My book launch talk in Kozarac


Good evening. Thank you for coming. It is great to see so many friends and Kozarcani here.

My name is Sebina and I am an anthropologist originally from Kevljani.

I am here to talk about my new book Remaking Kozarac, which is the result of over ten years’ research into the remarkable story of how you and your friends and families have returned and rebuilt this wonderful little town.

An unexpected success 

I don’t think even many people involved in this story understand quite what an amazing thing it is that you have achieved here.

Serb nationalists made such a huge effort to ensure that they killed anybody who could organise this community – from ordinary people like my brother Nijaz to well-known figures like Dr. Eso – that is all the more remarkable; but just in case, they also destroyed homes and buildings so thoroughly that they did not believe anybody would want to come back.

But also this is what I call contested return. The authorities who did this were still in place, and refusing to acknowledge the reality of their crimes, when the first people bravely crossed from Lusci Palanka and slept under tents.

There are very few places in Bosnia, perhaps even the world, where ordinary people have managed to achieve this with so little governmental or external support.

Phases of return 

For me, the story begins with the legendary 17kb that is such a source of pride for this town. This town made its own army before it could return and remake its town. No Sarajevo, no SDA, no nationalist or religious organisations deserve credit for ensuring Bosnia survived at the end of the war. For that we thank Dudak, Alagic, General Cuskic and all those men I watched move north from Babanovac on Vlasic in 1995.

The fact that men from Kozarac started as displaced persons after the camps, fought so heroically in the war, getting so close to this place, only to end up as displaced persons once again in Sanski Most was a tragedy. But the fact that they kept their discipline and used their skills and strength to negotiate and support the early stage of return was crucial to this story, and people like Sead Cirkin and others went on to return when it became possible.

But then came the brilliant, brave women who joined with my friends in Hazelwood in the UK and others to cross the line and insist on their right to visit despite the violence and hatred they faced. But people like Emsuda, Seida and all other colleagues in Srcem do Mira and Izvor didn’t stop there – they have continued as a spine of the returnee community ever since and we owe them a lot.

Having braved the stones, the next task was finding the bones, and Izvor, Edin Ramulic and others did so much to make this happen so that we could eventually find, bury and honour our missing.

Next was building homes and other infrastructure for the community to begin to exist again so that it could provide a life for young people as well as memories for old people.

In the middle phase of return, another fascinating aspect of your story is the relationship between locals and the diaspora. People like Svabo worked so hard to give us a forum to stay connected even if only a small number of people were living in the town. And people like Satko used this to find out what was needed – from basketball courts and the school to the famous fire service – and raise funds outside to make it happen. When real-world networks have so many structural holes thanks to all those people who were missing, virtual networks become a way to bridge the gap, and and other networks that emerged is a wonderful case study of how diaspora communities can support return.

This phase also saw a growing commitment to memorialisation, and this was a very interesting (if sometimes difficult) debate. In my book I write about the campaign for the Omarska memorial and show how well-intentioned but amateurs arriving with a neo-colonial attitude to local actors, actually did more harm than good, and created divisions. Everything you yourselves have done is worth more than any NGO-funded peacemaking or reconciliation effort.

Later, as the bars and cafes filled the main street and part-time returnees from the diaspora filled the streets in the summer times, it looked like Kozarac was back and would be here forever, but in fact many challenges remain for the full-time inhabitants who have remade the town.

It seems every art therapist, spiritual healer, peacemaker and NGO has passed through the town at some point, and all brought their ideas and showed their ignorance of what you have done. They might think of you as victims, perhaps traumatised or needing mediation to talk to each other. In my visits to the peace house I have seen Emsuda and others treat these people with kindness, listen to their ideas and sometimes play the role they want to see, but in reality it was always for their benefit, not for yours.

Kozarac has engaged in various ways with the wider political system around us, from the early election of MPs sitting with Serbs to creating new parties and voting blocs. Politics will always divide communities, and it involves so much compromise, but as long as we all have the interests of the town and its community in mind, we need to always be open to those who we don’t completely agree with.

The last phase of return that I studied was the emergence of businesses like Austronet and Arifagic farms. I write about them in my book because they seem like something new, not just for Kozarac but for Bosnia. Despite their own experiences, and the terrible levels of corruption and incompetence in Bosnian business today, these firms are focused on creating such high standards in every aspect of their work that they exist on their own level, connected to international markets. They are not here for cheap labour, nor freedom from taxes. They are here to create an example of real sustainability and real progress, and I think we need them if Kozarac is to have a sustainable future and jobs for young people.

The innovation, bravery and self-reliance that you have all shown as a community throughout this story is truly remarkable, and I am grateful you gave me the chance to study it and to learn from it. There is nothing you cannot do, in the field of politics or business, if you aim high enough.

The story continues of course, and I only know a tiny part of it, so please forgive me for all the people and things I have missed. But in writing this book, I hope to recognise the amazing achievement of this small town with a big heart, and when every tax-funded NGO expert flies in to each you new made up words like transitional justice, peacebuilding or sustainable development, please just smile and remember that you have done more in practice to achieve these things than they will ever know in theory.

Themes of the book 

I am delighted to have Satko here with me today, and also the wonderful Mirsad Tokaca, who is another example of somebody who patiently worked away throughout the war on an impossible task that he pioneered almost alone, to record and count the dead.

But before we move on to questions or discussion, I want to share a few themes that your story taught me and can I think teach the world.

A community that has agency, self-reliance and determination is needed before return is possible. UN agencies and others in bigger, more complex post-war refugee return situations could do a lot more to support and resource communities, including building strong diaspora connections both before and after return begins, rather than treat people as a mass of individuals. As I learned from Kozarac, giving former soldiers a role in this is very important, rather than treating them as hostile elements to be de-mobilised and forgotten.

Return is how you reverse ethnic cleansing. Not reconciliation, truth commissions or agreements between political parties. If you can walk the streets of Prijedor, however difficult that might sometimes be, then anything is possible, and the very presence of this community is a defeat for ultra-nationalism, especially if it can continue with an open spirit and culture.

Related to this, the study taught me the power of ‘presence’ to create real reconciliation rather than reconciliation as a performance. If you sit people with different experiences and narratives around a table and say “you are a victim” and “you are a perpetrator” then they will perform their roles and become further apart, not closer together. The incredibly brave Nusreta Sivac makes Serb denial impossible every day she lives among them, and her presence is more powerful than any number of round-table discussions where people are asked to acknowledge crimes. Top-down reconciliation is hard to achieve, but bottom-up reconciliation by people being present, shopping in the same stores, gradually re-connecting as neighbours is exactly what rebuilds social connections, and creates an opportunity for conversation and learning. I understand we want Serbs to acknowledge, publicly, what happened. But instead of spending our time “asking” them for this, which gives them power and makes us look weak, an increasingly visible presence forces them to see and to learn, even if they will not admit it. I am not a big fan of the activist performance art trend of recent years, but they deserve credit for doing this.

The internet and virtual networks are vital when real world networks have been so damaged. How do you find each other and organise after eliticide? How can you bridge the gaps in social networks left by leaders, politicians and key figures? Online communities are an important part of the solution, plus they can create a shared presence and ambient intimacy (Svabo’s Jutarnji Trac was a perfect example of this) between diaspora communities and returnees that benefits both and creates a support system for the town. This is something that can and should be in the toolkit of any agency trying to help return processes.

What is the right balance between memory and moving on? There are no easy answers to this question. It is not about memory versus forgetting, but a question of where to spend time and resources. Funeral practices and the cemeteries were vitally important parts of the return process and important for re-establishing a visible presence again. There can and should be visible memorials to commemorate what happened in 1992, and the campaign for these will no doubt continue. But the town cannot be a museum. It needs to develop, grow and sustain itself, which means at some point more focus has to be put on questions of the future and less on the past. I do not know what the right balance is, and I am not critical in any way of the balance that has been achieved so far, but it will be a question that needs addressing.

Economic development and sustainability also achieve social goals. It is obvious that the town needs economic sustainability if it is to attract young people, create jobs and promote education. This town is one of the most internationally-connected towns in the region and that is a huge advantage that we need to exploit. What Arifagic has created is not really about personal profit, but creating social outcomes, and if innovative firms like this succeed then it will improve jobs, education and most importantly cultural and business standards. A Kozarac economy that can attract workers from across the region will achieve something far more than acknowledgement. This is not an alternative to NGO or activist work, but complementary. We might create a crowd-funded global Kozarac investment fund that invests in small firms here and helps them find markets all over the world. We might also learn from Austronet and attract major partnerships or joint ventures. However, you do it, the same spirit that funded and created the brigade when it was needed is capable of showing this entire region that Kozarac is more than just a street of cafes.

I hope you enjoy the book. Although it is an academic work, I hope it is also a readable story that you will enjoy. I am sorry it is expensive, but I will gladly provide my own author discount to anyone here tonight who would like to buy it. As I am sure you realise, I didn’t write it to get paid.

Most of all, this is your story, so I would love to hear your views and your questions this evening.

Thank you.


The role of Anthropologists in societies engulfed by intractable conflict

This is a very good read on the effects of hostility and the hubris of nationalism – in this case Israeli – and more importantly, on the role of Israeli anthropologists ‘holding a mirror to one’s society’, by Michele Rivkin-Fish.

It contains some good points and quotes – I particularly enjoyed the reference to the work of David Grossman:

He details the anatomy of wounds inflicted by languages of hate – the clichés and stereotypes that spread from the media to individual minds, eating away at the capacity for empathy. As people increasingly come to expect aggression from the Other, they excuse it in themselves, filling the world with a banal ugliness. Grossman traces these symptoms to their root cause – the hostility and hubris of nationalism – which he exposes as a creeping, fatal tumor traversing the body politic. The dehumanization of the Other, he shows, is the dehumanization of the self.

One quote from Grossman’s book, Writing in the Dark, reminds me of Todorov’s claim that the fatal flaw of our approaches to evil, genocide and social injustice is our relationship with evil as alterity – the distinction that we make between ourselves and others: heroes/victims versus the villains:

When we are able to read the text of reality through our enemy’s eyes, it becomes more complex, more realistic, allowing us to recover the elements we suspended from our world picture. From that moment, reality is more than just a projection of our own fears and desires and illusions: when we are capable of seeing the story of the Other through his eyes, we are in healthier and more valid contact with the facts. We then have a far greater chance to avoid making critical mistakes and perceiving events in a self-centered, clenched, and restrictive way. And then, sometimes, we can also grasp—in a way we never previously allowed ourselves to—that this mythological, menacing, and demonic enemy is no more than an amalgamation of people who are as frightened, tormented, and despondent as we are. This comprehension, to me, is the essential beginning of any process of sobriety and reconciliation,” (Grossman 2008: 55-56).

An Israeli anthropologist describes how s(he) uses anthropological lenses in deconstructing identities framed by hardcore nationalists politics:

I tell the students, ‘we’re going to put on our anthropological lenses,’ put away our ethnocentrism and look at how people live, as part of the broader context of their values. You must not assume a person shares your cultural values. This isn’t a theoretical issue, but a tool for life. It frees you because it enables you to understand others.  You can still believe in your own cultural values while respecting others.

And, last but not least, an important observation that I can relate to:

Literature and ethnography convey nuance and contradiction – they displace sloganeering and discredit reductionist thinking. These genres awaken writers and readers, students and teachers to new ways of seeing, thinking, and being: they open minds, enabling people to reach beyond the confines of the self to understand and appreciate the viewpoints and suffering of others.

What is a knowledge economy?

I really enjoyed reading Carl Gombrich’s blog pondering the future, shape and value of education and universities, spurred on by Deloitte’s report that claims an emerging knowledge economy will become the basis of the future world economy.

What, then, should our millions of graduates study? What kind of education equips them in some way for the rest of their life in this world? What ‘habits of mind’, as a classical scholar might have said, should they possess: what attributes? Where does the ‘inherent vs instrumental value of education’ debate go in this new social reality? And how can universities play a part in these questions?

This reminds us that although in Ancient Rome, the great orator Cicero saw learning as the cultivation of personal qualities…

… the main purpose of such an education for Cicero is to prepare excellent and worthy orators and advocates  – those who will serve in some legal or political capacity – and that therefore a broad and liberal education is deemed also to have a strongly instrumental value.

As Gombrich notes, a broader view of education ought to encompass both: the inherent and the instrumental, as a modern knowledge economy stresses creativity, passion, empathy, the ability to share knowledge and insights, and so on:

For those fortunate enough to work in the knowledge economy there is a diminishing of the historic dichotomy between the inherent value of education and the instrumental. Like other dated dichotomies (the disingenuous contrasting of ‘public’ and ‘private’ in political debate is another) this one is blurring into meaninglessness. We need to educate ourselves as free people precisely because it is the sorts of inherent qualities cultivated by the best education that will fit us best for our working lives. We should educate ourselves in the best that has been thought and said – and in science, and in mathematics, engineering and other things besides – both because it is interesting in itself and because such an education prepares us best for employment in our new economies.

My only reservation about future of the knowledge economy as a major source of employment is how to cultivate knowledge work (that takes time) and service industries (that demand speed) simultaneously, coupled with our changing experience of time and desire for instant gratification.

Yes, ethnography matters … but what kind?

As ethnographic research and methods have spread outside academia and more people claim to use them, I have noticed that whilst there is greater awareness of ethnography entails, there seems to be a lack of awareness about how it actually works. This is especially true in corporate ethnography, which is a growing and valuable area of enquiry, but one where rigour and depth are no less important.

So here are some snippets of my own experience doing traditional long-term ethnographic research.

As a so-called ‘native anthropologist’ conducting an ethnographic study in Bosnia, I had some obvious advantages such as language, familiarity with culture, landscape and so on, but also a major disadvantage: being treated as “one of us” can impact on what kind of data one collects and make a researcher invisible. In my particular case, I have no family in Bosnia nor a home there, which at times, made my interlocutors perceive me as a somewhat “enigmatic creature”. By contrast, foreign scholars and media are often perceived as “naši prijatelji” (our friends): those who will tell the world of our plight, which means they are given the conventional, oft-repeated version of the story.

Invisibility suited me perfectly for two reasons: first, on a personal level I don’t feel comfortable being the centre of attention; second, I do not claim expertise or special status on the basis of my personal experiences in Bosnia. More importantly, this opened up a space for my observation of all kinds of interactions among local NGO campaigners, foreign scholars and human rights practitioners, which provided much needed nuance, and at times a testing ground for identifying my own biases during the fieldwork.

We are taught that participant observation is at the core of ethnographic methods, and although the two terms are arguably contradictory, we need to navigate these different roles in the real world. But what does this mean in practice when we know human interactions are never straight forward?

Doing ethnography has its fair share of challenges: ethical, in some cases emotional for the native researcher but also for those who “go native,” and also a series of practical challenges. As an ethnographer, navigating a complex social web and managing your own emotional overload can be quite hard, not to mention the influences that your own emotional responses to people might have on the writing process.

In any case, in my experience, key insights are achievable through observation and interaction, but not all of us possess the right level of observational skills, nor ethics for that matter. It might come naturally to some, whilst others might need to work at it. Empathy is important, but also personal maturity.

Another challenge is how a researcher can immerse herself within everyday life without interfering in the social or personal experience of the community or group that she is trying to understand. In Physics, the Observer Effect is well understood – in other words, the act of measuring something also changes it – and in ethnography we must always be aware of this. To observe human behaviour and social life as it unfurls means to look at what people do, not just what they say they do. In my case, one very useful way of being present and involved whilst observing from the sidelines was through online communities. Because the community had a high degree of intimacy and trust in their own online community, for certain topics or debates, online discussion was more honest and fruitful than physical meetings, which gave me great insights into the dynamics of the group and how they think and talk to each other. So, listening skills are also very important, but traditional interviews can be much less valuable than ‘being present’ – both physically and online – as people go about their daily life.

But is listening and observing enough to understand deeper dynamics?

What we observe has to be understood within a particular context, and more often than not we need to be aware of the historical trajectory behind beliefs and actions, whether personal or communal, as well as diverse individual and groups goals or interests. How can this be understood?

Let me illustrate this question with an example from my own experience. In 2007, I attended a workshop in Malta where a group of Bosnians were invited to participate in a discussion about building a memorial to the victims of the Omarska camp. To cut a long story short, the organiser treated all Bosnian participants as survivors of the camp, although there were in fact just two Omarska survivors, along with NGO representatives from different ethnic backgrounds and myself. We were treated as though we just walked out of the camp, despite the fact the workshop was happening 15 years later. The setup of the event and the way we were treated were all clearly intended to portray us as a deeply traumatised victim group that needed a mediator (the conference organiser) to help us express our desire for a memorial to the present owner of the Omarska mine site, the multi-national corporation Mittal Steel.

Some of our group acted as they were expected to, partly out of politeness or a sense of obligation. Others did not, but kept their concerns to themselves, not wanting to seem ungrateful that the organiser had paid for the trip and had good intentions. Even our accommodation – a modest house away from the other participants’ luxury hotel – and our allocated corner of the conference room seemed designed to separate us as performers rather than participants. It was a hugely valuable experience for me to see the performative role expected of survivors, and provided a useful insight into how mediators, facilitators and interviewers can subconsciously shape the story being told by participants, and subtly guide them towards a role that is expected of them, rather than just treat them as equals and listen to what they have to say.

Collective historical memory is no respecter of the past

“Collective historical memory is no respecter of the past” opines David Rieff in his excellent article about his forthcoming book, In Praise of Forgetting.

I am very excited about this book as it resonates very much with my anthropological research on refugee repatriation in Bosnia, where I focus on real historical victims’ experiences as oppose to subsequent generations’ understanding of historical wrongs, appropriation and (mis)use that are key features of collective memory.

Like John Torpey’s book on Reparations Politics, Rieff wonders whether our obsession with memory might sacrifice our present and future:

But what if this is wrong, if not always, then at least part of the time? What if collective historical memory, as it is actually employed by communities and nations, has led far too often to war rather than peace, to rancour and resentment rather than reconciliation, and the determination to exact revenge for injuries both real and imagined, rather than to commit to the hard work of forgiveness?

Tzvetan Todorov has written that knowing about the past crimes and suffering is not enough for us to ‘learn lessons’. In fact, he questions our ability to learn from others’ past experiences given that the ‘never again’ plea has never ceased. Similarly, Ian Buruma writes that our tendencies to look for authenticity in human suffering have made historiography irrelevant. History, as a discipline that concerns itself with “how things were” or “trying to explain how things happened”, has been replaced with a study of memory and history in terms of “how it felt”.

Of course, all the above writers note that there is no easy solution, nor do they argue for amnesia, but that we need a new approach, as Rieff reiterates:

To be wholly without memory would be to be without a world. Nor am I arguing against the determination for a group to memorialise its dead or demand acknowledgment of its sufferings. To do so would be to counsel a kind of moral and psychological self-mutilation of tragic proportions.

However, he agues that we need more “letting go” and that even the work of mourning must eventually end if life is to go on, whilst recognising that some societies or social groups may not be ready, referring to cases like Israel and other examples of intractable conflicts:

Even the work of mourning, essential as it is, must eventually end if life is to go on. Perhaps some memories are seen as too precious for human beings to give up. For societies, especially societies and groups that either feel themselves to be under existential threat or want to impose their own religion, or values, or territorial demands on their neighbours, the possibility may be still more remote.

Israel offers a florid illustration of how disastrously collective memory can deform a society. The settler movement routinely appeals to a version of biblical history that is as great a distortion of that history as the Islamist fantasy about the supposed continuities between the medieval kingdom of Jerusalem and the modern state of Israel. At the entrance to the settler outpost of Givat Assaf on the West Bank, a placard reads: “We have come back home.”

So, he proposes forgetting those events that may cause us to be destructive as a counterbalance to our need to remember:

But is it not conceivable that were our societies to expend even a fraction of the energy on forgetting that they now do on remembering, then peace in some of the worst places in the world might actually be a step closer?

In my view, a large proportion of victims are likely to try to incorporate or move on from their traumatic experiences, as they see no positive benefits in its narration or remembering. They actively endeavour to reconsolidate their memory of a particular event in order not to let the past dictate their present. However, subsequent generations in search of meaning and identity will often employ emotion as a device to (re)create an imagined experience, healing or belonging.

Reflection on storytelling in Anthropology

With the deadline for my book fast approaching, it is nice to be reminded of the importance of storytelling in anthropological writing and analysis:

thick description is narrative. It involves characters, a plot, a storyline, a form, a goal. In thinking about the place of interpretation within anthropology today, it has in some ways been folded almost seamlessly into ethnography. Interpretation is now unmarked, assumed, expected, and is often narrative in form. This has become so true that experimental ethnography is now that which is non-narrative; the pendulum has swung back in the other direction. As a vehicle for theoretical argument, narrative provides both form and content. As Hayden White might say, theoretical storytelling is content and it is form; it is both.

Plus, a useful reminder for those in the field who approach human subjects as objects or “data” to extract, rather than equal partners in knowledge production :

What is defective is how we miss the power of stories and storytellers even as we tell them. We tell stories to get to the point, to make our points. We miss that the stories are the point. They are the getting, and they are the there.