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20.02.2018 | Empirical Study/Analysis | Ausgabe 1/2018 Open Access

Human Studies 1/2018

Don’t Talk About the Elephant: Silence and Ethnic Boundaries in Postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina

Human Studies > Ausgabe 1/2018
Ana Mijić


In December 1995, the guns fell silent on Bosnia-Herzegovina and so did much dialogue. Silence is omnipresent in this postwar society: People conceal their suffering; they remain silent about their potential responsibility and guilt and—in interethnic encounters—the violent past is often wholly screened out. Drawing on a literature analysis as well as own interviews and ethnographic observations conducted in Bosnia-Herzegovina since 2007, the article focuses on the interplay between silence and the constitution of ethnic boundaries. In accordance with the literature, it argues that silencing in-group atrocities reinforces the boundaries between former enemies by strengthening ethnically biased collective memories. However, existing research also suggest that not speaking about war in interethnic encounters most likely contributes to the integration of Bosnian society because it enables members of different ethnic communities to interact ‘peacefully’ in everyday life, thereby creating ‘new’ realities within which ethnic boundaries become less important. This conclusion assumes that silencing necessarily leads to forgetting. The following paper challenges this perception and argues that silence about war and the avoidance of conflict in interethnic communication can, in fact, also promote a further consolidation of ethnic boundaries. When conversations about past realities only take place between like-minded people, the likely result is that their pre-existing shared perspective on this reality will become solidified. In other words, silencing war in interethnic encounters impedes any potential revision or restructuring of interethnic relations and therefore stabilises the boundaries between ethnic groups.

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