Alma Masic, Director, Youth Initiative for Human Rights inBosnia and Herzegovina(Sarajevo)

I have two associations withGuernica: First, the event itself. The attack and systematic destruction of the town Guernica on April 26, 1937 by German and Italian warplanes on behalf of the nationalist-fascist forces of General Franco during the Spanish Civil War. Of the around 6,000 persons then living in the town (many among them refugees), it is estimated that between several hundred and 2,000 persons were killed, and more that two-thirds of the houses completely destroyed. Three days after the bombing, the town was taken over by Franco’s troops. The event has become a symbol of modern warfare with systematic destruction of towns and terror against defenseless civilian populations.

Second, Pablo Picasso’s famous painting «Guernica». After the destruction of the town, Picasso was commissioned by the Republican Spanish government to make a painting. After the bombing, he choseGuernicaas a theme and finished it three months after the attack. It was first exhibited inParis, and then went on tour around Europe and theAmericas. Picasso refused to have the painting exhibited inSpainuntil democracy was restored andGuernica, the painting, finally made its way toSpain in 1981. The monumental painting, illustrating the suffering of the civilians, was Picasso’s way of showing the world what had happened inGuernica.  Today, the painting is a worldwide incarnation of the memory of the bombing of Guernica and an universal illustration of the horrors of war and the terror against civilians.

These two dimensions of Guernicahave specific echoes for me related to the war inBosnia and Herzegovinabetween 1992 and 1995, and especially the siege ofSarajevo, the town where I currently work.

The systematic terror against civilians was also one main characteristic of the Bosnian war and the siege ofSarajevois one of the most brutal illustrations: during three and-a-half years, from April 1992 to February 1996, the town ofSarajevowas besieged and exposed to systematic shelling, killing more than 11,000 persons, among them 1,500 children. Just as Spain is in the grip of coming to terms with its history of dictatorship, so too are we, in Bosnia – two decades after these events – trying to decide what to remember, how, and why.

In early April this year, we commemorated the 20th anniversary of the siege ofSarajevo, which brought back a rush of painful emotion. How can we remember this history without re-opening wounds? Can we harness it to build a safeguard against future wars? Currently, Youth Initiative for Human Rights -Bosnia and Herzegovina, in consortium with several other foundations and public institutions, such as FAMA, an independent creative agency, the Theater Festival MESS (a public institution) and Foundation “Education Builds BiH” has created a Virtual FAMA Collection that helps people learn about the siege. This collection ( brings home the human scale of events, places and experiences of the Siege of Sarajevo ’92-’96 by communicating collective memory with a personal face. As a virtual bank of knowledge, it aims to bridge the digital divide between a culture of remembrance and today’s real-time quest for knowledge. Through this interactive website  which is an introduction to the development of the Museum of the Siege of Sarajevo, we hope to provide a record of  life under the siege inSarajevoand create a tool to educate future generations. 

The second correlation – Picasso’s painting – to me, is an illustration of cultural resistance against nationalist and fascist aggression. This cultural resistance is also very important for the siege ofSarajevowhere the challenge was not only how to resist  the aggression militarily, but also how to resist the daily terror, mentally. Cultural resistance in this context meant, despite and because of this daily terror, that cultural activities were developed – plays and theatre festivals, film festivals, concerts, «Miss-Sarajevo-Under-Siege-elections.» The purpose of these events was to show the aggressor that our history, culture, and traditions could not be destroyed, and also to attract the world’s attention to this battle for survival. This cultural resistance from inside the country was also supported from outside. For example, in 1993, Susan Sontag staged a production of “Waiting for Godot” in  besieged Sarajevo. A special section at Virtual FAMA Collection is dedicated to cultural resistance because we believe that culture is a powerful tool of resistance, and one in which we all can participate.

Though the bombing of Guernica and the siege of Sarajevo are separated by time, place, distance, and of course, context, both these events have lessons on how to resist and remember. These lessons matter not only forSpain or Bosnia, but for all of Europe today.


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