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Bosnia-Hercegovina Warzone, 1992-95

The challenge

As part of a larger exhibit, our studio helped the Peace Museum tell the story of the Bosnian War. But before anyone could celebrate any peace, we needed to explain the breadth and depth of its war crimes.

This is not a pretty history, and it is a contentious one. Our studio knew we would need citations for every act of violence we chose to include. And choosing what to include, is itself an act of bias. *Cue every lesson we’ve ever learned in a decade of making maps.

Design Strategy

This war, a 4-sided conflict, is particularly complex to explain to American audiences who think of this region as a ‘distant place’

Our first design principle was to designate an (arbitrary) color code for each state actor in the war: for example, purple for Serbian forces, light purple for the politically-aligned Bosnian Serbs, faint-red for Croatian forces. These colors pervaded across all elements in the entire exhibit. As a mnemonic trick, this helps the audience in Dayton to mentally keep track of each side in the conflict.

It also is an interpretive point in this map: in a war that was predicated on genocide, it was important to convey that the crimes committed were not random acts in “the fog of war”, but that each was being perpetrated to advance a political & military objective.

a split image: on left, a monitor showing someone's hand touching the screen with their finger; on right, a map centered on Bosnia in a cold color palette of purples and greyThe International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) is a trustworthy source for the broad strokes of the wartime violence, and many of the allegations thereof.  Their website also provides precision when seeking the details of a particular case trial. But the ICTY is justifiably critiqued for not having investigated all allegations of war crimes; this was especially true for crimes committed by municipal government officials instead of military battalions.

There is a compilation of massacres/civilian attacks that is argued (still today) in a topical article on Wikipedia. Of course, we could not hinge our research on Wikipedia. But our studio was able to use this list as a baseline of allegations. From there, we chose to triangulate among several sources, including the cited news media reports, background documentation of the ICTY, and reports created contemporaneously to the war by several respected non-aligned human rights NGOs.

We made it a point to include all of the most serious allegations [as a number of casualties] that were perpetrated by each of the four parties to the war. The plethora of events only reinforces the fact that human history is messy, and belies any easy characterization of “good guys” and “bad guys”.

Finally, our studio had to be aware of the audience’s available time to spend at the kiosk, as well as their emotional investment in bearing so much tragedy. For this reason, we made clever use of the pinch-and-zoom capabilities of a digital map.  Not all events had to be presented on screen at once.  Instead, we designed the map so that the deeper one zooms in — indicating a person’s sustained interest & empathy — the more crimes that fade into view and become explorable on the map.

two digital maps side-by-side, showing two regions in Bosnia in a cold color palette of purples and grey, with numerous small skull icons to be tapped on

Results

Collecting in one place over 65 citable instances of war crimes, the Peace Museum’s new exhibit has become one of the most informative resources available anywhere for laypeople on this war

But that is not to say that the map leads the reader to a false sense of equivalence, to throw up their hands that “everyone was at fault”.  Rather, the map is embedded in the context of a very hard-hitting exhibit. The full, four-part exhibit challenges the visitor to repeating themes of cautious discernment. What political objectives can be identified? What was the complicity of leaders? How were xenophobia and nationalism compounded upon each other? And for each of us, where do these transgress our own personal value system today?