Opening Pandora’s jar of pain & grief

It’s 4 a.m. and I cannot sleep. How I wish this wasn’t a recurring theme in recent years, but, alas. I need to get some thoughts of my mind concerning my fieldwork, semester abroad, thesis work, uncertainties, in other words, life quandaries in general.

Past summer, after I visited the mass graveyard in Potočari (Srebrenica) and my birthplace Višegrad, I wrote a blog post about my experiences of those places of pain. Visiting them opened up a jar that has led to some unexpected results. I hoped that by being there I could invoke a much needed healing process for myself, and in many ways I did. But running over the last six months makes me realize that it had extraordinarily debilitating effects as well.

From September until January I spent time in Montréal for a semester abroad. This was supposed to be an all out positive learning experience whereby I could explore the North American educational system while soaking in the ‘multicultural’ tastes of the city. Unfortunately that’s not exactly how it went down. I did meet wonderful people, and the experience in its totality was an interesting learning school. But, at the same time, it was there that my unprocessed feelings kicked in and culminated into a deep state of haze. Before, I had experienced similar feelings of existential numbness, but never in such a prolonged manner and with such negative effects on my productive capacities relating to university work. It seemed that I was incapable of writing anything coherent that would pass the academic approval stamp.

Fast forward some months and here I am reflecting on the still lingering haze. I am reminded of Renato Rosaldo’s experience of losing his wife and how that informed his understanding of Ilongot Heandhunter’s rage. Less than a month later he wrote in his journal about the initial moment: “I felt like in a nightmare, the whole world around me expanding and contracting, visually and viscerally heaving” (171). Maybe his work resonates so deeply with me because I have a similar feeling relating to the effects of my fieldwork on me. Similarly, I share the idea that juxtaposing my experiences about uncertainty, violence, and pain can inform me about those of the participants’ I engaged with.

To do this, I first need to let my own experiences find a place of acceptance, which is much easier said than done. In order to let free the hope that was left inside Pandora’s jar I need to decenter my logocentrism to let my body feel and speak, as it obviously needs to deal with some shit, in order to better relate to the subtleties of everyday intimate embodied violence in Sarajevo. Because, when the body talks it often whispers, and whispers are only heard if you lean in close enough. Unless you can read lips of course…

Being a ‘refugee’

The media juice has recently been pumping out images of children washing ashore the Mediterranean coast, trying to reach a place where they were supposed to have a more liveable future. How cynical one may be of the hypocrisy major media outlets portray in their utilitarian approach to human suffering, it’s nevertheless difficult to remain untouched by these events. This made me wonder about living a life as a ‘refugee’ and what is often not pointed out in news outlets.

In general there seems to be a very shallow appreciation of what it means to be displaced, i.e. not to belong. You’ll hear certain politicians say that once people are in a country where they’re not in immediate life threatening situations that they should not try to move further from that country. In Syria’s case this implies that people fleeing the country who end up in Turkey, Lebanon, and other surrounding countries – which is the vast majority of the refugees – should not try to get to Europe – more correctly to the European Union.

This repulsive attitude lacks any empathy with what it implies to be estranged from everything you have come to consider normal and your own. The crises of quite suddenly ending up in a place whose landscape you have not learned to manoeuvre, whose language(s) you have not verbalised, whose implicit and explicit cultural codexes you have not embodied, is difficult to explain.

Refugee ‘culture’?

I was 4 years old when I ended up in Belgium after a detour via Turkey and my memories of former Yugoslavia and my birthplace Višegrad are blurry. It’s like my life only started once I arrived in Antwerp. When you’re young it’s not evident to process what goes on, and you get socialised into believing that you are different from what is considered normal in your new home. For me things got tricky around my 16th year when I started wondering things like ‘what if I never ended up in Belgium’, ‘what if I was among the unfortunate ones who never even got to experience what it is like to grow up’, ‘what if the war never happened’ …

This questioning can drive you into a dark place emotionally where you start to feel disconnected from your surroundings. Add on top of that, the experience that elements like your name, accent, religion, skin colour, gender, class positioning, et cetera become a constant reminder that you are not supposed to be in this strange land, and you start to get a broader picture of the devastating effects of displacement.

That’s why when I see pictures of lifeless children bodies I cannot but feel agony. It’s like an intuitive reaction that makes me want to burst in tears. Then I start walking through the streets and I see people smiling and the world makes no sense at all. At these moments I think of Theodore Adorno and his oft mentioned question what becomes of poetry after Auschwitz. Adjusting it a little bit I would ask: ‘what becomes of life after displacement, is it barbaric?’

Conextualizing Adorno’s saying in his essay ‘Cultural Criticism and Society,’ he was trying to ask – I think – how we can continue to produce aspect of the same culture that produced Auschwitz? Are we not denying the obvious and in a sense making criticism of that culture intangible? The question of what produces wars and thus displacement is not a straightforward one, and it is not my aim to try and answer that here, but Adorno’s criticism holds also to the scandalous refugee handling going on at this moment. Taking it to an essential point we could ask ourselves if we are not making it impossible to criticize and overcome the refugee ‘problem’ by producing the same culture that creates refugees? This ‘culture’ being the reification of the nation-state.

I shortly outlined a small fraction of my experience of being a refugee, but that experience was a totally different one for my parents who had to start anew after a partly lived life. Are these adults, who become in a sense children in their new homes, not suffering as much as children? Do they not deserve as much our empathy? I’m not saying this to put a scale on suffering but to point out the obvious, that the fracturing of lives is experienced differently depending on your age and several other factors.

While I conclude this short stream of thoughts I return to the image of the children I started with. I feel hopeless in that I can only put down these words as a form of respect for all the suffering going on right now. I feel numbed because I am that child, and so are you…

Going ‘Home’

Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge The Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge where mass killings were committed during the most recent war. Photo by Jasmin Tabaković, 14 July 2015.

It’s a mighty strange feeling returning to the place where I was born. It’s the small town of Višegrad in the Eastern part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, positioned among the dark green river Drina, where in 1988 I took my first breath. Four years later with the outbreak of the war (aggression & civil war?) in Bosnia and Hercegovina my family and I got displaced, and via a short stop in Turkey we ended up in Belgium (Antwerp). Since then I have never returned to the town. Maybe because of fear of my parents, maybe because of disinterest, maybe because of …

My memories of this town were always very vague. I thought I remembered some places there, but it could have been informed by my parents stories about the place. It was sort of a mythical creature living in the back of my head. It’s not that I really identified with the town so much, but it remained this place of remembrance.

Yesterday (14th july) I eventually got the opportunity to visit my birthplace. It was in association with some other people that wanted to visit the place that I decided to join. Not because otherwise I wouldn’t visit it – it was part of my plan during my stay here in Sarajevo anyway – but because it was convenient.

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Pionirska kuća, a place of horror where 70 people were burned alive. Photo by Jasmin Tabaković, 14 July 2015.

Arrived there we were shown places of deep pain by an activist that happens to be the niece of my father. I have never met this woman, or at least not since 92, but I knew about her work via the magical world of the internet and by stories of my parents. It’s a long story to fully explain everything we did, but the main activity was visiting two horryfying places where people were burned alive and raped, and also the graveyard where she and others put up a memorial for the killed and disappeared people of Višegrad.

The memorial is a fascinating story in and of itself because on the stone pillar originally the word genocide was part of the carved text. Thinking in ‘constitutive people/ethnonationalist’ lines it were Serbs who carved it away, and than it were Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims – not exactly correct) who wrote it back on. This back and forth movement has been going on for some time as is witnessed by looking at the stone.

Controversial genocide memorial on a graveyard

The contested genocide memorial on the graveyard where many of the Bosnian Muslim casualties lay. Photo by Jasmin Tabaković, 14 July 2015.

What/where is ‘home’?

For a long time now I’ve found the concept of home fascinating. When people ask me where my home is, or how I identify, I mostly have to curve into some acrobatic positions to explain that in essence I don’t have an answer to this question. I mostly answer by a deconstructivist act. By referring to the absurdities of belongings based on ethnonational lines (I know that the term ethnonationalism is problematic of itself, but that’s for another time). Such negative answers have driven me to a position of groundlessness. I came to such a point as to question almost everything. One might say that I experienced ‘depersonalisation’, ‘derrealization’, or ‘dissociation’, to borrow some terms from the psychiatric jargon.

By visiting Srebrenica and the memorial centre two times shortly after each other a week or so ago, and by now going to Višegrad, my idea of home has been even more problematised. In Srebrenica the only thing that ran through my mind, as I tried to calm my tears, was a feeling of senselessness. The feeling was so strong at that point that it really made me hopeless for any better future. In Višegrad the tears were strongly diminished but again this feeling of it all having no sense hit me.

Taking some days to reflect on these experiences has done me well. The initial emotional overflow has slowly moved away, and instead now I’m experiencing a strong sense of identification with combating injustice. This idea has informed a larger part of my life, but throughout the recent experiences I came to realise that it truly is a major part of how I perceive myself. Making sense of pain-as-being seems an interesting position to live and think from when also trying to elaborate on life in so-called post-war situations; i.e. grasping crises as context instead of crises in context.

If I could define home in a raw way it would relate to emotional states that are not fully disconnected from physical places. It would lean on a kind of bricolage idea of identification, in other words, a fluidity of a bit of this and a bit of that.