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.
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“
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.”
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.“
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.“
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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“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,  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 NeretvaRiver 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
The diver moves on, disengaging himself from the ground, lifting his gaze to observe a shoal of fish playfully crossing his path,
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.
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.
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: 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.  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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.”
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.”
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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.”
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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)
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[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].