The sheer amount of what Banja Luka wishes to forget is so big that the emptiness formed by it cannot be filled, not even by new pop-mythologies or nationalist narratives and monuments.
My grandmother and grandfather Šušnica were proud residents of the Bosnian Krajina from the villages of Dabar and Podlug, close to the Grmeč mountain. Both of them joined the Yugoslav Partisans at 16 in World War II. Grandfather Djuro, along with his four brothers, joined the Sixth Krajina Brigade. Grandmother Mira joined the Proletarian Brigade and was wounded at the battle of the Sutjeska in consecutive fights with Četniks and the Germans. She survived typhus while retreating with what remained of the Dalmatian brigade. They met and married at the end of the war.
The proud son of Partisans
My grandfather undertook garrison service on the Bulgarian and then the Albanian border. My father was born in Pirot and, together with his brother, grew up in Tetovo. When they came to Banja Luka in 1960, they spoke Macedonian but understood Serbo-Croatian. They were true Partisans and communists who took care of their neighbourhood and friends and thoroughly enjoyed their shared life with all the people and nations of Bosnia. These beliefs weren’t swayed even an iota at the onset of the faithless 1990s. They were never religious, nor did they have any traces of a nationalist construction of Serbianhood.
Looking back, I know that they, like everyone from the Krajina, saw themselves as Orthodox Serbs, but gave this neither political nor existential meaning. Their ethnography, culture, and economic circumstances during the 20th century were incredibly far from the monolithic and homogenizing political construct of Serbianhood which emanated from Belgrade and Vojvodina during the 1920s, 30s, and later 1980s and 90s. On the contrary, their experience was truly Bosnian, or more precisely, Krajina Bosnian. [Editor’s note: The Bosnian Krajina, or borderland, is the historic region at the edges of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. It was mainly populated by Serbs who served as militia for imperial armies, and the region is known for the large number of uprisings and revolts against colonial rule. The Krajina was also the site of fierce resistance to the fascist regime in WWII, and one of the most ethnically diverse Partisan movements in Yugoslavia.]
I remember my grandmother’s comment on a photo of Četniks and Serbian volunteers on the barricades in Croatia in 1991. “Son,” she told me, “these bearded Četniks and priests are back; I thought that we’d triumphed over all that once and for all. They’ll come for our heads.”
My mother’s father Ostoja joined the Partisans at 16 as well, along with a doctor called Mladen, and participated in the uprising on Kozara Mountain. He survived the first Nazi, Ustaša, and Četnik offensive on that mountain. When he returned to his village, reprisals had begun. Prisoners of war, anti-fascists, and villagers were killed or taken to the concentration camps at Stara Gradiška and Jasenovac. Men—my grandfather among them—were sent to work camps in Austria and Germany. He escaped after four months and returned to the Partisans, first with the Slovenians and then back to Bosnia.
An oasis of variety
When I think of my childhood, I always remember the experiences and friends from the two Banja Luka neighbourhoods where I grew up – Rosulja and Borik. My nicest and most nostalgic memories are from the working class neighbourhood of Borika, where I spent my sweet, pre-war teenage years. The river Vrbas, the kayak club, my friends Mufta, Muhamed, Sina, Smailaga, Albin, Boro, Pota… Kayak competitions on rivers all over the former Yugoslavia. Playing with friends from my building: Jimmy, Smaja, Roske, Darma…
First loves and crushes. I remember a girl called Elizabeth Sotelo, who we called Betty Boop. The mere mention of her name made my ears red. The Banja Luka and Borik of my childhood were, compared to the city now, an oasis of various people, names, family stories, customs, and histories, different beliefs and narratives, different temperaments.
I remember how, on the eve of the war, everyone in Banja Luka had started their own small business. People made and exported bedsheets, leather goods, and who knows what else. Cafés and patisseries were busy and successful, especially the ones in Borik: K4, Venecija, Monet, Kayak, Tilt, Džoj, and Moskva. Things were good until they started to promise us that we’ll soon be eating with golden spoons. Then more than half of my friends left the neighbourhood.
Twilight of the golden spoons
I started high school in the fall of 1991, which is where I experienced the first shocks of the war. I remember how my classroom friends disappeared one by one. And then, a few days or a week later, someone brings the news that Selma, or Valentin, or Mario won’t be returning to school and that they’d left Banja Luka. These were traumas for me.
It was in high school that they first started categorizing us by nationality. Sometime in May 1992, my teacher Mile Sumrak (lit. Twilight), vice principal and member of the SDS party, entered our classroom and said, “Come on kids, write down your name and nationality here,” and circulated a paper. When it finally came to me I realized for the first time that children aren’t only children but Serbs, Muslims, and Croats. I was so shocked I couldn’t move.
Now I know that these exclamations of nationality were the first step in the process of dehumanization. I didn’t know which category I belonged to and wrote down that I was a Yugoslav. Bojan, sitting next to me, did the same. Sumrak took the list and left, but came back after a short while, and told Bojan and I that the Yugoslav nationality didn’t exist, that the country no longer existed, and that we’d have to identify differently. I told him that I didn’t know what else to write and that I’d ask my mother, and left class confused.
Now I think how symbolic it is that all the woe and suffering of Serb nationalism and the war was brought into our classroom by someone with the last name ‘Twilight’. In 1992, half of my class disappeared, as well as a lot of my Banja Luka. The twilight of war cleaned up the streets, neighbourhoods, villages, and memories. And now Serb nationalism tries to sell us the story that those times, those people, those children, and that life never existed. And that it’s better like this.
‘I don’t know why or for what’
For me, the beginning of the war is symbolized by my cousin Boris, the child of a mixed marriage, who ended up going from a Yugoslav Army barrack to Vukovar at the age of 18. He was a tank operator and survived his post, returning home in 1991. He had stories that made me sick of the whole thing from the beginning. He told me, “We came into Vukovar in tanks at the very beginning. I don’t know why or for what, but there I am. Bullets start hitting the tank and my foot slips off the gas. The tank stops, I start crying. Fuck, I think, where are they taking me? The whole column stops, and Officer Šljivančanin yells at all of us like a slavedriver.”
That winter, my father managed to pick up Andrej, a young man from Belgrade, from the front near Strug. He brought him home and told me: “Get him ready. He’s going home today so he doesn’t get killed.” He literally took him off an armoured car and brought him to Banja Luka. The boy had mud in his hair and ears, his eyes like saucers, shaking. He put on civilian clothes and his earring and left for Belgrade. I think he lives in Italy now. We still have his soldier’s letters.
People of all ethnicities who were recruited in Banja Luka in 1992 increasingly started returning from Croatia in coffins. I remember the trees in Petar Kočić park plastered with obituaries.
Went to bed with a five-pointed star and woke up wearing Serbian insignia
In March 1992 my dad and I went fishing on the Pliva river, with dad’s colleague Zoka from the Interior Ministry. On the road, Zoka ejected the cassette of Merima Njegomir and put in one of his of some Četnik songs. My dad asks him, “Since when do you listen to this?” Zoka replies that he’s always listened to them. I laugh from the back of the Yugo 45: “Sure you did, but on a Walkman!” I see my father’s angry glance in the rearview mirror. I got a slap, and shut up until we got home. My father stood me in front of him and told me I had to be careful what I said to people. I’ve never heeded this advice.
The majority of Serbs simply went to bed with a five-pointed star and woke up wearing Serbian insignia, not knowing what had happened to them. When they realized, it was too late for them and for their families. All other stories are attempts at justifying why Partisans and communists became Četniks and nationalists.
In April 1992, my family experienced the zest of Serbian nationalism. My father, Miodrag Šušnica, was killed by paramilitary forces of the SDS, the so-called SOS, by the order of Stojan Župljanin and the upper echelons of the SDS. The local press pinned the murder on Muslims and Croats from Banja Luka. After the murder, our apartment was searched several times, my father’s belongings removed, and my mother followed. My father’s police colleagues and friends managed to solve the murder, but the case was never heard before a court. The perpetrators, organizers, and accomplices live in the same city as me. To make things more absurd, the article which accused and then dehumanized all Muslims and Croats was written by our family friend, Boro Matić. When my mother asked him why he was lying, he responded that he had to. We’ve had no contact with him since.
Friends and neighbours renounced
That April in 1992 was the beginning of organized terror tactics and expulsions of non-Serbs from Banja Luka. I lost friends from the neighbourhood, from the theatre club, from school… By the end of the war, 220 people were killed in Banja Luka and 75,000 expelled, just because they were Muslim or Croat. And Banja Luka didn’t have even one day of war. Serbs renounced their friends and neighbours for an imaginary Serbianhood.
I witnessed how a group of nationalists walked through town forcing boys to cross themselves, beating them if they fumbled or did it in the ‘wrong’ way. I remember them pulling down boys’ underwear to see if they were circumcised, beating them if they were. I watched how they threw people out of their apartments, broke into their houses, beat them with rifles on the streets, and took them to who knows where.
I remember when the Ferhadija Mosque was demolished, along with a few other mosques that day. It was May 1993 and all the glass in the surrounding buildings shattered. Apart from the glass of the Interior Ministry, who knew the mosque would be demolished and opened their windows. I couldn’t believe it and didn’t want to. Some celebrated, some cried.
I remember the day when our neighbours the Kalkanis and my friend Samir left Banja Luka. The morning was quiet. The Džonlić family left shortly after. Samir’s brother was hiding from the army and didn’t go out at all except to change hiding places. He hid at our house too. He was what’s called a floater—someone who lives in the parts of town where they wouldn’t recognize that he was Muslim or Croat. Foreigners have given even this category of people a name.
Today’s Banja Luka doesn’t resemble the old one. Even during the war, the new Serbian government had erased all Muslim and Croat names—as well as those not Serbian enough—from streets, community centres, and schools. They demolished every mosque in Banja Luka and the Francisan monastery in Petričevac. At the diocese in the city, eight Catholic priests were killed, while others were imprisoned and tortured. In September 1992, Serb nationalists arrested a prominent imam in the middle of the street.
In the years after the war, they demolished or let fall apart cultural monuments, sculptures of Bosnian artists, medieval fortresses, and old Bosnian houses. Almost every vestige of anything Ottoman, Muslim, Catholic, Austrian, or Bosnian was destroyed. Partisan monuments were also targets of organized amnesia, although a few years after the war some of the busts of national heroes were returned to Banja Luka, which isn’t the case elsewhere. Everything with a Bosnian heritage or which speaks to a prior inter-ethnic and communal life has been deliberately forgotten.
Archives and police and court records were burned, at first for money and for fun, and later systematically and on a mass scale. The sheer amount of what Banja Luka wishes to forget is so big that the emptiness formed by it cannot be filled, not even by new pop-mythologies or nationalist narratives and monuments. In addition to tens of new Orthodox churches, Banja Luka got a monument of Stefan Nemanja, a 12th century “Grand Prince” of a Serbian medieval principality later canonised by the Serbian Orthodox Church, and Ban Milosavljević, a politician perceived by many as the moderniser of the city during the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Serbian flags can be seen everywhere, while Bosnian flags fly only on state institutions.
The poisoning continues
My own research demonstrates that Serbian officials in Banja Luka changed the names of 50% of the city’s streets, around 240 of them, removing all non-Serb narratives and replacing them exclusively with Serb and Orthodox ones. This is maybe one of the most visible examples of urbicide and culture-cide in Banja Luka, especially for the city’s oldest residents who are witnessing the change. It’s uncomfortable for me to live on a street named after a Četnik from World War II, let alone for someone whose family was expelled or killed by the Serb army.
In the last six or seven years, Milorad Dodik’s domination of public and media space has completely poisoned the the political arena and young people with clero-nationalism and ethno-fascism. Simultaneously, Dodik and his clique breezily steal public money and resources, masking their crimes with nationalist populism. Dodik and his tycoons have for years moved their wealth and assets across borders to Serbia, Russia, and Switzerland.
Plenty of people in Banja Luka don’t accept this nationalist bullshit, and it’s among them that I’ve made my friends. We try to mark incidents and places and raise public consciousness of the crimes and genocide committed against non-Serbs in Banja Luka, Prijedor, Srebrenica, and other towns in Republika Srpska. Along with our neighbours—Bosniaks and Croats—we mark the sufferings of all people in Bosnia, though I focus on the crimes committed against non-Serbs by Serbs in the name of Serbianhood.
Why? Because our children will be ashamed of what we committed on the eve of the 21st century. The Serb governments and armed forced of the 1990s, taking over and cleansing town by town in Croatia and Bosnia in a hallucinogenic revelry of defense of so-called Serbian land, has devalued Serbian victims of Jasenovac, Jadovno, and other places of loss. Gunther Grass told the Germans: Only when you truly feel shame for what was done in your name and you experience real catharsis, only then do you have the right to your own tears.
Is there any such reckoning in Banja Luka, in Republika Srpska, in Serbia? No! If there was, Banja Luka wouldn’t be part of RS, and RS would not exist, because people would renounce the most shameful period in Serbian history. And that city wouldn’t be the centre of denial of genocide and systematic war crimes. It would not be a city of amnesia and forgetting of all that is not Serbian.
We can all call on humanity and on the five-pointed star, on Tito and the Partisans, but our wartime leaders were uber-Četniks, uber-nationalists, and madmen. The current ruling political elite in Banja Luka and in Serbia is hardly different in their ideology from those war criminals – just their methods and masks have been somewhat refined.
I fear new conflicts in Bosnia.
This article was originally published on Protest.ba, as ‘Grad zaborava i ignorisanja.’ It was translated by Balkanist and republished with permission.