On Memory and Forgetting: PCRC’s One Million Bones (Part II)

Milion kostiju: Put ka Srebrenici (foto: Joanne Teasdale)

“To speak of public memory as the memory of publics is to speak of more than many individuals remembering the same thing. It is to speak of remembrance together, indeed of remembrance together as a crucial aspect of our togetherness, our existence as a public.”

– Kendall Phillips, Framing Public Memory –

This is the second installment in our publication mini-series on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the visual arts. To begin at Part I of this series, click here.

In July 2015, the Post-Conflict Research Center (PCRC) laid out 13 tons of individually handcrafted, ceramic “bones” at the Potočari Cemetery and Memorial Center in Srebrenica, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Entitled One Million Bones: The Road to Srebrenica the installation marked the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, the worst atrocity committed on European soil since the end of the Second World War. For a day, 100,000 “bones” lay glistening under the hot Balkan sun. As the sun set on the cemetery, the bones were packed up and once again stored away. As a memorial, the bones proved a stark reminder of what happened 20 years ago, but they also spoke of the suffering endured by many who survived the genocide and in particular the potential trauma of memory.

Despite its brief time on display, One Million Bones served as a public monument, and as such links itself with some of the other great monuments of the world. These include the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, the Washington Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Sarajevo Roses, the Oklahoma City National Memorial and the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Like all monuments, it is designed to remember a particularly traumatic event in history and the pain it caused countless individuals. Unlike its contemporaries, however, what differentiates One Million Bones is that it is not the “official” monument, nor the “official” memory of the Srebrenica genocide, which would generally be ascribed to the Potočari Memorial Center and Cemetery. It is, in a sense, a kind of supplement, an “anti-monument” whose shocking and brief appearance is designed to tell us something more about what happened all those years ago, about the suffering of others, but also about how we remember. For the viewer, standing in the cemetery at Srebrenica, seeing the bones evokes emotionally charged images from the past, rupturing the present to inhabit our lived reality, only to be repressed and once again shut away. One Million Bones acts as a kind of “flashback.” It is the process and suffering of PTSD made real.

One Million Bones then asks us to remember the crucial role that memory itself played in the Bosnian War. Like most mass killings, the Bosnian Genocide attempted an erasure or an elimination of memory, what Assmann (2011) has defined as a “mnemocide.” For three months in late 1995, Bosnian Serb forces attempted to conceal evidence of the mass murders by removing bodies from primary mass graves and transporting them to secondary and tertiary gravesites around the country. This significantly impeded attempts by forensic scientists to identify human remains, but perhaps, more importantly, has hindered the ability of loved ones to find their relatives and give them the opportunity of a suitable burial. To this day many secondary and tertiary gravesites still remain undisclosed. Almost one thousand victims have still not been found. Hundreds of family members still have no place to go and remember, hindering their chance to grieve and to heal from the traumas of war, which include traumatic memories such as those experienced in PTSD.

One Million Bones elegantly re-enacts the conditions under which this mnemocide took place, but this time with a very different goal in mind. The bones were originally produced under the initiative of The Art of Revolution, in Albuquerque, New Mexico with the aid of thousands of survivors of genocide, as well as community and school groups from across the USA. The bones were then displayed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. as a massive petition against ongoing genocide occurring around the world. Rather than replicating the process of constructing the bones, PCRC, in a symbolic “mass-exhumation,” imported 13 tons of the bones from the United States to Bosnia. While this process recalls the mnemocide that took place 20 years ago, it also speaks of the ongoing work by scientists and families to find and identify loved ones.

One Million Bones at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. (photo: Art of Revolution)
One Million Bones at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. (photo: Art of Revolution)

Given that there still exist high levels of denial related to the Bosnian Genocide, One Million Bones speaks to the processes of memory, forgetting and denial. Its purpose is to promote remembrance, but also to remind us how traumatic some memories can be. And it does this in a particularly public way. A startling feature of the display is that there is no attempt to individualize the victims of the tragedy. Unlike so many public memorials, this particular installation does not attempt to name those who were killed. There are no lists, no singular testimonies, and no pre-established narrative that attempts to present the connection between agents. This allows each visitor to bring his or her own personal memories to the sculpture. Each individual is confronted by a public memory, or what Kendall Phillips has called the “memories of publics.”One Million Bones is literally the collective memory of Srebrenica laid bare. This is important, for in a world that increasingly blames individuals for their memories, pathologizes them and then puts them on medications to “cure” them, One Million Bones reminds us that memories are indeed collective. They are the “threads” that bind us together and make us human.

Laying of the Bones at the Potočari Memorial Center in Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina (photo: Joanne Teasdale)
Laying of the Bones at the Potočari Memorial Center in Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina (photo: Joanne Teasdale)

Next up: A Brief History of Transgenerational Trauma (Part III) 

Further Reading:

Assmann A. (2011). Cultural Memory and Western Civilization: Functions, Media, Archives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Phillips K R (ed). (2004). Framing public memory. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

Bruce Clezy completed a Master of Public Health (MPH) at the University of Melbourne, Australia. During 2017, he was an intern at the Post-Conflict Research Center.  

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