Becoming an historian takes a long time. Much of the work – reading, writing, learning languages, and researching – moves at glacial speed and can often feel tedious. But here and there are vivid moments when the process of becoming suddenly comes into sharp focus. It emerges not so much in the mind, but more as a feeling that takes over the body. The heart beats faster. And all the senses are in a hyper-aware state, drinking in what is happening. This photograph, which I took while pedaling a borrowed bicycle along a dusty road while conducting fieldwork in northwest Bosnia, opens a window into one of those moments. And it provides a lens through which to reflect about how the experience of “being there” in the field can transform our capacity to tell histories, which in my work are histories of violence.
A major challenge when telling histories of violence concerns how to create, and especially maintain, a compelling bond between our readers and the often highly disturbing stories we seek to tell. On first glance, this challenge may not appear to be significant. After all, stories of violence, from distant history to today’s news, tend to immediately attract people’s attention. Think of the execution videos that members of ISIS have produced during the past years and the attention they have drawn, as well as the recent acts of mass violence by adherents of the white power movement, such as the shootings in the synagogue in Pittsburgh, USA, and in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
But stories of violence often can immediately create some kind of almost unbridgeable border between those who read, or hear about such stories, and those who are participants in them. Histories of violence, and especially extreme manifestations of cruelty, simultaneously attract attention and alienate our readers, who are drawn to witnessing the horror of violence but often recoil from delving too deeply, or even at all, into understanding its causes and dynamics.
One way I tried to remove this border between the story I sought to tell in my 2016 book, Violence as a Generative Force: Identity, Nationalism, and Memory in a Balkan Community, and my potential readers, was to make use of what the historian Kate Brown has called “the transformational experience of being there.” Among other books, Kate Brown has written Plutopia (2013). This is a pathbreaking social history of communities that evolved in the shadow of nuclear power facilities in the United States and Soviet Union. Given the sensitivity of her subject, archival documents were often scarce. But she found that the natural and human landscape, while vast and unstructured for traditional historical research when compared to formal institutions like archives and libraries, could nonetheless serve as effective “sources” if she was capable of seeing them as such. In this way, the experience of “being there” opened up new vistas and perspectives for historical explanation, which would have been missed had she stayed within the confines of traditional research institutions.
This notion—“the transformational experience of being there”— was something that happened to me during my fieldwork, even though I only read Brown’s work many years later. Working in a highly divided, post-war society like Bosnia-Herzegovina, my archival research was sometimes hampered, and I found myself without access to formal research institutions for significant periods of time. This initially frustrating situation led me to seek out insights from the landscape where the story I was trying to tell took place, and from the people I encountered there.
During the first week of October 2008, I was in the town of Bihać in northwest Bosnia struggling to gain access to that region’s archive. My written requests for permission to conduct research were languishing in piles of paper in various ministries. I visited the archive regularly to inquire about the progress of my request and each time the director invented new reasons why documents could not be made available to me. Whenever I would leave his office, I could immediately hear him cursing me, and my relatives, in multiple and extremely colorful and of course derogatory ways. During this time, I felt that my research had hit a brick wall.
So one chilly morning, I boarded a local bus to a small town called Kulen Vakuf, which took me far from the archive director and his friends in the ministries who seemed to be trying—and succeeding—to block my research. Once I arrived, I borrowed an old bicycle that belonged to the son of a woman whom I had interviewed during the previous weeks.
I set off through the fog along the Una River valley on my way to a village called Martin Brod, about fifteen kilometers down this road, which you can see in the above photograph. I can still clearly remember the sounds of the Una as its waters gurgled and bubbled while I pedaled across the bridge spanning its banks in Kulen Vakuf. I turned right and, after a kilometer, the paved road abruptly ended. My tires bounced off of pebbles, which rattled and shook me. The smell of recently burned fields permeated the air. Halfway to Martin Brod, the sun broke through the mist, lighting up the fall colors of the trees lining the valley and sparkling on the emerald green waters of the Una. Once or twice a car passed me going too fast for the road. This enveloped me in a cloud of fine dust, which seemed to hang in the air without dissipating. Here and there I caught sight of a house from the road. I saw elderly people tending their sheep and goats. I heard the faint noise of bells clanging around their necks as they grazed. This mingled with the sound of their owners using hatchets to split logs, which combined with the popping of stones as I pedaled forward, dodging water-filled craters in the road.
At several points I stopped and took photographs: a still destroyed bridge from the 1992-1995 war; fading graffiti on a house left by warring factions of those years; and the mesmerizing waters of the Una River. I had no phone, and almost no one knew where I was. I remember quietly saying to myself at one point as I scanned the landscape: “There’s nowhere else in the world I’d rather be, and nothing else I’d rather be doing.”
My excitement at probing this corner of the world as far as my limits as a historian would allow contrasted sharply with my knowledge of the terrifying history of this dusty road. This was the same road along which approximately 400-420 men and boys were marched on the evening of September 7, 1941. Like me, they could see the mesmerizing emerald green waters of the Una from various junctures as they traveled south, one step at a time, toward Martin Brod.
They were in a long column, lined up two across, as armed insurgents marched them forward. It was in Martin Brod, after a sleepless night, that two groups of insurgents faced off against each other on the morning of September 8th. One smaller group was composed of those who wanted to free most of these prisoners, who also happened to be their neighbors. The other, which was much larger, demanded that all the men and boys be killed.
A physical altercation broke out between the two groups, and the latter prevailed. After binding the prisoners’ hands with wire, these insurgents took the men and boys in small groups about three kilometers up a winding road. As the road turned sharply left toward a village, they turned right into a meadow, walked about thirty meters, and brought the prisoners to the edge of a vertical cave. It was there that they cut each prisoner’s throat and then dumped their bodies into the darkness. Only one man managed to get his hands free and escape. The remains of the rest are still at the bottom of this cave to this day.
It was not until a blisteringly hot summer afternoon in 2014 that I, along with the woman who lent me the bicycle in 2008, and a local police officer, managed to locate this cave. We came to its edge and looked down into it.
I held onto a tree and stared into its darkness. I then dropped a stone, which made a clicking sound as it bounced from side to side for a few seconds before hitting the bottom. I remember I immediately felt very cold even though the air temperature that afternoon was at least thirty-five degree Celsius.
I narrate these moments during my fieldwork, and I show this photograph, to pose several questions that I think all scholars of violence should consider. Can the experience of “being there,” as Kate Brown has called it, help us to restructure the simultaneous magnetic attraction and enormous gulf that usually occur when we confront our readers with histories of violence? Can the effort taken to convey a sensual portrait of a place help dispel, at least to some extent, the flood of preconceived notions that race into readers minds about how and why people have engaged in violence, which creates a gulf, and for many, an almost unbridgeable border, between them and histories we seek to tell? Can incorporating experiences of “being there” help us engage readers with our stories in ways that convey humanity, and thus suggest our collective interconnectedness across space and time, including our common humanity with those caught up in episodes of past violence—and even with those who have committed acts of violence?
I try to provide answers to these questions, among others, in my 2016 book, Violence as a Generative Force: Identity, Nationalism, and Memory in a Balkan Community. My thoughts here are based on a lecture I presented in November 2019 at the Nanovic Institute at the University of Notre Dame on the occasion of receiving the Laura Shannon Prize in Contemporary European Studies.