Art, propaganda and War kitsch; all are present in Daoud Sarhandi and Alina Boboc's collection of war posters from the Bosnian War.
I admit that there were two primary reasons why I picked up this book in the first place. 1. I had never read it before. 2. It has minimal text, and mostly consists of posters; and therefore I thought that I could skim through the book in a relatively short period of time.
Funny how things work out, because instead of skimming through the posters; I found myself intrigued and transfixed by the posters and the larger meaning they had not only in the context of the Bosnian War, but in that strange crossroad between politics and the media, culture and propaganda.
The book begins with a short essay written by David Rhode (The Christian Science Monitor Reporter who was the first Western Journalist to investigate and uncover the Srebrenica Massacre). In his essay, Rhode sets up the book by discussing his own experience in Bosnia and his own experience with the RS propaganda machine. He writes about a Bosnian Serb soldier who is convinced that if the Bosnian Serbs lost; "Islamic Fundamentalists" would overtake the country, and force all the women and girls to wear veils and prevent them from driving.
Now of course, anyone who knows anything about the form of Islam practiced by the Bosniaks know that this charge is ridiculous; furthermore of all the players in the conflict, the Bosniaks were the least dogmatic. However, this man was still convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt of the validity of his claim. That man was not alone, as during the war thousands and thousands of ordinary people justified the crimes they committed or the crimes committed by their army by convincing themselves that they were engaged in a life and death struggle against Islamic Fundamentalists.
How did it get that way? The posters are key pieces of the deliberate misinformation and outright lie campaign of the Serbian government in order to justify their progroms and ethnic cleansing campaign.
The opening by Rhode is followed by a very well written and heavily footnoted(!) introduction by Dauod Sarhandi in which he looks at the posters in the larger context of the war.
Following the introduction there are the posters. These posters are not presented in a very coherent manner, for example posters dealing with different subjects and from different years are at times put together side by side. I felt this was a drawback to the book; as I felt it perhaps could have been organized a little bit better. The vast majority of these posters are followed by a short and coherent translation and explanation of the meaning of the poster; and I felt these explanations were well done; and added to my understanding of the war. For example, I wasn't aware that when Zeljko Raznatovic (Arkan) ran for public office in 1996 under his radical "Serbian Unity Party" he actually received funding for his party from the European Community! I find it unbelievable that the EC would give someone whose name is synonymous with ethnic cleansing money to run in an election.
While most of the explanations help give a greater understanding of the poster; for some reason a few of the posters are presented without any explanation. Like the organizational scheme of the book, I felt that the lack of explanation for some of the posters was a drawback of the book.
However, the introduction and the collection of the posters as a whole more than make up for this; and the book presents one of the most interesting, disturbing and at times, humane and powerful interpretations of the Bosnian War I have seen.
Stylistically, the posters vary greatly. Some of them resemble an almost Warholian pop culture/war culture kitsch, others are classic propaganda posters; still others, particularly the posters for the ABiH are similar in style to the type of posters one finds advertising punk rock bands in the US. As it is hard (at least for me) to give a concise description of all the posters; I would like to mention some of the highlights in the book.
GREATER SERBIA POSTERS/VRS POSTERS
Of all the posters in the book, the ones I was most intrigued by were the Serbian propaganda posters of the late 1980s and early 1990s; because it was these posters that helped set the stage for the war just a few years later. And less anyone is still convinced that the war in Bosnia was merely a "civil war" that just suddenly broke out without much provocation; there is a poster from the ultra nationalist "Podledi" magazine in the 1980s, which shows "Greater Serbia" that covers all of Bosnia and most of Croatia.
How did they justify the creation of "Greater Serbia"? By using propaganda techniques and emotive images to convince the people that the Serbs were in danger of becoming victims of a "genocide" if they didn't fight first.
One featured poster combines the image of modern day Serbs walking in protest to Kosovo, with a painting of the exodus of Serbs from Kosovo in 1689. A direct connection is made between the two events; and the unspoken claim is unmistakable, if the Serbs do not fight for their rights, then they will face a mass exodus (or worse).
Of all the posters perhaps one of the most infamous one features green paint slowly covering the flag of the European Union. Again, the message is clear; Green is traditionally associated with Islam; therefore if the Serbs do not win the war, then it will usher in a victory for extremism and fundamentalism which will overtake all of Europe.
The posters show linkage between the seminal events in Serb history; with the belief that they are the protectors of Christiandom and a great fear of the "other."
One of the posters for the VRS was very stylistic and looked more like a movie poster than what one would expect an army poster to look like. In fact, the poster of a good looking man dressed up in rambo gear and dark shades while he is wading through a river looks like an ad for one of those ultra macho Vietnam war movies.
Of all the posters I felt the ones from Croatia to be the most eclectic. Some of them were interchangeable with the style of posters found in US elections. Trudjman hugging babies! etc. A few anti war posters. As well as posters on the destruction of Dubrovnik that portrayed the JNA as an utterly depraved and scary looking man clawing the town away. There are also a few posters showing a united Croatian-Bosnian front, during their alliance. Interesting; I did not notice in the book any posters from the Herceg-Bosna groups. (But I might have missed it).
I felt that these posters tended to be the most abstract. For example there was a poster of a sniper in glasses to symbolize the role Serbian intellectuals played in the destruction of Bosnia. An "Enjoy Sarajevo" poster with "Sarajevo" written in the same font used to write Coca Cola. The posters for the ABIH also varied. Some of them look like classic partisan posters. Others, are photographs of young men (without uniforms) raising guns in one hand and the victory sign with their other hands; and to me it looked like the type of poster I've seen used to advertise punk rock concerts, not a traditional call to arms poster. Another poster from the Territorial Defense Sarajevo promising mafiasos that their crimes will not be tolerated. The independent Sarajevo magazine DANI frequently used photographs as part of their posters; including a very graphic photo of a mutilated body, concentration camp victims and women and children deported from Srebrenica. DANI frequently puts images from the Bosnian war side by side by images from the Holocaust/Nazis era to draw a connection between the two events.
Other posters deal with the lack of response from the international community. The most ingenious one was a poster that stated "See who says International Community Doesn't Lift a Finger?" with French and British hands posed to raise their middle fingers up at Bosnia.
A Light in the Darkness
A segment of posters from Sarajevo featured the city's resilience in face of the siege. The face of a Sarajevo musician who played solos in the middle of the destruction. Posters reminding people of the beauty and splendor of the Sarajevo Olympics. Posters advertising concerts for a Free Bosnia. Perhaps the most profound poster came from Tuzla which simply declared that "Evil Doesn't Live Here."
There are just such a rich variety of posters that I cannot even begin the describe them all, and I'm not sure if I even did justice to the ones I did describe. Despite some of the flaws which I mentioned above, the book is truly a work of art of the best and worst humanity has to offer.