remembrance days, and as seen here, memorials. While the intentions to commemorate are good, not all efforts succeed in part due to the politicized nature of these topics.
One of the key aspects of having memorial sites (whether plaques or permanent) is that it recognizes the recent history of Bosnia. It allows for current and future generations to understand where events took place, what happened at a given site, and the lasting consequences of such. Due to the politicized nature of the topic, it has been difficult to promote these efforts. However, local and broader peace organizations in Bosnia must continue their efforts in recognizing war victims, telling their stories, and help educate about the lasting effects of the Bosnian war. Memorial plaques are a helpful way to accomplish this. These organizations must also collaborate with local leadership in Bosnia in promoting these efforts to ensure fewer conflicts of interest. Granted, there is still a challenging political climate, but remaining persistent in these efforts serves as small steps towards the greater goals of Bosnian peace groups, including permanent memorial sites.