Observations from the Fight against Hydropower in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Activism in post-socialist space activist networks Environmentalism Hydropower researching online river

About the authors

Jakob studies the M.A. in cultural anthropology and conducted ethnographic research on migration, volunteering and social engagement in Germany. He is interested in european history postcolonial theory and astrophysics. Alongside the studies he is involved in the academic self-administration for the student body. Besides university Jakob gives trainings for volunteers and group helpers in youth work and seminars on political education for young people.



Bosnia and Herzegovina’s (BiH) rivers have not seen much human intervention, such as river engineering, straightening, and damming, up until recently. This lack of intervention has resulted in a high level of biodiversity and intact river ecosystems. However, this may change, as the mountainous terrain offers a great capacity for the production of hydropower. There are currently a number of planned hydropower projects in the country. Most of these are small hydropower plants on small rivers and tributaries, which produce up to 10 MW of electrical power capacity (Schwarz, 2020, p.15). The process of European integration – the European Union (EU) accession of not-yet-EU-member states – is taking place in BiH. The implementation of European regulations on the energy market, sustainability, and environmental protection are already happening in BiH. In this article, I will explore how European laws and regulations (and the ways in which they are applied) have an impact on the hydropower boom in BiH.

In many places where small hydropower plants are planned, people have started to organize against hydropower investments and the destruction of riverine ecosystems (Rajković, 2020). Local initiatives and nationwide coalitions have been formed to organize protests and take legal action against such developments, while transnational environmental NGOs support their struggle.

The COVID-19 pandemic made it impossible for my colleagues and I to travel to BiH and conduct participant observation. Therefore, the whole research project took place in the digital sphere, which changed the ethnographic procedure significantly. Nonetheless, I had the opportunity to get in contact with activists fighting for protection of river ecosystems and to find out how environmental activism takes place under the political circumstances in BiH and to show the motivations and visions of environmental activists in BiH.

Environment at the EUropean Border

The EU plays a rather ambiguous role in the construction of hydropower plants and the preservation of the environment in BiH. In 2006, BiH joined the European Energy Community, a EU-backed international organisation aiming to harmonize the European energy market. Following this, an Energy Community directive defined a binding goal for BiH to reach 40% renewable energy production (Miljević, 2018, p.7) and urged local governments to foster further construction of hydropower plants. In BiH the operators of hydropower plants receive a guaranteed fee and a priority to supply energy. Hydropower investments are therefore very profitable and secure, but they are also expensive for energy consumers (Miljević, 2018, p.18).

Hydropower’s contribution to overall energy production in BiH is rather low – currently only 2.6% – while hydropower receives 81% of all incentives for renewable energy production in the country (Gallop et al., 2019, p. 17). Hydropower construction leads to irreversible destruction of river ecosystems. The river’s flow is reduced when water runs through the pipes and turbines. The water quality is decreased and even local communities’ supply of drinking water is put at risk. Hydropower construction disturbs river connectivity and destroys natural habitats of freshwater species (Kelly-Richards et al., 2017, p.255). Moreover, the impact of hydropower affects other natural areas when roads, pipelines, and electrical pylons need to be constructed (Chamberlain, 2020, p. 3). From both an economic and an ecological point of view, wind and solar energy are a much preferable alternative (Chamberlain, 2020, p. 13).

The EU-wide Water Framework Directive (WFD) assesses the ecological value of European rivers and sets a framework through which river ecosystems receive protection through the Natura 2000 network (Schwarz, 2012, p.15, 17). However, the WFD does not apply to Bosnia and Herzegovina, nor can Bosnian areas receive protection through the Natura 2000 network, which is only mandatory for full EU-Members (Schwarz, 2012, p.31; Schwarz, 2015 p. 18). Environmental NGOs are trying to get Bosnian rivers included under the same protection that is granted by the EU-WFD (Gallop et al., 2019, p. 16). Although BiH is dependent on EU-framework conditions for its energy production, common EU-frameworks for nature protection are not compulsory. This increases the likelihood that hydropower projects that cannot be implemented in the EU will be implemented in BiH (Gallop et al, 2019, p.16).

Accessing the Field

My work started with a mapping of different actors, particular struggles, and networks within the fight against hydropower plants in Bosnia and Herzegovina. For this purpose, I used social networks to follow activists, journalists, and local initiatives. Bosnia-wide environmental groups and other political organizations, as well as their international supporters and many local civic initiatives, form The Coalition for the Protection of the Rivers. The members of this coalition also cover a wide range of different initiatives. These include regional environmental organisations; local initiatives that focus on protecting a single river or opposing one certain hydropower project; and also sportive, hiking or touristic associations (Coalition for the Protection of the Rivers, n.d.).

The most recent event that I discovered when I started my research was a large action of civil disobedience against hydropower constructions along the Neretvica River. I came across multiple pictures depicting this action (czzs.org, 2020).

In June 2020, river protection activists from all over BiH celebrated a big success: The parliament of the Federation of Bosnia – one of the two administrative entities of BiH – passed a decision to ban further construction of small hydropower plants (Dervisbegovic, 2020).

With this information, some basic knowledge, and some presumptions, I turned to the field and contacted various Bosnia-wide organizations and local river protection initiatives and enquired as to whether any of the activists were interested in discussing my ideas and questions with me in English. I got several replies from initiatives and Bosnia-wide organisations and we decided to meet up via video chat to talk about my research questions. Finally, I conducted interviews with activists from Foča and Sarajevo and employees of international and Bosnian environmental organizations from Banja Luka and Sarajevo.

Local Environmentalism

Foča is a small town in the Southeast of Bosnia at the upper Drina, not far from the border to Montenegro. Locals here have founded an informal initiative to protest against a hydropower project at the river Bjelava, a tributary of the river Drina. A local company that runs the hydropower constructions on the Bjelava River is located in Foča and this company is connected with other businesses in the region, which many people are dependent on. Although the hydropower entrepreneurs have a strong local influence, the activists that make up the initiative say that they receive a large amount of support from the residents of Foča.

„They support us. But there is a problem because the investor is a very powerful guy in town, […] So the people are scared, because a lot of people work for him or work in some kind of different projects with him“

explains Jovan, one activist from the Initiative. (Interview, 22.01.21)

Another activist, Dragana, describes how the initiative receives many messages of solidarity, and help with organizing events. She also says that they received many signatures on a petition that they launched against the hydropower projects in the municipality.

The Sutjeska-National Park is the biggest national park in BiH and protects the mountainous area in the Bosnian-Montenegrin borderland where the Neretva and its tributaries spring from. Dragana and Jovan explain that there were plans a few years ago to construct hydropower plants even within the national park. The hydropower investments in the national park triggered massive protests, which reached far beyond Foča, where activists from different cities joined the fight for the protection of the Sutjeska national park. This environmental fight also strengthened the struggle of the activists from the local initiative in Foča.

In spring 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, the construction activities at the Bjelava River began. Construction machines started to cut down trees and to prepare a gravel path for the construction of the hydropower plant. Dragana and Jovan claim that the construction work was carried out under the guise of geological surveys because the company did not have a construction permit at that moment. The activists organized a protest and blocked the construction site. Together with the Coalition for the Protection of the Rivers, they took legal action against the hydropower investments on the Bjelava River. Dragana mentions that she is afraid the investors might have too much influence on the local court and she worries it will decide in the favour of the investor because of this. She hopes, however, that a higher court will give more consideration to the legal case for environmental protection and will therefore rule in favour of the activists.

River protection – A fight only for the Rivers?

Another web-based initiative is the campaign Artists for Balkan Rivers, in which many renowned celebrities from Bosnia and beyond show their support for the struggle for clean and intact rivers (balkanrivers.net, 2020b). This includes contributions such as: a singing performance at the bank of a wild river, a photo collage depicting the beauty of nature, and a personal message by the artists encouraging people to actively support the fight for the rivers.

The artists and activists advocating for river protection are aware of BiH’s rich nature and biodiversity. Indeed, due to its geographical location, BiH connects different habitats and offers a wealth of biodiversity, with over 1800 endemic species from the Balkan Peninsula (Vukmir et al., 2009: 35). Or in the words of Nane, an activist from Sarajevo:

„If you look at the biodiversity of Bosnia we are one of the richest countries of the world“

(Interview, 16.02.2021)

The river ecosystems in BiH are in a much better condition than their counterparts in Western Europe (Schwarz, 2012: 20). Artists for Balkan Rivers remind their audience of this characteristic of the Balkan region and aim to create awareness and support through this project.

Other artists use their position to give rather political messages that connect the fight for the rivers to the wider political situation in BiH.

Our politicans are criminals, who are selling our country piece by piece. Our nationalism has no limits and we make it possible for them with our stupidity. If we are not smart, let’s stay beautiful. Let’s save our beautiful country and our beautiful rivers.”

(balkanrivers.net, 2020c)

Sabina Šabić, the coordinator of the „Artists for Balkan Rivers“ campaign described how she wants to make the artists good ambassadors for the rivers.

The first level was educating artists what’s happening, […] and those were long mails, with lots of documents you know […] Because I could have easily called Srđjan and say: We have a problem with rivers, can you help and just…“ you know, but I didnt want to take that easy way. I want them to educate really what is happening, what is meaning hydroplant. What are the consequences, why it is so connected to corruption. […] But also I always say: you can forget all that I sent you and just let it out, and thats what happened with Srđan.“

(Interview, 08.03.2021)

Srđan Jevđević refers to the beauty of BiH’s nature and speaks about what other interlocutors described: The activists point out that nature is a common good, which it is necessary to preserve, but it does not receive adequate protection. Particular struggles like the fight for the rivers aim for the protection of common goods such as nature but also address “criminal politicians” (balkanrivers.net, 2020c) and the structural problems they represent (Horvat et al., 2018, p. 85). Several activists explain that they see activism for river protection as a powerful movement, which gives motivation and hope for the future. Nane from Sarajevo is sanguine regarding the fact that the different communities of the country are fighting for a defined and shared goal.

This fight for the rivers is really a story that kind of united the people, because its really rare to have citizens from Višegrad and Foča from Republika Srpska going to protest in Sarajevo or vice-versa so its really kind of nice to see this […] because we are really burdened by the war and nationalism and what not. The story about the rivers is something that goes beyond that, and people really realize that is the life we are talking about, cause no water no life. Its simple as that.“

(Interview, 16.02.2021)

Visions for the Rivers and beyond

The activists whom I interviewed see the nature of their country as capital and as potential. They know that further energy production will not benefit local communities, but foreign investors. Many of them share a vision of a green and sustainable economy, which could develop on the foundation of intact rivers, and include industries such as organic agriculture. The revival of tourism and other activities, like hiking and rafting in an ecologically compatible way, could reinvigorate the local economy and prevent the younger generation from emigrating. Activism for the rivers sees nature and rivers as a common good, which has to be protected against the interests of a minority – the investors and other beneficiaries of hydropower. It is clear that the struggle for rivers is able to mobilize many people and that there is also a high awareness in the part of the population that is not directly affected. The activists for the protection of rivers often arouse emotions by promoting a caring relationship with nature, but the support for their cause is also rooted in a feeling of discontent with inefficient political structures and corruption. All of the interlocutors emphasised that corruption made the construction of many new hydropower plants possible, but they also recognised a wider structural problem. Legal work is one useful tool that activists can use to stop hydropower projects. Therefore, the fight for rivers also involves a fight for transparency and trust in the judicial system.


balkanrivers.net, (2020a) Save the Blue Heart of Europe. URL https://balkanrivers.net/en/contact (Accessed 9 April 2021).

balkanrivers.net, (2020b) Artists for Balkan Rivers. Artists for Balkanrivers. URL https://balkanrivers.net/en/artists (Accessed 9 April 2021).

balkanrivers.net, (2020c) Artists for Balkan Rivers, Srđan Jevđević. Artists for Balkanrivers. URL https://balkanrivers.net/en/artists/srdan-jevdevic-kultur-shock-for-balkan-rivers (Accessed 9 April 2021)

Chamberlain, L. (2020) Death by a thousand cuts. Black catalogue of small hydropower plants. URL: https://balkanrivers.net/sites/default/files/Riverwatch_Black_catalogue_PDF.pdf (Accessed 9 April 2021)

Coalition for the Protection of the Rivers, n.d. O nama. Rijeke. URL http://rijekebih.org/index.php/vijesti/ (Accessed 9 April 2021)

Dervisbegovic, N. (2020) Bosnia’s Federation Entity Moves to Curb Hydro-Power Blight. In: Balkaninsight, 24 June. URL https://balkaninsight.com/2020/06/24/bosnias-federation-entity-moves-to-curb-hydro-power-blight/ (Accessed 10 April 2021)

Gallop, P., Vejnović, I., Pehchevski, D. (2019) Western Balkans hydropower: Who pays, who profits? URL https://balkanrivers.net/en/studies/hydropower-subsidy-study-western-balkans-hydropower-who-pays-who-profits (Accessed 9 April 2021)

Kelly-Richards, S., Silber-Coats, N., Crootof, A., Tecklin, D., Bauer, C. (2017) Governing the transition to renewable Energy: A review of impacts and policy issues in the small hydropower boom. Energy Policy 101, p. 251-264

Miljević, D. (2018) Analysis of the socio-economic justification of the existing system of concession fees and incentives for small hydro power plants in Bosnia and Herzegovina. URL https://balkanrivers.net/sites/default/files/BIH_Analysis_English.pdf (Accessed 11 April 2021)

Rajković, I. (2020) Rivers to the People: Ecopopulist Universality in the Balkan Mountains. URL https://culanth.org/fieldsights/rivers-to-the-people-ecopopulist-universality-in-the-balkan-mountains (Accessed 06 May 2021)

Richter, S. (2018) Bosnien und Herzegowina und die EU. Eine ambivalente Beziehung. In: Flessenkemper, T., Moll, N. (Eds.), Das Politische System Bosnien Und Herzegowinas. Wiesbaden: Springer VS, pp. 243-273.

Schwarz, U. (2020) Balkan HPP Update 2020. URL https://balkanrivers.net/uploads/files/3/Balkan_HPP_Update_2020.pdf (Accessed 9 April 2021)

Schwarz, U. (2012) Balkan Rivers – The Blue Heart of Europe. Hydromorphological status and dam projects report. URL https://v2.balkanrivers.net/sites/default/files/BalkanRiverAssessment29032012web.pdf (Accessed 9 April 2021)

Schwarz, U. (2015) Hydropower Projects in Protected Areas on the Balkans. URL https://v2.balkanrivers.net/sites/default/file/Protected%20areas%20and%20hydropower%20dams%20in%20the%20Balkan190515.pdf (Accessed 14 April 2021)

Vukmir, G., Stanišljević, L., Cero, M. Cacan, M., Marković, M., Rudež, M., Laganin, O., Kostić, R., Oprašić, S., Ćatović, S. and T. Lukić (2009) Initial National Communication (INC) of Bosnia and Herzegovina under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). URL https://unfccc.int/resource/docs/natc/bihnc1.pdf (Accessed 9 April 2021)


  • Interview with Dragana Skenderija, coordinator of the Coalition for the protection of the Rivers, 18.11.2021
  • Interview with Dragana and Jovan, activists from the initiative against small hydropower in Foča, 22.01.2021
  • Interview with Nane, activist from Sarajevo, 16.02.2021
  • Interview with Sabina Šabić, coordinator of Artists for Balkan Rivers, Sarajevo, 08.03.2021
  • Interview with Jelena Ivanić, “Save the Blue Heart”-campaign coordinator in BiH, from Banja Luka, 19.03.2021

Landscapes of Solidarity with people on the move in BiH: An overview of border activism in times of Covid-19

activist networks border regime in Bosnia/Herzogovina Covid-19 inner differentiations researching online scales of representation

About the authors

Simon Lauer is a master's student of cultural anthropology at Göttingen University. He made his Bachelor's degree at Göttingen University in Cultural Anthropology with a B.A.-research on migrant homelessness and repressive communal politics in the city of Bolzano. Currently, he is working on his M.A. thesis on practices of solidarity work with people on the move in the Balkans. He has been engaged in solidarity networks with migrants and refugees in Italy, Mexico and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Eva Apelt studies cultural anthropology in Göttingen with a focus on migration, (anti-)racism and gender studies. She completed her Bachelor's degree in European Ethnology at the University of Marburg, where she already conducted a research project on the treatment of Jewish and foreign artists during the Nazi era.
Jordis Aschern is a master student of Cultural Anthropology at the University of Göttingen, where she also completed her Bachelor's programme in Cultural Anthropology and Iranian Studies. At the moment her studies are focused on the topics of migration, activism and violence.


Admin: please provide a pdf Document


“Since the beginning being present in the field I rejected to be called a humanitarian worker. I am not. I am a citizen. I am a woman. I am a feminist. I am a scholar. I am a journalist. I am a human being and I believe that I have a duty to respond in the way I have responded”


This is how Sara[1] In accordance with our interview partners’ wishes their names have been partially anonymised in this article. , a very vocal supporter of migrants’ rights based in Sarajevo, described the way in which she views her engagement in the struggle of migrants in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH). Her self-description makes it clear that the position she finds herself in is a complex one, as is the field of her engagement: The struggle of people on their way to Western Europe on the so-called Balkan route. In 2015-2016, the Balkan route, which was then “open” as a formalized corridor (Beznec et al., 2016, p.4. Kasparek, 2017, p.43), was at the centre of Western European attention. It was not only politics and the media that focused on the people moving towards Western Europe. There were also myriad groups, organizations, initiatives, and individuals showing their solidarity and support for these people in the places they arrived, as well as along the Balkan route (Cf. Hameršak, 2021). This attention faded after 2016, parallel to the EU’s efforts to integrate the Balkan states into its border regime, thus pushing the border southwards for refugees entering EU-territory (Cf. Hess and Kasparek 2017, p.67). Today the situation for refugees on the Balkan Route, which is characterized by long periods of waiting, enduring, and violence at the borders, is only debated in public when there are acute humanitarian catastrophes like the recent fires at the Moria refugee camp in Lesbos (Greece) and at Camp Lipa in BiH (Cf. DW, Tagesschau). Despite the absence of media coverage, the struggle of migrants goes on and is especially visible in the regions around external EU borders. People are still moving. Support and solidarity structures have changed but they are not gone.

In this text, we want to take a closer look at how, after the long summer of migration (Cf. Kasparek and Speer, 2015) and away from western European publicity, people act in solidarity and connect with each other to form transnational networks of support for people on the move[2] This is the way our interview partners referred to the migrants along the Balkan Route. The term is also used in literature regarding migration.. We will focus on the topic of collaboration between very different actors in the field of migration support. The starting point for our engagement with this topic was a student research project lasting two semesters, dealing with “Humanitarian landscapes and civil society in the Balkans”. The geographical focus of our research was the Bosnian-Croatian border region, but the field can be understood as one where people of different nationalities and citizenships are engaged, building networks quite literally across multiple borders. This is an important distinction, especially in the context of the Balkans. Therefore, it is impossible to properly examine the topic using a clear and distinct physical locus. Additionally, having started in spring 2020, it quickly became clear that the Covid-19 pandemic would have a tremendous influence on our research, shaping both our methodological approach and the content itself. Compelled to conduct our research from a distance, we could see that the pandemic has an increasing influence on the dynamics at the EU’s external borders and on the practices of groups and individuals who are supporting people on the move. We decided to make a virtue of necessity and see the pandemic as our central lens to get insights into the constantly adapting landscape of solidarity with migrants. Our research took place in a dynamic field, in which a myriad of, sometimes seemingly dichotomous, actors, networks, actions and agendas come into contact with each other, clash and interweave. As the above quote from Sara shows, this complexity is not only due to the variety of actors we met, but can be seen as a result of the different and often overlapping social roles and positionalities of those actors. To grasp this, we understand our field as a ‘contact zone’ (Cf. Pratt, 1992) – a social space where different histories and interpretations meet and shape each other.

The field

At the beginning of this research project, we tried to focus on a very specific geographic area, the Bosnian-Croatian border and its migrant hotspots, Bihać and Velika Kladuša. But already, in the pre-research phase, we had to acknowledge that the field is hyper mobile and takes place in multiple online and offline spaces: migrant support does not only happen ‘on the ground’ – for example in the form of medical aid – but through advocacy work, on social media, etc. At the same time, even the work on the ground is shaped by the more or less constant movement of people. Rather than focussing on one locality we began instead to follow practices and actors. Georg Marcus describes this research practice as central to ‘multi-sited ethnography’ (Cf. Marcus, 1995). In order to understand the effects of Covid-19 in the Bosnian-Croatian borderland, as well as ongoing bordering practices, and the role of solidarity groups, NGOs, civil society organizations and (inter)national activists, it is necessary to take a step back and contextualize them in a broader historical and geographical framework.

The Balkans and the EU border regime – a place of in-betweenness?

The so called Balkan Route, that became known as such during the long summer of migration 2015, connected the Mediterranean states of Turkey and Greece with Western Europe via the so called Western Balkan states. Scholars in migration studies have shown that what has been framed in public debates as a newly developed “infrastructure of mobility” (El-Shaarawi and Razsa, 2019, p.2), is actually based on networks that are decades old (Cf. Beznec and Kurnik, 2020). Hameršak et al. (2020, p. 16) point out that since the late 19th century there have been multiple infrastructural projects, such as the Orient Express or the Highway of Brotherhood and Unity in former Yugoslavia, which have facilitated mobility along the Balkans. During WWII there was a huge movement of people fleeing from Western European countries to Turkey and the Middle East. During the wars of the 1990s following the dissolution of Yugoslavia, many people sought refuge in Western Europe, travelling using existing infrastructure and building networks that still exist and are used by migrants today.

Maria Todorova describes “the Balkans” as “semi-colonial”, highlighting the historically uneven power relations that have structured the relationship between Western Europe and the Balkan states (Todorova 2009, p.16). In hegemonic discourses, “the Balkans” are often referred to as a bridge between the West and the orientalised East. After the disintegration of Yugoslavia, ‘lagging behind’ and ‘transition’ have become the dominant narratives in Central Europe describing the Balkan region. According to Horvat and Štiks, the “concept of transition as an ideological construct based on the narrative of integration of the former socialist European countries into the Western core actually hides a monumental neo-colonial transformation of this region into a dependent semi-periphery” (Horvat and Štiks, 2015, p.16).

The nation states that emerged from the dissolution of the Yugoslav federation have been in the process of becoming EU member states, each achieving different levels of status – from full EU, Schengen and Eurozone member states like Slovenia to candidates like Serbia and potential candidates like BiH (Cf. Stojić Mitrović et.al., 2020, p.15 ). These processes, while opening up the possibility of becoming an EU member state in the long run, lead to a top-down integration of these countries into the EUropean Border and Migration Regime, as well as the adoption of the so called Schengen acquis (Cf. Stojić Mitrović, 2019).

The result is a geographically stretched borderzone, encompassing countries from the southern edges of the EU, over the Balkan countries to central and northern Europe (Cf. Santer and Wriedt, 2017. Hess and Kasparek, 2017). Since 2016, European border and migration policies include an increased securitization and externalization of EU external borders, leading to systemic (chain)push-back[3] Chain push-backs are an illegal practice where people are pushed back across multiple countries and borders. practices BVMN, 2020b. Jalušič, 2019). Countries like Serbia, BiH, and increasingly Montenegro fulfil an important role in the EU border regime. As one of our interlocutors stated, they became “dumping grounds” for people on the move (see also Hromadžić, 2020); they are part of the EU border regime while not having any decision-making position within it.

However, people on the move also co-produce the political landscape via their continuous movements. They react to changing border zones and the closure of routes, opening others and showing a high degree of flexibility (Cf. Rydzewski, 2020). As migrant routes change and move, so do solidarity groups, NGOs and activists (Cf. Borton, 2020, p.40). Our interview partner Valentina, who is working for the NGO NoNameKitchen, explained their mobility in the following way: “We just go where the needs are. We moved to Šid because people on the move were telling us, ‘Sarajevo is getting too dangerous, everybody is moving in the north’”. The dynamics of border struggles along the Balkan Route has created a series of “bottleneck”-like places (Beznec, Kurnik, 2020, p.38) along the EU’s external borders, where people on the move are stuck. The Bosnian-Croatian border is one of these places.

Winter in camp Lipa

Post-war landscapes: International interventions, humanitarianism and re-traumatization

The field of civic migrant support in BiH is shaped by the presence of actors – individuals, groups, and institutions – that often operate on a transnational level. In order to understand the nature of transnational collaborations and conflicts, we must take a closer look at BiH’s history in terms of the influence of international intervention (Gilbert, 2020). Since the wars in the 1990s, the Western Balkans and especially BiH have been confronted by a tremendous amount of international organizations on their territory. The impact and traces that international intervention has left among the population and the socio-economic environment of BiH can still be felt. On one hand, international organisations were among the main and best paying employers for part of the Bosnian population. On the other hand, people were often only contracted for short periods of time under precarious conditions and offered limited project-contracts, which lead to what Baker calls the “projectariat” (Baker, 2014, p.92). Jennings analyses this situation as part of a “peacekeeping economy” (Jennings, 2010). The working opportunities that international organizations offered, mostly to educated English-speaking Bosnians, came with the constant reproduction of hierarchies among the Bosnian population, but also between the ‘international’ and the ‘local’ workforce. The often paternalistic, humanitarian, and depoliticizing attitude of international organizations towards BiH (Cf. Coles, 2002) was also mentioned and criticized by our interview partner Sumeja, a Croatian person who is working for an NGO on the Bosnian-Croatian border: “In the wartime it was very hard and they [the Bosnian population] also had these international interventions, like UN and helpers and so on and first of all they came too late and then they had this colonizer attitude. (…) I think this frustration is from even that period, war period, and till now nobody was held responsible and nothing changed too much” (Sumeja). The complicated dynamic between the international organizations in BiH and their reception by parts of the local population becomes clear when listening to a Bosnian activist and journalist, who works with people on the move, during an online Book presentation:

For us [people in the Western Balkans] this is deeply re-traumatizing, not only these push backs, (…) for us we are surviving what we had to survive in the 90s. The volunteers will not bring the change. (…) Please just open the borders. Don’t do anything else. Don’t send humanitarian aid. Don’t send donations. Don’t come to the Balkans to be part of this. Open the borders and give us equal chance”.

Ahmetašević, 2021

While it is extremely important to mention the hierarchies present in the field and the power dynamics unfolding in what can be called the Europeanization of the Western Balkans (Wedel, 2001), it is also important to highlight that the biographies of the people involved in providing support were also highly transnational. It appears to us that it is even more productive to look at the way different actors perform in different situations and how they reflect their possibilities of representation. A person could frame themself as a ‘local’ while simultaneously following an international academic career. Alternatively, one could be a former refugee from the war in the 90s and now volunteer in BiH for an international organization, switching between being ‘local’ and being an ‘international volunteer’. Similarly, someone could present themself as an activist while writing or producing journalistic content. The ‘fieldwork’ (that is what most of our interlocutors called their work as volunteers in BiH) is “kind of performative”, summarizes one volunteer at the Bosnian-Croatian border, who is contemporaneously doing research.

Digital networking: From physical distance to digital closeness under Covid-19 conditions

As briefly mentioned above, some actors in the field of migration solidarity work decided to step into the digital sphere, due to limitations caused by Covid-19 and its effects on the mobility of people and goods (for this topic see i.e. Guild and Bigo, 2020; Coronavirus and Mobility Forum; Manolova and Lottholz, forthcoming). While digital networking is nothing new among activists, journalists, and researchers, from spring 2020 onwards, we witnessed a huge increase of webinars, streamed panel sessions, workshops, social media content, etc. As a lot of people were limited in their activism concerning border areas, various activist groups and NGOs tried to amplify the voices of those who were in the field via streaming. They chose to use digital platforms to keep each other updated on the situation, generate donations and connect with each other. The pandemic was partly also seen as an opportunity to bring various actors together and build new connections as well as to initiate debates (see for example: United we talk).

There are a few keywords that we might associate with our research, but there is perhaps one image that is especially characteristic of it: little windows with faces in them, arranged in a display. The headsets and earphones, the variety of backdrops (some more professional that others), the technical struggles of connectivity, were all symptomatic of this way of interacting with people that was quite unusual for us as anthropologists. This was a situation that we had to get used to during our research project. When we started our project in March 2020, we still hoped to be able to visit the ‘geographic’ field of our research, BiH. We started doing the first interviews as video conference calls, assuming they would be part of our preparation – our pre-research work – to be continued once we were in BiH. As it became increasingly clear that being in ‘the field’ was not only difficult for volunteers and activists at this time but affected us and our research planning as well, we began to keep our eyes open for the opportunities these research circumstances allowed. When it became clear that this research project could not be done in a ‘typical’ anthropological, ethnographic way, involving in-situ field research, the challenge we faced then turned into an opportunity to get in contact with actors we probably wouldn’t have had the chance to talk to otherwise due to their geographically dispersed locations. Certainly, conducting the research from a distance prevented us from grasping the everyday practices – the almost invisible acts of everyday life – and what we will, inspired by our interlocutors, call ‘hidden solidarities’. By this they mean acts of solidarity by ‘locals’ in their everyday life practice without being part of a group or organization. It prevented us from viewing the interactions of solidarity workers with the people on the move and the dynamics among the volunteers. But, as already mentioned, NGOs and solidarity work for people on the move partially shifted to the digital sphere and so did we: We participated actively and passively in several webinars, panel discussions, workshops, and video talks organized by various NGOs and initiatives regarding the situation of people on the move in the Western Balkans. We did not delimit our ‘digital field’ in advance but mainly followed the lead of our interlocutors. In doing so we shifted from a classic form of ethnography to what could be called “netnography” (Cf. Kozinets, 2010). What Kozinets points out regarding the research method of netnography could easily be applied to this research project: “Across academic fields, netnography has been found immensely useful to reveal interaction styles, personal narratives, communal exchanges, online rules, practices and rituals, discursive styles, innovative forms of collaboration and organization, and manifestations of creativity” (ibid, p.3).

List of what is needed for ‘the game’

The circumstances dictated by the pandemic generated an awareness among us of the inseparability of the online and the offline sphere of the field. Hence, we incorporated Covid-19 not only as a lens to look at the field but also as a tool for shaping our methodology. We did several online interviews and informal talks with fellow researchers and people engaged in migrant support. In addition to this, we took part in online workshops and panel discussions as an opportunity for participatory observation. Nearly all of the interaction between our research partners and us took place face-to-screen-to-face. Approaching the Covid situation as a method meant dealing with physical distance while creating a digital closeness.

The effects of the pandemic-management on practices of solidarity

“The State of Emergency now in force in many countries of the region is a basis for the continuation and reinforcement of social inequalities and unfortunately is already serving as a rationale for the further stigmatization and repression of the most unprotected among us. But this exceptional situation must not become an excuse for continued politics of exclusion, restriction and expulsion, suffering and distress”.


As the quote above points out, the institutionalized measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 can be read as an enforcement of the European border and migration regime’s already existing and practiced politics of exclusion. In BiH, a variety of repressive measures have been adopted that target the mobility of people on the move and the support for them (Cf. Lipovec-Čebron et al. 2020; BVMN 2020b; BVMN 2020c). While ‘campization’ (Kreichauf, 2018), has been a common practice of (Eu)ropean countries for years, our interview partners pointed out that mobility for people on the move was relatively easy in BiH until march 2020. Migrants used institutionalized camp facilities located close to the border areas as springboards for border crossings, which are cynically called ‘the game’ by migrants and solidarity workers. “In BiH, most of the camps were open camps and they did not initially have detention camps, but with Corona all the camps became detention camps. In BiH, there was really a pressure to push all the people on the move in the camps” explained Marijana Hameršak, who is a researcher for the topic of migration in the Western Balkans. The declared state of emergency in BiH led to a militarization of the camps, with the implementation of police forces at entrances preventing people on the move from leaving the camps, and simultaneously denying access to international NGOs (Cf. BVMN, 2020a). Besides the eviction of informal camps and squats and the concentration of people on the move into camps, there has been an ongoing ‘borderization’ on a national, cantonal and communal scale. Cantons like the Una-Sana Canton and municipalities like Velika Kladuša ban people on the move from entering their territories (Cf. Infomigrants.net; BVMN 2020c). This practice was already witnessed before Covid-19 but increased during the pandemic, as Marijana Hameršak pointed out. “There was this decision from August 2020 to not allow migrants to go to Una-Sana Canton. So, a few hundred people were stuck in Otoka and they were not allowed to go to Una-Sana Canton, not allowed to go to Sarajevo, not allowed to go to Republika Srpska. So, in a way they were stuck. They were unwanted from every side” (Marijana).

Despite the attempts to concentrate people on the move into camps during March and April 2020, there have been ongoing border crossings and pushbacks throughout the lockdown. This led to an almost paradoxical situation: People on the move being mobile, although in a reduced way, and crossing nation-state borders, while a large number of volunteers, activists, and donations coming from outside, usually moving without larger restrictions, were stuck without admission to BiH.

Food parcels in an NGO’s Warehouse

NGOs reacted and adapted to the situation by increasingly relying on the local population and people on the move in the activities that are usually carried out by volunteers. They rely on local activists for the distribution of humanitarian aid by granting them access to the warehouses and financial resources. As one interview partner working for an NGO in BiH explained, “[…] when she [a local volunteer living in Bihać] was alone during Corona we would give her the keys to the warehouse where all the donations were. So, we shared with her and another woman whatever we had. We also share information, (…) she informs us about many things that we don’t know because she is part of the local community” (Sumeja). Besides this, NGOs increasingly include information coming directly from people on the move in their periodically published reports about pushbacks and human rights violations. Whereas before Covid-19, the people writing the reports were volunteers on the ground, now they use different means, such as Facebook groups, to gather information from the people on the move. Communication and networking between NGOs, associations, researchers and groups, both locally and internationally, is shifting to social media due to travel restrictions. One can see how different means and techniques of research and representation are (re)used or newly developed. Our interlocutor Bojan, an activist and scholar in the field of migration, who also deals with this issue, resorted to other ways of visualising the situation on the ground.

Mobility restrictions for volunteers and activists, alongside the criminalization of migrant support, had dramatic effects on the infrastructure of solidarity in BiH, especially throughout spring 2020. Our research demonstrated that international organizations are highly dependent on local networks of solidarity. These local acts of solidarity and cooperation are mostly invisible in the public sphere. Only a few local initiatives and activists dare to stand up in public due to the criminalization and the violent reactions towards solidarity with migrants, that often include threats and physical as well as psychological violence (Cf. Frontlinedefenders, UN). Sumeja explained the tense situation for local solidarity workers and highlighted the importance of what she calls ‘hidden acts of solidarity’. “Many people are usually scared from authorities and from other local people who have an anti-migrant approach and they are hiding, but they are helping in some other way. Like, if somebody is passing [near] the house, they put a cable with electricity outside the house to charge the phones” (Sumeja). As well as providing direct support for people on the move, locally based supporters of NGOs are essential for the communication between the local communities and international actors, such as volunteers. NGOs often rely on informal information channels, for example regarding police controls so that they can be avoided while engaging in activism. “Everything runs through private contacts. The reason we are probably less targeted by police repression than other organizations is simply because we are probably better connected with locals. And they are again better connected with authorities or the cops and in this way, we are better protected” states Lukas, who since finishing his studies volunteers for the Austrian NGO SOS Balkanroute operating in BiH.

Many NGOs working with international volunteers collaborate with locals to provide so-called “white cards”, a type of tourist visa used by volunteers during their stay in BiH. All volunteers we spoke to pointed out the high obstacle they face to be granted the status as a registered humanitarian worker in BiH. For this reason, local supporters rent houses and warehouses for the NGOs and their volunteers providing them with “white cards”. The strategy to pose as tourists when confronted with the police is quite common among volunteers and activists, but it is not the only strategy they have developed. As we have already shown, activists and volunteers can perform different roles according to their necessities. A volunteer explained it as follows:

Before I came, all the volunteers were registered as tourists. But a week before I came the chief inspector in the office suddenly wasn’t happy with the story anymore, so we changed it. And the story was that we are guests [of a registered NGO] and we had the paper explaining that we are guests. And that’s a grey area, because what does it mean to be a guest. And they said, ‘No, but you have to explain what you are doing’. And then I was saying: ‘Look, we are just young experts, for example I am a researcher…“


“Nobody is saving anyone”- Lines of reflection and differentiation in the field

With the multiple and very differently positioned actors of migrant support in BiH working together, different perspectives and values meet and sometimes clash. As shown above, there is potential for conflicts that these actors have to deal with. Concerning this, we got to know our research field as one in which individuals and groups are very aware of their positions and constantly reflect on them. In the following section, we want to introduce three central dimensions of reflection: The differentiation between ‘international’ and ‘local’ supporters; the positioning of one’s own work between charity and solidarity; and the position of supporters in relation to people on the move, especially concerning the whiteness of activists.

The ‘internationals’ and the ‘locals’

During our conversations with activists and volunteers, a theme that frequently came up was the differentiation between ‘local’ and ‘international’ supporters. The relevance of these categories has to be understood against the backdrop of massive international interventions in BiH, which took place during the Yugoslav wars and their aftermath. As shown above, this has had a lasting impact on the image of so-called ‘humanitarian aid’, and on how the work of organizations engaging in migrant support is perceived. Our interlocutors used these categories to draw attention to an inequality of options for action, privileges, and power. Sara, who lives in Sarajevo but is frequently active in the border region, states:

“My opinion on international volunteers, and I was one of them, is very …different, I think. Based on experience, I very often ask myself: ‘What are they doing?’ Are they just helping to preserve the status quo? I mean, put it this way: Are we talking about solidarity or charity? Charity does not help. Solidarity has some potential. […] Often they [international volunteers] don’t understand that they are coming from very privileged positions. And even when they are in the field, they’re still keeping, unaware often, their privileges with them. And sometimes I feel it is not fair, not fair to all the local population, it is not fair to people on the move”.


In particular, the volunteers’ citizenship of EU-member states is often mentioned as a privilege. The term ‘internationals’ is used by our interlocutors to differentiate between those activists that live in BiH or close to the Bosnian border, who do usually not draw on the structures of professionalized NGOs to a large extent, and those who come from abroad with an NGO and stay for a limited amount of time. We observed that the categories of ‘local’ and ‘international’ can blur and can be ascribed by others. One of our interlocutors, Sumeja, is active at the Bosnian-Croatian border and is from Croatia. She works with NoNameKitchen, an NGO that is very active in the Western Balkans. Sumeja describes how, even though she is a citizen of an EU member state and part of an international NGO, she lives close to the EU external border and, as someone from “the Balkans” who shares the language with people in BiH, often acts as a translator and mediator between international volunteers and local population or authorities in the border region. In one of the conversations we had with her, she reflected on the way in which she positions herself in relation to the field, and how in comparison others, in this case journalists, attribute a different role and function to her as a ‘local informant’. In this way, it becomes clear that her own positioning as ‘local’ and ‘international’ is situational and that both categories can interweave.

Regarding the cooperation between ‘international’ supporters and the activists and initiatives based in BiH, we noticed differing interpretations of its effectiveness. Lukas describes a close cooperation between ‘local’ and ‘international’ supporters, which he experienced during his period as a volunteer, that made the work of the NGO in BiH possible in the first place:

“Since the NGO has been active on the ground, there has been a lot of cooperation with locals, especially with locals who are actively involved in the support of refugees. There are people we know very well who have been delivering food and clothes every day for three years. What people do there is really good. We work very closely with them and also try to support them financially or logistically.”


On the other hand, the issue is sometimes seen as creating ambivalence: While acknowledging the potential for effective cooperation, interlocutors raise the concern that ‘internationals’ ‘crowd out’ the local supporters. Here, again, activists seen as ‘internationals’ are expected to critically confront their privileges and to tactically use them in order to cooperate in a productive way with ‘local’ activists and initiatives.

Whiteness as the privileged social position of supporters

The effects of supporters’ own whiteness in the field is another central narrative that we found in their self-reflection. When it comes to the relationship between activists and people on the move, we noticed that our interlocutors reflect on structural inequalities of the field by applying a critical lens to racial power dynamics. Ilka, an activist and scholar who has been active in different places along the EU border multiple times, comments on the inequalities she perceived:

“[…]some German comrades were leaving in an empty van and it was like three people in a whole big car […] and they could have taken people, and take them to Germany and we just couldn’t. Any of this saying goodbye moment and looking how three of my friends are leaving but 20 of my friends are staying […] I think I just couldn’t bear this whiteness. […] I was quite in a bad position when you’re on the border and you’re trying to support people but then it really comes in this position ‘another white person, another privileged person giving out things’ […] it’s so hard to be together and to be equal in this position because you are not equal”.


In her anecdote, the uneven social positions of supporters and people on the move are made visible. We noticed the omnipresence of whiteness and privileges influencing the interactions while working ‘on the ground’ to be a central line of reflection for the activists we spoke to.. Categories of distinction and the hierarchies that come along with them change and reset according to the situation. So, while there are inequalities and discrimination between EU-citizens and locals from the Western Balkans, this power gap becomes less important when related to racialized categories of otherness applied to people on the move. Sumeja shows this, in the context of her whiteness, when she speaks about her migration experience, comparing it to the experience of people on the move: “Well, I am a migrant but I am a white migrant so it is fine for me […]”. Our interlocutors emphasize the importance of reflecting the dimension of uneven power relations between actors in the field. They demand this reflection not only from themselves but from other volunteers and activists as well.

Between Solidarity and Charity

Very closely linked to both topics mentioned before, we were confronted with the distinction between solidarity and charity. This ties in with the narratives and differentiations that we have already mentioned, and relates them to the discourse around humanitarianism and charity. Sara terms “solidarity” and “charity” as a distinction between support seen as transformative, and humanitarian aid, viewed as “preserv[ing] the status quo” (Sara). The latter has been extensively discussed in the notion of humanitarianism (see e.g. Walters, 2011. Ticktin, 2011). In our interviews it became clear that the activists were indeed very aware of the pitfalls of humanitarian forms of engagement.

Walters describes the ‘humanitarian government’ as:

“[…] a complex assemblage, comprising particular forms of humanitarian reason, specific forms of authority (medical, legal, spiritual) but also certain technologies of government—such as mechanisms for raising funds and training volunteers, administering aid and shelter, documenting injustice, and publicizing abuse on an argumentative basis of moral and human rights […]”.

Walters, 2011, p.143

The practices of NGOs present and involved at the borders in BiH can be seen as an echo of this arrangement. The characteristics mentioned by Walters can be found in their work, no matter which organization or initiative. But, while the people we spoke to do explicitly frame some of their practices (for example the distribution of food packages or medical care) as aid, they make it clear that it is always connected to political work aimed at structural change. Hence, as Hameršak shows in her research on border-violence reporting practices of NGOs in the Western Balkans,

“(…) reporting seems not as contradictory to the humanitarian assistance, but in a way provoked by that assistance and even a necessary precondition for further provision of that assistance. (…) [F]or solidarity driven groups reporting comes as a form of non-complying with the context in which they participate by the logic of humanitarian involvement”.

Hameršak, 2021, p.11

It is possible to break up the dichotomy of aid or charity vs. transformative activism: “[B]lending between providing aid and denouncing violence is one of the hallmarks of new forms of humanitarianism, influenced, among all, by the human rights discourse that dominated the moral sphere of the liberal international order of late 20th century” (Barnett, 2011, p.195-212 in Hameršak, 2021 p.10). While some supporters clearly distinguish between ‘political’ work (for example, advocacy or reporting practices) and fieldwork on the ground, both categories go hand in hand and are understood as steps towards one goal. To get a deeper insight in these assemblages of humanitarianism that we encountered, we found it to be productive to look at different scales and meanings given to humanitarian acts by our interlocutors. While studies on humanitarianism often focus on the larger scale humanitarian work of international NGOs (see also, Fassin, 2012; Ticktin, 2011), Brković contrasts these with the concept of “vernacular humanitarianism” (Brković, 2017). The term refers to locally rooted “practices of help that are called humanitarian, although they do not fit with the work of organizations and agencies such as the UNHCR, Medecins Sans Frontiers, World Vision, Red Cross (…) or their local partners” (Brković, 2017). The digitalized nature of our field research led us to focus on NGOs and the people associated with them and prevented us from exploring what some of our interview partners call “hidden solidarities”: everyday actions of local residents of the border regions that are nearly invisible, yet helpful to people on the move. Nevertheless, we observed that even members of NGOs interpreted their actions within a frame of everyday support and solidarity rather than as top-down acts of charity:

“I mean these people are six years on the route, they survived everything, with me or without me they will survive. Nobody is saving anyone. […] What we try to do is to support someone who is in the need and on the move. I also don’t want to support them in a way: ‘okay, stay here and live from my mercy and my help’. It is just the same like a man is riding a bicycle in front of my house and he is thirsty I give him a bottle of water. This is what our support is. He is not depending on me, and I don’t pretend to think: oh, they are depending on us so I will save them”.


Here, the “help” given is framed as a casual act. The autonomy of people on the move is highlighted and victimizing narratives are rejected. The blurring of the line between aid and grassroots activism goes along with a flexible use of the formalized structures of NGOs, as explained by Jovanović (Cf. Jovanović, 2020), and loose network practices. Although our interview partners acknowledge the criticism of NGOs – that they often have a paternalistic and humanitarian agenda; are often bureaucratic and hierarchically structured; and do not grant the flexibility that activist networks are able to offer – for different reasons they decided to found or join various organizations. Among the most common explanations we heard was that the visibility and the infrastructure of formalized NGOs grant a certain safety for the volunteers, especially with the ongoing criminalization of solidarity. Hanna, a German activist that we met shortly before her trip to BiH, stressed that while she is used to working in “left-activist networks”, she and her friends decided to found an association to be able to collect donations and give donors donation receipts. On the other hand, she reflects the risk of being expelled from BiH as an organization, while if she was there as a single activist, her expulsion would not put in danger the solidarity work of the rest of the group. It can be seen that people active in migration support use the infrastructure of NGOs and less formal groups strategically and are, to a certain degree, flexible in their identification with them and their own positioning.

The closure of international and national/local borders, together with the criminalization of independent support for migrants in BiH, and the institutionalized measures of disease prevention, has greatly effected the field of migration and migration support. It has changed the environment of solidarity in a way that caused some actors to become more visible in the local sphere, while others decided to move to digital spaces. Especially during spring 2020, international NGOs were not able to be as present at the borderzones in BiH with their volunteers as they used to be. They instead had to rely on connections and networks on the ground – with locals and with people on the move – for information and for action. These networks of solidarity were mainly established through personal connections. The way in which activism and migration biographies have become transnational, shape the way solidarity work is done. We recognise the need to adopt different perspectives to reflect on the multiple positionalities, identities and roles that we encountered in the field of migration support in BiH.

Backpacks, blankets and tents in an NGO’s warehouse


The field of migration has increasingly been influenced by non-state actors. Especially during and after 2015, a myriad of NGOs, activist networks and other groups (both formal and informal) were founded to express solidarity with people on the move. While a large number of volunteers who are active at the external border zones of the EU come from the West, there have been local (infra)structures of solidarity for migrants reaching back decades. What our student-research-project shows is that there cannot be a clear separation between “western-based” solidarity structures and local ones. In the field, different actors are connected through transnational networks and cooperate with each other (see also Greenberg and Spasić, 2017).

As our planned excursion ‘to the field’ had to be cancelled due to the pandemic, we began to shed light on how solidarity work with people on the move was affected by the Covid-19 response. In fact, the pandemic affected our research as well as the work of volunteers and political practices. In particular, the multiplication of borderzones, governmental attempts to immobilize migrants, and the criminalization of solidarity with migrants intensified under the mask of the ‘state of emergency’. To respond to the current situation, NGOs developed strategies that partly included a broader net-activism and net-working. Covid-19 has definitely had, and continues to have, disastrous effects for people on the move. They are often excluded from access to appropriate hygiene and medical services to protect against infections. Regarding support structures, we found some (rare) potentially positive aspects of the pandemic: it helped to increase and improve the cooperation of diverse actors. This collaboration, and the deepening of networks, has a lot of potential for shaping a landscape of transnational solidarity with people on the move.

We have demonstrated how personal networks of activists and volunteers have enabled the fieldwork of NGOs to continue during the pandemic. During the research, it became clear that the field of solidarity work is highly transnationalized, and actors have developed a deep and critical knowledge of the field of international migration. The people we spoke to combined local solidarity actions for people on the move with political claims, showing their knowledge about the complex space of power relations, particular interests and entangled effects. Many solidarity workers are thus in some way ‘experts of migration’. In fact many are active on different stages and different scales, including journalism, academia, political activism, etc. and strategically choose on which scale they want to act and how to present themselves to their audience in order to reach their goals. Hence, the field of migration support in BiH is characterized by negotiations, conflicts, and alliances. It can therefore be understood as a contact zone where hierarchies are contested and where people fight for change.

For us it was an interesting and instructive experience to work on this topic in such an unusual way. Although we could definitely not illuminate every aspect of the field, especially not the characteristic dynamics of personal/physical interaction in the field, we had great and informative interviews and chats with our research partners. We want to thank them for their productive cooperation. This article is intended as an acknowledgement and an appreciation of their important work.


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Stojić Mitrović, M. Ahmetašević, N. Beznec, B. Kurnik, A. (2020). The Dark Sides of Europeanisation. Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and the EUropean Border Regime. [Online]. Available at: https://www.academia.edu/43313461/THE_DARK_SIDES_OF_EUROPEANISATION_SERBIA_BOSNIA_AND_HERZEGOVINA_AND_THE_EUROPEAN_BORDER_REGIME (Accessed: 13.03.2021).

Stojić Mitrović, M. (2019). The Reception of Migrants in Serbia: Policies, Practices, and Concepts. Journal of Human Rights and Social Work, 4(1), pp.17-27.

Ticktin, M. (2011). Casualties of care. Immigration and the politics of humanitarianism. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Todorova, M. (2009). Imagining the Balkans. New York: Oxford University Press.

Walters, W. (2011). ‘Foucault and Frontiers: Notes on the Birth of the Humanitarian Border’ in Bröckling, Ulrich. Krasmann, Susanne. Lemke, Thomas (eds). Governmentality: Current Issues and Future Challenges, New York: Routledge, 2011, pp.138-164.

Wedel, J. R. (2001). Collision and Cullosion: The Strange Case of Western Aid to Eastern Europe. New York: St. Martins Press.

Online resources

Ahmetašević, N. (2021). ACTIVIST VOLUNTEERS IN THE EUROPEAN REFUGEE CRISIS. (online book presentation). [Online]. Available at: https://www.facebook.com/bookmarks.bookshop/videos/vb.126404457448317/2717071221875706/?type=2&theater (Accessed: 25.02.2021).

BVMN (2020a). [Online]. Available at: https://www.borderviolence.eu/wp-content/uploads/COVID-19-Report.pdf (Accessed: 25.02.2021).

BVMN (2020b):Shrinking Spaces: Report on Criminalisation of Solidarity In The Western Balkans (BVMN). [Online]. Available at: https://www.borderviolence.eu/wp-content/uploads/Report-on-Criminalisation-of-Solidarity.pdf (Accessed: 25.02.2021).

BVMN (2020c). [Online]. Available at: https://www.borderviolence.eu/wp-content/uploads/Working-Doc-August-Report-BVMN-2.pdf (Accessed: 25.02.2021).

Coronavirus and Mobility Forum: https://www.compas.ox.ac.uk/project/the-coronavirus-and-mobility-forum/#kp5 (Accessed: 25.03.2021)

DW.: Balkanroute, Westbosnien: Feuer im Flüchtlingslager. (23.12.2020). [Online]. Available at: https://www.dw.com/de/westbosnien-feuer-im-fl%C3%BCchtlingslager/a-56047758 (Accessed: 23.02.2021).

Frontlinedefenders. [Online]. Available at: https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/case/gendered-online-harassment-and-threats-against-human-rights-journalist-nidzara-ahmetasevic (Accessed: 25.02.2021).

Infomigrants. [Online]. Available at: https://www.infomigrants.net/en/post/26832/region-in-northwestern-bosnia-sets-up-roadblocks-to-deter-migrants (Accessed: 25.02.2021).

Tagesschau: Griechenland, Feuer verwüstet Flüchtlingslager Moria. (09.09.2020). [Online]. Available at: https://www.tagesschau.de/ausland/brand-moria-105.html (Accessed: 25.02.2021).

TRANSBALKANSKA SOLIDARNOST. [Online]. Available at: https://transbalkanskasolidarnost.home.blog/eng/ (Accessed: 25.02.2021).

UN: [Online]. Available at: https://twitter.com/ungeneva/status/1324339348284837888?lang=en (Accessed: 25.02.2021).

United we talk. (2020). [Online]. Available at: United We Talk – Let’s Talk ! Die heutige Ausgabe United… | Facebook https://www.facebook.com/112862367089808/posts/226571689052208/ (Accessed: 25.02.2021).


  • Interview with Valentina (online) June 2020
  • Interview with Sara (online) September 2020
  • Interview with Sumeja (online) September 2020
  • Interview with Marijana Hameršak (online) September 2020
  • Interview with Ilka (online) December 2020
  • Interview with Hanna December 2020
  • Interview with Lukas (online) January 2021
  • Interview with Danijel (online) February 2021


The images were kindly made available by Bojan Mucko. All rights are reserved by the photographer.


1 In accordance with our interview partners’ wishes their names have been partially anonymised in this article.
2 This is the way our interview partners referred to the migrants along the Balkan Route. The term is also used in literature regarding migration.
3 Chain push-backs are an illegal practice where people are pushed back across multiple countries and borders.

Reconnecting riverbanks and learning from submerged objects: an analysis of politics of riverine representation

archive care contact zone cross-media landscapes of war mapping more-than-human agency Mostar regimes of representation river

About the authors

Lisa Baumann got inspired by postcolonial, feminist thinkers during her BA in Philosophy and Cultural Anthropology and thus her main approach lies in the analysis of power structures and coloniality. Her earlier research projects engaged with performing arts, migration and social movements. Currently, she is participating in a provenance research project conducted by different disciplines at the University of Göttingen. For her MA studies in Visual Anthropology, she is working on an ethnographic film project on educational strategies in the youth penal system. Besides University, she is working in the non-formal political education sector, conducting seminars for young people in the field of sustainable development, climate justice, intersectional feminism and antiracism.
Marlene Schlichtenhorst developed an interest in cross-media formats and ethnographic film during her BA studies. Theoretically, her focus lies on power structures and their entanglements with the formation of subjectivities and identities. She produced several documentary shorts and is currently studying Visual Anthropology in Göttingen. For her Master thesis, she is working on a documentary about the social construction and reproduction of masculinities which is based on participant observation within a Tyrolean family.  
Edda Starck is interested in more-than-human anthropology and focusses on creative and interdisciplinary methods. She has conducted ethnographic research on environmental conservation, performance arts, activism, and migration. Currently, she is completing her master’s degree in Cultural Anthropology and Cultural Musicology at the University of Göttingen with a thesis on environmental temporalities in the context of Scottish rewilding projects. She furthermore works as part of the HERA project FOOD2GATHER, which researches migrant foodscapes across Europe. Outside of academia, she is a musician and practices aerial arts. She has worked on several productions – most recently, as a sound technician on a circus theatre show touring in the US. 


Admin: please provide a pdf Document


But I don’t have any specific problem with the river, to be honest. […] I have huge admiration and kind of, I feel like being very small against this, it’s a very powerful river, you know. Cold, and fast, and it’s beautiful. And that’s, I think that’s her problem. That’s her problem. The political problem of the river is exactly this, beauty.”


Neretva is one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s (BiH) longest rivers, flowing through the country for over 200 km before meeting the Adriatic Sea in Croatia. On her way, [1] Following the lead of our collaborators, we use female pronouns [she/her/hers] to address the river. Neretva is a source of drinking water and livelihood for many riverside towns and is central to a diverse range of local ecosystems. Her rapid, cold water is famous for its beautiful colour, attracting large numbers of tourists each year. Yet, like other parts of BiH’s landscapes, Neretva has been heavily impacted by the 1992-95 war and subsequent industrial developments. War debris, industrial waste, and hydroelectric power plants have changed the riverine ecosystems, both underwater and along Neretva’s banks, as well as shaping the river’s role in the human lives unfolding around her.

One of the cities that Neretva runs through is Mostar. As a city that is home to Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks, the 1992-95 war has had a particularly grave impact here. During this time, the river became a symbol of division between ethnic communities, a narrative that still exists today.

Drowned in Neretva River is an artistic and political project rooted in Mostar that has the aim of countering such narratives. As part of the Future Architecture competition, where the project members first presented their ideas, Drowned in Neretva River is located at the intersection of the international art and architecture industry, academia, and activism. The project members create cross-media representations of Neretva, which are designed to reconfigure human-river relations. In order to understand the aims and strategies of the project, we interviewed the three initiators Armina Pilav, Damir Ugljen and Jonas Langbein.

In our research project, we looked at how these three participants relate to Neretva and try to give her forms of visibility that transcend existing representations. For this purpose, we draw on the concept of “regimes of representation” (Hall 2004). Our analysis focuses on the repertoire of images, texts, meanings, and imaginations through which Damir, Armina and Jonas attempt to (re)frame Neretva river. We understand their activities as a form of “subtle politics”, which aim for the reconfiguration of dominant conditions through “patient, repetitive, locally situated and subversive action” (Dimitrova et al., 2012, p.10). We will analyse the creative tools they employ in order to rework the fabric of local human-river relations and interactions. Their experimental interventions are inspired by their conviction that the world is there to be made: to be constructed, rather than revealed and accepted.

Figure 1

Diving into the field

Having experienced the war as a child and living in Mostar today, Damir tells us that trauma is still embodied in buildings, in the landscape, and in the river. People are affected by it all the time. Building on a similar project that Damir and Armina conducted in Sarajevo, the un-war space lab, Drowned in Neretva River addresses “spatial transformation during [the] war period”, exploring how “the city [is] affected by […] violent action” (Damir).

As an underwater archaeologist, Damir dives into Neretva River, finding plants, fish and other animals, trash, military remains and other artefacts. Because all of these are connected to people’s lives, Damir thinks of Neretva as a “living archive.” Approaching the environment as an academic, he suggests that understanding the river requires a methodology that is as fluent as the river itself, because with specific methods, “you are limited to certain things and you cannot always employ some ideas that you are having.” He envisions that “we should start constructing new things instead of looking for analysis of already existing things around us.”

Armina teaches landscape, art, and politics at the University of Sheffield, and has been studying war cities since 2006. Having researched Mostar and Neretva for three years, she also encountered nature destruction and pollution. For her, “it’s very important people understand that [the] river is a resource that’s not separate from us and that we should take care of it instead of destroying it systematically.” She writes letters to Neretva, allowing her to imagine a personal relationship with the river. “It’s a speculative or spiritual decision coming from a feminist practice of relating to the nature as something alive, something that has a voice, something you think with, is really like a witness.” Thus, her work is situated within a feminist ethics that extends practices of care towards nonhuman entities (for instance Haraway 2016; Puig de la Bellacasa 2012). She refers to the river as a “transitional archive […] of war, of city, something that transits all the time, something that is moving all the time or becoming something else.” Armina developed the term of a transitional archive during her research practice considering the river as an archive, following the lead of Gabriella Giannachi who explores different kinds of archives, including new technologies and media, in her book Archive Everything. Mapping the Everyday (2016).

When Armina taught a course on landscape and architecture at the TU Delft, she met Jonas, an architecture student who got involved into the project developing a Storyscape of Neretva for his master’s thesis: “It’s about kind of trying to find different perspectives on the environment, […] what is this territory with which we interact as planners […]. It’s a critical approach to classical architecture”. He was wondering how the story of ethnic division has been projected onto the landscape. That’s why he uses mapping as a tool to tell different stories, to create awareness of how people frame their relationship to the river and her surroundings. Considering hegemonic discourses and traditional archiving methods, he states: “The things that you archive, that things that you see, is the story that you tell. And some things aren’t archived yet, […] or aren’t made visible. So the story is kind of not there, even though [it’s] as valid as the others”.

Representations of Neretva

Regimes of Representation

Our analysis is inspired by the analytical tool of the“contact zone”. This term was coined in 1990 by the literary scholar Mary Louise Pratt (Holdenried, 2010: 175). She defines contact zones as “social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination” (Pratt, 1992: 4). Rather than considering the clash and grappling of different cultures however, we will adapt the term of the contact zone to our field by reframing it as the copresence, collision and interaction of representations. In order to do this, we will combine the analytical tool of the contact zone with the term “regimes of representation” coined by Stuart Hall. He defines the latter as the repertoire of images and visual effects, through which difference is represented in a specific historical juncture (Hall, 2004: 115). Such a repertoire of images is to be understood as an era-specific arrangement of seeing and making visible (Dimitrova et al., 21). It is important to note that Hall grasps these repertoires of visibility and visualization (i.e. regimes of representation) as highly dynamic configurations, which are continually (re)produced, rather than static phenomena. This theoretical framework enables us to analyse how and to which end(s) the members of the Drowned in Neretva project represent or rather reframe Neretva (and thus also Mostar, its citizens and their relation to the river). In our analysis, we found that it is necessary to look at the mediality of representations situated within a certain regime. For this, we use the term modes of representation.

Common Representations

Our field of analysis is mainly composed of the cross-media representations (including video, photography, cartography and text) produced by Damir, Armina and Jonas – they are our focal point. Before diving into the analysis however, we shall take a look at other dominantly visible representations of Neretva, which our informants reply to, or rather “clash and grapple with”. That is to say, we will give an insight into the contact zone within which our informants´ activities take place.

The Stari Most – Neretva as Border

Most prominently, Neretva is represented internationally in the context of the Stari Most, the iconic Ottoman bridge built in the 16th century to which the city of Mostar owes its name. In a particularly traumatic event in 1993, the Stari Most was destroyed by paramilitary forces. In 2002, the bridge was reconstructed through international financial aid. It is celebrated as a masterpiece of engineering and was declared a UNESCO World heritage site in 2005. There are numerous cross-media formats framing the history and current status of the bridge as “a symbol of reconciliation, international co-operation and of the coexistence of diverse cultural, ethnic and religious communities” (Unesco.org, 2021). Thus, in the context of its celebration as a site of UNESCO World Heritage, Neretva is framed as a border between inherently different communities, which has to be crossed – both physically and symbolically – in order to overcome ethnonational divisions.

Figure 2: people watching boys jumping from Stary Most bridge down in Neretva river in the Old town of Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Tourism – Neretva as a social space

In the tourist sector, prominent descriptions of Neretva revolve around its beauty, its soothing effect on the traveller, and the stunningly turquoise colour of its water, sparkling in the sunlight (Tripadvisor, 2021). Prominent images, therefore, are long shots of the river and its surroundings, which evoke the impression of eternal summer. The riverbanks are pictured as social spaces, where people go to swim and spend their free time, either sitting in the sun on a little beach, or on a restaurant terrace enjoying a drink and the stunning view.

Figure 3: Street market with the Old Bridge in background, UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Thick forests surround the river, forming a dark green mesh interrupted only by the time-honoured mosque and the beautiful, charmingly scruffy stone houses forming the backbone of the city of Mostar.

Figure 4: Sonnenaufgang über der Mostar Old Town und dem Fluss Neretva, Bosnien und Herzegowina.

Another prominent image is that of canoes cleaving their way through the gushing stream, their occupants courageously manoeuvring through the wayward mass of water, taming its force (Manawa, 2021).

Figure 5: Unidentified teams practice at the first day of training for World Rafting Championship in the canyon of River Neretva

The resulting impression is that of Neretva as a source of life, joy and amusement as well as a natural force to be domesticated and mastered by humans. Hence, in the tourism sector, Neretva is made visible as a social space of enjoyment, adventure and aesthetic pleasure. This mode of representation serves the purpose of attracting tourists, but it is also created by travellers and locals themselves, who want to share information regarding their journey, or their personal relationship to Neretva.

Economic Stakeholders – Neretva as capital

Neretva furthermore serves as an economic resource, which sees efforts focussed predominately on capital gains rather than local or touristic enjoyment. In a publication by the German Corporation for International Cooperation GmbH (henceforth GIZ) published in 2018, Neretva is discussed as a resource to be managed as effectively as possible in order to produce or rather maximize “streams of income and jobs” (Drew, 2018). The GIZ has been working in BiH since 1995. Their central aim is to enhance the transformation of the formerly centralist economy to a competitive market economy (Giz.de, 2021). The advancement of the energy sector is an important part of their strategy. Hence, the interest that lies at the heart of the mode of representation implemented by the GIZ is the promotion of a way of economically using the river (that is to say, using it in order to produce flows of capital in the fields of hydro-electricity, agriculture, water supply and tourism) without destroying it, so that it will be preserved as a source of value for future generations. In this context, Neretva is reduced to its potential for value-maximization and the effort to coordinate its exploitation in a damage-limiting way is not based on considerations of nature conservation but rather on the aim to preserve that economic potential. Accordingly, images produced by stakeholders in the economic sector show Neretva as a site of industrial exploitation and dam construction. The river figures as the baseline for the construction of highly sophisticated, modern hydropower facilities and it is described using technocratic jargon: “Medium natural annual flow in Mostar is 197.4 m³/sec” (Epbih.ba, 2021). – An example for this way of representing Neretva can be found on the website of the largest electric utility company in BiH, JP Elektroprivreda BiH (Ibid.).

Nature Protection – Neretva as a “natural jewel”

Environmental organizations like Aarhus Center Sarajevo, Riverwatch, and EuroNatur are lobbying against hydropower exploitation of Neretva. In 2020, they submitted a complaint against BiH to the Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats. They frame Neretva as “a wilderness area with very little human interference so far” (Euronatur.org, 2021). Accordingly, many of the images they publish on their websites show Neretva as a pristine natural habitat far from human settlements, surrounded only by mountains and forests and inhabited by rare species, such as the white-clawed crayfish. Here, Neretva figures as an exceptional “natural jewel”, i.e. an ecosystem that is “without par in Europe” and therefore has to be preserved by all means.

In all of these contexts, Neretva is depicted in a strikingly one-dimensional manner. The principal associations and ascriptions chosen reduce the river to one primary function, which is suitable for promoting the interests of these organisations and making certain claims about the Neretva and the surrounding landscape. How do the representations produced by Damir, Armina and Jonas differ from this?

Rethinking, Reframing and Caring for Neretva

Experimental short film

So people are affected and [the] river is also affected by people so it’s constantly this mesh work of interconnectivities and relations between humans and non-humans.”


To begin with, we will take a look at the 3 minutes experimental film produced by Damir and Armina, which they have published on the Future Architecture Platform as part of the presentation of their project.

Figure 6: Neretva recordings: materiality of war and flowing memories

The first frames show an arrangement of white tiles, some of which are painted with a narrow stream of black branching along its brittle texture. Those black streams end abruptly, for the tiles are arranged in a way that doesn’t allow them to connect to the next part of the stream. On the left side, six black-and-white photographs showing houses and streets in the city of Mostar, presumably during or right after the war, complement this design. These first frames can be understood as a symbol of Neretva´s hybrid condition, that is to say its manifold meanings and functions, which resist simplistic, one-dimensional forms of representation. There isn’t one single, linear story to be told about her, but rather an attempt to make sense of the fact that Neretva is in a state of constant becoming. It is both highly alive and highly vulnerable, due to its constant reconfiguration in interaction with external factors. The photographs point to the filmmakers´ interest in the relationships between the city, its citizens and the river, as well as the changes in these relationships that have occurred due to the war.

Figure 7
Figure 8

Following this introduction, the filmmakers decide to show four shots of the riverbanks, three long shots and one detailed shot. They last 5 seconds each and are accompanied by soundscapes of the prevailing place. This gives the viewer the opportunity to get a glimpse into the atmosphere of the place. It helps to give us a sense of its location (close to the city or far from it), and its character – as a beautiful hiding place or a neglected area just besides the main street. These soundscapes are a varying mesh of water sounds, distant chattering, street sounds, birdsongs and chirring. Their effect is enhanced through the insertion of 3 seconds of silence and black screen after each of the landscape shots. This silence leaves room for the processing of the impressions that precede it as well as the reverberation of the sounds. The spectator is not given a unique, linear and coherent image (or repertoire of images) of the river, but is exposed to bits and pieces of impressions that have to be actively related with one another. Interestingly, Damir and Armina choose to show places which are marked by traces of human intervention: a net of barbed wire fence and metal poles deposited on a rock, a stone sculpture becoming overgrown in the woods, the pillar of a bridge that has long since been destroyed. This corresponds to their approach to the river “as this sort of archive”, i.e. a “living organism” that has a “very specific way of dealing with [these] material things that humans made and humans put at the end into [and next to] the river” (Damir).

This “river as an archive” approach becomes even more evident in the next scene, which is a one-shot underwater sequence, which Damir recorded during one of his dives in the river. The camera is focused on the riverbed and shows its texture and composition. It begins with a detailed shot of bullet shells lying on the ground, lingering between rocks and algae, remnants of the war, strikingly visible and yet hidden for all whose gaze remains above the river’s surface, i.e. hidden for most.

Figure 9

The diver moves on, disengaging himself from the ground, lifting his gaze to observe a shoal of fish playfully crossing his path,

Figure 10

then lowering it again to behold once more, closely, some of the bullet shells, one of which has been covered almost entirely in a thick green carpet of water plants. Here, the filmmakers´ interest in violence, trauma and their inscription into the landscape system becomes most evident: “We are looking to expose the violence and destruction, like directly without any mediation or polite constructions” (Armina).

The filmmakers continue to show artefacts that have been incorporated by the river. One of them is a book, its pages being scrolled by the river stream, an image that symbolizes the conception of the river as “something alive, as something that has a voice, as something that you think with” rather than merely think (and speak) about.

Figure 11

The film ends with a series of photographs featuring bridges during and after wartime, some of them destroyed, some in use, some (seemingly) sound and solid, built to resist any damage, and some bombed to pieces.

Figure 12
Figure 13
Figure 14
Figure 15
Figure 16

Firstly, this movie shows how the river and the city have been affected by military action and are marked by it up to this day, a matter of fact which rarely appears in the repertoire of images, rhetoric and visual effects through which Neretva is represented. Moreover, the river appears as an archive in constant transformation due to the materialities deposited inside it and near it by humans and other living organisms. Damir and Armina think of Neretva as a highly complex organism that resists simplistic, one-dimensional forms of representation. Rather than attempting to frame her in a reductionist way, i.e. according to their interests (e.g. the aim to subvert nationalist discourses of ethnic division, or the aim to protect her against exploitation), they represent her as part of a network of interconnectedness with various organisms, materials and humans that is in constant flux. Thus, they question simplistic meaning constructions that reduce Neretva to singular functions. This enables them to subvert the configurations of meaning (or rather, the regimes of representation) that they criticize without reproducing their underlying logic.


Like videos and photographs, maps may also be considered forms of spatial representation. They are tools that help us to navigate our surroundings and to define spaces. Yet, what they display or not is neither neutral nor objective: Maps have, for instance, been important tools for colonial projects, where extensive efforts to chart shores and interior lands were made in order to ease the transport of settlers and aid resource exploitation (Pratt, 2003[1992]: 30). Simultaneously, such maps generally erased the presence of indigenous peoples, thus enabling a reframing of indigenous land as empty and therefore settleable. In resistance to this erasure, indigenous peoples and other marginalized communities have been making alternative maps, which challenge hegemonic depictions of their lands by centring information that is more representative of their experiences and more relevant to their communities (NativeLand.ca, 2021).

In a comparable way, Jonas’ contribution to Drowned in Neretva River uses maps as tools to challenge dominant visions of Neretva. While visiting Mostar, he noticed that access to the river is highly formalized, with only a few hidden-away paths leading to the water. After further research, he learned that Neretva does not play much of an active part in many people’s lives – only two out of fifteen interviewees had stories to share about Neretva. For his master’s project, he therefore decided to produce a range of alternative maps of Neretva in an attempt to reopen possibilities of relating to the river. His project, titled Storyscape Neretva, maps out a range of Neretva’s socio-environmental relations. [2] Jonas also developed ideas for architectural interventions that could afford closer interaction between river and people. Talking about the example of a tomato plant, he tells us, “It’s not important but through giving it attention in the map, you can give it also a meaning, a story. […] A visual story maybe, or a kind of cartographic story.”

Jonas’ maps are featured in a book, which he produced for his master’s project. The maps are made using a range of artistic styles: some are satellite images, some are digitally drawn, others hand drawn [Figure 17]. A common feature are smooth or dotted outlines, in varying degrees of boldness that emphasize relevant areas. Whereas the maps are commonly in muted colours, bright reds and pink are used to frame objects and zones of interest. Some feature little drawings of scenes or photographs.

Figure 17A
Figure 17B

Figure 17C

The maps serve a range of distinctive functions. Satellite images are predominately used to convey context, such as showing the path of the river through the country. Colourful zones and outlines direct the viewer’s gaze to relevant areas and structures. The “neutral” mode of the satellite photograph lends these maps a rather factual tone, and interestingly, they are often used to show facilities associated with environmental destruction, such as hydroelectric dams or sewage plants near Mostar. While other maps representing personal stories stray from the conventional bird’s-eye view, these maps utilize this particular perspective to give authoritative gravity to the damaging impact human activities have on Neretva.

Digitally drawn maps commonly represent summaries of Jonas’ research in Mostar: they map out activities along the river, but also trash, water inflows, and other traces of life that cannot commonly be found on conventional maps. One activity map [Figure 2], for instance, shows the river in the colour grey, and bridges as well as larger riverbanks in red. Left and right of the river, magnified segments depict figures pursuing leisure activities that are or used to be performed along the river, such as “kayaking”, “swimming”, or “sunbathing.” From each little scene, straight lines direct the viewer to the spaces along the river, where these activities can be realized. Including activities in the map that people used to carry out along the river but that are not pursued much anymore has potent effects: it highlights how important Neretva used to be in people’s lives, thus potentially inspiring the viewer to interact more with Neretva. Not only do personal experiences of the riverscape find representation here, but these maps also function as an invitation to try out some of the displayed activities at the marked spots.

Figure 18: Activity Map of Neretva

Similar in style, a couple of other maps feature a more environmental focus. For instance, one shows waste that has accumulated on the riverbanks [Figure 3]. It marks the various locations of waste and specifies what materials can be found there – plastic, glass, organic, etc. Neretva has a strong current and daily flash floods, causing the river to pick up and redeposit trash all the time. Interestingly, there is no timestamp or other temporal indication on this map, implying that there is always trash to be found on the banks, even if the exact locations of the respective objects may change.

Figure 19: Trash Map of Neretva

Jonas’ maps offer a range of alternatives to conventional cartographic representations of the city and river. He, for instance, chooses a variety of angles rather than sticking to the common bird’s-eye view. One of the hand-drawn maps, for example, depicts the view of the river from a bridge [Figure 4]. The familiar eye-level perspective, combined with textural details in trees and surrounding features allows the viewer to feel positioned within the scene.

Figure 20: Hand-drawn map in eye-level perspective

Jonas’ maps give further nuance to Neretva’s representation by adding temporal dimensions. A series of maps entitled “The Big Story of Neretva” depicts the location of Mostar throughout time. Beginning 1000 years ago, each graphic spotlights changes in the landscape and city: the construction of new buildings, the growth of new forests, and the deposition of new materials in the riverbed. Likewise, repetitive temporal cycles are represented in Jonas’ work. Whereas some decades ago Neretva’s water levels would have risen and fallen with the seasons, her water level is now regulated by hydroelectric dams, which have been erected since the end of the war. Daily cycles, in which dammed water is released in accordance with electricity needs, now dictate the water flow of the river. The regular flash floods caused by these water releases have detrimental consequences for wildlife: interviewees told Jonas, for instance, that fish had decreased in size in recent years. The diurnal shifts in water level are shown in a series of maps and GIFs [Figure 21], where the frame, city, and colouring all remain unchanged, while the river swells from one picture to the next. Hence, Neretva is represented as a changing and multifaceted entity, and attention is drawn to the extent to which human interference alters the river and riverscape.

Figure 21: GIFs of Neretva’s dynamic water levels
Figure 21: GIFs of Neretva’s dynamic water levels

Combined, these maps reflect the complex relations between the river, humans, and more-than-human inhabitants. By displaying past interactions with the river, Jonas demonstrates Neretva’s potential as a social space. Through the mapping of waste and polluting water inlets, he contextualizes the current state of the river, which prevents people from further engaging with her. Simultaneously, the environmental maps offer target points, at which transformation can be achieved. Mapping thus becomes more than a simple form of representation. Rather, it becomes a method to reconsider the potential of space.

Letters to Neretva

The first time I wrote to you, I asked different questions that came to my mind after I walked on your banks. I was so attracted by the greenish colour of your water, by the sounds of the stream. I carefully observed the shapes of your flow. Immersing my hands and feet in your cold water, I wanted to become you. I wanted to become a river.

Archifutures Vol. 6, 2020: 149

Armina, Damir and Jonas’ letters to Neretva in an attempt to build a relationship with the river. Jonas published his letter in an online zine and Armina read hers during a project presentation. From our interviews, we observe that they strive for an understanding of mutual dependency between themselves and the river. As Jonas puts it: “possibly in the future there could be somehow a different awareness of how we’re engaged or how we frame our relationship to a river or to a landscape and to the things that in the end we still depend on for our livelihood.” Their aim is to start “thinking with the river” and processing bodily experiences with the river: “I am always departing from my own experience. I’m still very related to the river. I used to swim in the river and doing kayaking as a kid”, Damir tells us. Jonas similarly describes his experiences with Neretva in his letter: “I myself was jumping too from rock to rock and diving into your blue-green shimmering waters two years ago”.

Having explored the river in more depth during his research, Jonas considers the river as having suffered and as still suffering due to human engagement:

“So many dams are still planned while already the four existing ones cut through your enormous body, separating the different sections of your river course like dissected limbs. The thirst for electricity releases short but huge swells every day. You seem to be breathing hectically like a runner after a 1000m sprint. Just, you don’t calm down.”

kreaturazine.pl, 2020

Using terms for human body parts to describe Neretva and imagining the river running and sprinting evokes an image of her as a person. Jonas says in the interview that writing to Neretva changed his perspective on rivers, insofar as it enabled him to perceive rivers as juridical persons with equal rights that could be legally upheld in cases of destruction and pollution. At the end of his letter, he expresses his wish to care for the environment we live in and to take seriously the damages that the river shows us:

“I wonder if these bodily encounters are making a difference in how we see and think about each other, feel (about) each other. I wonder if we will be able to understand your rapid breathing as a sign for a harmed body that needs care too. Just that some bodies we cannot take to a clinic.”


According to Armina, relations between humans and the river haven’t always been problematic. She tells us in the interview that it changed within the last 30 years: Before the war, people had a stronger relationship to the river and gave names to “every single rock” around the riverbanks. Today, on the other hand, Neretva is mainly thought of in terms of economic value. In her letter, Armina gives an impression of her own way of contacting the river:

“In my dreams, and not only, I wandered about your stream bed, organic formations, rocks, plants, animals and anything aquatic that is related to you. Your underwater world is without humans in flesh and blood but is filled with material traces of their everyday lives and achievements, traces that are destroying your ecological balance and proposing new radical environments. Drowned in Neretva – me, you, temporary war bridges, a lot of iron, plastic bag animals, blankets and a wardrobe, more plastic bags, books, supermen, cables, bullets.”

Archifutures Vol. 6, 2020: 149

Exploring these transformations and the destruction of nature is a crucial step in processing embodied war trauma. They are important to address, yet difficult to grasp. Armina expresses her ambiguous feelings towards her research in our interview:

“What is specific about Mostar, I think it’s one of the rare cities that was destroyed by its own citizens, you know, from inside. So it means that you really hate it. […] That’s something that I’m thinking about. But maybe if I said this to the people they would not agree. […] But I need that exaggeration to be able to move something in thinking about this place.”


She hopes to find out more about how both the river and her are able to live with traces of violence:

“I noticed that many things changed for you. I also changed ᅳ I am still looking for our relationship ᅳ but I do not want to become you anymore. That was my anticipation of your past excluding external and internal violence on you. Any human attempt to become a river brought you in this environmental danger that you are going through.

Forget some parts from my first letter, I am not interested any more to know how you archive all the human materials violently drowned in you, like the bullets. But I am longing to know how you “live with” and “think with” these materials.”

Archifutures Vol. 6, 2020: 149

Both Armina and Damir mention the importance of “imagination“ when approaching and observing the river. Ingold et al. examine the role of perception and imagination when producing knowledge about the environment: “To imagine, we suggest, is not so much to conjure up images of a reality ‘out there’, whether virtual or actual, true or false, as to participate from within, through perception and action, in the very becoming of things” (Ingold et al., 2012: 3). In that sense, Jonas, Damir and Armina are constantly trying to reshape our engagement with the landscape and thereby allow us to question dominant representations. The imaginations described in the letters to Neretva demonstrate empathy and care for Neretva, but also admiration and respect. This stands in stark contrast to a perspective that only treats the river as a resource. 


All of the materials that we have discussed here contribute to the production of alternative narratives concerning the role of Neretva in social and environmental life. 

The movie shows how Neretva, to this day, bears the marks of military action. Moreover, it makes visible her relatedness to both human and non-human actors. Through the medium of film, Neretva appears as a network of interconnectedness that is alive and in constant transformation rather than a mere target of human interventionism that can be reduced to singular functions. Jonas’ maps can be considered alternative representations, as they locate social and environmental stories rarely represented cartographically. Instead of focussing on roads, buildings, and official infrastructures, they display locations of waste, water inlets, spaces associated with specific activities, etc. Exceeding a representational function, they thereby invite the audience to reconsider not only how they view but also how they engage with their surroundings. Neretva is framed as more than just a mark on a map, but as an entity that people can interact with and that is shaped by those interactions in a multiplicity of ways. Writing a letter is a strategy used to address Neretva as an agent with personhood to forge an intimate, personal relationship to her. This can evoke empathy with the river, as she has to deal with pollution, toxicity and storage of inorganic materials. Through their letters, Armina, Damir and Jonas frame Neretva as an agent, shaped by and shaping human activities, and express a wish for the peaceful co-existence of humans, rivers, landscapes, animals and plants. 

Through all of these modes of representation, Damir, Armina and Jonas aim to reconfigure the era-specific arrangement of seeing and making visible Neretva. That is to say, they attempt to add more nuanced and diverse narratives to the regimes of representation surrounding the river. They present Neretva as “something that is in transit all the time, moving or transitioning or becoming something else.” (Armina)


Dimitrova, P., Egermann, E., Holert, T., Kastner, J., Schaffer, J. (2012): Regime: Wie Dominanz organisiert und Ausdruck formalisiert wird. Münster: edition assemblage.

Drew, H. (2018): Streams of Income and Jobs: The Economic Significance of the Neretva and Trebišnjica River Basins. 1st ed. [pdf] Zagreb and Belgrade: WWF Adria. Available at: https://www.giz.de/en/downloads_els/ORFBDU_The-Economic-Significance-of-the-Neretva-and-Trebišnjica-River-Basins.pdf [Accessed 25 Feb. 2021].

Epbih.ba, (2021): Thermal Power Plants: Hydro Power Plants on Neretva. [online] Available at: https://www.epbih.ba/eng/page/subsidiaries#hydro-power-plants-on-neretva [Accessed 9 Mar. 2021].

Euronatur.org, (2021): Dams on Neretva river: Complaint submitted to Bern Convention [online] Available at: https://www.euronatur.org/en/news/detail/news/complaint-on-bosnia-herzegovina-dams-on-neretva-river-submitted-to-the-bern-convention/ [Accessed 25 Feb. 2021].

Future Architecture platform (2020): Archifutures Vol. 6: Agency – a field guide to reclaiming the future of architecture. dpr-barcelona; edited by &beyond collective.

Giz.de, (2021): Bosnien und Herzegowina. [online] Available at: https://www.giz.de/de/weltweit/289.html [Accessed 24 March 2021].

Hall, S. (2004): Das Spektakel des ,Anderen’. In: J. Koivisto, A. Merkens, ed., Ideologie, Identität, Repräsentation. Ausgewählte Schriften 4, 4th ed. Hamburg: Argument, pp. 108-165.

Haraway, D. (2016): Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Holdenried, M. (2010): Kontaktzone (›contact zone‹). In: D. Göttsche, A. Dunker, G. Dürbeck, ed., Handbuch Postkolonialismus und Literatur, 1st ed. Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler, pp.173-175.

Ingold, T., Janowski, M. (2012): Imagining Landscapes Past, Present and Future. Anthropological studies of creativity and perception, Ashgate.

Langbein, J., (2021): Storyscape Neretva: Rehabilitating the Riverscape of Neretva through Small Scale Intervention Strategies. [online] Repository.tudelft.nl. Available at: <https://repository.tudelft.nl/islandora/object/uuid%3Ac53ab4e6-5e1a-451a-9d32-95d6455272a0> [Accessed 16 February 2021].

Manawa.com, (2021): Rafting on the Neretva River, Bosnia and Herzegovina. [online] Available at: https://www.manawa.com/en-GB/activity/bosnia-and-herzegovina/konjic/rafting/rafting-on-the-neretva-river-bosnia-and-herzegovina/10662_ [Accessed 17 March 2021].

Native Land – Our home on native land (2021): NativeLand.ca. [online] Available at: <https://native-land.ca/> [Accessed 22 February 2021]. 

Pratt, M. L. (1992): Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London and New York: Routledge, pp.1-14.

Pratt, M., (2003): Imperial Eyes. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis.

Puig de La Bellacasa, M., (2012): Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press.

Tripadvisor.de, (2021): Neretva River. [online] Available at: https://www.tripadvisor.de/Attraction_Review-g295388-d447576-Reviews-Neretva_River-Mostar_ Herzegovina_Neretva_Canton_Federation_of_Bosnia_and_Herzegovi.html [Accessed 25 Feb. 2021].

Unesco.org, (2021): Old Bridge Area of the Old City of Mostar: UNESCO World Heritage Centre. [online] Available at: whc.unesco.org/en/list/946/ [Accessed 25 Feb. 2021].


  • [Figure 1] Copyright (2021) by Jonas Langbein. Used with permission. Available at: http://kreaturazine.pl/2020/07/rivers-bodies-letter-to-the-river-neretva/ [Accessed 15 April 2021]
  • [Figure 2] Stroujko, Boris. People watching boys jumping from Stary Most bridge down in Neretva river in the Old town of Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. 2016. [online] Available at: https://www.shutterstock.com/de/image-photo/mostar-bosnia-16-july-2016-people-1720433587. [Accessed 31 March 2021].
  • [Figure 3] Prescott, Paul. Street market with the Old Bridge in background, UNESCO World Heritage Site. 2012. [online] Available at: https://www.shutterstock.com/de/image-photo/mostar-bosnia-herzegovina-august-9-2012-173503442. [Accessed 31 March 2021].
  • [Figure 4] Stroujko, Boris. Sonnenaufgang über der Mostar Old Town und dem Fluss Neretva, Bosnien und Herzegowina. [online] Available at: https://www.shutterstock.com/de/image-photo/sunrise-over-mostar-old-town-neretva-574540993. [Accessed 31 March 2021].
  • [Figure 5] Todorovic, Aleksandar. Unidentified teams practice at the first day of training for World Rafting Championship in the canyon of River Neretva. 2009. [online] Available at: https://www.shutterstock.com/de/image-photo/neretva-bosnia-25-july-unidentified-teams-50907268. [Accessed 31 March 2021].
  • [Figures 6-16]. Kralj, M., Pilav, A., Ugljen, D. Neretva recordings: materiality of war and flowing memories. [online] Available at: https://futurearchitectureplatform.org/projects/9c1c4883-c1ce-4ef1-93ed-62bf0aa572ff/ [Accessed 31 March 2021].
  • [Figures 17-21]. Copyright (2021) by Jonas Langbein. Used with permission.


1 Following the lead of our collaborators, we use female pronouns [she/her/hers] to address the river.
2 Jonas also developed ideas for architectural interventions that could afford closer interaction between river and people.

An archive for the future – activism in the field of memory politics in Mostar

Activism in post-socialist space activist archive deterioration of monuments negotiation of civil society politics of memory recollections of everyday life

About the authors

After completing an interdisciplinary B.A. studies program combining Spanish and Cultural Anthropology, Hanna Bömeke developed an interest in how to build livable cities within the degrowth debate. Furthermore, she is interested in dealings with cultural heritage in urban areas. Lately, she participated in the project „Bildsehen/Bildhandeln Akteur*innen und Praktiken der (Amateur-)Fotografie” and the blog-project „Alltag in der Krise” from the university of Freiburg. Currently, she is completing her master’s degree in Cultural Anthropology at the University of Göttingen with a thesis on the climate-neutral residential district “Ecovillage Hannover”. Whenever she has leisure hours, you can find her spending time in Spain. There she studied at the University of Autónoma in Madrid and worked at the Spanish-Turkish cultural and educational centre (Casa Turca).
Felicitas Schlang is student of M.A. Cultural Anthropology and Diversity Studies at the University of Göttingen. She has been locally engaged in commemoration for the victims of German National-Socialism and in general in antifascist activism as part of a feminist collective. Currently she is researching on a colonial monument in the city of Göttingen which is surrounded by post-colonial controversies.


MOSTARSKA HURQUALYA – (Ne)Zaboravljeni grad. With this title shining from a pdf-version on a laptop-screen, we, two anthropology-students from Göttingen (Germany), started our research about this book-project in spring 2020.

The (Un)Forgotten City, as it translates into English, is a book-project that gathers together several stories and pictures about the Partisan Monument, a necropolis for the Yugoslav partisans that fell in World War II, in the city of Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH). The book includes images of art performances in front of intricately designed stone murals, black and white photos of people dressed in 70s era clothing posing for a family album, and lots of diverse anecdotes from these times up to the present day.

Girls on Partiza at Soldier’s Day, 4 July 1979 (Family album)
View from the south side 1966. Olga Milicevic- Nikolic (Agencija Stari grad Mostar)

Clashing with these seemingly peaceful moments, the reader soon comes across pictures of fascist symbols sprayed on some of the monument’s walls, as well as various other traces of vandalism. We also read quotations from Mostar residents speaking of the Partisan Monument as disturbing or just unimportant for the people living in Mostar. Indeed, according to our initial online research, clashes and ruptures can often appear to be the main characteristic of the Partisan Monument itself, or even of the city of Mostar. However, this is not the whole story. Based on the preface of the book and what we later heard from the editors themselves, one motive behind the project was to show that Mostar is not as divided as it is often represented, for example, in international research and media discourses. Some of the visible changes to the monument, such as signs of vandalism and deterioration, may be perceived as fitting with such images of division. However, the diverse and mostly invisible everyday practices of people, which do not necessarily leave marks on the monument, can challenge these images.

Graffiti on the wall 2015. Marko Barisic, 2017.
View from the highest terrace towards the walkway 2015. Arna Mackic

Coming from and living in a country that is quite ignorant about certain histories and politics from outside central-Europe, we were initially unaware of the divisions referred to here. Little by little, and thanks to our interlocutors and our ethnographic research done so far, the phenomena shaping the context around the Partisan Monument and activism in Mostar became more visible to us.

In our research, we encountered the complex terrain of the politics of memory, which has been analyzed in the context of Mostar by Monica Palmberger. Palmberger focuses on the doing of history: how certain events from the past become highlighted and others neglected, and thus how certain visions of the past become connected with politics in the present or visions of the future (Palmberger, 2016, p.19). This approach can help us to understand historical and political ruptures and explore the effect they have on the treatment of the Partisan Monument in Mostar: “Still, it is the actor in the present that gives meaning to the past […] Generational identity is constructed by sharing memories but also by collectively silencing them” (Palmberger, 2016, p.9).

Under this lens, we then see a monument that comes from an overthrown Yugoslav society, where all nations and ethnic identities had been proclaimed as united in brotherhood. Furthermore, this monument is located in a city that is said to be somewhere where this principle has indeed been experienced by the people, and that even embodies these ideals in its design (cf. Ilić, Škrbić Alempijević, 2018, p.78). The 1992-1995 war is a key example of the kind of political rupture that Palmberger speaks of. During this conflict, the former common identity of the Yugoslav people, which had developed through the resistance to fascist occupation in World War II, became divided into several separate identities. With this division into ethno-national categories (‘the Croats’, ‘the Serbs’ and ‘the Bosniaks’), the common past of living together collides with narratives involving these nations’ desires for autonomy (cf. Bevan, 2006, p.8, Palmberger, 2008, p.361). Any reminder of this common past and identity, such as the Partisan Monument, is inevitably neglected within these narratives of ethno-national division. “It is a site where cutting ties with the past is made visible” is the conclusion of Kristina Ilić and Nevena Škrbić Alempijević. Here they refer to the top down policies and discourses surrounding the Partisan Monument (Ilić, Škrbić Alempijević, 2018, p.98).

Northwestern view of the terraces 2015. Arna Mackic

This is where the book-project The (Un)Forgotten City by several activists from Mostar, BiH and around the world can be seen as an intervention from the bottom up. Collecting diverse memories, relations, practices, and perspectives of the Partisan Monument, which go beyond the surface of damage and vandalism, they show that there is more than what dominant representations tell us.

Considering the book-project as an “activist archive” (Lee, 2016, p.30), we wanted to find out about the challenges that such activism faces. What kind of memory politics does such a grassroots initiative call for and how do the activists approach the highly controversial and sensitive perceptions of the past?

In addressing these questions, we first see that this particular activist archive does more than just add a single story to the official frameworks for remembering the Yugoslav past. Instead, it puts side by side a variety of different, sometimes even conflicting recollections of everyday life in Yugoslavia, using the example of the Partisan Monument. In doing so, the project presents an excellent example of an activist archive, which aims to make new links possible between official history, collective memories, and personal experiences. Furthermore, it deconstructs conventional images of archives as exclusively concerning ‘the past’.

Secondly, we suggest that The (Un)forgotten City is not solely an expression of nostalgia for the Yugoslav era. Rather, this project presents an active attempt to uncover memories of everyday life in Yugoslav Mostar. It aims to save these memories from being forgotten as they open up alternative visions of the future for the city’s inhabitants. Thereby, the activists behind the project promote a politics of memory that reflects the complexity, heterogeneity, and diversity of personal experiences of the Yugoslav past, which makes space for diverse post-Yugoslav futures.

Quelle: https://nezaboravljenigrad.com/index.php/galerija/
The sources of our information about The (Un)forgotten City, as well as the Partisan Monument, were our interlocutors, who we spoke to exclusively in online-interviews, as our research happened during the COVID-19 pandemic. Two of them are the main activists and editors of the book-project, Marko Barišić and Aida Murtić. They are both local researchers and activists and are part of a diverse network of people who were involved in the process of creating the book-project. Another member of this network is Vlatka, also from Mostar, whom you will also find cited in this article.

The Partisan Monument in Mostar

As mentioned in the introduction of this text, the existence of the Partisan Monument underwent one main rupture: the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. During the socialist era, the monument represented the ethnically diverse city of Mostar, because it was originally designed and built with the aim of uniting all of the fallen partisans of the city, regardless of their religion (Ilić, Škrbić Alempijević, 2018, p.75). If we take into account the fact that the monument does not include any religious or classic socialist symbols, it becomes clear that its architect, Bogdan Bogdanović, created it not exclusively as a place for remembering “but also as a place of being” (Gačanica, 2020, p.63).

Love on the Partisan monument in the 1970s (www.cvjetnaavlija.yolasite. com)

Nonetheless, the heritage it carries played a crucial rolewithin a Yugoslav identity based on the proclaimed equality of all nations. However, since the 1992-1995 war, one can observe an ethnicization of heritage (Wollentz, Barišić, Sammar, 2019, p.199). One singular Yugoslav history has been replaced by three histories (‘Bosniak’, ‘Croat’, and ‘Serbian’) divided according to ethno-national logic. In the postwar and post-socialist period, “new heroes, new victims, [and] new foundations of identity” have displaced the formerly common ones (Gačanica, 2020, p.63). Therefore, we must consider the (re)building of mosques and churches (Wollentz, Barišić, Sammar, 2019, p.199; Carabelli 2018, p.1) or the renaming of streets and erection of new monuments (Palmberger, 2008, p.361) in the city of Mostar as tools for the creation of collective identities through the construction of heritage (Wollentz, Barišić, Sammar, 2019, p.200). Kristina Ilić and Nevena Škrbić Alempijević describe the postwar period in the following way:

“The integral part of memory production, which was intended to point to the difference (but also the higher value, authenticity, and a higher merit of the city belonging to a certain ethnic group) with respect to the other part of town, was creating the collective forgetting, particularly of those episodes in history where ethnic, religious, and national affiliations of the city’s residents were vague and subsumed under a monolithic category of Yugoslav identity.”

Ilić, Škrbić Alempijević, 2018, p.85

The Partisan Monument was demolished during the war and its renovation has received little attention or financial support in comparison to the renovation of, for example, the Old Bridge, which is mentioned in this quote from Marko, one of our interlocutors:

“Mostar actually had two symbols. Today Mostar seemingly has only one symbol and this is the Old Bridge. But before the war Mostar had two symbols. This was the other symbol. You know and every time somebody would come to Mostar, you know, you would take people to the old bridge and to this monument. So, it seems so devastating for people from Mostar to see the monument in this shape.”


Funds for restoration or the listing of the Partisan Monument as a national monument have been mainly organized by antifascist veterans. In addition to the destruction that occurred during the war, there have been continuous instances of vandalism. These mainly include fascist symbols and statements against communists or Bosniaks, as well as the destruction of tombstones and sculptures. Ilić and Škrbić Alempijević analyze these instances of vandalism as symbolic battles concerning the question: whose city is it? (Ilić, Škrbić Alempijević, 2018, p.88). In the postwar period, the monument has become a battlefield of clashing worldviews: initially a symbol of Yugoslav unity, it has been transformed by symbols of division:

“Broken, neglected, dislocated, re-interpreted, decapitated, stolen […] Partiza […] is a place made of layers of Mostar’s wraths, revisionisms, violent entries of new (‘more primeval’) identities, violently overriding fragile attempts at preservation.”

Gačanica: “Hide-and-seek game”, see: http://www.dwp-balkan.org/en/blog_one.php?cat_id=8&text_id=7

Despite the neglect, ignorance, and cultural battles over the meaning of the monument, there have been at least three restorations between 2005 and 2009 (Gačanica, 2020, p.70). Furthermore, different people organize regular cleaning actions. Lastly, the Monument is still used for the annual commemoration practices of the “Association of Anti-Fascists and Fighters of the National Liberation War” (NOR) Mostar, and the “Federation of Anti-Fascists and National Liberation Army” (SABNOR) (Stadler, 2017, p.17; Gačanica, 2020, p.69).

Volunteer clean up activities 2012. Haris Idriz

Additionally, there is a wide array of activities that take place at the monument. As well as the previously mentioned art performances, there are excursions by the Mostar Summer Youth Program to encounter historical but also aesthetic aspects of the monument. There are also the many diverse individual encounters that people have with the monument. To make these encounters more visible became the objective of the book-project for our interlocutors.

The (Un)forgotten City as an archive

“[…] maybe we can’t change anything today, but if we collect some things and we build [an] archive for [the] future, you know, people will know it was possible. There were people who were doing some things […] it’s very important to keep the door open for possibility of change. Even though we don’t see the change here.”


Echoing these words from Aida[1]One of the three authors, who we describe in more detail in the introduction., we consider the book-project to be an example of an activist archive. Here we refer to the concept that was introduced by Doreen Lee (2016) and later used by Larisa Kurtović (2018) in relation to the post-socialist context of ex-Yugoslavia. Since Aida, Marko, and others involved in the project have academic backgrounds, they were familiar with this anthropological perspective on archives and they present this perspective through the medium of the book. But what is this type of archive about?

Doreen Lee first used the term in the context of the transition to a post-Suharto Indonesia. She approaches activism “as lived experience to show how the intensity of political life bridges public and private domains, and individual and collective memories” (Lee, 2016, p.3). This understanding of activism highlights the interactions and relationships between official histories and collective memory. Through activities organized as part of the Indonesian student movement, such as film screenings, the students were reminded of their own power and how it manifests in a society in transition to democracy. Thus, in connection to Jacques Derridas’ description of an “archive fever” (Lee, 2016, p.11), Lee explains how the context of this Indonesian student movement formed a particular conception of archives.

“Pemuda[2]Indonesian word for youth. fever suggests that Indonesian students had such an attachment to a historical understanding of their present-day selves that they sought to document each action, each gesture, at every turn, through every medium available.”

Lee, 2016, p.29

Consequently, the students’ impulsive action created the possibility of opening up critical discourse to counter-hegemonic imaginings and forming the archive as a “parallel system of political enunciations by youth” (Lee, 2016, p.30). Therefore, this type of Indonesian activism was essential for political demands and through the activist archive the student movement was able to mediate political reforms. Thus, the idea of this activist archive contains both,

“the actual, material archives kept and mobilized by several generations of Indonesian youth activists, as well as the more diffuse ways in which the political memories of earlier moments of protest come to shape and guide new political projects.”

Kurtović, 2018, p. 5

Larisa Kurtović also makes use of the concept of the activist archive. She argues that the point of the archive is not merely to “capture a form of repetitive, nostalgic desire to document and assemble traces of a past political project in a ‘historically charged present’” (Kurtović, 2018, p.5; cf. Lee, 2016, p.11). Rather, it is more about the archive fever. Hence, she analyzes the work of contemporary artists and feminist activists in BiH. A feminist artist collective from Sarajevo called Crvena created the Archive of Antifascist Struggle of Women of BiH and Yugoslavia[3]See more about it at: https://afzarhiv.org/. with an aim to “recover a form of transformational historical subjectivity” (Kurtović, 2018, p.1). These activist archives are repositories of neglected ideas, as well as being “new kinds of political stages where post-socialist countries have had to negotiate their dominant historical narratives” (Kurtović, 2018, p.2). After 2014, and following a wave of socio-economic protests in BiH, new forms of political critique emerged that revisited (the ideas of) the old socialist era. These archives can be seen as places of critique, where “the expectant and conjured […] dreams of comforting futures and foreboding of future failures” (Kurtović, 2018, p.4) can be expressed. They attempt to go beyond the two poles of neoliberal nationalist perspectives, on one hand, and the glorifying of socialism, on the other. Thus, Kurtović and Lee point to the new possibilities that may emerge if we rethink the conceptualization of the archives formed by different activists and recognize how powerful and transformative activist archives can be.

Starting from this understanding, we interpret the The (Un)forgotten City as an activist archive that speaks to the ethno-nationalist hegemony of the country. The authors themselves are taking part in an “activist experiment” (as Aida told us in the interview), attempting to form a wider perspective and linking together the local, the national, and the transnational. Through this activist archive of everyday life, which includes a variety of experiences and memories, they give a voice to the residents of Mostar as storytellers and claim a space for everyday history. With The (Un)forgotten City, they produce knowledge of everyday life connections and of the events surrounding the monument. The book presents the Partisan Monument as a place of reconnection with the past, but also of visions for the future (as we have heard from Marko in our interview). One example of the diverse personal associations with the monument is seen in the conversation between a young woman, Agnes, and an older man (name unknown) who defended the city of Mostar during WWII. They met at an honor march to mark the anniversary of the liberation of the city:

“After he told us his life story, the only thing he bade us to do was to try and preserve something he once defended, as he has no strength left in him to come back here. So, I think that was what I recall most vividly, I don’t know if I will ever be able to forget this. After all that, I wondered why people refuse to protect something as important as the Partisan Cemetery.”

Agnes Ćišić, The (Un) Forgotten City, p. 75

Because of vivid personal experiences like this, it was even more important for the authors to pursue connections to the monument that would otherwise merge into one another because no state or official institution would collect them.

“Things, which would, if we don‘t collect them, look like as they never happened. […] It is a powerful reminder that shared life was normality.” (Aida)

As Aida told us in one interview, not the conventional forms, but the new forms of collaboration and performances matter to them. Therefore, the activists go beyond the paradigm of ethno-national division. The authors refuse to portray the Partisan Monument as an object that is defined by ethno-national divisions and their either-or positions.

“It is like writing a thesis on capitalism, where the aim of the thesis can be ‘have it done’ or the aim can be to get a document that whoever gets to it, can obtain the impression not just of ‘how things are’ but also how things might be, and in such a shape, inspire the reader to do something further with the information learned.”


This statement from Marko reiterates Kurtović’s idea of the activist archive, and further supports the need to address different levels of connections to the monument in the book-project. It also emphasizes the importance of engagement with the inhabitants of Mostar and shows that the project is about finding an active way to collect more visions of the future. Furthermore, it is about finding alternative ways of preserving and representing memories and making use of a more-than-one perspective, as Aida described it to us in our interview, as their working method to effectively engage in polyvalent discourses.

Challenges of the activism around the book

To make this complex and ambiguous reality around the Partisan Monument visible in contrast to dominant presentations, the activists behind the book-project had to deal with some challenges.

“It could be tricky to approach a sensitive topic like this one. People who are next door neighbors have different views on Yugoslavia and its monuments. Some are neutral, some are very critical and some glorify it.”


This sensitivity that Vlatka mentions regarding the different perceptions of the monument’s heritage points to the challenges that activists in Mostar, more generally, face. As our interlocutor Marko and his colleagues Gustav Wollentz and Nourah Sammar explain in a case study about youth activism in Mostar, politically active people have to deal with the hegemony of the ethno-nationalist division in the field of politics (Wollentz, Barišić, Sammar 2019, p.197-215). In their case study, a monument to miners was established through bottom-up activism in a neighborhood of Mostar that has a strong connection to the industrial heritage of socialist Yugoslavia (ibid, p.201). Two former monuments in this neighborhood, built during the socialist era to honor miners, had been demolished during the war and/or removed afterwards. A new monument was then erected commemorating Croat soldiers and thus the former workers’ identity was replaced by a nationalist symbol (ibid, p.204). It was clear to the activists that if they contested the new monument and thus ethno-nationalist politics of the so-called Croat-faction of the city, these politicians would frame this as the activism of Bosniaks, and take advantage of it for their divisive narratives (ibid). Therefore, they attempted to counter such policies implemented from above by ethno-national elites with a more bottom-up approach, integrating the community of concerned people in the neighborhood. The activists aimed to make collective values visible through the new monument, values that had been obscured by the silencing and removal of what remained of the common (socialist) past of the neighborhood. Thus, the activists intervened in the polarized field of politics and had to be highly aware of the output of their activism.

“But for Partisan Memorial you can’t easily put a label. [S]o that’s why […] when they try to delegitimize it they say it’s an evil communism because that’s the way you can delegitimize it […] there is what people think and there is what politicians and institutions think and do, those are two different things […] institutions are just repeating powerful voices of ethno-national elites, they are trying to solidify group belongings […] and they are trying to explain that there is no alternative, that what we have now is the only possible reality.”


The challenges described above also influenced the activism of the people behind the book-project. The antifascist meaning of the Partisan Monument (which is neglected by dominant Croat history-claiming) is referred to in some parts of the book, but it is not at the center of the book’s representations of the monument. Nor did it appear to be the main motivation for our interlocutors’ engagement. The people we spoke to mentioned diverse motives for why they became active, such as the appreciation of the monument’s aesthetic.

The fountain and detail from the northern wall 2016. Zlata Hadzihasanovic
Serpentines with stone organs 2016. Zlata Hadzihasanovic

Nevertheless, one of the main motives behind the project seems to be anti-nationalism. The activists have a critical standpoint towards the ethno-national politics of division in Mostar and BiH and are afraid of the loss of a common past belonging to the people of the city.

“And with our project and with everything we were trying to say ‘No! We had a different life before!’, and maybe even if there are no alternatives possible, this is not […] the only reality that exists. […] and we hope it should not be like that, that it can be different […] options should be open […]”


Because the authors and editors of the book-project want to pave the way for a future without these ethno-national divisions, the Yugoslav past plays a crucial role for their activism. As Aida describes, one of their main goals is to intervene in the exclusionary narratives of memory politics promoted by nationalists and to make visible that there was indeed a time where the coexistence of the people was not characterized by division. They aim to show that it is possible to achieve this again in the future. Hence, although they care very much about the Partisan Monument and have pursued this project with the goal of preserving it, the activists also integrated the opinions of people who don’t care about the monument, and even some who want it to be removed. By including these perspectives, they are more inclusive regarding the controversies and ambiguities towards the socialist/antifascist past within the current population of Mostar. It seems to us that this effectively allows the activists to not get caught in the division-paradigm.

“We wanted to have a little bit of a balanced approach where we would not only ask people about Partiza who remember it fondly ‘Oooh this is where my youth-pictures have been taken, etc’ but also those who think differently […] I think that gives people, especially outsiders, a little bit of a clearer idea of why some see the monument as a problem and why it was unfortunately neglected by politicians for a long time.”


When asked how they decided on this approach for the book-project, Vlatka refers to “good anthropology”, which would always try to show more than one perspective on a certain context. This shows how the anthropological, or more generally the academic, background of the activists had a great impact on the whole book-project. They are even familiar with Kurtović’s definition of activist archive and use it as a term themselves when they talk about the book. It seems that this anthropologically influenced knowledge has helped them to deal with the challenges that their intervention in the politics of memories around the Partisan Monument had to face.

In addition to the challenges explained above, another thing that influences their activism is conceptions of so-called civil society in Mostar.

Civil society concept: negotiation field

Concerning the concept of civil society in this context, we find a complex field of negotiations and socio-spatial relations. The dynamics around the monument are influenced by many different actors: antifascist veterans organizing petitions, funding and commemorations; the city, as owner and responsible for maintenance and protection via Agency Old Town Mostar (Agencija Stari grad Mostar); and the Institute for the Protection of Monuments within the Federal Ministry of Culture and Sport (the body responsible for any expenses relating to the monument).


However, the activists saw the need to get politically active for the Partisan Monument, as its maintenance and restorations did not seem to be being covered by the official institutions. The whole complex of responsible institutions and official budgets seemed to be lacking transparency and the activists had no trust in them. Marko told us that it really depended on individuals within the institutions, some of whom made a personal effort to maintain the Partisan Monument.

“So I want to say that in all this misery of the institutions that are left after the Yugoslav collapse, still here and there you can find a person who is willing to do something, so without this person I really don’t know what I would do, he really helped, despite the institution on a collective level is not doing its job.”


Considering classic concepts of civil society, one would imagine NGOs being active on behalf of a site like the Partisan Monument, which has definite historic and aesthetic value, in addition to the official state institutions that are responsible for it. But we didn’t hear of any NGOs working to maintain the Partisan Monument and as the following quote from Marko shows, the role of NGOs, as classic civil society actors, must be questioned critically:

“And I was always asking, you know, ‘what are all these people doing?’ you know, ‘what’s happening? What’s this NGO? What are they talking about?’. So complete blank in a town that has, remember this note, 700 NGOs. Mostar has 700 NGOs. […] and in that kind of a town I didn’t even really know what NGO actually was and what was happening and how do you even get to them. […] So, I just want to tell you how little these people are engaged with the local community and how they are not existing. They live in a parallel universe […] and that’s why I’m not so happy about this work, because it just perpetuates and doesn’t really resolve anything.”


The activists have a critical standpoint regarding NGOs, as there are so many of them in the city of Mostar, but they are seemingly not active in favor of local needs. Still, the publishing of the book depended on personal contacts to some people working for two NGOs that applied for funding for the printing costs. This was mainly due to the precarious financial situation the activists found themselves in, which meant that publishing the book with private money was not possible.


The activism around the book-project shows that what is usually considered civil society is not capable of maintaining the Partisan Monument or preventing it from deteriorating, which leads people like Marko and others to get involved. The previously mentioned restoration policies and budgets additionally reveal that the benefit from civil society resources is highly dependent on political agendas. The Partisan Monument, as one of the two symbols of the city, was not restored, while the Old Bridge and other (mainly religious) monuments were. Here, international players like UNESCO or the EU also come into play and it seems that the socialist heritage of a site like the Partisan Monument is not only a problem for local elites. The selective memory politics of the EU, which peculiarly obscures the socialist period, has also been analyzed in the context of Sarajevo by Piro Rexhepi (cf. Rexhephi, 2018).

The lack of trust in state institutions and NGOs seems to push people to get active themselves. They are not only ‘passive space-users’ but have the capacity to (re)negotiate their political positions and their identity. In addition to the book-project, there are also different online platforms and communities of people from Mostar, where they exchange lots of content connected to the prewar history of the city and more concrete of the Partisan Monument. There exists a facebook-group called “Partizansko spomen-groblje – Help to preserve famous WW2 Memorial in Mostar“ which has over 2000 members and where you can find present-day photos and comments on activities at the Monument. In this way, they keep the heritage of Mostar, based on their life experiences and memories, in a self-organized space. What connects them is a nostalgia that they share. This nostalgia’s potential for inspiring action will be explored in the following section.

Role of nostalgia

Monica Palmberger analyzed nostalgia during her fieldwork between 2005-2008 in Mostar as a “widespread social phenomenon” (Palmberger, 2008, p.357). A certain ‘Yugo-nostalgia’ can be observed as a “counter-discourse to the respective dominant public discourse” (ibid) in all the Yugoslav successor states. Here, the Yugoslav past is contrasted to the present and future, which are both shaped by insecurity, and thus the past becomes something to be longed for. The phenomenon of nostalgia as it is used in Palmberger’s analysis is not exclusively directed backwards but is strongly connected with visions of the future (cf. ibid). As mentioned above, there are some platforms (other), mostly online, where people from Mostar share nostalgia for the prewar times of the city. These platforms and what was happening there actually inspired the activists of the book-project. However, the activists also question these platforms’ potential for action.

It seems that the activists themselves do not identify with this particular ‘Yugo-nostalgia’, as they were born shortly before, during, or even after the dissolution of Yugoslavia and thus have few memories, if any, of that time. However, they connect with the nostalgia shared by many people from their city and this plays a crucial role for the utopia they formulate. The Partisan Monument itself thus becomes the linking agent, the “powerful reminder […] that shared life was normality” (cf. Aida). Additionally, the book-project includes photos and stories of the ways in which people currently spend time at, and connect to, the Partisan Monument in their everyday life. Thus, the activists of the book-project strengthen the perspective of everyday life as neither the framework for the repetition of the usual, nor the framework for violence, but rather, as the framework for resisting and questioning the dominant ethno-nationalist paradigm. Contrasting the (nostalgic) memories of the Partisan Monument, and how people in Mostar perceive it in their everyday-life, with dominant presentations of the monument, the book-project transforms notions of nostalgia into an anchor for a utopia that contradicts present-day images of how (and how not) to live together.


Heritage and collective memory are ongoing processes, with many different actors highlighting certain narratives that help to construct particular identities. At the same time other narratives are marginalized. Thus, the past of a certain region, city, nation, or people can be envisioned in various and possibly contradictory ways depending on their collectivities and their (political) visions of the present and for the future. In the context of the Partisan Monument in Mostar, there are complex ideological struggles that are ongoing. The same thing can be said for the engagement of people in the city. The monument is surrounded by changing associations, meanings, and by the dynamics of the city. It seems to be influenced, on the one hand, by non-transparent activities involving the management of administration and financial flows on a local and international level. On the other hand, there are the people of Mostar, the grassroots, whose perceptions, and shared realities are notably different.

The book-project MOSTARSKA HURQUALYA – (Ne)Zaboravljeni grad is a powerful tool to reveal this contrast and to make space for a more-than-one perspective. As an activist archive, it not only gathers nostalgia for the prewar era of the Partisan Monument (and the city). It also brings together present-day connections and alternative imaginations for the future. This type of activist archive is extremely relevant to current anthropological discussions concerning the potential of new forms of archives, helping us to rethink our conventional understandings of archives.

The book-project includes diverse and contradicting visions regarding the past and the present (of the Partisan Monument). These are represented in a sort of mosaic, which allows each of them to be visible. Thus, the activists behind the book-project open up an inclusive space for the complex realities that exist in Mostar. Although strongly sharing the desire to rehabilitate the Partisan Monument as a safe place for just being, as its architect had originally designed it to be, the people we spoke to also see meaning in the beauty of the place, its peculiarity, and the possibility for social change that it represents. For them, despite policies of division, the Partisan Monument still represents a place of unity.

Hence, the book-project and the activism surrounding it can inspire grassroots initiatives all around the globe that are facing similarly complex contexts for their activism. Particularly in regard to the rise of nationalisms, their example can remind all of us how fast the common sense of communities can be turned around. The (Un)forgotten City shows us how strong bottom-up anti-nationalist interventions can become if they manage to avoid lapsing into the same mechanisms of exclusion. Furthermore, we see that anthropological insights can help activists to adapt their strategies to complex fields of politics. For archives, this means actively going beyond dominant representations, and thus doing justice to the various ambiguities that are encountered.


Although our field research was not possible under the circumstances of the corona virus pandemic, we were able to explore opinions and impressions of politics and activities around the Partisan Monument thanks to our interlocutors. They made it possible for us to gather vivid images of the monument and the context around it.


Bevan, Robert (2006): The Destruction of Memory. Architecture at War, London: Reaktion Books.

Carabelli, Guilia (2018): The Divided City and the Grassroots. The (Un)making of Ethnic Divisions in Mostar, Singapore: Springer Nature.

Gačanica, Lejla (2020): “The Partisan Necropolis: Mostar’s Symbol of broken memories”, in: Novo, Lejla Odobašić; Zini, Claudia: “Unfolding Sarajevo”, pp.62-72, Sarajevo/Zagreb: Buybook

Ilić, Kristina; Škrbić Alempijević, Nevena (2017): “Cultures of memory, landscapes of forgetting: The Case Study of the Partisan Memorial Cemetery in Mostar”, Zagreb: Stud. ethnol. Croat., vol. 29, pp. 73–101.

Kurtović, Larisa (2018): “An archive to build a future: The recovery and rediscovery of the history of socialist associations in contemporary Bosnia-Herzegovina”, in: History and Anthropology, vol. 30, pp. 20-46, London: Taylor and Francis Group.

Lee, Doreen (2016): Activist archives: youth culture and the political past in Indonesia, Georgia (USA): Duke University Press.

Palmberger, Monica (2016): How Generations Remember. Conflicting Histories and Shared Memories in Post-War Bosnia and Herzegovina, in: Vertovec, Steven; van der Veer, Peter; Shachar, Ayelet: “Global Diversities Series”, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Palmberger, Monica (2013): “Renaming of Public Space. A Policy of Exclusion in Bosnia and Herzegovina”, in: MMG Working Paper (12-02), Göttingen: Max Planck Society.

Rexhepi, Piro (2018): “The Politics of Postcolonial Erasure in Sarajevo”, in: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, vol. 20, London: Taylor and Francis Group.

Stadler, Janes-Laslo (2017): „Die Partisanennekropole in Mostar“, in: RIHA Journal (0172), Munich: Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte.

Wollentz, Gustav; Barisic, Marko; Sammar, Nourah (2019): “Youth activism and dignity in post-war Mostar – envisioning a shared future through heritage”, in: Space and Polity, vol. 23, London: Taylor and Francis Group.

Internet sources

Gačanica, Lejla: “Hide-and-seek game”, in: Dealing with the past, http://www.dwp-balkan.org/en/blog_one.php?cat_id=8&text_id=7 [last access: 07.03.21].


1 One of the three authors, who we describe in more detail in the introduction.
2 Indonesian word for youth.
3 See more about it at: https://afzarhiv.org/.