3. The Past and Present on Sites


The city experienced 1,825 days of siege during the Bosnian war (Cerkez 2012). Life in the neighborhoods described above was crippled during this time. Water had to be carried up many floors in canisters to flats without electricity and heating. Upper floors of high-rise buildings became death traps, and during bombardments people gathered in the damp and cold basements. 


During the war, most of the infrastructure – such as transportation, electricity, and water supply systems, hospitals and schools – were heavily damaged or destroyed. Many residential buildings were also significantly damaged, and 11,541 citizens – including 600 children – lost their lives (Sito-Sucic 2012). According to author Steve Goodman, for children “fear comes through the ears rather [than] the eyes” (2012: 66). 


But I don’t remember the fear. Perhaps these memories are not accessible to my adult mind; perhaps the jumbled-up moments from the past lie in a locked drawer. On my first day at the improvised school in the basement of my building, I was given a big sandwich and a jar of milk. I remember thinking: this is my life, my normal, probably everyone lives like this. I could not remember peacetime. The stories about life before the war seemed fantastic to me, hardly believable. 


Such devastation and the nature of the warfare, in which the civilian population were experiencing imminent threat around the clock every day, have left many scars in the city. At every corner, the names of the people who died during this period are commemorated. Plaques can be found on the walls of schools, public and residential buildings and bridges and in markets and parks. This recent past turns the city and many of its gathering places into memorial sites. Certain expressions in everyday speech – such as samo da ne puca (just as long as there is no shooting) and čuvaj se (beware of) – are testimony of this past.


In 2009, a study in Sarajevo and its immediate surroundings showed that up to 82 percent of citizens between the ages of 31 and 50 exhibit some war-related stress symptoms. Of them, 30 percent suffer severely and are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Kanton Sarajevo. Ministarstvo Zdravlja 2009). Yet, as of now, no large-scale mental health support is available. 


Jim Marshall, a resident of the city for twenty years, spent a year and a half in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the war, participating in an international aid program. He observed that: “a year, year and a half of war is like 10 or 15 years of normal life, you know. So, I understand a lot of it, I understand people’s, how it affects people’s moods and how it affects people’s behaviour” (Interview with Marshall 2016).


When asked about sounds that trigger memories, he described:


The worst sound I have ever heard in my life was not actually the sound of shells exploding. It was the sound of the sirens going off in the city before you knew the shells were coming. There was something that really, really disturbed you know, really deep in your stomach, you know. There was something very, very terrifying about that. (Interview with Marshall 2016)


During another interview, Mensur Demir also described the sound of sirens, but in the following way:


A siren marking a general emergency, in childhood, gets eternally engraved as a moment in your head, [precisely a moment when] a siren is warming up and starts. Before it really starts to shout, announcing a general emergency, we must all flee to the basements and such, and yes, before this shout, you already feel goosebumps, and you move before it [the siren] even starts shouting. Then, a few years later, I hear that same siren used in Jungle or Techno [Electronic Dance Music] and wonder how come [this is] some strange copy of that same symbol. The same signal [is displaced] into a kind of [tolerable] alarm, into some madness of ecstasy, of individual dance in a mass of million. (Demir 2016)[11]


It is difficult to articulate these feelings and memories as, according to Goodman, a siren’s “very modulation of frequency produces a state of alert that can undermine and override cognition” (2012: 66). Additionally, “to prolong survival, it is claimed, the body has developed three basic affects in response to fear: the fight, flight, and freeze responses. These three affects travel down three lines: the fight, flight, and freeze responses” (Goodman 2012: 66).


Although I was relocated several times within Sarajevo during the war, I don’t remember the sirens. It is possible that I spent some of the worst periods of bombardments in Dobrinja, very close to the line of fire, so sirens were not used, or my childhood brain could not process them. I do remember, though, that we could distinguish the type of weapons and the caliber of the ammunition flying around us. 


My mum once relayed to me what my dad told her about the moment he almost lost his life. He realized – through the sound he heard – that the projectile was going to hit very close to him, but he didn’t have time to throw himself to the ground. Instead, he rotated his body and used his arms to protect his vital organs from the blast of shrapnel. “After the bang, I thought, “Nothing has been left of me,’” he told her.


The sound of sirens or fireworks is often mentioned as a trigger for war memories. This shows how memories of sound become part of the common experience of life, part of the group identity of people who experienced the conflict firsthand:


However, in terms of memory, yes, that, I think that aspect [sound] is very interesting.  That we often, quite by accident, return to the topic of war. We were talking about Sarajevo before this interview, about the river, the [sonic] impression of the river during the war period, when we didn’t have glass in the windows.[12] The acoustic impression was very different because there was no public transportation either.


So, the second association that often comes to my mind, which you could hear from some Sarajevans who were here during the war, is an aversion to fireworks. Fireworks have marked some cultural events or celebrations in most of these urban environments. However, the sound of fireworks, as well as the visual and auditory experience, triggers a sense of torment in a certain number of people, including myself. This is perhaps one of the worst sounds. It is some kind of shooting, explosion, meaning [an association with] those sounds that are likely directly associated with war experience. (Interview with Adla Isanović 2016)


Through these narratives we also realize that although most sonic experiences are culture-specific, sounds that indicate direct threats such as sirens provoke instinctive responses:


While the ability to interpret sounds and attribute likely causes to them is learned culturally so as to instruct on the particular danger to each species, it is also argued that this is built on top of an evolutionary hard-wired instinct to respond appropriately, for the sake of survival, to any threat indicated by sound. (Goodman 2012: 66)


The relationship between these two aspects – hardwired responses to threatening sounds and cultural specificities of listening – will be discussed below in relation to sites of trauma and memory.