Monday, June 25, 2012

(Ab)use of World Heritage Site causes rifts in Bosnia and Herzegovina

What happens when a theatre of war is elevated to a World Heritage Site while the wounds are still raw? In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the World Heritage Sites have become podiums from which various groups proclaim wrongs done to them in the war. This is shown in a thesis by ethnologist Dragan Nikolić at Lund University, Sweden.

Dragan Nikolić has studied how sites that are included on UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites – the old bridge in Mostar, the bridge over the Drina in Višegrad, and the nomination of the old town in Jajce – have gained a partly different meaning for the local people than that intended by national politicians and the international community.

World Heritage Sites have mainly been seen as a valuable asset for people's identity and a method to market locations. The thesis, Three Towns, Two Bridges and a Museum. Memory, Politics and World Heritage in Bosnia and Herzegovina, poses the question of what happens to World Heritage Sites where culturicide has been committed. Dragan Nikolić shows how the sites have been used strategically in political contexts and how they have been used and abused tactically in day-to-day life at transnational, national, local and individual level. The studies illustrate how the official memory of the World Heritage Sites often collides with the individual memories of members of the population.

"Instead of becoming symbols of reconciliation and pride, the bridges in Mostar and Višegrad, for example, became trouble spots. They were used to reinforce the memory of past injustices and to uphold a victims' perspective in the collective memory. They became a symbol for the role of victim. The people fight over who has suffered most", says Dragan Nikolić.

However, the thesis also gives examples of positive aspects of the involvement of civil society, such as in the case of the AVNOJ museum in Jajce, where many representatives and organisations came together to reinterpret the past.

The thesis follows both the intentions of the authorities and the frustration of the local population when symbolic actions have come before practical engagement, as well as how memorials have become weapons in a conflict that has been resolved only on the surface.

"My research shows that we cannot trivialise either cultural heritage monuments or people's memories; rather, we must strive to understand the interplay between them. Strategies and policies for World Heritage Sites must be changed and the authorities must follow up what happens after a place is designated a World Heritage Site, i.e. spend more time on the use and the practices that develop around this type of monument", says Dragan Nikolić.

Dragan Nikolić grew up in Bosnia Herzegovina and came to Sweden as a refugee in 1993 at the age of 17. This has given him a unique insider and outsider perspective in the work on his thesis. He defended his thesis in ethnology on 25 May at Lund University. The title of the thesis is Three Towns, Two Bridges and a Museum. Memory, Politics and World Heritage in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

EurekAlert. 2012. "(Ab)use of World Heritage Site causes rifts in Bosnia and Herzegovina". EurekAlert. Posted: June 7, 2012. Available online:

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