Sarajevo: Material Mediation and Survival Bodies



This text is part of a research process about architectural and other materials that analyzes entanglements of war (violent) and un-war (non-violent) spaces during the siege of Sarajevo (1992-1996), the bodily adaptations and human relations within, and new codes of knowledge formed on the edge of the military’s reactive activities, in both combat and civilian contexts. It attempts, by using the siege of Sarajevo as an example, to begin to reflect on the possible entanglements of war and un-war spaces by introducing three terms: “material mediation,” “survival body,” and “un-war space.” In relation to the production of space, I observe the two following notions: (1) war as a violent spatial condition and (2) un-war as a non-violent spatial condition, though the two are not in opposition as would the notions of war and peace. On the contrary, the two are interdependent and spatially juxtaposed, as long as the culture, power, and spaces of militarism are produced and utilized.

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Detail from the “Survival Map of Sarajevo,” 1992-1996. / FAMA Collection

The proclamation of the independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina from the Yugoslavian Federation came as a result of a citizen referendum on March 1, 1992, which has since been considered the reason for different armed and unarmed incidents in Sarajevo during the same month, as well as the impetus for the Bosnian War. A month after the referendum, massive civilian peace demonstrations took place over a course of three days and, on the dawn of the fourth, Serbian snipers targeted the people. Even though the citizens made clear their opposition to the war, Sarajevo was then besieged and, for four years, the city was subjected to constant bombings, gunfire, and attacks by tanks. As written in a report by a United Nations Security Council Commission of Experts (1994), the besieging forces of the Bosnian Serb Army (BSA), successors to the Yugoslav National Army (JNA), started changing the natural landscape of the Bosnian territory. According to Sarajevo: Survival Guide (FAMA, 1993), entrenched along the natural landscape of the surrounding hills and mountains of the city were 260 anks, 120 mortars, and innumerable anti-aircraft cannons, sniper rifles, and other smaller arms. Some parts of the neighborhoods inside the city, such as in Grbavica and Dobrinja, were divided in two, meaning the front line went through and in-between buildings, or engulfed opposing river banks for either waging attacks or defending. As a response, the interim wartime government started to organize Bosnia and Herzegovina’s defense forces. Meanwhile, everyday civilian life changed dramatically for those who didn’t flee, which involved adapting to the new geography of the war. I argue that every city with citizens living in close proximity to military landscapes, who were or are still living through a state of war, belongs to a specific topography. In these locations, spatial and bodily relations take on unique qualities, and are mediated through two elements: weaponry — military vehicles, artillery, and snipers — and the availability of raw materials — land and trees, other people, as well as the rubble of ruined buildings.

Material mediation during the war in the city ///

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Semi-underground pedestrian path. / Photograph by Miguel Ruiz (1992–1996)

During the siege of Sarajevo, destructive military operations and the civilian reaction to them, through the process of normalization into everyday life, physically transformed the city at every possible scale: the landscape, public transport, utility infrastructures (water, electricity, gas), neighborhoods, streets, building exteriors and interiors, as well as furniture and other objects of the home. Sarajevo is a city in a valley, and as the bombing was staged from the mountainous perimeter, any unprotected main city boulevards, intersections, and other open spaces were under constant threat of sniper shooting, as illustrated by the red circles on the Sarajevo Survival Map. Everyday life was limited to a network of underground, semi-underground, and above-ground urban spaces. Peoples’ movements were reduced to a minimum, and even then were only conducted to satisfy essential needs like acquiring food. The entire daily life of civilians began sinking to the underground or semi-underground level: sleeping, eating, playing, cooking, creating culture, and so forth. The constant bombing of the city not only transformed existing buildings, streets, and neighborhoods, but introduced new elements: barricades, sandbags, semi-underground tranches for citizens to walk, urban gardens, and sniper-protection walls made from shipping containers or other materials. As Sabahudin Špilja and Borislav Ćurić wrote in their text “Project: Map of Sarajevo City Destruction” (Warchitecture, 1993), “architecture, whatever it may be (good or bad, expensive or cheap, representative or not), is the material medium which most directly (with the exception of human victims) and most convincingly reflects the terrible destructive consequences of war.” During the war, citizens of Sarajevo were living in a complex and perpetual system of destruction, construction, and destruction again. Constructions were made amidst ruins out of debris: irregular forms of concrete, bricks, glass, wood, plastic, or undefined material hybrids. The military siege rescaled the urban landscape and peoples’ homes, as well as transformed the architectural program of typically modernist dwellings into self-programmed spaces, unique from one another, each containing the resources for specific human lives, as documented in 1994 by architect Zoran Doršner in his drawings “Destructive Metamorphosis” made in 1994 for the exhibition “Sarajevo Dream and Reality.” Debris was a medium used by civilians who individually or collectively formed a protective power in contrast to the military’s destructive power. The experience of living in a city subject to military destruction affected their ways of thinking about and interacting with the existing architectures. I propose that the citizens of Sarajevo, with their spatial manipulations, were un-doing the war by rethinking and substantially changing their living spaces, by transforming accessible materials around them into new ephemeral architectures which if destroyed again would only be turned back into building materials. In the material mediation between war and un-war spaces it is possible to read many different, newly created, ephemeral urban functions of the city, born out of violence and fear, but created for the primary purpose of surviving.

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Protective elements in front of a housing building / Zoran Kanlić (1992–1996)

Besides this basic urban condition, Nedžad Kurto, architecture professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Sarajevo, noted the rise of another phenomenon called “the Unknown City,” in which the sudden and extensive destruction of residential quarters (Vratnik, Bistrik, and others) opened a view into the structures of social, architectural, and neighborhood relations (Warchitecture, 1993). Whereas this intimate view was typically closed off, during the war the city was completely open, and most of the buildings were accessible to all for their various needs: survival, hiding, scavenging for construction materials or wood for heating, and anything else that might arise.

Survival Body ///

Constant bombing re-defined the landscape, the city, codes of spatial knowledge, the notion of citizenship, and above all the body’s abilities. Adapting from pre-war activities to the dangerous new environment, the survival body evolved on its own or in relation with others. Personal experiences of war are all unique, and the human body reacts in varied ways to destruction, internal or long-distance displacement, noise (military aircraft, sirens, grenades, guns), lack of resources (food, water, electricity), and exposure to extreme heat and cold. The obvious way to categorize the bodies involved in the war is into two types: the body of the soldier and the body of the civilian. Both struggle for survival, but through different power relations: soldiers against other soldiers and civilians against the soldiers and the power determined by their weapons. I argue that a full comprehensive analysis of human bodies during war (civilians or soldiers) will never be possible, but nonetheless, I am interested in studying the possible bodily responses of civilians in Sarajevo during the urban siege. Civilians living in a wartime city constantly face fear and uncertainty. Their activities become mostly limited to things like hiding. In footage from the documentary film A Sarajevo Diary — From Bad to Worse, (Dom Rotheroe, William Tribe, 1993) and in the photographs of Zoran Kanlić, we see that because of sniper fire, shelling, or warning sirens, civilians in Sarajevo usually ran from place to place, or else walked with a bowed posture or crawled on the ground. For example, if civilians were on the streets when shelling began, in order to take shelter from the bombs, people would react in relation to their self-trained understanding of the ir bodies’ proximity with the area where the explosions would occur. In this case, the sounds of war, such as sirens, explosions, and gunfire, are a kind of invisible material that the body absorbs and reacts to, often in an automatic way, out of a new-born survival instinct. Gradually, civilians even learn to recognize the sounds of different weapons.

Pilav Funambulist 4
Floor plan of a residential unit transformed during the war by the self-organization of space. / Drawing by architect Zoran Doršner (1994).

Interior spaces were rescaled, due to constructions protecting against bombs and cold weather being used collectively by many people. In homes and shelters, inhabitants would all sleep in the same space, as illustrated by the architect Zoran Doršner in his above mentioned project “Destructive Metamorphosis” (1994). If these spaces were located underneath buildings, they were often cold, humid, and unventilated. In most cases, all the inhabitants of one building would use the safest unit for cooking and gathering. Wartime cities are inhabited by a very specific society that often reacts to everything in groups. Examples of wartime bodily behavior can be as numerous as the amount of people living through the war, but on some occasions, people in their response to militarized repression and living conditions function as a single group, a collective survival body in which successful behaviors and strategies are learned and repeated. By crossing dangerous intersections together, for example, people acted as a single body. The collective survival body’s characteristics make it adaptive and supportive, giving its members the ability to react to danger and better cope with the fear and constant tension of war.

Un-war space ///

In order to explore the possibility of un-war space without looking at the war apparatus, I find it necessary to begin with un-war spaces of cities that have already experienced war, such as Sarajevo. The amount of time that has passed since the end of the siege of Sarajevo in the Bosnian War allows us to conceive of the wartime city as an experimental and dynamic space. I rely for this analysis on the transformation of architectural materials during the war by destruction and the civilian use of these ruins as protective constructions, ephemeral designs, and projects of opposition. A comparative exploration of these identified spatial typologies serves us well for the production of spatial knowledge across disciplines, and highlights their intersections and temporality in relation to both the wartime and post-war urban condition.

Finally, observing and analyzing wartime Sarajevo makes it possible to think of un-war spaces and activities occurring in cities not directly involved in military conflict. During March 2017 in Kiev, I had the opportunity to explore the entanglements of war and un-war spaces with a group of twenty people from France, Turkey, Spain, Tunisia, and former Yugoslavian countries within the framework of the European study program “I-TEAM.” In a shared educational space created through listening and conversation, we talked openly about our personal experiences of crossing between war and un-war spaces. We adopted the term “un-war” as both a literary and spatial construct. In this construct, the prefix “un-“ implies an act of redefining, reimagining, and reconstructing, while “war” (unsurprisingly) means “to address conflict via military violence.” By placing “un-“ before a noun (in this case, war) we started thinking about an alternative approach or action: one that may share many of the characteristics of war, but which in fact takes us towards new approaches that absolutely exclude violence. To help explain this to one another, we looked at other constructed words as analogies, for example, “un-building” — maybe this is a space that fulfills the functions of a building, but does not have the physical characteristics of a building?

To clarify, “un-war” might be a response to war that broadly maintains the same overall aims of addressing conflict, but does so through methods that reject any acts of violence. As examples of the creation of un-war spaces during the siege of Sarajevo, I showed many examples of non-violent, spatial reactions to military violence and constructions made from ruined architectural components by the civilian population. Civilian responses were numerous, such as urban gardening, making doorbells out of bullet holes, and organizing spaces for cooking for all the residents of a building. Organizing cultural events during the war was as important as food and safety: plays and concerts were performed in shelters and bombed-out buildings, a pageant for “Miss Besieged Sarajevo” was staged, and art was exhibited in destroyed public buildings.

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A concert performed at a music academy in Sarajevo during the siege, with visible shelling damage. / Zoran Kanlic (1992–1996)

Relying on the examples of this text, I suggest that there is an entanglement of war space (defined by military activity) and un-war space (defined by the civilian reaction to military activity), producing new, transitional spaces of different scales and materials. I take it as a given that the process of un-war spatial production, using architectural and cultural materials, not only refuses militarism, but repurposes such instruments as weapons, vehicles, and ruined building components as resources for the practice of daily life, constituting ephemeral, non-violent wartime interventions. Finally, in relation to the production and reproduction of space and architecture theory, the concept of un-war attempts to offer an analytical language and a reflexive design process that questions those employed by the military and culture in general.