It goes without saying that if you want to understand a topic you study, a hands-on experience is a sine qua non. This is why field research was the primary element of my doctoral thesis when I started my PhD in 2013. Since I worked in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the past in the NGO sector and was very interested in how victims manage to live on after what they experienced, my PhD topic was to be related to ways of dealing with the past in the post-war divided country. I decided to first go to Bosnia again and see what emerges as THE topic, which we researchers should be looking at so that it also has some real-word impact.
Since then I conducted five research trips lasting from 10 to three weeks across the country. I interviewed victims, ex-fighters, NGO workers, international and local experts and academics and also political elites. It was a challenging and draining experience but I learnt a lot not only about the topic, which I at last settled on, but also about the challenges of being a foreign research in a very complex and unhealthy social environment. I say unhealthy not in medical terms but in social ones – any country, which experienced a brutal war, mass rape, ethnic expulsions and unsuccessful international peacebuilding would be deeply traumatised and broken. Bosnia certainly is. But as a research and a foreigner, this poses several issues and sources of frustration, which have emerged over the course of my trips.
In its post-1995 history, Bosnia was exposed to a grandiose international guardianship via an inundation of international projects, consultants, programs and mentorships. It was equally exposed to a similar avalanche of international pundits, who came with these projects and international money, and who started first implementing their peacebuilding ideas and then studying and measuring them. Since the results have been very poor, Bosnians have turned against foreign interferences in their own affairs, and foreign assistance has become synonymous with external blackmail.
This has serious repercussions for people like myself, who genuinely want not only to learn about how Bosnians are coping but also about their needs and how we can learn from these past mistakes. I have often been reproached by my respondents for not giving anything in return for the interviews in terms of financial assistance. Expectations in terms of what my respondents would gain from me were clearly high because of the generally negative perception of foreigners. It only made it worse that the topics we covered in the interviews were deeply disturbing – from loss of family members to rape and physical suffering during the war.
Nonetheless, the resentment towards foreign researchers has also had a wider implication for the legitimacy of foreign research on Bosnia. Several Bosnians declined to talk to me because they were “tired of all these foreign researchers”. Bosnia has become a laboratory first for international peacebuilding and then for academic researchers. And Bosnians have been justifiably resenting this by declining to talk to foreigners.I have heard many times during my interviews that only Bosnians – i.e. people who went through the things I am trying to explain – have the right to discuss such things in public. The ownership of research on the country has also been perceived by the locals as only within the country.”Enough of foreigners telling us what to do and explaining us who we are”, was one of the explanations I received.
It has taken a lot of time and effort to gain trust and understanding of my Bosnian friends and respondents. My starting position was better because of my nationality, which is considered rather neutral in the former Yugoslav area (I am Czech) and also because I managed to learn the language – including slang – quite quickly and quite well. Because I had worked in the country before my PhD, I also had good friends who supported and helped me. However, the bottomline is that it has never ceased to be a draining struggle to do field research under such conditions.
There are two lessons I learned, though, and two reasons why I never ceased to believe in what I was doing.
Even if I was unable to offer financial assistance to victims and veterans I talked to, I hoped that I have at least been part of the process of recognising their suffering. I am not a trained psychologist but often assumed that role during my interviews – listened and listened, sometimes for several hours. That was the least – together with conveying these stories in my work – I was able to give in return. And at the end of one interview, my respondent said, “I fell good now. I have not talked about this for many years. But it feels good to get it off my chest.”
The second one is more related to public activism. Twenty years have past since the end of the war and Bosnia barely makes headlines outside of the Balkan region these days. I believe that it is part of my responsibilities to remedy this and make sure that the country is not fully forgotten. By writing open letters, organising seminars, talks, conferences and sharing the stories I listened to during my fieldwork beyond my PhD is – to my mind – another way how I can return the time my respondents have given me. By listening to them, I became closer to understanding their needs and thus better at conveying this to those who can make a difference in their lives. I hope that this message will be brought home in Bosnia at some too, so that me and all future researchers in the country will no longer be devalued and mocked.
A version of this article was also published here: http://www.socsci.ox.ac.uk/fieldworkers-experiences/the-travails-of-fieldwork-in-bosnia