International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Book Review: Memory and Healing in Bosnia

Posted 1 January 2001 in StressPoints by Stevan Deets

At the beginning of When History is Nightmare, Stevan Weine warns the reader that this is not an academic text in psychiatry. The book does not focus on trauma-related mental health disorders or on empirical reviews of psychotherapy, but instead explores the role of memory in the outbreak of the war of Bosnia-Hercegovina and its role in helping society heal from this mass trauma. Concentrating on the experiences of Bosnian Muslims, the author combines a dreamlike quality with dream interpretation. In addition, readers are challenged to become part of the process of owning collective memories and are encouraged to consider their responsibilities in a world of collective trauma. While these factors create a readable and thought-provoking book, this work lacks a sustained, coherent argument and raises questions without providing satisfying answers.

The book is divided into three sections. The first, "Surviving Ethnic Cleansing," deals with the landscape of memory, particularly as told by Bosnian Muslims living in America. Testimonies are used to evoke the multi-ethnic community before the war and the extreme horrors of ethnic cleansing. For anyone who has read about the Holocaust, the stories are eerily familiar. However, there is an emphasis on the remembrances of the cosmopolitan city of Sarajevo and, as a result, we never really hear the voices from more homogenous cities, rural areas or other ethnic groups. Furthermore, although Weine wonders how memories and family histories have been reshaped by the war, the issue is not explored, missing a chance to examine the contextual nature of individual and collective memory.

The second section addresses the role of Serbian psychiatrists and mental health professionals in the war. The short tenure of Jovan Raskovic, a Serbian psychiatrist, as leader of the Serbian Democratic Party in Croatia, serves as a prelude to the full-scale violence that another psychiatrist, Radovan Karadzic, helped unleash in Bosnia-Hercegovina. The chapter on Karadzic fully engages the concept of history as nightmare. It creates a fascinating kaleidoscope of images culled from interviews with former friends and colleagues at the Kosovo Day Hospital as well as from Karadzic's own writings; clear statements on who Karadzic was and what he did are not the point. Both chapters reveal the multiple narratives about Bosnia before the war.

In the section's final chapter, the actions of mental health professionals in Serbia come under scrutiny. It is here that the extent to which Weine has become trapped in particular narratives becomes most apparent. Serbian mental health professionals are portrayed as active apologists for atrocities in Bosnia; their efforts to engage Western specialists in mental health crises in Serbia are seen as efforts to divert attention from Bosnia. There is no exploration of how widespread Serbian memories of a multi-ethnic Yugoslavia and acceptance of World War II as a victory of brotherhood and unity created a situation in which the reality of the war in Bosnia seemed impossible. These memories, combined with the large number of Serbian refugees arriving from Bosnia during the war, made Serbian state propaganda believable. With the strain on mental health professionals from skyrocketing caseloads in the face of economic collapse, it required no ulterior motives for them to reach out to Western colleagues, many of whom they had collaborated with for years.

The final section returns to the question of coping with memory. Weine argues mental health professionals should engage in bearing witness and gathering testimony, but not primarily as psychotherapy. Instead, these testimonies are to be interpreted by artists, writers and others to create new collective memories. It is an understandable and laudable call to arms. However, the book details the failure of earlier attempts to fashion a multi-ethnic collective memory without detailing what now needs to be created. And when Weine is challenged that the region is a "victim of collective memory" (p. 167), he does not explain why collective memory will not be a tool for victimization in the future.

As individual healing takes place in a social context, the issues raised in this book must be examined. This book places these issues in the broader moral context of our individual responsibilities as Americans, professionals and human beings faced with the trauma and recovery of entire societies. This book, the interpretation of collective memories in an effort to come to terms with the trauma of the war, is both Dr. Weine's response and a sample of the kind of work he advocates in the final section. However, we are given no road maps on how to maneuver through the landscape of memory to find healing. Until we have this, perhaps we should reflect more self-consciously on the cautionary tale of the Serbian psychiatrists as we move forward.

Stevan Deets teaches in the Department of Political Science at the Miami University of Ohio in Oxford, Ohio.