Sunday at the Vrbas

By Professor Janine Natalya Clark

Taking a rare day off, today I walked along the walls of the Kastel Fortress in Banja Luka, enjoying the warm sunshine. I sat down in a quiet spot and observed the people around me. A group of three teenage girls taking photos of each other with their mobile phones; couples with their arms wrapped around each other; families taking a stroll before lunch. On the grass below me, a small child was crying; two boys were playing football; a large group of young people walked in a line. From my vantage point high up on the wall, I felt detached from everybody around me. I was the observer looking in, watching, listening but not feeling part of anything. This, for me, is one of the most challenging parts of doing fieldwork; feeling like an outsider, not having anyone to share my innermost thoughts and emotions with.

Leaving the Kastel Fortress, I walked to the powerful Vrbas river and sat on a wooden bench. I observed what was happening around me. A group of men playing chess with over-sized pieces; a mother feeding her baby; six ducks bobbing along in the current of the river. I looked up at the tree above me, at the branches and their interconnections. I sent a message to a male survivor with whom I recently worked, to ask how he was. I first met him in 2015. Five minutes later, he called me and we spoke for a few minutes. Two days earlier, a female survivor in Bihac thanked me for listening to her and giving her the space to talk. She said that she would like us to meet again and to talk about ‘nice things’ unconnected with the war, to drink coffee and to eat ice-cream.

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Working with survivors of conflict-related sexual violence is challenging and emotionally draining, yet also extremely rewarding. My contact in Bihać, a social worker, thanked me for caring about women in this part of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which falls within Una-Sana Canton. Survivors here have received far less attention than those living in places such as Sarajevo, Tuzla and Zenica. In Sanski Most, I recently asked a respondent – as I always do – how she had found the questionnaire. She said it was ‘dobar’ (good). She also said it was the first time, after so many years, that someone had taken an interest in her.

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I will always be an observer looking in, but as I focus again on the branches above me, I think about some of the deep connections that I have formed during my current and previous fieldwork with survivors of conflict-related sexual violence. These men and women have shared intensely painful and difficult parts of their lives with me, and my priority is always to ensure that they never feel used. I watch a young couple, sitting with their legs dangling over the Vrbas. It underlines for me how important relationships are.