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A deltiology of memory

A review of The Geopolitics of Memory. A Journey to Bosnia. By: James Riding. Publisher: Ibidem Verlag, Stuttgart, Germany, 2019.

July 7, 2020 - Kinga Gajda - Books and ReviewsIssue 4 2020Magazine

James Riding’s book The Geopolitics of Memory. A Journey to Bosnia is an analysis of trauma memory and remembrance. These are two separate processes which should be analysed in a broader context that goes beyond the experiences of the Second World War or the Balkan wars. The book is not a publication in the category of so-called dark tourism, which is a term used to describe reports from the site of mass murder. Noticeably, the author, James Riding, a cultural geographer at Newcastle University in the UK, provides both an outsider’s perspective and that of an eyewitness. Therefore, we read that those who experienced genocide do not see the sites as a place to visit. For them, these sites are not a destination, a monument or even a mass grave. It is rather, as Riding writes, “a photograph attached to a barbed wire fence by a strand of string, an arrow pointing at a patch of earth, a bombed out house with gaping windows in the background, the recurring images of a corpse, ethnic cleansing, the peeling wallpaper of the rape hotel”.

No longer a Yugoslav

Clearly, a mass murder site is differently perceived by the witnesses and by tourists. The former not only looks at what has remained since the genocide, but also has to learn to live with the past and face its consequences. For them, as Riding writes, life after the genocide becomes a process which is “forever landscaping over the mass grave, a frantic search for missing persons, the counting of skulls to work out how many bodies are dumped in this clandestine location, the knowledge that you may have to bury a loved one only in part”. Thus, his book is an analysis of the way in which history has left a mark on the affected place and its residents, and how it links the present and past. Riding illustrates life between these two periods of time with the example of Dino’s family.

Together with his mother, Dino emigrated from Yugoslavia to the United Kingdom where he became a refugee. There it was difficult for him to explain where he was from as he had been born in a state that no longer exists and his primary identity ceased to exist. In others’ eyes he could no longer be a Yugoslav and his national identity moved into an imaginary world. Dino’s story illustrates that, as the author writes, “to be a refugee is a non-identity, a failure of identity, a losing of an identity, yet being a refugee, and claiming asylum as a Yugoslav, enables this identity to exist into the future”.

Riding adopts a deltiological approach to history which is based on his own collection of photographs taken in the cafés and streets of various Balkan cities. He observed people and their surroundings. He uses this approach to compare and contrast what the sites that he analyses looked like years ago and how they now are remembered. He inspects the case of Novi Travnik, a symbol of Yugoslavia in the view of Dino’s father. Located 20 kilometres from the historic city of Travik, this small town was established in 1949 to provide housing to workers of the Bratsovo arms factory. In 1979, when Dino’s father arrived there, it was a city of youth. Today, it is dull place, not interesting to tourists who prefer a rebuilt Sarajevo. However, when Dino’s dad looks at it, he sees the prosperity of Yugoslavia, as well as its death and demise. Unlike Sarajevo, the buildings here have been destroyed and were never rebuilt.

Riding photographed the remains of the Bratsovo factory. This is what interests him the most, unlike the city’s residents who still find it hard to understand why their pride was destroyed. Thus, the city’s residents areunhappy, feeling that they are just existing and that somebody has stolen 20 years of their lives. To better understand them, Riding compares his photographs of the destroyed factory and town with the perspectives of locals. This encourages the reader to look at different things. The book resembles a collection of postcard-like images. They include elements of public and private places. These sites are, on the one hand, seen as something static and, on the other, as something that is subject to change.

Cultural geography

Riding shows that the purpose of travelling is not only to admire scenery, visit monuments, discover culture, but to read the local history. In Riding’s case the latter is based both on conversations with residents and deep observations of nature. Thus, the book is a clash of perspectives of trauma and nature. Riding knows that events change places and it is only through a comparison between today’s landscape and images from the past that differences can be captured and the story of a place told. He enriches his writing with excerpts of reports, texts and films of others, as well as recreating the travels of former geographers.

In this way, Riding’s work offers a “spectrum of cultural geography”.He makes references to cultural texts, memory and emotional landscapes, as well as personal experiences of trauma. This combination, in his view, is the key to understanding the influence that the past has on the present. That is why Riding’s perception of the landscape after genocide only seems to be calm. In truth, it is full of life, mainly because of the people who know what this place looked like before.

Riding is of the view that complete observation is possible only when different time perspectives are combined with different narratives. The latter includes outsiders who have a more distanced interpretation of a memory site and insiders who base their stories on memories and testimonies of witnesses. None of these narratives is fully complete. They rather present the past from specific perspectives which are under the influence of emotions and subordinate to regional, ethnic and national discourse. Thereby, they are highly subjective.

Only a shared narrative builds the more complete retelling of past memories. Thus, reading history from the experience of a place is tantamount to a personal and performative reading. In Riding’s view only a performative exploration of memory sites and its personal experiences can contribute to building peace and reconciliation after conflict. That is why his book is envisioned to present alternative remembrances of traumatic experiences. Riding points out that remembrance in the post-conflict space influences the discourse and shaping of collective memory, both at the local and European level. In his work, he ponders what way the co-existing narratives about the past are negotiated and how Europeans are forgetting Yugoslavia’s collapse.

Commemoration of the republic

For Riding monuments and graves are expressions of memory that show its geopolitical, spatial and individual dimensions. Such is the grave of Yugoslavia’s leader, Josif Tito, which, today, is the destination of many pilgrimages. It is a place where former Yugoslavs can openly remember their former state and cry over its collapse. Characteristically, the mausoleum is not only a place to commemorate the former leader but the former federal republic. It allows people to express their sorrow over the loss of brighter and better days when – as representatives of older generations say – the country was united and society based on social justice and workers’ rights.

Tito’s grave is also a site for a collective expression of memory and nostalgia, showing the generational difference in regards to the phenomenon of Yugonostalgia. Clearly, like in many other former socialist states, older generations would like Yugoslavia to come back, although they also try to forget about what has taken place. In some way, they have learnt to live by the past. This is not understood by the youth who lives in the present. 

Riding also analyses the remembrance of massacres, which were forgotten by the outside world. Among them, was the civic action of crying over the brutality which took place in Prijedor, a city in Republika Srpska, which housed the infamous camps that were established in 1992 for the Bosniak and Croat population. Each year, on May 31st, the city’s residents adorn white arm bands. This is to commemorate the time when non-Serbs were forced to mark their houses with white flags or sheets and wear white ribbons. On the last day of May, residents with white roses go to the city centre where they exchange the last names and ages of children murdered – the victims of ethnic cleansing.

Such rituals turn these places of memory into places of interventions, where memory is a means to promote change, question the current political system, and the public discourse on memory. Riding believes that by describing these movements, images, texts and performative memory of the survivors, it will allow us to connect memory with the identity and landscapes, as well as to locate recollections with a specific space and social group, and thereby allow for an understanding of the impact on memory geopolitics on “(re)production of the (post)conflict landscape”.

Riding describes the impact of geographic factors on politics and vice versa. He analyses co-dependencies between history, memory and geopolitics. He starts with a description of the consequences of the Davos agreement and its ambiguous assessment. On the one hand, the signing of the agreement ended the military conflict, but, on the other hand, it led to a situation where the political system of Bosnia and Herzegovina cemented the differences between the two parts of the country (e.g., Republica Serpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina). The war in Bosnia dramatically limited the level of multi-ethnicity. Exclusions, forced relocation, emigration, and murders contributed to the country becoming less ethnically diverse, with only homogeneous enclaves left. There are still visible geographic differences between the North and South, which makes not only the governance but the country’s development and integration with the European Union more difficult. It also has built two separate discourses on history and memory and cements ethnic divisions. Riding claims that cartographic representation of the idiosyncrasy – or the cartography of Apartheid – has led to the nationalisation of memory and a never-ending transformation of the post-socialist era and a weakened democracy. This division also led to the Bosnian Spring – the most brutal riots that took place since the end of the war in Bosnia, thereby creating new memory sites and a new ethnic division in memory.

Redefining the past

Riding argues that collective memory, in terms of both a broad (state) meaning and a narrow (local) meaning takes part in an attempt to deconstruct, or reconstruct the ethnically socialist Yugoslavia, is a significant element in the nationalist narrative. The rituals of memory, in a broad sense of the meaning, are often a reflection and strengthening of the authorities’ interests, and they imprison the past in the service of the new state and building of the nation.

Remembrance, in a narrow sense of the term, turns into a political act, which continues to strengthen ethnic division. Remembrance, in this understanding, explains why recollections are interpreted within one ethnic group, which enforces the categorisation and calling others Bosniak Serbs, Bosniak Croats, Bosniaks, Orthodox, Catholics, or Muslims and not fathers or mothers. Such memory becomes a political statement.

In the post-conflict landscape, there are also memory acts which subtly disturb the official state memory and shared understanding of collective memory. There are alternative acts of remembrance whose goal is to create a future outside ethnic divisions. Memory, hence, influences politics in contemporary Bosnia and Herzegovina, or perhaps even shapes it. Riding shows that in such places as Bosnia, it is impossible to talk about the present without making references to the past. The war in the Balkans is a scar of conscience both in the region and in Europe. Thus, Riding encourages everyone to not only start understanding the impact of discourse on the creation of the image of the country, but on internal relations. He believes that collective memory cannot be toxic. That is why he ponders whether it would not be better to forget, with time, about the wars and traumatic events.

Within the pages of The Geopolitics of Memory Riding shows that it is impossible to create a complete description of a place and conflict. Only selected excerpts of the past can be presented, moments of human experience of trauma and genocide captured. Each return to the past is only a story in which selected people and events survive. Riding is aware of this and undertakes a critical and creative attempt to redefine the past, with full conscience that its full picture is intentionally disturbed and the remains of collective memory are presented from the perspective of a specific ideology subordinate to a given state or ethnic narrative. 

Translated by Iwona Reichardt

Kinga Anna Gajda is an assistant professor at the Institute of European Studies of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków.

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