Visiting the country where I was born has always meant, at least partly, visiting ruins. This is true in a metaphorical as well as a concrete sense: in addition to the remains of buildings bombed out in the nineties, the landscape of my travels there has always been punctuated by stories of the awful things that happened in one place or another. As we drive through the countryside and various towns to reach Mostar, my parents tell me stories about actions carried out by armies and paramilitary groups, images that are hard to reconcile with the reality of the lived and nowadays relatively quiet localities that flow before my eyes. Archaeology is defined as “the study of historic or prehistoric peoples and cultures by analysis of their artefacts, inscriptions, monuments and such remains”. I think about this as we drive through the striking mixture of old and new that is Bosnia and Herzegovina today, and I reflect on how my knowledge of it and of Yugoslavia and my very relationship to them are characterised by an almost archaeological impulse: I look attentively, gather traces and imprint them on my memory, excavating sites by gathering stories from my parents and anyone else who will share them with me. This is how I try to make sense of Yugoslavia, the country where I was born, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, the country where my documents must now say I was born, continuing a process of weaving together a story of “its peoples and cultures” – a story of my family, and ultimately of myself.
The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze argues that there is an “archeology of the present”: certain images take us back not “to prehistory”, but “to the deserted layers of our times which bury our phantoms; to the lacunary layers which we juxtaposed according to variable orientations and connections.” Ruins are images too, although physical: I often think about this as our car enters the city and we find ourselves on the Bulevar, short for Bulevar Narodne Revolucije (Boulevard of the People’s Revolution) and the view becomes dominated by the many skeletons of houses destroyed by wartime fires. In my own archaeology of Mostar, the Bulevar is a number of things, the most important being the street where my mother grew up, the one where she lived with her family among other families of different ethnicities (although they did not think of it in those terms at the time, and even today in my own mouth these words feel forced, untrue). In the backstreets and courtyards just off the Bulevar my mother would climb trees and play ball games with the other children living in the neighbourhood, enjoying that sort of carefree and joyous freedom that was the promise Yugoslavian socialism held for her generation. Looking at it now, it strikes me that some of these ghostly buildings must have been her friends’ homes, or must have housed the shops where children would be sent to buy bread and cigarettes on their ground floors.
With its history, buildings, and personal resonances, the Bulevar represents in my mind a sort of condensed history of the transition; if its name recalls the revolutionary promises and radical hopes of socialism, its straight line now divides the city in two, making it an epitome of post-war reality: the division, it goes without saying, is understood to be along ethnic lines. Maybe I should mention that, in addition to being where my mother played, this area is also where children would, some twenty years later, “play at war”, imitating the reality they were living in, hoping perhaps through play to impose some degree of control on it. These are some of the multiple layers of memory, meaning and affect that I associate with the Bulevar and its ruins, and while some of these may well overlap with those of other people who have lived or still live in the city, I know that there will also be other connections significant to them that I can’t possibly imagine. There are other sites that can be visited to understand the archaeology of Mostar’s post-socialist present: some, such as the infamous “sniper tower” (a former bank building) have become destinations frequented by drug users and urban explorers, others, such as Stari Most (the Old Bridge) and Stari Grad (the Old Town), favoured by tourists, are now too emotionally charged to be cherished by Mostarci (Mostarites) as they once were.
My personal favourite is Partizansko Groblje, or the Partisan Memorial Cemetery, created to remember the fighters from Mostar who died at the hands of fascism and nazism. The cemetery is one of the many Spomeniks (Monuments) built in Yugoslavia during socialism: pompously inaugurated in 1965 by Tito himself, its fame as a tourist attraction grew over time, and reached its peak with the Sarajevo Olympics in 1984. During my last visit, in 2008, I spent a long time walking around the site, mesmerised by its distinctive architecture and by the stone plaques engraved with the names of the men of different ethnicities who fought against fascism together. This piece of Yugoslavia truly feels like an archaeological site: an old structure that pays tribute to a reality that no longer applies. If indeed it is a culture and a people that archaeology studies by looking at monuments, then few sites could tell a more paradigmatic story about Yugoslavian culture and its peoples, and about those that succeeded them after the transition, than this cemetery: once a beautiful park with flowing fountains overlooking the city, Partizansko Groblje is now abandoned and scarred by vandalism. Not only are its surfaces marked by graffiti – words and symbols – praising Ustašas (Croatian fascists), but in 2014 unknown, allegedly neofascist vandals tried to impede access to the public by setting fire to its entrance. And yet, the story of the cemetery is not only a story of conflict and denial: as can be seen by walking around, people still bring flowers to honour the partisans and remember their old way of life.
Saint Augustine wrote that “There are three times: a present of things past, a present of things present and a present of things future. For these three do somehow exist in the soul and otherwise I see them not: present of things past, memory; present of things present, sight; present of things future, expectation”. The story of the cemetery points at these three times simultaneously: a past of socialist promise, a present of political disappointment, and the hope for a future where these may be reconciled. As I walk through Mostar, I think about Deleuze’s use of the word “lacunary”: it is an interesting term that refers to the quality of incompleteness. A lacuna is in fact “an empty space, or a missing part; a gap”, in its anatomic sense it indicates “A cavity, space, or depression, especially in a bone, containing cartilage or bone cells”. This last definition strikes me as an extremely accurate description of the half-destroyed buildings on the Bulevar and of Partizansko Groblje: open wounds in the urban landscape, these sites reveal the anatomy of specific histories, exposing their flesh, their blood vessels, the very tender and vulnerable material at the core of the bones of a society. Lacunary is also the word that best describes my knowledge of my country of birth, and if this sounds like a painful statement, it is also a hopeful one: exploring these empty spaces, engaging with the many missing parts, it is perhaps possible to begin to outline a post-transition archaeology, a different present for things future and past.
Cover photo by Sara Gvero – All Rights Reserved