Within the framework of the CHCI-Mellon Crises of Democracy GHI 2019, our field trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina indeed became a tough experience of site-situated learning, as later on reported by many participants, me included. On that July weekend, I pondered a lot the pedagogy of looking and the politics of un-seeing. Indeed, we all saw a lot at the Srebrenica–Potočari Memorial and Cemetery for the Victims of the 1995 Genocide. For instance, among the many jarring images we were confronted with on that day I should mention graffiti. These graffiti, crafted by the UN soldiers, oftentimes mock the suffering and the plight of the locals in a fashion that forces the viewer to turn away in disgust.

During our visit of the exhibition Srebrenica, “UN SAFE ZONE,” we watched the documentary, which apart from the survivors and eyewitnesses’s testimonies featured some extremely disturbing footage, produced by the perpetrators. Many of us were unable to watch the scenes of killings and chose to leave the screening room for a short while. I stayed. The question whether one automatically becomes some sort of a pornotroping voyeur under similar circumstances undoubtedly merits a discussion. However, when I was watching that scene, my eyes were drawn to a Bosnian family with two kids, roughly age 7 or 9. The children never looked away and remained calm at least on the outside through the entire scene. The kids were learning to see with their own eyes and live with these images. They were learning to remember. I kept wondering whether refusing to look might at least partly amount to un-seeing.

I also remember freezing in front of Bosnian women’s photos under their piercing gaze. The Srebrenica genocide that targeted mostly males was aimed at erasing Bosniak/Bosnian Muslim identity and ethnicity at the level of men’s semen. Add hereto the perpetrator’s perverse idea that the surviving girls and women were subject to a different sort of erasure or cleansing—by rape and thus a forced insemination with Serbianhood, srpstvo. It is the experience of Srebrenica’s women, mothers, daughters, wives, and widows that I devoted my share of the final group project that the early career researches were asked to base on their personal outcomes of the Bosnia trip. I felt that the academic idiom, with its cold-blooded distancing from the subject matter, cannot serve as an adequate and humane medium of even daring to talk about the women of Srebrenica. Rephrasing Adorno’s puzzling formula and offering my humble response to it, I proceeded with a very different medium:

The mothers mourn

The verses churn

Outside the common frame

The cords forlorn

The words unborn

Beyond a wretched name

Un-safe July

A silent cry

Forgotten and suppressed

A deafening “why”

An unseen plight

Forever milkless breast

At a very personal level, I still remain a staunch believer in the restorative and healing power of poetry, especially when the discursive seems to fail. Fail both the speaker and the unspeakability of the bespoken.

Alex Pekov is a Ph.D. candidate in Slavic Languages and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and currently entering the post-M.Phil. stage of his doctoral studies. He holds a B.A. in Philosophy from Moscow State University Lomonosov and an M.A. in Slavic and Jewish Studies from Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg. Alex’s broader research interests include literatures of the former Yugoslavia, Francophone literatures, liminal and hyphenated identities, multilingualism and decolonization, literary representations of the Shoah in Central and Eastern Europe, Memory Studies, testimonial narratives, feminist literary criticism, Black Studies, genocide and gynocide, gender in life-writing and autofiction, narratology. Additionally, Alex experiments with poetry, autofictional writing, and translations in English, German, French, and Russian.

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