More Lasting than Bronze

Touring the Architecture of Revisionism
Children play in Andrićgrad, a kind of Serb-nationalist theme park. Višegrad, June 2020. 
Children play in Andrićgrad, a kind of Serb-nationalist theme park. Višegrad, June 2020. 

Sitting in the café beside the famous bridge on the Drina River in the Balkans, I had just ordered my coffee when Bakira Hasečić broke off talking. She had been telling me about the genocide that began here in 1992 when Serb nationalists in Bosnia attacked the country’s Muslims, the Bosniaks. And about how they had raped her and killed members of her family, but also about the time afterward when she had defiantly moved back to Višegrad because this was her home, and how she helped identify perpetrators who still walked the streets and brought them to justice in international courts.

All of this is being done, gingerly, through a translator named Elharuna Rizvanbegović, so there is a pause every few sentences as I catch up with the story. During one of these breaths, Bakira’s eyes suddenly blaze, staring intently over my shoulder, her sight lines almost visible, like lasers. Elharuna is instructing me not to turn around. Bakira says she’s pretty sure the tall man with the white hair sitting beneath the blood-red Coca-Cola tent over there is a war criminal who went on trial several years ago and should be in jail. 

I sip my coffee and we all pretend like we’re still having a conversation. Theoretically, I traveled to the Balkans to look at statues, memorials, even plaques on buildings because I’d heard how new sculpture and construction were rewriting a violent history right on top of the land where it happened. When I was making the arrangements, I might have said something about the “architecture of memory” or some other inert phrase. Yet before I could get down my first bolt of Serbian coffee, the moment had escalated from zero to chilling. 

“Bakira says she’s ninety-nine percent sure,” Elharuna whispers, and that the guy had been a police officer before and during the war. Some twenty-five years has passed since the massacres, yet it’s still perilous to consort openly with prominent Muslims in this part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska. 

Vilina Vlas Hotel and Spa. Višegrad, Bosnia and Herzegovina, June 2020.
Vilina Vlas Hotel and Spa. Višegrad, Bosnia and Herzegovina, June 2020.

Beginning in the spring of 1992, Višegrad was the hot zone of some of the most ghastly killings in a region of ghastly killings, when everything in this town suddenly convulsed into Serbs butchering all things Bosniak. The spasm of slaughter led to more than a thousand neighbors and friends killed, raped, burned alive, hauled off to mass graves, or tossed into the river. 

What happened here helped introduce the phrase ethnic cleansing to American vocabularies and, ultimately, recast the city. Before 1992, almost two-thirds of Višegrad’s twenty-two thousand people were Bosniak. The city, more a township now, is shriveled, about half its former size, and the Bosniak population is little more than a thousand people. The international peacekeeping bureaucrats who nominally still make the rules here enabled Bosniaks who’d escaped the massacres to reclaim their residency status in absentia. It even allowed them access to the polls (many who vote in elections here, in fact, currently live in places like Chicago). These days, because of new municipal agreements, one might find that the mayor is Serb and the speaker of the Municipal Assembly is Bosniak. The bureaucrats also granted a right of return to those bold enough to attempt it.

Bakira, for her part, didn’t merely exercise that right but has committed herself to a minority status in overwhelmingly hostile territory in order to mete out, little by little, face by face, what justice she can. After the war, she began organizing bus trips of Bosniaks to Višegrad and surrounding villages. Occasionally, one of the mothers on the trip would faint after seeing the face of the Serb who’d detained a son or daughter who never returned. Bakira would document the moment, get the name of the man, do her own investigation, often relying on Facebook for contacts, file a report with international authorities, and prompt a war-crimes trial. Not surprisingly, she has faced constant retribution for this stubbornness: She’s publicly harassed, her car’s been shot at, and she’s grown accustomed to death threats. 

So the tension—even danger—I am sensing from the guy with the white hair is palpable and everywhere. Just a few minutes before, the other person sitting next to me, David Pettigrew, a philosophy professor at Southern Connecticut State University who studies genocide, had told the harrowing story of when the Drina River, now turgidly flowing beside us, nearly dried up because of a dam project up the way. As the water receded, people discovered human bones sticking out of the mud, an unanticipated intrusion of a gory past, a mass killing. Bosniaks had been executed on the bridge and their bodies dumped into the Drina. International forensic teams who’d been dispatched to review the evidence had to get protection after being targeted by a sniper. Pettigrew was at the river with them, having joined the team to bear witness to the exhumations—this being only ten years ago, not back in 1992.

Too often, to outsiders like me, the ethnic and historical complexities of this region are bewildering. In English, it’s one of those odd words whose connotations are heard even before its meaning: inextricable entanglements, insoluble ethnic hatred. The Balkans.

Before then-President Bill Clinton decided the US had to intervene, first in 1995, part of what delayed any action was this anxiety over the fact that almost no one could make sense of a conflict among so many factions. Racially or visually, there are no distinctions in the Balkans; often one’s name gives away one’s ethnicity—though not always, which is why the word mostly gets a workout when trying to sort through anything here. And the further one drills down, the more one finds smaller regionalisms, separatist subgroups, and other historical grudges, as well as distinctions in dress, food, alphabets, gestures, slang, mythology, pronunciations. Yet at times these thickets of differences resolve into old simplicities, and that’s when the trouble begins. 

After World War II, the Communist leader Josip Tito tenuously unified more than a half dozen different ethnic groups and territories into a country known as Yugoslavia, which literally means, “land of the south Slavs.” In this part of Tito’s former country, two groups still dominate, long cleaved by religion. The Serbs are mostly Christians, devoted to the Serbian Orthodox Church, and about half of Bosnia’s population is Muslim.

One reason that militant leaders like Slobodan Milošević and Radovan Karadžić were able to whip average Serbs into murderous frenzies in 1992 dates back more than six centuries to the Battle of Kosovo, when Ottoman Turks defeated the Serbs and began converting massive numbers of Balkan villages to Islam. A few years ago, when I was visiting the Serbian metropolis Belgrade, I kept seeing this one graffito stylized on grim cement walls all over town: 1…3…8…9. I assumed it referred to some specific day in 1989—that time when Communism was crumbling in Yugoslavia, giving rise to all these new (but old) Balkan nations. Actually, it’s the year of the medieval Battle of Kosovo. Every Serbian schoolkid learns this, and the humiliation of 1389 still scalds. It’s not entirely crazy to say that the fear that has gripped me in this café on the Drina reaches back to that time too. 

Bakira Hasečić attends a genocide-commemoration ceremony. Višegrad, June 2020.
Bakira Hasečić attends a genocide-commemoration ceremony. Višegrad, June 2020.

The old guy beneath the Coca-Cola tent is working his phone, and Bakira thinks he’s informing his old pals in the local police to our presence. I still can’t turn around, and now I’m terrified, not merely because the whole moment is scary in a ten-year-old-boy kind of way, but also because I can’t tell how to gauge the seriousness of this moment. Has a sightseeing visit set off some kind of national-security concern? Bakira, meanwhile, is not afraid; if anything, she’s angry. And Pettigrew, whose resting-Buddha face appears serenely unalarmed, is nodding at me, like, This is why I asked you here, actually. And Elharuna, who has her own story, is up on her feet, appearing to cheerfully snap a pic of our table with her iPhone while photographing the war criminal instead. 

If he’s taking pictures of us, then she’ll be taking pictures of him. My entire table appears to be mounting an offensive. So, I excuse myself to go to the bathroom and give the war criminal the fake walk-by, sidling close beside him while pretending to read my phone so I can snap pictures too. A cold war of microaggressions is on.

Before getting started this morning, I had sat down with Elharuna at a café in the little Bosniak village of Međeđa, on our drive to Višegrad. The owner, an old friend of Pettigrew’s, came out to greet us and take our orders. That’s when I got my first flash of clarity about the nuances of this dense word, Balkan; or maybe it was a crash course in what Freud called the narcissism of minor differences.

The lesson was through coffee, of all things. Serbian coffee requires mildly toasting the grounds before adding boiling water and a lump of sugar for a puckering experience. The Bosnian variety is made by toasting grounds in a pan with boiling water poured over them, served with a sugar cube on the side. “You put the sugar in yourself,” Elharuna noted. “You have the option.” Bosnian coffee is served in a pretty cup, called a fildžan; unlike a Serbian cup, it has no handle. When the waiter arrived, there was one too many cups on the tray, because Bosniak tradition here typically calls for serving one extra empty cup, known as the fildžan viška, in case a friend happens to show up or for somebody who’s missing from the table that day. Elharuna picked up her fildžan and turned it around in her hands. If you have a Serbian cup, she said, “then you have a handle, and it’s dictated,” meaning you can only hold it one way. She added, “My father used to say that Bosnian coffee is more democratic.” Elharuna’s father was a professor of literature at the University of Mostar. He was hauled off to a concentration camp for six months, tortured and had his teeth punched out of his mouth, but survived. Their house, which her family had lived in for more than 250 years, was burned to the ground.

This whole explanation of Bosnian coffee occurred early in the morning, before I arrived in Višegrad and took my seat on the Drina and mindlessly ordered “coffee.” When I got my proper Serbian cup, I noticed that Bakira had ordered juice, and I couldn’t help but feel that I’d made some blunder. Every sip felt like a kind of betrayal. 

I turn my chair now so that I can occasionally glimpse the Serb man at the nearby table. He’s now looking everywhere except at us. Bakira leans in to explain to me why he’s here. “They let them out on weekends,” she says. “Some of them come home to work, often as truck drivers. That’s just the way it is now.” So only fifteen minutes into my visit to this part of the Balkans, I find myself deep in the clutches of those connotations, wondering if it can possibly be true that war criminals are let out on weekends, that I’ve committed a heinous caffeine faux pas, and that I am being followed by government officials for the crime of looking at statues? And the answer I would discover is, absolutely.

One of the statues I want to see is just up the road, beside a bar, right on the main drag in the center of town. At night, klieg lamps built into the base illuminate it from all sides. It’s about twenty feet tall, a towering form, not a specific person but a humanoid figure—like an Academy Award—only it’s a medieval knight forged from coal-black iron and rendered into sleek verticality. It radiates a dull authoritarian look, a chunk of pig iron that makes me want to type Eastern Europe into this sentence. 

One stylized arm holds his sword centered between his feet, the other hand clutches a cross to his heart. As sculpture, our knight wants to capture some grand historic virtue, like honor, or courage, or steadfastness, or victory. And like so many of those massive works that get vaguely described as “Socialist realism,” its heft and generic solemnity make it less about what it’s saying than what it’s crowding out. The stance is the feudal version of what soldiers call “present arms”—a stiff upright posture, weapon at the ready, that silences and commands.

The point is not missed: Thank me for my service. The sculpture is demanding we honor the Serb soldiers who destroyed the Bosniak population here. As revisionist sculpture goes, the effort is simple and its intent is clear. There were no genocidal thugs; those were ethnic heroes. The inscription makes it plain: “To the Defenders of Republika Srpska—from the Grateful Citizens of Višegrad.”

At the edge of town, a Muslim graveyard—Stražište Cemetery—appears on the left, fanning out into the countryside. Near the street is a prominent stonework—a memorial introduction, or cenotaph, to the many Bosnian Muslims buried here. The words of the Qur’an (verse 5:32), as Elharuna paraphrases them, say that when you murder a single human life for no reason, you murder all of humanity. On the face of the stone is the whole story, carved in tombstone brevity, of the killed and disappeared, victims of genocide in Višegrad. 

Not long after the stone went up, the Višegrad municipality deemed the use of the word genocide to be offensive. Soon after that, dozens of officers surrounded the graveyard as a stonecutter, under armed protection, was sent in with a grinder to edit that single word—genocida—from the memorial. It was as if what was left unsaid at the statue of the medieval knight was said here, across town—at least until the offending word was ground down into scratch marks, which is how it remains today. 

The word <i>genocide</i> written on a cenotaph at Stražište Cemetery during a genocide-commemoration ceremony. Višegrad, June 2020.

Censorship is a lot like sculpture—sometimes it makes you think even more about what’s not there. So, from time to time, someone sneaks into the cemetery and, in bright-red lipstick or heavy-gauge black Sharpie, scrawls across the stonegrinder’s gash the word genocida. Sure, some town clerk is dispatched to wash it off, and the word is gone, but then later, it has a way of reappearing in the night. 

When I asked Bakira if she’d ever done it, she just lit up a cigarette. Visitors who come to see Višegrad will sometimes do it, as badass vandalism. It’s a thing. At other times, it’s more formal. Pettigrew and Bakira came here several years ago, printed the word genocida on a piece of paper, and held it up with their fingers over the scratches. The media wrote a story. So, the word is officially not there. But unofficially, it’s what people now know about Višegrad—the city with the monument where you can’t read the word genocida

Just up the hill and around a few turns is another makeshift memorial that Bakira wants me to see. It’s an entire house, actually, tucked back off Pionirska Street. The story is familiar in a crimes-against-humanity sort of way, and nightmarish. That summer of 1992, seventy men, women, and children were stuffed into this house by a handful of armed Serbs from a paramilitary unit known as the Avengers. Their commanding officer, Milan Lukić, then tossed an incendiary bomb inside, sending the house up in flames. As desperate men and women jumped out of windows, Lukić picked them off with his gun. Yet, eleven survived. Lukić is now serving a life sentence in an Estonian prison, and his men are still being hunted. Last October, another member of the Avengers was found guilty of war crimes and sentenced to twenty years. 

For years afterward, the house on Pionirska Street just sat there, back from the street, a gutted shell of a place hidden behind some other houses. No one would touch it—maybe out of respect for the dead, or fear of them. In time, though, some Bosniaks thought that it should be preserved, a monument to the horror of genocide. Instead, the local Serb authorities ran red tape around the place and designated it off-limits. The town’s civic powers declared that it impeded the development of a new and vital road, and it was therefore scheduled to be razed.

To get to Pionirska Street from the Stražište Cemetery, I pull my tiny rental car, packed with the four of us—Bakira, Elharuna, David, and me—onto an uphill road. As the car whinnies in second gear, an equally slow police car pulls out of hiding to trail us. When we get to Pionirska Street, the cops just idle and watch us. We all get out and take pictures of them. Bakira waves—not in some cheery sense of gotcha, but the dismissive wave, a right-handed foul shot, curling away, Enough of you

To get to the Pionirska House, we have to walk through a little overgrown side yard, past the other houses. Occasionally, a face in a darkened window will float into view and, when they see us seeing them, fade away behind a washed-out curtain. The Pionirska House is set in a tight clutch of these other houses, all now occupied by Serbs. The idea that any nearby road could be engineered to pass over the lot of this house is a shabby act of municipal imagination. 

Naturally, Bakira protested the original order of the road and resented the red tape on which hung a sign saying that no construction was allowed. Back in America, in 2013, Pettigrew wrote critical letters to international authorities, which prompted a visit by officials who were quoted in Bosniak media expressing concern. And so, for that moment, it became more difficult for the local Serb authorities to bulldoze the remains.

Meanwhile, Bakira and her friends simply violated the order and set out to rehab the place. They reinforced the walls, recreated the living quarters on the second and third floors. They left the cellar, with its dirt floor and burnt timbers untouched. On the far wall, a sagging plastic sign, suspended by string, is illuminated with poor reproductions of old family pictures of the dead, along with their names. 

Several years ago, I took a walk through downtown Phnom Penh and happened upon Tuol Sleng, the notorious Cambodian death camp. It’s just on a street; you could easily walk right by it. There was an old woman who sat in a chair at the doorway who asked for a few coins to go in. There were no guides or ushers, almost no plaques or official exhibits. Occasionally a simple sign told the story of destruction here. But otherwise, nothing was showcased or fully explained. It was just the death camp, pretty much how it looked the day the Khmer Rouge ran off and didn’t return. Stepping into one of the open cells, you might see a rusting ammo box tossed into a corner, the toilet. A nearby shower stall was riddled with bullet holes. Each room was emotionally hollowing, evocative of some grisly moment here, not long ago. Tuol Sleng was not a curated museum but an abandoned death camp, a far more eviscerating experience. 

In the basement of the Pionirska House, there is the char in the overhead beams, and under your shoes some fragments of terra cotta and stony rubble, and then your thoughts: Is that bone there in the dirt? That busted cellar window, is it because…? It’s impossible not to imagine the moment here. And to feel the accidental genius of every hard-fought inch of holding on to this place. I’m not visiting a museum. I am standing in a crime scene. 

Walking up the exterior steps to the new living quarters, Bakira takes me inside to show me the masterful bathroom, all shiny new fixtures—a shower, a toilet, a gleaming sink. The rooms are nicely Sheetrocked and painted. The living room is carpeted, with big overstuffed sofas and stylish end tables. As we step back outside, Bakira starts shouting at me, and Elharuna rushes over to translate, but in a whisper. Bakira is pointing back toward the house. And she just keeps going, without the usual pause for translation. Bakira is saying that they have a family that’s going to move in, the new keepers of the Pionirska House. It may or may not be true, but Bakira is telling me this so that the neighbors hiding behind the faded curtains will hear every word. She wants these Serb neighbors to know that the protection of the Pionirska House is indeed moving forward. The city won’t approve hooking the house up to water and the sewer system or authorize electricity because of various bureaucratic requirements, but solving that has become Bakira’s top concern now. My visit here, in fact, is the next little bit of this fight, to get the lights turned on and the toilet flushing. This is the front line of historical memory—the permit-approval process of the local zoning board. Not long after I leave, Bakira will send me word that others joined the fight, putting pressure on the bureaucracy, and that the water is now flowing.

For the longest time, David Pettigrew was just a professor I knew around my neighborhood in New Haven. It’s more of a college town than people think, with Yale, sure, but also Southern Connecticut (where Pettigrew teaches) as well as nearby Quinnipiac, University of New Haven, and Albertus Magnus. So, running into college professors at the local grocer or coffee shop is more common than not, and the chat in the produce section might be about their latest project. Early on, Pettigrew would tell me about his new translation of work by the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy. As a recovering comp lit student, the thought of French poststructuralist criticism in translation did not trigger a jubilant sense of familiarity so much as trauma.

Several years later, the casual chats over coffee changed altogether. He was frequently taking research trips to the Balkans. Pettigrew began wearing a baseball cap that read simply sarajevo, and if I caught him after a trip, he might talk about some odd sculpture that he’d seen and how he’d witnessed history being rewritten right in front of him. Often he’d show me a picture on his phone, a stunning piece of revisionist sculpture, sometimes large-scale or tiny pieces that were popping up all over the landscape. One was of a university dorm at Pale being named for Radovan Karadžić where a plaque implies that he is a great hero of the Serb unity, and not a war criminal convicted of ten counts of genocide and crimes against humanity currently serving a life sentence in a Dutch prison. 

Or the picture might be of the sculpture Pettigrew found in East Sarajevo of Gravrilo Princip, the deranged Serb who assassinated Archduke Ferdinand, setting off World War I. Here, his murderous militancy has been recast as Serb heroism. At other times, it was just these deeply odd and bizarre structures. He opened his phone once and showed me what he called a “spite church.” These were very small chapels, oratories sanctioned by the Serbian Orthodox Church, that were built with no real congregation in mind, just some Potemkin religiosity that often supported aloft a massive and menacing Serbian cross. (The design of a Serbian cross is distinctive—each of the four ends of the cross sprouts another cross, often rounded so that the overall effect looks vaguely floral.) One of these spite churches, in the little crossroads village of Konjević Polje, was simply plopped down in the front yard of a Bosniak woman named Fata Orlović. For twenty years, she fought the zoning authorities about it. Despite a ruling in her favor last year ordering the removal of the spite church, Serb authorities have delayed the demolition, citing the coronavirus.

On a hill in Srebrenica, overlooking the graves of 6,938 Bosniaks, is the most preposterous of these spite churches. Pettigrew showed me pictures of the place while it was still under construction. The interior looked about as roomy as a one-car garage. Built out of brick, it has a towering spire that illuminates three Serbian crosses high above the Bosniak village of Budak and across the valley. A threat? A reminder? Genocidal kitsch? All of the above.

Precisely how a simple church can be transmogrified into brute sacrilege becomes apparent when you drive up to the site through the various switchbacks on dirt roads with Bosniak farmhouses here and there. Alongside the church is a covered patio with a grill. Scattered bottles and cigarette butts make it clear that Serbs come here and party. This pavilion is obviously visited way more than the church. Just behind the grilling area is an overgrown field with a couple of stuffed garbage cans at the edge. 

This field was a mass grave. The bodies of Bosniaks murdered and buried here were exhumed in 2007. There are no markers stating any of this. I only know because Pettigrew has written chapters in books and given speeches complaining about the erasure of history here in this field littered with empty liquor bottles. 

The Serbs hurriedly buried bodies all over this region after the infamous murder of some eight thousand Bosniak men, women, and children in July 1995. The accounts of that summer now fill thousands of pages of testimony and evidence at The Hague with page after page of wrenching specifics. A boy was decapitated and his body tossed onto the lap of his wailing mother. A Serb soldier ordered a mother to silence her baby, and then he cut the infant’s throat. 

This horror took place even though UN peacekeeping forces were stationed in and around Srebrenica. They were completely outgunned and outmanned by the Bosnian Serb Army, which was led by Ratko Mladić. A Dutch force from the UN, of only some five hundred soldiers, was stationed in a factory on the main road. Hundreds of Bosniaks had taken refuge there. Mladić met with the Dutch commander and gave him some tough talk: Either step out of the way, or die yourself.

In a decision that still gets talked about in hushed tones, the Dutch contingent stepped aside. After that, they heard shootings behind the factory. War crimes happened all around them. One account describes a Dutch soldier wearing a Walkman and just looking away while Serbs gang-raped a Muslim girl.

Throughout the early 1990s, the world learned of these kinds of horrors being committed in the former Yugoslavia. Diplomats met and talked. Great concern was expressed as the accounts of mass brutality surfaced again and again. In America there was a debate about what to do. Deploying the American military on what was purely a human-rights rescue mission faced stiff opposition from Republicans, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell. The urgency of action didn’t translate easily because, well, it’s the Balkans. It’s complicated, should we get involved? 

Just what caused Bill Clinton to finally lose it is not altogether clear. Some say that after all the human suffering among the Bosniaks, it was actually a suspicious car accident in Sarajevo in which three American diplomats were killed. The historians still chew on this one at conferences. No matter. The point is, on August 30, only a few weeks after Mladić had slapped around the Dutch soldiers, the skies above him darkened with planes. Under the umbrella of NATO, a fury of allied bombings zeroed in on the Bosnian-Serb army. Even the German Luftwaffe flew, for the first time since 1945. The coordinated assault by an intercontinental force constituted a kind of total war carried out exclusively from the air. More than 3,500 missions rained down over a thousand precision bombs on 338 Serb targets.

Two weeks later, on September 14, 1995, a grim Mladić said he would now consider diplomatic talks. His army bases and weapons depots and landing strips lay in smoldering rubble. After seemingly endless negotiations, the concluding peace was called the Dayton Accords. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s sovereignty was affirmed, and it soon would have a new flag. But within it there emerged this designated “entity” known as Republika Srpska—like a spilled drink on the map, representing the Serb-dominated areas which fully consume half the country of Bosnia.

The administrative structures of the Dayton Accords still exist in the Balkans, overseen by a “High Representative” of the UN—today an Austrian diplomat named Valentin Inzko. For the last several years, Pettigrew has campaigned inside Bosnia and from his desk in New Haven for the implementation of a law forbidding the authorities to engage in genocide denial, which has been met with delays and postponements and promises of further study. But Pettigrew pushes on. I have a file folder of letters he’s sent, op-eds he’s written, videos of appearances on Bosnian television. Last fall, Pettigrew arranged for Inzko to speak at Yale on genocide. Inzko had lunch with a half dozen experts, which I joined, and from time to time the question of a law forbidding genocide denial would come up and Inzko would pour forth the pure cream of diplomatic courtesy: These are very important questions and we must consider them seriously.

Meanwhile, in Republika Srpska, the creeping local powers hardly pay attention to the vestiges of those distant forces that once humiliated them with overwhelming force. They have, instead, situated themselves on the local zoning boards, occupied with the exigencies of sewage-hookup formalities. 

Farther up the Drina River, Bakira wants us to gather at a famous spa, Vilina Vlas, or “Fairy’s Hair,” named for the lush clovery fern that flourishes here. The place is not far from her house, and it is an enchanting spot. Old forests climb up the angular side of a steep hill. The air feels cool and minty, a hint of evergreen everywhere. The grand building of the spa looks like an old hotel that celebrities in the 1960s might have visited. 

We sit out on the front stoop just beneath a slope of balconies—a long horizon of tables where we order some afternoon drinks and a few snacks to eat. Elharuna carefully puts in our requests, and we keep our voices down. At other tables all around us are Serb families enjoying their leafy salads and smoothies. Bakira wants us to take our coffee right in the open air, so that the locals who work here (and any authorities tailing us) will see that we are unafraid. 

Fairy’s Hair was a special kind of torture chamber twenty-eight years ago. Some two hundred women were confined in these spa suites and repeatedly raped by soldiers. It was one of several such camps, and a favorite stop among the most violent paramilitary groups—the Serbian White Eagles and Arkan’s Tigers—because the spa was said to confine the most beautiful of Bosniak women. 

The house on Pionirska Street, where, in 1992, nearly sixty Bosniak prisoners were killed after Serb forces set the structure on fire.
The house on Pionirska Street, where, in 1992, nearly sixty Bosniak prisoners were killed after Serb forces set the structure on fire.

Some estimates suggest that fewer than ten of the women at Vilina Vlas survived. The others were either murdered by soldiers or died by suicide off the balconies, landing where we are eating our snacks. 

Vilina Vlas is the most visible invisible memorial in the city. The local Serb government won’t allow any plaque or memorial here. The officials decided it was best to sweep up and get Vilina Vlas back to being a tourist destination. The spa touts its free WiFi now, and the website gets updated with info on body scrubs, deep-tissue massages, and, for the seniors, the indoor pool. If you believe any of the local travel pieces one can find about this place, it’s clear that many Serbs practice a policy of willful ignorance. 

We pay for our coffees and leave. Bakira heads home in her car because there’s no chance, she says, that she’d ever join us for the end-of-day visit to Andrićgrad. It’s hard to say exactly what this place is, but metaphysically it is the exact opposite of Vilina Vlas. If the spa is architectural history muzzled, this place screams, and is best described as a supremacist’s playground of monuments and icons.

Andrićgrad began its existence in Višegrad as a pet project built by filmmaker Emir Kusturica, himself the incarnation of the confusing complexities of everything Balkan. He was born a Bosnian Muslim who converted to Serbian Christianity back during the war. Since then, Andrićgrad has been developed into a kind of theme park of propaganda, arranged as a long walk through an angry nationalist’s fever dream of what a Greater Serbia might look like if everything Bosnian Muslim were exterminated.

After entering the park, no one can miss a massive mural painted above a row of shops, depicting a miscellaneous gathering of famous pro-Serbs all pulling together on a rope, tug-of-war style, against an enemy that is just out of frame. Pettigrew points out that the filmmaker himself is there, along with the president of Republika Srpska at the time. And is that a young Vladimir Putin in the back? Could be. “This guy,” Pettigrew says, pointing, “is a tennis player.” Novak Djokovic is, apparently, a friend of Kusturica. Local Serbs take selfies with the mural in the background, absorbing the motley pride. 

The house on Pionirska Street, where, in 1992, nearly sixty Bosniak prisoners were killed after Serb forces set the structure on fire.

Andrićgrad takes its name from the region’s famous novelist, the mid-twentieth-century Nobel laureate Ivo Andrić. His signature book, The Bridge on the River Drina, is a centuries-spanning epic whose protagonist, really, is the bridge. Once upon a time it might have been considered a novel of some ambiguity—the bridge being a metaphor for diversity and connection. But here, Andrić is a Serb nationalist whose bridge is a protective bulwark, revealing the steady fury with Islam arcing over the centuries.

In the center is a statue of Petar II Petrović-Njegoš, author of the nineteenth-century epic poem “The Mountain Wreath,” whose central plot turn involves the “Inquisition of the Turkicized”—a mass execution of Muslims. Here, though, he’s marked as a Serb prince and a grand figure in the Serb literary canon. Serb families like to take photos of themselves and their children cuddling in the giant iron lap of their great nationalist poet. 

Off to one side is Nikola Tesla, the son of a Serbian Orthodox priest who was born in a Croatian village and who proudly claimed the Croatian part of his identity. But, here, Tesla is shorn of any Balkan ambiguities and is now a purebred Serb and the greatest inventor who ever lived. 

At the end of the walk is a perfectly rendered Serbian church (a replica of a church in Kosovo, which nationalists believe should be part of the Greater Serbia cause as well). The church features all the key architectonic identifiers: the semicircular Romanesque arches, the perfect symmetries of structure, the overlapping sloped roof, and the rounded spire topped by the Serbian cross. Its sandstone columns and alabaster window niches are cut from fresh stone. Like any reproduction, this church is new and timeless and shiny, not some worn relic from nearly five hundred years ago, but gleaming with unweathered artisanship—the kind of church the ancestors might have seen on the eve of the Battle of Kosovo and, like everything in Andrićgrad, unsoiled by history.

Maybe Ernest Hemingway got it right in A Farewell to Arms, whose main character muses about all the high-flying talk at the end of World War I: “Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.”

Those great big words, which are the very embodiment of the warrior sculptures and the bully crosses of the Serbs, come off as distant and lifeless and fragile—especially beside the Bosniak monuments, however marginalized by municipal law, half-visible on the landscape, improvised by stubborn old women, or rumored among the locals. These impromptu works struggle to keep alive names of the dead, the math of destruction, the places of brute horror, the harsh realities of a genocide.

Looking at the statues here, or anywhere, makes one wonder: Is abstraction simply the cardinal feature of any war where the loss is so much greater than whatever can be described as victory? World War I was the first great conflict of the modern era where victory felt like loss—almost exclusively because so many casualties had to be written off to the conquest of a half-acre or the terrorism of mustard gas. The British statues honoring the dead of that war are legendary for their expressions of despair and even confusion. The doughboy at Paddington Station, his neck arrayed in scarves and engulfed in his trench coat, peers downward at a letter. So many of the statues take some version of this pose, their gaze toward the ground. It’s impossible not to imagine what’s on their minds. 

A cemetery in Višegrad dedicated to Serb soldiers. Višegrad was the site of a 1992 Serb assault on Bosniak civilians. There were few reported Serb casualties. Experts say that Serb soldiers killed elsewhere are buried here as part of a larger revisionist effort. June 2020.
A cemetery in Višegrad dedicated to Serb soldiers. Višegrad was the site of a 1992 Serb assault on Bosniak civilians. There were few reported Serb casualties. Experts say that Serb soldiers killed elsewhere are buried here as part of a larger revisionist effort. June 2020.

When Maya Lin won the design contest in 1981 for a memorial of the Vietnam Conflict—another war whose human costs could not be added up to anything called a victory—there was a storm of outrage. Her memorial is an ink-black wall, carved with each and every one of the 58,318 Americans who died. To read them is to descend into a trench toward darkness, the bodies piling up higher and higher on the wall as the blackness envelops the visitor. At last, one begins to ascend, emerging to read the last name of the last man to die for a cause never understood.

The fury at this proposed memorial was intense at the time, and the criticism raged for years. A businessman named Ross Perot (who would later run against Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush for president in 1992) joined the campaign to erect a more traditional and heroic memorial. Which got built. It’s just a few steps away from Lin’s structure. It depicts three soldiers, grunts on patrol, toting their weapons and full of warrior swagger. Upon its unveiling, the artist explained its meaning—an attempt to capture the “bonds of love and sacrifice that is the nature of men at war” and how their “true heroism lies in these bonds of loyalty in the face of their awareness and their vulnerability.”

Heroic statuary, maybe all of it, is functionally a form of covering up the unnecessary loss of youth in a useless war or, depending, the grim accounting of a genocide. This is what struggles for recognition in these other improvised Bosniak memorials, the ones on the sidelines, held together with whispers or lipstick, more lasting than bronze.

Some sixteen years ago, an artist named Aida Šehović, part of the Bosnian diaspora, sat down to have a coffee with a friend. That turned into an act of accumulating fildžani, the cups of missing relatives and friends. The collection now numbers some 9,909 fildžani. Every year since, she has set them out somewhere around the world—Geneva, Toronto, Tuzla. She fills them with coffee, a fildžan viška of genocide. She has called this work a nomadic monument. This year, it will become part of a permanent installation in Srebrenica.

Republika Srpska is a landscape rife with so much brittle revisionism. It is everywhere. The road signs are in Cyrillic (for Serbs) and in English (for me), but not in Latin letters (for Bosniaks). Throughout the countryside, Pettigrew and I kept seeing Russian crosses randomly erected in the middle of fields or at rural intersections. (Russia was the only major country to support the Greater Serbia project.) There is a Russian cross that looms up a hillside in Višegrad as well, but we were told by pretty much everyone that it would be dangerous to be isolated up there.

Over and over again, attempts at memorialization by the Bosnian Muslims are concealed entirely, like the spa. In the Prijedor municipality, there is a concentration camp that became notorious in the early 1990s. Today, a cement eagle stands out front, its wings splayed so symmetrically that one might call it an authoritarian eagle (recently adopted by Donald Trump’s reelection campaign), honoring the camp’s guards as heroes of the Greater Serbia project. 

If history is not totally erased, it’s hidden almost entirely, yet peeks through the suppression and becomes the story. Nearby is the Omarska mining complex, which served as another concentration camp. On the company grounds is an unused modest stucco building with a central door and two symmetrical side windows. It was a small office building once upon a time and eventually became known as the White House, where Bosniaks were tortured and killed. Today, the local governing board forbids anyone from visiting the edifice, except one day each year—the scheduling equivalent of grinding words off granite.

Portraits of Ratio Mladić, a Bosnian Serb general found guilty of war crimes and genocide, in a Serb-dominated municipality of Republic Srpska. November 2018
Portraits of Ratio Mladić, a Bosnian Serb general found guilty of war crimes and genocide, in a Serb-dominated municipality of Republic Srpska. November 2018

On a scorching hot day, August 6, 2019, Pettigrew, Elharuna, and I join several hundred people who caravan along winding country roads a good half hour away from Prijedor. Factory guards wave us over to a vast stretch of desolate dirt, where we park and then walk in. Many clutch bouquets of flowers and plastic bottles of water.

We wait in line to walk slowly through the four main empty rooms, as banal as could be now. The walls are beat and filthy, the floors covered in dust. A busted urinal clings to a wall. Not much gets said. Pamphlets on a table tell you the grim story. People were tortured here, or packed into these tiny rooms at gunpoint so densely that many suffocated to death. Outside, guards from the mining operation radiate out in every direction, mostly bored by this event. 

In the bright heat, prominent Bosniaks give speeches honoring the living and the dead. When they find out that Pettigrew, the American professor who is always advancing some claim for Bosniak memory and history, is there, he’s asked to give an impromptu speech. 

On this day, what’s being pushed forward is that two plaques have been carved with the story of the White House. The organizers have put them in the windows of the place. The intent is to leave them there, tilted in the windows. It’s kind of a test to see if local authorities will actually remove the plaques; if not, then next year the mission will be to shoulder forward one more inch: a ceremony involving bolts and fasteners and a drill. 

I spent a week driving around the Republika Srpska, dipping into big towns and small, going from prominent Serb statue to statue, and then from marginalized Bosniak memorial to memorial. As the days wore on, there was this gathering sensation, an unusual déjà vu that felt pervasive, vaulted over time. Despite the Cyrillic script and unfamiliar iconography and the bottomless muddle for any American pondering the Balkans, I could see that I was in a humiliated region, defeated in a civil war within a larger country, now pocked with statues that mostly praised the big generic virtues—valor, courage, heritage—celebrating a people who fiercely deny the obvious horror of their own past and had rewritten it as a pitiable lost cause to which they hope one day to return, and then cry out, Greater Serbia will rise again!

Charleston, South Carolina, where I grew up, is a famously historic city—one that has reshaped itself into a giant bowl of Confederate memorials and statues, all of them pronouncing the great round virtues of the militant. There are Civil War cannons or heroic busts pretty much in every park, and the little peninsula is jammed with statues and signs and points of Confederate interest. Scarcely any house downtown lacks a plaque boasting of some architectural or martial implication in a glorified past. The central statue “to the Confederate Defenders of Charleston” stands in the city’s battery park, a classical Greek figure bearing his shield, and a protective Athena-like goddess behind him. The statue tells no stories, nor marks any specific event. The slogan that wraps around the base praises “courage.” 

But elsewhere in the city, there are also inklings of a banished history, hidden among euphemisms. On an old cobblestone street downtown, a visitor might stumble upon the Old Slave Mart, a tiny museum that backs up to a parking lot, which is the actual place where enslaved boys and girls were sold away from their parents. For the longest time, there was an old woman who sat in a chair at the doorway who asked for a few coins to go in. I took a historian friend there once, in the 1990s, and up against the wall was the old auction block where my friend read out loud from the sign explaining that here, on this piece of wood, African “immigrants” were “interviewed” about their futures. He laughed in my face for the rest of the day. I was well out of college when I started to notice how many of the “carriage” houses in the backyards of the grand homes had regular doors through which only humans could pass. 

As a teenager, I lived a block away from the Old Jail on Magazine Street, which dates all the way back to 1802. It is a creepy but enthralling place full of dank chambers and dirt floors and rusting bars in the windows and true-life stories of brigands and thieves. They give tours. 

Across the street was another haunted address known as the Sugar House. It was where a slaveowner took an enslaved man or woman to be “sugared,” that is, whipped or beaten. It was a service provided to slaveowners who could not muster the savagery needed to flog another human being. You might come into town, drop off your slave as you went about your other errands, and pick up your casualty sometime later. This was a business. There was enough of a demand for outsourcing the quotidian atrocities of chattel slavery that the market responded, creating this supply niche and eventually a massive brick fortress, terrifying to behold. But like so much of the infrastructure of slavery, Sugar House was long ago dismantled and disappeared. The Old Jail remains because the stories of what happened there are so much more easily shaped into tourist-friendly yarns of outlaws and pirates. 

To find out what really happened there at the corner of Logan and Magazine Streets in Charleston, you have to know the right old timers to ask. Or, take the alternative tours of the city. Increasingly, there are such tours that don’t simply point out the well-known facts (first shot fired on April 12, 1861) or praise the grand virtues, but instead tell stories. 

I spent my youth playing at the battery and learning to sail just beside a historic rice-mill building down on the harbor. Only recently did I learn that in the middle of the Civil War, a brilliant and enslaved man named Robert Smalls stole one of the Confederates’ faster boats and escaped to the US Navy blockading the harbor. Smalls eventually became the first African American ship captain in the United States Navy, and then, after the war, a successful businessman. He would buy the Beaufort mansion in which he had been enslaved. He was among the first African Americans elected to Congress, and, later, when the widow of the man who had once owned him slipped into dementia and kept wandering back to his house, he took her in and cared for her for the rest of her life. 

Smalls’s is a complicated story that I never heard growing up in a city whose economy depends on charming paying tourists with historical and architectural tales about the place. A few years ago, a plaque went up on the waterfront, marking the place where the steamboat was originally docked and telling the bare outlines of his story. Increasingly these stories are getting told and the grand figures dominating the parks are getting questioned. 

A statue of John C. Calhoun stood at the center of the most prominent uptown park. Calhoun was the nineteenth-century congressman (and vice president) who is famous for many things, but chief among them was his work integrating all the various arguments of Black inferiority confected from the Bible, science, medicine, history, and classical cultures into a grand unified theory of white supremacy. He inverted the popular idea that slavery was a necessary evil, instead dubbing it a “positive good.” His original statue was located in a park set among nearby Black neighborhoods, where it was pelted with paint and bullets for years until a new plinth elevated the orator, clad in a cape, some eighty feet into the air (and out of range)—a crusader keeping his eye on the city. The slogan at the bottom read vaguely: truth justice and the constitution.

In June, the city decided to de-pedestal Calhoun and find a new location. Which leaves as the most prominent Confederate statue the homage to Greek-like warriors and “courage” standing at the very point of the historic peninsula. These days, people will sometimes find a way to the statue and scrawl traitors across the monument. Sure, some town clerk is dispatched to wash it off, and the word is gone, but then later, it has a way of reappearing in the night. 

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Published: September 8, 2020

Laura Boushnak is a Palestinian photographer based in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. She is a TED fellow, and her work has appeared in the New York Times and been exhibited at the Birmingham Museum (UK), the Sharjah Art Museum (UAE), and the Arp Museum Bahnhof Ralandseck (Germany).