If the Cafe de Flore in Paris is known for attracting some of the world’s renowned philosophers, artists and forward thinkers, it might also be credited as the site where Philosophy Professor David Pettigrew began his personal humanitarian mission.
It was there, in 1999, that Pettigrew was inspired to write about the impact of the atrocities that occurred in Bosnia during the conflict in the 1990s. Today, Pettigrew is leading an effort to establish a memorial site in Kalinovik, located within Republika Srpska (the Bosnian “Serb Republic” created by the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement).
Persistence is his primary tool. Pettigrew has lobbied the High Representative, presented academic papers, and written commentaries to the Federal News Agency in Bosnia to bring pressure and attention to the need for a memorial. The authorities in Republika Srpska have refused, denying that the genocide and other war crimes took place.
In his early writings Pettigrew reflected on the extent to which genocide denial is re-traumatizing for survivors, especially for those whose loved ones have still not been found or identified. “Denial is a betrayal of the truth, ” he said, “and the survivors need to be protected.” This desire to protect the survivors fuels his determination.
These issues strike at the heart of Pettigrew’s expertise as a philosophy professor. His early ruminations in Paris ignited his future commitment. Pettigrew later presented that early paper in Sarajevo, a presentation and visit that launched his 24-year-long mission to bring the truth to light.
Of some 100,000 who died during the conflict, over 100 were murdered at Kalinovik, and relatives of the victims have been denied their request to create a memorial and museum to honor their lost loved ones. Pettigrew has come to meet many of them as his advocacy efforts have grown.
Among them are Aida Hadžimušić, whose uncle Abdurahman Filipović was held at concentration camp Barutni magacin, a gunpowder warehouse; and Samir Vranović, whose father had also been held in the building. Both were executed at a nearby site. Their human remains, like those of many other victims of the genocide, have not been identified.
Pettigrew visited Barutni magacin and the execution site in 2021, at the invitation of Hadžimušić, a journalist. Their guide was Vranović, president of the victims’ association. Together, they attended a commemoration at Foča and dropped bouquets of roses from the bridge into the river. From there, they visited a local mosque, met with community members, and traveled what locals call “the road of death” to the execution site where Aida’s uncle and Samir’s father were killed.
The gravel road, almost impassable in some spots, led them to a desolate, windswept area. There, on a plateau among the mountains, lay Barutni magacin, from where the men were taken to the execution sites.
Hadžimušić and Vranović represent the embodiment of the injustice the victims’ families feel. Compounding it is the fact that relatives of the perpetrators live near the hallowed grounds, using the deteriorating camp building to house their livestock. When Pettigrew visited to lay flowers at the site, Vranović drove six cows from the building before they could enter.
Further trauma comes from the commemorations held annually to celebrate convicted war criminals who committed the atrocities, Pettigrew said.
“There are memorials for the perpetrators but not the victims,” he said. Today, a generation of young people, including those in Republika Srpska, are growing up under the notion that “Greater Serbia” was a noble political project, whose convicted war criminals are heroes.
“Such glorification, like genocide denial, violates the human right to the truth and re-traumatizes the survivors of genocide and other war crimes,” Pettigrew said.
The military has long since abandoned the concentration camp site, and it may soon pass into the hands of the Serb-run municipality. But if the municipality relinquishes the site to survivors, Pettigrew said, “that would be a step forward” in bringing restorative justice and healing to the survivors.
“If you deny genocide, you’re trivializing what happened and exposing the victims to further atrocities,” Pettigrew said. His mission, then, is fighting injustice and the violation of human rights.
Pettigrew’s efforts have taken root. He first wrote to the High Representative in 2013, proposing that the country establish protected national sites elsewhere, including Višegrad and Prijedor. He began lobbying for a law against the glorification of war criminals.
Those efforts bore fruit: in 2021, the High Representative imposed an historic law against genocide denial and glorification of convicted war criminals.
With that victory at his back, Pettigrew has intensified his quest. His philosophical insights are clear: the right to the truth is attained through the human right to commemorate our loved ones.
“You wouldn’t think of it as a human right until it’s being denied,” Pettigrew said. “We have the right to participate in the cultural life of our communities. Part of that right would presumably be memorialization.”
“A stone or museum is part of the commemoration. You have a society that denies the genocide; a memorial is asserting the truth.”
The list of locations embroiled in the debate includes: “Barutni magacin” concentration camp in Kalinovik; the Kravica warehouse in Bratunac; Omarska and Trnopolje concentration camps in Prijedor; the “Partizan” sports hall in Foča; “Pilica” culture center in Zvornik; and “Vilina Vlas” hotel in Višegrad.
Pettigrew has a clear checklist, should approval be granted for a museum and memorial center at Kalinovik: secure the perimeter to protect the site from further destruction, install a memorial plaque, renovate the building, and eventually construct a museum and memorial center.
“It would be like establishing a national park, a national memorial site in the territory where the genocide happened. Making it a federal, national property, it would be protected,” he said.
Pettigrew is also working with survivors of sexual violence in Foča who are seeking to install a memorial on “Partizan” sports hall, just one of the infamous atrocity sites. Hoping for a memorial plaque, they say: “We just want a piece of cold steel on that building.”
For Pettigrew, and the survivors, the struggle for truth and the right to memorialization continues.