Public secrecy in post-war hydro-tourism

Andrew Dawson

University of Melbourne


Bosnia is commonly referred to as the 'land of rivers'. Indeed, the word is derived from a hydronym, the Bosna river that flows through the centre of the country. And, the undoubted capital of Bosnia's river-lands is the town and municipality of Foča, in the eastern part of the county, where the great and culturally significant rivers of the Tara and Drina meet. Beyond providing a livelihood for local people, especially through fishing, the rivers have always represented the area's key 'natural' infrastructure. Once the key means of transport, especially for Foča's logging and wood pulp industries, the rivers became the centre of Bosnia's hydro-electric industry, and are now the reason for a booming local tourism industry. However, behind the rivers' present status as an infrastructure of pleasure, they have a recent past of atrocity. In the massive ethnic cleansing of Foča that took place in the war of 1992-95 the rivers became a key site for the disposal of bodies. Furthermore, the apparent fecundity of their waters rationalised Foča's choice as a centre of mass rape, a key military strategy implemented in the war. In this article I chart the recent history of Foča and its rivers. I argue that Foča's development as a site of tourism requires rendering the recent past a public secret, at a multiplicity of levels. However, I also illustrate how that past is, inadvertently always liable to slip out.

War and atrocity

Despite the centrality of other sites in the country's post-war traumatic national imaginaries, such as Srebrenica, the small eastern Bosnian town and municipality of Foča represents, arguably, the epicentre of 'ethnic cleansing' during the Bosnian war of succession of 1992-95. Through the course of the war the population declined from approximately 40,000 to 24,000. Furthermore, the ethnic composition changed markedly. Once 51.6 percent Bosniak (Muslim), 45.3 percent Serb and 3.1 percent Other, by war's end it is estimated that non-Serbs constituted a mere 0.4 percent of Foča's population, fewer than 100 people (Human Rights Watch 1998, p. 6).

These figures do not convey the dreadful reality of life in the state of exception (Agamben 2005) established by the 'Crisis Committee' that assumed the governance of Foča from April 1992 through to war's end. The NGO Human Rights Watch described it as being "beyond anyone's worst nightmare," (1998, p. 4), especially during the period through to October 1992 when The International Committee of the Red Cross was denied access. Foča was isolated from the world beyond its boundaries, and its residents subjected to the unrestrained depravities of its captors.

Assisted by local police, the Bosnian Serb army, Serb irregulars from Serbia and Montenegro proper and paramilitary forces, including the infamously brutal 'White Eagles' and 'Tigers', the Crisis Committee oversaw the following. The properties and businesses of Bosniaks were expropriated or, in a process of domicide (Porteous and Smith 2001), destroyed. For example, all fourteen of the areas mosques were torn down. Non-Serb civilians were rounded-up, and women and men separated. Some were expelled. Some were detained. Many of the detained faced forced labour, starvation, beatings and torture, and various forms of humiliation. Survivors described, for example, having been made to eat pork, drink alcohol and kiss the Orthodox cross. Also, of course, large numbers of people were murdered, and often by the most atavistic of methods. For example, survivors describe the use of knives and beheadings.

Having said this, Foča became especially infamous for rape. Countrywide estimates of the number of victims of rape during the war range as high as 60,000 (TRIAL International 2012, p. 8). This reflects, in part rape's explicit deployment as a strategy in war (Bassiouni 1994, p. 313). The strategy was organised in a multiplicity of different ways (Bassiouni 1994), and it performed a number of functions. Central amongst the functions were to spread fear and trigger the flight of targeted populations and to render post-war return less likely (Danner 2009). The effectiveness of the rape strategy in these respects rests upon its especially heightened capacity in this context to bring shame upon victims and their relatives (see, for example, Siefert 1994) and the fact that erstwhile (and, thus, potentially future) neighbours were often incorporated as perpetrators.

The bases of Foča's heightened infamy as a site of war rape were twofold. The first of these was the disproportionately high number of rapes there. Foča was located in a strategic corridor connecting the now-Republika Srpska [1] with Serbia proper, and, as I have noted, had a minority Serb population living alongside a majority Bosniak population. Such contexts became the central targets of 'ethnic cleansing' and, as has been noted elsewhere, the main loci of war rape in particular (Warburton 1993). Secondly, Foča became associated with a particular kind of rape organisation and purpose. It became a concentrated site for 'rape camps', in which women were incarcerated and systematically raped, in some cases by specialist military units that, allegedly, did little more than commit the crime of rape (Human Rights Watch 1998). Part of this practice was undergirded by a contextually particular logic. Across all ethnic groups, whether Bosniak, Croat or Serb, the idea that women's biological contribution to the identity of the foetus is negligible is commonplace (Sofos 1996). Thus, impregnation of women and incarceration until such a time as they are unable to terminate the pregnancy had the perceived effect of, as Weitsman put it, planting 'the seeds of Serbs in Bosnia' and forcing Muslim women to give birth to little 'Chetniks' [2] (2008). As one woman, who like many of her kind that were eventually released, reported being told by a camp guard, "we'll make you have Serbian babies who will be Christians" (Human Rights Watch 1998, p. 80). Sometimes legitimisation of the practice was couched in the language of eugenics. Most famously, for example, academic geneticist and former vice president of Republika Srpska Biljana Plavsic seemed to legitimate the practice as being 'natural', an evolutionary means by which Bosnia could rid itself of its 'defective genes'.

From isolation to re-connection - tourism

The isolation imposed on Foča during the war continued, albeit in different ways, into the immediate post-war years. It became a one-party town and municipality. And, the ruling Serbian Nationalist Party was able to suppress local dissent against its radically nationalist agenda through systems of patronage and through intimidation and violence. Indeed, many of the very same persons who were alleged to have been responsible for the violent crimes committed during the war continued to hold power, including as members of the police and government. Inevitably, in this context, Foča's ultra-radical nationalism manifested in several important ways that exacerbated tension between it, the Bosnian state and the International Community. Crucially, these included frustration of key stipulations of the Dayton Accords [3] , such as the return of displaced persons, and the capture of persons indicted for war crimes. Indeed, many of the indicted persons roamed freely within the community in plain sight of the very authorities who were there to capture them, but who were also powerless to do so because of the renewed violence that that would almost certainly have provoked.

In this context, whilst some INGOs and governments were willing to invest in Foča's post-war reconstruction, hostility by Foča towards much of the world beyond its boundaries and by much of that world towards it, resulted in it being deprived the kinds of investment that many other parts of Bosnia enjoyed. This resulted, as local informants recall to a progressive crumbling of economy and infrastructure. Notably, the wood-pulp and hydroelectric industries that had been central lifeblood of Foča's economy progressively fell apart. And, the isolation of the town and municipality intensified. As the title of an influential Human Rights Watch report described, it became an increasingly "closed, dark place"(1998).

Having said this, in time Foča found a measure of economic redemption and, indeed, re-connection with the 'outside world'. And it did so through the most surprising of developments, the emergence of a vibrant local tourist industry. Furthermore, this was not the kind of thanotourism industry that prospered in other parts of Bosnia, such as Sarajevo. Rather, exploiting its position next to Tara, the deepest canyon in Europe, and at the confluence of major rivers, it developed as a centre for water-based adventure and, to a lesser extent health tourism. Tourists now flock to Foča and its environs to engage in white water rafting and to visit the spas.

Project forgetting

In contemporary Foča some local residents publicly remember and legitimate its atrocious recent past. Violence was necessary, so they say, to prevent the threat of the ethnic cleansing of Serbs wrought by the newly independent and increasingly Islamicized Bosnian state. One story has it that Foča was to be a key nodal point in a 'green line' of ethnically pure Muslim territories that would connect Sarajavo through the Sanjak of Novi Pazar to Kosovo. The horrors of that scenario are stoked with memories/narratives of the brutal killing during WWII of Serbs by Muslims, including special Muslim SS divisions established by the Nazis. And, such fears have been encouraged from above by the emotive language of Foča's leaders. For example, former army commander and local resident Colonel Marko Kovac is reported to have proclaimed that, "Muslims kill new-born Serbian babies and drown them in the River Drina...sexually assault Serbian children...and they cut off Serbian men's penises" (Human Rights Watch 1998, p. 10).Foča's big men tend not to be big on understatement.

Having said this, more often than not there is a marked silence regarding Foča's wartime past. This is not solely a strategy of concealment for visitors, but reflects a deep-seated culture of 'forgetting' established by the memory policy of Yugoslavia's post-WWII socialist regime (Ugresić 1998). The ways in which peace was won, following the internecine ethnic-national violence of WWII, though processes of forgetting extended down from the soft ideological domains of education and the like to the hardware of, even infrastructure. For example, Denich describes how roads were constructed to avoid sites of conflict in order to prevent them becoming places for ethnic martyrdom (1996). Alternatively, such sites were memorialised less as places of ethnic than of class conflict (ibid 1996).

Manifestations of the culture of forgetting are contemporarily replete. For example, a common sentiment expressed by many people throughout Bosnia is that the 1992-95 war of succession would not have taken-place had Tito lived another quarter of a century. More than a reference to the Yugoslav president's skills as a politician, it conveys the idea that war would have been prevented had he outlived the last generation to have experienced first-hand and, thus remembered the inter-ethnic conflicts of WWII. A culture of forgetting also percolates through to the conceptualisation of recent events, including the war of 1992-95. And, for the purposes of this article I also point out that forgetting pervades encounters in tourism, at every level.

Representations of geography in state-sponsored tourist literature parcel the former-Yugoslavia up into sites of beach holidays (the Adriatic Coast), cultural tourism (Mostar, for example), adventure tourism (including Foča) and thanotourism (especially Sarajevo) (see also Rivera 2008), even though places of pleasure are also, invariably places of erstwhile tragedy too. Managing that particular tension – of pleasure and tragedy - is a day-to-day challenge in the case of Foča's tourism industry. The rivers where tourists go white-water rafting are the very same ones where the bodies were disposed. Furthermore, one of the appeals of the spas is, reflecting widespread local beliefs about the fecundity of water, their perceived capacity to assist in the amelioration of reproductive disorders. And, it has been suggested to me by several local Bosniak women, that this is exactly why some such spas, like the infamous Vilina Vlasin the nearby municipality of Visegrád were chosen as rape camps and places for the production of Serbian foetuses in the bodies of Muslim women.

Despite a tacitly recognised injunction to hide the 'public secret' (Taussig 1999) of Foča's atrocious past from visitors, the fact that local tourism is involved in the provision of pleasure in sites of erstwhile tragedy means that, like a bad odour (van der Port 1999), the secret is liable to slip out now and again. And, like a rancid fart in an elevator such instances cause ill-ease and embarrassment at every level, requiring all local people to engage in a multiplicity of little cover-ups and other such 'labour(s) of the negative' (Taussig 1999). When I ask the chef at a rafting centre why she only cooks delicious river fish for the guests and not the guides she laughs and says, "that's high-class food…too good for those scumbags." When I ask the same question of the waitress she blushes and scuttles off back to the kitchen. When I ask a guide why he doesn't eat the fish he says, "it's not in our tradition." As if! And, when mayor Petko Cancar is asked why it's difficult to buy fish beyond the places that cater for visitors he says - not loosing an opportunity to celebrate the success of the local tourist industry - "we are not eating fish at the moment, but that's because we are too busy to catch any." What each is concealing is, of course, the public secret that eating fish in Foča is viewed locally as tantamount to a form of second-order cannibalism.

The discomforts of the public secret permeate down even into the relations between tourism co-workers too. The Dayton Accords were, fundamentally contradictory. By partitioning Bosnia into two entities, Republika Srpska and the Bosnian Federation they effectively recognized the gains made by Serb forces. On the otherhand they granted displaced persons the right to repossess property and to return, and significant finance was provided to enable that. However, displaced persons rarely return on a sustainable basis, especially to places like Foča, where radical nationalism lives on and renders living conditions for Bosniaks problematic, to say the least (see Dahlman and Ó Tuathail 2011). Instead, many displaced persons reclaim property and other connections to the area solely for purposes of economic livelihood, and, as a consequence move perpetually between Foča and their places of displacement amongst co-ethnics. For example, several young men and women who were displaced, or whose immediate ancestors were displaced, live in Sarajevo, but visit Foča to extract rent from repossessed properties and land now used in the white-water rafting business. Others even run tourist enterprises, channelling and transporting Sarajevo's visitors onwards to Foča's rivers. Inevitably, this involves inter-ethnic collaboration, including between second-generation descents whose family members had or may have engaged in violence against one another. In such encounters the most concealed of public secrets, often fuelled by gossip and rumour, is suspicion that ones' 'Other' ethnic co-workers may be offspring of rape and, perhaps one's half-sisters and brothers and fellow Serbs.


In the latter part of this article I chart how,Foča's present as a site for tourism requires engagement in various labours of the negative, designed to suppress the public secret of its atrocious past. This practice is concordant with a tradition of, often state-sponsored forgetting in the former-Yugoslav space. And, it effects all levels of society, from the state, through host-guest relations and down to relations between co-workers. The long-term risk of these practices will be, in time, for Foča's atrocities to be truly forgotten, especially as both sides in the ethnic conflict share an interest in this respect. Both the act of raping, and the inability, especially of menfolk to protect their womenfolk from rape are viewed widely locally as sources of dishonour. Furthermore, in a context where the economic future appears to lie in an image of pleasure – either through white-water rush or the health-giving properties of the spa – atrocity is not, unlike in nearby Sarajevo, good business. Perhaps, indeed, the first steps to that permanent forgetting have already been marked by the local Serbian population's endeavours to have the name Fočareplaced by that of Serbinje – 'land of the Serbs'. This article represents one small attempt to continue remembering Foča's atrocious past. Also, and perhaps more importantly, through describing local practices of public secrecy and labours of the negative, it seeks to demonstrate how that past continues, insidiously, to infect the present.


1. Following Dayton (see note 3) Bosnia and Herzegovina was divided into two 'entities', Serb dominated Republika Srpska and the more ethnically mixed, but Bosniak (Muslim) dominated Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

2. Originally a detachment of the Yugoslav army that opposed and, occasionally collaborated with Axis forces in WWII. Associated with the project of Greater Serbianism, the term has come to be used to describe radical Serbian nationalist and, pejoratively Serbs in general.

3. The shorthand term for 'The General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina' that ended the war.


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