Memorial for Children Killed during Siege | Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Around 10,000 civilians, of whom 1,500 were children, were killed in Sarajevo during the 44-month-long siege, mostly by snipers and mortars fired from the mountains surrounding the city.

This is a part of the memorial to those children – unveiled in 2009, whose centerpiece consists of two large glass abstract sculptures meant to symbolize a nameless mother trying to protect her nameless child. I am standing on the circular bronze platform surrounding the sculptures, made from melted bombshell cases and other weapons that were collected after the war. The imprinted footsteps belong to the surviving siblings and friends of the killed children.

Another monument was unveiled directly next to this one earlier this year. It is made up of seven circular columns with the names of 521 children who were killed during the siege engraved around them. More are to be installed, with around 800 more names engraved, once that information is gathered and their cases are verified. As I turned the columns with my hand, and read the children’s names – Muslim, Catholic, and Orthodox, and years of their births and deaths, the columns made a light, tinkling sound. They reminded me of the prayer wheels I had seen in Buddhist monasteries in Bhutan, engraved with mantras in Sanskrit and auspicious symbols, whose spinning is said to have the same effect as reciting prayers.

Broken Flowers: Sarajevo Rose | Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Sarajevo was, in a way, perfect for my obsession – pursued in this blog, of trying to find bigger stories in the ground’s surfaces. In many of the town’s different quarters, the pavement corresponds so well to their architecture that I almost didn’t need to look up in order to get their general style and feel.

For example, in the Old Town, just like the Baščaršija’s small, Ottoman-style shops suddenly got replaced by the grander and more majestic Austro-Hungarian houses dating to the beginning of the 20th century, so did the pavement – a sharp line divided the market area’s large uneven stones, shined slippery from the billions of feet that walked upon them since the 16th century, and the orderly, uniform and rougher tiles – neatly aligned at 90-degree angles, that lined the streets of the Old Town’s literally and figuratively western part.

Another, though not intentional, marking of the pavements told the story of a more recent chapter of Sarajevo’s history – the siege on the city that lasted between April 5, 1992 and February 29, 1996. That is 44 months, or 1,335 days.

In that time, an average of around 329 mortar shell impacts hit Sarajevo every day, though their numbers could – and did, reach into the thousands, with the most shells (3,777) fired on the city on July 22, 1993.

The spot in the ground where the mortar shell hit bears a scar with an almost floral pattern. It could easily be mistaken for an irregularity in the pavement, but once I knew to look out for them, these scars – now bitterly known as Sarajevo Roses, were all over the city, serving as a constant reminder of what was happening there less than 15 years ago.

Although it is of course impossible to imagine in any meaningful way the daily horror of living under siege for nearly four years, the locations of many of the Sarajevo Roses are enough to suggest the extent to which regular people’s existence was disrupted and their lives threatened on a daily and hourly basis – there are mortar shell marks on the city’s main pedestrian street, on the little square in front of a church, by an open-air market and a children’s playground near a park.

This was no abstract war fought by soldiers somewhere far away in the hills.

Since the end of the siege, I was told, some of the Sarajevo Roses have been filled in and erased as part of the post-war renovations of the city. Many people, however, are fighting to preserve them as a memory of what happened and a memorial to those who died. Some have been left as they were originally, with splattered marks indented in the pavement, while others have been filled in with a red resin. I heard that this was done to mark a place where people lost their lives. I’m not sure if that was always the case, but I caught myself breathing a sign of relief every time a saw a mark with no resin in it. It was also somehow comforting to see the red of the resin has started to fade with time.

Stumbling Stones, Große Hamburger Strasse | Berlin, Germany

We ducked away from the noisy and crowded area of Hackescher Markt into the peaceful Große Hamburger Strasse. The late afternoon, the soft, cool breeze and the unexpected quiet made it feel as if we had stepped not just onto a different street, but into another city and time altogether. “The air is different here,” my friend Eleni, whom I was walking with, said, and I agreed. It smelled like linden trees.

As we walked, the shiny brass squares set between the cobblestones of the sidewalk made me pause. As I looked at the words etched into them, the quietness became daunting and no longer peaceful. Each plaque read “here lived,” followed by the name of a person, their date and place of birth, then the year they were deported (1941 or 1942) and the place where they were murdered (Riga or Lodz).

Later, I found out the miniature memorials, called Stolpersteine (literally – ‘stumbling stones’) were created by artist Gunter Demnig. Believing that a person begins to be forgotten when his name is forgotten, he installed such plates in over 500 places around Germany and Europe, documenting some of the many Jews, Gypsies, political dissidents, homosexuals and other groups of people who fell victim to National socialism. But not collectively – one by one, individually.

Grosse Hamburger Strasse used to be one of the main streets in Berlin’s Jewish quarter before the rise of the Nazi regime and the outbreak of the Second World War. Along it stood a Jewish school for boys, a home for the aged and the city’s oldest Jewish cemetery. The Nazis eventually converted the school and the aged people’s home into internment centers, where they held Jews before deporting them to concentration camps. Today, a memorial tablet and a sculpture depicting a group of Jews being led to their deaths, serve as reminders.

Although I am daunted by those two, as well as Berlin’s other memorials commemorating the victims of the Nazi regime, somehow I find these small stumbling stones more powerful in some way. Maybe because they manage – at least in my mind, to reduce to a single individual the enormous tragedy, usually represented as a whole by large collective monuments. It all becomes more immediate and concrete, as I stumble, literally, into the details.

House of Terror | Budapest, Hungary

Maybe because Bulgaria hasn’t done much of anything to mark or remember its communist past, I am always interested to see how that past is remembered in other former Eastern Bloc countries. (This discrepancy probably has something to do with the fact that the Bulgarians’ relationship with the regime was much less turbulent than those of other nations.)

Having been born and spent (almost entirely) the first decade of my life in communist Bulgaria, I have a particular kind of fascination with the history of communist regimes. Although I never truly experienced any of the real terrors of totalitarianism, I seem to internalize historical testaments of them more than someone who has lived on the other side of the Iron Curtain for whom they may be more abstract.

And so, I enter the House of Terror in Budapest with a kind of trepidation and the knowledge that I have to see it though it isn’t going to be pleasant. The museum is a memorial to the victims of the fascist and communist dictatorial regimes in 20th-century Hungary. Located on Andrássy út 60, the building that houses it first served as the headquarters of the Hungarian Nazis in 1944 and then of the State Protection Authority – Hungary’s secret police between 1945 and 1956.

In the museum’s middle is a kind of atrium where a Soviet tank now stands, surrounded by walls lined with the large, black-and-white portraits of the people who were held captive, tortured and killed in the building.

The museum’s two upper floors, not unlike Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie museum, offer a slightly campy mixture of communist and Nazi paraphernalia arranged in situ with reconstructions, archive video footage, mannequins dressed in uniforms and walls plastered with pop-culture and propaganda posters. Some of the rooms are set up thematically, with a focus on different aspects of the regimes, and others – historically, dedicated to certain periods.

A good illustration of the absurd ways in which the Soviet Union demonstrated its supremacy and grandeur is in the ‘Gulag’ room. The entire floor of the room, probably measuring at least 12 meters in length and 4 meters in width, is covered wall to wall by a massive carpet-map* of the Soviet Union’s network of gulags. The labor camps where many Hungarians died are marked by cone-shaped cases containing artifacts from the deceased.

Things, however, stop being so abstract and become much more real on the elevator descent into the basement. During the excruciatingly slow ride, which takes about 3 minutes to go down only two floors, a video plays of a former guard recounting the process of the executions that took place in the basement. After his account, filled with minute details and told in a matter-of-fact way, I step into the basement wearily.

The underground level of the building is seemingly left mostly as it was, and though it has obviously been thoroughly aired out and cleaned, at this point I have seen enough to make me imagine detecting the smell of death mixed into the basement’s dampness or to think the dark spots on the execution room’s floor aren’t just dirt. In some of the cells, photographs hang over the cots – presumably of the people who were incarcerated there. There is also a room with padded floor and walls, and a solitary confinement space big enough for a person to only be able to stand up in – inducing such claustrophobia that when I try to enter one of the regular cells, I can only go as far as crossing its threshold with one foot, let alone closing the door behind me.

As I step out of the dark museum into the sunny street, I realize the museum was pretty much what I expected. Not pleasant but important to see. And though I’m sure it faces all kinds of criticism, both for the narrative it has chosen to present and the way it presents it, I feel like it is surely better than nothing. Which, incidentally, pretty much sums what has been done in Bulgaria to face and remember the communist past since the Berlin Wall fell more than 20 years ago.

*Taking pictures inside the museum is not allowed. But, what can I say, I’m a risk-taker for the sake of my art.