On Saturday July 11, 8372 traditional Bosnian ‘fildzan’ cups were filled with coffee, one for every man and boy who was killed in Srebrenica on that day twenty-five years ago. These killings were the biggest genocide to be committed on European soil since the Second World War. Having toured the world, Bosnian artist Aida Sehovic’s memorial ‘Where Have You Been’ has been brought home, the cups placed in a meadow next to the memorial centre, some of them of them filled by relatives of the dead men.
Remnants, a new three-part audio drama, also touches on the atrocities committed in Bosnia between 1992-95. The series was inspired by Courtney Angela Brkic’s memoir The Stone Fields, in which she recounted her experiences of working as part of a forensic team in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina, excavating the graves of people killed in the Srebrenica massacre and cataloguing their personal effects. Because the mass graves of the victims were dug up and reburied, in some cases more than once, this identification process remains ongoing. To this day funerals are still being carried out for the newly identified dead.
Brkic was in her early 20s when she undertook this grim task. She was, in part, driven to do so because of her own family’s history. Her Croatian grandmother had fallen in love with a Jewish man. During the Second World, when Yugoslavia was occupied by the Nazis, she tried to hide him from the authorities and was imprisoned as a result. He was taken away and her grandmother never saw him again.
Remnants, as its name suggests, pulls together threads from both these stories, with the older Brkic able to reflect on the decision taken by her younger self to put herself through this traumatic experience out of some sense of familial connection and obligation. It’s also a reference to the items of clothing, the shoes, spectacles, and small personal items that help to identify the dead, to tell their stories.
The story about Brkic’s grandmother illustrates the terrible stasis into which people are plunged when they have no way of knowing the fate of their loved one, no body to bury, no closure. In one of the most heart-breaking sequences, Brkic describes a Bosnian woman who becomes convinced that every time the phone rings and there is no voice the other end of the line – a common occurrence in the country at the time – that it is her husband trying to reach her. Despite everything, she clings to this. That he is out there somewhere.
Divided into three 20 minute episodes, Remnants is the first in the Soundworlds series of audio dramas. Director Patrick Eakin Young describes his approach as ‘sonic theatre,’ an attempt to create a series of “transportative audio journeys” in which music and sound are integral. Remnants is certainly a rich aural experience, with music playing a key role in the storytelling. Based on interviews with Brkic, her story is told conversationally, with the performer pausing during the most emotive parts: it’s a hard story to tell and it shows. Brkic’s words are also interspersed with music that draws on the traditional styles of the Balkans. This includes a Croatian village song, and a Judeo-Spanish marriage song. The traditional music has been rearranged by UK composer Christian Mason, and mixed with original vocal music, also written by Mason, and electro music by sound artist Shelley Parker.
The original music plucks out elements of the text and reiterates them in quasi operatic fashion, whereas the traditional music has an ululating eerie quality. The new compositions are most effective in a sequence in which Brkic is documenting the possessions of the dead. The music, accompanied by the constant click and hiss of the pathologist’s camera, adds a disorientating, relentless layer to her recollection of this harrowing task. On other occasions however, particularly in the last episode, the jagged, fragmentary music threatens to unbalance things, to overwhelm the more delicate moments of storytelling.
While the adaptation loses some of the context and complexity of the book, its exploration of identity, and some of the fire and fury felt by the younger Brkic, it captures the texture of memory. Brkic, now a parent herself, is able to look back at her younger self and marvels at her belief in her own emotional resilience. Though she did not fully comprehend the toll it would take on her, she felt compelled to bear witness.
Brkic’s impulse was not only make herself look at these things, but to actively participate in the process of giving people answers about the fate of their family members. This act of witnessing feels important, particularly now, a quarter of century later, when the pain of the people of Srebrenica has been compounded by those who continue to contest the events. This ranges from semantic quibbling over whether or not what happened there constitutes genocide to outright denial. And this has only been amplified by Islamophobia in recent years. Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić and general Ratko Mladic remain heroes to many in the Srpksa Republika, the Serb majority entity of Bosnia, but their glorification is not limited to that particular corner of the Balkans. There exists an ugly paradox that while people continue to downplay what happened at Srebrenica, Karadžić and Mladic have become celebrated figures within far right groups. The man who killed 49 people in Christchurch was playing a song celebrating Karadžić in his car.
Last year the novelist Peter Handke, who delivered an oration at Slobodan Milosevic’s funeral, received the Nobel Prize, despite his history of genocide denial. In many of the bookstores of Belgrade, Handke’s books are now prominently displayed (tellingly this is not the case for the books of fellow winner Olga Tokarczuk). It seems a small thing, a display in a bookshop window, but it sends a message.
Just last week, speaking about the anniversary of Srebrenica, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic referred to “the misunderstandings of the past”, as if the slaughter of 8000 people was a case of crossed wires. There’s a terrible danger of these atrocities being minimised, even erased, from our collective memory. The haunting, reflective Remnants movingly illustrates what happened when people have no body to bury, no place to mourn. Brkic saw what it did to her grandmother, the trauma it caused, the way it embeds itself in the body, like genetic code, to be inherited by future generations.
Soundworlds: Remnants is available to listen to for free on https://soundworlds.org/ and through podcast platforms