“The Sarajevo Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide 1992-1995” Learning from the past through emotional overwhelm

Actually we came to Sarajevo for the Sarajevo Film Festival to watch movies and experience the vivid and open atmosphere of the town. We realized quickly that Sarajevo can´t be experienced without the memory of the war and the siege from 1992-1996. The town is telling its story to anyone who wants to see and wants to listen to.

In an article on Balkan Insight we read about the opening of the Sarajevo Museum of Crimes against Humanity and Genocide 1991-1995 and we decided to visit it.

In an old house in the very city center of Sarajevo there is a small Ferhadija side street where the museum is located. The door was closed so we had to rang – the door opened immediately. The entrance area was very small and narrow. Right on the opposite side of the entrance door there was a checkout point where we paid the entrance fee, then we started our tour through the museum. The first things we saw were photographs of dead bodies and skeletons. Even the skeleton of a pregnant women and her unborn child was depicted. This was the first but not the last shocking moment in the museum.

The Museum of Crimes against Humanity and Genocide 1992-1995 depicts the crimes during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Although the members of the organizational team of the museum say that it represents all relevant facts and information about genocide and other crimes on the territory of the former Yugoslavia. The museum actually focuses only on crimes committed in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Crimes in Kosovo or Croatia are mentioned only on the official infographics made by ICTY. The material which is produced by ICTY shows the basic information about the work of this institution, criminal justice proceedings before the court, indictments, witnesses and other information regarding conflicts on the territory of former Yugoslavia. This information is graphically very well presented and gives the visitor crucial information about the war in Yugoslavia and international criminal justice methods implemented in this region. Alongside the ICTY material, visitors can watch films about the war, including ‘City under Siege’, ‘The End of Impunity – Sexual Violence before the Tribunal’ and ‘Through Their Eyes’.

In one room, the museum presents a collection of photographs depicting concentration camps in Bosnia. In the same room visitors can watch ICTY outreach video materials which includes testimonies, excerpts from trials and investigation videos.

In the next room many photographs can be seen which depict victims, usually bloody mutilated dead bodies even the ones of small children. From this point to the end of the exhibition, the museum is giving emphasis on the photographic presentation of explicit violence that occurred during the war in B&H. This presentation is accompanied with personal belongings of victims and perpetrators.

The relation between victims and perpetrators are pretty obvious in the exhibition. Victims are portrayed as totally deformed dead bodies covered in blood. The museum does not hesitate to show the explicit violence including the exact acts of killing. Symbolic representations of national symbols like a flag or a coat of arms used by the Serbian army are usually presented alongside knives, bats, wire and other torture weapons which clearly states the intention of how the perpetrator wanted to be represented. This approach is strengthened by the depiction of relentless violence. At the very end of the exhibition,we entered a replica of a Serbian prison cell. Two mannequins symbolized prisoners with lacerated clothes and trails of blood on their heads. All in all, they looked like people who were recently tortured. On the other side of the room there was a bucket with strange liquids in it, which looked like excrements. The whole room smelled like vomit. We were very irritated by this and weren´t sure if this smell is there on purpose.

“There is no such museum in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a museum that includes all the facts from the period 1992-1995 in one place,” said Alija Gluhovic, Museum organizer. But, the museum does not represent all the established facts and all crimes that were committed in B&H. Crimes committed by Croatian or Bosnian forces are not visible in the exhibition. There are only one or two exhibits depicting war crimes committed by the Croatian Defense Council on the Bosniak civilians, and the museum is giving the over simplified version of the conflict between only two national groups: Serbs and Bosniaks. Because many components of the complex conflict that produced genocide are not visible through the photographs of mutilated bodies, it is difficulty to critically examine the crimes, reasons why it happened and different sides of it through this museum.

The Museum presents criminal justice proceedings very well by emphasizing graphic and visual presentation. It gives a good informational background about certain crimes and places of mass violence, like concentration, camps trough video material. It also has a big collection of items which belonged to victims or perpetrators of genocide and other crimes.

For the visitors without previous knowledge it is really difficult to understand the vicious cycle of violence depicted in this museum. Although important documents and information dealing with the historical context of the war are exhibited, it is still not easy to understand the different perspectives of conflicted sides and to critically examine the genocide and crimes against humanity that occurred in B&H.

Authors of the Museum of Crimes against Humanity and Genocide have a literal and direct approach towards the crimes that happened, and they decided to face visitors with explicit content of mass violence and brutal reality of suffering and pain of tortured human bodies.It seems that the showing of these photographs serves only one purpose – to shock; learning from the past through emotional overwhelm. The question that should be asked in every museum depicting mass violence of 20th century is what is the purpose of showing this violence, how to present it and confront the visitor with incomprehensible experiences and emotions produced by these crimes. To find a suitable way to deal with the crimes during the National Socialism in the field of political education the so called “Beutelsbacher Konsens” was implemented in the Federal Republic of Germany in 1976. One of the contents was the “overwhelmed forbade” which should avoid the manipulation of the education process in a certain direction through provoking of emotions.

But this is what the Museum of Crimes against Humanity and Genocide is doing. Through the depiction of horror, which provokes fear and disgust among the visitors a learning from the past process is initiated, which strengthens a clear picture of the enemy.This museum is definitely not a suitable place for education. In this museum the visitors don´t get the chance to develop a critical and reflexive view on the past events while dealing with different perspectives.It is more a place of “war tourism” which represents the picture of the war in Sarajevo which represents the picture of the war in Sarajevo which is expected by the tourists.

Blog by Katja Lorenz & Nikola Puharić

How Zagreb remembers civilian victims of the shelling in 1991 and 1995

Hidden in the Petriceva Ulica in the center of Zagreb the “Memorijalni centar raketiranja Zagreba” (Memory Center of the Shelling of Zagreb in 1991 and 1995) is located, which is a collection of the City museum of Zagreb. The Museum is dedicated to the events of Yugoslav Air Force strike on Banski dvori and artillery attacks on Zagreb conducted by Serbian armed forces in Republika Srpska Krajina on the 2nd and 3rd May 1995. The last event was characterized by the ICTY as a war crime and a crime against humanity. Milan Martić, one of the Croatian Serb leaders from the early 90’s was convicted for ordering these attacks.

A small plaque on the house in Petrićeva Street refers to the exhibition inside. The door in the first floor was locked so we had to ring – nobody answered, we rang again. Finally, a women opened the door and welcomed us very friendly. We explained who we are, that we are from the YIHR and immediately she was guiding us around the exhibition. We entered the first room – she was telling us about the Serb air strike against the ‘Banski dvori’ in Zagreb in 1991. We could see the damaged sofa from the destroyed room. It wasn’t just standing on the floor – it has it´s stage surrounded by bright light – pathetic. We should see how elegant the room was furnished, and the Serbs destroyed it. But luckily they did not succeed in killing the president Tuđman, the guide said, what was their goal to destabilize Croatia.

We were looking around. The room was filled with soft light and big photographs of the shelling of the upper town of Zagreb. Buildings were burning and destroyed. In the middle we could find a table with some electronic books showing the order of events in October 1991.The Next rooms exhibited different newspapers from different countries which had all nearly the same headlines (“Serb terror against civilians”). Furthermore, grenades were shown which were used by the Serb forces, even they were forbidden by the Geneve Conventions, smashed glass, photographs and names of the victims and artifacts which either belonged to injured people, like the ballet shoes of the prima ballerina who was injured by the shelling of the National theater of Zagreb or symbolize the attack on the children’s hospital. Therefore, a Teddy bear is sitting lonely in a showcase. The Museum in general offers many symbols which shall underscore the scare of the events.

By observing only this museum’s narrative, the visitor can easily forget that the so called “Homeland War” had more than this one perspective, and this is the problem in general when an exhibition is too much aligned on a certain past event like the shelling of Zagreb. The whole context and the different perspectives of the war during the 1990’s gets lost – only the narrative remains that Croatia was forced into a war, fought against it and finally won. This is what is depicted in the last room of the memorial center. A short movie shows Zagreb today as a living and young city. The damages of the shelling are cleared of, lots of tourist come every year – everything is fine, a happy ending for Zagreb and whole of Croatia.

This Museum honors the innocent victims of the shelling of Zagreb, and tells a story about horrible war crimes and its consequences. It was surprising to see how the story is presented trough modern technology with very considerate guidance. But the museum is also an example of a memory culture which reduces the past on certain events, and it is using simplistic ethnic dichotomy of Serbian perpetrators and Croatian victims. In some places in the museum it can be seen that the term Serbs or Serbian is used carelessly, like it is blaming the whole ethnicity for the war crimes. The Museum should instead use the names of the exact military divisions or individuals who ordered and conducted the attack, so the visitors should not be confused or mislead towards wrong conclusions about the events.

This museum is one of many in Croatia which is dedicated to the war crimes committed by the Military of Serbian Krajina or the Yugoslav People’s Army and victims of these crimes. But dealing with the past shouldn’t be that easy. What Croatia needs isn’t another museum which deals with the suffering of Croatia during the war through representation of single events in the 90’s but rather a place where the visitors can inform themselves about every aspect of the war, even the aspects of war crimes committed by Croatia. It also needs a museum which presents and commemorates all civilian victims, regardless of their ethnicity. But the establishment of a museum like this seems to be faraway.

Blog by Katja Lorenz & Nikola Puharić