This paper is an attempt to reconsider some epistemological and ethical issues related to the study of painful and traumatic experiences/memories among war-affected people in the post-Yugoslav space after the bloody dissolution of the country in the 1990s. Based on long-term ethnographic fieldwork among Bosnian refugees in Slovenia and war survivors in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the paper analyses the importance of the process of »managing the memories« (Sorabji 2006) in the post-war context on the European periphery.
The Balkans, as a liminal and marginalized space, has often been portrayed as a place burdened by history. Scholars have long focused on the violent episodes of Yugoslav history and their implications for the future. The limited but pervasive focus on the memory of war crimes, violence, collective/individual trauma, as well as the impact of revisionist historiographies, etc., have often contributed to the reproduction of the Balkanist stigma. Thus, in a region that is consistently characterized as a violent post-conflict area (Todorova 1997), memory is perceived as violent (cf. Jansen 2002) and seen as a tool to paralyze the long-awaited stabilization. Moreover, memories become “problems” that require international intervention and scholarly attention. By focusing exclusively on the impact of memories on everyday life, numerous studies contributed to the reductive reading of the lifeworld of their interlocutors and cemented notions about the region as the most obvious example of the so-called “return of history” in the 21st century (Muller 2004: 9).
While we can understand narratives of the past, as well as storytelling, as a way to “maintain a sense of agency in the face of disempowering circumstances” (Jackson, 2002: 15), it is nonetheless crucial to rethink our focus and conceptual tools to examine how trauma can function as a subtle mechanism of othering. Intending to initiate a critical discussion and open a dialogue about the main issues in so-called ‘trauma research’, this paper seeks to explore possible alternatives to empirical selectivity. In particular, it is argued that reducing people to ‘narrators of traumatic past experiences’ can have serious implications for the lives of interlocutors, but also for our understanding of the role of past experiences in a particular context. Doing justice to refugee experiences, as well as experiences of war survivors, requires us to think critically about how both are constructed not only in bureaucratic, political, and media discourse, but also how “stigmata of refugeeness” (Malkki 1995) and “war victimhood” is maintained in academic discourses. In conclusion, the paper suggests some fruitful ways to conduct fieldwork among people affected by a traumatic experience, in order to examine, which stories help people to cope with the consequences of violence (in the post-Yugoslav context).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alenka Bartulović is a cultural anthropologist and Assistant Professor at the Department of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology, Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana. She is the author of an award-winning book ‘Nismo vaši!’: antinacionalizem v povojnem Sarajevu [‘We’re not one of you!’ Anti-nationalism in post-war Sarajevo] (Ljubljana: Znanstvena založba Filozofske fakultete, 2013). Her research interests include the remembering process and identification in the Balkans, refugee studies, urban-rural relations, rural anthropology, gender studies, anthropology of hope, and construction of the Other. Her latest work explores urban-rural dichotomies in the Balkans and artistic practices of Bosnian refugees in Slovenia. She has published several scholarly articles on post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina. Most recently she analyzed changing perceptions of Muslims in Slovenia in the book chapter »From brothers to others? Changing images of Bosnian Muslims in (Post-)Yugoslav Slovenia« (In: Imagining Bosnian Muslims in Central Europe: representations, transfers and exchanges, F. Šistek, ed. Berghahn books, 2021).