Commemorating White Armband Day Transnationally and in Virtual Spaces

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Our Conference Showcase Series continues. Guest blogger Johanna Paul writes about the emergence of White Armband Day (Dan Bijelih Traka), a commemoration day related to the war crimes committed in Prijedor during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina (1992-1995).

Prijedor is notorious for ethnic cleansing, concentrations camps and displacement in the early days of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Shortly after Bosnian Serb forces seized the power over the municipality in 1992, they led a devastating campaign of ethnic cleansing, in which 31 May represents a key date. On that day, the new authorities issued a decree on the local radio ordering all non-Serb inhabitants (Bosnian Muslims/Bosniaks and Croats) to mark their houses with white flags and to wear white ribbons around their arms when leaving the house. Meant to be a “sign of loyalty” towards the new authorities, it marked them as the ‘undesired other’.

Today, Prijedor belongs to Republika Srpska, one of the two entities into which the country has been divided in 1995, and Bosniaks and Croats constitute a minority in the Bosnian-Serb governed municipality. Their memories of large-scale atrocities committed against them are silenced in the public narrative of the so-called “Serbian defensive-liberation war” – as is most visible in the local memorial culture.

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Annual commemoration at former concentration camp Trnopolje. In the front: eagle-shaped memorial to Bosnian Serb soldiers. There is no sign that a concentration camp used to operate here. Photo copyright Johanna Paul, 2017

In this hostile environment, they have engaged in local memory politics throughout the years. One important example of such memory activism, challenging “from below” how the past is remembered, is the campaign for White Armband Day, which emerged in 2012 and quickly developed into one of the most successful civil society initiatives in the post-Yugoslav region when it comes to dealing with the past.

What makes the commemoration of 31 May so remarkable is the fact that it takes place in the local community, in other locations in the region and abroad as well as in virtual spaces. From a perspective of mobilisation, the question arises how it was possible that a spontaneously launched social media campaign could lead to a new commemoration day. I suggest that the initiative for making 31 May a commemoration day has been facilitated by social media but could have only been maintained through (trans)local networks and the courageous attempts of young activists to overcome ethnic divisions in memory culture.

The course of events that led to its emergence should be considered against the background of the 20th anniversary of the ethnic cleansing. In order to draw attention to the lack of public acknowledgement of their war-time suffering and continued marginalisation, members of local associations of returnees, concentration camp survivors and families of the missing organised a commemoration program, including several events organised abroad where larger displacement-based populations of Prijedorčani live. At this moment of heightened mobilisation, a public commemoration in remembrance of 266 innocent women and girls murdered during the war was banned by the local authorities, because, by using the word ‘genocide’ for what happened, the activists would allegedly shed a negative light on Prijedor and harm inter-ethnic relations.

The picture of Emir Hodzic’s silent protest against the ban at Prijedor’s main square on 23 May 2012, with a white ribbon around his arm and a body bag lying in front of him, went through the world and became the initiating moment for White Armband Day. What motivated him, who for the first time since he was expelled returned to his place of birth from New Zealand, was the disbelief and outrage about the ban and his recent experience of being denied access to the former concentration camp site in Omarska, where he had lost family members. In a solitary act of civil disobedience and appropriation of a symbol that stands for war-time persecution and continued injustice against Prijedor’s non-Serbs, he did what the activists were forbidden to do.

But the activists were determined to continue. They took the mobilisation to a higher level and sought support from outside of Prijedor in order to create pressure on the local authorities. Immediately after the ban was issued, they launched the social media campaign “Stop Genocide Denial” to make 31 May ‘International White Armband Day’ and encouraged people to join their struggle against discrimination and for victims’ rights and dignity by wearing a white armband and sending photographs of their actions to the organisers and local authorities and posting them on their personal Facebook pages. With tremendous success: On the global action day, hundreds of photographs by supporters from 46 countries wearing white armbands filled the Facebook page, including messages of solidarity, reports of their actions, and personal stories – thus turning the Facebook page into a memorial itself.

In a nutshell, the banned commemoration and the activists’ outburst of discontent evoked a “new round” in local memory disputes: On the one hand, the repressive behaviour of the authorities further deprived them of their right to remember. On the other hand, the ban activated latent grievances of systematic discrimination and reinforced their efforts to activate all resources at hand to make their case known. In this regard, the local authorities’ harsh reactions had the positive side-effect of giving greater visibility to their demands and in turn encouraged the continuation of local protests.

Since 2013, victims’ families and activists walk through Prijedor on 31 May, gather at the main square and place 102 roses bearing the names of the killed children in a circle. With this symbolic act, in place of a permanent monument, they create a “monument for one day” and reaffirm their demand for a monument for these children. What makes these local rallies unique is the fact that they are organised by the grassroots initiative “Jer me se tice” (Because it concerns me), around which young activists from all over Bosnia gather irrespective of their ethnic backgrounds. When they put on the white armband and demanded the local authorities to acknowledge the crimes against non-Serbs, they succeeded in overcoming ethno-national divisions in public space and preluded a turning point towards a culture of memory.

In the mobilisation process for White Armband Day, forms of online and offline activism intermingle. Online social media have arguably been key to realising the high mobilisation level. Moreover, they offer a space for the articulation of marginalised memories and facilitate novel forms of participation in dealing with the past. However, while the internet facilitated short-term mobilisation there are limits to its role in upholding a once achieved protest level, for instance, if long-term solidarities and collective identities cannot be generated.

Yet, the challenge of upholding the mobilisation was overcome in this case, because the campaign was able to draw on established (trans)local networks that developed in the context of displacement and return, nourished by shared conflict-generated identities. In addition, it mobilised young Bosnians who grew up within a divisive social climate and have been attracted by the campaign’s use of civil disobedience and online social media as means for voicing demands.

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Temporary memorial consisting of 102 roses bearing the names of the killed children in Prijedor on 31 May 2017. Photograph copyright Johanna Paul.

Finally, 31 May is also marked in other places in Bosnia and abroad in places where Prijedorčani have settled. These commemorations reveal the relevance of displacement-generated translocal networks spanning across the local community, the region and several host countries. Common activities on that date organised in settlement communities include gatherings with talks by survivors, book promotions, exhibitions, the distribution of white armbands, or art productions. While local activists seek to actively intervene in local political processes (e.g., by demanding a children’s memorial), these activities primarily have a commemorative character. But this is not to say that they do not have any effects on local memory politics at all. These practices raise awareness in the settlement communities, promote a dialogue about the past and send messages of support to the local returnee community. Hence, these solidarity actions promote visibility of and awareness about the local situation, which, in turn can at least indirectly exert pressure on the local authorities. Furthermore, their participation highlights that despite living outside Prijedor, upholding memories of what has happened is an important part of maintaining a collective, origin-based identity. Thereby, connectedness via online social media allows for recurrently activating this identity within translocal spaces, which eventually allows the mobilisation for a campaign like White Armband Day to be sustained.

Johanna Paul is a doctoral researcher at Bielefeld Graduate School in History and Sociology (BGHS) and research assistant at the Faculty of Sociology, Bielefeld University. She holds an MA in Sociology and is interested in transnational migration and development, forced migration, diaspora formation, memory and transitional justice. Johanna presented a paper entitled ‘White Armband Day – From Global Social Media Campaign to Annual Commemoration Day’ at the Remember Me Conference (4-7 April, 2018).

Comments welcome. Please email Johanna.paul@uni-bielefeld.de.

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