Publication Politics of Memory / Antifascism - War / Peace - Europe - Southeastern Europe - Positive Peace The Work of Mourning and the Work of Solidarity

Notes on political activism in Bosnia and Herzegovina

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May 2019

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Living with the past. Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina. (Convivir con el pasado. Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina.) CC BY-SA 2.0, Txetxu Rubio

In this article I seek to bring together some insights of living and working on what is called “social justice” in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina as an academic, artist, and practicing psychoanalyst. In particular, I am concerned with three broad questions: how do we imagine any sort of justice in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina when the war-time logic still rules, and is supported by international political bodies? How do we work on producing hope amidst the resignation, scepticism, and humiliation that poverty, insecurity, and trauma maintain and amplify daily? What does this kind of work mean in our everyday practice—in the classroom, in a ruined factory with barely surviving trade unions, or even in an analytic practice—and how do we protect ourselves from becoming resigned, exhausted, hopeless, and brutalized, so that we do not become unconscious conduits of violence? I am not sure I will answer these questions, and I do not think that there are definitive answers, but these questions have concerned me and my colleagues and comrades for over twenty years now, as we keep asking ourselves: “the situation is rapidly getting worse—what do we do?” I have also learned that these questions must be asked not just among ourselves as a shared anxiety, but that these are vital questions for collectively imagining and enacting any sort of societal transformation in a post-war society.

I will start by outlining the context of post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina today. Today, Bosnia and Herzegovina is a mass grave of the dead and the living. Bosnian society is presently locating, exhuming, identifying and re-burying its dead. After the war there were still around 10,000 missing persons in Bosnia and Herzegovina buried in hidden mass graves. Practices and experiences surrounding the missing persons confront the horrific past and the shapeless future in the present, whose metonym is a mass grave. Every day in this country bodily remains are exhumed, counted, re-associated, managed, and consecrated as ethnic remains.

This is done through the strategic collaboration of forensic science and multiculturalist post-conflict management with its politics of reconciliation and religious ritual—an uncouth alliance between the Scientist, the Bureaucrat, and the Priest. All of this resembles some ornate medieval drama played out in the twenty-first century: the Scientist, the Bureaucrat, and the Priest assume the perspective of the perpetrator of the crime. And why is this? Because in the fantasy of the perpetrator the executed person is the ethnic Other.

In the public domain, those who survived can only mourn their loved ones as ethnic dead victims, themselves being politically reduced solely to members of an ethnic group.

The so-called peacebuilding carried out by international agencies and adopted by many national civil society groups for the purposes of receiving much-needed funds promotes multiculturalist politics as a panacea. Furthermore, civil society has become a lie. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, it has come to mean activists, academics, and artists non-violently opposing violent nationalist oligarchs for the spectacular enjoyment of local and foreign liberal elites. One could also call this The Hunger Games in post-war contexts.

In these hunger games, multiculturalist politics reduces social conflict to friction between many identities, recasting cultural, religious, and ethnic difference as “sites of conflict that need to be attenuated and managed through the practice of tolerance.”[1] In the discourse of tolerance, what is taken as a given is that each ethnic victim has her or his own micro-story, each ethnic group its own “destiny”, and what is promoted as life is the image of life led on parallel tracks, in never-intersecting apartheid.

To worsen and complicate the situation further, in Bosnia and Herzegovina such peacebuilding is also carried out in the context of the dominant revisionism that attempts to equate Communism with the fascism of World War II. As it claims, and as revisionists would have it, all “sides” were equally guilty during the war of the 1990s—a war in which people fought to the point of extermination—but now have to be reconciled and need to tolerate one another. Along with the revisionists, the ethno-nationalist elites carrying out the transition into capitalism and making profit out of bloody capital argue that, ultimately, the war of the 1990s was only a civil war.

After World War II, National Socialism was tried, sentenced, and ultimately banned as a political project. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, peacebuilding and its subsequent attendant “transitional justice” have accepted and normalized ethnic nationalist projects that led to genocide and hidden mass graves. So, in reality, we are governed by the law of the mass grave: these hidden mass graves represent the golden investment of ethnic oligarchs who have learned how to profit from both insecurities produced through detentions and mass killings, and from victimhood produced through commemoration. This second point is important and I will return to it. In reality, very few people insist that the projects behind genocide and clandestine mass graves were political projects and should be examined and condemned as such.

In such a context, the surviving ethnic victims mourn the dead ethnic victims while the elites who fought the wars and got rich in the chase after the capital through genocide remain in power. In this way, the local and international management of loss continues the logic of the executioner and genocide becomes genocide in perpetuity. In this regime of governance, what is produced is the subject—the ethnic victim, whether dead or alive, matters little.

How to move beyond this production of victimhood, beyond this produced decorum of victimhood? How do we assert that the experience and impact of genocide is not the fate of a victim who must then learn to subsequently adapt, to survive as a perennial and anonymous sign of its irreversible incarceration?

Twenty-four years after the end of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina outside observers deem the “peace” to be “fragile”. Bosnia and Herzegovina is suspended between the war that has not quite ended and a future that has not yet commenced. This has been termed as “meantime”, produced through an “endless loop” of depoliticization,[2] and it precisely captures the way in which time for concrete political action is colonized. The current political, economic, and social crisis has produced unprecedented levels of poverty, corruption, ghettoization, insularity and misery in the everyday life of its citizens.  Unemployment levels—the number of job losses and workers haemorrhaging from the workforce—continue to increase. Official UN and World Bank estimates put youth unemployment in Bosnia and Herzegovina at over 65 percent. This breeds many threats to security both in terms of political repression and the radicalization of people in all walks of life—whether towards fascist-inclined ethno-nationalism or fascist-inclined religious fundamentalism.

Therefore, insecurity itself has become a model and strategy to govern the population. This governance through insecurity appears to proffer the faint hope of the continuation of athe minimum of social assurance while at the same time wielding the constant threat of instability and conflict in order to maintain its grip in Bosnia and Herzegovina today. Fear is the mainstay of such governance through insecurity, carried out by ethno-capitalist elites who accumulated their wealth throughout the war. War camps were replaced by labour camps. The only recourse for those who are not a part of corrupt patronage networks is to endure unsafe conditions, low wages, and precarious employment elsewhere. Their limited options are either to service US military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan or accept jobs in low-paying industries such as the German health care system. In this context, radical and conservative movements from Islamic Salafism to pro-fascist organizations find fertile ground for recruiting members by filling the gaps in social provision through setting up their parallel structures.[3] The most recent UN survey shows that around 67 percent of young people in Bosnia and Herzegovina would engage in protests to improve their situation.[4] Unemployed, traumatized, and humiliated youth have become and remain the most important “human resource” for ethno-capitalist and radical political projects alike.

I am talking here about the perception and feeling that our space for action is increasingly becoming smaller—how we feel trapped and suffocated, pushed out and forced to react and constantly remain reactive, very often without allowing ourselves the time to think, plan, strategize, and dictate the tempo of our actions.

I want to return to the production of victimhood through commemorations because this is precisely what the production of victimhood effects through official commemorations as carried out by ethno-nationalist elites in Bosnia and Herzegovina. There are other ways of unacknowledged mourning and commemorating that produce hope, mainly through art and popular cultural expressions, which have produced a way out of this perpetual victimhood in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Local ethno-nationalist elites and international bureaucracies have found a way to tap into and monetize grief through commemorative practices. How have they done so? First, ethnic victimhood produced through commemoration constantly robs the dead of their proper names. This is what survivors of genocide keep on insisting—that their loved ones, buried in unknown mass graves, have been robbed of their proper names. Proper names here stand as an index against anonymity of victimhood. Commemorations keep on producing, through this anonymity of victimhood, the living alienation that is subsequently translated into labour for the ethnic elites. Furthermore, survivors are forced to speak and live only as victims through monetary reparative mechanisms of transitional justice.

Anonymity is produced through a collectivized triumphalism of official commemorations (which precludes mourning) and through enforced privatization of grief (your executed loved one can be mourned with the proper name only in the space of the private and familial). The victims keep working for the benefit of the capital in whose name their loved ones were executed. This arrests any possibility of mourning. Moreover, these ethno-nationalist elites do not want mourning to happen precisely because they could not capitalize and extract surplus value from this alienation of victimhood. This is precisely the “working day” of the surviving victim in the ethno-capitalist mode of production: the severing of social ties through the anonymity of victimhood. The more the insecurity and instability of the outer world persists, the more persecutory and guilt-ridden inner world of survivors is constructed. No relationality and mutuality can be established, and therefore mistrust and hopelessness fuel the inner world. This is why we hear statements like “nothing can be changed”, “one must leave this place”, “anything you do is useless”. This is an index of capital as dead labour: both as that which thrives on our internal privatized conflict of guilt, shame, and mistrust as survivors, and as that which taps into the dead and extracts value from them. It may be useful to cite Marx here, who reminds us that “capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. The time during which the labourer works, is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labour-power he has purchased of him.  If the labourer consumes his disposable time for himself, he robs the capitalist.”[5] Therefore, the struggle for the work of mourning is the struggle for political time to mourn. In order to make this time relationality is crucial to move us beyond the privatised and familial grief—to insist that the proper name of the dead one is spoken and heard. This collective construction is what I call apublic language of grief in which the loss of war and genocide is not merely private and familial, but spoken as political.

For me, this has the capacity to produce hope. When we take back the time to mourn in order to regain security in our inner world and regain trust by thinking and speaking and acting collectively beyond the self-harm into which ethnically-mobilised shame and guilt pushes us. To insist on a hopeful stance amidst the depoliticized prohibition to think and act collectively as the new commons is to assert and reflect two things: the first is that suffering, which results from war and genocide, is the effect of societal injustice and, as such, a public matter par excellence; the second is that, in relation to this suffering, the emancipated process of becoming a subject can only take place when freed from the shackles of a victimized position or any other position that is merely focused on the interests of any particular identity.

In order to set up this relationality and decolonize space for mourning, I work with art and literature in particular. When we come together around literary and artistic interventions to think collectively about how social ties have been destroyed and how mistrust and cynicism are produced daily and how we are conduits of vampire-like capital—in other words, how we are forced to believe that there is no alternative but to sacrifice one another to this vampire-like capital—only then do we have a chance to recuperate our inner world and experience freedom through solidarity in grieving. Recuperating severed social ties entails affirming all life that survived—which now must be taken into account in rebuilding Bosnian society. In other words, a shift from counting losses from the war to counting the gains from the war as our commons. What are our commons? By commons I mean all that which is left out, discarded, destroyed, weakened, and exhausted—from our capacities to think and materialize collectively demands for a more inclusive justice and societal transformation to all the excluded forms of life, as well as new forms of life, or new subjectivities that produce a space for solidarity and commonality in the claims for equality for all. I will briefly provide a vignette describing this moment of recuperation that took place during public poetry readings and discussion—as interventions that have enabled the public language of grief.  The Bosnian woman poet Adisa Bašić reflected on one of these moments that emerged at a public reading of her poetry: “I remember two young men, who reacted to the erotic poem about the former concentration camp inmate by talking about their fathers, who had been imprisoned in concentration camps: it was only later that we found out that one of these was a Bosniak, the other a Croat; while talking about the experience of living with a former concentration camp prisoner, ethnicity is completely irrelevant.” And there it is—for a moment, albeit a brief one, we are invited to recuperate a life that survived and a commonality resulting from the experience of survival.

Theses for Change

Those who amassed capital through war and genocide have paralyzed emancipatory political action through the colonization of space and time. They have taken our streets, our schools, and our factories and transformed them into spaces of execution—both real and symbolic—where life is devalued and destroyed and where hopelessness is created. They manipulate time—the empty time of endless transition—placing us “on hold”, the condition in which the only thing we can be certain of is our own ruin.

The tempo they dictate sucks us into a vortex of fear—fear of a new war— with the aim that we accept helplessness as inevitable.

And we are paralyzed bodies, fascinated by violence, obediently jumping to every command. And we have, by chance, today managed to avoid being culled in the safari of blood-soaked capital.

It is up to us to end our own paralysis, to abandon the victim position and terminate the history of our colonization, a history of bloodstained larceny. Disrupting this history means disrupting the history of fascism.

Antifascism today means the decolonization of space and time in a struggle for justice and equality.  The first step in this decolonization is to reject the claim that the current hegemonic ethno-capitalist organization of life is the only possible one. In rejecting this claim we practice unbribeable life—life beyond blackmail, fear, and paralysis.

We need to take over and transform space and practice solidarity by seeking justice outside of the constraints of identity politics. This means that we refuse to accept the division of space into public and private; that we refuse to acquiesce to the privatization of space in which we are granted access only as part of an identity-based or interest group. Those spaces, as common spaces, are already ours and always have been but through colonization were violently taken away from us.

Solidarity begins by pooling the resources we have as a common good and bringing into being a regime that is productive of care for one another, outside the principle of “humanitarianism”.  In contrast to the regime of hunger mapped by the empty bellies of those governed through poverty, let us create a regime of care that delineates a territory beyond the shame and guilt rooted in poverty, a territory in which fellowship begins with the sharing of a meal.

In this work, our key allies will be all of those groups, associations, and NGOs who do not wish to be a civil-society supplement to the state and who refuse to be satisfied with the mere cataloguing of human rights violations. Together with them we must open a front for common social work in our communities, work which lies beyond the short-term “project logic” of “humanitarian” aid; work purpose of which is not just to create employment for the project managers and maintain the status quo.

If we live in a society resembling a mass grave, we need to get to know one another much more fully and deeply than we do now. We need a different and better way to figure out how to work together, a better way to approach and value the people with whom we work. This means that we need to remove ourselves from the realm of the privatization affect. This affect brutalizes us, and shatters and erodes our togetherness. Privatization disguises acts that actually legitimize war and genocide; it is the form that dispossession takes when it is constantly striving to conceal from us the true colonizing intentions and processes it is wielding against us.

If we want to materialize the reality of hope over the reality of ruination, we must begin, critically and affirmatively, to re-assemble a community—not of victims, but of survivors.

Dr. Damir Arsenijević is a psychoanalyst in training and a founding member of the platform Workers’ University Tuzla, one of the outcomes of the February 2014 protests. He develops and carries out collaborative interventions intersecting academia, activism, and arts in Bosnia and Herzegovina, tackling the following areas through such interventions: how to dismantle governance through poverty, how to build emancipatory ways of dealing with trauma and remembrance of the war and genocide, and how to sustain solidarity networks by fiercely defending the commons.This article is based on a presentation given at the conference "Social and Transformative Justice in Conflict and Post-Conflict Settings – a comparative approach", held by the RLS Beirut office in November 2018.


[1] Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006.

[2] See Steff Jansen, “Rebooting politics? Or, towards a <Ctrl-Alt-Del> for the Dayton Meantime”, Unbribable Bosnia and Herzegovina: The Fight for the Commons, edited by in Damir Arsenijević, Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2014, 89–96.

[3]See Vlado Azinović and Muhamed Jusić, The new lure of the Syrian war: the foreign fighters’ Bosnian contingent, Sarajevo: Atlantska inicijativa, 2016.

[4]See the UNDP report “Socio-economic Perceptions of Young People in Bosnia and Herzegovina”, Prism Research, May/June 2017.

[5] Marx, Karl, Capital vol. 1, chapter 10.