How much past is enough?

A warm August afternoon in the middle of the 25th Sarajevo Film Festival, at a conference room without daylight, filled with chairs similar to school benches and a group of youth from the region participating in the Dealing with the Past Programme [L1]. I thought that there would be no discussion, because there was the SFF and socialising on the one hand, and a discussion as to whether the past is important or not (and ours is really challenging), on the other hand. I soon realised that all the cheerful things (summer, SFF, socialising) were with us in that room and wanted to talk about the challenges they are facing – the past. It is imprecise and inaccurate to say that they are bothered by the past – these young people are bothered by the way in which the past is present in their lives; they are bothered by the noise about the different ‘truths’ and silence about the pain; they are also bothered by the fact that they in particular should be aware of the past and never forget it. Why should we reconcile, when we have not even fought? And there it is, this question in all of its glory, which I sometimes hear from a particularly brave individual from a group discussing the past. Because the past means the 90s, it means war and it means some sort of reconciliation. It also means searching for the truth, choosing which interpretation is right or it simply means taking over the delivered narrative about the past and going with the flow. This question is so deep and thoughtful in its honesty, although it may sound like a platitude and logical. To be honest, this question is more an answer than a question. Due to the following reasons:

a) Young people are sick of the past, they do not want to deal with it. However, even if you think that you are not dealing with the past, the past is dealing with you. At every corner, at school, at home, on TV and web portals. Young people want a future unburdened by the past. Generations that remember the conflicts from the 90s are leaving, and while doing so, they are also leaving the germs of repulsion, caution and borders behind. For this reason, it is important to discuss the past and get rid of these walls that have been built, without waiting for silence to cover what we refuse to see. Oblivion is deceptive – especially in those cases in which institutional divisions are kept alive – in the entities, textbooks, monoethnic communities, a false certainty that it is better that way. Is the past truly finished?  

b) We will never reach a compromise on the past, so why should we even bother to search for the ‘truth’? Because the truth we are searching for is not a compromise. Because it is everywhere and nowhere. Because there are truths that cannot be reconciled due to the fact that they cannot be pushed into a pre-cut mould of what happened. And for this very reason: a compromise lies in listening and understanding the other. You know, all three sides feel pain. Talking about the past does not mean talking only about numbers or reciprocity; our story about the past is a story about fear and horror that are difficult to understand, but not impossible. And our story about the past is not only burdensome and ugly. Listen: there are also truths that you will wish to know and remember. Including also bad things, because all of these are only one side of the same coin, which only maybe can be called ‘truth’.

c) We are functioning well without this imposed reconciliation. Yes, reconciliation is such a worn-out word here! So many projects, so many budgets, hotels, seminars, and youth still believe that they do not need organised reconciliation. After 25 years of civil society sector’s activities related to reconciliation, it would be too simple to say that project funds were used for nothing at all. Just as we should stop and ask ourselves: ok, what have we done so far and what do we need now. That is what we need to understand – it is no longer about working with generations that have survived the war and must find a way to live in peace. Working with generations that remember the war through memories of the older generation is a challenge that must be met. Because of a) and b) above and because of the fact that the word ‘reconciliation’ makes us sick to the extent that it has become the prophesied project outcome. According to their logic matrix, reconciliation means face-to-face meetings, friendships and discussions, with the output that it is not a taboo to go visit a friend in Novi Sad. And vice versa.

During the screening of the film Born in Evin, I saw well known faces of our discussion. A group of youth that are truly interested in the past. I watched the film wide eyed and wide eared, trying to catch sighs, squirming, and other reactions of my young participants in the discussion and other persons from the audience. It seemed to me that following someone else’s life in a re-examination of the past is easier than talking about one’s own past. At the beginning of the film, the main protagonist lands with a parachute in the middle of nowhere, a landscape that resembles a desert, with few scrawny trees, without anything else on the horizon. However, she is going somewhere, walking with her parachute on her back, hunched and with heavy steps, pulling the huge parachute tarpaulin behind her. The film follows the film author and actress, Maryam Zaree, in her attempt to discover the truth about her own birth in one of the notorious global prisons for political prisoners. Persecution and captivity have never been discussed in her family, and Maryam wants to know what happened, searching for answers to questions about the circumstances and the place of her birth. Not even she herself knows how to explain why it matters so much to know this to her mother, a psychiatrist, and to people she meets. She persistently searches, does not give up and faces her own fears and risks. She describes her parents’ silence as ‘dark’, in the same way in which she describes how she sees the past that her parents refuse to talk about – as dark, burdensome and painful.

When we spoke during our session, young people from the region were very honest. These are not simple topics that can be attributed to mistakes made by ‘older persons’, and no matter whose fault this is, it has an impact on them – young people.

I am aware that discussions lead to discovering yourself and make you open for other people and different perspectives, so I imagine young people when they go back home, like pebbles you throw in calm waters. You know how their ‘plop’ disturbs the surface of the water, creating circles that become bigger and bigger? This is how I imagine these young people, agitating their local surfaces, family and friends and how they spread their thoughts, creating larger circles than any panel discussion will ever encompass. This is why our discussions are good. And this is why their gatherings are important. Their role, if I think of it, is similar to the one of films – it opens up other dimensions, other perspectives creates empathy, provokes a dialogue, emotions, and involves many invited, uninvited, unknown, but important people of all generations, ethnic groups, sexes and genders. The only question is, both in case of films and young people, will they jump and disturb the seemingly peaceful waters?

I will never say jump and create circles (although I am always secretly hoping for this)! I will not say it because I know that it is not fair to place the responsibility for all horrors that have been perpetrated on the back of young people and oblige them to face the past. Not because facing the past does not matter, but rather because I know how difficult it is. This will not happen overnight and there are no magic boots that can cover seven mountains and rivers and lead to peace and happiness. No matter how ridiculous it may seem, afternoon discussions about why a human life is equally valuable anywhere constitute a big step forward. And why parents are afraid when they are supposed to let their children go to the other entity. And why they wish to leave or stay here. The resistance against facing the past that has been inherited is present and it is understandable. However, it can be overcome only if one understands why it is needed.

The last scene of the film shows Maryam still in the middle of nowhere, still going somewhere with heavy steps. She opens the handles of the parachute, getting rid of the weight of the enormous parachute that helped her land. She turns towards us, nods at us, and continues walking with light steps, leaving the parachute in the middle of nowhere, where she landed.  


The author is a LL.D candidate and is currently working as a legal advisor and independent researcher. She focuses on facing the past, and in particular the culture of remembrance, human rights, constitutional law. She has published articles, analytical, scientific and research works in these fields.