WAYS OF SHOWING PEACE (II): Visualizing contested peace

Reflecting on the visualization of peace, one situation plays vividly in front of my eyes that I encountered on a summer day at the Baščaršija square in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. At the center of the square, you can find Sebilj, a wooden fountain from the Ottoman era. About this fountain it is said that travellers who drink from its water will one day return to Sarajevo. Amidst the crowded square, filled with tourists and locals, I saw a little boy, maybe three or four years old, standing on the step of the fountain. What stroke me was seeing this little boy holding and playing with a toy-rifle. He happily aimed at random passers-by, imitating shooting sounds. The boy attracted a lot of people’s attention, most of whom were laughingly pointing at him, being entertained, some even actively engaging with him, acting as if they were hit by a bullet, pretending to fall to the ground, fatally wounded by the boy’s rifle. 

For me, this was a deeply confusing encounter, firmly ingrained in my pictorial memory. For a tourist coming to Sarajevo, the legacy of the violent war in the region is omnipresent. Many buildings still reveal broken facades and display bullet holes.

Sarajevo_2019_Frank Möller
Sarajevo 2019 (c) Frank Möller

Many main tourist attractions are linked to the Yugoslavian war or the siege of Sarajevo more specifically. Dark tourism indeed. (Read here our blog post about Ambroise Tézenas’ I was here) Seeing people simulating war with that child felt strongly cynical in that context.

Growing up and being educated in Germany, a country which I perceive as having a reserved attitude towards publicly displayed militarism, my first impression was that this situation at Baščaršija square reflected the political and social conflicts that prevail in the country.[1] It reminded me of conversations with young and liberal people in Sarajevo, people “like me,” who announced that they would take up arms and fight if, for instance, the Republic Srpska, one of the two entities of the country and dominated by Serbians, would declare independence or unification with Serbia. They explained that this, to them, would mean that the Serbs would have won the war in the end. It would mean to them that the genocide in Srebrenica would have succeeded after all. “The peace that follows many contemporary conflicts is often un-satisfactory and marked by a continuation of inter-ethnic tensions, lack of order and eruption of violence. The lack of sustainable peace arrangements is illuminated in the body of literature, which conceptualises peace as temporary and contested in terms of fragile, precarious, unstable, or turbulent peace.”[2] Therefore, my encounter at Sebilj, from my point of view, would not qualify as an image of peace.

At the same time, in the situation I described above, people were laughing. To me, laughter seemed out of place. They, however, appeared to adore the little boy and his toy. After all, playing war is different form waging war. The boy’s performance didn’t seem to be anything extraordinary and possibly harmful to other people I observed. Couldn’t the laughter, the joyful encounter with the boy be a positive sign that the trauma of the violent conflict in the country is not that dominating for local people anymore? That a toy-weapon is less a reminder of danger than an inter-generational tool linking a young child with the adult passers-by? Could laughter not be a sign of agency, a strategy to cope with intricate pasts and presents and equally intricate memories, very difficult to assess and understand for outsiders inclined to make premature moral judgements derived from their own experience?

Oliver Richmond states: “It is of little surprise that the political and social institutions of both war and peace always coexist.”[3] This simultaneity of war and peace probably also prevails in the quest to find an image of peace. Shihab Chowdhury calls his artwork for this website “Between violence and peace,” thus alluding precisely to this coexistence. In the same vein, Sheung Yiu and Samra Šabanović announce in their video for this website: “But in every image, the ghost of war and conflict still lingers.” Richmond puts this quite poetically, too: “Peace is contested. Peace becomes war. War becomes peace.”[4] Less poetically, while some observers may stress that, to them, a certain sense of peace prevails, others may disagree. 

For me, when dealing with the question of the visualization of peace, this image in my mind serves as a reminder – a reminder of my positionality towards the question of peace (and conflict), towards other people’s experiences of peace (and conflict), a reminder of the complex relationship between the horrors of the past, present contestations of peace, and the hope for peaceful relations in the future. This encounter in Sarajevo became a strong point of reference for me.


[1] The social scientist in me was also immediately thinking about such concepts as militarized masculinities and the normalization of war in the everyday.

[2] Karin Aggestam & Annika Björkdahl. (2009) Introduction: War and Peace in Transition. edited by Karin Aggestam and Annika Björkdahl. Lund: Nordic Academic Press. p.24

[3] Oliver P. Richmond. (2006) The Problem of Peace: Understanding the ‘Liberal Peace.’ Conflict, Security & Development 6: p.308 

[4] ibid.