Please note: this articles contains descriptions of torture, murder and rape that may be distressing to some readers. I also did not take any of my own photographs whilst in the museum, and so the pictures used are not from inside the museum, but from the Siege of Sarajevo itself. Some of the photographs contain graphic images that may also be distressing. The websites that I took the pictures from are cited in the captions. My featured image is by Ron Haviv.
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My second morning in Sarajevo began with a fuzzy head. The Sarajevo Beer Festival was on and so naturally, my new friends and I had had a few shots of rakija and headed out to the huge arena in which the festival was taking place to dance to the live music, drink cold beer and unwind after our heavy day with Al, the Bosnian war veteran (which you can read all about here).
As easy as it would have been to have a lazy day at the hostel, we all wanted to learn even more about Sarajevo’s history and so after some strong coffee at our favourite cafe, we headed to the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide 1992-1995 to continue our education. The Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide costs 5 Bosnian Marks (around £2.30) to enter, and is comprised of 12 sections that use a myriad of mediums to tell of the horrific genocide that occurred in Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995.
The first thing that confronts you as you walk into the museum is a life-size photograph of a woman’s corpse. She’d been heavily pregnant when she was shot and the foetus in her stomach is almost fully developed and clearly visible in the picture. It is a shocking thing to see, but in a way, I was grateful that the museum had chosen not to ease people in gently as the rest of the exhibition was not any easier to stomach.
Exhibits include written testimonies, personal items (some of which have been exhumed from mass graves), photographs, documentary films, a reconstructed prison cell, official documents, video testimonies and more.
Often, a photograph of a smiling face is accompanied by text detailing the gruesome fate of the victim. One that I still remember, almost 2 months later, is a picture of a strikingly handsome man of a similar age to myself. He’s somebody that I would be friends with, perhaps even somebody that I would date. He’s just a normal guy who likes to hang out with his friends, drink beer and go to parties.
Only he isn’t.
He was blown up on a summer day, when he was hanging out with his friends at the park.
For someone like me, who was born in the year that the Bosnian War begun, the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide is almost surreal. Seeing pictures of toddlers that were shot by snipers just a few days after I was born and thinking of my own parents lovingly cradling their newborn baby as other new mothers mourned the violent murders of their own was chilling.
The Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide doesn’t just focus on the individual victims. There are photographs and detailed descriptions of what occurred in the concentration camps, as well as the infamous ‘rape camps,’ where Serb soldiers would rape Muslim women as a way of raising the next generation of Bosnian Serbs. As the Serbs raped the women, they would tell them that they ‘should enjoy being fucked by a Serb,’ and ‘now you are going to have our children.’ A popular ‘game’ at the concentration camps was a kind of perverted ‘musical chairs,’ whereby prisoners would be forced to dance around a car as the soldiers beat them and played music. When the music stopped, whoever was at the front of the car would be shot and killed.
The list of atrocities goes on, and you can easily spend a whole afternoon in the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide, learning about the horrors that were inflicted on the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
I think what makes this exhibition so powerful is the way that the it combines facts and figures with personal testimony. It can be easy to shrug off statistics. Statistics are impersonal and difficult to relate to. But when you read a statistic, followed by a shocking account of one individual’s experiences, and then look back at the same statistic, the numbers suddenly seem a lot more real.
Coming out of the exhibition, my friends and I were all extremely subdued, an incredible fact considering that just two hours earlier, over breakfast, we’d been laughing so hard at pictures and videos of the night before that tears had been falling down our faces. We’d actually been so giddy at breakfast that we’d all wondered if it was appropriate for us to even go to the museum. We didn’t think that we’d be able to keep our faces straight for longer than 30 seconds.
However, 1.5 hours inside the museum had had a deep effect on all 4 of us and our faces painted a sober picture as we nursed our soft drinks in a nearby cafe, barely speaking as we watched the locals walk by. Despite the final part of the museum restoring some of our faith in humanity (I won’t detail why here because it will ruin it for anybody planning on going), it was impossible not to think of Al, the war veteran with whom we’d spent the previous day. One of the photographs from Al’s personal collection was on display in the museum. He’d lived through all of the things that we had just read about. He had put his life on the line to protect the very people who were systematically raped, beaten and slaughtered, for no crime other than existing.
Just knowing that these things happened in my lifetime, with the war actually beginning in the year that I was born, made it all feel so much more real. As difficult as it is to visit sites such as Auschwitz, knowing that the events that occurred there happened so long ago puts some distance in between the present day visitor and the uncomfortable truths. However, when visiting Bosnia and Herzegovina, there is no distance. While my early memories are of dressing up in fire fighter’s outfits and riding my cat around on my scooter, those of a 24 year old from Sarajevo could well be grenades falling, buildings burning and family members dying.
It may seem odd to visit sites such as Auschwitz, Sachsenhausen, The Killing Fields, S-21 and museums such as the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide. Some people find it disrespectful and think that such places should be buried along with the victims. However, as I argued in my post about dark tourism in Cambodia, I believe that it is not just important to visit such sites, but that we actually owe it to these countries to educate ourselves and pay our respects.
Not everybody is as fortunate as we are. Not everybody gets to grow up in a stable country, away from war and conflict. While humanity can be beautiful, humanity also has an ugly side, and if we are going to travel and admire all of the beauty in the world, we need to bear witness to its ugliness too.
The Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide, 1992-1995 is can be found on Ferhadija 17, Sarajevo and is open every day from 9am until 10pm.