The Black Butterflies of Forgetting: On the Destruction of Memory

A few years after the end of the Bosnian war, I was invited to teach at the University of Sarajevo. On my first walk through the Bosnian capital, scarred by the traces of gunfire, I visited the ruins of the National Library, destroyed by bombing. On the night of August 25, 1992, the artillery of the Serbian ultra-nationalist army targeted the Library with the aim of destroying both the building and the collections of medieval literature in Arabic, Persian and Turkish, as well as valuable documents written in four alphabets: Latin, Arabic, Cyrillic and Old Bosnian. The Library building dates back to 1896 and is a showcase for the mosaic of Bosnian cultures: Turkish, Sephardic Jewish, Orthodox and Viennese. The Serb ultra-nationalists wantred to complete their Bosnian genocide with an effort to erase the collective memory of Bosnia; cultural genocide was the end point.

For weeks after the bombing, in which 600,000 books were destroyed, pages blackened by fire floated in the air. The inhabitants of Sarajevo told me they called them the “black butterflies.”

I remembered the black butterflies, that metaphor of horror and forcibly imposed forgetting/oblivion, when I read the news that, as reported by PEN International, the military junta in Myanmar had arrested and tortured dozens of journalists and writers, but especially poets. Myanmar has a rich heritage of poetry entwined with politics; that tradition dates back to the times when poets used verse to resist British rule. According to PEN International, in recent months some writers have been killed at the hands of the junta: K Za Win and Myint Myint Zin were shot, U Sei Win was doused in gasoline and burned alive, Khet Thi was discovered by his wife in the hospital a day after his arrest: dead and without vital organs.

Just as Myanmar’s military fears its writers, the journalist Roman Protasevich has awoken a similar uneasiness in the dictator of Belarus. Alexandr Lukashenko had a plane carrying the journalist hijacked in order to arrest him and imprison him in one of the Belarusian prisons full of intellectuals and dissidents after the blocked elections of last summer. The only one who applauded the conduct of the Belarusian dictator was Vladimir Putin, another statesman who is suspicious of intellectuals and journalists to the extent that, under his regime, dozens of them have been killed without anyone being held responsible.

There are also certain historians who have been persecuted by Putin, who declared a couple of years ago that “demonizing Stalin is one way of attacking Russia.” In the 1990s, historian Yury Dmitriev discovered several mass graves in Karelia containing the remains of 9,000 corpses. In 2016 he made public another valuable trove: a list of more than 40,000 names of Stalin-era secret service agents. Shortly thereafter Dmitriev was falsely accused and imprisoned. Sergey Krivenko, the chairman of the Memorial Council for Human Rights, told the independent Moscow Times: “The secret services invented stories to discredit Dmitriev, whose work honors the victims of Stalin’s terror”. Since then, Dmitriev has spent long periods in jail; the original charge, which cost him a year behind bars, has been compounded by others. In addition, Professor Dmitriev underwent several forced psychiatric examinations.

The destruction of culture in times of conflict dates back to ancient times. In 330 BC Alexander the Great seized the sumptuous and beautiful Persepolis, the capital of the Persian Empire, and destroyed it so that nothing remained of the exquisite civilization that this military man hated; this was possibly one of the first cultural genocides. The three destructions of the Library of Alexandria, the oldest and most splendid library in the ancient world, were cultural genocides. The Spanish Inquisition had long lists of banned books: that Index Librorum Prohibitorum et Derogatorum, which led to the persecution of intellectuals served as a model for the totalitarianisms of the 20th century, Nazi and Communist, and their destruction of books and works of art. And just as at the end of the last century the Serbian army bombed the eclectic National Library, that symbol of Bosnian identity, in the present century the Twin Towers of New York and the temples of Palmyra, all symbols of prosperity and cosmopolitanism, historical or contemporary, were destroyed for the same purpose.

There are other threats to public memory: one of them is the proliferation of historical falsehoods, which has always existed but perhaps never to the extent that present-day technologies allow. To confront these dangers, each society must treasure, protect and watch over its collective memory, analyze its present and history without the all-pervading mire of nationalism. An arduous but unavoidable task.

Monika Zgustova is a writer. Her most recent book is Dressed for a Dance in the Snow: Women’s Voices from the Gulag. (Other Press 2020)