What do you do when your faith in the U.N. is shattered?

What do you do when your faith in the U.N. is shattered?

I arrived in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) for a Humanity in Action Fellowship in 2017 properly jaded. I had just completed a year-long stint with the U.N. office of PAX, where I worked on a series of reports outlining the particular cruelty and inhumanity of the sieges in Syria at the height of media coverage of the siege of Aleppo. It’s safe to say that I had a lot of feelings about spending the next month somewhere that had been kept under the longest siege in Europe since WWII.

Scrap of paper in front of government building which reads 1 March 1992: "do you vote for a sovereign and independent Bosnia and Herzegovina, a state of equal citizens and peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina - Muslims, Serbs, Croats, and of other people living in it?" 
5 April 1992: First victims are killed at a peace rally
© Rachel Salcedo 2019

A frequent theme my cohort returned to—as is often (justifiably) the case in these conversations—was the failure and inadequacy of organizations such as the U.N. or USAID, and the Western states that frequently dominate them, to deliver on their promise to protect civilians and maintain international peace and security. And this is a fair point, the U.N. is one of the most powerful international institutions, but still is unable to effectively prevent, end, or resolve violent conflict—and if the UN is unable (or unwilling) to stir up political will to prevent or end conflicts, then what hope is there?

Scrap of paper in front of monument of canned beef, which reads the UN has trouble sending humanitarian aid to Sarajevo. The average civilian lives on 159g of food a day. When aid does arrive, citizens find biscuits and canned mean that had expired 50 years ago. Meanwhile, the UNSC "strongly condemns these acts of unspeakable brutality." UNSC Resolution 798, 18 Dec. 1992
© Rachel Salcedo 2019

During one incredibly poignant moment of my month in BiH, I was sitting at the back of the bus with a member of my fellowship who had lived through the war. He told me that as a child he hated the U.S. because of its inaction and resented having to suffer through trauma that no one should have to, while the U.S. stood by waiting, watching, pretending to care. But that wasn’t what stuck with me—it was that he shrugged, rather casually, and said, “but look at what is happening in Syria, and here I am, I’m doing nothing. So, who am I to judge?”

Scrap of paper in front of yellow high rise building which reads, Sniper Alley. Roughly 5-15 people were wounded each day by snipers, despite the presence of UN peacekeepers.
© Rachel Salcedo 2019
Scrap of paper in front of apartment complex, which reads 15 Jan 1993
8 civilians killed, 20 wounded by mortar shell while waiting for water. Azra & Asim Lačević were among the victims, leaving behind their children, Berin & Delila, who were among the severely wounded.
© Rachel Salcedo 2019

But isn’t that the whole point of an international community? Aren’t we exactly who is to judge? If not each of us, then who will judge the massive failure of the West and its international institutions?

Scrap of paper in front of marketplace which reads UNSC resolution 816 "deploring the failure of some parties concerned to cooperate dully with United Nations Protection Froce (UNPROFOR)" 
31 March 1993
© Rachel Salcedo 2019

It is in the spirit of these questions that I compiled this photo essay during my time in Sarajevo. I wanted to highlight the hypocrisy of what the U.N. presents in official documents versus the lived experience of conflict. I was inspired by my colleagues—as well as the speakers who addressed us over the month we were there—to explore a Sarajevo that feels quite distant from the city you’ll find today. It is actually there, right below the surface, which in many ways feels like it is begging to be shown, not to be forgotten. I spent several days reading through UNSC resolutions about Bosnia, especially any that were around key dates and times. I explored the few resources online about the siege, and compiled enough information to create my own “walking tour” of the city.

Scrap of paper in front of broken concrete painted red to evoke blood spatter which reads of the 11,541 people killed during the siege, 1,601 of them were children. 
UNSC Resolution 820: "Deeply alarmed and concerned about the magnitude of the plight of innocent victims of the conflict" 
-17 April 1993-
© Rachel Salcedo 2019

I wanted to explore things that felt important to me personally, but also call attention to sites that—specifically tourists—might walk past without a second glance. Because of this, all of the sites photographed are easily accessible, notable, and are frequently seen or visited locations. The project is organized more or less chronologically, in order to give the viewer a visual timeline of the siege. The third photo in the series is irony meeting irony, as the canned beef monument—a literal larger than life rendering of a can of beef much like the ones dropped by ICAR, which Sarajevans would “rather die than eat”—is itself a jab at western aid agencies’ complete failure to provide humanitarian assistance.

Scrap of paper in front of state of a man yelling in a park which reads UNSC Resolution 819 "Demands that all parties and others concerned treat Srebrenica and its surrounding areas as a safe area which should be free from any armed attack or any other hostile act." 
17 April 1993
© Rachel Salcedo 2019

In the background of the fourth photo, you can see the Hotel Holiday—the infamous yellow hotel that was notoriously inhabited by journalists bravely covering the siege—sitting along what was once one of the most dangerous streets to navigate, but is now one of the main thoroughfares and trolley lines in the city. The photo of the brewery was taken only one block from my apartment in Sarajevo, which felt exceptionally moving, to learn that there had been, within my lifetime, a massacre at a place I had just gotten drinks.

Scrap of paper in front of church which reads on average, 329 missiles were fired at Sarajevo daily. On 22 July 1993,  3,777 missiles hit the city in a single day.
© Rachel Salcedo 2019

The photo after this one is taken at the Markale Market in the center of the city, where some of the largest massacres once took place at the height of the siege. Today there is little more than a memorial wall, mostly hidden by the vendors. The Sarajevo Rose depicted is not one of particular note, as these memorials span the city, serving as their own unassuming reminder that we are never too far from history. I wanted to remind both myself and others, through the juxtaposition of the official documents about the conflict with the current state of the city, that the consequences of our actions are not theoretical—as they can sometimes feel as we sit in our comfortable London classrooms—but are in fact painfully real.

scrap of paper in front of dilapidated buildings which reads 10,000 buildings were completely destroyed. 100,000 buildings were heavily damaged. 
UNSC: "Decides to remain actively seized of the matter"
© Rachel Salcedo 2019

It’s something I have come back to a lot during my time at SOAS. As students at a highly critical university, learning about international institutions, norms, transitional justice, and peacebuilding through decolonial and feminist perspectives can make the world seem disheartening—but at the same time it helps prepare you for the realities of how the world functions. That being said, it’s natural to feel burnt out every so often, to wonder why we’re even bothering or if we should have just gone into banking or marketing. Or worse, to feel like you’ll have to end up working for and perpetuating the very systems about which you’ve spent an entire post-graduate degree learning. Because I very much want to continue working in the field of advocacy and transitional justice, this is something I have to reconcile on a daily basis.

scrap of paper in front of view of large village which reads UNSC resolution 900 "emphasizing the crucial importance of achieving complete freedom of movement for the civilian population and humanitarian goods and of the restoration of normal life in Sarajevo, determined to restore essential public services in Sarajevo" 
4 March 1994
© Rachel Salcedo 2019

This was as maddening to navigate in BiH as it is today. Once you become aware of just how deeply broken everything is, it is incredibly daunting—and to be frank, depressing—to feel like one day it will be up to you to fix it all. I wish I could tell you that I’ve come to the solution, but I think we’ll have to keep on working through it together. I desperately want to do something right in a world that makes it feel nearly impossible, I hope that exploring what you can do when your faith is shattered can be one small thing to help us understand our positionality a bit better.

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