Places transformed by tragedy
BY MARIA TUMARKIN
In the world we inhabit, traumascapes are everywhere. They are the physical sites of terror attacks, natural and industrial catastrophes, genocide, exile, ecological degradation, and communal loss of heart. Yet far from being mere backdrops to cataclysms, traumascapes are a distinctive category of place, transformed physically and psychically by suffering. They are part of a scar tissue that stretches across the world, from Hiroshima to Auschwitz, Dresden to Srebrenica, Sarajevo to New York, Bali, London, Jerusalem, and New Orleans.
The idea that traumascapes are central characters of our times may seem odd at first. People generally do things with and to places. We destroy them, abandon them, and feel deeply attached to them. The notion that this relationship might be reciprocal is generally regarded as the province of poetry and fiction. However, the idea that the ground beneath our feet could possess extraordinary power and could in fact be capable of great haunting and defiance is not merely a poetic trope.
Multiplying in recent decades at a rate that seems impossible to register, traumascapes have emerged as much more than the physical settings of tragedies. Because trauma is contained not in an event, as such, but in the way the event is experienced, we are now discovering the extent to which traumascapes have become an essential part of people’s experiences of mourning, remembering, and making sense of the traumatic histories imprinted onto their soil.
Traumascapes are haunted and haunting places, where visible and invisible, past and present, physical and metaphysical, come to coexist and share a common space. They are the places that compel memories, crystallize identities, and exude power and enchantment. Traumascapes hold the key to our ability to endure and find meaning in modern-day tragedies and the legacies they leave behind.
Unlike Ground Zero in New York City, there was nothing to see at Shanksville but a temporary memorial, a chain-link fence overflowing with flags, flowers, and crosses that emerged spontaneously only weeks after the tragedy. The crash site itself, painstakingly cleared of any debris, was fenced off and empty, and only victims’ families and FBI officials were allowed to walk through it. There were no souvenirs and nothing much to photograph. Going to Shanksville was about mourning and encountering the grief the crash had given birth to. It was about coming to a traumascape distilled to its absolute basics.
Yet it was unquestionably a powerful site, not because it overwhelmed people’s senses and their imagination (as was the case with Ground Zero) but, at least in part, because it allowed for a spontaneous community of mourners to emerge. Visitors to Shanksville can feel part of such a community — often comprised of strangers — making the burden of loss and disbelief a shared one, and in that way, easier to bear. Despite often looking kitschy (teddy bears, flags, baseball caps, more teddy bears), temporary memorials such as Shanksville are at the heart of these spontaneous and powerful communities.
To treat temporary memorials as stand-ins for “real” memorials is to misjudge the depth of emotion and meaning people attach to them, just as they do to traumascapes in general. The pine cross was moved to the back of the official Port Arthur memorial, which was opened on the fourth anniversary of the tragedy, and for many people this was akin to the desecration of a burial site.
The meaning of the Sarajevo siege as one of the most significant historical traumas of the end of the twentieth century is forever joined to the city itself, its destruction and its survival. Sarajevo the place has come to merge with Sarajevo the event. It was, after all, the city itself that was the primary target of the Bosnian Serb forces and it was to their city, systematically destroyed, that many Sarajevans remained loyal throughout the siege and its aftermath, rather than to any ideologies or political figures.
The story of the besieged Bosnian capital as a traumascape is a striking example of a place that shapes both the experiences and interpretations of a particular tragedy. Indeed, it has come to occupy a central place, not only in attempts to make sense of what happened in the former Yugoslavia following its disintegration, but also in the search for a genuine understanding of recent history, and, to a significant degree, of global history as well.
Within a few years, however, the rage many Berliners felt toward the wall quieted down, and questions began to emerge. Was the near-total destruction of the wall, although understandable, still a serious mistake? Do people now regret the disappearance of the wall? Would the memory of Cold War division be better preserved if substantial fragments of the wall had remained standing? Were the ruins of the wall a much more powerful monument to Berlin’s history than all the museums, memorials, and guidebooks put together?
In the 1999 documentary After the Fall, Manfred Fischer, a pastor of a parish on the western side of the city, explained that the Berlin Wall was evidence of a terrible crime, and that the removal of evidence usually aids the criminal. Part of the wall, Fischer concluded, should remain in Berlin’s public space as a “mental stumbling block.”
In 2004, when a section of the wall was reconstructed as a tourist attraction, it garnered a great deal of criticism from Berlin’s historians and politicians for exploiting and falsifying the horror of Berlin’s past, but before it was demolished on orders from the authorities, it was visited by 3,500 tourists a day, many of whom believed it to be the real thing. The wall was fake, but the void filled by its temporary reconstruction was not.
In the cathedral’s place, Stalin planned to erect the Palace of Soviets, the tallest and largest building in the world, but shortly after construction commenced and despite the thousands of tons of concrete and steel put in place for the palace’s foundation, the structure began sliding toward the Moskva River. Thousands of tons of construction material were used in a vain attempt to stop the slide, and in a rather unprecedented move, a project of Stalin’s had to be thrown to the dogs.
It is remarkable that the land’s voice and power were energized and brought to the surface by one of the twentieth century’s most determinedly totalitarian states, one wholly deaf and blind to the needs of its people, let alone to the voice of its land. For over two decades, there remained a hole in the middle of Moscow, until Khruschev ordered a gigantic swimming pool constructed on the site. That pool was itself demolished on the orders of Boris Yeltsin in 1991 to make way for an exact replica of the original cathedral. &
Adapted from Traumascapes by Maria Tumarkin, published by Melbourne University Publishing. © 2005 Maria Tumarkin.