The prom dress that never was

July 2, 2019

Sarajevo: How small, human stories have a huge impact

Sarajevo has quite a few museums and memorials dealing with the war in the 1990’s. And while I have been in the city before, I never had the opportunity to visit some of them. Last month I made sure that I squeezed in a visit to the War Childhood Museum. It’s exhibition tells small stories of people who were just a child in Sarajevo during the war.

Untold stories
It all started in 2013 with the writing of a book on childhood memories of Sarajevo during the war. People interviewed for the book were asked, “What was your childhood like during the war?”  A total of 1,030 short texts found their way into a mosaic that tries to tell the story of a generation. There is no interpretation of the texts, no explanation, only the first name and date of birth (and even that is sometimes guesswork). It is refreshing and reads like a collection of very short poems. A single phrase like “the food parcel with M&M’s” (Neira, 1986), or “Are the tomatoes, planted in the boxes on the balcony, red yet?” (Anel, 1989) hint at untold stories.

Personal items
However, people shared not only their childhood memories of the war. Many also provided personal items they had kept from that period, reminders of what happened to them during the war. To see these items, together with a short recollection associated with it …  these had more impact than some of the bombastic representations of war violence in other museums and memorials.

The prom dress that never was
I wanted to read the story about a piece of purple fabric for a prom dress which was never made, or the one about the blue bunny that was the only thing that brought some joy in the refugee camp. They are personal and individual stories, they are human. You can easily imagine the stories coming from any part of the world, any refugee camp, any child hiding in a basement during shelling. The war is remembered through small objects and stories, and the memories are many and diverse. It is a beautiful memorial of a violent past.

Visits like these inspire the work we do as PAX in the Western Balkans, especially the work on memorialization. How do people remember the past? How do journalists and politicians in Serbia, Croatia or Bosnia and Herzegovina try to influence people’s memories, sometimes even trying to rewrite the history of a violent episode in their countries? It is a constant battle to counter official state narratives with the people’s personal counter-narratives. The War Childhood Museum is such an important counter-narrative, where the personal stories of people take center stage.

Read more about the Dealing with the past theme we work on and PAX’s work in the Balkans

Get involved with our peace work.
Subscribe to the PAX Action Alert.