Live to Tell

After surviving the Balkan wars, refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina have been given a place to tell their story at the Missouri Historical Society. The hard part is deciding what that story is.

In one photo, a girl turns a cartwheel in a small patch of yard in front of her South St. Louis home. In another, a girl in a pretty dress sits in an upholstered chair as if she were a princess. In a portrait, a teenage boy looks directly into the camera with handsome dark eyes, unassuming, a stars-and-stripes kerchief tied around his head.

Devoid of context, Tom Maday's photographs elicit a benign appeal, black-and-white documentation of the everyday lives of St. Louis families. Yet as part of the forthcoming book After the Fall: Srebrenica Survivors in St. Louis, the images become more testament than documentary. They are expressions of wonder: how life goes on after unimaginable catastrophe.

Selected images will be used in a yearlong exhibition at the Missouri Historical Society, opening Nov. 25. Tentatively titled We Will Survive, it aims to explore the lives of Bosnian refugees in St. Louis: who they are, what has brought them here, how they are making a go of it in their new homeland. One of Maday's images will serve as introduction to the exhibit -- that of a smiling Muska Oric surrounded by her four children. On entering the space, visitors will see another image of Muska -- that of her hands holding a photograph of her husband, Haso, missing since Srebrenica's fall in 1995.

One of the two images visitors to the Missouri Historical Society will be presented with: Muska Oric's hands holding a photograph of her husband, Haso, missing since Srebrenica's fall in 1995.
Tom Maday
One of the two images visitors to the Missouri Historical Society will be presented with: Muska Oric's hands holding a photograph of her husband, Haso, missing since Srebrenica's fall in 1995.
Second of the two images: Muska Oric, smiling, surrounded by her four children.
Tom Maday
Second of the two images: Muska Oric, smiling, surrounded by her four children.

Srebrenica, Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- if these names have any meaning at all for St. Louisans, it is as distant memories with unpleasant associations: ethnic cleansing, concentration camps, mass graves.

Patrick McCarthy, a St. Louis University librarian, was the catalyst for both the book and the exhibit. He has worked closely with the Bosnian refugees in St. Louis since they began arriving in the early 1990s. His association with the Balkan conflict has made him acutely aware of the inclination toward forgetting in contemporary life: "In the cycle of how we understand events, when things are over, they're really over."

His recent efforts -- writing the text and conducting interviews for the book, acting as liaison between the Bosnian community and the museum -- are acts of resistance against the ease with which the past turns into airy abstraction. "We do have the opportunity to go beyond the superficial," he says. And more than the opportunity, in McCarthy's way of thinking, the duty. He recalls a visit he made to Sarajevo during the siege, entering the city through tunnels under the airport. Amid the rubble of the streets, he saw well-dressed men, women in makeup. He refers to this care for surface appearance in the midst of horrific circumstances as "the stature of defiance." The Sarajevans were, he says, "maintaining their humanity before terrible inhumanity.

"The question is not how they did it, but who are you that you can so diminish your own humanity by looking the other way, or forgetting?"

Proportionally, St. Louis is the home of the largest Bosnian population (an estimated 25,000-plus) in the United States, and that population is second only to Chicago's in terms of numbers. In just the last five years, the Bosnians have become one of the largest single ethnic communities in the city. Their unique presence suggests a unique story, one which McCarthy began talking to the Historical Society's director of exhibitions, Myron Freedman, about three years ago.

His proposal was relatively modest compared with the exhibition that evolved from it. Like anyone with a book, he was looking for a suitable publisher, and the Historical Society seemed a good possibility. But timing, as any student of history knows, is everything, and McCarthy had come to the museum when it was planning for its new facility. Part of the museum's discussions were concerned with looking for ways to become more involved with people in the region, to become more of a local resource for people to tell their own stories about what St. Louis is and how it came to be.

From these discussions emerged the Community Partners Gallery, a space in the west wing of the old building, where 1904 World's Fair memorabilia now resides. There will still be space devoted to the World's Fair, but, explains Freedman, the Community Partners Gallery is "more a concept than a physical space" where the Historical Society hopes "to use our resources and our facilities to foster dialogue in the community about the region's persistent issues. We want people to come to us with stories to tell."

McCarthy had a story, and, because of his closeness to Bosnians here, could provide the Historical Society access to many more stories. McCarthy's book project "became the backbone for us to build something else around," says Freedman, "but we didn't know what that was until we actually went to the community."

The community, however, was suspicious at first. The last decade of conflict in the former Yugoslavia has been an experience of "the most intimate betrayals," McCarthy explains, in which neighbors became enemies. "To build a relationship of sufficient trust about difficult experiences," McCarthy observes, "means you have to get to know people," and coming from a major institution creates "inherent limitations." McCarthy began contacting people such as Adnan Jasarevic and Lejla Susic, two Bosnian refugees who came to St. Louis in the early '90s. Local Muslim leader Imam Muhamed Hasic was encouraged to participate as well (many Bosnians are Muslim, either practicing or not).

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