Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Surviving the Past

Wojciech Tochman, Like Eating a Stone: Surviving the Past in Bosnia, translated by Antonio Lloyd-Jones (New York: Atlas and Co., 2008).

Sarah E. Wagner, To Know Where He Lies: DNA Technology and the Search for Srebrenica’s Missing (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

War is a strange, compelling, and common human activity. It destroys individuals and community memory, but also compels us to discover new ways of remembering people and preserving societal memory. Two recent books on the recent war and genocide in Bosnia gives us a glimpse of the nature of war and its impact on the comprehension of the past (with some implications for the understanding of archival evidence).

Reporter and writer Tochman provides a personal, heart-rending account of the mass murders in Bosnia and subsequent efforts to identify the recovered bodies (or fragments of the bodies). He confronts the issues of identification, and remembrance, and the processes by which these issues are engaged. Tochman provides a first hand account of the use of DNA testing to identify remains, and he puts this into the historical context of warfare: “DNA testing is something new in the history of war. So are body bags, computers, the Internet, computerized cold stores, forklift trucks, and trays on wheels. Apart from that, it has all happened before: prison camps, barracks, selections, ghettoes, hiding places, the sheltering of victims, armbands, piles of shoes left behind by victims of mass murder, hunger, looting, late-night knocks on doors, people disappearing from their homes, blood on the walls, the burning of farmsteads, burning barns with people inside, massacres of entire villages, besieged cities, human shields, the raping of women, the killing of educated people first, columns of refugees, mass executions, mass graves, mass exhumations, international tribunals, and people disappearing completely” (p. 21). If one examines closely this list of attributes, it is easy to ascertain how many aspects relate to issues of documentation and memory.

Tochman also provides some perspective of how fleeting our interest in genocidal atrocities can be: “Thousands of news reports, feature articles, exhibitions, books, photo albums, and documentary and feature films have been produced on the war in Bosnia. But when the war ended (or, as some people think, was suspended for a while), the reporters packed up their cameras and headed off to other wars” (p. 4). This suggests that what happened in Bosnia in the 1990s will be forgotten, but another book, this one by anthropologist Sarah Wagner, suggests otherwise.

Wagner’s study focuses on the use of DNA technology, but she expands this to see “how memory and imagination intersect with biotechnology” (p. 2). As an added bonus, Wagner contends that the forensic work represents a major breakthrough in identifying victims of terror and disaster. Wagner carefully documents how the Serbs sought to eradicate any possibility of the identification of the identity of the victims by creating “secondary mass graves,” re-burials where the decaying bodies were broken apart and scattered (this is described as a “new kind of atrocity, heretofore unknown to humankind: the phenomenon of secondary mass graves” [p. 84]). She becomes interested in the idea of absence: “I begin with the basic idea that to be missing is to be absent both in time and in space. For surviving family members, conceptualizing the missing person’s absence involves mediating memories, imagination, hope, and resignation. In this heightened state of ambiguity, the missing relative’s existence is caught in a web of memory and suggestion” (p. 7). Wagner moves back and forth between the DNA testing and the efforts by relatives and friends to identify body parts through shreds of clothing and physical characteristics.

There are many references to other kinds of formal recordkeeping, such as the use of case files from the Podrinje Identification Project, the compilation of books of photographs of missing individuals and images of clothing and personal objects rescued from the mass graves of the murdered individuals, and the use of images and objects at the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial Center. At one point Wagner relates how family members protested the issuance of death certificates by the Red Cross based on information provided by Bosnian Serb leaders, a process taken up as a means of assisting the victims’ families to be able to obtain welfare assistance but objected to because “it also allowed the organization to remove individuals’ names from the overall list of missing” (p. 91). In fact, Wagner attests to how before the war most of the eventual victims had little in the way of records other than just a birth certificate and now they were being thoroughly documented with considerable personal data (clothing, dental records, identity cards, family remembrances, and so forth), a catalogue of the victims and a new source of public and family memory.

Wagner’s study provides an interesting examination of how traditional documentary sources mesh with scientific tests such as DNA and affirm individual and collective memory: “For most of the Srebrenica cases, resolving absence – both absence of knowledge and absence of physical remains – depends on the intersection between memory and the results of genetic testing” (p. 173). The anthropologist contends that the “family members’ recollections represent testimony, while DNA profiles serve as documentary proof” (p. 173). Wagner also places the use of the DNA testing and the related efforts to gather evidence about the missing into the context of government authority and rebuilding of the means of control over people living within that government (especially as the Bosnian uses of DNA technology have been used in other instances of mass deaths (such as World Trade Center, the tsunami in 2002, and Hurricane Katrina). While this author does not explore the expanding literature on the nature of power, control, and memory in the establishment and employment of archives, To Know Where He Lies certainly adds to our understanding of such issues.