Reflections on methods for fieldwork in Donji Lapac

by Carolin Leutloff-Grandits

My decision to choose Donji Lapac, a border community on Croatia’s side of the Croatian-Bosnian border, as a place for fieldwork was first of all based on the Corona-situation, which made it impossible for EU-citizens to enter Bosnia-Herzegovina. This forced the DAAD-group to redesign the plan of conducting a joint fieldwork in the region of Bihac in Bosnia, in which senior researchers would guide younger ones and students. Instead, we agreed to conduct more decentralised fieldwork – partly concentrating on remote research, and partly still based on face-to-face fieldwork in locations that were accessible at least for some of us, in small teams. Based on this, I went together with the Viadrina student Lara Lemac for two short field visits to Donji Lapac.

Although Donji Lapac is less than 40 km far away from Bihac, the town which has a relatively high media coverage because of the many migrants from the Global South who stranded there on their way to the EU, Donji Lapac receives very little media attention, – although it is one of the places where the Croatian police is stationed in order to securitize the EU border. Selecting Donji Lapac as an alternative for fieldwork made it thus possible to explore “the double transit” from “the other side” of the EU external border – and more precisely from within the EU. In fact, the view from Donji Lapac is also a view from the margins, as Donji Lapac is located in Croatia’s periphery due to its border location, but likely also due to the majority of Serbs who live here. In fact, the situation in Donji Lapac bore many parallels to the situation in the neighbouring region of Knin, which I had studied for my long term PhD research about 20 years earlier, in which the ethnic conflict along ethno-national lines of the 1990s and post-war reconciliation had been in the focus of attention. By exploring the “double transit” of migrants as well as local inhabitants their way to – and within the – EU from the fringes of Croatia, we wanted to explore another, historically informed and localized layer to the “double transit”.

Starting from the premise that borders demarcate social orders, and that the Croatian-Bosnian border is not only an EU, but also a state border, a dividing line between the Croatian nation state and Bosnia-Herzegovina, we wanted to explore how the inhabitants of Donji Lapac view themselves within the Croatian nation state, towards Bosnia-Herzegovina and the EU – and also towards migrants. Our approach was thus one of a wider lens, in which we wanted to explore the local perspectives in relation to the shifting relations of borders and orders within the region, and in relation to the partly forced mobility of the local inhabitants as well as migrants across borders.

Central to our research was the method of participant observation as well as narrative interviewing. In order to grasp the changing everyday life in this border region, we talked to various representatives of Donji Lapac as well as various strata of the inhabitants, and acquainted ourselves – partly in company of local inhabitants, with the region through the exploration of its many natural beauties, important community sites as well as cultural and historical memorials.

Doing fieldwork in the team of two women of different age and experience also made it easy to access interlocutors, create a pleasant atmosphere during the conversations and guiding our interest in different directions. While I especially stimulated narratives about the many changes and challenges within their lives – be it in regard to the violent disintegration of socialist Yugoslavia and the reintegration of the region into the Croatian state, as well as the accession of Croatia into the EU, Lara asked more about the migration issue in the region. Doing fieldwork in a team of two also gave us the possibilities to reflect on the interview situations and their contents, and more generally on the state of affairs in this region, and to position us more consciously within our fieldwork.

At our second visit, the visual anthropologist Santiago Carrion joined our team, who audio-visually recorded our interviews and the region, thus adding another layer to the fieldwork material. On the basis of this material, a short documentary shall be created.