The Promises of Open Wounds

Julijana Tesija, photographed by Antun Balog at sunset in Osijek, Croatia near the Drava River.
By Lyle Enright with Julijana Mladenovska-Tešija
Professor Julijana Tesija is a religious and ethnic minority in Croatia. Thirty years ago, people there killed one another over their religious and ethnic identities. Her story showed us the horrors of the Yugoslav Wars, in wrenching detail. Now, during an ostensibly “peaceful” time, Julijana is taking a risk and piercing an illusion. She wants Croatians to be honest with themselves about their wars with Serbia and Bosnia. She wants to show them a hidden version of their history. So she is creating an “archive of peace” where art tells stories of people helping one another through the violence. This is no simple task, in a country attached to its distractions and obsessed with its monuments of war. As she confronts Croatia’s official narrative, will Julijana succeed in “smuggling” a new perspective? Or will she be expelled for telling a new story? We are excited to show you this snapshot of Julijana’s work.
I. Written On Our Bodies

What does a body look like when it’s holding a story it won’t tell? 

“It looks sad and broken,” says Julijana Tesija. “Distorted. One can see these bodies everywhere, even in our churches.” A native North Macedonian, Julijana is both an ethnic and a religious minority in Croatia. Her Protestant faith and her Eastern Orthodox upbringing set her apart from her neighbors, who are ethnically Catholic. Meanwhile, the small curl of the Danube River that separates Croatia from Eastern Orthodox Serbia belies much deeper rifts: nine hundred years of religious schism, and a scant thirty years since the wars that tore apart not only these countries, but the entire territory formerly known as Yugoslavia. 

The side of the river and the shape of the cross on the church matter little; these rival churches minister to the same sad and broken bodies. From their pews, observing their respective rites, weary people cling to memories of war and pass their traumas down through generations. “You know when you see the eyes of a person,” Julijana says, “the pain and forgetting they reflect. There are many eyes and many bodies like this in our churches, and it makes me sad when we neglect to help each other.”

During these times of sadness, Julijana thinks of the face of Christ she encountered in the Orthodox Church when she was a girl: “I love the beautiful eyes of Christ in the icons—the most beautiful big eyes I’ve ever seen. These are the eyes of the Christ of my childhood: omnipresent, and yet penetrating each heart. The compassionate, loving, delicate look on his pale, suffering face. I couldn’t help but fall in love with him. I don’t want to escape my Orthodox background.”

The words “I do not want to escape’ say much about Julijana, who works as a philosophy professor at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Osijek. Ever an academic, she borrows language from philosopher Paul Ricoeur, describing a process of “striving for coherence… continuance [and] stability across time.”¹ These words also describe her work in Croatia, and her hope for the Balkans more broadly: “Time has passed—over twenty-five years since the end of the war. It’s time to rethink what was going on during and after the war. There has been lots of research, especially in the last fifteen years, helping us see the Croatian war and postwar period from different perspectives. It’s time to gather the many voices that create the mosaic of our history. The need is urgent: I see the generation of the war aging, dying; they have this feeling that if they don’t speak now, they will be silenced forever.”

Julijana is meeting this urgent need by building a house for art and narrative. Part archive and part art gallery, it is a place where untold stories of the war can finally find a voice. It is a wholly unprecedented place, a “museum of peace” distinct in tone and purpose from Croatia’s many monuments to war: “There are so many forms of storytelling now: text, audio, video, photographs, documents, newspapers… I see it as a small place, more like a café than anything else, where people can come and make a cup of coffee and browse through documents or photos, talking to people at events we organize, listening to personal stories on headphones, the peacemaker stories, while looking at exhibitions of artworks… 

“I see courses created at my Seminary or elsewhere, where we educate and empower young people to feel their identities comfortably. They’ll talk openly by listening and understanding. They’ll state arguments while nonviolently welcoming others’ responses. We’ll create spaces where peacemakers of the past and present will not be alone but networked. We’ll offer a place where mentors can share their experience and knowledge with the less experienced, creating new cultures from multiple perspectives.”

Julijana is slowly rallying the support that will make this dream a reality. Some, however, would prefer these voices not to speak. During the Yugoslav wars, Croatia entrenched itself in brutal reciprocal violence with Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Each nation seized and re-seized land, shelled its neighbors, and murdered civilians. Since the conflict, each side has dissembled the hurt they caused by adopting victim language. Because each side sees itself as the primary victim of the conflict, there is little incentive to embrace the sort of inclusive archive that Julijana envisions. Without these stories, the region’s understanding of itself can never be whole, and such a partial understanding can only ever achieve a partial, fragile peace:

“I know that this idea of a museum of peace will face problems both financially and politically. We don’t allow minority experiences to knit our multiple perspectives together. I’ll be asked why I bother. They’ll ask, who am I to give advice as a Macedonian, as a Protestant, to others—Catholics or Orthodox? Yet, I do not fear. I think the [North] Macedonian perspective is valuable here. I have been living for almost thirty years in a very multi-ethnic and multi-religious state where the differences are more visible and easily detected. I learned to see the beauty in the different traditions, cultures, and forms of art. I see creativity connected to pain and to happiness. I see creativity as something that God has given us, as his most beautiful sign of love for us: he gave us eyes and hearts to feel beauty through the pain and pain through the beauty, to understand each other and his suffering for us.”

Though religion helped tear the former Yugoslavia apart, it is through religious eyes Julijana sees a new opportunity. Stories of suffering may yet become more than litanies of victimhood that downplay the traumas of others. She sees a need for a new form of archive, mediated through art, that will help people understand themselves and others again. The God-given capacity for creativity may help these cultures to cross their enduring boundaries, to become conscious “not only about the depth of the wounds but also about who [we] are.” 

But it is still risky, messy, human work, Julijana says: “At times I feel that everything I am is at stake with every move I make.” Julijana risks being ostracized by confronting her home with the many ways it still refuses to know itself. But the region remains at risk of new and greater violence the longer it refuses this reckoning. Julijana believes that art can mediate this painful but healing process; the more pressing question is whether her patient is willing to be healed.

¹Julijana Mladenovska-Tešija and Luka Đukić, “Vulnerability of Identity and Memory:

Jasenovac, Ricoeur, and the Death of God” in KAIROS – Evangelical Journal of Theology, 12:1 (2018), p.70. Ricoeur (1913—2005) was a French philosopher of language. His work has significantly influenced ideas about poetry, theology, and the narrative structure of human understanding. 

Julijana Tesija, photographed at her desk, by Antun Balog in Osijek, Croatia.
II. Holy Violence

“I love being surrounded by books,” Julijana says: “My books are my home.” As befits a professor’s office, she has stacked her desk with books about war archives and interreligious dialogue, with copies of the Bible in Croatian, English, and Macedonian. “I love this book,” she says, holding up a Croatian copy of The Way of the Christian, known in English as Pilgrim’s Progress. “I read and reread it as I do Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov.” Behind her hangs an icon of Pax Christi in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. Another Romanian Orthodox image features Mary with Christ in her lap. “I look up at this icon often,” Julijana says. 

Julijana’s office is a kind of shrine to religious ecumenism, a hoard of hope that different faith traditions can cooperate so that people can flourish. In the Balkans, however, such inclusivity requires reckoning with the violence of the Yugoslav conflict and its religious motivations. There is a shortage of such courage, even in Julijana’s own church community: 

“We are a beautiful multiethnic church: my sisters and brothers belong to Croatian, Serbian, Hungarian, Macedonian, Slovak and other minorities; but we neglect talking about the part of our identities hurt by years of war. When we preach, we touch upon the past, and we say, ‘We will now give our burdens to the Lord.’ This is fine, but if we avoid addressing the conflict, we create a church that lives in a bubble and is susceptible to ideologies and fears. It also affects the ways we share this memory with the younger generation; we share it even by avoiding it, through relationships that are not fully honest.”

The hurt Julijana talks about isn’t off in the distance for Julijana’s neighbors or fellow churchgoers; it happened right in their backyard. In 1991, at the beginning of the Yugoslav wars, the city of Vukovar—about 45 minutes from where Julijana lives in Osijek— endured 87 days of shelling from Serbia and the Yugoslav People’s Army (YPA) after Croatia declared its independence.

By talking to citizens of both cities, Julijana has discovered that most Croatians still describe the battle as an act of Serbian aggression. It’s a chillingly simple take on one of the most complicated modern conflicts, especially from those directly affected. The death of Josip Broz Tito—Yugoslavia’s last communist president—in 1980 had an effect akin to showering sparks over a pile of gunpowder. The unifying communist ideology soon gave way to conflicting ethno-nationalist interpretations of what it meant to be “Slavic”. From within this surge, charismatic leaders ascended on the rhetoric of national pride, liberation, and rectifying ancient grievances against their peoples. They pursued their agendas by crafting the strongest forms of ethnic identity possible—and religion had a major role to play.

“Whatever was suppressed [by communism] exploded,” says historian Peter Kuzmic, and this included religious identity. Eastern Orthodox, Muslims, and Catholics mirrored one another in a euphoria of spiritual resurgence. The result, Kuzmic says, was “national gods and tribal deities going to war against each other”. All sense of communal belonging among the diverse peoples dissolved. Ethnic minorities living outside their homelands soon found themselves threatened by their radicalized neighbors, and integrated neighborhoods were often “purified”. Ethnic and religious identities became sufficient justifications for “cleansing” through rape and murder, leading to atrocities such as the infamous Srebrenica massacre. Tenuous peace did not return to the region until 1995.

When students study these conflicts in schools, however, they do not learn these nuances by sharing stories or reading primary sources. Instead, they memorize dates, analyze maps, and repeat the information on tests. “Our education is so rationalistic,” Julijana says, “repeating and memorizing and recombining overwhelming amounts of data without critically reflecting on it. We do not nurture the art of research writing. Our students do not write to engage in critical dialogue with authors, but to replicate.”

This approach to education creates what Julijana calls “readerless societies” that avoid crucial questions. It’s easy to find Croatians on the street or in the church who will happily say, “We love everybody!” But they mean it superficially, as Julijana explains:

“The same ones who claim that they love everybody immediately add ‘but’, and make a list of qualities, behaviors, etc. that make another person unfit. They jump into the circle of violence when they are on social media. This oversimplifying concept of love, on one hand, correlates with this very superficial hatred on another, related to the oversimplified view of the past. On one level, young people say they aren’t interested in the past, but if you continue talking to them, you will find many stereotypes and prejudices present in their language and behavior, transmitted through collective memories.” 

Julijana Tesija, photographed in her office in front of a large bookshelf, by Antun Balog in Osijek, Croatia.

“We had a war that ended almost thirty years ago and we still feel like we are in that conflict all the time,” she says. “Spectacle doesn’t dare to dismantle what happened or offer closure. It’s like running away from reality.”


In other words, Croatia’s refusal to know itself responsibly is rooted in personal attitudes, and systemically enabled by the educational system. It is for this reason that Julijana turns to art which, she says, should be our first line of defense against prejudice and lazy thinking: art can intercept us in our flight from understanding. Art helps us manage the complexities beneath the brute facts of reality. But the other side of a rationalistic education, Julijana says, is “a total neglect of humanities and arts as irrelevant.” More dangerously, it fosters a “critical mindlessness” that avoids the challenges of art and opts instead for spectacle. 

“Turbofolk” is one lurid example. We in the West may think we know all about mindless, over-produced pop music, but turbofolk blends careless art and cultural violence in a way unique to the Balkans. Turbofolk got its start in the 1980s, mashing Slavic folk songs together with beat-driven electronica and ultra-nationalist lyrics. Today, the genre is more braggadocious, passive-aggressive, and overtly sexual. In a land where people carry their stories and secrets in their bodies, Julijana says that sexually exposing the body becomes a strategy for misremembering. Exposure, paradoxically, makes people feel safe; the illusion of vulnerability proclaims that identities are still strong and stable: “We had a war that ended almost thirty years ago and we still feel like we are in that conflict all the time,” she says. “Spectacle doesn’t dare to dismantle what happened or offer closure. It’s like running away from reality.”

Fine art still exists in Croatia, even if most of its citizens prefer sensationalized entertainment. In fact, Vukovar hosts a growing community of both traditional and street artists. Government policy, however, hamstrings the art community in Vukovar, forcing it to curate only a single version of its history. “There is a beautiful art exhibition that’s totally neglected,” Julijana says, “called Vukovar in Exile. It’s donated by artists from different countries, as the city lost much of its own collection during the war. I asked the curator if they had any art works donated by Serbian or Bosnian artists. She made a tiny smile and said, ‘Well, maybe we will have their works in the future.’”

Rather than using culture as a means of knowing and growing in authentic peace, Croatia uses the arts, entertainment to avoid and erase the wars’ non-Croatian victims by showcasing Vukovar as a scapegoat. Vukovar’s many memorials—including the Homeland War Memorial Centre and Vukovar Hospital—enshrine unhealed trauma while making the city a favorite destination of “dark tourists” and hobbyists. By not resisting these narratives, art in Vukovar becomes complicit in perpetuating the conflict, rather than inviting reconciliation. The implication is that the present peace of the region is a brittle, even ephemeral thing. “Students are visiting the museums of war,” Julijana says, “but nobody is visiting this [art] exhibition which is a unique example of what art can do, how art can bring people together.”

For these reasons and more, Julijana insists that the answer to Croatia’s misremembering cannot be just another archive or monument, not one more shrine to what the region thinks it already knows about itself. It must be a new thing that confronts the nation’s decadence and its spiral into decline, that collaborates with its dampened artistic spirit. But how does one touch a culture that seems so intent on its own forgetfulness and deformity? How might it imagine true reconciliation with itself and others? Having already said so much about fine art, Julijana has a surprising answer: you get loud. You scream if you have to; scream and roar until you don’t know who you are anymore—and maybe dye your hair or pick up a guitar while you’re at it.

III. Of Punks and Nobodies

The street artists of Vukovar come at their craft differently from the more insular fine arts communities, or from the spectacle of the entertainment industry. Instead of covering over brokenness with confidence and bombast, a stake in their tribe, their art foregrounds brokenness as the thing we all share. Their subculture combats the violence of strong identity by sharing in something more fragile and insecure; a “weaker” way of being in the world than something like turbofolk represents. In fact, if turbofolk pushed people apart, then another surprising genre of music helped bring people back together:

“I was sixteen when I discovered punk for the first time,” Julijana says. “Strange guys with strange hair in dark cafes with this music going on. Punk music was like a distortion, like a window to another reality, to something you have in yourself but you don’t dare to see. The loud music, its fast rhythms and tritones, pushes you to see it. Even today, when I feel restless, when I don’t know what’s going on inside me, I reach for these kinds of sounds—sounds that, to others, might seem disturbing. But to me they can be cathartic, because they provoke my mind.”

“Rivalry is easy. It’s a position of power where one continues pushing the buttons that trigger this and that reaction. To step outside of this dichotomy is dangerous; it’s a position that exposes you as nobody, as one that does not belong or fit in. The nobody-position is very delicate, because at the same time you are also everybody. Being sensitive to others means seeing and accepting them as different. This process is hard because it requires you to process everything inside to find yourself again.”

Punk rock was a major form of art in Eastern Europe even before the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Back then, the old communist regime perceived punks as political dissidents, given their frequently anarchic politics. Still, that anarchism had more in common with socialism than it did with nationalism, and so a lot of bands enjoyed greater freedom of movement in Tito’s Yugoslavia when compared to other communist nations. “Rock music in the late 80s had an urban, progressive vibe to it, which wasn’t in line with the rise of nationalism,” says scholar Dalibor Mišina. “If you’re arguing for closing the borders, mistrusting neighbors, rock music was completely contrary to that.” Eventually, however, the ultra-nationalist wartime influence of turbofolk effectively drove punk underground into minor and marginal spaces where it had to fight for its followings. 

This legacy of resistance lives on. Contemporary punk in the Balkans trades the “safety” of the spectacle for high-volume pursuits of sincerity, passion, and meaning. It defies the ethnic and religious rivalries that emerged around it; it even defies the artistic rivalry with turbofolk, which encouraged punk music to embrace its marginal status. “Rivalry is easy,” Julijana says, commenting on what makes the punk ethos so special:

“It’s a position of power where one continues pushing the buttons that trigger this and that reaction. To step outside of this dichotomy is dangerous; it’s a position that exposes you as nobody, as one that does not belong or fit in. The nobody-position is very delicate, because at the same time you are also everybody. Being sensitive to others means seeing and accepting them as different. This process is hard because it requires you to process everything inside to find yourself again.” 

Distinct from its partisan political dimensions elsewhere in the world, Balkan punk-rock has always been music for the “nobody”, for the exposed and disintegrated person who locates themselves outside of social rivalries. It is music for those willing to let go of ready-made identities in the search for truth, believing that “finding yourself” means being influenced, constructed, and reconstructed by others. Julijana finds a similar spirit in American grunge: 

“Grunge exposes inner vulnerability more than punk, which deconstructs the self. I love, for instance, the mad lyrics of [Layne Staley] and Alice in Chains, the song ‘Man in the Box’. During the first wave of COVID last year, I listened to Chris Cornell and Audioslave. For maybe a month, I listened to everything he wrote, from Temple of Dog till the end [when he died], and for the first time I listened with the ears of a serious adult. He is a genuine poet, and some of his songs are amazing: ‘Nail in my hand / from my creator, / You gave me life / now show me how to live.’ In many songs, he is in dialogue with Christ, talking about himself drowning and not knowing where to turn. Through him I could see that there are people for whom this world is too much—they are so sensitive that they cannot help themselves. But I could see myself as one that can move on from that stage of resignation, can stand up on my feet, but also as one who has a gift (from God) to understand and approach the wounded, and ultimately to accept and help them.”

Julijana sees something essentially tragic in punk and grunge. There is great personal risk in authentically foregrounding the “weakness” one feels in their identity. She is moved that legends like Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley, and Chris Cornell did not survive their risks. But they approached those risks with honesty, always being who they were:

“Maybe they sound stupid to some; ‘So be it’, they would reply. That’s something I like not only in music but also in poetry. I like poetry because to be a true beat poet is to expose all of who you are to the public eye. You’re pouring your soul out to others who may not understand it. It’s a risk. I see Christ the same way, as a risk-taker: he did not simply accept what anyone served to him. He asked questions, showed others how to think outside the law by touching, mentally and physically, what and whom was not to be touched. He came as the scapegoat, so that there was no need for others to take his tragic and difficult role—not tragic in the romantic sense, but tragic in a way that no human could sustain.”

While some who expose themselves to the possibility of being “nobody” risk losing hope altogether, Julijana insists that the risk also allows us to discern between true and false hope: 

Christ is never far away when we are suffering, but he is also calling us to be like him, actively rebelling against injustice, offering a hand to the one that nobody else hears or touches. That’s why I like the minority narratives of the grassroots peacemakers. When you hear these stories, what you’re hearing is people finding strength in God in the most difficult situations, recognizing the other as a human being created in the image of God.”

At their best, art forms like punk and grunge turn introspection into an outward-facing embrace of brokenness. The power of these mediums, for Julijana, lies in their willingness to go through the dangerous process of rejecting prefabricated identities. By becoming “nobody” for a time, these artists rediscovered their potential. “Emptying and losing yourself—becoming nobody—allows you to become new,” she says, summing up her idea of art. It is precisely the antidote needed in the Balkans right now; the payoff is nothing less than renewed cultural connection: “It is the total opposite of the split-up and the war.” 

To become “nobody” does not mean that one ceases to be who they are, or an individual self with responsibilities. But the attitude of openness Julijana describes is often so radical for people who are trying to project themselves that it feels like becoming nobody, like losing everything. It is a risk, asking people to confront this feeling, even if there is a stronger and more genuine sense of self on the other side of the process. But by having a place dedicated to it and that showcases it in action, Julijana hopes that this willing spirit–a vulnerable, punk-rock spirit–might help Croatia to know itself again. The first glimmers of such a place began, appropriately, in her classrooms.   

Julijana Tesija, photographed by Antun Balog at sunset in Osijek, Croatia near the Drava River.
Julijana Tesija, photographed by Antun Balog at dusk in Osijek, Croatia near the Drava River.
Julijana Tesija, photographed by Antun Balog at dusk in Osijek, Croatia near the Drava River.
IV. It Takes a Nobody to Make Art

“Art is provocation,” Julijana says. “Every human being is an artist in the sense that they have a creative impulse. Art is a safe place where you can dare.”

By letting go and opening herself, Julijana works to live her life and her vocation as works of art. By adapting to different cultural contexts, she dares people to be more expressive, to be drawn out of their armor little by little:

“I love languages. When I listen, I notice the differences, the ways people use words and for what purposes—how they pronounce or enunciate. But I also notice how they use their bodies: when and how do they wave their hands or nod? How do they walk on the street pavement? That differs from culture to culture, too! This skill helped me when I came to Croatia. Learning a new culture is difficult; it requires you to avoid comparison, to allow yourself to adapt and grow. I discovered that staying outside another culture is a position of luxury: it’s easy to criticize when you’re outside, but when you’re inside you really need to know what you’re criticizing: your standpoint, your aim, and how you will express it.”

In her teaching too, Julijana not does not stop at instructing or mediating; she strives to embody the insights of Paul Ricoeur and Hannah Arendt, and of controversial thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and René Girard. Their writings, in step with her deeply personal religious convictions, equip her to counter the “rationalistic remembering” of the Eastern European educational system through dialogue and critical thinking. She transforms learning into living, helping students see themselves anew so that they can turn to the hushed and wounded people around them: 

“Every year we have students who really feel everything is somehow blocked in them—that they cannot express themselves. They are surrounded by joyful Christians who offer them an option either to be joyful or to be quiet. If they choose to open up, we label them without seeing either the hurt or the creativity inside.

“[René] Girard rightly points out that victimization operates on many different levels. So I’m trying to teach Intro to Philosophy in such a way that students learn not to apply labels, which lead to overgeneralizations and victimization. I give the example of [Friedrich] Nietzsche: how can we understand his criticism if we immediately label him as a Nazi or as anti-Christ? One way out is to decline full complicity with the dominant narrative. That narrative might be good, but if we declare ourselves followers of a crucified God, then we follow one who offers a radical way out of paranoid systems—a way of vulnerability, of exposing himself totally. 

“So to me, philosophy and Christ are the same; while philosophers are showing me how to find and live my love of wisdom by giving me the words, the thoughts, challenging and inspiring me, Christ is my eternal inspiration for what the embodied love for the broken other looks like. It’s the love that says, ‘I really see you.’”

Within a “paranoid system” such as post-war Croatia, however, living this kind of love can be as scandalous as it is inspiring. Julijana shows this through one story she hopes to house in her experimental archive, about a Franciscan monk who started a music festival called Christ Fest. His story reflects the risks, but also the radiance of someone who has abdicated their strong identities and embraced the artistic, Christ-like fluidity of the “nobody”:

“He’s now 75, an amazing person—a tiny figure in his dark brown robe. He started this festival in Osijek, back in 2005. The entire event was ecumenical from the start and organized in cooperation with the Evangelical Theological Seminary. It all went well for the first five years. But as the event grew, it also attracted attention and pressure. Soon, he was told to stop. He moved from Osijek to another city in Croatia, where he continued with similar activities, only to be moved outside Croatia to Serbia. When we met for the first time, he was very cautious; closed, verbally and bodily. But when we had our second conversation, I asked him to tell me about Christ Fest. Goodness, how he started talking! The change was so beautiful as he spoke of his life-mission… We decided that, next Spring, we will start writing a book about these events.”

It’s not wrong to say that Christ Fest, in its own way, continued the wartime legacies of punk-rock music. Both opposed the sacrifices that Coratia has been willing to make to its own sense of identity in the name of a questionable “peace”. When some bands couldn’t find stages to perform, they roamed around in trucks playing anti-war songs; Christ Fest reflects a similar willingness to “go underground” in the name of religious ecumenicism, to confront the culture with a sense of its own wholeness that it would rather avoid. But the festival’s emphasis on community and boundary-crossing scandalized the strong identity-narratives of Croatian Catholics, drawing attention to the persisting religious rivalries in the region:

“One must understand the setting in Croatia. The general trend, even today, is to not hear these marginal voices. We minimize the work of grassroots peace workers. We say that what they did is not important; our headlines report on our military spending to show the Serbs how strong we are [My friend] started organizing Christ Fest in the years after the peaceful integration of conquered parts back into Croatia. Croatian nationalism was strong. The Catholic Church was at the forefront of identity-building. They allowed different voices if they were a minority, not having popular support. But Christ Fest was gaining a lot of popular support. Protestants were coming, but also Orthodox. Many considered the wounds still too fresh to open.

“Croatia is between these two victim-victor neighbors, Serbia and Bosnia. They all desire the scapegoat position and its wide recognition, so they stage and re-stage the violence committed against them through their official narratives, commemorations and so on, neglecting the victims of the violence they committed. The Croatian armies committed violence against the Serbians and they justified this violence because they were conquered and suffering. Vukovar is the ultimate scapegoat city; it embraced the image of martyrdom. Research shows that Croatia continues to use Vukovar’s fall into Serbian hands as a benchmark for political unity, as a point which led to the recognition of Croatian independence.

“The way out for my Franciscan friend is simply to carry on… Even in Serbia, where he is now, he takes an active part in different ecumenical activities. He says, he goes everywhere where people are inviting him, and he is not afraid anymore.”

V. Silence, Violence, and Defiance

For now, Vukovar remains a cold reminder of the Yugoslav conflict’s persistence, even in those who don’t want to talk about or even remember it. Still, Vukovar has the potential to break it out of this restricting. Julijana’s “museum of peace” would activate this potential in ways that other artists or historians haven’t yet imagined, first by staging a new encounter between Vukovar and its neighbor: 

“Osijek is close enough to Vukovar to be a model in the sense of sharing suffering, but not so close as to be submerged into the Vukovar story; Osijek was also under heavy shelling for almost a year. Although Vukovar is finding ways out through its street art and different activities, Osijek offers stories that, if presented artistically, can dialogue with the stories of Vukovar without scandalizing them.”

There is always the risk, however, that an archive in Osijek would be seen as somehow competing with the narrative enshrined in Vukovar: 

“‘We have an archive of war,’ they might say, ‘and that is enough’. While we are offering another kind of memory in Osijek, they might say, ‘We know the facts! We know who we are!’ But Osijek might provide a valuable perspective. I know that this position of scandalizing the dominant narrative might not be easy, but I feel it’s time to reveal the voices not heard.”

This is part of the reason why Julijana’s idea is subversive, and who she feels the need to “cover in an artistic envelope” so that she can share and store these untold stories. Insisting on the weak, unarmored identity that art and faith make possible, Julijana is transforming the very meaning and intention behind an archive. She takes inspiration from philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, particularly their concept of the “rhizome”. Unlike a tree that grows out of the ground and spreads its branches from a central point, the rhizome is a root system or fungal colony with no discernible beginning or end. It gets its tubules into any and every inhospitable thing. “I think it’s very important,” Julijana says, “if we are to penetrate the world. If we want to glue and grow onto something which is not really favorable, we must be very conscious about what we want to grow into together. By this process we transform ourselves and our host, not destroying it but blossoming with it.”

Julijana’s intentionally rhizomatic archive is not one institution, but a pattern for other similar sites that she hopes will pop up across the former Yugoslavia. Its artifacts are not passive, but interactive; the stories enshrined there can, through the mediation of art, tell a whole story rather than a simple and sterilized one. “These stories are tiny but amazing,” she says. “They make a puzzle, and when you bring them together, they make a beautiful collage. They radiate potential. But it all starts by recognizing the wounds of the other, by not being oblivious to the victims on the other side.”

Some might object that attending to all victims equally implies treating all sides in the conflict as equally culpable or accountable. Julijana is emphatic that attending to victims does not mean equalizing the aggressions and war crimes committed on the ground: 

“I dislike political correctness. Truth needs to be spoken; it is the only way forward. Yet how we do it is another matter. Words can be weapons. One starts with ‘All victims matter’, which is important, but ends up saying that all three sides—Serbian, Bosnian, Croatian—were equally to blame for the war in Bosnia. That is not a good way, nor the right way. It’s all very grungy; it’s about giving a voice to the marginalized.”

The stories Julijana wants to store and tell are full of dissenting and victimized voices. They are the “whole” in Croatia’s knowledge of itself, opposing the official yet deliberately partial, cut-up stories. They speak to the small complicities of common people and to the ways sovereign power sacrifices its citizens with impunity. Among the most scandalous, though, are those who dissented totally from violence. One of Julijana’s stories features a Croatian medical doctor who cared for Croatian police officers and soldiers, and for Serbian paramilitaries during the shelling. These experiences of care and contact renovated this woman’s perspective, in a way that has affected Julijana as well: 

“After several days of prayer, she experienced a harsh insight: even if someone were to take her child, she should not raise a weapon, because that other person is also a child of God and she has no right to kill him or her. That’s one of the most shocking statements I’ve ever heard! I feel uneasy about it even today while I’m saying it, but she was living this belief. She lives accordingly, even today!

“Christians today easily condemn suicide and abortion, and yet we kill other people in the name of an imagined identity called the state. Will God look differently at these choices? This dispute is ethical: do I have a right to kill at all? If one is a soldier, he or she should know about the open arms of Christ, yet the question remains: which life has more value? We should not found our activism on judgment, but on being like Christ: opening cracks for others to come in to be accepted and healed… As much as I can, I would like to contribute to creating such a world in which my child will not have to choose whether to kill, in any kind of circumstance.”

Julijana Tesija, photographed by Antun Balog in Osijek, Croatia.
VI. By Wounds We Are Healed

Though many of Julijana’s stories grapple with violence, still more display the possibilities of peace. They are full of willing spirits who reach out into the precarity of conflict and do something truly astounding:

“I met a Catholic guy who received a call from his [Serbian] Orthodox friend; ironically, her church was being bombed by the Serbian paramilitaries during the attacks on Osijek. The bell tower almost fell, and she didn’t know who to call. So she called this Catholic guy she’d met at an ecumenical prayer meeting, who was a construction engineer. He climbed the tower, hanging on and trying to fix it, with bombs falling all around from the Serbian side, and he was thinking, ‘Don’t you guys know what you’re doing!? That you are shelling a Croat fixing your [Serbian Orthodox] church?’ And he continued trying to fix it!”

These sorts of stories make the entire project of the peace museum worth it to Julijana. Still, she knows that not everyone will find inspiration even in these very human stories:

“[Croatians] know the Croatian army committed atrocities both in Bosnia and in Croatia, in the territories occupied by Serbian paramilitaries. But they tend not to hear these stories. They are afraid of the peace stories, these reminders of what they could’ve done but didn’t do. While a minority was complicit with some of the war criminals, the majority was just passive. 

“Maybe that’s why they dislike the peacemakers; it’s like they’re being poked awake: ‘Your story is just one. There are other stories as well. Your story does not contain the whole truth.’ That’s the meaning of brokenness: we are parts that belong together, and none of us holds ultimate truth. Not everybody [I’m interviewing] wants to hear that. To be someone who wakes people up is not an easy position. Some will choose to remain what they are. I will opt for the others.” 

It is risky to confront people with their own misunderstandings; the project could backfire, could blow up into new conflicts and new violence. But to not try, to not give art the chance to change something, would mean allowing Croatia to not only continue but to compound its misunderstandings. Generation after generation of ignorance and oversight will eventually erode whatever peace the region has achieved. Julijana may risk violence and ostracization because of her work, but violence is inevitable if this sort of work goes undone. 

And so Julijana forges ahead, driven by the scandalous power of simple people and by the highly personal nature of her faith: “When I hear such stories, I am motivated to do something because I see this as God’s calling. The meaning of my life is deeply rooted in who God is and who I am in relationship with God and others,””

Julijana did not always have such an intimate relationship with her religion. She grew up in an atheist household that was nominally Macedonian Orthodox. There, she experienced what she calls a “traditional way of being religious,” rooted in ceremony and embittered by the Yugoslav conflict. She did not experience transcendence until she began working service jobs at the seminary where she now teaches: 

“I had a boss who had a serious quarrel with his boss. One afternoon, he left home sad and angry, and I worried about him. The next day, he comes to the office almost singing, and I thought, what happened? He said, ‘I spent the evening praying for my boss. I did not pray for him to change, but for the Lord to show us both how we can go on together.’ That is one of the strongest statements of faith I ever heard. I learned that prayer makes us sensitive to the needs of the other; it puts the other in front of me, between me and God; I’m not coming to the Lord with my needs, but with the needs of my brothers or sisters.”

Through her faith, Julijana sees human beings as gifted with a God-given capacity to feel beauty through pain and brokenness. In her mind, nonviolence and art are parallel expressions made possible by a God who took our violence onto his own body. God’s becoming human and taking part in our common death opens the positive side of desire, of yearning that flows even through suffering. This broken, co-suffering God is a vulnerable God, a “nobody” who is greedy to love others: 

“It is an erotic love in that it’s your full body, with everything you are, that Christ embraces: a full encounter in which one drowns not only in [Christ’s] eyes but drowns in his ‘body’ and in God’s essence, totally. We enter, with our wounds and pains, into his wounds and pains. His ultimate love is in allowing us to see the ugliness, to hear other people’s screams; he gives us courage to love ourselves and others fully, including when we are ugly. 

Maybe that’s why I like punk and grunge: they’re ugly. They’re screaming a lot. They remind me of the pain that I often avoid. There are people screaming in pain now who do not know the love of Christ, and I am called to come close to them. I can easily spot them. I can see these people and feel their pain. Although they try to blend and hide, I can see their wounds. Surprisingly, they see me as well. Often they come to me, and I simply listen. I am very grateful to the music that taught me to listen.”

So she listens. She writes, and imagines, and looks for ways to help people take their hands away from their wounds and to see the marks, the valleys of death, as part of who they are and as paths to peace.

“I find mourning, as well as silence, important. Dying is very important, because it warns us that there is no time to waste. So let’s use this time, not in running, but in doing something good. The only way one can really fight against fear is with love; there is not one without the other in my head. When we feel fear, this ultimate sense that there is nothing else we can do, then we should rise up. Not because of false hope, but because we have to rise up, because that is what Christ did. He did not stay transcendent; he came to this planet as a suffering human who cried in the garden of Gethsemane, and then he stood up. He walked towards dying, so that he could rise and give us his example.”

To walk with God towards dying—to one’s own cross—is a paradoxical path towards identity. But Julijana believes that a museum of peace can help recover it: “Our bodies cannot avoid carrying the imprint of life, the wounds,” she says. “We believe that when we meet Christ in heaven, he will still have the holes in his hands!” This is no abstract heaven that Julijana imagines, either, but a bringing of heaven to earth, to our own environment, as we recognize what our dying means to a dying God: “Our Lord has entrusted us with the whole creation. Imagine! Our amazing God trusts us, and he involves us in maintaining the world. He trusts that we can learn and make right choices, that we can contribute to all creation, and that when we come back to him we will share with him what we did, and will continue to walk with him.”

Julijana’s message is hard, but simple and necessary: when we pretend we are unwounded, we invite more and greater trauma. While our wounds may make us feel less-than, to overlook these wounds is to overlook the whole of who we really are. She believes in a God who models this by keeping a record of our hurts on his own flesh. We, tooo, find salvation in our openly wounded and unhealed bodies; with and through them, we may also rise into new life. If the violence of Yugoslavia came about through the insistence on being whole, on being somebody, then perhaps a “weaker” kind of courage might reform the Balkan spirit—first in Croatia, then spreading its roots through rocky soil. 

Such rediscovery, anywhere it happens, will require trust in a painful process. But such is the promise of authentic peace: what is wounded can be healed; what is partial can be made whole.

“By becoming nobody, we can become new.”

Hold onto hope with us.

When we resist rivalry together, there is hope for peace.

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Julijana Tesija, photographed by Antun Balog in Osijek, Croatia.