Now that the clocks have gone back and the nights are drawing in, it is finally starting to feel like autumn in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH). While the trees have taken on distinctly autumnal hues, the unseasonably warm temperatures to date have meant that one could easily be forgiven for thinking that it is still late summer. This blending of the seasons, which has been widely attributed to global warming, can be understood as a metaphor for how, in BiH, time itself often seems to resist being neatly parcelled into distinct periods of past, present and future. When I work with men and women who were subjected to diverse forms of sexual violence – including rape, genital beatings and forced nudity – during the 1992-95 Bosnian war, some of them recount how they experience flashbacks from the past; the sight of a dead body, the room where they were held, the smell of the person who abused them. Some explain that however much they want to move forward and to forget what happened to them, there are constant reminders of the past; images of war and suffering on television, the bodily aches and pains that they suffer as a result of previous beatings or of being forced to sleep on concrete floors, their children asking questions about the past – or inadvertently bringing up painful memories. One research participant revealed that her eldest daughter is now 12 years old, the same age that she was when she was raped in 1992.

Autumn leaves

I am also highly conscious of the fact that CSRS – however carefully the research tools have been designed – also takes many respondents back to the past. I recently spent three hours with a survivor in Sarajevo. She told me about her life, her son and her aspirations for him. She seemed comfortable and relaxed. She smiled frequently and stressed that everything that she has achieved to date has come from her own hard work. When we started the questionnaire, her demeanour began to change, particularly when I asked the questions in the Traumatic Events Checklist. The person with whom I had been talking for over an hour suddenly disappeared. In front of me was a sullen, angry-looking woman who sat perfectly still, clutching the pen that she had used to sign the informed consent form. As we began the final part of the questionnaire, she started to return and to come back once again to the present. 

In a town in southern Herzegovina, a research participant put her chin on her hands – which were resting on the desk in front of her – as soon as I introduced the Traumatic Events Checklist. Her posture and demeanour reminded me of a child, as though she was perhaps going back to a time in her life when she had felt safe and secure.

I often think about the last time that I did major fieldwork in BiH, back in 2014-2015. Since then, some of my relationships have changed, some of my views have shifted, many of my ideas have developed and matured. Survivors’ stories are often difficult to listen to, but what has been most challenging is the growing sense that very little has changed. Transitional justice is fundamentally about dealing with the past in order to allow individuals and societies to move forward. Institutional processes of reckoning with the past will necessarily yield limited results, however, if these same individuals and societies fail to see and experience real change. In BiH, I often feel that time has become frozen, just as the Dayton Peace Accords effectively froze the war and the territorial changes realized through violence and bloodshed. The political rhetoric remains unchanged, the same debates about transitional justice and war crimes take place ad infinitum, the problems that many people face – 25 years after the war ended – largely remain the same. All the while, the deep sense of fatigue, despondency and disappointment that widely exists throughout the country has become ever more entrenched.

While I am doing fieldwork, my love for music takes on a heightened importance. It transports me to other places, to other periods in my life. I frequently listen to Gerald Finzi’s clarinet concerto, and in particular the first eight minutes which for me are the most powerful. The instruments blend together like the vibrant autumnal colours around me. The music takes me back in time, to my teenage years when I was learning to play the clarinet and dreamed of joining a professional orchestra. Ludovico Einaudi’s simple yet masterful piece ‘Experience’ makes me think about where I was – at home with family – when I first heard it. The past and present momentarily blend into one.