Reflections: Šid borderscapes –– Memories, experiences and interpretations of borders and refugee movements

by Ildiko Erdei, Marta Stojić Mitrović, Teodora Jovanović, Katarina Mitrović

During our fieldwork, we follow the 30 years’ dynamics of the bordering processes in the case of Šid, a small town in Serbia, located on the very border with Croatia. We chose Šid because of its’ long history of being in “border areas”. Šid has been a subject to “bordering” from the 18th century until today.

The local history of Šid is a good example of how boundaries become borders; “soft” borders turn into “hard” borders. We started from the assumption that borders are physically, politically, socially, and symbolically produced and maintained, and that borders, in return, “produce” people and communities. “The interesting anthropological question is how, when, to whom and to what degree certain things materialize as a border over time” (Jansen 2013, 26).

Forced movements of people (from and to Croatia) during the 1990ies are still strong and vivid memories. Many of those people, former refugees, today live in the municipality. During our ongoing fieldwork, we aim to collect these memories and connect them with global contemporary migration movements that are visible on the periphery of the EU. After Hungary and later Croatia has sealed their (EU) borders for refugees in 2015 and 2016, in an attempt to close the Western Balkan route, about 2000 people were stopped in Šid, which instead of a place of transit became their “waiting room”.

We wanted to know how „ordinary“ people experience borders and how political and personal intersect at the border. We perceived continuity of social differentiation: “natives” vs. “newcomers”; “good refugees” vs. “bad migrants”, “pleasant familiarity” vs. “dangerous individuals”, “us” and “them”.

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So, how we did it? Together, by challenging the idea (or debunking the myth) of a “lonely ethnographer”. COVID-19-affected ethnography has several assets: economy of time (more research hours), more research perspectives, interaction and exchange of ideas, literature, information, experience, mutual support; however, it also has limitations: economy of time (coordination of time tables of many people and communication are time-consuming). One part of our research has been conducted online, with open discussion co-presence as an essential part of anthropological research, and by phone interviews. But also, we went physically to the field, to be present and document experiences and traces of cross-border movements; observe interactions and everyday lives of local people and people on the move; to visit localities which are connected with forced mobility in past and present, and to meet with people with whom we conducted phone interviews in person.