Reflections on War and Home

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The words ‘home’ and ‘repatriation’ are widely used in the public debate, but the meaning of these words is rarely elaborated on. Starting from experience from the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, this text attempts to unpack the meaning of these words and look at the consequences in a situation of war.

By Jeppe Wedel-Brandt • Illustration by Paula Duvå • From #11, 2015

When following the public debate about refugees in Denmark, it is easily possible to get a simplistic image of what wars are and what ’home’ means. This is encountered, for example, in debates about expressions such as ‘returning home’ and ‘repatriation’ and is also expressed in legislation about situations such as permanent residency and expulsion orders. Much of this is, of course, thinly veiled variations on more overtly racist and nationalist slogans, such as “Denmark for the Danes, foreigners out” or the cry of: “Go home where you came from”. In this type of discourse, home is closely tied to nation and birth, or it means, pure and simple, “just not here”. But even in more humanitarian discourse, the question of the meaning of home is often diminished. This, I would argue, is tied to a simplified vision of what war means, particularly in connection to the type of war that e.g. the English globalisation researcher Mary Kaldor in the book New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era describes as “new wars.”

The term refers to wars that, taking place after the end of the Cold War, cannot be described as aimed towards ideological objectives, but rather towards identity-based politically fuelled objectives, and wars that cannot be said to be fought exclusively by classic state actors and which do not only have geopolitical objectives, but also attempt to control the population through fear and terror. Public debate often creates an image of war as a state of emergency without consequences for the following period of peace, like a kind of atrocious parenthesis without any effect on the text around it. Alternatively, an image of war is created which retrospectively explains the past and which is itself explained through the past that it creates an image of.

In this context, home is often understood as the place where one lived before the war or as a question of belonging to a nation or a nation-state, which again is connected to the commonly used expression “returning home.” In the following I will, based on experiences from the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the period after its official ending, attempt to challenge this static and statist understanding of the definition of war and home. The goal is not to campaign for a particular political action, just as I will not claim to provide a completely new definition of the concept of home; the goal is rather to open and expand the understanding of what is at stake in these matters.

War creates people and space

As mentioned above, public debate has a tendency to oversimplify the understanding of war and often explains war in retrospect, as a “natural” consequence of an eternal hatred between the warring groups, and/or as a form of state of emergency, the end of which leads back to a state of normalcy. These types of explanations tend to present the war as either natural or purely destructive, and do not account for the way in which the war itself also actively produces both identity and space.

The way the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (and more broadly the wars in the former Yugoslavia) was understood – and largely still is – internationally, and the following catastrophic passivity of the international community, is an excellent example of these tendencies. During the war, it was often described as a barbaric civil war, where everyone had gone crazy, or – via classic Balkanist explanations – as the result of a kind of primordial force in an uncivilised people rising to the surface.

Alternatively, the war was described as a natural consequence of eternal conflicts and animosities between different identity groups who could not figure out how to live peacefully in the same space. Perhaps the most classic example of this can be found in the American political scientist Samuel Huntington’s article “The Clash of Civilizations?” (1993), where Huntington, by using the war in Yugoslavia as an example, seeks to justify the thesis that different cultures cannot live peacefully together. Certainly, this is also reflected locally in different variations of Serb, Croat and (to a lesser degree) Muslim nationalism, but these simplistic, Huntingtonian models of explanation do not take into account the far more complicated tale of coexistence that a country like Bosnia’s history expresses to a far greater extent. Nor do they consider the fact that identity and nationalism are not static entities, but constantly and actively produced and given different meanings.

In the book The Body of War: Media, Ethnicity, and Gender in the Break-Up of Yugoslavia, the Serbian sociologist and gender researcher Dubravka Žarkov shows exactly this: how the wars in the former Yugoslavia to a large extent actively produced identities and understandings of these when it came to ethnic or national affiliation, as well as gender. She argues that the concept of “ethnic war” should not be understood as a war between ethnic groups, but as a war that produces ethnic identities, and stresses that:

“[t]he fact that the war itself, the violence it unleashed, and the representation of this violence in media, were actually producing ‘ethnicity’, was obscured or denied. As a history of heterogeneity was replaced by a ‘history of ethnic hatred’, there were neither discursive nor geographical spaces for nonethnicized realities.” (Žarkov, p. 6)

There are three important points here. First, war is not only seen as an expression of already existing identitarian conflicts that manifest themselves in the war, but as a productive factor in itself in the development of nationalism and identity. Second, this nationalism is not only turned against “the other”, but also permeates and changes identities at all levels of society and is thus a homogenising project. And finally, the coupling between the output of the identity and the production of space, in this case resulting in the creation of a situation in which there is no room for resistance to nationalist projects.

In the book Bosnia Remade: Ethnic Cleansing and Its Reversal, the Irish and American geographers Gerard Toal and Carl T. Dahlman describe the coupling between the geopolitical and the question of identity in the war and specifically in instances of “ethnic cleansing” in a different way:

“Violent ethnic cleansing is a military tactic to realize a larger strategic vision. And […] it is a tactic that is as much about seizing and consolidating territory as it is about identity. More than simply the removal of an out-group from a location, ethnic cleansing involves the ethnicization of space. Places are first imaginatively constituted as ethnic spaces, as territories that ‘belong’ to certain groups as parts of national homelands. They are then militarily assaulted to remake them in the light of this image, initially through the violent expulsion of ethnic others and subsequently through the erasure of their historic presence. The landscape is wiped clean and available for reinscription as an ethnically homogeneous homeland.” (Toal & Dahlman, p. 5)

Toal & Dahlman’s analysis is to a greater extent than Žarkov’s focused on decision-makers and general plans, but it also shows how the war itself works productively as a homogenising project that transforms spaces as well as identities. If we remain on this overarching level, we can observe at least two aspects that are extremely important to understanding the developments that the war produced. The first one is that the war caused a severe population change, partly as a consequence of genocide and ethnic cleansing, partly as an exodus driven directly by massacres or by fear of massacres, and to a lesser extent as a strategic repopulation of ’ethnically cleansed’ areas.

The second aspect is that not only the presence of other identity groups in the present, but also the evidence of their historical presence, was largely sought to be removed. Mosques, and to a lesser extent churches, monuments, library collections and other signs of the presence of other identity groups, were destroyed, as were many ordinary houses and buildings. Here, it is important to note that Toal & Dahlman also point to homogenisation as an active process produced by the war. War cannot only be seen as something that creates ‘the enemy’, or removes ’the enemy‘ from a certain space, but must also be understood as an identitarian project that produces space and identity to create a particular way of being, e.g. a way of being ’a true Croat’.

The French philosopher Jacques Rancière describes the concept of order as created through a variety of processes that basically all relate to the allocation of specific places and specific roles to different groups or identities in society. He describes these processes, which distribute and maintain places and roles, as “the police”. The two basic ways in which the police ensure order is by determining what is noise and what is speech, and by ensuring that everyone stays in their assigned place. According to Rancière, any order thus also contains a homogenising, identitarian project that does not necessarily seek to cast everyone in the same mould, but rather to control heterogeneity by creating models for the right way to live according to identity categories and by keeping different groups at a distance from each other. The nationalist, identitarian projects that led to the start of the war solidified and developed through the course of the war, and forwarded a particular understanding of the different group identities, creating a situation in which these groups could not share the same space. This was done not only by virtue of the rhetoric of leading politicians or of military strategies, such as ethnic cleansing, but also at the level of everyday life.

In the book Sarajevo Under Siege – Anthropology in Wartime, the Swedish and Croatian anthropologist Ivana Maček describes, among other things, how the war and the identitarian logic – according to which the question of belonging to a particular identity group suddenly became extremely crucial – forced its way even into relations between neighbours and friends. Every relationship was questioned and put under pressure. Part of this had to do with the increased dependence on others and the general pressure of having to find means of survival, and the consequential, extremely important need for security in relationships with others: who could be trusted and who could not be trusted? This did not only apply to ethnic group affiliation. In a situation where Serb nationalists besieged and shelled Sarajevo, increased pressure was in many cases imposed on the Serbs who had chosen to remain in the city to prove that they were not nationalists, but belonged to an anti-nationalist/anti-fascist Sarajevo identity and stood together against the ’barbarians’ on the hills.

Every little uncertainty about the other was exacerbated by the war and its identitarian projects. Could you be sure that the other, after all, did not feel a kind of nationalism in a situation in which nationality was paramount? And if you were unsure, would it not be better to remain with those about whom you did not have this doubt?

The point of this section is not to offer a comprehensive explanation of the war in Bosnia or to produce a general theory of war. It is, more modestly, to point out some of the complexities that are needed to deal with the understanding of war, and to show how the war must be understood not only passively, as a consequence of circumstances or as pure destruction, but also as actively producing a wide number of issues, notably identity and space. This is important to remember when we attempt to understand the more specific problems concerning the concept of ’home’.

The many conflicting meanings of home

In the book Domicide: The Global Destruction of Home, the two Canadian geographers J. Douglas Porteous and Sandra E. Smith examine the importance of home, and what they describe as a general modernist tendency of the destruction of homes (in connection with war and urban planning as well as e.g. dams for hydropower). In my opinion, there are some fascinating, as well as problematic, aspects in juxtaposing such a broad range of situations and consolidating them into a single concept, but I will not go into that here. The important point in this context is their focus on the meaning of home. The interpretations are many, and obviously vary historically, socially and personally, but Porteous & Smith try to create clarity by gathering the main meanings into three aspects of home: “the spatial and physical; the symbolic meanings; and the psycho-social”.

The spatial and physical aspects of home are relatively straightforward to understand. It is simply about home as the physical space you live in or feel a particular connection to, and about the spatial delineation of these spaces. Porteous & Smith offer examples of how these spaces can have different scales, for example, your bedroom, your house or apartment, the neighborhood or city you live in, the landscapes around you, as well as more abstract spaces like the region, the nation, or Earth. There are two important perspectives here: first, the experience of belonging to the physical place; and second, that ’home’, according to Porteous & Smith, not only belongs to one of these places, but is a type of nodal point linking the various spaces and delineations together. Therefore, it also means that the experience of home is dependent on the physical environment, and further that this experience of home is not only linked to one defined space, but to the simultaneous experience of a number of defined spaces.

It is relatively well-documented how physical space was destroyed and changed during the war, and also how it was subsequently transformed in the reconstruction. Religious and symbolic buildings were systematically bombed and in some cases completely destroyed (there are several examples of how, for example, stones from mosques were driven away and dumped outside of cities), but also many ’ordinary’ houses and buildings were systematically burned and/or shot at.

An example of the experience of these changes to the physical home during the war can be found in a column by the Bosnian journalist Zlatko Dizdarević in the newspaper Oslobođenje from June 12th, 1992, after eight days of constant bombardment of Sarajevo:

“Some streets have simply disappeared; some street corners where we used to meet are no longer there; even some huge trees which for decades – no, centuries – blocked our view of [The] Trebević [Mountain], are gone.

It has taken me all morning to understand why I can suddenly see from my window certain parts of the city I’ve never been able to see before. The answer is simple and stunning: buildings, walls, branches that always were part of my surrounding landscape have simply vanished. Thus, my universe expands from hour to hour.” (Dizdarević, p. 39)

Home is seen as the nodal point between several defined spaces that, in correlation or in conflict, create a more complete and complex experience of the feeling of being at home. This point is important because it forces us to ask questions, such as whether having one’s house untouched or rebuilt is sufficient to creating a feeling of being at home if the surrounding environment, town or countryside, is completely changed. It also forces us to question the relationship between feeling at home in one’s house, but not in ’one’s’ country.

This brings us to the symbolic aspects of home that Porteous & Smith particularly associate with memories and that are often connected to a form of sentimentality as we know it from the talk of a ’childhood home’. They use the perhaps most classic literary example of reminiscing, namely Marcel Proust’s madeleine scene, in which the memory induced by the cookie dipped in linden tea is of an idyllic childhood where landscape and place play a role in the feeling of nostalgia. It is a question of a feeling of (originally) belonging to a place based on memories like these; but we must also add that the memories are, of course, always a form of representation which is associated with images and discourses that are attached to a remembered place. The recalled home is not necessarily completely identical to the actual place – we know this, for example, from a wide range of diaspora literature, where the place fled or migrated from is idealised and depicted in a nostalgic manner as the lost, paradisiacal home.

But not all memories are nostalgic, and particularly in a context of war a place such as the childhood home is often also linked to traumatic experiences, which forces us to pose questions about the consequences of these memories and traumas in relation to the experience of home. Can home be the place where you have experienced persecution, bombing, war rape, or have witnessed the killing of family members? And what does it mean when there is a severe discrepancy between a nostalgic, idyllic picture of a lost past and the actual place to which you return? Here it is important to remember how war also actively produces space and identity. What, for example, is the relationship between the memories of a place and the return to that same place which now looks completely different and has incorporated completely different symbolic expressions? When, for instance, the nationalism you had to flee from continues, and continues to inscribe itself and the memories of war in the urban fabric, whether in the renaming of streets and squares or in flags and graffiti? In places such as in the city of Mostar, which before the war was one of the most diverse areas in Yugoslavia, but during the war was completely divided into a Croat and a Muslim part, and in which a 33-meter high stone cross on top of a hill, visible from anywhere in the city, was erected after the war? My purpose here is not to provide an actual answer to these questions, but rather to urge the reader to take them into consideration when following the simplistic public debate on home and repatriation.

Finally, Porteous & Smith point to the psychosocial aspect of home, meaning the way in which home serves as a space for relationships that (co)develop the self. It may be helpful to think of expressions like: “home is where the heart is” or “in the safety of your home” or “it takes a village to raise a child”. Here, we are dealing with relations that distribute recognition and roles, create habits, and so on.

The home provides security (or insecurity) and distributes roles. This means that the home cannot be reduced to the physical location or the memories of this, but also contains active relationships with others in this place – a community. This is important to emphasise, in part because it is connected to the fact that the loss of a home also means the loss of security, and in part because when we think of the meaning of returns we must consider what community is found (or not found) in this place.

What does it mean, for example, to return to a place where many of the people you shared a community with no longer are, because they have either been killed or have fled? Is it still a return home? Or when some of your neighbours during the war have partaken in the ethnic cleansing you fled from? Or when your former friends have internalised the nationalist logic and no longer greet you on the street, or no longer identify as Yugoslavs or Bosnians, but as Croats, Serbs or Muslims? Or when many internally displaced persons now live in this place, people who never have had a relationship with you and with whom you don’t necessarily have a sense of security? What does this mean for the question of how this can be understood as returning home?

Part of the problems to be contended with during the Dayton negotiations, leading to the 1995 peace agreement which formally ended the war, related to how to deal with the consequences of the course of the war. The creation of two entities with extensive powers, the Serb Republic and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (plus a special administrative area, ten cantons, and four cities with special status), in the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina, could be seen as an acceptance or retention of the results of ethnic cleansing. To counter this, the so-called “Annex 7” was created in the agreement, which guarantees the right to “return home” to where you lived before the war – home, here, understood as the house or the apartment where you lived before the war.

This is still an ongoing process that many have chosen not to make use of, and in the cases where the returns have happened, especially in the first years after the war, there have been conflicts. Toal & Dahlman describe how local institutions, politicians and civic groups sought to deny this right or in different ways made it impossible for the return to happen (everything from riots and attacks on people who tried to return, to the bogging down of applications in an extensive bureaucratic process), while on the part of the international community, both institutionally and from many NGOs, there was a strong focus on the implementation of this “returning home”.

In the article “The Privatization of Home and Hope: Return, Reforms and the Foreign Intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina”, the English anthropologist Stef Jansen critically examines this international focus on repatriation as only (or mainly) connected to the physical home. He points to the aspects that I have already mentioned, but also suggests that we must bear in mind the socioeconomic aspects. When the return is framed as a simple physical return, with incentives and support such as aid for reconstruction of houses, the fact that this return took place during a complete reorganisation of society as a whole is not taken into account.

The war and the subsequent international intervention has also involved a process that can be described as neoliberal shock therapy. Numerous privatisations were carried out through an often thoroughly corrupt process, state institutions and the social security system were cut to an extreme degree and the previous system of workers’ self-management and influence in factories was replaced by wild capitalism, while environmental and industrial safety regulations were deregulated and a flat tax was introduced (currently at about 10%). All this meant that the entire society around the physical home was completely changed.

The repatriation process at stake here is best understood, according to Jansen, through the concept of precarity. It was a precarious matter to return to a place you had fled from and where you had traumatic experiences. It was precarious to obtain the legal permits from the new local authorities. It was precarious trying to feel psychological as well as physical security in this place, where the war might be over, but where the nationalist logic still existed to a large extent or where the perpetrators who had committed massacres still lived next door. But it was also precarious to return to a society that did not function in the same way as it previously had; a society with dramatically increased unemployment, a society that had socioeconomically completely changed.

Jansen also notes that the potential for a “normal” or “reasonable” life is a major factor in the issue of return. A return to an extremely precarious situation, also socioeconomically, is not returning to the place you fled from. He also notes that we cannot understand the feeling of home or belonging to a place only through birth or nostalgia, but must also understand it in connection to the conditions of possibility for a future in this place. When the loss of home is linked to the loss of safety, a situation dominated by precarity and lack of hope for the future is a significant factor in the issue of return, a factor that works against the feeling of home.

You must stay where you belong

It is thus not possible to understand the concept of home through a simple definition; it must be thought of in connection to a wide range of often conflicting factors. Home is a place, home is symbolism and memories attached to this physical place, but home, like place, is also the psychosocial relationships and socioeconomic conditions that work to create the community and the conditions of possibility for normalcy and security which help to create the meaning and sense of home.

It is important to understand that war (as well as peace agreements and reconstruction) actively changes these aspects of home, not only through the traumatic experiences of the individual but also through the production of new social relations and ways of understanding oneself and others and through the general reshaping of society.

I do not wish to argue that home can never mean the place where you were born, or the belonging to a language, a culture, or even to a nation-state. But I wish to point to the fact that there is a wide range of issues located underneath the simplistic statements about repatriation in the public debate, which should also be understood and addressed. It is an expression of an extremely reductive understanding of the meaning of home when a politician, such as Johanne Schmidt-Nielsen from Enhedslisten (Red-Green Alliance) states, as she did to Information on the 5th of March, 2015:

“Obviously, if one’s asylum case has been rejected because one has no demand for protection, then one should be sent home. And if one does not want to go, then it must be done by force. But the premise is of course that forced expulsion is safe.” (Information, March 5th, 2015).

Here, home is understood solely within a framework of origin (birth and nation) and international conventions, which also define a person as primarily belonging in the nation-state in which they were born or have a citizenship. As mentioned, I do not wish to argue for a specific political action, but to call for an expansion of the ways in which the concepts of home and return are referred to and understood in the public debate. However, I would like to point out that statements like Schmidt-Nielsen’s serve to reproduce a particular understanding of home and place: a logic which states that you are at home or belong in a particular place (or to a particular nation), no matter how this place may be changing.

As I have tried to show, it is extremely naive to imagine that war does not imply a wide range of personal and societal processes which actively change both the conditions of possibility for identity formation as well as the physical and social spaces on which the meaning of home very much depends. In statements like Schmidt-Nielsen’s, the logic basically requires that you have a particular place that is home and that you should remain where you belong. This logic is dependent on an extremely simplified understanding of home.


Zlatko Dizdarević: Sarajevo – A War Journal, N.Y.: Fromm International (1993)

Samuel Huntington: “The Clash of Civilizations?”, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72, Issue 3 (1993), p. 22-49

Stef Jansen: “The Privatisation of Home and Hope: Return, Reforms and the Foreign Intervention in Bosnia-Hercegovina”, Dialectical Anthropology, Vol. 30 (2006)

Mary Kaldor: New and Old Wars – Organized Violence in a Global Era, Second Edition, Cambridge: Polity Press (2006 [1998])

Kim Kristensen: “Politikere beklager afghansk stop for hjemsendelser”,, 5/04/2015. Retrieved 22/04/2015.

Ivana Maček: Sarajevo Under Siege – Anthropology in Wartime, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press (2011)

J. Douglas Porteous & Sandra E. Smith: Domicide: The Global Destruction of Home, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press (2001)

Gerald Toal & Carl T. Dahlman: Bosnia Remade – Ethnic Cleansing and its Reversal, Oxford: Oxford University Press (2011)

Dubravka Žarkov: The Body of War – Media, Ethnicity and Gender in the Break-up of Yugoslavia, Durham: Duke University Press (2007)