Populated Emptiness

From the Series: Emptiness

Image by Ricardo Hernandez.

Dom penzionera is a never completed socialist retirement home located in the northwestern Bosnian city of Bihać. Its construction was planned in the 1970s according to the Yugoslav vision of life, work, and aging. The building’s carefully chosen location in the center of the city and on the bank of the Una River, known for its exceptional beauty, emerald currents, and ability to “calm the nerves,” was considered especially appropriate for the socialist workers’ old age. These socialist visions of appropriate aging included pensioners taking strolls by the river, to pause and reflect, and to breathe in fresh air. On the other hand, the proximity to the city’s center where urban life unfolded guaranteed that the elderly socialist workers would not be isolated and lonely, but that they could still participate in city life, including going out for coffee, stopping for small talk, and exchanging news with other citizens (Hromadžić 2019).

The Una River and Dom penzionera in the background. Photo by Azra Hromadžić.

The building—as well as the lives of the workers it was supposed to accommodate—was violently interrupted by the Bosnian war in 1992. At that moment, Dom was half-finished, already a ruin both physically, because its building was interrupted and its maintenance neglected (see Gupta 2018), and symbolically, since it represented unmaterialized socialist order and the “future past” (Koselleck 2004) it never delivered. Subsequently, Dom became caught in the transformation between war and peace, communism and democracy, and socialism and capitalism. During the war, Dom harbored multiple forms of nonhuman life, such as stray dogs and wild plants, which suggested abandonment, lack of maintenance, but also possibility. It is also during the war, while most people were preoccupied with their physical survival, that this community property was converted by those in power into state property, which, unlike community property, could be privatized and sold. Dom penzionera, along with numerous other institutions, found itself on the capitalist frontier and at the center of transitional ambiguities and processes. In this context, new actors and institutions were crystallized, including the new state, sub-state institutions, cantons, municipalities, the international community, and private interests. At the intersection of postwar processes (movement of people, ethnicization of property, etc.) and postsocialist transformations (privatization of property), Dom penzionera had been suspended unfinished, boarded up with planks and bars. Its intended residents, the former socialist workers, never entered the building, but others did.

During my research in Bihać in 2015 and 2016, Dom, still planked and barred, was taken over by new, unintended tenants—young people that the transition produced as ethnonational, unemployed, impoverished, disappointed and seemingly apathetic youth. It was renamed Građa (roughly “building material”) by its new occupants and they transformed it into a central, mostly nightly, gathering place, where they met, drank alcohol, and according to some accounts, consumed drugs and had sex. Građa’s role and purpose was much broader and more complicated, however, and some youth remembered it as a place of rescue, togetherness and care. The building itself—its location, its wires and cement, and its internal layout—contributed to the construction of unique, spatially shaped youth subjectivities (Hromadžić 2019).

Dom penzionera. Photo by Alisa Burzić.
Dom penzionera. Photo by Alisa Burzić.

More recently, the Dom found itself at the center of the global postcolonial restructuring that brought Europe’s “migrant crisis” to Bihać. Since March 2018, Bihać, due to its proximity to the EU border, emerged as the newest “hot spot” on the so called “Balkan migrant route” and is currently harboring thousands of migranti—migrants and refugees—who are desperately and repeatedly trying to cross into Croatia and the European Union. When I visited Bihać in 2018, Dom’s ruinous, skeletal structure was occupied by several hundred migranti from the Middle East, South East Asia, and North Africa. The conditions in the building were unhygienic and unsafe, highlighting the forms of precarity and despair that enveloped these “elsewhere” lives. Instead of old, socialist workers, whose lives were supposed to have ended slowly and comfortably in a socialist retirement home, the children of Bosnia’s “transition” and contemporary migranti from “elsewhere,” joined by stray dogs and embraced by wild plants, were coping, getting by, socializing and dying in its ruins (Hromadžić 2019, forthcoming).

Dom and migranti. Photo by Selma Selman.

And yet I was frequently told by local officials and ordinary people alike, that the Dom was empty, abandoned, and nobody’s. As one police inspector remarked: “Dom je ničiji pa se i ne zna ko bi ga to čuvao” (Dom is nobody’s, so no one knows who should protect it). It might be tempting to interpret these discourses as a sociopolitical diagnostic that portrays certain unwanted citizens as invisible “people without history” (Wolf 1982). The majority of people in Bihać, however, were cognizant of the geopolitical and historical forces—promises of Yugoslav socialist modernity, colonial legacies, contemporary neocolonial logics, increase in poverty, the rise of fortress Europe, and the thickening wars in the Middle East—that produced displaced socialist workers, disillusioned Bosnian youth, and migranti. They were also struggling to create new grammars in the absence of “politically legitimate ideological frames” (Dzenovska 2020, 11) to interpret their postwar, postsocialist, and postcolonial predicaments that Dom “captured” and displayed: simultaneous “emptying” and “populating.” Dom became a timeplace for continuous transition, emptied of some meanings, yet populated and meaningful in ways both novel and unfamiliar. Fears and desires of migranti and locals conjured up to reveal the productive potential of emptiness to hold many things at once (see the introduction to this series). The ruinous building and its uneven revivification became a tangible manifestation of contemporary geopolitical entanglements and novel global convergences between people and histories, which they understood but had difficulties explaining. The “slippage” of calling it empty is therefore a powerful social commentary on the absence of a system—an order and a grammar—that would make geographies and histories, persons and things legible to people (see Dzenovska, this series).

Dom is a signifier pregnant with opposing meanings—destruction and life, care and abandonment—and semantic and affective overflow. Similar to people in Bihać, anthropologists lack the language with which to make sense of these convergences that bring into proximity those who are left to live in ruins and those who encounter them along the way. This populated emptiness disorients and keeps in suspension social agents. Therefore, emptiness here denotes not only the “thinning of social and material relations that make up lives and places” (Dzenovska 2020), but also the uncomfortable, unexpected, and uneven thickening of histories and geographies, and bodies and souls at the “emptying” European periphery.


Dzenovska, Dace. 2020 “Emptiness: Capitalism without People in the Latvian Countryside.” American Ethnologist 47, no. 1: 10–26.

Gupta, Akhil. 2018. “The Future in Ruins: Thoughts on the Temporality of Infrastructure.” In The Promise of Infrastructure, edited by Nikhil Anand, Akhil Gupta, and Hannah Appel, 62–79. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Hromadžić, Azra. 2019. “Uninvited Citizens: Violence, Spatiality and Urban Ruination in Postwar and Postsocialist Bosnia and Herzegovina.” Third World Thematics 4, no. 2/3: 114–36.

———. 2020. “Notes from the Field: ‘Migrant Crisis’ in Bihać, Bosnia and Herzegovina.” Movements: Journal for Critical Migration and Border Regime Studies 5, no. 1: 163–80.

Koselleck, Reinhart. 2004. Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time. New York: Columbia University Press.

Wolf, Eric R. 1982. Europe and the People without History. Berkeley: University of California Press.