Sarajevo: Resistance and Resilience

I’ve been sitting here, on the patio of Hotel Kovaci, for at least an hour, trying to wrap my head around everything I’ve seen, experienced and felt since arriving in Sarajevo. Sometimes words are not enough.

War, for many people, is nothing more than a concept—something that happens in other countries but not our own; something we have opinions about, study in school and dissect as theory but never actually live. One can spend an eternity studying models of war and peace and yet nothing can prepare you for the trauma and devastation of watching your city burn or seeing your neighbors, friends or family members shot by a sniper as they run across the street. Nothing can prepare you for 1425 days of life under siege. Yesterday, when we visited the Tunnel of Hope, something that I read really struck me: during the siege of Sarajevo, the main aim of the Serbian Army was to enact as much devastation—to cause as much catastrophic loss to Sarajevo as possible: those who were not direct casualties of war would certainly succumb to madness and lose their will to live. It seemed that no one expected the citizens of Sarajevo to survive for as long as they did. The human spirit, it turns out, is remarkably hard to kill—even with three thousand shell attacks in a day.

So much of what we’ve encountered in the last two days has been complicated, nuanced and emotional. I’ve found myself listening to Jadranka speak, getting lost in her words, trying to imagine what the city looks like through her eyes. I’ve watched people quietly in the streets, wondering if they too, were here during the siege. Did they fight on the front lines or lose someone they love? Did they risk their lives to find food and water for their family, over and over again? Do they think about the war as much as we are now, in all our earnest effort to (marginally) understand it? And at the same time, I’ve found myself feeling conflicted for having these thoughts. Am I tokenizing people through these contemplations? Is our presence here meaningful or transactional—or a combination of both? How can we remember and learn about the war without defining people by it? War is tragic and violent by nature, and leaves a legacy of trauma in its wake, and yet remembering it seems paramount to healing and reconciliation. But even memories are complicated—particularly in a country with three separate versions of the truth, and many more ideas for the best path forward.

Today, the screening of Scream for Me Sarajevo and subsequent Q and A reminded me of the importance of art as a form of protest and resistance—- but also of self-determined political/social agency: how we create the future, in many ways, hinges upon how we view stories from the past. Who is controlling the narrative? What kind of story do they want to tell, and who is listening? Jesenko talked briefly during the Q and A about how he sought tell a different story through the production of this film– one that differed from all the other film portrayals of the siege. And while many people in Sarajevo didn’t know about the concert, the symbolism of the event was both remarkable and undeniable, especially in a city that much of the world chose to ignore– even in light of the longest siege of a capitol city in modern warfare. What we were left with was not just a powerful anti-war film, but a reminder that even in times of unimaginable tragedy, forgetting about war and losing yourself in music, even for just a night, can also be an act of resistance.

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