Our connection to history

At a point in my travels through Eastern Europe this past summer on a research fellowship exploring oppression in the Balkans and the occupied Palestinian territories, I crossed the border between Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina, two former Yugoslavian states still seeking stability in post-Balkan Conflict tumult. Moving out of that liminal space and into nationalized territory, I had the chance for a number of reflections on my relation as a Williams student to the subject of my study, taking into consideration discussions held within private circles at the College and online between members of our beloved, if inordinately expressive, WSO community.
At the anniversary of the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica (the success of which gave Serbian authorities a chance to redraw the boundaries) I joined a funeral procession in commemorating the lives of 775 Bosnian civilians whose bodies were found 15 years after the massacre, and I began to reflect on the question: To what extent are we, as students of history, capable of empathizing with the suffering of those oppressed by conflict?

It seems to me that a privileged stratum of American society is conditioned on a particular basis: As students of Western academia, most of us are detached from direct oppression; our lives are led in the privilege of safety where oppression is that which befalls other societies, either in distant parts of the world or in our own historical past. If we are to imagine ourselves living under oppression by thinking of how it would feel to see our family members massacred or our houses demolished, then our capacity to empathize would be narrowly constricted by the exploits of mainstream blockbusters and desensitizing mass media, where the protagonists and news reporters are fully conscious of the grander scale of the mechanism of oppression and familiar with the rights of a privileged human being; or we would be aware of the larger historical framework explained in our history readings.

These thoughts developed as I walked into the Srebrenica Museum directly in front of the funeral procession. The museum’s central structure had been a large warehouse that in 1995 received thousands of Bosnian refugees under supposed UN protection from the Serbian army. My first impression of the warehouse was the semblance it held to the experimental art exhibits of Nam June Paik; the entire building is open for the public, with almost no conventionally expounding elements. A few photos hung from the walls, but for the most part, the warehouse stood as it was in 1995, with bullet holes, bathroom stalls, pitch black alleyways and gigantic machinery et al., open for the public to peruse and experience. I was in awe of the artistic subtlety of the exhibit, before I realized the lack of planning that had gone into the project and, consequently, the sullen reality I had impulsively compared to avant-garde video art.

Images of civilian suicides reverberated in the dank hallways of the warehouse – suicides that were performed by male Bosnians and the Dutch peacekeepers commissioned by the UN. It is certainly an immeasurable suffering that would cause one not ethnically or religiously related to a conflict to end his life.

Having some time to reflect further after the trip, and calling upon conversations with students of various humanitarian persuasions at the College, I realized that our attempts at understanding narratives of oppression must take into consideration our limited ability to understand what it means to be oppressed. We ought to be wary of blaming the oppressed people, or defenders of the oppressed, in our creation of political and religious ideologies.

At a different point in the trip, I rode a small red taxi through Pristina’s airport district and into the physical Kosovo, yet another former Yugoslavian state with a tumultuous history. During the ride, I witnessed a post-apocalyptic world; flat savannah extended into the horizon, accentuating the earths’ curvature, and bulbous hills, each covered with wet moss and topped with small patches of trees, spotted the space like the misplaced ice-cream scoops of an absent-minded behemoth, melting with grenadine. The sublimity of my initial reflections became more profound as I observed the broken red houses of deceased tenants, sporadically placed across the road, as if misunderstood, left alone and forgotten.

I wonder if at the College we can avoid being complicit in such misunderstanding or fully relate to a spatiotemporally distant reality. While such questions abound endlessly within academia – shifting now from Williams’ history to the philosophy department – all of us may at least embrace our limitations, and consequently, if nothing else, think twice before being certain.

Abdullah Awad ’13 is from Amman, Jordan. He lives in West College.