Emptiness and Deadly Environments

From the Series: Emptiness

Image by Ricardo Hernandez.

Emptiness is a consequence of war. War violently reconfigures relations between people and place. Homes get destroyed and looted. Neighborhoods are torn apart. Villages, towns, and cities are emptied of their entire communities. Fields and meadows become overgrown. Fruit trees, cultivated for generations, remain unpicked. Landscapes are rendered uninhabitable, contaminated by the debris of war.

The development of modern warfare in the twentieth century moved the logic of violence even further. The use of chlorine gas during WWI in Ypres in April 1915 marks a symbolic shift in the history of warfare. From that moment, it was no longer only the body, but the enemy’s entire environment that had to be destroyed (Sloterdijk 2009). What remains when the very conditions of livability become the target? The footprints of modern warfare are deep, long-lasting, and dangerous, disrupting entire local ecologies. War creates and leaves behind a particular form of emptiness—deadly environments contaminated with military waste (Henig 2019). Military waste became an umbrella concept for military remains and discard, whether radioactive, toxic, or unexploded. It radically transforms the environment and the very conditions of livability for those who dwell in such spaces many decades after the end of conflict (Zani 2019). But it also points to the rise of military wasting and wastefulness in the Cold War and post–Cold War eras, characterized by a permanent war readiness to produce such deadly environments at will, anywhere on the planet (Reno 2020).

Deadly environments are heavily contaminated with explosive war remains, and thus imbued with the potentiality to maim or kill. Nowadays, over sixty countries around the world are contaminated with explosive war remains. Emptiness offers a powerful lens for localizing the effect of late modern warfare, and for attending ethnographically to what living around such deadly environments entails. Deadly environments constitute what Dace Dzenovska and Daniel M. Knight (this series) describe as a spatio-temporal coordinate, an elongated timespace between the rubble of violent pasts and indeterminate futures. What the focus on deadly environments brings to the conversation on emptiness is its layered and sedimented character. Being disturbed by, yet largely absent of, humans, deadly environments existing in a state of temporal and historical suspension are imbued with a potentiality for more-than-human ecologies to thrive (Kim 2016). Emptiness in this context is made up of multiple layers of sedimented historical times and material remains that refer to each other, as Reinhard Koselleck (2018, 4) writes, “in a reciprocal way, though without being wholly dependent upon each other.”

This is also the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the country most heavily contaminated with military waste in Europe as a result of the 1992–1995 war. The main source of contamination is landmines, and, less so, unexploded cluster munitions. Despite much progress in clearance, over half a million people (about 15 percent of the population) in nearly 1,400 local communities are still living around such deadly environments. Most of these communities are located in rural areas, where the levels of contamination are particularly high for forested (63 percent) and agricultural land (26 percent).

These sedimented-cum-contaminated layers of emptiness are omnipresent in the Bosnian countryside, including the village of my interlocutor Mahir. In July 2017, I accompanied him on one of our many trips from a small town where he now lives and works, to a nearby village in the highlands where his family resided for generations until the war. Although they do not live there permanently, the family still keeps land, grows vegetables, and cares for fruit trees in the village. Mahir himself has planted several walnut trees in recent years. Nowadays, most of the houses in the village are empty, and no one below the age of sixty lives in the village anymore. Similarly, like in the case of the radioactively contaminated Chernobyl area (Brown 2019), where only elderly residents returned to live out their individual futures (however short or long), villages around deadly environments evince that these places have no long-term future.

When we turned right from the main road, the remaining three miles on a crumbling track through thick forest were punctuated by signs reading “Pazi Mine” (Beware, Mines!). During the war, the village was located on the frontline which, in the early days, ran through the forest right below Mahir’s house. It was one of the main hubs for illicit trade, with goods traveling further north. Later, all houses in the village were destroyed as the frontline shifted. Although the houses were rebuilt after the war, life never really returned to the village. Before the war, villagers regularly extracted firewood and collected various wild edible plants, fruits, and mushrooms in the forest. Today, the entire area remains a “no go” zone, heavily contaminated with landmines and largely without human presence. Its future is uncertain as no one knows whether it will ever be cleared, and more importantly whether it could ever be cleared. Only a few remaining elderly villagers who navigated the frontline during the war dare enter these dangerous spaces, while the forest becomes more expansive and abundant, including a thriving population of boars that regularly damage people’s fields and increasingly spotted wolves and bears roaming around the village. Yet the surrounding “no go” area continues to be potentially lethal for humans.

A view from Mahir’s vegetable garden—a heavily contaminated spruce forest (former frontline) in the middle and empty villages on the far horizon. Photo by the David Henig.

The voices of the villagers living around the deadly environments are a useful reminder that when we speak of emptiness, it is important to critically reflect on the perspective from which we attend to it. Deadly environments are uncanny timespaces of late modernity. They might have been emptied of humans and littered with military waste as consequences of modern warfare. But these human-induced disturbances might also initiate new stories and sediments of life (Tsing 2015, 160). And it is the emptiness, as an analytical device and spatio-temporal coordinate, that in turn might help us to locate and trace such stories of the violent past in our disturbed present, while facing an indeterminate future.


Brown, Kate. 2019. Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future. New York: Penguin Books.

Henig, David. 2019. “Living on the Frontline: Indeterminacy, Value, and Military Waste in Postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina.” Anthropological Quarterly 92, no. 1: 85–110.

Kim, Eleana J. 2016. “Toward an Anthropology of Landmines: Rogue Infrastructure and Military Waste in the Korean DMZ.” Cultural Anthropology 31, no. 2: 1 62–87.

Koselleck, Reinhart. 2018. Sediments of Time: On Possible Histories. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

Reno, Joshua. 2020. Military Waste: The Unexpected Consequences of Permanent War Readiness. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sloterdijk, Peter. 2009. Terror from the Air. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Tsing, Anna Lownhaupt. 2015. The Mushrooms at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Zani, Leah. 2019. Bomb Children: Life in the Former Battlefields of Laos. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.