No Stone Unturned: Legacies of Cemetery Destruction during Ethnic Conflict and New Approaches to Transitional Justice
Witnessing the Serb destruction of the mosque and cemetery in Banja Luka in 1993, during the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a Muslim resident lamented that: ‘It is as though they have torn our heart out. They want us to understand we have no place here’ (Walasek 2015: 29).
The destruction of cultural heritage is gaining recognition as a fundamental tenet of ethnic violence and genocide. Because cultural heritage is imbued with symbolism of collective belonging, it is vulnerable to opponents seeking to erase visible evidence of the ‘other’. Through such violence, societal boundaries are reorganised, transforming collective identities. However, the significant legacy of cultural destruction on collective identity formation is neglected in transitional justice, featuring anecdotally in studies without systematic codification or analysis.
The young field of transitional justice – the mechanisms addressing war crimes and human rights violations (Teital 2000) – has reached an impasse. Contemporary critiques abound, highlighting decontextualised ‘one-size-fits-all’ and ‘top-down’ solutions (Nagy 2008), the neglect of gendered patterns of violence (Tabak 2011), and its possible subversion to inflict further harm (Loyle and Davenport 2016).
I argue that shortcomings in transitional justice are underpinned by a failure to understand how communal identities are changed by conflict dynamics themselves, overlooking the processes of violence and wartime experiences which shape communities’ identities and their post-conflict needs. My research addresses this scholarly and policy gap. We first must understand how violence transforms local communities if we are then to develop mechanisms directly addressing their needs.
My research will ultimately contribute to emerging scholarships on community-based, grassroots approaches to reconceptualising transitional justice (Giblin 2014; Moffett et al. 2019), offering novel findings to legacies of violence using cultural destruction methods. My findings will ultimately strengthen locally-informed approaches to rethinking transitional justice, but the scope of this research is an in-depth exploration of how wartime cultural destruction transforms societies and collective identities.
I will employ Qualitative Comparative Analysis between two cases of cemetery destruction during ethnic conflict – examining the impact and legacy of this violence on collective identity formation from a relational perspective. Comparison provides a stronger analytical baseline than a single case, offering hypothesis-generation without weakening focused analysis (Hall 2003). I will use discourse analysis of mixed methods, principally semi-structured interviews and visual analysis. Discourses are articulated through diverse visual and verbal mechanisms, so employing mixed-methods will offer insight into unexplored dimensions of cultural destruction. My cases are the cemetery destruction in Divič, Bosnia-Herzegovina, in 1993, and in Nakhichevan, Azerbaijan, beginning in 1998 and, following temporary cessation requested by UNESCO, culminating in 2005.
Cemetery destruction – common during ethno-nationalist violence – is a powerful tool with which to understand the social impact of cultural violence because it straddles multiple dimensions of contemporary internal conflict: destruction of the everyday, destruction of the historical, destruction of the collective, and also destruction of the deeply personal. However, unlike other heritage items, cemeteries cannot be conventionally ‘reconstructed’. Given that the traditional aim of rebuilding heritage is returning it to its prewar ‘authentic’ state (Moffett et al 2019: 4), cemetery destruction requires that we think innovatively about the underlying intention of reconstruction itself.