Monumental War

War makes the winners right and the losers wrong. That's especially true in a civil war, where the winners will get to write the history books, and the losers will have to send their kids to schools that teach from them. But what happens when such a war ends without a victory, as happened in Bosnia and Herzegovina 10 years ago? There each of the three sides, Muslim, Croat and Serb, have created their own versions of history and their own monuments to competing heroes. That makes for a pretty ugly bronze landscape under the postwar pigeon-droppings. In Bosnia today, one side's indicted war criminal is likely to be another side's war hero.

About the only thing Bosnians agreed on when it came to public monuments was destroying those of the past. The former Yugoslavia had erected thousands of statues to partisan heroes from World War II, and since Yugoslav's Army launched the Balkan wars in 1991, those statues rapidly were savaged. That happened even in Serb areas of Bosnia, where many fighters identified themselves as Chetniks, who often had been enemies of the partisans--and sometimes friends of the Nazis. Tito was himself a Croat, and of course a communist, which doomed his many statues and likenesses. By the time the war was over, Bosnian parks and squares were scattered with statuary beheadings.

Even busts of writers along the riverside in Sarajevo's old town were topped, including that of Ivo Andric, the Bosnian Nobel laureate, who was an ethnic Croat and, in his famous chronicle, "A Bridge on the Drina," he was not always politically correct about Muslims. That inspired Almir Kurt and Samir Plasto, a pair of sculptors with Sarajevo's Center for Contemporary Arts in 2001 to replace Ivo's missing head and another nearby with busts of--themselves. "This provoked a big public discussion," says the center's Dunja Blazevic, "and the originals went back."

In Serbian areas, monuments went up to Chetnik heroes from World War II, a thinly veiled provocation of the Muslims whom latter-day Chetniks helped to ethnically cleanse. One such was a huge bronze to Gen. Draza Mihailovic, which authorities forced Serbs to move from the center of the formerly Serb-controlled city of Brcko. More provocative still is an enormous cross and four Cyrillic S's--the Bosnian Serb symbol--by the roadside in Kravica, where Serbs took hundreds of Muslim men and boys to be executed. In Siroki Beg, Bosnian Croat ultranationalists dedicated a monument to Franjo Tudjman, the president of next-door Croatia, who was under investigation by the Hague as a war criminal when he died. He wasn't even Bosnian. On the Muslim side, at the Shaheed or Martyrs' Cemetery on a hillside overlooking downtown Sarajevo, one of the most prominent burial sites is that of Musan (Caco) Topalovic. Commander of the 10th Mountain Brigade that defended Sarajevo, he also slaughtered several hundred Serb civilians, and was killed resisting arrest by Muslim authorities trying to send him to the Hague in 1993. Twenty thousand devotees attended his burial.

Fortunately, the tradition of building monuments only to the dead is strong in the Balkans, so they've spared one another statues to more contemporaneous war-crimes suspects, such as Radovan Karadzic or Ratko Mladic, both still on the run and very much alive. (Rumors that Mladic would surrender in time for the 10th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide he is accused of conducting proved unfounded, and the commemorations went ahead with the two biggest war-crimes suspects still on the run).

Some of the war monuments are tasteful and to the point, such as "mortar roses," the blast marks in Sarajevan sidewalks that have been painted red to remind everyone of the civilian slaughter. In Potocari near Srebrenica, there are plans to turn the old battery factory, where 20,000 Muslims were rounded up by Serb troops before the slaughter began, into a war crimes museum. Across the road is a low-key memorial with a plinth and an inscription, "That Srebrenica never happens again, to no one, no where," in front of the thousands of reinterred remains with simple green wooden grave markers. In the reception building is a comments book, where in the past month only a single Serb visitor, Ana Jelenkovic from Belgrade, was among the hundreds to record their thoughts: "It's time for us to face it."

They don't usually. In the divided city of Mostar, where Croats and Muslims fought one another even while they were allies elsewhere, Bosnia's most famous monument, the Stari Most, an Ottoman-era bridge and UNESCO World Heritage site, was deliberately destroyed by a Croat tank, then rebuilt after the war. But Croats rarely visit it. "To face your own recent history is not a very easy moment," says Blazevic.

Amid squabbles over how to use an old monument site in Mostar's central park, an artists' collective came up with the answer. They would put up a bronze statue to a hero acceptable to all sides in the conflict, and especially their young men: Bruce Lee, the U.S.-born kung-fu star, 5-1/2 feet tall in a fighting crouch. "If he were from some place that is closer," says artist and writer Veselin Gatalo, "we would be asking, what was he doing during the war? What was his faith? What kind of meat did he eat?" Elsewhere in Bosnia, the monuments are "just a continuation of war by other means," says Gatalo. But Bruce Lee will be something else. "He reminds us that skill can fight firearms, that good intentions and bravery can defeat power, corruption, violence and injustice." He may only be a dead movie star, but at least he's no war criminal.