This article is a part of our Series on Memory, History, and Power. Read the Series Introduction here.
From the slopes of mount Trebavić, you have a privileged view over Sarajevo. To get there, it is only a 20-minute walk from Grbavica, a popular residential neighbourhood built during Socialist Yugoslavia. Although short, the climb is quite literally breath-taking: the air pollution hits dangerous levels during the winter, the road doesn’t have proper pavements to protect you from high speed cars and, as soon as you arrive you are struck by a panoramic view over the whole capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Thus, it is not hard to understand why the original site’s name is Vratca, meaning ‘small door’. As soon as you get there, the view over Sarajevo gives you the impression that the place is a door to the city.
Due to its strategic place in the city, Vraca was coveted by different groups over the centuries. Successive occupying powers curated the place according to the role they attributed to Sarajevo. Whilst under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1898, it was a military fortress. Later, during the Second World War, the site was transformed into a death field and burial ground, where Ustaše executed thousands – mostly Jews, Serbs, communists and Partisans. Moreover, due to its position as ‘a door to the city’, it was used as a deportation hub, where prisoners were taken to concentration camps throughout the region. In total, at least 12,000 inhabitants of Sarajevo were killed by fascist forces. Their names were inscribed into the monument, which would be built almost four decades later at that site.
The Vraca Memorial Park was first conceived by veterans’ groups and authorities in Sarajevo as early as 1965. Around this time, other monuments and memorials were built to celebrate the National Liberation War, or Narodnooslobodilačka borba (NOB), as it was called in Yugoslavia the guerrilla-style liberation war led by the Yugoslav Partisans against the Axis occupying forces and their puppet regimes in the region. From the 1950s onwards, the Yugoslav authorities invested in the construction of thousands of monuments and memorials to the NOB, including large structures, such as the Monument to the Battle of Sutjeska, and many other smaller initiatives, such as plaques and sculptures. The NOB monuments occupied a special place inside the narrative of Yugoslavia, publicly demonstrating the centrality of the shared struggle against fascist forces, thereby creating an intra-ethnonational memory of suffering. The abstract modernist-brutalist sculptures and memorials recall the days when Yugoslavia promoted ideals such as modernization and statehood, avoiding, at the same time, association with any particular ethnonational group.
Unlike other NOB monuments, that were built after Second World War and laid the basis for official narratives and memories of that period, Vraca Memorial Park took a long time to be constructed, in a moment where the economy was not so prosperous any longer. It was only in 1981 that the six-hectare memorial was built, in an attempt to transform a place associated with suffering into a site of tribute and socio-political gathering. The memorial itself comprises several monuments addressing different categories of victims: one tomb is dedicated to ‘the city’s national heroes’, there is a memorial wall inscribed with around 12,000 names of those who were killed during the war, a tribute to women fighters and a monument to Tito, the leader of the Partisans through NOB/Second World War and Yugoslav leader until his death, in 1980.
Even though the Vraca Memorial Park was built in the 1980s, at a time of resurgence for ethno-nationalism in Yugoslavia, the memorial – which precisely claimed an anti-ethnonationalism approach – has played an important role in the life of the city for some time. It became a place that hosted mass gatherings, such as the Young Pioneer political youth group; a place to celebrate public anniversaries and holidays or to simply sit down and enjoy the view. A page dedicated to the monument states that ‘Vraca without a doubt was (…) a cultural landmark for the city and stood as one of Sarajevo’s enduring and unifying symbols during this time period’.
Ironically, despite being an antifascist memorial, Vraca was transformed ten years later, into one of the sites from which Bosnian Serb paramilitary forces (VRS) conducted the siege of Sarajevo, from 1992 to 1995. From Vraca, the VRS fired against the Bosnian capital, using heavy artillery or snipers. VRS operations against the people of Sarajevo were never recognized as genocide by an international court, but have been labelled an urbicide, a deliberate targeting of urban life, which involved the ‘destruction of buildings as a condition of possibility of being-with-others’. From Vraca (and elsewhere), the agenda of ‘ethnonational cleansing’ targeted the shared histories, cultures and heritages in Sarajevo on a daily basis, destroying the city’s social tissue and hampering any possibility of a ‘normal life.’ As VRS general Ratko Mladic said, ‘go on with the artillery fire. Don’t let them sleep. Let’s make them crazy.’
The agenda of total destruction was carried out from the site. When VRS retreated, they left Vraca Memorial Park completely devastated, and its outskirts littered with anti-personnel mines. As politics of memorialization in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina were produced along ethnonational lines, there have been a myriad of new monuments dedicated to the suffering of each constituent people (Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats). In a city such as Brčko, there are three different memorials in the main square dedicated to the victims of each ethnonational group. As churches and mosques were being rebuilt through the country, not surprisingly the Vraca Memorial Park, a unifying symbol, remained abandoned and vandalized. Many other NOB monuments suffered the same fate, not only in Bosnia but also in Croatia, Kosovo and North Macedonia. Some have completely vanished, much like the regime which constructed them.
Since 2005, Vraca Memorial Park has been declared a National Monument thanks to civil society groups, such as SABNOR (Association of Antifascists and Fighters of the People’s Liberation War in the Sarajevo Canton). Until very recently, however, this was not translated into a better care of the site, nor into its reintegration into the city’s public life.
Last year, memories of Second World War regained the streets of Sarajevo. On the 16th of May, a mass devoted to honour Ustaše troops and Axis-aligned civilians killed by partisans in 1945 was celebrated in Sarajevo Cathedral. Even though the city, and the world, was under the yoke of the Covid-19 pandemic, thousands of activists, members of anti-fascist organisations and citizens took the streets to protest against the religious service. One woman held a poster reminding people that ‘it doesn’t take that many fascists to make fascism’. The protest was a clear message that thousands of people will still stand against far-right movements that claim memories both from the Second World War and the 1990s wars. They showed that, although monument-building is a crucial practice to establish official narratives, ‘anti-fascism is not a monument’. It depends a lot on how people enact those positions, what they do and how they practise those memories from the past. From everyday practices such as cleaning, caring and curating Vraca by volunteers, to more public spectacles, such as the 2020 protest against the mass, it is clear that anti-fascism stances are very well alive. Both the May protests and the everyday silent work of curating Vraca are signs that citizens are willing to enact anti-fascism practices whenever they feel memories from the wars are being challenged, instrumentalized or simply facing oblivion. Recently, there was also a sign from Sarajevo authorities in the same direction. In 2019, at the anniversary of liberation of Sarajevo from fascist forces, the Eternal Flame at Vraca was again relight, after 27 years.
 Ustaše, led by Ante Pavelić, is the Croatian fascist movement that nominally ruled the Independent State of Croatia during Second World War. Among its aims, the Ustaše movement sought independence from Yugoslavia, and, once it was achieved, their goal was to create a ‘purely Croatian state’. Hundreds of thousands of Serb, Jewish, Muslim and Gypsy inhabitants were brutally killed in such attempt.
 Vladana Putnik, “Second World War Monuments in Yugoslavia as Witnesses of the Past and the Future,” Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change 14, no. 3 (2016): 206-21.
 Martin Coward, Urbicide. The Politics of Urban Destruction (London and New York: Routledge, 2008).
 Ivana Macek, Sarajevo Under Siege. Anthropology in Wartime (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).
 Jelena Subotić, Yellow Star, Red Star: Holocaust Remembrance after Communism (Cornell: Cornell University Press, 2019).
 The memorial mass is organized annually by the Croatian Church and held in Bleiburg, Austria, where sympathisers of Ustaše regime were killed by partisans. The commemoration has attracted thousands of people, and, more recently, has increasingly attracted overtly pro-Ustaše fascists. Due to sanitarian restrictions to prevent the spread of Covid-19, last year the borders with Austria were closed and, therefore, the mass was held elsewhere.
 Lydia Cole, Curating Vraca Memorial Park: Everyday Practice, Counter-Politics, and Counter- Monumentalism (Forthcoming).