Domicide and Struggle over the Material Reconstruction of Post-War Bosnia:
the Case of Bruce Lee

Andrew Dawson

University of Melbourne


Making the voids

The Bosnian war of succession from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia that took place in 1992-95 involved a process of territorial ethnic homogenization.2.2 million people, about half the country's pre-war population were displaced (Phoung 2000, 165). A much less commented upon process that accompanied this was that of domicide(Porteus and Smith 2001), where built environments were destroyed and, thereby rendered useless and unfamiliar, especially for the displaced people who had once lived in them.

Figure 1- Domicide

Broadly speaking, domicidefunctioned at both macro and micro levels. Following the inter-ethnic violence that took place in Bosnia in World War II (WWII), the central policy undergirding the post-war Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was that of BratstvoiJedinstvo(Brotherhood & Unity). Brotherhood connoted the equality of nations (Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia) in the federation, and Unity connoted pan-Slavic (Yugoslav) identification both across the federation generally and within its constitutive nations specifically. Unity was pursued with special vigor in Bosnia because, unlike other nations in the federation, no constitutive ethnic group – Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim), Bosnian Croat or Bosnian Serb – held an absolute majority. As such, the potential for inter-ethnic tension was greater than in other nations within the federation.

This vigorous pursuit of Unity was evident in a number of domains, including official ‘memory policy’ and its implementation in relation to the built environment (Denich 1994). For example, the road system was designed to avoid and thus ‘forget’ sites of inter-ethnic violence in WWII. Conversely, where such sites of inter-ethnic violence could not be avoided they were commemorated often with monuments that ‘mis-remember’ them as, instead sites of victory in a class struggle against non-ethnically specific local traitors (the Bourgeoisie) and their external masters (Nazis).

Figure 2- Tjentiste Monument to the Battle of Sutjeska

The destruction or vandalism of such monuments, which was, indeed widespread during and after the war of succession, may be understood as particularly muscular statements of the defeat of Yugoslavism by its opposite, ethnic-nationalism. In some cases destruction of ancient monuments, such as that of the Mostar Bridge, a key symbol of Bosnian multiculturalism and Yugoslavism( may be understood as reflecting a common feature of ethnic-nationalisms the world over: their need to challenge discourses of the antiquity and naturalness of non-national identification and eventually, in their place, establishhistorical and naturalizing discourses of the ethnic-nation in order to obfuscate its essential modernity and constructedness (Gellner 2006). Conversely, the destruction of the more intimate built-environments of home – dwellings, gardens, family grave-yardsand the like – was very clearly designed with the intention of ensuring that the displaced people would have nothing useful and meaningful to return to.

Filling the voids

Not surprisingly, following the war of succession symbols of the newly resurgent ethnic-nationalisms went some way to filling the domicidal voids. Notably, the Croatian flag, Serbian flag and flags of the SDA, the governing political party which is most closely identified with Bosniak (Muslim) nationalism, became ubiquitous in the new and relatively ethnically homogenized Bosnian ‘entities’ of Herzeg-Bosnia (unofficial), RepublikaSrpska (official) and the Bosnian Federation (official) respectively that emerged during the war or following war’s end.  However, to a greater extent, the ethnic-nationalization of the built environment is instantiated and experienced via less direct symbols.

The first of these indirect symbols of ethic nationalism is the proliferation, especially within historically secular urban contexts (Bougarel 2007) of new and, often untypically grandiose religious buildings. Religious institutions are one of the very few institutions (epic poetry being a notable other) to have functioned as a cradle of ethnic-nationalism (Dawson 2009) through non-ethnic-nationalist times. Though sometimes locally funded, more often than not these religious buildings are funded by wealthy overseas investors.

The second of these indirect symbols of ethic nationalism lies in changes within urban built environments – such as the market gardening of urban spaces - wrought by the greatly increased presence of rural people that came about when the countryside was ethnically homogenized. Rural people are characterized by both higher rates of religious observance (Bougarel 2007) and, connected to this, national identification (Ramet 1996). Furthermore, rural people are widely renowned, almost certainlycorrectly, for their propensities for both ethnic endogamy (Bringa 1995) and demographic fecundity (Sophos 1996), and, more speculatively, for their capacity to evoke barely suppressed rural, and thereby ethnic-national behaviors within urban others (see, for example, van de Port 1999).

Contesting the rural, religious and ethnic-national reconstruction of the urban built environment

Alongside the above, an altogether more surprising development arose in some contexts throughout the former-Yugoslavia, the erection of a series of statues depicting icons of vinyl and screen – Tarzan, fictional boxing champion Rocky Balboa, reggae musician Bob Marley, and, most famously, martial arts legend and film star Bruce Lee. (A bust of pin-up model and singer Samantha Fox is rumored to be at the stage of planning).

Figure 3 – Rocky Balboa

Figure 4 – Bob Marley

Figure 5 – Bruce Lee

With the exception of the statue of Bruce Lee, whose creators participated in a documentary film about its construction (Milharcić 2006), almost no significant published commentary about the meaningfulness of these monuments exists. However, their almost oppositional contrast with the postwar construction of the built environment described above is marked.

Associated intrinsically with Philadelphia in the US, Kingston in Jamaica and Hong Kong respectively, Balboa, Marley and Lee are urban icons. Religiosity or, at least local forms of religiosity (Marley was a Rastafarian and Lee described himself as a spiritual atheist) was not central to any of their identities. Additionally, it would appear, they resonate with non-,and perhaps even anti-nationalism. Each hails from a place outside the former-Yugoslavia and, in contrast to the ethnic purity demanded increasingly by Bosnia’s new nationalisms, each is hybrid in some way: Balboa Italian-American, Lee Chinese-American and Marley a political Pan-Africanist and also a key figure in mediating the violent political tensions between rival groups that beset Jamaica in the early 1970s. Only the statueof Tarzan would appear to differ. It celebrates an actor, Johnny Weissmuller who hails from the village in northern Serbia where the statue is located. However, an ethnic German, Weissmuller too symbolizes ethnic hybridity.

Finally, and almost certainly of greatest significance in the meaningfulness of these statues is the historical epoch with which each of the figures they celebrate was associated. The heyday of Marley, Balboa (played by actor Silvester Stallone) and Lee was the 1970-80s. And their popularity in the former-Yugoslavia at this time was considerable, leading to, so informants explained to me, the emergence of a large local reggae scene, boxing clubs and, above all the emergence of martial arts as a popular pastime.

Importantly, the mid-1960s to 1980s was a particularly significant time for the Unity project. Above all, it was the era in which the first post-WWII generation of Yugoslavs that had been raised exclusively in the Yugoslav federation and that had no memory of inter-ethnic violence came into adulthood. Many such people are labeled by both older and younger generations who came to adulthood within nationalist times and, often even by themselves as  ‘Yugonostalgiacs’ (Palmberger 2008).

Vandalizing the urban, secular and non-national

The obliteration of symbols of Yugoslavism and ethnic coexistence that was part of the domicide process in the war was certainly no less extreme than that of the symbols of ethnic others. Certainly, my informants regarded events such as the sieges of Tuzla and, most famously Sarajevo by Serbian forces as being as much attacks on urban and secular cosmopolitanism by rural, religious and mono-ethnic-nationalism as they were attacks on one ethnic group by another. This makes absolute sense. With the exception of Greece Yugoslavia urbanized more rapidly than any other country in Europe in the post-WWII era (Glenny 2001), and cities were quite explicitly developed as sites where socialist secularism/atheism and Yugoslavism would be nurtured, especially through mixed marriage.

Having noted the above, it would seem that a divergence in behavior towards material symbols of identity has emerged in the era following the war of succession. On one hand I noticed that new symbols of religiosity and associated ethnic-nationalism tend to be treated with humor at very worst. Anthropologists have long observed that humor tends to emergeat moments of ambivalence, tension and unease. This certainly appeared to be the case within reactions to the new religious and ethnic-nationalist buildings expressed bymy main research informants, whether Yugoslav or ethno-nationalist identifying. For example, one Bosniak informant commented with ironic diplomacy on competition between the Orthodox and Catholic churches in Mostar to erect the biggest crucifixes on their respective new cathedrals, “they are two big pluses for Mostar”. Likewise, another Bosniak informant of the local Sunni faith joked about the massive rocket-like minarets oninternationally financed and recently built Wahabbi mosques, they are, “evidence of the presence of powerful alien life forms.” In contrast, there are numerous instances of new and explicitly secular and non-ethnic-nationalist monuments being met with, often extreme violence. This appears especially odd when, as with the case of the Bruce Lee statue that I describe below, the icons that they celebrate appearto be so far removed from Bosnia’s local tensions.

The case of Bruce Lee

In the early stages of the war of succession Muslim and Croat forces formed an alliance to repel Serbian territorial ambitions in Bosnia. However, later in the war Croat forces annexed Croat-inhabited parts of the country, declared the independence of the Croat Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia, and obtained tacit consent for this from Serbian forces. Understandably, the government of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a whole, the country’s multi-ethnic Yugoslav identifying community and, of course, its Muslim population especially, were hostile to this development. The city of Mostar was placed in an especially invidious situation. The presidency of the new Herzeg-Bosnia declared Mostar, a multi-ethnic city with a Muslim majority, its capital. During what came to be known as the ‘Bosniak-Croat war’ within a war, Mostar was divided into a western part dominated by Croat forces and an eastern part controlled by the multi-ethic, but majority Muslim Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The struggle that took place was a particularly brutal one, involving a ten month siege of the western part of the city, the forcible expulsion of ethnic groups from one part of the city to another, urban guerilla-style warfare, huge loss of life and, of course domicide, as material symbols of ethnic, multicultural and Yugoslav belonging were systematically destroyed.

Mostar’s Bruce Lee monument was unveiled in the city’s centralZrinski Park in 2005, ten years after the end of hostilities on a date to mark, ostensibly, what would have been Lee’s sixty-fifth birthday. It was sculpted by Croation artist Ivan Fijolić. It was bankrolled by the German government, that, having been the first Western state to recognize the independence of Croatia, had played an indirect but very significant role in stimulating the erstwhile hostilities in Mostar. Most importantly, the project as a whole was spearheaded by a multi-ethnic and explicitly anti-nationalist group of activists called ‘Mostar Urban Movement’ (MUM).

In general, though often vague and inchoate, MUM’s statements about the monument envisage its role in a struggle surrounding the post-domicadal re-symbolisaztionof Bosnia’s built environment. ActivistNino Raspudić, for example, describes it as, “an attempt to question symbols, old and new, by mixing up high grandeur with mass culture and kung fu" (cited in Zaitchik 2006).In some statements it is envisioned as symbolizing specific values such as “loyalty, skill, friendship and justice” (activist cited in Zaitchik 2006) that were embodied in the personae of Bruce Lee, and that are widely seen to have been erased locally by the war of succession. Other statements envisage quite explicitly Lee as a symbol of Yugoslav and inter-ethic solidarity. As one activist put it, “one thing we all have in common is Bruce Lee”(cited in Zaitchik 2006). Finally, other statements express the epoch specific quality of such solidarity, and the appropriateness of this particular 1970s icon to symbolize it. As leading activist VesilinGatalo states, Bruce Lee is, "far enough away from us that nobody can ask what he did during World War II” (cited in Zaitchik 2006).

Within hours of the unveiling of the Bruce Lee statue it had been vandalized. Despite being made of hardy bronze, Lee’s weapon (nan-chuck) was removed, almost certainly with heavy machinery. From then on various other smaller acts of vandalism took place, including the spay-painting of the statue itself and the obliteration of the inscription on the plinth.

Figure 6 – Bruce Lee defaced

Eventually, the statue had to be removed for repair and its own protection. It was returned some years later and currently faces an uncertain future. There are several common explanations for the vandalism. Benignly, Nino Raspudićdescribes it as motivated by a desire for Bruce Lee to become, like the people of Mostar, a victim too (Milharcić 2006). More commonly, belying VesilinGatalo’s reasonable assumption that as an extra-local character Lee is far removed from local ethnic tensions (see above), and demonstrating the extraordinary capacity of almost all aspects of contemporary life in Bosnia to be appropriated by ethnic nationalism (Dawson forthcoming), several of my informants described the vandalism as ethnically motivated. Indeed, for example, and somewhat bewilderingly, a commonplace complaint about the statue expressed by local Bosniaks and Croats alike was that Lee had been posed in an aggressive stance towards their specific ethnic communities (see also, Zaitchik 2006). This led, eventually, to a reorienting of the statue. Beyond these, a most common, and apparently counterintuitive explanation as to why the statue became a particular target of vandalism is precisely that Lee’s popularity is common amongst Bosnians regardless of ethic group. I conclude by offering a tentative explanation of this and draw out its consequences for how the relationship between identity and violence is commonly conceptualized.

Conclusion: urban, secular and non-national monuments as identity piracy

In a compelling analysis (1999) grounded in Annette Weiner’s concept of inaleable goods, Simon Harrison questions the commonplace assumption that the strength of enmity between some ethnic groups is commensurate with the extent of their cultural dissimilarity or perceived dissimilarity. He argues, instead, that enmity may be an outcome of similarity. Central in this regard is the way in which the ownership of erstwhile shared symbols of identity appear in times of the division of ethnic groups from one another to be appropriated or pirated by one or the other ethnic group. Unambiguous symbols of ethnicity, such as the new religious architectures, are relatively un-contentious in Bosnia’s new ethnic-nationalist times, unless they are matter out of place – Serbian Orthodox churches in Bosniak Muslim territory, for example. In contrast, objects such as the Bruce Lee statue are contentious precisely because the icons they celebrate are associated with the era of pan-ethnic Yugoslavia and unambiguously extra-local in origin. Their absence of a natural association with one ethnic group, renders, in these times of the hegemonicism of ethnic nationalism, always as an illegitimate appropriation of pan-ethnically shared ‘property’ by one ethnic group. In this working paper then, I argue tentatively that, like others of its kind, Mostar’s Bruce Lee statue was destroyed precisely because what it celebrates is something that ‘we all have in common.’


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