Focus on Focus: Jelena Jaćimović Jaćim – ArchiWar

There is hope!

Jelena Jaćimović Jaćim is an illustrator, designer and activist who, besides a recognizable visual style, actively nurtures articulated socio-political components in her work. In 2020, we had the pleasure of supporting ArchiWar, her project of documenting and personal artistic shaping of remembering genocide in Srebrenica. The project was conducted in collaboration with Humanitarian Law Centre. Shortly before marking the anniversary of the genocide, we talked to Jelena about her work and understanding of the recent past. 

1. Being a part of a generation born just a few years before the genocide, which emotional and political instances made you contribute with your work to the culture of remembrance and facing the war past?

The emotional instance was the guilt because I was unaware of the events and for a long time, I haven’t understood the extent of the evil that happened, because I was born in a country where everything is being instrumentalized, relativized, justified and negated. We, the youth that wasn’t even aware of the range of the wars in this region, are affected by everything that’s allegedly being done in our names and what has been done at other people’s damage. Other people’s lives are not valuable any less than ours, and people are not just a number. Especially when they have been murdered and later found in mass graves. And let’s remember these not only primary but also secondary and tertiary mass graves, through which some other human beings were digging, moving and burying again. We have to ask ourselves – where do we live and by whom? Facing the past is the most important thing – but it has to be seen from the angle of those who are the reason for our remembrance and with the consciousness that the genocide shall never happen again. Reconciliation doesn’t come through “but what have they done to us” and spreading hatred but through solidarity and accepting responsibility.

2. You are responding to us from Srebrenica, from Potočari, to be more precise, where the ArchiWar exhibition is being held to mark the anniversary of the genocide. It’s been a while since the exhibition was held in Belgrade and Novi Sad. When you get an overview of the entire process, from the idea to research, to conducting it and having contact with audiences in different places, which sentiments remain dominant?

I think that until I came to Potočari, I wasn’t aware of how much this matters to me. In the previous two years, while the process of research and creation n was lasting, I thought a lot about how can I impact anything. Yet, when I met my friend Amra Begić, who is the reason why all of this was made, I understood that my drawings matter to her and to people working at the Memorial centre. And now I’m honored to give them those drawings as symbolic gifts. This is a wrapping of everything I’ve been doing regarding the Srebrenica genocide but it is also the main reason why I will continue doing that. I don’t have any bad sentiments, although some wish I feel them. I am glad that, throughout my entire life, I am able to feel that people are people to people, especially when we are in solidarity in difficult moments and experiences. That’s how we change ourselves and the world around us. That’s enough and it makes me optimistic.

3. Some of the drawings from the exhibition make a particularly strong impression, depicting people with “empty” eyes, without eye pupils, or people with their eyes closed, or people with generally hidden, elusive looks, all of which visually strengthens the impression of hopeless weight and silence. At the societal level today, it seems that we also have blurred, bewildered, distorted looks at the genocide, eyes directed anywhere but directly into facing. On one hand, there is an omnipresent denial of the genocide, and on the other hand, we can oftentimes hear, especially from extreme right-wingers, “that we were killing them but we haven’t killed enough of them.” How do you see these paradoxes?

Let us see what is given and what is looked for – like in a process of solving a math problem. If the victims speak loudly through their characters on my drawings or on photographs from the archive completely speechless and if, on the other hand, some hopeless and lost people shout that the number of the genocide victims was supposed to be higher – here we conclude that the only life goal of those waking up and going to sleep with hatred is to reduce the number of lives of those waking up with happiness in their eyes because they are ruining the sense of life to them. If other people’s freedom and happiness make you hate more, because those others are not the same as you in your freedom, then you should ask yourself who staged the world to you in a way making you valuate life through other people’s fall into misery.

I can confirm that the solution to everything is empathy and talking. Even when the eyes you are looking at once were happy and alive, and now you know they are dead – it is good to know that it doesn’t have to be like that for anyone again because everything is up to you and me. 

4. “I wish to find as much of them as I can. That’s why I’m looking for them, to bring joy to every mother to bury her son. To bury her husband.” This is one of the striking authentic quotes, written on your drawing The Bone Collector, which is also a part of the exhibition. It is understandable that certain joy following these acts brings to a kind of “closure” of individual tragedies emerging from the genocide. However, what is with the wider, systemic solutions and reconciliation? Exploring this recent past and living in a hypocritical socio-political reality that denies the genocide, how do you feel about the future? What has to happen in order to achieve true reconciliation? 

The drawing depicts Ramiz Nukić, who, upon coming back to his birthplace, has found the remains of several hundreds of his fellow citizens in the woods surrounding his home. I cannot talk about the feelings of people burying their loved ones because I don’t have the right to define that. I hope it gives them at least a bit of peace. Systemic solutions have to be given by a well-built system. And given that nothing is built well in Serbia, then there is nothing but what we as individuals are offering. I don’t know why I would have to know the answer to how someone in official positions should behave and in what way to be exemplary. It creeps me out that Vučić is looking at the genocide anniversary as an attempt of assassinating him. That’s miserable and he has contributed to it through his own stupidity. The future is gray with such people. And I hope it won’t be black again. It has to be said what has happened, there has to be space for the voices of the victims and the survivors, the responsibility has to be accepted and there has to be an education of youth through multicultural programs and exchange for developing solidarity and friendships in the region. So it wouldn’t happen again. They deserve happy lives. 

5. Each year, the anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide is primarily marked by activists who were also a part of the anti-war movement in the 1990s and, by doing so, they are preserving the much-needed memory. Even with all of their decades-long efforts, the political climate at the moment is such that it gives an impression that true reconciliation is still abstract. And what do you think, is there a hope that currently young people and the upcoming generations will manage to overcome this possibly most hurtful point of the recent history in the region, to face it with dignity and openly humane? In what can we seek the base for such overcoming? 

It is beautiful what individuals are doing for decades. That is how I also wanted to contribute to reconciliation and peace. It doesn’t matter that it won’t go fast – it is good to know that there are people who wholeheartedly know that they are on the right side of history. Bit by bit, even if it crumbles along the way. Peace is being built, people are aiming to be free and happy. There are young people who haven’t experienced the war but its consequences. But they are interested in all of it and they want to develop. They can also travel more, they can get to know each other better. I am glad they have more opportunities. There is hope. 

The drawings of Jelena Jaćimović, along with the accompanying stories of remembering the Srebrenica genocide, are available at the ArchiWar website.

Interview by Galina Maksimović

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LICEULICE: Solidarity implies empathy and sincere involvement in other people’s conditions