The Power and Fate of Places Transformed by Tragedy.

Traumascapes is a story about the fate and power of places across the world marked by pain, violence and loss. In the world we inhabit such places are literally everywhere – they are sites of terror attacks,natural and industrial catastrophes, genocide, exile, ecological degradation and communal loss of heart. Far from being mere backdrops to cataclysms, traumascapes hold the key to our ability to endure and find meaning in modern-day tragedies and the legacies they leave behind.

Berlin, Port Arthur, Bali, Moscow, Sarajevo, New York, Shanksville – this book draws on a decade of the research into the fate of these and other sites of suffering and loss to reveal the deep psychological investments that traumascapes may hold for individuals and nations alike. Rather than being swallowed up by the devastation and despair, modern sites of trauma have emerged as powerful and important cultural landmarks. The nature of their power is both unmistakable and little-understood. How these places persist, the connections they foster, the memories they catalyse and the power they yield – is the subject of this book.


Running (in a Traumascape)
In 1999 young German film-maker Tom Tykwer made a movie whose title translates as Run Lola Run. The movie is about a race against time. At the close of the twentieth century, the main character, Lola, is running through the streets of the unified Berlin. She is sprinting so hard that her facial muscles push through the skin. Every step made by Lola’s Doc Martens renders her strained anatomy transparent. She has literally twenty minutes to save her boyfriend Manni, who probably has no idea what Lola has to do to find and deliver all the money he owes to the local trigger-happy mafia thug. Everyone can see that Lola is running out of time—that is to say, she has less and less time in which to fight off Manni’s death. Yet maybe because she doesn’t even think to stop. Lola finds herself literally out of time, running out of its usually non-negotiable constraints. If racing against time is like swimming against tide, then Manni’s brilliant girlfriend is doing the opposite. As Lola runs, time slows down, allowing her to catch up.

Films, as a rule, abbreviate time, so that on the screen even the fullest life can be condensed to under an hour. In Run Lola Run, twenty minutes of living take eighty-one minutes to portray. Not because the action is slowed down—she is running, remember—but because time is stretched out. Like in the high-speed photography that captures events that are too fast for the eye, the movie draws out the time, letting us see what Tom Tykwer calls ‘all these little spaces in between’. All the ‘small channels’ in which the tiniest incident or encounter changes everything, altering dramatically the future of every single person Lola comes across in her run. If every split-second is, potentially, a matter of life and death for Manni, it is also a matter of life and fate for everyone in Lola’s way.

A young woman runs to avoid being shot by a Serb sniper during the siege of the city, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, April 1993.  Photography by Roger M. Richards

A young woman runs to avoid being shot by a Serb sniper during the siege of the city, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, April 1993. Photography by Roger M. Richards

As we watch Lola, her running (heroic, addictive) connects the once-ruptured parts of Berlin. Under Lola’s feet, the city, her city, is both difficult and full of hope (maybe it’s all in the running). Because I am convinced that our—mine and Lola’s—batch of luck can run out at any moment and because certain things become much clearer when taken to the extreme, I find myself wanting to know what sort of running Lola would do in the besieged Sarajevo. In other words, would she be able to keep it up for 1395 days? Not to save the life of her lover, but to fetch water, collect wood, visit a friend?

‘Running,’ says Sarajevo Survival Guide, ‘is the favourite sport practiced by everyone in Sarajevo. All cross-roads are run through as are all the dangerous neighbourhoods.’ In the besieged Sarajevo, where more people die from sniper bullets than from artillery shells, it’s impossible not to run. For almost four years, says Sarajevan Zejneba Aganovic, snipers ‘stalked us like animals’. Do you want to know how to do it, Lola? Ask Amina Begovic, a Sarajevan actress (not unlike you)—‘You know one sets one’s teeth and runs as fast as one can.’ Yes, speed is vital. Because you have fifteen seconds at best to cross the wide avenue in the gap between the sniper’s bullets. As you run, says Sarajevan Mima Tulic Kerken, your legs go dead, muscles stop working and lungs get emptied out of air. At the most dangerous areas of the city, you have international photographers set up, ready to capture for posterity yet another life tragically cut in mid-stride. Sniper Alley, outside the Holiday Inn, is the most famous of these places—a wide boulevard connecting the city with the newer suburbs totally visible from all the surrounding hills, occupied by Serbian troops. As a woman runs across Sniper Alley to the other side, she, having survived, turns to one of the photographers: ‘No work for you today, asshole.’ ‘I am not even sure whom to hate: the Chetnik sniper or those monkeys with Nikons,’ writes Sarajevan poet Semezdin Mehmedinovic.

Here is some more advice for Lola, pretty Lola with her crimson hair and bright clothes, courtesy of Ozren Kebo’s Sarajevo for Beginners: ‘One is not advised to wear strong colours. Avoid red at all costs. The sniper is like a bull. Motley colours are also a bad choice. The sniper is a fool by definition and every fool loves motley colours. Wear grey, brown, burgundy.

No red for 1395 days. No motley colours.

Running, like a hunted, defenceless animal is envisaged in the policy of urbicide. Perched on the hills surrounding the city, the troops of Radovan Karadzic are not just massacring the citizens of Sarajevo and systematically destroying their urban environment, they are obliterating the link between the city and its people. You cannot walk through your own city, you cannot sit or stand, you can only run. The city is relentless, a death-trap. The most loved places become the most dangerous places, because they can be seen and shot at from the surrounding hills. The city is broken down into the points you need to connect, chasms you need to bridge with your own terrified, breathless body. As I run, says a twenty-year-old Lejla Krilic, ‘my forehead begins to itch at the place where I expect the bullet’.

Run, Lejla, run—there is a man on the lawn chair sitting comfortably on one of the hills, a machine gun in his hands, watching you intently. Maybe even smiling. This is the middle of Europe, the end of the twentieth century, Lejla. I say this not for you but for us, who were not in Sarajevo during the siege and who are not in Sarajevo now. Lest we end up doing nothing but nursing our ‘bleeding hearts’, lest the running, Sarajevo’s ‘favourite sport’, becomes simply a metaphor for the plight of the people in the besieged city (then what would be the difference between us and ‘those monkeys with Nikons’?). Running doesn’t stand for anything but itself. ‘Bodies do not get inured to the whistle and crash of shells,’ writes American journalist Elizabeth Rubin, in Sarajevo at the time of the siege. Neither do they get inured to the itchiness of the forehead anticipating a bullet. ‘The stomach binds, the tongue clutches the roof of the mouth, the glands in the neck pump adrenaline, and you shake. But you have to go out again.’ How many people have been killed in Paris with sniper shots during one day, asked Davor Milicevic three years into the siege. How many in your Berlin, Lola? In my Melbourne?

The first time I ran from Point A to Point B, the fear was unspeakable indeed. Pain in your stomach, as if a big steel ball is grinding your bowels. Blood throbbing in your neck veins. Wet heat inside your eyeballs. Numbness of your limbs, increasing as you’re running.

The National Library in Sarajevo.    Photograph by Glenn Rug

The National Library in Sarajevo.  Photograph by Glenn Rug

Every day throughout the siege, marathon runner Islam Dzugum did his usual 25 to 30 kilometre training run, through sniper bullets, exploding shells, mud, hunger, bitter cold. As a wilful act, Islam’s running had reconfigured the city, asserting its continuity and coherence (it is people like him who give running a good name). In 1995, despite the warning from UNPROFOR that the idea of having a race in the streets of Sarajevo and simultaneously in forty-eight other European cities would have to be abandoned for safety reasons, the Athletic Association of Sarajevo and the city’s Olympic Committee still went ahead. ‘The race,’ says one of the organisers, Nusret Smajlovic [Smajlovic], ‘was run through narrow, slippery corridors, between shops with glass showcases. … We were worried about their safety, but they were disciplined, and they ran.’

In Sarajevo Blues, Semezdin Mehmedinovic [Mehmedinovic] remembers a man running across Sniper Alley, covering his head with the newspaper. It was touching, says Mehmedinovic, this comic gesture of a man warding off the sniper bullets with a few printed pages. American photographer Stanley Green, in Chechnya during the war, remembers a man who lost his entire family when their home was shelled by Russian artillery. The only material possession he had left was a chair. Maddened by grief, the man, says Green, went around covering his head with a chair as if it was a shield. When he finally put the chair down for a second, a sniper shot him [dead?] with just one bullet, aimed straight for the head. With snipers able to reach people anywhere at any time—on the street, at home in your bed—what protects you from being killed in Sarajevo or Grozny, or anywhere else for that matter, is no longer explicable either to the science of material density or to the laws of probability. No material is more or less bulletproof. No moment is more or less treacherous.

Being face to face with a traumascape, being a survivor, could it be, in part, about surrendering to fate? Or is it, on the contrary, about having the strength to disregard what is being dealt to you? About the guts that it takes to keep running?