On autonomies and anatomies of post-2015 migration to and from post-Yugoslavia

Danijela Majstorović is Professor of Linguistics and Cultural Studies at the University of Banja Luka’s English department teaching Discourse Analysis and Cultural Studies. After completing her MA at Ohio University in 2003 and PhD at the University in Banja Luka in 2006, she was a visiting researcher at Lancaster University in 2006, a Fulbright fellow at UCLA in 2012-2013, a Canada Research Chair in Cultural Studies Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Alberta in 2014 and a visiting researcher at the University of Indiana’s Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures department in 2016. Her research interests involve critical discourse analysis, critical theory, feminist theory, post- and decolonial theory, and post- socialist studies. Currently, she is a Humboldt Experienced Research Fellow studying discourses and affects of social protests and third wave migrations in post-2015 Western Balkans at Justus Liebig University in Giessen, Germany.[*]

Asim (36): This is exodus, before people left and came back, this time people won’t be coming back any more (Ovo je egzodus, prije su ljudi išli i vraćali se, ljudi se neće više vraćati)

Bosnians and Herzegovinians queuing in front of embassies leaving for the EU

On why we leave: the genealogies of migration

Bosnia and Herzegovina is emptying out. After twenty-five years of “peace” following the Dayton agreement in 1995, almost 20% of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s population recorded in the 2013 census is no longer there. They are not leaving with a bang, but quietly and steadily adding to the 2 million diaspora. When public protesting did not yield change, no officials went to prison, and schools remained divided (albeit under one roof), people began to resist with their feet. Aside from a few individuals, there has been no political organization able to articulate, fight for and occupy a political space untouched by the ruling ethnocapitalists who have seized power while dispensing jobs and deciding on life and death in this part of the world.

As new and old dispositifs of domination and exploitation become unbearable, so do the subjective stakes within their respective struggles and clashes. And the subjective stakes are filled with the affects of repulsion, anxiety, empty wallets and unpaid bills as well as the fears about future. Postwar bodies in Bosnia and Herzegovina seem to have little strength left in them so they depart never to return. Their stories are fragmented and incomplete, ridden with disappointment and regrets for not having left earlier. Critical migration scholars are calling this news approach “the autonomy of migration”– a distinct perspective on ‘politics of mobility’- stressing the subjective and affective practices that materially constitute the field of such a politics.

I have come to Germany to do research about the third wave Bosnian migrants who have been coming to work here since 2014. Studying the migrants’ discourses revealed that people didn’t want their children “to live there,” there being Bosnia and Herzegovina. They came to Germany because here, however slow, they hoped to make some progress and not “spin their wheels” in collective entrapment. I came to study their discourses but what I brutally became aware of, was that violence, domination and oppression also lived in their bodies. They have felt them in their blood, flesh and bones just like I have in mine.


Growing up in the most beautiful country in the world

An obscure rapper under the name of Danov came up with a video on Tito and Yugoslavia. For the first time in decades, I heard AVNOJ (Antifascist Council of the National Liberation of Yugoslavia) being mentioned in a pop cultural text. “Germans invade in the spring, they do, making a movement that clings, yo, liberate their territory, making the AVNOJ committee.” One of the first comments underneath the video posted on Youtube said: ‘ways to learn a historical figure in one’s video.’ Then it summarized the artist’s, rather simplistic, understanding of Yugoslavia:

Europe’s third biggest army, yo

Strongest passport ever-seen, yo,

Praise and respect globally, prrr

No racists and poverty, yeah

What a beautiful country, yo

Tito gang, Tito gang, Tito gang

In today’s America, where Trump has designated Antifa a terrorist organization, a hip-hop fantasy of a country in which the antifascist struggles expelled the Nazis and in which ‘there were no racists and poverty’, a claim not completely true but also to a large extent striking the right cord. A couple of days ago, commenting on the US race riots, American rapper Ice Cube tweeted a photo of Yugoslav hero Lepa Radić. The photo of the 17-year old partisan was taken as she was about to be publicly hanged by the Nazis for refusing to reveal the names of the leaders of the Communist Party in 1943. At her execution, she shouted: “Long live the Communist Party, and the partisans! Fight, people, for your freedom! Do not surrender to the evildoers! I will be killed, but there are those who will avenge me!”

For a child growing up in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), I had a very strong sense of belonging and allegiance but also of an ethos built around ‘workers of the world unite’, ‘learn, learn and learn’ and ‘let us protect brotherhood and unity like the pupil of our eye’. As a child, I believed our country was the best and the most beautiful in the world with my town of Bihać surrounded by the most beautiful river, Una. I grew up in a very Yugoslav, mostly working class family spread all over the country, from Dalmatia to Vojvodina, with both grandpas in the partisans. My parents, both born in the countryside, received their university degrees in the late 1970s as education opportunities expanded for those born in the early 1950s. When they graduated, there took up jobs in towns. I lived in Veljka Vlahovića street, went to AVNOJ elementary, was raised by a Catholic nanny and hung out with friends careless about their religion or ethnicity. In many ways, my family was similar to many others for whom the war was a moment of shock as well as of betrayal and lies they were later told by television or by themselves in the afterlife ridden with trauma and loss.

The Yugoslav future was replaced by the Serb, Croat and Bosniak and the new nationalism was stifling. The most beautiful country in the world was no longer socialist or beautiful- the 1990s wars were to smash it and transform. We ended up living in post-Dayton Bosnia and Herzegovina, consisting of two, more or less ethnically cleansed entities: Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina including the Brčko district. Spoken “languages” were divided across ethnic lines into Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian – all part of a political reality that brought the war to an end reducing in the process my world to an ethno-nationalist straightjacket.

In May 1992, because of the war, we would leave Bihać never to return. It’s funny when you think now about what were just whispers back then. My dad hearing about him being followed, my mom overhearing two random men in our yard asking the neighbor if we still lived there and that they were going to ‘kill us all anyway’, or about neighbors sneaking weapons underneath young tree seedlings in broad daylight. Nobody would have suspected it for it was spring but whenever there were weapons, there was a war too. My sister and I were to finish elementary school and stay with the family in Vojvodina while the parents stayed in Bihać. We were lucky to not have to end up in a camp. Twenty or so years later, when the Middle Eastern, Southeast Asian and North African refugees started their long journey away from the war, they ended up in and around the camps, a.k.a. reception centers, around my hometown, close to the border with Croatia now part of the European Union. It gives me chills to read about unchaperoned kids there- the history of forced migration and humiliation repeating because of some neverending war.

In 1993 I was in Banja Luka, coming of age, getting an education, still in Bosnia and Herzegovina but after the peace in 1995, a very different from the one I was born in with borders, distinctions, different versions of ‘what happened’. Internet came to Bosnia around 1998 and international organizations two years earlier. I got a job at one of them and, at 18, I was translating for high government officials, Office of the High Representative, EU monitoring mission, UN international police task force, and random researchers. The decade long postwar enthusiasm gave many of the people from my generation some hope that things were going to look up.


Western frontiers and eastern children

I knew occasional mobility would be good and one needed to discover what was outside even out of pure curiosity. Stipends for postwar Bosnian kids were ample, all you needed were good grades. I quit my UN job as a 3rd year student of English language and literature and my first trip abroad was the United States in 1998. For the next two decades almost, I would go back and forth spending my formative years there and getting an education. The second time, 11th September happened brining about the air of uncertainty reminiscent of the Bosnian war and persisting to this day. Funnily, it was in the US that I learned about Marxism, feminism and poststructuralism. It was there where I first went to protests against the war in Afghanistan as well as the first pro-choice protests. I was lucky to have had good mentors.

Being abroad and with no strings attached, I felt a strange kind of lightness, as if my Balkan ‘backpack’ was no longer there. In my early twenties, I felt like a 19th century flaneur, roaming around the New World modernity of New York or Los Angeles against the backdrop of the postsocialist ruins I departed from. Reading anything from Marx to bell hooks, from Foucault to Kristeva. Watching the ethnographic cinema of Trinh T. Minha, the cinéma vérité of Frederick Wiseman as well as of Dziga Vertov, learning “not to speak about but speak nearby.” In my twenties and early thirties, I was a migrant student living on New York’s Bowery, Venice beach, in Athens, Ohio, and in the Canadian prairies. Nonetheless, I still dreamt of Banja Luka’s alleys and Bihać’s apartment buildings in Ozimice, smelling of mortar, glue and progress, connecting, comparing, contrasting. Conflating here and there, then and now. Trying to figure it all out.

Later in New York, ex-Yugoslavs would ask me if I was from a ‘mixed’ marriage. “Why,” I would ask. “Because of your attitude and name,” they would answer. As if this ‘attitude’ was to unveil a shibboleth that was to tell who you really were. Having the context but finding a voice, at 27 I went back to Bosnia to shoot a movie on turbo folk, write a PhD dissertation critiquing the Office of the High Representative, and be among the first teaching assistants to get a job at the University in Banja Luka in 2001- back then there was a shortage of TAs. I truly believed that knowledge needed to come from a small place. I didn’t know back then it was called ‘decolonizing academia’.

And then, in 2008, perhaps by chance, a rather motley crew of post-Yugoslavs – scholars, journalists, artists, dramaturges, some diasporic and some still “in the (former) country” – met in Mostar. Then we met again in Sarajevo and in Belgrade and wherever the road would take us. Its major trait was a critical stance towards the newly created ethno capitalist and patriarchal order. We argued, wrote, debated anything from the counter-archive of the partisan art to Yugo nostalgia, from the political economy of the former industrialist giants to the black wave of Yugoslav cinema, from the non-aligned movement to shared spaces in Mortar high school’s bathrooms, from the Antifascist Women’s Front in World War II to Srebrenica genocide.

This was a community crucial for my political coming of age. It existed in occasional encounters and virtually- for us Yugoslavia was not only a relic of the past but a figure of future that was to come, this time only better.  At the time, I would invite some of them to my critical cultural studies classes and the reading group Language, Ideology, Power at the Faculty of Philology consisting of students, professors, and activists. By opening such space at the University, I realized there were young Serb kids ready to critically engage with “difficult topics” such as Omarska concentration camps only 30km away from Banja Luka, participate in placating the street names with the names of WW2 national heroines, and protest against postwar privatizations. This wasn’t just teaching, I felt I was radically restructuring my personal and political life. I’d fallen in love. I needed to leave again, first to UCLA and then the University of Alberta. While writing on the post-Yugoslav peripheries, in the Canadian West, I gave birth to a baby boy with Asian looks and a Canadian passport. I named him Wolf East (Vuk Istok).


The Banja Luka Social Center

Another two years into my temporary North-American exile, I returned to BiH in 2014, a year that had already been marked by the floods and protests of people saying they ‘were hungry in all three languages’. Believing like Rancière that the principal function of politics was the configuration of its proper space as it ultimately gave rise to the appearance of the subject, together with some left-leaning Banja Luka enthusiasts from the LIP reading group, we decided to create such space in an old bey’s house in one of Banja Luka’s neighborhoods. These historic houses belonged to the expelled Banja Luka Muslims, permanently settled elsewhere after the 1990s[1] and the plan was to give one of these houses a new life. The house we rented belonged to the family of late Ahmet Ćejvan in M. Kovačevića 4, with over 400 square meters of front yard fenced off with two meters high bulwark. After some negotiations, the owners gave their permission to partly reconstruct the place in order to render it utilizable. The house itself, formerly a Merhamet-run soup kitchen, became the Banja Luka Social Center (BASOC), a unique and vibrant place in postwar Bosnia brewing events tackling memory politics, workers’ rights, social justice and feminist politics for the next six years.

Since 2014, I tried to balance my social engagement in different social justice and feminist movements, initiatives for the 1990s wars, possibilities of communism while being a working mother. Demanding social justice above ethnic justice was at times “a militant utopianism, a provisional Marxism without guarantees, a cultural studies that is anticipatory, interventionist, and provisional” (Denzin 2009: 200). I would be lying if I said it wasn’t hard. By engaging simultaneously in ‘doing research’ and ‘performing resistance’ while taking space to nurture this front, I was committed to providing the grounds for a liberation practice and a pedagogy of freedom, against the systematic production of poverty and inequality insisting on reflective memory politics and ‘pedagogies of hope…(which) offer ways of holding fraudulent political regimes accountable for their actions’ (Denzin 2009: 47).


Occupy or immigrate: on migrant affects and bodies

The heaviness accumulated when a politically powerful man sabotaged my tenure case in the university demanding that the work I published in the period between my assistant professorship and associate professorship was to be completely disregarded because of its date. The tenure procedure dragged on from December 2017 until March 2018 when I almost lost my job, some said ‘because of my politics’ but in the end I managed to get tenure and a sabbatical year. Around that time, I also began researching the Justice for David movement triggered by the death of a 21-year David Dragičević, supposedly killed by the police. In the Federation of BiH, people gathered in support of finding the culprits behind the murder of the young Dženan Memić, suspected committed by also someone close to power. Their struggles started the mass protests to unite the divided post-Dayton Bosnia in a plea for justice surpassing the ethnocapitalist divisions. David’s father, Davor Dragičević, insisted that ‘the State killed his son’ and this hijacking of society by the state has become a source of fear for many that a young person could die and nobody held accountable. Fearing for his life too, especially after December 30th 2018, when he escaped the heavily armed police, the news confirmed that Davor applied for political asylum in Austria.

I could not stay in my country and my body knew it. Staging an unsuspected autoimmune attack, my body turned against itself, the next destination being the hematology clinic, biopsies, the uncertainty. Despite the cells normalizing after a year, the cold-agglutinins stayed on requiring regular check-ups and control. After temporarily leaving in 1998, 2001, 2007 and 2012, after which I enthusiastically came back either to work, shoot movies, protest or love, leaving for Germany in 2018 was different. It was coupled by a fear for life. A life that would be unbearable regardless of whether we stayed or left.

Faced with the devastation and strengthening of the postwar elites its aftermath, in a permanent transition to Europe, I saw people protesting and then leaving massively in the third largest wave of migration since World War 2. This migration was a social movement just as was the migration of our Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian counterparts who were running away from their wars and violence, their poverty and unbearability strongly embedded in genealogies and anatomies of their migration. They left because of the 2013 war that never ended too, something that remains a blind spot when talking about the refugee crisis and bare life, not just in the Middle East but in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and some Maghreb countries too.

What is today’s Bosnia? The third wave of migrants coming in or leaving did not leave their homes just because of the economics but also because of the politics directly affecting their soon-to-be surplus bodies or living labor to be absorbed and exploited by Western capitalism. For those who stayed and continued living in a segregated society, living in the absence of war meant living in what Berlant (2011) saw as an extremely violent promise, norm or fantasy of the ‘good life’. Yet, our affective attachments were incongruous within our present; rather than helping us to go beyond the confines of the unequal and exploitative relationships including injustice, we found ourselves in the illusion of a better future or in the affective relationship of ‘cruel optimism’ (Berlant 2011: 24) with the past weighing ‘like a nightmare on the brains of the living’ (Marx 1975) and the weight of the present (Ashbery in Berlant 2011) with all of its contradictions.

One way to address the contradictions is to create long-term perspectives of solidarity – as Bosnia is both the country of destination as well as the country of migrants’ origin, there may be better chances of thinking integration, of “us” being and fighting together as some united peripheral selves. Another way is to acquiesce to its being a ‘waiting room’ and a ‘parking lot’ as white Bosnian bodies take up care or construction jobs in Germany, this time legally because of the 2015 West Balkan regulation, and a ‘dumping ground’ for non-white Syrians, Afghanis and Pakistanis beaten up and pushed back from the EU border by the Croatian police with no end in sight. This is the Bosnia to leave and never look back.

ME migrants in camp Vučjak close to the Croatian border in northwestern BiH (Krajina)[2].

Right now, there is no discourse there other than racism and there is no dialogue with racists. The mountain of Plješevica at the BiH and Croatian border was deforested recently so that the Croatian police could have a better view of where the migrants were attempting to cross the border. A joint criminal enterprise of ecocide and xenophobia, according to Amir Husak. To hell with these metaphors, is Krajina the place where they will see their “kraj” (end), their bodies buried next to Bosnian bodies from two world wars and the 1990s war? They took their children and packed their belongings in plastic bags just as we did in 1992, never settling, forever nomadic. Passing by a baustelle in Germany smelling of mortar and glue reminds me of my Bihać childhood. This time, there is no smell of progress but of camps and violence in its aftermath.

[1] According to several sources that include the census, Banja Luka’s Islamic Community’s records, local parish office and the Minister of the Interior, there are around 200 non-Serbs killed, 150 missing and a bulk of 70,000 people that fled the city during the 1992-95 BiH war.

[2] A notorious example of such practice is the makeshift over-capacitated camp Vučjak near Bihać, in close proximity to uncleared landmines and toxic waste located 2 km from the Croatian and EU border. The camp now closed used to operate under the worst of conditions including lack of food, water and spreading of disease and is an example of a local site created through largely translocal (city government) and transnational governance and crisis management embedded in the European migration regimes and migration related policies.

[*] Majstorović published over 25 journal articles, co-authored a monograph Youth Ethnic and National Identity in Bosnia and Herzegovina: Social Science Approaches (Palgrave, 2013), and authored Diskursi periferije (Discourses of/on Periphery) (Biblioteka XX vek, Belgrade) and Diskurs, moć i međunarodna zajednica (Discourse, Power and the International Community) (Filozofski fakultet u Banjoj Luci, 2007). She edited three volumes: Living With Patriarchy: Discursive Construction of Gendered Subjects Acros Cultures (John Benjamins, 2011), U okrilju nacije (In the Embrace of a Nation) (Centar za kulturni i socijalni popravak, 2011) and Kritičke kulturološke studije u postjugoslovenskom prostoru (Critical Cultural Studies in Post-Yugoslav Spaces) (Filološki fakultet u Banjoj Luci, 2012). She is one of the founders of the Banja Luka Social Center (BASOC) and the program directress of the feminist festival BLASFEM in Banja Luka.

2 thoughts on “On autonomies and anatomies of post-2015 migration to and from post-Yugoslavia

  1. Pingback: Nightcap | Notes On Liberty

  2. Pingback: The geopolitical unmoored: from exemplarity to deprovincialization | The Disorder Of Things

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s