The Unbearable Voyeur Tourism of Sarajevo

 

When I first came to Sarajevo I overheard a pretty good-intentioned American proclaim that he just wasn’t going to be happy for the rest of the day;  he had just been to a photo exhibition depicting the events that took place in the city two decades ago. The poor bastard’s day had been ruined by the images of the many massacres committed during the war by the Yugoslavian army. Turns out, he didn’t have too bad of a night; I think he pulled that night.

I can’t hold it against him. Images showing scores upon scores of the corpses of innocent Muslim, Croat and Serb Bosnians certainly isn’t the type of shit to place one’s day into high gear. But in an odd way, it is rather comforting to see individuals becoming upset by images of urban starvation, dead children and women being raped. We’re not that desensitized to horrific sights just yet. However, it was shocking that he was shocked. We all knew this was what we were going to see upon booking our flights to Bosnia.

For those of us in our twenties, residing in our glorious post-industrial societies, ‘Bosnia’ and the names of the other ex-Yugoslavian countries is shorthand for ‘genocide’. I have no proof of this but if you were to conduct a mass game of word association you would more than likely conjure up the words like ‘massacre’, ‘extermination’, and maybe perhaps for the more political-inclined types; ‘displacement’.  I’d love to tell you that we’d get more positive terms like ‘Red Star Belgrade’ or ‘white people that can actually play basketball’, but maybe that’s just being cheeky. Entrenched in Western collective memory, we see this region as fucked, beyond repair, and counter to all that we aspire to. It’s why we like the UN.

This is why I was so bewildered at how this rather open-minded and intelligent American was surprised to realize that some seriously fucked up stuff happened here throughout the 90’s. As there was global coverage of the war at the time, we all knew the facts of the atrocities that occurred here and for most people it was what inspired them to book their flights here. We wanted to see the horror and devastation that had happened upon the people of Bosnia by those terrible, terrible Serbs. We wanted to really digest the stories of women being raped on mass, and how many of them bore the bastard children to the rejection of their villages. We made the trip to Bosnia not because we rocked out to the music of Zabranjeno pušenje  or admire the occasional scoring sprees of Edin Dzeko. We came to see the place where those people who were besieged in their own city by blockades and snipers, or those classmates that showed up when we were 6 years old that couldn’t speak any English was like.  We came to confirm Bosnia as a place where humanity lost its humanity.

No doubt, everyone who comes here gets to see a mixture of the horrors of a dreadful war, coupled with a really pretty old town. Say what you will, Bosnians are skilled like no others in mixing European romanticism with hellish stories. It’s like a hybrid of Paris and Leningrad circa 1944: cobblestones and pockmarked walls. Most tourists leave with endless sympathy for the Bosnian people, and I certainly don’t blame them for doing so. Bosnia went through an incredible hardship. It is all sort of natural.

I don’t find this problematic because I think there is some mistruth. From what I can tell, the free walking tours marking out the ‘Sarajevo Roses’ or the spots on the hills where the snipers were positioned are not part of some broader propaganda exercise. I can’t blame individuals for profiting off it. Bosnia isn’t a rich country and any additional income can only be positive for all parties concerned. I, however, can’t help but think that tourists are imposing, entrenching, and fostering a very narrow projection upon this country and region that is rooted in the belief that there is a protracted hatred ingrained and carried over by one generation to another.

Tourists come to Sarajevo to confirm this as the place where white people practiced their savagery. Unlike the centuries of peace and tranquility among the peoples of Western Europe or North America. It is the beginning of the long slope into the orient. We love the Balkans and the mystique it is covered in because it reaffirms our civility and mindfulness of the inalienable rights of men that grounds our own countries. Plus, they’re a great prop because their skin tone is more or less white, so how racist can one be in feeling this way? Slavoj Zizek speaks about ‘the gaze’ that reduces the Balkans to a hellish space when he states,

The fantasy which organised the perception of ex-Yugoslavia is that of the Balkans as the Other of the West: the place of savage ethnic conflicts long ago overcome by civilised Europe, the place where nothing is forgotten and nothing learned, where old traumas are being replayed again and again, where symbolic links are simultaneously devalued (dozens of cease-fires broken) and overvalued (the primitive warrior’s notions of honour and pride).

As such, Westerners reduce the Balkans to a region not where East and West meet but where the West is tainted by the East. It is juxtaposed to confirm the West’s commitment to rationalism and liberalism. We travel to the Balkans to re-affirm our Western values by being shocked and mortified by all the horrors of the 90’s, despite being well aware of those atrocities. The result is what emerges from this perverted tourism is an undemocratic viewpoint that reduces an entire area to a one-dimensional image.

Even more dangerous, we in the West fucking love it. The West is charmed and seduced by the Balkans as a place where the human spirit is unbounded by the limits of rationality and liberalism. “Underground” and “Black cat, white cat” by Emir Kusturica are admired for their outlandish characters that are primal, drunk, and usually wearing a tank top with suspenders. We love Goran Bregovic because he can’t really sing. Zizek argues that we in the West love it because we presume that people in the Balkans indulge in an irrational joy we could never experience. They’re all heart and no head, unlike us.

Despite the humanistic intentions of many tourists that partake in walking tours of the Siege of Sarajevo or take a day trip out to Srebrenica, the problem isn’t that one should ignore the ugly aspects of a nation’s history and culture. Rather, it is that most of the discourse and conversations surrounding these issues are entrenched in a very one-dimensional conversation regarding the Balkans. Imposing such an image acts to deny the heterodoxy of the Balkans. It subverts the idea that individuals in the Balkans can differ from these set stereotypes and not be defined by their particular nation or opposition to another nation. It disregards the fact that for centuries Sarajevo was known as “Europe’s Jerusalem” ; where Christianity, Islam and Judaism lived in harmony. The ethnic background of all parties shouldn’t define both their past and present.

Bosnia and the rest of the Balkans is like anywhere else in the world in that their history is marked by incredible diversity and a contradictory complexity that holds no centers and unifying themes, in spite of the endless attempts to understand and explain it. Although it might appear humanistic to want to learn more; to commemorate and empathize with Bosnia for it’s deep scars, it simply acts to re-entrench a one-dimensional view of the Balkans. I can’t advise an alternative but I think you ought to just get drunk.

Photo Credit: Juc Pec Pics

Originally published in July 2015