Documentary “Alien Home”

My Neighbour is One of Them

Lights make the town beautiful,

and the sounds of the streets as they wake.

Houses and buildings make a town what it is,

but the most important are the people.

Most of them came to my town in 1993, at the height of the clashes between the Army of BiH and HVO in Central Bosnia. They moved into the empty houses, the school gymnasium, into the corridors and cellars of local residents. Together, we enrolled in elementary school; I still remember that there were forty-three of us entering first grade in 1995. They left as unexpectedly as they had arrived; the classroom emptied out and by fourth grade there were only twenty of us left. The sudden arrivals, making acquaintances, coping, going to school together and, finally, saying goodbye was explained to us children with vague terms: refugees, integration and assisting refugees, the Dayton Agreement, return, integration and assisting returnees… Later, much later, I began to understand how displacement is always accompanied by a label that you cannot escape:   Once you are displaced you become a refugee and if you ever return you will forever be a returnee, without the possibility of ever again being just so-and-so, without a prefix, a label, an imposed identity.

Some of them stayed and never returned to the places they had fled, but we still continued to and always will call them refugees. Even today when I want to clarify I will say: Not that Nurija, I meant Nurija the refugee; not that Emir, the other Emir, son of Nurija the refugee…

It is a paradox that the war in BiH had to end for the process of ethnic cleansing to be completed. In various ways, the thousands displaced during the war were incited to stay and forced to stay among their own kind: the Bosniaks with the Bosniaks, the Serbs with the Serbs, the Croats with the Croats. Caught between the hammer and the anvil, the stick and the carrot, an unknown number of them exchanged houses. At the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, there were hundreds of classified ads looking for one of them to exchange houses or apartments–short, simple, and demanding a yes or no answer without additional questions posed. I am exchanging a house in Hadžići for an apartment or house in Vlasenica. You accept or move on, no questions asked.

But no one simply exchanged a house. Lives changed. That’s why in these ads and in the stories that followed, you could come across very unexpected details: for example that the house is close to where the Drina is as deep as it gets, that the apartment is located in a building in Ilijaš next to where such-and-such train stopped, although that line hasn’t existed for years, that the apartment looks out at the field where such-and-such generation of champions first learned to dribble… The square footage, number of floors, number of rooms were disregarded. That’s how a life was memorialised; it was the last opportunity, it seemed, to extract some value from nostalgia.

People hoped to begin anew by exchanging houses, no matter how difficult it was to begin anew at forty or fifty. But the specter of the past would always return, marking them forever as refugees. These people knew firsthand that ethnic identity is not all-powerful and that it can never ever erase all other identities. They were Bosniak refugees among their Bosniaks, Serb refugees among their Serbs, Croat refugees among their Croats. When someone wanted to cut deep, in my town, they would say: We now have one of them for a neighbour. Simply to establish a border: us and them.

Time did not heal that rift; it deepened it on another, even more traumatic level–the familial level. Today, their children think of the houses they live in as their homes: the pre-war homes of their parents are foreign to them and a return of any sort to the homes and birthplaces of their parents would mean becoming refugees. Knowledge of this fact has turned the lives of an entire generation into mere survival.

If there are thousands of them, why do we not speak of them in Bosnian-Herzegovinian society? As painful as it is, the explanation is simple: the official narrative, which frames ethnic homogenisation and territorialising as a positive thing, thinks of these people as petty–very petty–war profiteers. And as such, they don’t have the right to complain to anyone about anything.

The documentary film Alien Home aims to recognise the pain of those who exchanged their homes at some point in their lives. This pain spills over the borders imposed around them, whether they are ethnic, regional, familial, age-based, etc. As Hannah Arendt observed:  People who lost their rights first lost their homes. It’s not the loss of home that history forgets, but the impossibility of finding a new one.

The idea behind the film Alien Home arose during the 2014 Training of Trainers for Peace Building, organised by CNA, and the film was made in the fall of 2015. We would again like to give a special thanks to all the people who shared their stories with us and all those who helped us record these stories. We hope that this consequence of war, like others, will be recognised and will be one of the motivations for building a better and more just society.

The film can be seen here: