An Interview with Lidija Fekeza: An Archaeologist in Sarajevo: Culture Under Siege
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Fahy: How has the nature of your work at the Zemaljski Muzej changed since the outbreak of the war in Bosnia?
Fekeza: My situation has completely changed-though I might best begin by describing the museum and its present condition, what we have done since the hostilities began, and then my own work. First, the Zemaljski Muzej has four very large buildings. Of those four buildings, the first floors-what you would call the second floor-all have been bombed out. The roof and the walls are full of holes from shells, so that water comes in not only through the roof but through the walls, plants are starting to grow on the roof, trees are starting to sprout on the roof- it's just degradation. The gutters are gone, so the water just keeps coming down into the museum. In a sense, the immediate physical damage of a shell hitting the building is not the worst; it's the long-term damage that's coming now, as the elements just tear the building apart.
Whallon: And those buildings were very beautiful Austro- Hungarian buildings. It was a lovely museum.
Fekeza: In the buildings we have no heat, very often we have no electricity and now we [those of us still working at the museum] are crowded into two rooms. Before the war, there were 106 of us working at the museum, a little under half of these were archaeologists, ethnologists and biologists. Now there are 35 of us: there are four biologists, two archaeologists and one restorationist, and three ethnologists. The others are either support staff, custodians, and so on. Following the outbreak of the war, the first obligation was to store safely all the material that was exposed in the museum. The first two years of the war we worked exclusively on preservation of the material that was in the museum, to keep it from harm's way... That has been done.
Now there really aren't any conditions for work or, at least to the extent that there are, they are extremely difficult. Nonetheless, my colleagues and I all have a great need and desire to continue our professional work despite the living conditions which- materially, psychologically-are horrible. As for the conditions of my own work, fieldwork-which is the basis of my own research-is of course completely out of the question. We have very little access to professional literature and the material artifacts with which I was working have been evacuated. I have nonetheless succeeded in maintaining a certain continuity even in the prevailing conditions, but now I would say that I am no longer satisfied with that-it is not enough, there is so little that you can do. Now, after three years of war, I felt how much I have stagnated in my work. Not only me, all of my colleagues share these feelings and, by extension, all scientists and intellectuals have this problem.
Fahy: How is your time at work-for both you and your colleagues-occupied nowadays?
Fekeza:The Museum is in a very, very dangerous location. It's right across the street from some of the nests of snipers, it's right in front of "Sniper's Alley." So we only go to the museum maybe twice, maybe three times a week at the most, because it's very, very dangerous. In general when we go there, something there has been damaged. So the first thing we do when we go there is to clean up the damage, try to take care of anything that can be repaired or that needs to be repaired, try to preserve the building, and so on, as much as possible. In the second instance, we check on the material which is stored away. We've saved all the material-nothing has been stolen and it's stored in the most secure place, but there's a lot of humidity and moisture there, so there's a lot of danger of deterioration. As a result, we have to check the material every day. Under these circumstances, those of us who are researchers, curators and so on, have no choice but to work at home.
Fahy: I would be interested in knowing how the war has changed your perceptions of your work and, perhaps, of the mission of the Zemaljski Museum in general. What is the role of a cultural institution in a city under siege?
Fekeza: Because the war surprised us, our first reactions were: save what we can, save everything in the museum. Then as life settled down to its wartime routine and we came to live the wartime life, then you start to think about, "What should I do? What's important to do? Should I fight? Or should I try to concentrate on my own work?" I'm not thinking directly of going into combat, but getting involved in helping in Sarajevo, helping with something outside of my own professional or scientific work, with something more practical in everyday life. A lot of people working in the cultural area ask themselves this same kind of question. As a result of this reflection, they started to organize theatrical performances, which were very well attended, and there were many exhibitions at galleries at the beginning. People started to write again, people realized suddenly, that in fact, culture and the maintenance of some kind of cultural activity were very important to the people in the city. Because in addition to the problems of existence, people tried to start to search for themselves. People started to read more than they ever had before during the first two years of the war. People had ups and down in their thinking or their consideration about these things. I came to the conclusion through this process that, although archaeology right now isn't producing any kind of concrete results, anything you could call immediate results, still it's very important to continue your work and not just abandon it because of the conditions of the war. It was important for us to have visitors-foreign colleagues, painters, directors, university professors and so on. For example, from the University of Michigan, John Fine who does work on the Middle Ages, came to Sarajevo where he gave some lectures. For us, in the city, this was very important-that we not feel abandoned.
Fahy: Given the tremendous danger, why have you chosen to stay, or what has compelled you to stay at the Zemaljski Museum-where other of your colleagues have left?
Fekeza: As for my personal reasons, I came to Bosnia twenty years ago, and life in Sarajevo was very good for me. And I felt, when the war started, it wasn't right to leave: it was right to stay, and help and work in the city as long as things were bad. The majority of people in my circles left just in order to save their lives and the lives of their families, because they felt that it was more important to live than to stay and take their chances. I don't blame them.
Fahy: Could you tell us a little bit about your personal background? One gathers from some of the press coverage here that many Sarajevans take great pride in the multiethnic and cosmopolitan nature of the city. I was wondering to what extent your life is reflective of that situation.
Fekeza: I am from Croatia-though my mother was actually from Czechoslovakia and I was born in Montenegro-but I studied in both Croatia and Serbia and, then, when I looked for work, I looked in Bosnia. I was Yugoslavian. I felt Yugoslavia was my country-from Slovenia to Macedonia. At the beginning of the war, people really believed that Sarajevo would stay a multiethnic, mixed community, with all the different nationalities in it. But, it's clear now that the division will come and in fact it has already begun-that it will split along ethnic lines. I think it's the direction in which the current political climate is taking us. In the first place, a lot of Serbs and Croats have left the city. Although it's true that many of the Muslims have left too. And there are a lot of refugees that have come into the city, and a lot of refugees coming to town are Muslim: Muslims go to those territories where the Bosnian government and army are in control or they go to Sarajevo. The proportion of Muslims in the city has risen tremendously. The Serbs can always flee to Serbia and the Croatians always can go into Croatia. The strongest political parties are the nationalist parties and, in Sarajevo, and in the Muslim parts of Bosnia, the Muslim political party is by far and away dominant because they proportionally dominate the population.
Mogul: If you are asked, to what ethnic group do you belong, how do you answer?
Fekeza: I am a Croat... I was Yugoslavian, and now I am a Croat. I always knew that I am a Croat, but I didn't feel it so much. Now, you have to be Croat, Serb, Muslim, Jewish or whatever... For me personally, these identities didn't interest me at all: my being a Croat wasn't important. But now, you have to be.
Fahy: It was not important for you-do you think that was generally true for most people?
Fekeza: Many people in the former Yugoslavia were well aware of their ethnic identity, among all strata of society. But it wasn't politically opportune to speak about it earlier. There was also a cross-section of people, especially among those living in urban areas, who were very aware of their origins, of who they were, but it wasn't important. They were very open, accepting of all cultures, without national prejudice. But, as I see now, this sector wasn't as broad as we thought.
Fahy: In the American media much has been made of the fact that up to the eruption of hostilities, many of those now facing each other as combatants lived and/or worked together as neighbors, friends, and colleagues. According to your experience at the Museum, and among academics in general, to what extent has a collegial atmosphere prevailed against the sort of divisions that characterize the present conflict?
Fekeza: I think that collegial relations throughout the former Yugoslavia will in the large part be maintained, except for those few cases where some individuals are so politically engaged or involved that they have really declared themselves for a particular political side, which is the minority of people. But at the moment they are of course practically impossible. I don't think that in the long run I personally will see any broken relationships with any of my colleagues- either Serbian or Croatian or Muslim, it doesn't matter. It's just at the moment, practical circumstances make those relationships impossible. I think that even though these divisions are felt, people continue to speak and associate with people who share the same way of thinking. Many people left Sarajevo, but those of us who have stayed try to maintain some level of communication. Unfortunately, there are certain "sensitive" issues-owing to the conflict-that people simply do not discuss. At the moment there are national groups of intellectuals in Sarajevo-Croatian, Muslim, Serbian, though the Serbians are relatively weakly organized. Each of the national groups, and the intellectual and scientific groups within them, addresses the problems of that group: immigration, political history, etc. and each tends to use the situation that current circumstances have imposed on it to its advantage.
Fahy: Are there any occasions at which people meet across ethnic or national boundaries?
Fekeza: In one sense yes, in another, no. During the war, many symposia were organized in Sarajevo. The organizers were scientific and cultural institutions such as the Academy of Sciences or Oriental Institute, for example, on the one hand, and the national scientific sections-for Croats, Muslims, Serbians-as I mentioned before, on the other. For me, personally, I preferred to participate in the symposia offered by the former because they always addressed issues that concerned all of Bosnia rather than the national scientific sections which focus purely on national groups in particular.
Mogul: Many people in Sarajevo and Bosnia in general must be of mixed ethnic background, have Croatian and Serbian parents, or Muslim and Serbian parents-how do those people respond to the pressures of the war?
Fekeza: There are various different kinds of pressures on people like that. I think that, in general, people who are in that situation have left. I am talking mostly about families from mixed ethnic backgrounds that have children. They left mostly because of the fear that the children of a marriage like that would have to at some point declare themselves for the mother's side or the father's side. They felt the problem, they felt the pressure, because it was really difficult for them to live in those kinds of circumstances, because everything was latently there. On the other hand, many people left Bosnia, left because they couldn't tolerate the emergence of nationalism, even when the nationalism in question was "theirs."
Fahy: So, it seems that it's almost an impossibility to not have one of the identities that the war has imposed.
Whallon: Yes. You have to.
Fahy: Do you think that the war will have any enduring influence in your field, in terms of imposing new orientations, or approaches, or assigning new priorities? To the extent that archaeologists deal with a kind of "cultural inheritance," I can understand where, for example, this becomes contentious around the period of the Middle Ages, at least from the time of the fourteenth century. But undoubtedly you also deal with materials such as Classical antiquities, or the period of early Christianity and so forth: does this also figure in conflicting claims to "heritage?" To what extent do the current politics influence your field- the analysis and interpretation of archaeological artifacts?
Fekeza: Archaeology will be used, particularly the period of my specialization, the Middle Ages, to bolster claims. I think certainly that prehistoric and classical archaeology- Greek, Roman archaeology-will probably continue on without any particular change in that. However, the archaeology of the Middle Ages will now certainly get some "secondary meanings" in Bosnia-Herzegovina. During the Austro- Hungarian period and between the two wars, certainly in Bosnia, the archaeology of the Middle Ages was never seen politically as something that should be encouraged, or anything that got particular attention. Since the Second World War, in the last fifty years, archaeology of the Middle Ages has started to develop and become a discipline. And now because everybody is searching for their roots, and specifically they're searching for their roots in the Middle Ages, not in the Classical period or even back further into prehistory, certainly the archaeology of the Middle Ages is going to be called upon for "proofs" of certain things. I think archaeologists now are going to have to be very honest and objective in dealing with their material. Otherwise it will be just politics, and there is no science in that.
Mogul: Can you give any specific examples of how people try to use archaeology for political purposes?
Fekeza: Yes, I can. There's a very special problem in Bosnia and that's the problem of the Bosnian churches. In the Middle Ages there were three Christian churches: there were the Catholic, the Orthodox and the Bosnian. All three were very weak: none had a great influence on the population at the time. At the present time, things are, from the vantage point of scholarship, not really clear about the Bosnian Church. We archaeologists only excavate the churches physically, but the question of what the Bosnia Church was is the province of historians and theologians. People want to show now, from historical records, and eventually probably also from archaeological materials, that the Bosnian Church is the root from which the present Muslim population of Bosnia developed, which only changed its religion under the impact of the Turkish occupation of Bosnia. This theory, which is a throwback to earlier ideas promoted by the Austro-Hungarian empire, posits that the Bosnia Muslims, who were earlier members of the Bosnian Church, were the most numerous and they converted to Islam en masse. Today, this thesis is widely regarded as not being very tenable, although it has certain political uses. Regarding the Serb and Croat populations who live in parts of Bosnia which have been "ethnically cleansed," whatever they will find of the archaeological record-we can expect-will be found to be Serb or Croat. This, from a scientific point of view, is tragic, since in Medieval Bosnia the various religions were quite mixed, the status of their adherents quite fluid, and it is very difficult to ascribe with certainty what belongs to what religion. In other words, there is a kind of anachronism here, since there were not really nationalities in the present sense of the term existing in Medieval Bosnia-it was more a question of religious or confessional groups: Orthodox, Catholic, and so on.
Whallon: The political use of archaeology is a fascinating and really tricky question. I'm a paleolithic archaeologist, and I've seen paleolithic things used for national identity raising and things like that. In the last issue of the British journal Antiquity, there was a long article on the use of a series of very important paleolithic sites in Moravia by the Nazis, during the lead-up and beginning to the Second World War, to try to demonstrate that Bohemia and Moravia were really German territories from the very earliest times, from primitive man onwards. It's incredible to see. Archaeology has sometimes been taken over in that way even back to the very earliest periods. There doesn't have to be this fairly clear historical connection from the Middle Ages on. The arrival of the Aryans: that's the first thing that they went for during the build-up to the Second World War; and the claims to the Sudetenland, and the claims to this and the claims to that. And there's growing interest in our field in that right now. Many people didn't know this until recently, but now I think it's becoming clearly known that the SS had a complete branch of archaeology, excavated lots of sites, and had its own archaeological journal. It was a big archaeological enterprise, and it was all run by the SS.
Fahy: Let me propose to you, Lidija, perhaps the reverse question of this. We've talked about the discovery of artifacts and claiming them as one's own, but one of the things that's happened in this conflict, apart from human casualties, has been the assault on cultural objects, including mosques, historic bridges and libraries to mention a few examples. What is the symbolic import of the destruction of these various cultural objects or institutions?
Fekeza: In my mind I can't accept what's happened. The first obvious answer is that the parties involved in this war are trying to stamp out the culture that is our common inheritance. This is something that is characteristic of all other wars, where people have destroyed cultural monuments of the enemy. I don't see that this will in any way stamp out the other culture, but that's what is happening on the spur of the moment. It's a phenomenon like those that occur in any other war. It's very remote from me in terms of an ability to understand, or empathize, or explain it. The destruction of the fifteenth-century Turkish bridge in Mostar, for example, was absolutely senseless, it didn't have strategic importance, and probably they're going to rebuild it anyway. It was just a stupid act. The burning of the National Library in Sarajevo was very clearly intentional-thousands and thousands and thousands of books were lost-in order to try to prevent the people of all national groups who had that library from making any progress, to knock them down further, and, to some degree, to try to destroy their identity and the remembrance of who they are.
Fahy: Do you think these acts are an effective assault on identity?
Fekeza: It's very effective in the negative sense: it elevates national identities, it makes them react more positively about their identities. On the other hand, in those regions which are now "ethnically clean," the monuments or emblems of ethnic groups who have been expelled have been destroyed and this process is leading to completely forgetting that at some time this or that ethnic group was there. The Zemaljski Muzej, in spite of its name denoting "the museum of the region"-except for some part of the rich ethnographic collection-the botanical, geological, archaeological collections are not national collections, but collections of more general scientific interest. And so, the Zemaljski Muzej has never played a role here, not in the worst times of the Second World War, nor now in this particular war, as any kind of a center that is looked at as a national center. It is not something that you can coopt that way to become something that is specifically national. Although Bosnia is a relatively poor country, the museum is exceptional and very rich in its collections. From the government's point of view, there are a lot of other things that are more interesting for them to support or more important for them to support, so the museum has been left to fend for itself as best it can.
Fahy: To what extent has international help from other scholars, people who have visited the museum in the past, and so forth, been forthcoming?
Fekeza: There's not enough. We got some help from UNESCO and from the Soros Foundation to try to preserve some of the buildings, but it is relatively small. We were really left on our own to take care of everything, particularly when we had to store away all of the collections and get them in some kind of shelter. When we were done with that we finally got some help, but it was on the initiative of a single colleague who got together some other people, pulled together some materials that were necessary for protecting the collections from moisture, particularly ethnographic articles and biological materials. That's as far as concrete, tangible, practical help is concerned. A lot of foreign colleagues have supported the museum, but they're not in a position to do anything practical or concrete to help. The fact that I'm here in Michigan is a kind of support, to be able to spend some time in some kind of reasonable working conditions for a while at least. The thing that most worries me about going back is the long-term future: what kind of perspective is there for eventual working-conditions there, what kind of prospects does the museum have for the coming years. It seems relatively bleak. The museum is too big, it has too many materials, it is too rich a museum-it will be very expensive and very difficult just to get it up to normal routine standards for a museum, in terms of the conditions for display and for work.
Fahy: Is there any final comment you would like to make?
Fekeza: I've lived three years in war-time conditions in Sarajevo and now I'm going to go back to the same conditions, but I'm going back to live with the people I've always lived with. That's very difficult to explain to people who haven't gone through that same kind of experience; you still keep your own society, your own circle of friends and contacts, in spite of all that is going on.
Lidija Fekeza is a curator and researcher in the division of Middle Ages Archaeology at the Zemaljski Muzej, the regional museum in Sarajevo, Bosnia. She is a specialist in architectural and ceramic materials. In Sarajevo in the 1980s, she met Robert Whallon, professor of Anthropology, who organized her research visit to the U-M in the summer of 1995. This interview was conducted in English and Serbian/Croatian on July 18, 1995; Robert Whallon served as a translator; the interviewers were Michael Fahy and Jonathan Mogul, of the International Institute.