I moved to Bosnia and Herzegovina towards the end of 1999, but I arrived in the Balkan from the South of Italy already in the early 1990s when the war started. Back then there were various narratives that a person living in Western Europe could hear and be exposed to – narratives that through the years had been reiterated, nuanced, reshaped, repackaged, internalized, and expanded by the power of social media algorithms.
Needless to say, I still encounter them everyday. And I feel that they somehow root and anchor the complex projections and interrelations of multi-layered identities, borders, and boundaries.
One narrative was about war being almost endemic and a “natural” choice to the peoples of these territories – of course, in contrast to peoples of progressive, mature nations. A second narrative was about Free Market and Western Democracy vs. Communist Authoritarianism and Dictatorship but also International Socialism/Leftism vs. Western Imperialism and Capitalism. A third narrative was about and around cultures which later on crystallized more explicitly and narrowly around religion. Last but not least there was a humanist narrative with its engaged variations of feminism, people-to-people and south-to-south diplomacy, secularism and so on.
History, memories, and belonging
What the first three narratives implied and had in common was an embedded concept of supremacy in the comparison of one to the other. This West in its endemic self-identifications was leading in all the narratives with foresight, magnanimity, and empathy. The belligerent communities of the East were, as a result of these projections, the binary opposite: they were characterized by immaturity and ultimately hostages of secret and less secret manipulating powers and greed. As all imagined binaries, the supremacist one was good, the inferior one bad.
This contributed to the construction of an exotic object, an aspiring margin: the East desiring and projecting itself towards the center of the West. This East was at the same time invited to look and name the many continuities shared with supremacist Europe and its underlying European roots as a promised recognition of “belonging and shared identity” which in due time was revealed instead as an invitation to white skin, individualism, Christianity, heterosexuality, and the productivity of capitalism.
Trough all these processes that took and still take place, the supposed and suggested binary West/East, good/bad, developed/less-developed, progressive/regressive became a multifaceted gem whose reflections multiplied over and over again. As a result, they cannot be directly attributed to the “original binary” any more.
The last one of the mentioned narratives – the humanist one – was more cautions and tried to avoid the I in favor of the We. Yet, it was unprepared, shallow in its self-reflections and collusions with the very same structural discriminatory matrix that disregarded and let unheeded years and years of decolonizing practices until the Covid-19 pandemic mercilessly brought it to a racial-conscience breakthrough among the well-intentioned Western humanistic (whites) masses.
The Pandora’s box was opened. It contents were different from whatever any of us had imagined finding in it. Identities are not a binary matter. Rather, they are multiple, coexisting, contextual, intersectional, and fluid. Anything else would not be plausible. Afterall, everything in life is born, ages, and transforms – whether individuals or collectives. This brings us back to territories and bodies, to borders and boundaries. Needless to say, the latter two are imagined and embodied lines that unite or divide.
At the intersection of borders and boundaries
Borders and boundaries. The first apply mostly to geographical, political, and administrative territories such as countries; the latter mostly to human emotional, physical, and interpersonal resources and “sit” with/within people’s bodies.
So what happens when territories and people’s bodies intersect and violate borders and boundaries? And how to account for the multiple, layered intersections that root, draw and play with and among various systems of the symbolic?
In this text my primary territorial focus is Bosnia and Herzegovina and I would like to explore “our” relations with borders and boundaries. By “our” I mean not only the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina but also the refugees stranded here – a term that I consciously use in order to highlight the status and legal protections that the exceptional condition of being a refugee provide. To begin with, it is crucial to acknowledge that there are at least three more territories involved and many many more people’s bodies.
Territories: the country refugees leave, the countries (including the sea) refugees cross and the country where they hope to land and find refuge, additionally and importantly, the European Union and the Mediterranean as meta-territories: a sublimation, synthesis, and concentration that direct and inform the way all other territories are ordered, regulated, and therefore experienced.
People’s Bodies: the refugees in all their diversities of statuses, age/genders, hopes; all the people that directly or as by-standers, in agencies, institutions, and collectives contribute to move, register, police, support, and help refugees going further, hold or send them back or eventually welcome them at the desired destination.
Against this backdrop, Eastern Europe and Bosnia and Herzegovina within it appear as alienating and alienated territories, exploiting and exploited territories, above all. A real yet mythical space of borders and boundaries where hopes and theirs opposite unfold and define people’s bodies.
What present and possible territories are we concurring and complicit in designing? How are desires of belonging to the “wealthiest,” “developed,” and “white” territories of the EU such as Germany, Austria, France, Italy and UK (even if now outside of the EU scheme) erode or strengthen people-to-people solidarity?
What role does the imaginary category of race, and white race in particular, play along borders and Western/Eastern Europe borders, EU eastern borders/non-EU eastern borders in particular? And how does this questions, pushes, hacks, messes-up, and transforms people’s boundaries?
How is history, old and most recent, told? Which memories of it make it into the collective timeline? Which fragments of yesterday are narrated, erased or augmented for resonance or exclusion of certain bodies from certain territories?
How is all of this reinforcing and acknowledging borders as impassable walls, insurmountable fences, and drowning waters that require and impose legitimating papers and authorized guardians make emotional, physical and interpersonal boundaries to be set over and over again as an individual(istic) heightened burden where surviving, remaining sane, maintaining yourself as hopeful human is discarded, diminished, colluded, and polluted by the dis-humanizing practices that design the territories?
Fast forward to the paradox of many binaries
And now fast forward to the years after the historical Balkan Route was “opened” and transformed into the Balkan Corridor in 2015. Some of the former East European territories are now EU-East, while others, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, are still outside the golden gate defining the non-EU-East border. Both, the non-EU-East and the EU-East, have become the territories and the borders where the supremacist narratives regain centrality and complexity.
Bosnia and Herzegovina-born citizens are not any more the refugees asking for recognition and belonging, they are the residents of a state in the perpetual waiting room of the EU. They are “welcomed migrants,” “culturally closer migrants,” and “economic migrants”: people moving for economic reasons from a less to a more. A visa is not required for a short-term stay while long term staying is subjected to scrutiny and approval. Once you gain access to that dimension, straightforward acceptance of your being around will fade. Degrees of separation remain defined by the unchanged social norms dictating acceptance: white skin, individualism, Christianity, heterosexuality, and the productivity of capitalism.
Since the Balkan Corridor was abruptly closed a year after it was opened, the refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and many other countries, have been stranded at the borders and within the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s state. The EU and Europe as a motherland of its colonies ask for help in managing and controlling the flow of these non-European bodies. Meanwhile, within the motherland the East is voicing “identities” that resonate for interest or belonging with most of the ruling bodies in the rest of the East. Still there are dissonances, because Pandora is a mess.
The EU and a certain Western Europe instrumentalize the desire of belonging and buy Bosnia and Herzegovina’s complicity to keep the refugees outside the golden gate of the grand supposedly “borderless” Europe market. A complicity mostly at the institutional level, while informal people-to-people support and solidarity remains manifold and continuous yet precarious. It is important to recognize the role moneys place here, how it binds and fragments. The official narratives are not speaking of the trade-off. Neither about the make-shift constructions for screening and detention: “the camps.”
The EU’s legitimate migrants versus the illegalized Them. Regarding the implications of the Us versus the dangerous Them, Audre Lourde says: “The true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations that we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us.” Bosnia and Herzegovina as my daily East is deeply suffering because of this implanted memory and notion of belonging. Effects of alienation and dissociation occur when the border mechanisms do not generate the power of setting structural boundaries to what is considered “the unacceptable.”
We are sitting with a diffuse personal and collective memory of being refugees during the Balkan wars while enacting the role of the supervisor or guard at the productivity line of border management. Because of it, we are turned into bystanders who are exposed to the consuming reasoning of the EU and our own institutions. We live this territory that is defined by being one of the borders to Golden-Gated-Europe. Every opportunity lures as a common battle for Europe.
So how to survive and move from the macro-level of borders to micro-level of the everyday, that is, the embodiment of structural boundaries that call out the trade-off, that acknowledge complicity as much as impotence and frustrations? Where to look for alternative practices that sprout from and within the margins of this new entity named “East of Europe” – an entity that brings together all skins colors and that is collective, distributed, relational, and open to religions and believes and that operates outside or against the compulsory exploitative productivity of capitalism?
The European public discourse is impoverished, exhausted, and fragmented by the big identity frameworks that consume and antagonize borders and boundaries. And so are Eastern Europe and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Trapped in and by the most sophisticated productivity framework of the capitalist present – that is, the social media algorithm machine and its click and surveillance economy as explored, for instance, by Safiya Umoya Noble – we loose sight of our local histories, practices, and proximities, we loose sight of our daily power for solidarity and boundaries.
This said, economies are not just capitalism. Territories are not just defined by their borders. Cultures of resistance have survived and adapted in Bosnia and Herzegovina through times of war and are here to be (re)discovered and (re)learned. One of the major breaches against the mono-thematic white Europe is represented by Roma culture and history of resistance. They cut across space and time. It is time for humbleness, for learning from sources and practices there, where they exist. As the Covid-19 pandemic shows us unfailingly, there is one earth and sources of injustice repeat themselves across continents through the same accumulation diagram. Boundaries are both products of and productive of behaviors. Boundaries are set over and over again with discipline and hope in relations of “one to one” and “one to many” and “many to many” in localized yet distributed territories until they replace unhealthy and unjust structures with structures that are livable for all people’s bodies.
This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s BLACK BOX EAST text series; its German version is available on Berliner Gazette. You can find more texts, artworks, and video talks on the English-language BLACK BOX EAST website. Have a look here: https://blackboxeast.berlinergazette.de
hvale is a human rights activist and feminist thinker. She facilitates seminars, conferences and workshops around the world on technology, digital storytelling, citizen journalism, digital security and privacy. She is known for connecting women’s rights, sexual rights, and digital rights politically and practically, and for advocating for a feminist Internet in Bosnia and Herzegovina and beyond. She has also founded the alternative feminist portal zenskaposla.ba in Bosnia and Herzegovina.