Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Collapse of Humanity: A Chicana in the Balkans

"...I listened to the snow bursting under the tires
like teeth crunching an apple
and I felt a wild desire to laugh
at you
because you call this place hell
and you flee from here convinced
that death beyond Sarajevo does not exist."

by Semezdin Mehmedinović  

For those who may not remember or are unfamiliar with this history:  Known as "The Siege of Sarajevo" (the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina), this city and its people experienced bombings, sniper bullets, grenade attacks, hunger, starvation, untold violent beatings, rapes between 1992 to 1995.  It was a race war, a genocide, a blatant slaughtering of innocents. The objective: to end a "brotherhood of cultures living together (former Yugoslavia)" and establish one national identity.  Bosnia and Herzegovina, one of the most multi-ethnic areas of the Balkans (Bosnians, Bosnian Muslims, Croats, Serbs, Jews [Sephardic and Ashkenazi]--all mixed), was targeted for "cleansing" (as were other cities, towns, villages).  When it was all over, 13,952 people were dead: 9,429 Bosnians; 3, 573 Serbs; 810 Croats; and 140 others in this small city (according to the RDC--Research and Documentation Center in Sarajevo). 

Above is a map of the siege. The red line all around the city (65 kilometers) denotes the Serbian Army surrounding it.  Citizens were trapped and found themselves in a daily struggle to survive.  I have been fortunate to meet survivors of this siege, who told me what it was like for them, what they experienced.  The map above is an important guide.  But how does this map translate "on the ground?"  I took pictures to show you.  

Below is a picture from the east side of  the city.  We came up here because there is a lovely hilltop cafe.  But from here, I imagined how easy it would be for a sniper to gun down pedestrians, to shoot at cars, trucks, to throw grenades, any kind of explosive.  About a week later, they took me to a nearby village where the soldiers stayed.  It was their camp to rest and "recharge" before coming back to the line to shoot at civilians.  

During my stay in Sarajevo, I lived at the top of a hill in a small flat.  Every day, I would take this walk (below) to get down to the main part of the city.  Imagine walking with me.  We are making our way down to the main street.  But right in front of us (and to the right and left) are hills.  Between 1992 and 1995, snipers were up there, aiming their guns right here, where we stand.  

And this is what many of the buildings still look like: bullet ridden.  A remembrance.  

A few feet from my flat there is a memorial to a number of individuals killed on the street and in nearby apartments.  Below is the park that has been dedicated to the 1,500 (estimated) children killed.  

The names of the children one after another, are multi-ethnic: Serb children next to Bosniak Muslims, next to Croats.  

Out of all the places I've visited so far, Sarajevo is one of the most beautiful and yet viscerally painful if you are in tune with "la facultad" as feminist lesbian theorist, Gloria Anzaldúa describes it in her book Borderlands/La Frontera: "the capacity to see in surface phenomenon the meaning of deeper realities, to see the deep structure below the surface. It is an instant 'sensing,' a quick perception. . . "

The day I arrived to Sarajevo, there was a strong wind.  I had flown in because I wanted to see the city and its surroundings from the air:  rolling hills, towering mountains, the central Dinaric Alps all around and Sarajevo nestled in a cozy little valley. I was not aware until later that it was a full moon that night. What I did feel, was the wind growing stronger after landing.  The drive from the airport to my flat took me along the Miljacka River flowing from east to west, its bridges connecting one side of the city to the other such as the "Latin Bridge" where Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie were killed or the "Suada and Olga Bridge," where the first "Sarajevo" victims, Suada Dilberović and Olga Sučić were shot and killed on May 19th, 1992. Suada and Olga had been active in spontaneous resistances happening on the Sarajevo bridges and squares -- hundreds of citizens voicing their opposition to what they felt was an unnecessary war.

Below is a photograph I took of the bedroom door in my flat. It is a beautiful door marked by a single bullet hole. The red you see beyond the cracked glass is my bed.  That night the wind hummed and swirled.  I felt thousands whispering, chattering, tapping on the windows of the flat. Unafraid, I took some Mexican herbs from my backpack which I always carry, and sprinkled them around the flat.  I went on the balcony and listened to the wind for a long time and threw some of the herbs into the whirling wind.

Today Bosniak Muslims, Croats, Serbs, Jews are still living together here.  There are no winners.  No matter how much they [they!!] try to eradicate, erase, get rid of, block, they cannot. No matter how they manipulate language to force amnesia, to incite hate, (how they create words like "cleansing"), they cannot. Yet, tragedy upon tragedy accumulates.  This war, that war:  at what cost?  Last night, one of my Bosnian friends and I sat down to watch the film, Growing Up with War:  Children of Syria. My Bosnian friend who watched it with me lived in a basement for four years during the siege.  Her mother's side of the family all died in a neighboring village.  Her mother lives with a bullet lodged in her lungs.  "When she feels the bullet move," my friend tells me, "she says it feels as if it is moving across her heart.  She says it reminds her that she is alive."

In the past few weeks, I have heard and recorded so many tragic stories, seen memorial after memorial.  And when I think about our present moment in history, how we are regressing, regressing, regressing, I wonder  . . . how many memorials, pock-marked buildings, traumatized children and adults, polluted sites filled with the detritus of war, of our inhumanity-- will it take to stop, stop, stop.

1 comment:

emma said...

Gracias, Amelia, for documenting this moment in history.
Stunning photographs and compelling narrative that we cannot, should not forget.