History Narrated as Art by Anita Lekic

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Destinations, Europe, travels

Five years ago, I was walking on the paredão from Monte Estoril towards São Joao do Estoril when right after the entrance by the station, I saw big black letters on the wall, announcing:

28 July 1914 AUSTRIA-HUNGARY DECLARES WAR ON SERBIA.

I paused.  Of course!  Exactly one hundred years had elapsed.  I went on thinking about it.  I’d spent a lot of time reading about Serbia’s role in World War I a long, long time ago.  But the day was sunny and perfect and the water clear and bright and the sign vanished from my mind.

A week later, on the 5thof August, I was walking again, and there it was:

5 August 2014 MONTENEGRO DECLARES WAR ON AUSTRIA-HUNGARY.

Now I was intrigued.  I am an American of Montenegrin and Bosnian Muslim descent.

The next day, the timeline had a new, seventh addition:

6 August 1914 SERBIA DECLARES WAR ON GERMANY.

This time I had my camera.  People were congregating around the wall and reading the words – the declarations of war. Several, like me, were taking photographs.  It had my full attention now. One hundred years had passed since one of the largest, deadliest wars in history. More than nine million combatants. Seven million civilians dead.  No other conflict in the history of the world has surpassed it in fatality rates except, of course, World War II.  The further we advance, the deadlier we become.

In an age where Korea and Vietnam are long gone from out minds, where our media outlets no longer bother to even keep count of the Iraqi civilian deaths, perhaps we should take a moment to dwell on some of the events that sparked this conflagration that subsumed Europe and, eventually, involved the entire world.

In the 1800s, the Austro-Hungarian empire was the second largest country in Europe, second only to the Russian empire.

In 1878, the Austro-Hungarian empire occupied Bosnia-Herzegovina which for centuries had formed part of the now rapidly declining Ottoman empire.  This caused great resentment and turmoil among the Bosnian Slav population living there and also in the adjacent Kingdom of Serbia.  On 28 June 1914, St. Vitus Day, a day of special importance to the Serbs, Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, while visiting Sarajevo, was shot by Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip. This is universally considered to be the spark but not the cause which lit the conflagration.  Within days, convinced of Serbia’s involvement in the plot, Austria-Hungary delivered a ten-point ultimatum to the small kingdom, making the demands intentionally unacceptable.  And, as the first line on the paredão wall reminded us, on 27 July 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.

Serbia lost over one-quarter of its total population and sixty per cent of its male population during this war, fighting on the sides of the Allies against the Central Powers.  Emerging on the side of the victorious parties, it was granted Bosnia and Herzegovina and the former Austro-Hungarian territories of Croatia and Slovenia, the latter, arguably, a major error of policy since eighty years later they would secede from a federation and cause the country’s disintegration.

Portugal, which also fought with great honor on the side of allies, suffered 7,000 losses.  There is a memorial in Coimbra paying homage to the memory of the Portuguese who died in World War I.

And who had led me to remember my grandfather, a Bosnian Muslim, fleeing instant conscription in the Austro-Hungarian army to join the Serbs and making a journey halfway around the world, across the Russian steppes and Mongolia to Vladivostok to board Allied ships and sail halfway around the world, through the Suez canal, only to be able to fight on the Salonika front, because the Bosnian Slavs were thrown into an enemy army and this was the only way they could join their brethren in their fight. This surely needed to be remembered.

And if I was remembering all this and my family history, what about the British tourists who paused to look – were they remembering the almost one million dead of the United Kingdom and its colonies? And the battlefields of the western front?  And the French?  And the Portuguese?  Two young men, Portuguese, paused to look and continued to walk, talking about the war.

Who was reminding us of all this, against the calm blue waters of a laid-back resort town at the westernmost end of Europe?

He calls himself Sergio.  He is a thirty-three-year-old resident of Cascais and works in Lisbon.   A sociologist by training but not by profession, he has the looks of a young professional and not the street artists you sometimes catch a glimpse of in Lisbon. He does not consider himself an artist. I create “things,” he tells me.

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It was hard work tracking him down.  After asking around and posting queries on Facebook, I was told that he was leaving Post-its in downtown Cascais, which led me to Carolyn’s well-known bookstore, Livraria Galileuin Avenida Valbom in Cascais. She promised to post a message with my card on the exterior wall, next to the Post-its.  Next thing I know, I am talking not to a street artist the way I imagined one, but to a clean-cut young man with horn-rimmed glassed, a pin-striped shirt and a V-neck sweater who could have walked out of Brooks Brothers.

He explains that the idea started about four years ago with Post-its – yes, those yellow things we use as reminders. “The idea of Post-its is to remember something important; not to forget – that’s why we write them,” Sergio explains.  “They are small and easy and not invasive and I can post them anywhere. People are free to read them and take and keep them, if they like.  They always record some kind of historic memory — the 25thof April, the first meeting of the captains of April, Jesse Owens, Hemingway, a Beatles’ song, Bob Dylan, Walter Benjamin, Anton Chekov,” and the list goes on.

The Post-its are not intended to be controversial or political.  Their purpose is remembrance. I find it fascinating that someone has chosen an eminently discardable medium, a small, flimsy piece of paper to preserve something long forgotten, memory retrieved on tiny bits of printed yellow paper standing out among the other advertisements.

But Sergio felt that he wasn’t reaching many people with the Post-its and wanted to do something that would be bigger and have a stronger impact.  A wall. And war. “The month of August is a month of madness (in 1914)–- there were thirteen or fourteen declarations of war. The declarations of war were being issued until the very end of the war, and they prolonged the war,” he says.   “There was an elaborate alliance system prior to the war, and because of the existing treaties they had with other countries, suddenly everyone was automatically pulled into war.”

“People think that we’ve learned from the past, but I’m not so sure about that.  With the state of the world as it is right now, I wanted the world to see this, to remember,” he says.

Sergio chose to focus solely on the declarations for a specific reason. “They are symbolic of everything that happened.  The countries declared war.  The declarations read almost like they were produced with no consciousness of what was to happen.  They are brief statements issued in very formal language, announcing something that appears much easier than it is.”  The inspiration for the lettering, he says, came from the large black newspaper headlines announcing the war.  Using color was out of the question.

All the letters were drawn painstakingly by hand and then covered by rice paper which absorbed the ink.  Sergio worked with his girlfriend after they came home at night from their jobs in Lisbon.  Each sentence took three or four hours of work with the two of them working side by side late into the night.  The intention was to continue the project until November, when the last declaration of war of 1914 was made.

But he did not have the municipality’s authorization, and the declarations were painted over as could have been expected. When I walked by, expecting to see a new line and saw the blank wall, I felt a sense of loss.  An event of momentous importance, relegated to history had, through art, broken open the doors and entered our present, the present-day of our lives.  I for one am thankful for having witnessed these sixteen days of history opening up a huge panorama of the past in my life.

Gavrilo Princip received life imprisonment rather than the death sentence because he was not yet twenty.  The conditions under which he was held were so harsh that he contracted tuberculosis and died at Terzin in 1918 before the end of the war, unaware that the Bosnian Serbs had emerged a free people in a new state.  At the time of his death he weighed around forty kilograms.   At his trial, he stated: I am a Yugoslav nationalist, aiming for the unification of all Yugoslavs, and I do not care what form of state, but it must be freed from Austria” (source: Wikipedia).

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BIO: Anita said, “I have a B.A. and an M.A. in English and a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures. In the nineties, I taught at the State University of New York at Stony Brook as an adjunct professor and later moved to The Hague in the Netherlands to work as a translator for the UN War Crimes Tribunal. I now live in Portugal.”


 

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Sarah Leamy, MFA, is an award-winning author of both travel books and novels as well as a photographer, presenter, and a bit of a wanderer. She has lived in England, Germany, Spain, Guatemala and the Southwest of the US. She is the founder and editor of Wanderlust, a travel journal publishing international travel writing, photos and trip reports. Find out more at www.sarahleamy.com

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