The Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and the UMN School of Music had the pleasure of hosting Dr. Badema Pitic in March for a talk titled “Remembering Through Music: The Srebrenica Genocide in Bosnian izvorna Songs.” Watch a recording of the talk here. I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Pitic about her research on music, transitional justice, and reconciliation in post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Dr. Badema Pitic is a Head of Research Services at the USC Shoah Foundation – Institute for Visual History and Education. She earned her Ph.D. in ethnomusicology in 2017 from the University of California, Los Angeles. Her research focuses on the intersections of music, memory, and politics in the aftermath of war and genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Her research interests also include oral history and testimony, transitional justice, and perpetrators’ music.

A cello player in the partially destroyed National Library, Sarajevo, during the war in 1992. (Image via Mikhail Evstafiev/Wikipedia)

What has been the role of music in the post-war transitional justice and reconciliation processes in Bosnia-Herzegovina? 

​Music has been an important element in these processes, both formally and informally, and through several aspects of what we refer to as transitional justice processes: top-down and grassroots inter-group reconciliation initiatives, so-called “individual reconciliation” processes or individual coming to terms with a traumatic past, and public memorialization and commemorations, to name just a few. There are several relatively known examples of such a use of music, such as the case of Pontanima, a Sarajevo-based inter-religious choir that gathers singers from different religious denominations in Bosnia to perform musical works from diverse religious and other traditions in order to promote coexistence and inter-religious reconciliation. In the early 2000s, Women for Women International, for example, featured music as part of their program offerings to support Bosnian female survivors of the war – women would sing or listen to Bosnian sevdalinke as part of their “individual reconciliation.” An oratorio Srebrenicki Inferno, a musical piece commissioned and written to commemorate the Srebrenica genocide, regularly accompanies annual genocide commemorations on July 11. There are also more grassroots practices, including the izvorna commemorative music that has been the subject of my research, which has been used to not only commemorate the war and genocide in Bosnia, but also to comment on genocide denial and specific transitional justice processes and mechanisms, such as the issue of return or the work of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

You spoke in your talk about how the Bosnian izvorna songs act as a form of survivor testimony and witnessing about the Srebrenica genocide and the ongoing suffering in its aftermath. Do you see these testimonies as a force for countering genocide denial in Bosnia-Herzegovina, or is there any potential for them to do so if they were given more public prominence?

These narrative, neotraditional songs witness about the genocide by narrating about the genocide and its aftermath and, more importantly, by narrating about individual victims of the genocide. However, I would take it a step further and say that we can also observe these songs as a literal witness in itself: they were part and parcel of the wartime life in Srebrenica, during which time izvorna musicians documented the war events and victims in the area. When it comes to genocide denial, this is a complex issue. Rather then saying that I see izvorna songs as a force for countering genocide denial, I would say that I see them as another “tool” among many tools that genocide survivors employ to comment on and counter genocide denial. What is important here, at least in my view, is not so much whether these songs are successful in countering genocide denial (and we know too well that there is no proven tool to do so), it is really what they do for genocide survivors who employ and listen to them. In other words, they provide an important and needed space for expression: expression of pain, sadness, frustration, and anger that plague genocide survivors in today’s Bosnia.

You mentioned in your talk that some perceive the izvorna songs as not the most appropriate way to commemorate the genocide. Could you please say more about why that is the case?

This has to do with the relationship between religion and tradition. As you know, what we today call the Srebrenica genocide refers to the mass murder of over 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys from Srebrenica and its surrounding area in July 1995. The war and genocide in Bosnia had a religious component, which also translated into their commemoration – the annual commemoration of the genocide has strong religious overtones, for example. Many genocide survivors themselves have turned to religion or became more religious after the genocide. The fact that the question of music in Islam is contested (allowed vs. prohibited), and that music does not accompany Islamic rituals, including burial, complicates the way the Srebrenica survivor community perceives the use of izvorna music to commemorate the genocide and its victims. 

I think a lot about potential ways to foster more inclusive or complex narratives about the Yugoslav wars within the Balkans. Do you see potential in the izvorna music to do this or are you aware of other artistic interventions doing this?

Yes, that is indeed something important to address. However, I am not sure that we have reached the point when this is possible, especially in the region with a long history of competing narratives and victimhoods. Cases from other contexts also point to the danger such initiatives carry with them: the danger of relativization of victims and perpetrators and even the danger of deepening the divide, so this is truly something to be approached in a very thoughtful way. I do not think that izvorna music has this potential, especially because this is a very local practice with a very limited appeal.

Could you please tell us a bit about the new Srebrenica survivor testimonies that have been added to the Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive? How did the Shoah Foundation partner with the Srebrenica Memorial Center to collect the testimonies? 

​We’ve been very fortunate to partner with the Srebrenica Memorial Center to bring in a pilot collection of 20 testimonies of Srebrenica survivors and witnesses into our Visual History Archive, and we hope to add many more in the future. The Institute has been invested for a long time into acquiring the testimonies about the war and genocide in Bosnia. With the Memorial’s support, we are now in the process of indexing the testimonies and adding English subtitles. By being in our globally-accessible Visual History Archive, these testimonies are now available to educators and researchers worldwide as an important source for expanding our knowledge about the events in Bosnia. I am especially humbled by the opportunity to contribute to this project and to apply my subject matter knowledge in the best way possible: by elevating and preserving the stories of the survivors. 

Nikoleta Sremac is a PhD Student in Sociology and a Research Assistant at the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota. She studies gender, social movements, culture, and genocide and mass violence. Her dissertation focuses on gendered memory politics and activism related to the 1990s Yugoslav Wars in Serbia.