In most if not all contemporary historical recounts, warfare and cathartic devastation seem to characterize the majority of the 20th Century, which was the deadliest century ever recorded. With a death toll of 187 million in just 100 years, the aggressive violence of the 20th century killed millions and devastated tens of cities around the world, which warranted massive post-war reconstruction efforts that continue as wars in the 21st Century begin.

In the piecing together of post-war cities, there are two kinds of reconstructing. Urban design specialist Mitchell Sipus argues that reconstruction of cities in the aftermath of war happens on the physical level, but also on the ontological level. In other words, although a war may end with the rebuilding of a city, its memory lingers long after even after the city has been rebuilt. Accordingly, post-war reconstruction processes pose the question: When cities ravaged by war are leveled to the ground and built back up again, where does the memory of war go?

The bittersweet yet unnerving truth is that when wars end, their devastation – physical and emotional – remain. It remains engraved in the gaping holes, the shrines for the fallen, and in the minds of everyone who saw their cities fall. These remains of warfare are what Yael Navaro-Yashin calls “melancholia,” which speaks to the historical and emotional levels of war that forever remain etched onto a city.

In cities devastated by war, physical reconstruction is intrinsically linked to memory of violence. In this sense, spatial reconstruction of post-war cities cannot completely erase the memory of war. Israeli architect Eyal Weizman calls this feat “forensic architecture,” since buildings become timelessly informative when urban warfare breaks out. Alternatively, the physical impact of war on a city speaks to the intensity, but also the memory, of war.

We look at how three cities that have experienced three different types of war have coped with memory in the aftermath of reconstruction.

Sarajevo And Its Battle For Independence

Long known as a well-established Ottoman outpost, the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo is a pristine city surrounded by lush forests and five mountains of the Dinaric Alps. The Miljacka River runs from the east of the city, straight through the center, and to the western quarters of Sarajevo, creating a scenic illustration of a city that not too long ago was ravaged by war.

With the dissolution of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1992 and a popular referendum, Bosnia and Herzegovina declared its independence from the remaining five countries that were a part of the Federal Republic. Following the declaration, Bosnian Serbs began a siege of Sarajevo, which lasted a total of 1,425 days, or almost four years – the longest siege of a capital city in modern history. What was once a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multi-linguistic city became divided by an armed conflict between Bosniak Muslims, Bosnian Croats, and Bosnian Serbs.

Ten years before the war, Sarajevo hosted the Winter Olympic Games, which became a source of pride for the people of the Bosnian capital. But when the war broke out, the Olympic sites inevitably became battlegrounds. Because of how close the two events were to one another, the memories of the Olympics and the war became intertwined. The siege of Sarajevo turned the city into a battleground, with snipers manning buildings, guerrillas shooting from mountains in the distance, and civilians locked up in their homes during the nearly four year war. The 2002 film documentary Do You Remember Sarajevo by the Kreševljaković brothers shows how the people of Sarajevo attempted to go about their daily lives in spite of the war. The film, which is a series of home videos taken during the war, depicts how urban life came to a halt during the conflict.

post-war Sarajevo

Damaged buildings in Sarajevo during the siege of the city. (CC: US Military)

In 1995, the warring factions of the Bosnian War signed the Dayton Agreement, which brought a screeching end to the fighting. But in Sarajevo, the war has left an imprint on the city that flows as the Miljacka River, and the city is left scarred by the memories of its people killing one another.

Although the city has managed to rebuild, repave its roads, and bring back a sense of tranquility, the war has not fully left the city. Along Ferhadija Street, the ground is filled with what are called “Sarajevo Roses,” or red-colored holes that were created by mortar shelling during the war. One floor of the Mostar Gymnasium, which today hosts the United World College, served only Bosnian Croat students and remained closed to Bosniaks (i.e. Muslims) until 2004, almost 10 years after the truce was signed. These mementos of the war linger in the city, even after the guns have been returned to their holsters.

post-war Sarajevo

“Sarajevo Roses” are red slab-filled gaps on the streets of Sarajevo that were created by mortar shelling during the war. (CC: Jennifer Boyer)

Post-War Reconstruction In The ‘Gem of the Levant’ 

Contested by its history of occupation and its struggles with sectarian division, Beirut has lived through two civil wars, an occupation, and now, a civil war in a neighboring country. Beirut as a physical space has been home to more than eight religious denominations of both Arab and non-Arab ethnicities. But during the 25-year Civil War, the city and its people were divided, with large parts of the city razed. In post-war Beirut, the city’s skyline shot up in just a few years’ time, but the memory of the war festers in its landscape.

The Civil War tore through the city in 1975, splitting Beirut into East and West, and dividing Beirutis based on religious sect and political affiliation. Following the 1989 Taif Agreement, warring factions signed a truce, hailing the end of the war that had divided Beirut and its people. Although the truce put an end to the fighting, Beirut was destroyed. Despite the reconstruction of the physical space of Beirut, the city remains an unfortunate hallmark of 20th Century urban warfare.

post-war Beirut

Buildings in Beirut. (CC: Bertilvidet)

The “Green Line” that divided the city ran straight through Places des Martyrs – a square that, in the years before the war, was a place that gathered people from different sectarian and political backgrounds. And although the war has ended, the square has never returned to its former function. In the heart of the square stands a statue that still boasts bullet holes and what is left of an obliterated leg – both staunch reminders of the destruction that the war wreaked on the city.

post-war Beirut

Visible damage to the statue in the center of Beirut’s Places des Martyrs in 2016. (CC: @elsalemelmosalem)

Some cab drivers are still hesitant today in moving between East and West Beirut when driving through what was the “Green Line” during the war. The Holiday Inn, one of the bay’s pride and joys of the 1970s, still stands with gaping holes that mortar and bullets blasted through it. Rumor has it that, during the war, each floor of the hotel was occupied by a certain sectarian group and that they fought each other vertically.

In her book Reconstructing Beirut: Memory and Space in a Postwar Arab City, Aseel Sawalha argues that, the intangibility of the memory of the war allows it to remain in post-war Beirut. Shortly after the end of the war in 1992, the late Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Al Hariri established Solidére, a joint public-private venture that oversaw the reconstruction of the city. Between investment conventions with wealthy Gulf benefactors and exhibitions showcasing models of a reborn “Paris of the Middle East,” Beirut slowly but surely rose from the ground. But unlike the devastated buildings that were reconstructed, memories of the Civil War remain in Beirut until today.

Medellín: Rolling Back From Drugs, Homicide, And Warfare

Medellín, Colombia’s second largest city, has been rolling back from decades of armed conflict, forced displacement, and, at one point, one of the highest homicide rates in the world for two decades. After a truce between warring factions in 2016, the people of Medellín could finally sleep in peace. But even after cartels and paramilitary groups disarmed, the war maintains a presence in the city today. Unlike, however, Sarajevo or Beirut, the Colombian drug war did not leave lasting scars on the city’s buildings and streets. But because the city inevitably became an arena for warfare during the conflict, Medellín and its people still bear the memory of urban conflict today.

post-memory Medellín

Graffiti in Medellín. Courtesy of Deúniti.

By many standards, Medellín is a miracle city. The city known today as the hometown of drug lord Pablo Escobar was also named the world’s most innovative city in 2013, beating New York City and Tel Aviv. When in the early 1970s a ruthless armed conflict between the Colombian government and guerrilla groups erupted, the people of Medellín were unaware that it would last 40 years. Coupled with an ideological guise, paramilitary groups like the FARC and ELN began to call for a more equitable distribution of wealth. Drug cartels became significant players in the struggle for social and economic equality, since the drug trade became a lucrative alternative for families struggling to make ends meet.

Liliana Franco and Claudia Caputo, authors of “Urban Violence and Humanitarian Action in Medellín,” describe the Colombian armed conflict as one that was “neither of peace nor of war,” stifling the city and making life in Medellín almost impossible to bear. In 1989, The New York Times published an article detailing the kind of drug violence the city saw: “The Medellín fire department said 11 people [were] wounded; 30 cars were destroyed; 150 American students left in the last two days.” This kind of violence – one with omnipresent and random killings – forcibly took over the city. Unlike in Sarajevo or Beirut, the Colombian war did not cause as much physical devastation to Medellín.

After the death of Pablo Escobar in 1993, many urban officials decided it was time to turn Medellín around. The poorest neighborhoods enjoyed a significant amount of the infrastructural overhaul by urban planners. Poor neighborhoods that were intensely elevated received escalators to help people navigate the city’s hilly landscape, and a cable car was installed to improve urban mobility. Parks (link in Spanish) and the Spain Library became just a couple of Medellín’s many reconstruction successes. The city became a marvel for urbanists around the world – a kind of post-war tabula rasa for city planners.

post-war Medellín

FARC guerillas on a smoke break in 1987. (CC: Tiomono)

In Medellín’s case, however, the memory of the war is not necessarily attached to the ruination of warfare. Robert Muggah, research director of the HASOW project, believes that the kind of violence seen in Medellín informs other new forms of organized violence. The Colombian War devastated Medellín not through physical urban destruction, but by placing the city under drug cartel control. The constant presence of guerrillas and the threat they posed to urban life forced scores of people out of their homes to participate in the war for survival, and claimed the lives of many others.

With an armed conflict spanning over 40 years, the total number of internally displaced peoples in Colombia today is at 7.2 million people – almost 260,000 of which lived in Medellín as of 2012. Most of these people fled conflict or violence caused directly or indirectly by the war. This kind of urban warfare, which doesn’t necessarily destroy the city but instead permeates every aspect of life, makes Medellín’s restoration as a post-war city more complex.

Where Do We Put War In Our Cities?

“Melancholia,” according to Yael Navaro Yashin, is what is left in the ruination of war. The memory of war lingers in Sarajevo, Beirut, and Medellín because of the melancholia left in the trail of warfare. These “objects” that remain scattered around a post-war city are the implicit damage that war inflicts on a city.

Hence, the reconstruction of a post-war city cannot be void of melancholia either, which is why Weizman believes the physicality and memory of a city during a war inform one another. He suggests that the permanence of buildings, even as ruination after a war, serve as a permanent memory of a war-torn city. For this reason, reconstruction efforts cannot exclude the damage of war– physical or otherwise. When wars are commemorated or lamented by statues, celebrations, or rituals, that voluntary remembering makes it less painful. Effectively, when the memory of war is embraced, it doesn’t linger, allowing post-war cities to no longer be haunted by it.