At the water's edge: reflections on place and resilience

By Professor Janine Natalya Clark

A boat on a lakeshoreThe interviewee was focused on the lake in front of him. He said that sometimes he spends hours looking out at the water. He described the lake, together with his sense of hope that things will be better, as his source of support. He explained that when he faces difficulties, he goes out by himself in his boat. For him, the water is a form of therapy and assists him to relax. I felt that during the interview, too, the lake was helping him. When I asked him which three words he would use to describe himself as someone who has suffered sexual violence, he sighed deeply and stared at the water for a few seconds before answering. I wondered if his relationship with the lake was also about having a sense of freedom and space. He survived ‘Golgotha’, he said, and when he was detained in various camps during the Bosnian war, he never felt free or alive because he never knew when someone might come and kill him. 

As I spoke to this man a few days ago, I was reminded of a time – several years earlier – when I was doing fieldwork in Vukovar in Croatia. I often used to walk along the Danube and I always saw men fishing, often by themselves but sometimes in pairs. Local people told me that these men were ‘branitelji’ (defenders); they had fought to defend the town in 1991 when it was under siege from the Yugoslav National Army. When I spoke to some of these ‘branitelji’, they said that fishing and focusing on the water helped them not to think about the past and everything that they had gone through. Indeed, various studies have shown that fishing can have therapeutic effects for war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and other combat-related disabilities [1]. The significance of these examples from Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) and Croatia, however, extends beyond highlighting the beneficial effects of fishing.

Resilience is a process of positive adaptation to adversity. It is about how individuals ‘bounce back’, or more accurately about how they ‘bounce forward’ in the sense of moving on with their lives [2]. This process involves people drawing on the resources that they have available to them, from their own inner resources to the resources that they have around them – for example, their families and the services within their community. In other words, individuals develop and demonstrate resilience in interaction with their wider environments [3]. In BiH, I am continually frustrated at how little attention is given to men who suffered sexual violence during the Bosnian war. Within the NGO sector and the media, the focus has overwhelmingly been on women who were raped. In this sense, the social environment provides few protective resources to men who were violated, sexually tortured and forced to perform sexual acts on each other. The physical environment, however, is also highly relevant, and water is just one example of a potential protective resource that can help individuals – not just men and not just those who have suffered sexual violence – to deal with the adversities that they have faced. This, in turn, points to a broader relationship between resilience and place. 

As researchers, we often have certain ‘hunches’. Sometimes these are based simply on intuition; sometimes they derive from various sources [4]. I have long had a ‘hunch’ that there might be a nexus between place and resilience. For example, due to the fact that place determines the levels of support and attention that victims-survivors of conflict-related sexual violence receive in BiH, I anticipated that research participants living in the Federation might have higher resilience scores (based on the Adult Resilience Measure that we are using to assess levels of resilience) than those living in Republika Srpska. Within the Federation, I was expecting that research participants who live in more ‘resource-rich’ cantons, such as Tuzla Canton, would have higher resilience scores than those living in under-resourced cantons, such as Zenica-Doboj Canton. Analyses of the quantitative datasets – from BiH as well as from Colombia and Uganda – have so far not supported any of my ‘hunches’ in this regard. From my qualitative interviews in BiH, however, place is emerging as a potentially important theme. 

One interviewee lamented that her town no longer ‘breathes’ in the same way that it did before the war. Large numbers of people have left and she now has few opportunities to socialize. In this sense, ‘place’ is not giving her what she needs. Another interviewee explained that the village where she lives now feels deserted and empty; many of her former neighbours have moved overseas. She expressed a wish for the village to ‘come to life’ again and said that this would make her feel better. One interviewee was living in a location where a massacre took place during the war. When the taxi driver came to collect me, he told me that this woman had been raped. Was this common knowledge within the community, I wondered. The interviewee had said that she had never suffered any abuse or stigma because of the rape. Was this because the crimes committed in this locality during the war meant that nobody could possibly blame her for what happened [5] – or accuse her of having willingly had sex with her perpetrators [6]? The interviewee also explained, however, that she did not want to come back to this place. There were too many painful memories for her. During my aforementioned interview by the water’s edge, the interviewee underlined the importance of the lake in his life, while also pointing out that he lives in a place where it is very difficult to make a living and to survive existentially. This is a major source of worry for him.

If these examples underscore the relevance of place, they also have a wider practical significance. In particular, they emphasize the narrowness and limitations of ‘survivor-centred approaches’ – the new rhetoric at the international level [7]. Attention must be given to victims-survivors and their individual needs, but it should also be given to the environments in which they live – and to the resources within those environments. The challenge is to build resilience in these environments as a way of helping to foster resilience at the individual level. What CSRS is thus calling for are multi-level ecological approaches to dealing with conflict-related sexual violence and to doing transitional justice that respond to victims-survivors of conflict-related sexual violence in the context of their wider social ecologies, including their communities.


[1] See, for example, Jessie L. Bennett, Jennifer A. Piatt and Marieke Van Puymbroeck, ‘Outcomes of a Therapeutic Fly-Fishing Program for Veterans with Combat-Related Disabilities: A Community-Based Rehabilitation Initiative’. Community Mental Health Journal 53 (2003): 756–765.

[2] Mark Scott, ‘Resilience: A Conceptual Lens for Rural Studies?’ Geography Compass 7/9 (2013): 597–610, at 601.

[3] Bronwyn M. Hayward, ‘Rethinking Resilience: Reflections on the Earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand, 2010 and 2011’. Ecology and Society 18/4 (2013) [online article].

[4] Caroline Cole, Steven Chase, Oliver Couch and Murray Clark, ‘Research Methodologies and Professional Practice: Considerations and Practicalities’. The Electronic Journal of Business Research Methods 9/2 (2011): 141-151, at 142.

[5] Some research participants have described how their husbands or some of their neighbours have blamed them for what happened. Some also blame themselves.

[6] During my fieldwork and my previous fieldwork, some research participants have revealed that neighbours – and particular other women – have claimed that they ‘chose’ to have sex with enemy soldiers.

[7] See, for example, ‘Security Council Open Debate on Sexual Violence in Conflict – Statement by Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Ms. Pramila Patten’ (16 April 2018). Available at: https://www.un.org/sexualviolenceinconflict/statement/security-council-open-debate-on-sexual-violence-in-conflict-statement-by-special-representative-of-the-secretary-general-on-sexual-violence-in-conflict-ms-pramila-patten/