Collective historical memory is no respecter of the past

“Collective historical memory is no respecter of the past” opines David Rieff in his excellent article about his forthcoming book, In Praise of Forgetting.

I am very excited about this book as it resonates very much with my anthropological research on refugee repatriation in Bosnia, where I focus on real historical victims’ experiences as oppose to subsequent generations’ understanding of historical wrongs, appropriation and (mis)use that are key features of collective memory.

Like John Torpey’s book on Reparations Politics, Rieff wonders whether our obsession with memory might sacrifice our present and future:

But what if this is wrong, if not always, then at least part of the time? What if collective historical memory, as it is actually employed by communities and nations, has led far too often to war rather than peace, to rancour and resentment rather than reconciliation, and the determination to exact revenge for injuries both real and imagined, rather than to commit to the hard work of forgiveness?

Tzvetan Todorov has written that knowing about the past crimes and suffering is not enough for us to ‘learn lessons’. In fact, he questions our ability to learn from others’ past experiences given that the ‘never again’ plea has never ceased. Similarly, Ian Buruma writes that our tendencies to look for authenticity in human suffering have made historiography irrelevant. History, as a discipline that concerns itself with “how things were” or “trying to explain how things happened”, has been replaced with a study of memory and history in terms of “how it felt”.

Of course, all the above writers note that there is no easy solution, nor do they argue for amnesia, but that we need a new approach, as Rieff reiterates:

To be wholly without memory would be to be without a world. Nor am I arguing against the determination for a group to memorialise its dead or demand acknowledgment of its sufferings. To do so would be to counsel a kind of moral and psychological self-mutilation of tragic proportions.

However, he agues that we need more “letting go” and that even the work of mourning must eventually end if life is to go on, whilst recognising that some societies or social groups may not be ready, referring to cases like Israel and other examples of intractable conflicts:

Even the work of mourning, essential as it is, must eventually end if life is to go on. Perhaps some memories are seen as too precious for human beings to give up. For societies, especially societies and groups that either feel themselves to be under existential threat or want to impose their own religion, or values, or territorial demands on their neighbours, the possibility may be still more remote.

Israel offers a florid illustration of how disastrously collective memory can deform a society. The settler movement routinely appeals to a version of biblical history that is as great a distortion of that history as the Islamist fantasy about the supposed continuities between the medieval kingdom of Jerusalem and the modern state of Israel. At the entrance to the settler outpost of Givat Assaf on the West Bank, a placard reads: “We have come back home.”

So, he proposes forgetting those events that may cause us to be destructive as a counterbalance to our need to remember:

But is it not conceivable that were our societies to expend even a fraction of the energy on forgetting that they now do on remembering, then peace in some of the worst places in the world might actually be a step closer?

In my view, a large proportion of victims are likely to try to incorporate or move on from their traumatic experiences, as they see no positive benefits in its narration or remembering. They actively endeavour to reconsolidate their memory of a particular event in order not to let the past dictate their present. However, subsequent generations in search of meaning and identity will often employ emotion as a device to (re)create an imagined experience, healing or belonging.

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Memorialisation important but the best response to genocide is not to disappear

Photo by @HJS_org
Photo by @HJS_org

Earlier this week, I spoke at a Henry Jackson Society event in the House of Commons commemorating the 20th anniversary of Srebrenica and the Bosnian war, alongside James Gow and Brendan Simms.

Here are my rough notes of that talk.

The Bosnian war, and what many of us regard as the Bosnian genocide, was bookended by two of its worst atrocities: Prijedor and Srebrenica.

In the summer of 1992, Prijedor’s non-Serb potential leaders, intellectuals and organisers were tortured and killed and the rest of the community went through the camps whose names came to symbolise ethnic cleansing: Omarska, Keraterm, Trnopolje and Manjaca. Over three thousand were murdered and over a thousand are still missing. Then, in the summer of 1995, the Srebrenica massacre saw 8,000 men and boys brutally slaughtered and their devastated communities forced to leave their homes.

In 1992, there was no external help and the plight of Prijedor was relatively unknown until August when the first journalists arrived, whilst in 1995, Srebrenica was a UN safe area watched over by the world. It made no difference.

Victimhood and self-reliance

As an anthropologist, I have studied the impact of such events on a returnee community near Prijedor as they tried to re-establish their town in Republika Srpska.

The key thing I have learned is the importance of agency and self-reliance in overcoming trauma, and I think this all holds a lesson for how to respond to major international events such as the Bosnian war and the Srebrenica massacre.

The fieldwork also taught me that in our desire to listen to victims of violence, we can sometimes perpetuate their victimhood and their dependency on external helpers, when in fact the best we can do is support them in re-establishing an independent life and building a future, if not for them then for the next generation.

Too much memorialisation and ritual?

In the Bosnian context, stories of suffering have become practices of affectual memory. In other words, recreating the experiences of suffering for public consumption and for the benefit of NGOs, researchers and peace building actors. But because the Bosnian war never really ended, political control has remained in the hands of nationalists, and they sometimes use the voices of survivors to reinforce their attempts to represent the manifest destiny of “their” people.

Emir Suljagic, himself a Srebrenica survivor and author of Postcard from The Grave, has written of his lack of satisfaction deriving from ritualistic memorialisation and commemoration, in relation to burying his father in 2010 :

When it was over, I only felt cheated….victimised, as I did not get a chance to say anything, at the grave and the funeral of my own father, to say at least something, not to others and not aloud, but to him and to myself.

But many Bosniaks remain preoccupied with victimhood and righting historical wrongs, which is understandable, through symbolic rituals and remembering, whilst Republika Srpska – formed through ethnic cleansing – focuses on building a state and a future.

A story of return and self-reliance

The community I have studied is one of the only successful examples of contested return in Republika Srpska, which in itself is a testament to the failure of the Dayton peace process.

How and why did they succeed?

First, they were lucky to have a very organised, professional and determined fighting force in the shape of the 17th Krajina Brigade of the Bosnian Army. These were men and women who had been through ethnic cleansing and the camps, and often into exile as refugees, but who decided the best way to cope with trauma was to fight back. Together with their family members that, prior to the war, had worked in Western Europe, they formed themselves in Croatia in the summer of 1992 and marched into Bosnia to become one of the most successful mobile units of the Bosnian Army. They opened the road to Gorazde, protected Travnik, which was their base throughout the war, and participated in an attempt to break the siege of Sarajevo. But their main objective was to fight their way home to recover evidence of the camps, and to give their communities a chance to return.

At the end of the war, after taking Mount Vlasic against all the odds, they fought their way back into the Krajina region before the Americans decided they had achieved their neat division of Bosnia, and they were stood down despite being just 2 days from Banja Luka – if they have achieved their goal, Bosnia would not be divided as it is today. Above all, what the brigade gave their community was bravery, self-respect and a belief in their own ability to change their own situation.

Combat experience and skills acquired in the war were used by the leaders of the brigade to organise themselves and negotiate their return to Prijedor. It began with former soldiers living with their young families under tents on the grounds where their homes once stood, followed by womens’ organisations such as Srcem do Mira and Izvor, who played a crucial role in assuaging the returnees’ psychosocial anxieties in relation to homecoming in a hostile environment. Eventually, when the town looked like it might survive, the diaspora and their families began returning to stay during the summer, establish businesses and re-establishing some kind of normal life.

Help people to help themselves rather than intervene from above

International actors, NGOs, peaceniks, etc come and go, but none can claim credit for what the returnees themselves achieved, in spite of, not because of, the UN and its agencies in the region, the Serb authorities and the Bosnian government. In studying this community over the past decade, I have come to understand the value of self-reliance, and its key role in mitigating trauma. There are still those well-meaning souls who discover the community and want them to ‘tell their story’ and parade their victimhood, and the locals humour them politely. But they are of little or no help to them.

And here I think is a parallel between the personal world of recovering from trauma and the political world of how to respond in situations like this.

At the start of the war, many argued for international intervention in Bosnia, whilst others argued for simply lifting the arms embargo that prevented the newly formed Bosnian Army from defending itself. In fact, intervention did happen, but too little, too late and with the wrong goals – containment and feeding those under fire rather than protecting Bosnia from external aggression.

The fact that the 17th Brigade could fight back, and the fact that the eastern enclaves held out for so long, suggest that supporting Bosnians to help themselves would have been a better option than assuming responsibility for the safe areas only to lack the political will to act in the face of aggression.

Yes, memorialisation is important, but the best response to genocide is not to disappear.

Postwar Bosnia has received a lot of international funds and attention. But too much of this has propped up corrupt and incompetent government structures or provided employment and excitement to well-meaning foreigners. The best partners in my experience, and those who really understand trauma and what reconciliation means, are those communities like Srebrenica and Prijedor returnees who are fighting to rebuild and to create a sustainable future in the face of nationalist hostility. Helping them to help themselves means more businesses and organisational capacity in civil society, rather than just memorials.