For me, extending my support to and expressing solidarity with Ukraine means acknowledging my personal history of injury. Lately, every news story triggered a series of emotional responses related to personal trauma. I was particularly affected by reports about the refugee wave the invasion produced. If you’ve experienced forced migration, it might be very difficult to witness history repeat itself over again. Your personal plight, as well as that of your people, feels like a lesson unheeded by political leaders. Perhaps they never paid attention to your struggles in order to learn much from them. Perhaps they did but felt underwhelmed by your pain. Either way, the horror of it all just becomes too much to bear. And so, your solidarity with Ukraine might—as it did in my case—grow out of deep historical injury activated over and again with each tweet you read, each statement you signed, each time you shared resources with your comrades near and far.
Because things feel personal, I’d like to tell a personal story. Much of the circumstances leading up to my life in Wiesbaden, Germany, are too hazy to relay. In recent therapy sessions I found out I could access these memories if I wanted to do so. However, I knew this would be a difficult journey. I’m still not sure if I’ll be able to come to terms with my family’s comprehensive refugee experience that marks our transition from Yugoslavia to Germany (and beyond). For now, what I remember of this experience is tentative.
Take, for instance, the contents of this photograph. I know I am in it—someone told me this and I can recognize myself. I am seated on the floor in a room. Two cots, a fridge, and a dining room table with a TV on it frame me in the center. I recall these were items donated, bartered, or purchased secondhand where possible. The “beds” have been made and the space looks generally tidy, all things considered. There would have to have been at least two more cots to accommodate my family, which consists of me, my brother, my mom, and my dad.
The larger furniture items are not pushed up against concrete walls; they are pushed up against room dividers. I’m not quite sure about the details, but I believe that this was a large room divided up to accommodate several families at once. Perhaps the wall against which the table was pushed was indeed a concrete wall with a window in one corner. I am not entirely sure. What I do recall is that the table was not stationary. It could be moved when necessary to accommodate multiple uses.
I appear to be writing or drawing in this photograph. Or, rather, I was caught in the act of doing so and distracted by the camera. My parents used to recall me being a quiet child, with a particular tendency toward solitude when we lived in this room. Much later, after the war, when we first visited my grandmother in Tešanj, Bosnia and Herzegovina, I was stunned to discover torn-out colored pages from coloring books hung in a room of her house. Apparently, my mom would mail her these. In this photograph, I might have been coloring a picture that later made its way to Bosnia and Herzegovina long before I would.
There was a large hall right outside of the bigger room in which our makeshift room was located. In one corner of this hall, there was an office for a humanitarian worker—or another type of official in place to keep order. Outside of the office was, if I recall correctly, the only telephone available to residents. It was a payphone. In 1992, if you were a Balkan refugee in Germany you’d likely try to reach the family left behind whenever possible. And so, this phone was kind of a sacred object—notwithstanding or perhaps because of its public location, which afforded those using it no privacy.
You might be able to imagine what intense anxiety fills the air when the phone rang. You never knew who it could be. You never knew what news the call would bring. You never quite knew why someone would use it. Sometimes after a phone call, the person would walk away and lie down on one of those cots. There was a lot of sobbing that echoed in those big rooms. This phone bore news about life and death. When you are young, you learn to put two and two together. Sobbing pulsating through a room meant a terrible phone conversation just took place.
One memory I have, though I cannot corroborate it, is of someone—I keep thinking it was my mother—calling their older parent—I feel it could be my grandmother—from that payphone. It must have been very difficult to reach this person. For when they finally answered the call, something rather extraordinary happened. A scream. A distraught plea for help directed at the other residents. You see, if you wanted to sustain an international line from Germany to somewhere in the Balkans at the time of conflict, you needed to have a bunch of coins on standby to feed the greedy phone. And the person calling from Germany—my mom?—was terrified that this connection would be broken. They pleaded with the residents who peaked their head out from behind the many big rooms containing smaller spaces. Coins were needed. Any coin would do.
Following the scream, I recall a person running out from one corner of the large hall with a bunch of coins in their hands—perhaps this was my mom (?). Some were falling out of their hands. A few of us kids in this refugee housing facility ran over to pick those coins up and run them to the person at the pay phone. We wanted to help out, too.
And this is where this memory ends for me. Some parts are vivid, yet other parts entirely nebulous. Many parts of this important event are not available at all. I’m concerned about the authenticity of what I do remember. But this might be the wrong concern here. Because the scream is quite important no matter its source. I’ll return to it in a bit. Or, rather, it will come back to haunt me.
Humboldt Straße 6. Humboldt Street #6. I’m almost certain this was the address of the house in which we lived when we first moved to Wiesbaden. When the phone rang in the office of the humanitarian worker, they would answer it by stating which street and number the caller reached, followed by some description I no longer recall. Because the person answered the phone frequently in a large hall whose echo reverberated through the larger space, the kids would regularly mock the street name and number.
The house was located in the mansion quarter of Wiesbaden. The town is somewhat known as a place where wealthy people with fancy jobs in Frankfurt live. There is also a lot of old money in Wiesbaden. Don’t ask me how or why one of the mansions was made into a refugee housing site. It certainly caused a stir. For instance, our wealthy neighbours did not like so many loud refugee children running around and making noise in their neighborhood. I think they preferred that they sit in their room and brood. My elementary school principal was likewise put off by my residency address. Children like that just don’t belong there.
I don’t recall much joy from that time at Humboldt Straße 6. But there must have been some. What I know is that my stare back at the camera reveals and prompts pain. When I look at this photograph, I hear that scream from the person who needs another coin to sustain their phone connection to their family far away. I feel the sounds of sobbing resounding in that room. And every time I think back to this time I am catapulted into what I recently came to understand is an episode caused by trauma.
Although each episode somehow feels unique, they all have a set of common features. The pressure on my chest feels impossible to endure. At times I feel I am choking. Tears run down my eyes and my right hand starts to tremble uncontrollably. I hear that scream and the pleads for help. Lately, this has been happening daily. In the aftermath, I am left entirely depleted. In a recent conversation with a dear friend, I described what comes after an episode as feeling bruised without familiar signs of bruising.
In therapy I am working on strategies to manage these episodes. So far, breathing exercises have helped a lot. I also bake and cook. My family owned a bakery in Doboj before we had to flee. A fresh-baked loaf of bread comforts me in deeply transtemporal and transgeographic ways. As does a complicated Bosnian and Herzegovinian dish that takes all day to prepare. My wonderful partner and our dog provide much comfort. However, I’ve not yet been able to fully reach the place where I can start to access the memories affiliated with these episodes. For the most part, I’ve not been able to talk to my parents about this time. I fear the conversation would trigger my anxiety before it begins. What worries me more: I might trigger their trauma. But I am working toward this conversation. And I often think about what others, who have experienced what I have, have before them.
And so, my personal journey will entail some attempts to recover memories lost or currently difficult to access. This will be a turbulent journey, to say the least. And just as I am embarking on it, I face yet another trigger. The last few weeks have seen a peculiar wave of ignorance about and historical revisionism related to the Yugoslav Wars. As the horrific news of Russia’s unprovoked and violent invasion of Ukraine started emerging in the mainstream, segments of international media cultures and public discourse bemoaned “the first outbreak of armed conflict on European grounds since 1945.” If you’ve experienced violence as a result of war, have lost loved ones to war, or have otherwise been affected by armed conflict in Europe since 1945 you are familiar with the pain of this claim. If I’m very generous, I’d say that people can only hold on to only one conflict at a time and quickly forget it once it no longer holds their attention.
But this is precisely the time at which we must hold on to multiple conflicts at once, learn from them, and resist the oppressive forces that give rise to them. Putin’s multi-year, multi-directional hostilities are a case in point. I’ll begin illustrating this by turning to the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina. My family home, for instance, is located in Doboj, which is part of the Serb Republic (one of the two entities that comprise Bosnia and Herzegovina). At the time of war, we—as a Muslim family—felt pressured to leave the area understood to be a dangerous place for people like us. Those family members unable to flee succumbed to the war. I mourn their deaths today. Milorad Dodik, the prime minister of the Serb Republic, has recently fueled an ardent ethnonationalist movement underpinning secessionist fervour. Dodik’s regime, endorsed and backed by the Kremlin, threatens peace and poses new dangers to people living in the country.
One of the foundational elements of the secessionist movement in Bosnia and Herzegovina is an expressed genocide denialism about the atrocities committed against Bosniaks during the war in the 1990s. Those working on genocide and histories of violence know that denialism goes hand in hand with historical revisionism. Recasting history to serve one’s own political agenda is a proven technique by authoritarian leaders intended to secure dominance and justify ongoing violence against people. It is also a relational strategy in the arsenal of those in less powerful positions. In short, denialism, historical revisionism, and broad ignorance of historical violence come into view as political strategies to further oppress peoples already affected by historical injury. If you’ve lost people to war and years later some claim the violence is minute or never took place, you feel old wounds lay claim on your body-mind.
As I and so many of my comrades suffer the pain of public ignorance and denialism of historical violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I fear that what might emerge as outpour of support for Ukraine and its peoples will quickly succumb to these strategies of oppression. The Kremlin operates active disinformation campaigns in Russia and violently suppresses courageous dissent from some residing in Russia. What form will such active disinformation take in the future as it couples with global media and diplomacy cultures actively disinterested in long, multidirectional histories of violence? What effects will this have on the peoples of Ukraine? I am concerned, for instance, how trauma affiliated with forced migration already took hold of people fleeing the conflict. What experiences will they accrue in their journeys, should they have the capacity to undertake them? Will some of them face trauma’s resurgence in the way I did? What interventions can be put into place to mitigate this trauma? What international diplomacy, humanitarian, and collective efforts can emerge that can intervene in Putin’s ongoing war crimes? And will we be able to reject the Kremlin’s inevitable denialist tendencies capable of re-triggering trauma in its current victims five, ten, or twenty years from now?
Pain and Solidarity
I am scared of these questions because I’m afraid of the possible answers. But I still hold on to solidarity as a relational practice that might hold space for coalitional endeavors capable of leading us into affirmative futures.
I firmly believe that it is possible to hold up multiple solidarity commitments at once without disrespecting each individually. I also think it is vital to do so. What this looks like in praxis will differ from person to person. For me, acknowledging my personal injury and brokenness in light of (or as triggered by) those of others feels like a good place to start shaping solidarity. I do not want the pain I endured to proliferate. I do not want others to endure the pain affiliated with forced migration and other structures of oppression. I do not wish the history of pain proliferating on the Balkans to become reality in a different constellation elsewhere. And so, I acknowledge my personal pain (in a lot of ways I have no choice but to do so). But I also acknowledge the pain of the Ukrainian people whose long-term suffering under Putin’s oppression takes on recognizable if different form for me. At the same time, I recognize various intersectional struggles people fleeing or unable to flee face in and beyond Ukraine. What does solidarity mean to you? What histories of injury do you acknowledge and which do not come into view for you as worthy of your attention?
Ervin Malakaj is Assistant Professor of German Studies and affiliate faculty member of the Institute for European Studies at the University of British Columbia. His Bosnian Muslim family fled the Yugoslav Wars and were refugees in Germany.