By Patrick McCarthy
Director, Medical Center Library
St. Louis University
They came by the hundreds – old and young, Bosnian and American.
Zerina Musić (center) born fifteen years ago in the Trnopolje concentration camp, cuts the ribbon with Vedad Karahodžić to open the exhibit, Prijedor: Lives from the Bosnian Genocide at the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, November 25, 2007.
Even before the official opening time, Museum staff stopped counting the numbers of people entering the building at 400 – and still they kept coming – on a cold and rainy Sunday afternoon that ended the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. A bus brought 60 Bosnian elderly into an already packed facility, where the line to get into the exhibit now filled the entrance hallway and backed up a flight of stairs leading to the gallery space.
The overflow crowds had come to see the new multi-media exhibit Prijedor: Lives from the Bosnian Genocide at the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center. With major funding and support from the Missouri Humanities Council, the exhibit is a unique collaboration among Bosnians from Prijedor, the staff of the Holocaust Museum, and students and faculty from Fontbonne University who conducted video interviews with local survivors from Prijedor.
From the outset, it was apparent that the day’s events would be much more than an ordinary exhibit opening. The young woman who cut the ribbon to open the exhibit, Zerina Musić, had been born fifteen years earlier in the Trnopolje concentration camp just outside Prijedor. Her mother Erzena was told by the Serb authorities who attended the birth, “If the baby is a boy, we will take him. If it is a girl, you can keep her.”
Award-winning British journalist, Ed Vulliamy, the first print reporter to gain access to Prijedor’s wartime network of concentration camps, provided the keynote address following brief remarks by Jean Cavender, the Museum Director, Amir Karadžić, the overall exhibit project coordinator, and Dr. Bisera Turković, Ambassador to the United States from Bosnia-Herzegovina.
In the packed gallery space, Bosnian survivors from Prijedor and their children pressed shoulder-to-shoulder with Americans who came to learn more about the experiences that brought the large local Bosnian community to live, work, and rebuild their lives in St. Louis, Missouri. Now numbering more than 50,000, Bosnian refugees in St. Louis form the largest such community of any city in the world.
Bosnian visitors view exhibit panels about attacks on the towns of Kozarac and Hambarine, near Prijedor.
Tears flowed freely among Bosnian and American visitors who quietly viewed a series of exhibit panels detailing the chronology of events in Prijedor during the war years 1992 to 1995. Many lingered at a display case containing the sweater and boots recovered with the body of Dr. Kemal Cerić, one of Prijedor’s intelligentsia targeted for liquidation, whose remains were identified using DNA comparison with relatives. Hushed conversations stopped when visitors came to photographs of camp prisoners with washboard ribcages that recalled images from the permanent Holocaust exhibit in the next room.
Exhibit panel with a photo on an inmate at the Trnopolje concentration camp. (Panels designed by Barbara Nwacha).
For some, it was the first time they had directly confronted what had taken place in Prijedor: an organized and systematic terror campaign that consisted of the forced deportation of nearly all of the area’s non-Serb population and the imprisonment of thousands in concentration camps where they were subjected to mass killing, sexual assault, torture, and humiliation on a scale unseen in Europe since the end of the Second World War.
For others, the response was much more personal and emotional. For Alisa Gutić, from Kozarac whose father was killed in the war, the exhibit and opening program provided a transformative release for pent-up feelings kept private for most of her life. “Through the years, I have cursed and hated myself for being Bosnian because I was only three years old when I lost my father,” Alisa wrote in the days following the exhibit. “Still today my father has not been found and I curse everything about the war!”
Now a student at Saint Louis University, Alisa continued:
“I see my life differently now…For years I have been searching for myself and trying to find out who I really am, and your exhibit and the beautiful messages are just leading me in the right direction. Today, I can finally say what I couldn't a week ago, that I am very proud to be Bosnian and that my hatred can one day cease as I discover who I am and why I am here today and not dead like so many in Bosnia.”
Journalist Ed Vulliamy speaks with young Bosnians after his keynote address, including Alisa Gutić, far right.
“You are not supposed to be here,” Ed Vulliamy said as he began his remarks, addressing the members of the audience from Prijedor. “You are supposed to be dead.”
Vulliamy’s comments passed liked an electrical current through the tightly packed audience, who paid rapt attention to the man to whom many credit their survival. Within days of Vulliamy’s August, 1992 visit to Prijedor’s camps, a series of reports he wrote for the Guardian newspaper contributed to a worldwide outcry that brought abrupt closure to the concealed places of despair and death from which there had previously been no exit.
Vulliamy’s presence before the survivors and their families brought an emotional intensity to the crowded room that was palpable as they spontaneously rose to their feet to welcome him with loud applause. Vulliamy’s impassioned call for “reckoning” with the genocide in Prijedor as a necessary prelude to reconciliation resonated deeply with Bosnians seeking to “forgive but never to forget” while offering important solace to those torn between looking back into the darkest chapters of their lives and moving forward into the future.
As he continued his comments (simultaneously interpreted from English to Bosnian by Kemal Cerić’s son, Jasmin), Vulliamy asked those assembled, “Why should you be asked to reconcile with the perpetrators of crimes that are not even admitted, let alone reckoned with?”
“It is not the Jews who are building monuments in Berlin and museums like that at Dachau, but the Germans,” Vulliamy remarked, as he highlighted efforts to minimize, obscure, and dismiss the experiences documented in the new exhibition.
While noting that comparisons of the Bosnian genocide with the Holocaust were not appropriate, Vulliamy related an earlier discussion with Walter Reich, then Director of the United States Holocaust Museum, in which they agreed that “echoes” of the Holocaust were certainly apparent in the “ethnic cleansing” of Prijedor.
As the crowds moved into the large atrium space in the Museum building for a closing reception of Bosnian food prepared according to Jewish dietary laws, Amir Karadžić, former Prijedor resident and the project’s overall head, whose unannounced visit to the Holocaust Museum’s Director more than two years earlier provided the initial impetus for the exhibit, reflected on the huge turnout. “This was the right place and the right time. We needed to tell our story, and we are grateful to the many friends who made it possible for us to do so.”
The members of Karadžić’s Union of Citizens of the Municipality of Prijedor, who developed the exhibit’s content with Fontbonne University faculty members Dr. Ben Moore and Dr. Jack Luzkow, are now discussing plans to move the exhibition to other U.S. cities with large Bosnian communities after its St. Louis run ends in May, 2008.
Exhibit guests Subhija and Rešad Kulenović, whose son was killed in Prijedor in 1992.
“This exhibit is not meant to feed a spirit of vengeance and retribution,” said Karadžić. “We want our children to know what happened in Prijedor so that they can prevent this from ever happening again to anyone, anywhere.”
Survivor and exhibit consultant, Dr. Said Karahodžić, poignantly summarized the sentiments of many about Prijedor’s recent past when he said, “We are ready to forgive, but first someone has to say, ‘I’m sorry.’”
Patrick McCarthy is exhibit advisor to Prijedor: Lives from the Bosnian Genocide and is Director of the Medical Center Library at Saint Louis University. He can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com.