The last time I was in Bosnia, my village of Trusina was being de-mined. There was blue tape stretched between trees and across fields right next to my neighbours’ houses, white vans full of middle-aged men and metal detectors, signs posted at uneven intervals letting us know that this activity was being generously funded by the German and Dutch (or was it German and Danish?) governments.
I was visiting family with my partner and found myself infuriated by the activity. Grateful, of course. But infuriated. The war ended twenty-five years ago. This should have been done twenty-five years ago. And yet some estimates suggests that there are up to 80,000 uncleared mines in the country. There are signs declaring PAZI MINE! all over Bosnia and scattered through the forests and fields surrounding my village. 612 people have been killed by mines since the end of the war, two of them just last year. And yet people still live here, still plant new corn, still cut the grass for hay, still pick this season’s apple harvest, still search for mushrooms in the undergrowth.
I have done this – have walked by warning signs searching for majčina dušica with my uncle, picked through autumnal leaf litter for the chestnuts and walnuts half-buried within, run across unfamiliar fields with my dog just for the hell of it. At first, I had been afraid, my mother’s warnings ringing loud in my ears. Landmines were a part of our mythology of Bosnia, part of our escape story and part of the reason we’d never go back. And yet, I had gone back.
I received New Metonyms: Bosnia & Herzegovina, a collaboration between writer Ennis Ćehić and photographer Shantanu Starick, in the mail back in May. I was supposed to be in Bosnia at the time but flight after flight had been cancelled as the borders across Europe slammed shut, leaving me stranded in Glasgow, slowly realising that I might not be able to return home – either to Bosnia or to Australia – this year. To receive the book, then, was a homesick jolt. I flicked through it hungrily, trying to absorb my Bosnia through its pages.
At first, I ignored the text entirely, devouring the images instead.
The tekija in Blagaj that I visit every time I’m at my aunt’s house, eating figs and blackberries along my route.
The mahalas of Sarajevo, streets I’ve not walked down but which are indelibly familiar, which could be streets in a hundred other cities but are etched into my palms.
Tito’s bunker, where I took my housemate last year, where we sat in Tito’s chair and where my father touched everything without reservation because our history is not sacred – it is tangible.
Lukomir, where my father was stationed during the war and where, twenty years later, I skinny dipped in a creek and ate uštipci with a tour guide I’d met on Tinder.
The images, captured in muted but warm tones, are beautiful and frank. Starick has previously worked on a project called Pixel Trade, in which he travelled to every continent trading photography for food, shelter and transport, and there is something of a cosmopolitan ennui to his photos of Bosnia. He is not enchanted, nor morbidly compelled. His attention doesn’t linger too long on the overtly beautiful, nor on the broken. This is neither travel photography nor ruin porn. Of course, there are photos of Bosnia’s blue-green rivers, its ancient towns, its commanding spomeniks. And of course, there are the bullet holes and broken buildings. This is Bosnia, after all. But there are also grocery stores, homes, mosques, the rough and awkward shapes we make in the world, the angles of space we take up throwing our heads back in laugher or bending through a door way. Starick’s photos turn Bosnia, a country best known for its genocidal war, into a place of the every day.
The aim of the book is to offer new metonyms for Bosnia, images that speak to the country beyond the warzone. A metonym, Ćehić explains, ‘plays an important role in meaning extensions, creating concrete and vivid images in our minds in place of generalities.’ It is a linguistic form, but it is also a powerful cognitive tool, allowing us new ways to think about and through.
In the text Ćehić turns inward, becomes reflective about his relationship to the country: ‘I searched for ancestral stories. Narratives that could help me understand the wounds of my displacement. And I found plenty, from Bistrik to Kovači casually staring back at me with expressions that knew exactly how I felt. The heart is home.’ Scattered amongst the photographs, he includes small stories that hint at the Balkan spirit he is trying to express – stories about the fountain Feredžuša, the first meteorologist at Mount Bjelašnica, Dževad’s letters to Tito, and a village woman named Minka.
But while New Metonyms is primarily an art book, its text is not an afterthought. Ćehić, like me, is a refugee from the 1992–95 Bosnian war and his complicated love for the country is evident throughout his commentary. He was just six years old when he left Bosnia in 1992, spending some time in Croatia and Germany before moving to Australia in 1997. He has visited a few times over the years and recently spent most of a year living in Sarajevo while working on New Metonyms and a forthcoming book of short stories Sadavertising, inspired by his time in the advertising industry. He writes, then, with a blend of proximity and distance, as both insider and outsider, Bosnian and Australian.
The introductory essay is a love letter to Bosnia, to its mountains, villages and rivers, which he describes with a nostalgia particular to the diasporic. Ćehić describes people lazing by the country’s aquamarine rivers in the summer (his river is the Una, mine the Neretva) and the slender, winding roads that criss-cross Bosnia’s forests and mountains. He describes the strange double weather that demarcates Bosnia, the temperate north, from Herzegovina, the Mediterranean south, far better than any road sign. He describes Vrelo Bosne, the Blagaj Tekke, Lukomir and Neum, and his words expand in my chest and throat. This is sevdah, a feeling something like nostalgia, something like the Portuguese saudade. The writer Aleksander Hemon, who left Bosnia the same year Ennis did, describes sevdah as a pleasant feeling of losing oneself to the hopelessness of love, to time passing, to life and the defeats it inflicts. Disconnected from Bosnia and unable to return, but holding this book-paean in my hands, this is exactly what I am feeling.
Is Bosnia safe? Aren’t there landmines everywhere? Ćehić repeats a question frequently posed to him towards the end of the essay. Since I was a child, I have associated Bosnia with landmines. They were both metaphor and metonym for my former home: the analogy of what I thought would happen to my mental health if I ever went back and the very concrete image linking the present to what had happened twenty-five years ago. This is an unfair association and one that sets my cousins’ eyes rolling. Yes, there are mines, they tell me, but not like you think. It is an association, too, that New Metonyms is trying to break. While there are still landmines, they now cover approximately 2.2 per cent of the country and men like those demining my village last year are working to ensure that soon Bosnia will be entirely free of them. The country is moving on.
Indeed, is not until the latter third of the essay that Ennis begins to talk of Bosnia’s history of war and the scars it has left across the country. He is practiced in explaining this, though I can read the frustration behind his words (and have read it behind my cousins’ words). We cannot talk of Bosnia without talking of the war, but must we always talk of the war? There is so much more.
It is tempting to read New Metonyms as first and foremost an attempt to cast Bosnia in a new light, to make over its image. And yes, New Metonyms is an art book immaculately designed to offer the world a new, more optimistic conception of Bosnia. But through this, it is also the story of diaspora, of homecoming, of the complicated relationships we hold with our past, and of the refugee’s need to prove that there is more to us than hurting. It is a work of art, of sevdah and of hope.
Image by Shantanu Starick, from the book