Casualties of War

We Will Survive documents the living history of St. Louis' Bosnian refugees

We Will Survive tells the story of a paradise lost, without the reassurance of paradise subsequently regained. Bosnia before the war is depicted as an idyllic cultural crossroads, a place where, as one bit of text informs the museumgoer, a muezzin's call could be heard in the shadow of a Franciscan church even as a Slavonic chant emanated from a Byzantine cathedral. It was a place of merhamet, a perhaps-untranslatable word that relates to hospitality and friendship, to the conversation and sharing of coffee and food and cigarettes that binds people together. A place both respectful of traditions and proud of its modernity, as in the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, represented here with photographs and memorabilia.

As you turn a corner, a coil of barbed wire descends from the ceiling and the ski slopes for the Olympiad become hideouts for snipers. The cultural crossroads becomes a cultural divide. In a section separated from the rest of the gallery by a dark scrim, exhibition designer Margaret Koch has layered images of the war, images of the Jasarovic family secure in their South City home and text of the harrowing narrative of the family's escape from the Srebrenica killing ground. Here are the adorable Mina and Hanifa, one turning cartwheels, the other scrunched up in a chair; and their father, Juso, in a rather benign portrait of a regular guy, juxtaposed with his account of genocide: "There were bodies all over. Body upon body."

The exhibition subtly, without the taint of facile theatricality, begs that connections be made among the American success stories, the Srebrenica horrors and the longing that remains for a Bosnia that is no more. There's no place like home, yet, as the exhibition shows, the children of the Bosnian diaspora swiftly, exuberantly embrace the America they know, not the homeland their parents remember. The exhibition, depicting as it does an ongoing story, does not resolve these conflicts with the happy ending of American assimilation. Rather, these artifacts reflect the push-pull between hope and remembrance, the demands of the living and the silence of the dead.

Hanifa Jasarovic, in a photo from After the Fall, turns a cartwheel in front of her South St. Louis home, far from the Balkan nightmare.
Tom Maday
Hanifa Jasarovic, in a photo from After the Fall, turns a cartwheel in front of her South St. Louis home, far from the Balkan nightmare.

The small gallery is filled with people, mostly members of the Bosnian community. For the most part, they read the text on the walls and examine the photos and artifacts with a quiet intensity. Then, when they have finished the narrative sequence of peace, war and war's aftermath -- all of which they have experienced in so many individual ways as to fill any number of galleries -- they reconnect with friends, talk, laugh on this holiday weekend. They wander back out to the museum's north entrance, where, beneath the statue of Thomas Jefferson, musicians have set up and now start into a polka beat.

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