The State We Are(n’t) In

“The State we are(n’t) in: Liminal subjectivity in aid worker autobiographies,” chapter in Berit Bliesemann de Guevara (ed.) Statebuilding and State-Formation: The Political Sociology of Intervention, London: Routledge, 2012, pp.230-245.


Amongst the many problems attributed to international statebuilding, the mismatch between ‘the international’ and ‘the local’ is high on the agenda. How to ‘bridge’ the so-called local-international divide (Donais 2009) or how to balance top-down with bottom-up approaches (Mac Ginty 2010) are familiar debates. However, these categories are not without problems. Where does the local end and the international begin? What of hybrid cultures and practices? What is striking is the persistence of the categories themselves within statebuilding discourse and even amongst critical theorists: despite the recognition that the categories of local/international are unhelpful and potentially deleterious to attempts to improve statebuilding, they continue to be used and remain the dominant way of understanding and theorising statebuilding activity (Heathershaw 2008; Pouligny 2010; Richmond 2009).

It is the tenacity of this conceptual apparatus, and in particular the persistence and implications of the category of the so-called international, that are under investigation in this chapter, which focuses on the production and dominance of this distinction – both conceptually and practically.  I argue that the persistence of these categories can only be understood through an examination of international statebuilding practice in ‘the field’, as it is through these practices and their accompanying spaces (the offices, compounds, workshops, projects) that the categories of local and international are (re)produced despite rhetorical attempts to move beyond them. Using three examples of humanitarian memoirs (Cain 2004; Minion 2004; Olson 1999) to provide insight into various aspects of statebuilding (humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping missions, elections, reconciliation, judicial reform) from the perspective of the so-called international, I identify a structural process which drives and helps explain the persistence of the international and the local in international statebuilding.

Drawing on the work of Victor Turner (1969, 1975, 1977) and Arnold van Gennep (1960), the chapter suggests that the process of going to the field is a highly structured, codified, and predicable ‘rite of passage’ and the act of being in the field, as a statebuilder (and an aid worker more broadly), creates a unique and liminal space (van Gennep 1960). The processual and structured experience of going ‘to the field’ has very little to do with ‘the local’ but rather is focussed almost exclusively on ‘the international’. This analysis suggests that the embodied, practical aspects of international assistance in the context of statebuilding are a key contributing factor to the persistence of conceptual and actually-existing divides which are at the heart of processes of state-formation as defined in this volume.


Statebuilding as (International) ‘Rite of Passage

Van Gennep describes a rite of passage as a tripartite process consisting of, first, separation from an initial or equilibrium state, followed by a liminal or marginal state, and concluding by a reaggregation (or re-incorporation) with the original society (Bowie 2006). Each stage has its own set of accompanying rites (van Gennep 1960). Of the three stages, the liminal is distinct from the other two and involves spatial, temporal, social and moral separation (Yang 2000). In contrast to ‘normal society’, the liminal state is a one of anti-structure, where established hierarchies and rules are inverted or suspended and transformative processes take place. Here, work and play blur, experimentation and novelty are encouraged, and carnivalesque and ludic qualities manifest (Turner 1977). The initiates are considered as simultaneously sacred and polluting to society at large and must be kept separate and distinct: confined to designated spaces and identifiable by new or bizarre clothes, masks, or face paints and possibly made to adopt new homogenising behaviours or languages. Stripped of their previously defining characteristics such as clothes, insignia, or property they may form strong and rapid bonds of solidarity with the other initiates (Turner 1969: 95). Such ties of friendship or communitas often endure throughout life (Turner 1977). Once the transformation is complete, the initiate may return to society, to be reintegrated in his/her new role. In the following, I will first give a brief overview of the memoirs looked at in this study and discuss their representativeness, before interpreting them in more detail in the light of the ‘rite of passage’ literature.


Brief Overview of Each of the Memoirs

In Cruel Paradise (CP; Olson 1999), Leanne, a nurse from Canada, receives an offer to work for Medécins sans Frontières (MSF). She is deployed to run a feeding centre in rural Liberia during the first Liberian civil war. After being evacuated back to Winnipeg nine months later, due to increased hostilities, she is almost immediately redeployed to Bosnia where she meets Rink, a logistics officer with whom she starts a romantic relationship. Based in the Republika Srpska, their team is responsible for providing non-partisan medical supplies to hard to reach areas such as the infamous Bihać enclave. After being evacuated again, in June 1995 (after seven months) she rejoins Rink in Burundi, where she is in charge of renovating and managing a 70 bed hospital in the north of the country. Dissatisfied with the MSF programme in Burundi, she and Rink hand in their resignations after only three months to join their friend working in Goma, Zaire (now DRC), ‘where nobody in their right mind wants to work’ (Olson 1999: 153). In mid-may they leave Zaire, fearing for their lives. After a brief time in Canada, France and Holland, they join the international medical NGO Merlin and are deployed to a series of countries as short-term consultants: Rwanda, Angola, Albania, and finally Liberia. After coming full circle, they return to Holland to resume (in their words) normal life. The narrative spans from December 1993 to May 1997 (three and a half years).

In Emergency Sex (ES; Cain 2004), three interweaving narratives tell the stories of Andrew, an Australian doctor; Ken, an American law student come human rights advisor; and Heidi, an American social worker come UN secretary come elections monitor come jack of all trades. They meet on their first mission, in 1993, in Cambodia. After overseeing the country’s first democratic elections they immediately depart for new missions. Heidi and Ken go to Mogadishu (‘the dish’), Somalia, as part of the UN Peacekeeping Mission, Operation Restore Hope, while Andrew goes to Haiti with UNMIH to document human rights violations in prisons and hospitals. After the UN (and US) withdrawals from both Somalia and Haiti in early 1994, the authors rotate missions once again. Ken takes an assignment in Rwanda, collecting evidence on the genocide for the UN Criminal Tribunal in Rwanda (ICTR); Heidi joins the next UN mission in Haiti; and Andrew goes to Bihać in Bosnia-Herzegovina to ‘set up a forensic team to investigate massacres’ (Cain 2004: 223). Unable to work due to continued fighting, Andrew is almost immediately redeployed to Rwanda to collect forensic evidence by exhuming mass graves. Ken leaves Rwanda to meet Heidi in Haiti. Heidi, in turn, has fallen in love with a Haitian man and plans to stay in Haiti when the UN mission leaves. But in November 1998, her partner dies in an accident and she returns to New York to start her life ‘anew’ (Cain 2004: 295). Ken takes his last mission in Liberia documenting human rights abuses in the middle of the first Liberian war. From 1999, they all return to New York. Andrew gets married to another expat aid worker and decides to move to live in Cambodia.

In the case of Cruel Paradise and Emergency Sex the characters had several tours or postings whereas the third book, Hello Missus (HM; Minion 2004), documents two subsequent missions in East Timor by the Australian freelance journalist, Lynne Minion. Lynne arrives in East Timor just prior to the official hand over of the new country’s administration from the UN transitional administration, UNTAET. Although she has no job, she does have one powerful acquaintance: the then Foreign Affairs Minister and Nobel Laureate, Jose Ramos-Horta, who helps her get a job working as a UN advisor to the local TV station. After East Timor receives its independence in May 2002, she is offered a job as media advisor to the then Prime Minister, Dr. Mari Alkatiri. But her contract takes a long time to finalise, leaving Lynne to occupy herself with a series of unsuitable romantic liaisons, moving from house to house in an effort to find sanctuary. When her contract finally comes through, she is given neither a job description nor a place to work; crammed behind a child’s school desk in the lobby of the perpetually absent ‘Prime Miniature’ (as she calls him)’s office. Stonewalled, and eventually sacked from her advisory position due to her affiliations with Ramos-Horta, she is preparing to depart when the December 2002 riots break out. Following the riots, she decides to return home for good, although not before initiating yet another relationship with a peacekeeper, this time a Serb. The book ends with Lynne flying up and out of Dili, her ‘capacity built’.[1]

To ensure a wide range of coverage and balance, the texts were chosen for analysis based on several criteria.[2] The authors represent a cross section of organisations: both United Nations and international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) on a variety of scales (big and small). The three narratives span the full spectrum of so-called statebuilding activity: from the sectarian humanitarian aid that would lay the foundations of the future of the former Yugoslav Republics of Serbia, Bosnia Herzegovina and Croatia to the spate of UN missions in the 1990s (Cambodia, Somalia, Haiti) to the post-independence support to the newly independent nation of East Timor. The protagonists are both men and women, and all the authors use their real names and claim that their stories are based on real events. The time period ranges from 1991 to 2004 – 13 years in total – and, though short, nonetheless captures the ‘long decade’ of increased multilateral activity following the fall of the Berlin Wall. While the choice of these novels as the subject of analysis can be critiqued on the basis that they, through their very existence as a personal post-mortem, are biased in an ‘anti-aid’ direction, they are nonetheless valid for the significant population that they represent.[3] They are also some of the most readable and best-known examples of a much wider genre of aid memoirs that, to date, has received minimal critical attention. Equally, the books analysed in this chapter are also some of the most controversial of the genre. I learned about two of them (Cain 2004; Minion 2004) whilst in ‘the field’ where the books and their authors were regarded with a mix of disdain and jealousy. The books were madly read, circulated, and then dismissed not on the grounds that they were untrue, or misrepresentative, but that they broke the code of the field.


The Rite of Passage in the Memoirs of Aid Workers

Within the experience of statebuilding, an important structural divide exists between the physical space of headquarters, which are physically located in a (usually) First World location and the location that is being assisted in the field (see also Schlichte and Veit in this volume). The historical structure of international aid is such that traditional donor countries are primarily located in the Global North. The field by contrast, is where the projects or interventions are located – where the state is being built. While headquarters define policy, the objective of their policy can only be reached by undertaking a physical voyage to the space of the beneficiaries: the field. The three books in question all have a narrative structure that details this processual experience and simultaneously replicates a rite of passage. The characters all have a sudden departure to far off lands in an attempt to escape unstable, boring, and/or unfulfilling lives. An unsteady (but pleasantly exciting) beginning is followed by a steady descent into increasing political, personal, and institutional chaos. The characters become exhausted and frustrated with their persistent inability to have a significant or positive impact on their surroundings. They reach a crisis point where the characters feel the need to make a decision regarding their future, at which point all but one of them choose to return to the First World (not necessarily home) to resume so-called normal life and to write their memoirs. In the case of one of the books – Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures – the chapters are named according to increasing levels of UN security classifications moving from Condition Alpha (safe) to Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo (evacuate immediately)…and finally Return to Normal (Cain 2004). This emphasises both the anchoring effect of the ‘home country’ in terms of the trajectory and also the framing of the series of ‘local’ experiences of the field in terms of international concepts.


Rites of Separation: Leaving ‘Home

According to Turner (1969: 94) the separation phase ‘comprises symbolic behaviour signifying the detachment of the individual or group either from an earlier fixed point in the social structure, from a set of cultural conditions (a “state”) or both.’ In all the memoirs studied, clearly identifiable rites of separation take place. The pre-departure state is characterised by a frustration with the inauthenticity or superficiality of the authors’ own western culture. In ES the characters are openly dissatisfied with the perceived amorality of western society and bored with a normal existence. When presented with the chance to leave, they jump at it. In both ES and CP the departures are whirlwind, rapid and unexpected. In Ken’s case (ES), after a 15 minute interview with a human rights organisation he is told that he has a week to ‘get shots, a visa, and on the plane’ (Cain 2004: 33).

The inoculation of the aid worker against the unknown of the field is a common theme and includes the vaccination of the aid worker against fabulous, rare, and potentially deadly tropical diseases, often without consideration for the real risk of coming into contact with, for example, rabid monkeys. Prophylactics are taken. Packing is done, often in a hurried and badly conceived manner. For example, Lynne, after a boozy going away lunch, packs bikinis, frocks, hipster slacks, and a tiara: ‘just because I’d be living in a Third World country I didn’t have to look as though I was living in a Third World country’ (Minion 2004: 3). MSF HQ warns Leanne about the impact of stress such as drinking, risk taking behaviour, and mood swings: ‘[w]e were also warned about the dangers of beginning relationships between the national and expat teams, primarily because in case of an evacuation, only the expat staff leaves, and bringing the national staff along is out of the question’ (Olson 1999: 13-14).

The narrators admit an almost complete lack of knowledge about where they are going, or even where the missions are located. ‘To say that I was a bit naïve when I first started working as an international relief worker would be an understatement of monumental proportions! I knew nothing,’ said Leanne (Olson 1999: 9). ‘I was probably the only Canadian who didn’t really have a clue about what was happening in Bosnia…’ (Olson 1999: 77). Similarly, in ES Heidi signed up for the UN mission as a secretary, ‘without a second thought, didn’t even know where Cambodia was’ (Cain 2004: 29), while Ken admits to having thought about Somalia exactly once before landing there (Cain 2004: 109). The field is romanticised, compared with Hollywood movies (The Killing Fields) or the Discovery Channel (Cain 2004: 30). Admiring the idea of living in a war zone, Ken says ‘[t]here are none of the subtleties and nuances of ordinary life; you’re at the core of every feeling…And that’s how I want to feel’ (Cain 2004: 13). These passages emphasise the role of affect and imagination, which underpins both their decisions to leave, and their initial preparations. Such fantastic or clichéd understandings are normal and expected when beginning a new experience, but in the context of a rite of passage, they will fail to be challenged.

The transition from one stage of a rite of passage to the next requires traversing a threshold. This may be, quite literally, a passageway, a stairway, or a door through which initiates must pass and is itself the quintessential liminal place. While in the threshold, initiates are suspended between two states: neither here, nor there. These transition states are often guarded by gatekeepers who determine who is allowed to enter into the next phase. The sacred status of the aid worker is communicated through dress (for example, the uniform of the MSF t-shirt, the ‘Smurf blue’ of UN peacekeepers). This makes the uniforms attractive to expats and locals alike, as they confer a degree of inviolability to the wearer. As liminal, sacred, and inviolable beings, the aid workers are allowed to pass through border zones that would, without the blue passport and the international law that it represents, be off limits. The characters are clear as to the symbolic significance of these thresholds. Ken, leaving Mogadishu, says ‘[w]e deplane and walk together across the tarmac, the UN has a special landing field in Nairobi just for us. But when I leave their company and cross the threshold of the main terminal alone, I’m a regular civilian again, a tourist’ (Cain 2004: 199). This emphasises the hold and almost magical power that the space of the field has over its international inhabitants.


The Liminal Space of the Field

Once the characters have crossed the threshold, they pass into ‘a cultural realm that has few or none of the attributes of the past or coming state’ (Turner 1969: 94). They are amazed at how the degree to which the new countries differ from their previous situations: extreme poverty, razed buildings, all alongside the comparative luxury of the international community. Says Lynne upon first meeting members of the international community in Dili, ‘these humanitarians have eclipsed my most affluent fantasies’ (Minion 2004: 15). Badly or inappropriately attired in the clothes/attitudes from a former life, they quickly make an effort to assimilate – in Heidi and Ken’s cases more in keeping with the international jet set aesthetic of the UN; in Lynne’s case more in keeping with what her third space patron, Ramos-Horta, feels is appropriate. Taken literally, this shedding of clothing corresponds to Turner’s description of the liminal state (Turner 1969: 103). By creating a tabula rasa the neophyte’s or initiate’s individuality is erased and she or he becomes part of the larger group of expats. Leanne joyfully exclaims after five months in Liberia, ‘I felt like a real expat. I was an actual relief worker, and I was loving it’ (Olson 1999: 47). Describing her experience in Cambodia, says Heidi, ‘[w]e’re foreign and free and obnoxious and have dollars, so stay out of our way. We’re immortal and nothing can touch us’ (Cain 2004: 76). These types of behaviours emphasise the strong social boundary formation that occurs amongst internationals in ‘the field’ and point to the open acceptance of views that would not be accepted in their home countries, and that they would certainly not say aloud, and likely not even espouse.

The freedom to express such views is attributable in part to the close-knit living situations which lead to the formation of rapid and close bonds with their expat co-workers: ‘[h]as it been six months already? Already? I love these people. I don’t even want to think about saying goodbye’ (Olson 1999: 68). Within the space of ‘us’ of the expat community, privacy is at a premium, and ‘there was no such thing as a personal private relationship’ (Olson 1999: 51); everything is shared, including bathrooms (Cain 2004: 213). Speaking of the situation in Banja Luka, Olson says, ‘[w]e have our little community here of MSF, ICRC and UNHCR, so it’s nice to be back in my little family again’ (Olson 1999: 108). This space also presents the opportunity to remake oneself in ways that would not be possible within their normal societies. Lives prior to the field are downplayed and previously important markers like ‘career or money or…social class, the currency of social intercourse at Harvard’ disappear (Cain 2004: 15). Among the expats, distinctions of race or background fade away.

For some of the initiates this is shocking. One Bangladeshi UN worker is horrified by the lack of funeral rights for Muslims in the field (Cain 2004: 73). In all the memoirs, drugs and alcohol play a prominent role and are frequently mentioned as a tool that gets them through the horrors they face. As a group they are separated from their previous lives through distance, both physical and emotional, and from their immediate surroundings. They are separated from their families and friends ‘at home’ by a ‘distance of experiences, of time, of tragedy’ (Olson 1999: 9-10). Their inability to speak the local languages also creates a barrier between them and the local population, and security concerns (ostensibly) precipitate the maintenance of physical barriers.

While Leanne insists that ‘[n]othing about this kind of work is typical’ (Olson 1999: 10), it is this unpredictability that structures the novels and characterises its authors’ experiences. The bizarre, the heterotopic, the unpredictable, the anachronistic, and the politically incorrect are recurrent themes. All the characters express their amazement at the dreamlike or surreal quality of their life and work conditions in the field. Part of this is attributable to the places where they work, war zones, refugee camps, prisons, but also because they are witness to violent events while remaining untouched and outside of the structures that created these events. Leanne often speaks of being ‘in a dream’ or ‘on holiday’ (Olson 1999: 110) while Ken insists that ‘none of this is real’ (Cain 2004: 132). They often use imaginary nicknames to refer to their situations, for example Blue Lagoon for Banja Luka.

In contrast with their previous lives, the spaces of work and play blend into one. In Cambodia, parties at Ken and Heidi’s house become a place to exchange information on the political situation in the country. Conversely, their spaces of work become the places in which they celebrate. Leanne describes the unreal experience of spending New Year’s Eve on the frontline of a war, wearing ‘bulletproofs and drinking champagne to the sounds of shelling a few hundred meters away’ (Olson 1999: 102). This feeling of unreality lends itself to ludic, verging on bacchanalian activity. Exclaims Ken,


[w]e’re on the roof of our mansion in the middle of Indochina, no parents, no boss. Everything everyone does is funny and perfect…we’re young and immortal and together and drunk and stupid and in Cambodia.

(Cain 2004: 37)

While not ascetic in the way sometimes described by Turner (1969: 106), by engaging in bacchanalian and politically incorrect behaviour, the laws of western society (as the characters know them) are suspended. Heidi, normally socially conscious and anti-elitist, goes to the beach in Cambodia with her fellow UN secretaries to float

in inner tubes in the steamy waters of the Gulf of Thailand. We signal to the waiters, who wade out to us fully clothed, carrying trays of beer and cigarettes already lit…We decide this must be what it’s like to be rich, to be entitled.

(Cain 2004: 76)

While in their normal lives she would condemn conspicuous consumption, here she partakes.

Part of the significance of such activities is that they occur in places that are simultaneously ‘cutting edge, dangerous, lonely, urgent’ (Olson 1999: 175). In this context, experimentation, trickery and ignoring laws of normal society become the norm. Working on human rights law Ken muses, ‘I’m not actually a licensed “lawyer” in the US, but who’s splitting hairs about that in Cambodia?’ (Cain 2004: 32). Similarly, Leanne comes to accept that if one were to play by the rules of normal society, nothing would get done. She ‘learned to lie with impunity, cheat, steal, negotiate with and manipulate anyone, to beg, borrow, stretch facts…We developed quite a ruthless reputation but, considering the circumstances, one could say that necessity drove us to it’ (Olson 1999: 118). What ‘drove them to it’ seems to have been the juxtaposition of First World goals with Third World circumstance. For example, Heidi describes trying to set up polling stations in a mud field beside pigs (Cain 2004: 82), while Ken attempts to collect human rights abuse testimonies in a context where he does not know the language and can offer no protection to witnesses. The quality of pushing the boundary creates a euphoric atmosphere amongst initiates: ‘[i]t was terrifying, it was exciting, it was insane. We were living on the edge – and you should have seen the view!’ (Olson 1999: 10).

Another way in which the structure of normal life is suspended is through sexual relations. Prostitution is openly accepted as part of the landscape (Cain 2004: 76). Two of the three female characters engage in a string of emotionally or physically promiscuous relationships. Both women are excited by the ‘smorgasbord’ of men. Crows Heidi,

[w]ith so few women available, the men have to try harder, offer more of themselves. …In the permanent emergency of the mission, I suddenly don’t have to play by the boys’ rules. Which only proves that the boys’ rules were bullshit to begin with.

(Cain 2004: 133)

However, they both find themselves being bound by yet another set of rules. According to Turner, ‘[i]n liminality, the underlying comes uppermost’ (1969: 102), and in ES Heidi describes her need to have sex in the face of death as a way of re-engaging with bare life. Heidi and Lynne also both find themselves in inverted sexual positions compared to their normal lives. Stripped of their normal human agency as independent beings, they become pure women. In Heidi’s case, she fights against this by trying to use sex to assert herself. In Lynne’s case, she allows herself (and admittedly enjoys) becoming a classic ‘Dili Princess’, wearing a tiara to serve dinner to her male, expat housemates.

While initially, the characters express an exuberance with their jobs, they all eventually descend into despair. This transition occurs as they begin to realise that they are all in a state of ineffectual limbo, where none of their efforts have any impact, and where they seem to be constantly waiting for someone else to take action. Lynne’s entire time in Timor is spent waiting: first for the Independence celebrations working in an office where she is not wanted (hated, according to her colleague); then waiting for a job in the PM’s office promised to her; then waiting for the PM to give her work to do. This leads to a sense of temporariness and uncertainty. ‘[E]veryone keeps a bag packed for emergency evacuation if we need it’ (Olson 1999: 47); ‘I feel like a yo-yo’ (Olson 1999: 98), complains Leanne.  People arrive and leave incessantly.

The state of constant movement is also reflected in the characters’ inability to affect any change. Andrew sighs, ‘[m]y dreams of being useful here are vanishing’ (Cain 2004: 173). The characters see that their activities are directed towards their own liminal state, the space occupied by the international community: ‘all they [the UN] do is bring supplies into their own UN bases for their own staff, and certainly nothing gets to the population’ (Olson 1999: 94). Many of their jobs are by definition observation posts, documenting the situations they are put in. And while, ‘we do some essential work now, the minute we leave it will all fall apart’ (Olson 1999: 151).

This results in frustration, followed by despondency and cynicism in the narrators: ‘I managed to convince myself to believe in this work again. But I don’t. It’s a lie. We are the only beneficiaries of our righteousness’ (Cain 2004: 226). The liminal situation loses its appeal, the narrators begin to crave private space and isolation. This is often preceded by a period of getting sick, when their inoculations, both medical and emotional, can no longer protect them from their surroundings; or by an evacuation where it becomes clear that their presence in the Third World can only be temporary. Discussing the UN’s evacuation from Haiti, Andrew says: ‘[n]ow that they’re at their most vulnerable, we’re abandoning them,…flying out, clutching our precious blue UN passports and bags full of Haitian art’ (Cain 2004: 174). Leanne ruminates, ‘[w]hen things get really bad and we are needed the most, that’s the time when we have to leave’ (Olson 1999: 61).

Ultimately, the characters break down, psychologically, physically, and make the decision to return home. Says Leanne: ‘I just wanted to go home…Frankly, I was sick and tired of the whole thing’ (Olson 1999: 192). ‘I’d been at aid work for nearly four years and was beginning to feel too far removed from “the real world”. I didn’t know if we could truly ever return to the world but it was time to try’ (Olson 1999: 234). This juxtaposition between the surreal world of the field and the ‘real’ world of home is indicative of the anchoring influence of the country of origin.


Rites of Re-Aggregation: Returning to ‘Normal

When the characters do try to return to their previous ordinary lives, they find the re-aggregation difficult. Heidi concedes,

[w]e’ve all tried to make new friends here in New York, and to reverse the alienation we feel from our peers. But the conversation doesn’t usually go far once I say we lived in Somalia for two years, or Ken says that Andrew dug the graves of Srebrenica.

(Cain 2004: 286)

Similarly, Leanne complains that upon return, ‘I found out that my friends and family, for all their good intentions, shared little interest in what I had to say’ (Olson 1999: 9). They try to relocate normalcy as ‘civilians’ (as they call themselves) and find it difficult. Observes Leanne, ‘[w]e led one life that our regular friends and family saw and one that we saved for our friends from the field. We couldn’t seem to get the two lives to merge’ (Olson 1999: 221). This is arguably due to the fact that they have been irrevocably changed by their experiences in the field. In all three memoirs, the liminal phase is described as a transformative and quasi-religious experience. ‘Life as an international relief worker changed me profoundly,’ states Leanne (Olson 1999: 9). Even where it is not overly religious, there is the voiced desire on the part of Ken and Andrew to be part of something bigger than themselves (Cain 2004: 10). This tension in the re-aggregation stage is both predictable and provides insight into the types of people who are attracted by this type of work and the types of challenges that they face. It is of course important to consider that the aid workers who wrote these memoirs are not necessarily indicative of all internationals who engage in statebuilding. It may be only representative of a small, disgruntled or marginalised group who decided to vent their frustration in literary format. But even if this is so, it still represents a significant vocal minority, whose views are remarkable in their consistency. It is also in keeping with van Gennep’s rite of passage. The act of writing such a memoir is the ultimate act of transgression and betrayal for those who remain in the field. By telling the story as they see it – ‘the story of what it’s really like to be an international aid worker’ (Olson 1999: 10) – they break the unwritten code of the field, they separate themselves out from its communitas, from its liminal state. Such an act is the ultimate rite of separation and can only be done by someone who, at least temporarily, feels that the passage is complete.


The States in Between, or What van Gennep Tells Us About Statebuilding

This approach holds several lessons for statebuilding efforts and attempts to go beyond the local-international divide. First, it identifies the strong, anchoring influence of the aid workers home country. So far, discussions about bridging the ‘local-international’ divide have been spatially focussed on the country of intent – that is, where the statebuilding is physically taking place. In this reading, the activities, processes, and people associated with the international community in the field are seen as part of the ‘international’ elements of statebuilding and are juxtaposed to those activities, processes, people that are deemed to be ‘local’. Here, the state of being ‘liminal’ or in-between implies being between the workers’ home country and the ‘local’ environment. However, from the perspective of the memoirs, the space of the field is liminal not with regard to its physical surroundings, but with regard to the country of origin. That is to say, that the experience of being in the field is liminal in a temporal sense – as a transformative experience between the before and after of living a ‘normal life’ in the so-called First World. This is in keeping with Duffield’s idea of an ‘archipelago of aid’ where the international space of ‘the field site’ is more closely networked through transport and communications links to its country of origin than it is to its surrounding physical geography or ‘the local’ (Duffield 2009). In the context of statebuilding this implies that to talk of bridging the gap between the international and the local both risks applying conceptual frameworks that only exist within the international, and over-estimates the ability of the international to look towards (and recognise) the local, rather than continuing to gaze in towards itself.

Second, an analysis of the liminal space of ‘the field’ contributes to social boundary formation and highlights the close-knit emotional bonds that are created between members of the international community. Understanding this as an expected part of a rite of passage provides insight into the persistence of seemingly irresponsible or culturally inappropriate behaviours. Affective and emotional bonds are further reified through the material and spatial practices of exception, practiced by the international community. As international workers, they are protected by international accords of immunity, which translate not only into different laws, but different lifestyles within the compounds. It also helps explain the noticeable absence of ‘local’ people within the spaces of the international. In the context of the memoirs, the pages are peopled largely with other ‘ex-pats’. Even when the project or intervention is intended to be for an entire population, such as the independence celebrations for East Timor in 2002, the beneficiaries end up being excluded: linguistically, culturally, and physically. Lynne describes how the grandiose celebrations to celebrate the handover of the UN transitional administration to the Timorese, in May 2002, was aimed almost exclusively to the international community. She says, ‘despite the dark skins of some of the visitors, the host country has very few of its own in attendance, other than those who carry the trays’ (Minion 2004: 114). The impact of these structured spaces is that it reinforces established ways of being, and ultimately of thinking and doing. In each one of the novels, the ‘logic of the mission’ is theirs, not the local community’s (Cain 2004: 174). This is a potentially devastating point as it emphasises the structural aspect of the international habitus of statebuilding and raises the question of whether it is indeed possible to move beyond it.

Even those individuals who speak the language of the place they are going to, or stay in a country for long periods of time, may find themselves rejected by the very populations that they have come to assist. Local populations may consider aid workers as potential contaminants to the larger society or a threat to local elites, and accordingly push the aid workers back into their spatial and social categories. A theme in the narratives is the characters’ repeated attempts to break out of the ‘expat bubble’ only to be met with resistance both from other expats and from the local communities. During Lynne’s time in East Timor, the bars and restaurants frequented by the expats are quite literally kept offshore where boats have been converted into floating bars. As late as 2008, the international community is kept on permanent stand-by, by the refusal or inability of the Timorese government to provide long-term working visas for internationals. Heidi, on ‘rest and relation’ near Mombassa, tries and fails to escape her tourist hotel to find the ‘real Kenya’ (Cain 2004: 95). Lynne attempts to enter into the daily routines of her Timorese patrons, but is met with a lack of understanding as to why she, a malae,[4] would want to.

But the exclusion may not only be on behalf of local populations. According to Douglas (2002), liminal figures by Turner’s definition are ‘almost everywhere regarded as “polluting” and “dangerous”’, and this seems to be supported by the aid workers’ experiences, the third issue to highlight. As Andrew exhumes bodies in Gisenyi, Rwanda, he thinks to himself, ‘I have my UN passport and my air ticket out. But I don’t smell so good, I have human flesh under my nails, and I spend my days arguing with priests and governors about corpses and money’ (Cain 2004: 246). Sitting on the plane back to Winnipeg, Leanne remarks, ‘[n]o one wants to sit next to a skinny orange woman who has obviously been out in the bush too long’ (Olson 1999: 58). Such experiences need to be taken into consideration when trying to understand what it means to be an international, working in challenging conditions. Issues such as staff composition and turnover may be as important in the success or failure of statebuilding missions as constitutions and elections.



The analysis of aid workers’ memoirs offers three sets of conclusions. The first offers insight into the persistence of the category of the international (and its perceived inverse of the local) in statebuilding discourse. The application of van Gennep’s rite of passage suggests the need to consider whether the practices of the international are part of a structural process that has very little to do with the so-called local. To attempt to engage in ‘rapprochement’ or ‘bridging’ is to over-simplify the essential qualities of these states and to ignore that they are driven by different incentives, with different time frames, and different objectives. Further, to understand the space of ‘the field’, the space of statebuilding, as liminal implies that ‘the international’ is not hermetic by accident, but that this has been an important part of the experience of ‘going to the field’ for the aid workers carrying out the task and therefore an important (and overlooked) part of statebuilding. The implication of such a discrete and resilient international space has implications for the epistemology of statebuilding. If the experience of the local is only conducted from within the spaces of the international – the compounds, the conference rooms, the hotels and Humvees – then what is understood as ‘local’ can only be an ‘international’ concept.

A second set of conclusions can be drawn with regard to the methodological need to go beyond established qualitative and quantitative research methods for understanding the experience of statebuilding. As encouraged by Carr (2010), Lewis et al. (2008), and Schaffer and Smith (2004), life memoirs offer insight into the processes of aid work which is easily missed by other methods; into what Pouligny has called the intangible dimensions of statebuilding (Pouligny 2010). By reading across memoirs, as done in this chapter, there is the further opportunity to identify recurrent structures, themes, tropes and absences offering yet another level of insight into the process. Further work needs to be done to understand the impact of these novels on their readership – both in terms of attracting the next generation of international civil servants and aid workers and in terms of influencing how those in the countries of origin think about the liminal space of the field.

A final conclusion is that the practice of statebuilding is not an accident or incidental part of the process, but is actually co-constitutive of the process itself. A positive reading of this conclusion would be to highlight the need to look as much at the way in which statebuilding is done, as the stated objectives. Change the process and we will change the result. This is the approach endorsed by organisations, which endorse professional standards and codes of conduct for aid workers. But a more pessimistic reading would point to the structural quality of the process of statebuilding and ask whether it is possible to separate thought from action, agency from structure. As long as statebuilding continues to be an internationally driven endeavour, it will be based in the structures and habitus of the international, raising questions as to the possibility of either bridging or going beyond the categories which continue to plague its intended success.[5]




The author would like to thank Berit Bliesemann de Guevara, Ellen Smirl and Anna Stavrianakis for their helpful comments on this chapter.




Bowie, F. (2006) The anthropology of religion: an introduction, 2nd edition, Oxford: Blackwell.

Cain, K. (2004) Emergency sex (and other desperate measures): A true story from hell on earth, hardcover edition, New York: Miramax Books/Hyperion.

Carr, E.R. (2010) ‘The place of stories in development: creating spaces for participation through narrative analysis’, Development in Practice, 20(2): 219-26.

Donais, T. (2009) ‘Empowerment or Imposition? Dilemmas of Local Ownership in Post-Conflict Peacebuilding Processes’, Peace & Change, 34(1): 3-26.

Douglas, M. (2002) Purity and danger: an analysis of concept of pollution and taboo, London: Routledge.

Duffield, M. (2009) Architectures of Aid, Cambridge: University of Cambridge.

Eade, D. (1997) Capacity-building: an approach to people-centred development, Oxford: Oxfam.

Gigliotti, S. (2007) ‘Genocide Yet Again: Scences of Rwanda and Ethical Witness in the Human Rights Memoir’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, 53(1): 84-95.

Heathershaw, J. (2008) ‘Unpacking the Liberal Peace: The Dividing and Merging of Peacebuilding Discourses’, Millennium – Journal of International Studies, 36(3): 597-621.

Kenny, S. (2005) ‘Reconstruction in Aceh: Building whose capacity?’ Community Development Journal, 42(2): 206-221. 

Lewis, D., Rodgers, D. and Woolcock, M. (2008) ‘The Fiction of Development: Literary Representation as a Source of Authoritative Knowledge’, Journal of Development Studies, 44(2): 198-216.

Mac Ginty, R. (2010) ‘Hybrid Peace: The Interaction Between Top-Down and Bottom-Up Peace’, Security Dialogue, 41: 391-412.

Minion, L. (2004) Hello Missus: A Girl’s Own Guide to Foreign Affairs, Sydney: Harper Collins.

Olson, L. (1999) A Cruel Paradise, Toronto: Insomniac Press.

Pouligny, B. (2010) State-Society Relations and Intangible Dimensions of State Resilience and State Building: A Bottom-Up Perspective, European Report on Development, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies: European University Institute.

Richmond, O. (2009) ‘Becoming Liberal, Unbecoming Liberalism: Liberal-Local Hybridity via the Everyday as a Response to the Paradoxes of Liberal Peacebuilding’, Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, 3(3): 324-44.

Schaffer, K. and Smith, S. (2004) ‘Conjunctions: Life Narratives in the Field of Human Rights’, Biography: an interdisciplinary quarterly, 27(1): 1-24.

Smillie, I. (2001) Patronage or partnership: local capacity building in humanitarian crises, Bloomfield, Conn.: Kumarian Press.

Turner, V.W. (1969) The ritual process: structure and anti-structure, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

— (1975) Dramas, fields, and metaphors; symbolic action in human society, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

— (1977) ‘Chapter III: Variations on a Theme of Liminality’, in S. F. Moore and B. G. Myerhoff (eds.) Secular ritual, Assen: Gorcum, 36-52.

van Gennep, A. (1960) The Rites of Passage, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Yang, G. (2000) ‘The Liminal Effects of Social Movements: Red Guards and the Transformation of Identity’, Sociological Forum, 15(3): 379-406.


[1] The term ‘capacity building’ is often used within development discourse to refer to the transfer of skills in a particular area from external technical advisors to local beneficiaries (cf. Eade 1997). For critical perspectives see (Kenny 2005; Smillie 2001). Here, Lynne is using the term facetiously.

[2] It is worth highlighting that this is not the first attempt to use fictional narratives to deepen understandings of development processes. Lewis et al. (2008) look at a range of texts that document the impacts and experience of development from a wide range of perspectives. Similarly, Carr (2010) has looked at the potential for using narrative to better understand different perspectives, and Schaffer and Smith (2004) and Gigliotti (2007) have looked specifically at the human rights memoir to understand the process of bearing witness.

[3] Turner himself encourages the use of ‘oral narratives of personal observation and experiences’ in his study of the rites of passage of pilgrims (Turner 1975: 167).

[4] Malae = foreigner (usually white).

[5] Cf. also Goetze and Bliesemann de Guevara in this volume.

Plain Tales from the Reconstruction Site

“Plain Tales from the Reconstruction Site: Spatial continuities in contemporary humanitarian practice,” chapter in Mark Duffield and Vernon Hewitt (eds.) Empire, Development and Colonialism: the Past in the Present (London: James Currey, 2009).


The idea of a ‘pure’ or natural disaster is a pervasive one. The occurrence of an ‘Act of God’ appears to be the one instance where international intervention is beyond criticism: the blamelessness of the victims translates into an ethical imperative for action on the part of the ‘international community’ to alleviate the resultant suffering (Edkins, 2000). While it is possible to point to many instances of critique of political interventions (Mamdani, 2007; Pugh, 2005; Chandler, 2006) and others who critique the efficacy or appropriateness of certain modes of disaster relief (Duffield, 1991; Edkins, 2000; Keen, 1994; De Waal, 1997), there are few authors who problematized the basic premise that the international community has a responsibility to provide assistance to those affected by a natural disaster (Bankoff, 2001; Hewitt, 1995). Yet authors such as Smith (2006), Davis (2000), and O’Keefe (1976) stress that while natural hazards exist, the severity of their impact on human settlement is determined by human decisions: where and how to build; access to preventive measures; the existence and knowledge of escape routes.

While a direct, and unique causal link between geography and social development (Landes, 1998; Diamond, 2005) is highly disputed, the link between underdevelopment and increased risk of natural disasters is well documented. According to Ian Davis (1978: 11), ‘the study of disasters is almost by definition a study of poverty within the developing world.’ Even within high income countries, those groups which are structurally impoverished, or underprivileged, experience a higher vulnerability to disasters (Cutter, 2006; Giroux, 2006). Still, such nuances

fail to stop the idea of a ‘pure’ natural disaster from being held up as an ethical rationale for intervention. This chapter challenges this assumption by pointing out that despite the perceived ethical neutrality of post-disaster intervention, particular spatial and material approaches may have similarities to previous colonial practice. Focussing on the way in which the international community moves through and lives in the post-disaster reconstruction sites illuminates power relations and dynamics generally obscured by more abstract discussions over the ethics and modalities of international intervention. The first section of this chapter places contemporary humanitarian intervention within a longer continuum of global North-South relations and looks at why a spatial approach provides a useful heuristic for our examination of colonial continuities. The second section examines two particular examples of such continuities, mobility and separation, in some depth, juxtaposing observations and interviews with contemporary development and humanitarian practitioners with personal accounts from previous Anglo-Indian colonial administrators as described in the classic text, Plain Tales from the Raj, by Charles Allen (2006).[i]

A Spatial Genealogy of Response: Locating the Humanitarian Imaginary

According to Craig Calhoun, the idea of an Emergency Imaginary is an important part of the Western social imaginary (Calhoun, 2004; Taylor, 2005; Castoriadis, 1987). According to Calhoun (2004: 7) the ‘notion of “emergency” is produced and reproduced in social imagination, at a level that Charles Taylor (Taylor, 2002) has described as between explicit doctrine and the embodied knowledge of habitus.’ Calhoun goes on to say that the ‘production of emergencies, and the need to address them, has become one of the rationales for assertion of global power’ (Calhoun, 2004: 9; Klein, 2007; Duffield, 2007). An important part of the discourse is the perceived unusual nature of the emergency: ‘”[e]mergency” is a way of grasping problematic events, a way of imagining them that emphasizes their apparent unpredictability, abnormality, and brevity, and that carries the corollary that response – intervention – is necessary. The international emergency, it is implied, both can and should be managed’ (Calhoun, 2004: 6).

An important part of this emergency imaginary is the ability to locate the emergency, the event, in a particular geography or spatial imagination (Hewitt, 1995). The ‘assertion of global power’ that Calhoun points to must be asserted over someone or something – it must be asserted from some position of (perceived) security, and over another place of (perceived) insecurity. The ‘common practices’ that underpins Charles Taylor’s understanding of a particular social imaginary happen somewhere – they are locatable, they are grounded. One specific, yet underexamined way in which this is done is in the day-to-day material and spatial practices of international humanitarian workers who come to a disaster or reconstruction site. This is important because although humanitarian policy and discourse expresses the desire to frame individuals and communities affected by disaster in terms of empowerment rather than victimhood, the material practice and spatial dynamics of intervention may work against this. Despite an increasing focus in humanitarian literature on ‘downward accountability’ to ‘clients’ (beneficiaries) the material practices of aid delivery demonstrate disturbing continuities with previous colonial approaches. While such continuities can be observed across the spectrum of relief to development assistance, this chapter focuses on the particular space of the reconstruction site. This is due both to the privileged position of the emergency within the larger humanitarian imaginary and because the immediacy of its conditions strips away the rhetoric that couches the majority of longer-term development practice, allowing the material and spatial practices to be brought to the fore.

The term ‘reconstruction sites’ refers to geographic locations that have or are being physically reconstructed, with external assistance, after experiencing a crisis that overwhelms the ability of the affected society to respond. ‘External assistance’ refers to the provision of physical and/or financial resources by individuals and agencies that normally reside outside the geographic boundaries of the reconstruction site and have been brought there specifically by the event of the disaster. The precise geography of the reconstruction site will differ depending on whose perspective we are considering. The mapping of disaster is often one of the easiest and best executed aspects of a post-disaster intervention (Davis, 1978). Careful attention is paid to the location and categorization of victims, beneficiaries, types and location of damaged buildings and infrastructure. But the lens of analysis is rarely, if ever, turned back upon the implementing actors. While there is widespread informal acknowledgement amongst development practitioners that the rapid influx of hundreds, or thousands of foreign workers has feedback effects (Collier, 2007) these are dramatically underexamined. This is partly explained by the fact that the reconfiguring of space and the reconstruction of the built environment are not seenas political and socially transformative in themselves, but just a basic, and largely neutral component of a reconstruction process (Graham and Marvin, 2001).

However, the dissemination of work by Bourdieu (1990; 1977), Lefebvre (1991), and de Certeau (1988) highlighted the subjectivity and relativism in the designation and construction of particular physical and social spaces. This work contributed to and coincided with two major disciplinary shifts in the social sciences at large. First, in those disciplines which were already engaged with ideas of space and materiality such as geography and urban planning, it led to an re-examination and problematization of the ontological pre-eminence of an independent materiality that could be mapped, designed, shaped and built. Second, in disciplines such as anthropology and sociology, it contributed to the recognition of the need to consider space and materiality both as a potentially causal variable in the societies under examination, and also as an inextricable part of the embodied experience of research, and of the construction of knowledge itself (Crang, 2000).

The 1990s saw the application of the ‘spatial turn’ to a wide range of enquiry from discourse analysis (Ó Tuathail, 1996) to economic geography (Barnes, 2003). However, it did not have a significant impact on development or humanitarian studies, nor, by extension on post-crisis relief or reconstruction which focused on the level of the individual and its aggregate – society. Issues of governance, local livelihoods, civil society, capacity building, human security and anticorruption filled the agenda in the 1990s and 2000’s (Pupuvac, 2005) an agenda that assumed the solution, liberal, democratic peace, had already been found and only the instruments required perfecting (Paris, 2006; Hoogvelt, 2006).

This overlooks the way in which post-disaster reconstruction evolved. From its modern post-WW2 inception, international humanitarian assistance was conceived in spatial terms (Slater, 1997). The categories and binaries by which it defined itself as an activity were fundamentally geographic: 1st, 2nd and 3rd worlds; developed and underdeveloped countries; the global North/global South. Direct links to the process of European de-colonization can also be found (Duffield, 2007). Fred Cuny (1983) attributes the rise of disaster response as an industry within the global north to the rapid, post-1945 decolonization process which left the former colonies without either the human or financial capacity to respond. The ‘apolitical’ international system of NGOs and multilateral agencies was seen as preferable to the reassertion of control by former colonial powers. However through the application of spatial considerations, it is possible to see how contemporary material and spatial practices of humanitarian response may continue to invoke and reproduce colonial power relations. If the social imaginary is interlinked with the material practices of the everyday, it is necessary to consider the impact of the material expression of particular places and practices (Bourdieu, 1990; Certeau, 1988; Merleau-Ponty, 1962).

An initial application of the ‘spatial turn’ to the realm of post-crisis reconstruction points to several areas which are immediately problematized. First, the need to consider that the space of a reconstruction site is not a tabula rasa, and that what is produced is immediately and inextricably politicized and used in different ways by different groups, for different ends (Lefebvre, 1991). Second, space is relative and relational. Spatial and material designations, mappings and representations of needs and responses, may not be in keeping with other scalar designations or social categories such as the idea of the ‘local’, in the policy designs of the international community; or the programmatic separation of certain categories of beneficiaries such as post-conflict vs. post-disaster (Scott, 1998; Ferguson, 2006; Escobar, 1994).

Third, that knowledge is embodied – predicated upon ‘cognitive (mental) and physical (corporeal) performances that are constantly evolving as people encounter place’ (Hubbard et al., 2004: 6). These ‘geographies of embodiment’ are therefore implicated in the subsequent production and reification of categories of class, gender, and in the case of humanitarianism of donor/beneficiary and of saviour/victim. In the case of post-conflict reconstruction, this embodiment will be the result of the social and cultural environments that humanitarian workers have come from (their countries of origin) as well as the environments that they find themselves

in during the reconstruction process. According to Bourdieu (1990), it is impossible to separate subjects from their habitus (the practices and games of their surroundings) either present, past, and possibly future (Massumi, 2002). This means that the responses of particular individuals, and agencies are conditioned as much by previous experiences both of their place(s) of origin, and of previous reconstruction sites as they are by the immediate emergency they are responding to. Further, as discussed below, the precise material circumstances experienced while in a reconstruction site may also be significant.

These linkages point to the fourth insight of the spatial turn for post-crisis reconstruction: that the presence of international humanitarian agencies in the country of intent, must always be read contrapuntally with their space of origin (Inayatullah, 2004; Said, 1995). The activities, practices, and places of the international community in reconstruction sites are as closely networked to their spaces of origin as they are to their proximate physical environments (Castells, 2000; Sassen, 2000; Appadurai, 1997) and may need to be considered as particular, embodied instances larger global processes (Beck and Ritter, 1992; Harvey, 2001). As such, their representational consequences need to be taken into consideration. How are these international practices and spaces understood and interpreted by the groups and individuals in their immediate physical surroundings? Does this impact or effect the tactics (Certeau, 1988; Scott, 1998) that may be used in their interactions with the international donor community?

A fifth area of consideration is how are the spatial and material circumstances of humanitarian relief workers related to temporal considerations? How do differential spaces effect the way in which the time of response and intervention is conceived (Massey, 2006). The differential rates of mobility and speed between the international community and the target population are rarely examined, yet lie at the heart of some of the most problematic aspects of the ineffectiveness of humanitarian assistance. While the previous discussion has focussed on the applicability of the spatial turn to contemporary post-crisis reconstruction, the foregrounding of space and materiality also highlights the continuities of contemporary practice with previous modes of colonial governance and the unequal practices associated with it. In particular, two major continuities can be identified: mobility and separation. The next section will look at these two continuities in more depth.

 Spatial Continuity A: Mobility

A key feature of contemporary humanitarian intervention is the mobility with which aid workers move to and from, and between response and reconstruction sites (Telford, 2006). The nature of an emergency requires the rapid deployment of staff. The relatively short period of time that is required for the response and post-crisis reconstruction; the frequency of disaster events and the scarcity of qualified professionals means that staff are only present in one place for a limited time: anywhere from a few weeks to, at most, a few years. Likewise, within contemporary development practice, the (necessary) introduction of transport networks dedicated to the movement or international staff and associated goods creates a parallel space of movement, maintaining physical difference between the individuals who have come to assist, and those that are being assisted.

These differential spaces of travel and movement are important in several ways. First, they are significant in that they are securitized and separated, either literally or symbolically. This will be further explored below, under the theme of separation. Second, a key aspect of humanitarian assistance and post-crisis reconstruction is timing as the space of response and reconstruction necessarily has a higher velocity than its surroundings (Virilio, 1991). Long debates have taken place on the so-called ‘relief-to-development’ continuum i.e when humanitarian assistance ends and long term development assistance begins. While the current consensus in policy circles is for the need to link the two to ensure that humanitarian assistance is sustainable in development terms, an unavoidable distinction remains: humanitarian assistance must arrive as soon as possible after an emergency in order to achieve its stated aims of saving lives. The introduction and use of parallel transport systems for staff, and parallel delivery systems for food and nonfood-items (NFIs) such as tents, medicine, blankets is justified on the grounds that a slow humanitarian response invalidates the rationale for providing assistance. But the ends of timeliness and efficient delivery require certain sacrifices at the level of process, i.e. it may be deemed necessary to bypass national systems in the delivery of aid. For example, in the case of the of the international humanitarian response to the 2004 tsunami, the World Food Programme (WFP) instituted nearly daily flights up and down the coast of Aceh to transport humanitarian staff and equipment. This was justified on both the basis of need (efficiency) and staff security. However, the perception among some Acehnese, was that particularly in the post-emergency stage of the recovery effort, the WFP travel department operated more as a tour operator than a development agency, ferrying consultants, visitors from headquarters, and well-off disaster tourists from disaster site to disaster site. The flights cost exponentially more than domestic carriers, and therefore were out of reach for the average Indonesian. They were also temporary, and will not leave a sustainable transport infrastructure behind, to be used by the Acehnese, upon the departure of the international community. In the larger picture, the timeliness of delivery is also an important proof of the technical superiority and ability of the global North to respond to and manage emergencies.[ii]

The differential rates of mobility also emphasize the different metrics that are used to assess the risk conditions of humanitarian staff versus those of the target communities. While within the emergency imaginary, a disaster is a unique and unusual event, which can be gone to, managed, and left, for the populations that are being assisted, risk (or the potential vulnerability to similar disasters) is part of the fabric of daily existence. But for the humanitarian (and development) aid workers, the ability to leave the reconstruction site at any point, is always an option; a condition of their employment. Many medium term, high risk postings also contain the guarantee of regular periods when staff are expected to leave their place of work and go to another physical location to relieve the pressure of living in confined and dangerous surroundings. This emphasizes the feeling of impermanence of location amongst the staff, and the emotional and cultural distance from their immediate physical environment. It also highlights the centrality of travel and movement to the experience of humanitarian assistance.

While often identified as a feature of contemporary globalization (Bauman, 1998; Appadurai, 1997) such impermanence and mobility has a much longer history (Hirst and Thompson, 1999). Significant work has been done on the pivotal role played by ideas and experiences of travel, under colonialism (Pratt, 1992; Gowans, 2006; Kearns, 1997). As heard in Allen’s testimonials, constant travel also characterized the life of colonial administrators and their families: ‘[F]requent transfers and movements over great distances were recurrent themes in the “Anglo-Indian” experience: “As official people we were constantly on the move”’ (Allen, 2006: 57). Allen’s interviewees describe the boat voyage to India as central part of the colonial experience: a space where professional and social networking took place and where relationships and partnerships were formed and solidified (see also Gowans, 2006).

Striking comparisons can also be drawn between contemporary and colonial experiences of arrival: ‘[r]eceptions varied according to status and connections. Those of high degree or with connections were garlanded and their luggage seized by chaprassis in scarlet uniforms. Some were met by shipping agents and shepherded through customs. Others had less auspicious introductions’ (Allen, 2006: 54-55).[iii] Such a scene could equally describe the arrival of international aid workers to a reconstruction site. Those who belong to a high level international agency such as the United Nations (UN) or the World Bank are often quickly guided through customs by their agencies’ operations staff, whisked into a large, radio equipped sports utility vehicle (SUV) and driven away in power-locked and air conditioned security, while those who are from a smaller organization or travelling as individuals may face long queues at the visa window and frustrating negotiations with local cab drivers.

Regardless of the hierarchical position of the agency or organization in question, an underexamined aspect of the reconstruction effort remains the types of individuals that it attracts. Across generations and cultures, the idea of unknown and the ‘other’ is appealing to certain segments of a population. The idea of a reconstruction site has been imbued with poetic, often romantic notions (Kenny, 2005). According to Ian Davis, the process of rebuilding after a disaster combines preoccupations of social awareness; advanced technology; mobility and impermanence (Davis, 1978) and may attract individuals that seek a life that is perceived as more adventurous, unpredictable and emotionally and professionally fulfilling that one than could be found in their country of origin (Cain, 2004). This allure of the foreign was clearly seen in the types of NGOs and aid personnel that arrived in South-East Asia after the 2004 tsunami (Kenny, 2005). Such desires are also found in the descriptions of the types of individuals who were drawn to the colonies. As described by the Prince of Wales in his opening address to the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London, ‘the Colonies…are the legitimate and natural homes, in future, of the more adventurous and energetic portion of the population of these Islands’ (British Parliamentary Papers, 1886). Indeed, within the person of the aid worker, the embodied links between colonial administration and contemporary humanitarianism can be clearly identified. Duffield (2007: 59-60) describes how during the 1950s and ‘60s the ‘expanding overseas voluntary sector’ relied on ‘people who, through colonial administration, military service, missionary societies or the business world had come of age within the Empire.’ While the types of individuals who were attracted to the overseas voluntary sector were initially different from the previous colonial administrators in their desire to give something back, the subsequent merging of NGO and donor processes has meant, once again, a reintegration and exchange of state and non-governmental personnel, through, among other things the merging of career paths (Duffield 2006: 64-65).

On a psychological level, continuities also exist between the two groups over their conflicted emotions surrounding ideas of ‘home’. British colonists in India were, on one hand, living far away from their official domicile. ‘”We never thought of England as home,” recalls Nancy Foster. ‘It never occurred to us that our home wasn’t India’ (Allen, 2006: 35). On the other hand, their ‘home’ in the colonies was the bi-product of employment, and therefore subject to uprooting at any moment. This contributed to a feeling of impermanence (Ibid: 87; see also Blunt, 1999). ‘For instance, flowers grew very beautifully in the north of India but you knew when you planted some daffodil bulbs that you’d never see them come up’ (Allen, 2006: 87). For some countries, rapid rotation of the diplomatic corps was a precautionary measure against their ‘going native’ and losing their emotional ties to the metropole. While no such official policy is behind contemporary development practices, the institutionalization of certain programmatic approaches and categories (for example, the categories of ‘relief and response’ or ‘rapid reaction teams’) means that the individuals occupying these positions will find themselves quickly rotated from job to job, from emergency zone to emergency zone. The feeling of impermanence may also account for the iconic role played by the ex-pat hotel in both colonial and contemporary post-crisis setting (Wrong, 2000; Dallaire and Beardsley, 2003; Allen, 2006).

The impact of this constant mobility is two fold. First, rapid staff turnover may lead to the impression on behalf of ‘local’ interlocutors and staff that the international agencies are not truly committed to fostering a long term relationship with the beneficiary country. It may lead to short termist programming, a lack of institutional memory, and a disproportionate amount of resources going into staff recruitment and relocation. Secondly, this rapid mobility from one disaster site to another makes it difficult for the international staff to engage with their surroundings, leading staff members to more easily turn toward their fellow aid workers than towards their physical surroundings. The institutional structure of international relief and development also creates conditions that promotes collusion amongst aid agencies at the field level, by encouraging them to spread the risk of non-delivery among themselves and concentrate on promoting collective successes rather than individual failures (Easterly, 2002).

While Easterly concentrates on the negative economic consequences that this has on the inefficient delivery of aid, the sociological impact of such behaviour is also worthy of attention. By creating an environment that encourages intensive networking through frequent meetings, coordination and information exchange, the emotional and intellectual worlds of the international community are arguably defined more by the needs and demands of the international community than by local beneficiaries. Although current policy agendas of international relief and development organizations include the need for increased feedback and input from the target beneficiaries of the aid, it is worth considering the material and spatial circumstances of the way in which this feedback is sought and collected. While participatory planning processes have long been an integral part of humanitarian assistance, they are problematized when we take into consideration the physical, and material circumstances in which the processes are held which may themselves account for the identified inability of beneficiaries to provide feedback (Ibid: 244). In the same way that the location of peace talks may influence the outcome of a fragile negotiation, so could the location of consultative meetings for the coordination of particular relief sectors, or aid frameworks.

Spatial Continuity B: Separation

The previous section has looked at the common theme of mobility in both the colonial and contemporary development settings. The differential rates of movement between humanitarian aid workers and target beneficiaries will influence programmatic choices such as where and how to build, and who to assist. Intensified by the notion of an “emergency” of which the ethical imperative for action may justify normally inappropriate decisions, this leads to a situation where response strategies are determined, in part, by a temporary and short termist logic. This creates one type of separation. However, within the reconstruction site there also exist built forms of separation between the aid workers and the beneficiaries: forms that evoke colonial patterns and practices. In this section, two particular forms will be examined: the space of the home and the space of the vehicle.

 The space of home

The living conditions of humanitarian aid workers are often compared informally to architectural and visual typologies of the fortress, the compound, the camp, the cantonment. But how applicable are these allusions? Can comparisons be drawn with colonial approaches to the built environment?

The particular physical type of building will depend significantly upon the circumstance of the particular reconstruction site. Where the built environment has been seriously damaged or destroyed, temporary accommodation may be provided in the form of tents, the few remaining hotels, or rental of select, often premium properties. Where security is of immediate and significant concern, the built form of the compound may be used. While the camp, or compound, is by no means the only type of physical experience of the international community in a reconstruction zone, it is an evocative one – a place that often becomes the focus of ‘ex-pat’ meetings and leisure activity, whether or not it is truly representative of the international sentiment at large. Authors such as de Chaine (2002), Ek (2006) and Edkins (2000) have pointed to the physical, bounded structure of the international compound (or ‘camp’) as having unique and potentially affective properties on the bodies their contain and exclude (Clough and Halley, 2007). Descriptions of the US Green Zone in Iraq increasingly point to the implications of conducting a ‘reconstruction’ from within a walled compound however the analysis is not taken beyond the point of journalistic or anecdotal observation (Chandrasekaran, 2006). This is particularly surprising when we consider the instrumental role played by the colonial home under British Imperialism.

According to Blunt and Dowling (2006: 150), the space of the Anglo-British colonial home was important in the reproduction of the ‘domestic, social, and moral values legitimating rules.’ It was partly through the example, of what a quintessentially British household was supposed to be, that the civilizing mission was to be achieved (Gowans, 2006). British superiority was to be defined by the degree to which its civility and order differed from the chaotic and unregulated space of the native, and vice-versa (Said, 1995). Allen (2006: 63) describes the British section of Calcutta as ‘a world apart’ with residential areas reflecting social divisions of the colonial administration. ‘There were the old parts of central Calcutta where the old palatial burra sahibs’ houses had been built, left as a legacy to those who came on afterwards, and around them came the new buildings, blocks of flats where the young sahibs lived when they first came out. But as you became more senior and you wanted tennis courts and more servants, you moved into what was called the suburbs. Ballygunge was the second stage, and Alipore, built under the wing of the Belvedere, which had been the old viceregal lodge and which therefore contained that air of sanctity, was the final stage’ (Ibid: 63-4).[iv]

Even within the colonial cantonment, racial demarcations ‘reproduced on a domestic scale the racial distancing that underpinned colonial urbanism’ (Blunt and Dowling, 2006: 152). However, the space of the colonial home had at least three further functions. First, the placement of particular settlements, or hill stations was useful for purposes of oversight and control of populations (Duncan and Lambert, 2004). Second, the adoption of ‘European models of household organization and domesticity’ was a central part of assimilationist strategies (Ibid: 392). Finally, the linking of metropole to the colonies was a key part of the domestication of empire. Not only did this involve bringing the colonies ‘home’ through exhibitions, scientific studies and even the import of exotic plant species (Duncan and Lambert, 2004; Blunt, 1999) but, through the transference of architectural styles, aesthetic trends, and legal and educational systems, also brought the metropole to the colonies. In this way, the space of the home played a central part of colonial governance, and nation building. However, its exclusivity and racial segregation may have also ‘provoked racial antagonisms between rulers and ruled, and ultimately contributed to the decline of the British Empire’ (Blunt and Dowling, 2006: 150). In a contemporary humanitarian context, this resonates with the rental of the most expensive houses in a reconstruction site by internationals, at greatly inflated prices.[v] Similarly, while the names, locations, and political economy of particular hotels, restaurants and clubs, may be meaningless to new humanitarian arrivals, they may evoke a material legacy of previous colonial patterns of domination (Sudjic, 2005; King, 1990; Vale, 1992).

The space of the vehicle

The separate living spaces of humanitarian workers can be seen to extend to the realm of the vehicle. Few visual images are as evocative of the international community as the white UN SUV. It can be observed across reconstruction settings, often in a caravan with several others, parked outside a particular office complex, bar, or restaurant. Even in countries where it is not necessary, it is often used.

The form of the SUV has been extensively analysed within a North American and European context (Bradsher, 2003). Edensor (2004: 117) describes how cars ‘are part of the mediated imaginaries, mundane geographies and everyday practices that inhere in the formation of national identities.’ Work on the social impact in the United States of the SUV suggests that its rise parallels a model of citizenship that values safety and inviolability of person above all else (Mitchell, 2005; Campbell, 2005). If we apply this to a humanitarian context, the material practice of the international community may be seen to constitute an ‘attempt at self-imposed exclusion from the wider neighbourhood, as well as the exclusion of others’ (Atkinson and Flint, 2004: 178) reinforcing the observations from local residents that the objectives of the international community are different from those of the community they are assisting.

Such a delimitation from the wider physical context, is also found within colonial experience. A description of the ‘highly hierarchical’ railway carriages, that reflected the social structure of British India reads thus: ‘[a] four-berth carriage had been reserved for us with a self-contained toilet compartment with a shower…. Furthermore, the windows, which were in triplicate – glass, venetian blinds and gauze – were also latched, so you were in a pretty impregnable position. We asked what would happen if anybody else tried to come into our compartment and were assured that nobody would turn up. No Indian would dare to attempt to come into our compartment so long as he saw more than one European therein.’ (Allen, 2006: 59) This allowed its travellers to ride comfortably, undisturbed and separate from the surroundings they were there to assist. More broadly, the very possibility of travel was imbued with notions of freedom versus ‘unfreedom’, distinctions which continue to resonate within contemporary humanitarian practice (Grewal, 1996).


This chapter has discussed how continuities exist in the material and spatial practices of the international community with previous Anglo-Indian colonial experiences. The initial examination indicates two ways in which this might be significant. First, even where no obvious barrier exists between the international community and the intended beneficiaries of the assistance, the material practices and spatial dynamics create a bounded microcosm of international activity. Such separation inevitably affects the way in which the international aid workers interact with and understand the target community. This will influence perceptions of what types of response strategies are needed, and, through path dependence and ‘lessons learned’ what types of interventions are used in future reconstruction sites.

Second, particular material and spatial arrangements have an observed impact on the individuals that they are intended to assist. The tropes of the white SUV, the ex-pat hotel, the UN transport planes have become clichés, but their persistence, denigration and targeting, indicates their importance in the overall impression of humanitarian intervention. By reinforcing ideas of exclusivity, transience and inaccessibility neo-colonial categories of us-them; local-international; north-south are reinforced and perpetuated.[vi]

How exactly particular material forms or designated places (Cresswell, 2004; Agnew, 1997) are implicated in and related to larger categories of space (Lefebvre, 1991) is the subject of much study. Contemporary theories of cultural geography emphasize the importance of materiality and lived experience in the construction of such abstract, scalar, concepts as the international. For example, in their work on the nation, Jones and Fowler (2007) look at the importance of local spaces in the reproduction of the nation. They argue localised places can become “’metonyms’ of the nation” through their abstract and generic representation of national messages, symbols, and ideologies (Ibid: 336). Citing Jackson and Penrose (1994) they ‘stress the potential for localized places to be key sites for generating ideas and sentiments that can ultimately reproduce the nation’ (Jones, 2007: 336). But what happens if we extend this to the category of the ‘international’? How do particular practices of the international community contribute to creations of larger ideational categories? The classic texts of post-disaster intervention point to the military spatial heritage of humanitarian relief and reconstruction: the tents, the conception, layout and organization of refugee and relief camps. (Kent, 1987; Cuny and Abrams, 1983; Davis, 1978) However, they do not include an examination of older continuities – those that may exist between the built forms of colonial occupation and contemporary relief efforts.


In the current processes and practices of international assistance, the lived experiences and built environment of the international community are rarely examined despite their contributions to the humanitarian imaginary. They may also be an important aspect of the way in which the international community is understood and interpreted at the local level. In this way, although many theorists have cautioned against drawing historical continuities where none exist (between development and colonialism), this analysis suggests that these parallels may be stronger than hitherto suggested and worthy of further sustained examination. The material and spatial practices of these groups will not only inform the immediate and long term direction of the reconstruction project, but may, ultimately, contribute to the larger social imaginary – both in terms of how the international community sees itself, and how the international community is viewed by others. It is within reconstruction sites and other humanitarian spaces that particular key relations are crystallized, produced and reproduced.

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[i] Empirical work for this chapter is based upon open-ended interviews with subjects working in and on the postcrisis reconstruction in Aceh and Sri Lanka. The themes are part of a doctoral dissertation at the University of Cambridge, Centre for International Studies entitled: Post-Crisis Built Environments of the International Community. For their comments and suggestions, the author would like to thank Mark Duffield, Vernon Hewitt, Tarak Barkawi, David Nally and Arran Gaunt.

[ii] This is part of the reason why the inability of the U.S. to respond to Hurricane Katrina was so disturbing. It drew into question the ability, and therefore the legitimacy, of the U.S. to respond to overseas emergencies.

[iii] Allen translates “chaprassi” as “office servant” or “messenger”.

[iv] Allen translates “burra sahib” as “great man”.

[v] According to Allen’s interviewees, bachelors would typically live in a shared household with a cook, and basic rented furniture. Such themes can be easily translated into the social divisions in contemporary development practice, with young, unattached emergency workers living in shared, rented accommodation, while heads of station, and senior staff of bilateral and multilateral agencies will be put in large, often grand houses suitable for diplomatic functions; their furniture shipped by their agency from a previous duty station.

[vi] For example, the representative significance of the form of the white SUV can be seen in its violent targeting in a variety of humanitarian and developmental contexts. In certain situations (Afghanistan) non-governmental organisations (NGOs) purposefully defaced their white SUVs to make them less conspicuous. Elsewhere, development organizations have recently foregone the traditional white SUV in favour of local taxi cabs (Darfur), and mini busses (Liberia).

Not Welcome At The Holiday Inn

“Not Welcome At The Holiday Inn: How a Sarajevo landmark influences political relations,” unpublished paper, 2011 (invited as contribution to special issue of Political Geography)

Every conflict has one. In some circles its name becomes a short-hand for events, moments, or for the wider conflict itself. In Kigali it was the Mille Collines: refuge for ex-pats and select Rwandans during the 1994 genocide; subsequently immortalized through the film Hotel Rwanda (George 2004; Harrow 2005). In Baghdad it was the Palestine – the ringside seats for the toppling of Saddam’s statue in 2003. In Kabul, the Serena has become synonymous with the international community: a refuge where NGO workers, journalists, and other ex-pats excess gather to exchange information and relax (Montgomery 2008). During the 2006 riots in Dili, the attacks on the Hotel Timor – windows smashed and walls burned – symbolized the failures of the internationally bolster state to reform its security apparatus. And while this list could continue endlessly, enumerating countless examples of hotels entanglements in the context of international affairs, what would be notable is that in almost all cases, the hotels themselves would be seen as nothing more than the neutral material screen upon which geo-political events unfold.

This article is a first attempt to think through the role of the hotel in conflict. Focusing on the paradigmatic example of the Sarajevo Holiday Inn during the 1992-6 siege, it identifies and explores three inter-dependent ways in which hotels specifically, and the built environment more broadly, is significant for our understanding of conflict and geo-politics. First, these hotels are a key constituent part of the geography of the conflict – both internationally and domestically. They are a key interface between external actors and local contexts. They are often one of a limited number of physical places that members of the international community will visit. The result, is that they will have undue influence on the way in which the international community writ large experience and understand the conflict (Kalyvas 2004). Second, there is a need to further understand how the experience of enclosed and proximate embodiment contributes to constructions of the international community. The repetitive association of the international community with a symbolic venue – that of the Holiday Inn – needs to be considered for how it creates a shared subjectivity amongst internationals (Habermas 1989) and whether it communicates a symbolic message to surrounding populations. Third, it needs to be understood as a valuable resource both in terms of physical and tactical importance, but also in the strategic construction of narrative. The hotel became an important information resource for all sides and shaped the way in which both the root causes and eventual solutions came to be constructed.

The general lack of attention to the form and space of the hotel in social sciences and humanities may be explained by its ubiquity. How do you analyse something that is present everywhere – from the smallest town to the largest city; or problematise the most basic of human needs – that of shelter whilst traveling? Part of the task of this article is to filter out the form of the hotel as a necessary aspect of undertaking travel, from the specific yet ubiquitous presence in contemporary conflict of the social space of the grand hotel. Instead of accepting that its constant use in international diplomatic and journalistic affairs is inevitable, and therefore not worthy of attention, I ask what the implications are of this normalization for geo-politics. In setting our three distinct ways in which the hotel is integral to international understandings of conflict, I identify a series of research avenues of significance for the broader project of understanding the relationship between the built environmentand politics. Taking up the critical challenge to “attempt to articulate the material construction of a historically specific social reality” (Levin 1995: 10) this article brings the seemingly inert surface to the fore: challenging those narratives which prioritize – explicitly or by accident – the unimpeded agency of human actors to understand, reflect, and change the political events in which they find themselves embroiled (Coward 2006).

The methods used in this paper are a combination of primary research on the hotel itself in June 2010 including interviews with among others, the architect, Ivan Štraus and hotel staff who had worked at the hotel prior to and during and after the siege. It was supplemented by first hand written accounts of the siege, by a variety of officials, journalists and indeed Štraus himself. While the article draws heavily on the everyday experiences of journalists who can be considered to be part of the ‘Western’ press corps – European, English, American – its implications are relevant for the international community more widely. While the Holiday Inn was by no means the only hotel involved in the Siege of Sarajevo (Di Giovanni 2010; Vulliamy 1994: 186) its bright yellow facade captured international attention and became, with many members of the international community, synonymous with the city and the siege. It is also important to note that this piece is not a revisionist history of the Bosnian war, or more specifically of the Siege of Sarajevo. I am not suggesting that if the hotel had not been there, the narrative would have been inverted, but rather, by destabilizing the materially predictable relations that so unobtrusively, yet so decisively shape international understanding of conflict, we destabilize the given binary relationships of international/local; victim/aggressor; Serb/Muslim. By recognizing the embeddedness and emplacedness of our epistemologies we are forced to rethink the both the content and structure of our narratives, and ultimately the (im/potent/ial) content and (im/possible) structure of our response (Campbell 1998b, 1999). And now…welcome to the Holiday Inn…


The Holiday Inn in Sarajevo stands twelve floors tall and contains 206 rooms (Figure 1). Built by award winning Yugoslav architect, Ivan Štraus in the American inspired ‘atrium style’ (Goldberger and Craig 2009), the main building is square with rectangular wings protruding from the first two floors (Figure 2), one on the South side overlooking the River Miljacka and one on the East side, facing the UNIS towers (also built by Štraus). No buildings stand close adjacent. It is set back about 25 meters from the main road – Zmaja od Bosne – where the main East-West tram lines run. It is across the street from the State Executive Council and the Parliament. While the Holiday Inn was made famous by its construction for the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo and for its recognition within Yugoslav architectural circles, the building gained a new kind of notoriety during the Bosnian war.
On April 6, 1992, the day that the European Community announced that it recognized Bosnia Herzegovina as an independent state, it was from the roof of the Holiday Inn that snipers opened fire on peace demonstrators standing in front of parliament, across the street (Sudetic 1992). Six people were killed and more than a dozen were wounded (Andreas 2008: 27). “After they were fired on, thousands of demonstrators stormed the hotel, smashing windows and searching room by room for gunmen whom witnesses said they had spotted on the upper floors” (Sudetic 1992). A hotel worker recalled seeing the snipers pinned to the floor and arrested, as well as several staff. Many analysts date the start of the war to that day, when “Bosnian Serb forces began shelling Sarajevo from hillside positions” (Andreas 2008: 27; Donia).

A ‘War In Miniature’
Over the next three and a half years, the ‘luxurious setting’ of the bright yellow Holiday Inn played host to many of the most renowned characters involved in documenting, resolving and perpetuating the conflict. It provided the visual background for numerous television broadcasts, provided the infrastructure to send the reports around the world via satellite and created the environment to negotiate agreements and hold conferences and briefings. As there is ample high quality material describing the wider context of the siege I am not going to describe the specifics here (Campbell 1998b; Dauphinee 2007; Donia 2006; Judah 2009; Power 2002; Silber et al. 1996; Woodward et al. 1995). It is sufficient to recall that from April 1992 until (officially) February 1996 the city of Sarajevo was under siege by surrounding Serb nationalist forces. Under the oversight of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) and a humanitarian relief effort spearheaded by United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the city’s inhabitants were effectively cut off from the rest of the world – unable to leave, not allowed to surrender.
For the rest of the world, however, it became “the most accessible war-zone in Europe” (Andreas 2008: 38). Thanks to the world’s longest running air-bridge, journalists, philanthropists, writers, artists, intellectuals, diplomats and rock stars were able to visit the besieged city in the same way that one might visit an exotic tourist destination. The Holiday Inn became a central part of this. Says Washington Post reporter, Peter Maass,
“[i]t was, at times, a miniature war in which you could leave the Holiday Inn at ten o’clock in the morning, nearly be killed by a sniper’s bullet, and then, at eleven o’clock be on the other side of the front line, talking to the sniper who tried to murder you just an hour before, and watch as he took aim at your friends as they left the Holiday Inn” (1996: 150).
More specifically, it was not necessarily that the war itself was contained or ‘miniaturized’ but that the way in which certain segments of the international community experienced the war was rendered small. In Sarajevo, for much of the civilian international community, this smallness was locatable in the very building of the Holiday Inn. “After Karadžić’s paramilitary troops left the hotel in April 1992, it served guests – mainly journalists, diplomats, and aid workers – throughout the war” (Donia 2006: 315). For these people the Holiday Inn became their home, office, bar, refuge and ultimately source of local information. Particularly when the surrounding fighting became more intense, there was the tendency to report on what happened within a 200-yard radius of their rooms at the Holiday Inn (Maass 1996: 148). Critics would say that this is inevitable, unavoidable, the nature of the beast. But when policy decisions “depend on such considerations as where CNN sends its camera crews” (Toal 1996: 214 quoting Lake) it’s worth exploring the implications of these practices. Why was it that the “imaginative geopolitical topography of ‘Bosnia’” that held sway at the Holiday Inn was one portraying Bosnia as “the site of a clear moral struggle between good and evil, victims and perpetrators” (Toal 1996: 193)?

Do not disturb (the balkan ghosts)
Both Toal and Campbell are interested in the way in which epistemological categories were rendered geographical and topological in the context of the Bosnian conflict. Through an application of Derrida’s concept of ‘ontopology’ Campbell demonstrates how the initial dominant reading of the conflict as driven by historical ethnic hatreds was informed by assumed alignment of “territory and identity, state and nation, all under the sign of ethnicity” (Campbell 1998b: 80; Derrida 1994). This assumption has since come under mainstream scrutiny across the former Yugoslavia but especially in Bosnia where, through Dayton, this ontopology has carved a political landscape that is primarily determined by ‘ethnicity’. What is less accepted and less known is how this ontopological norm came to dominate the international understanding of the Bosnian conflict.
Lisle (2006) and Campbell (Campbell 1998a, 1998b) emphasize the key role of written and visual representations (journalistic, personal or academic) in the construction and dissemination of a clear –cut narrative of the conflict as a tale of ethnic hatred. They have both described the formative role that travelogues played in informing a predominantly ethnic understanding of the war among Western politicians. In particular, it was widely rumored that key actors within the Clinton camp were influenced by reading Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts (Campbell 1998b; Lisle 2006: 33; Toal 1996: 212). But these explanations assume or skirt over the more immediate, embodied ways in which the initial narratives or understandings were constructed. How did the authors, the journalists, the international community interact with(in) the space of Bosnia?
A possible explanation is provided by Kalyvas’ (2004) who argues that research on civil war displays an urban bias “promotes explanations of motivations that are heavily biased toward ideology” (2004: 173). Particularly prominent is the tendency amongst external parties to the conflict – journalists, policy makers, the international community – to assume that there exists “a clear, unequivocal, and fixed dividing line between combatants and noncombatants, and that the latter have only one role in the war, that of victims” (2004: 183). In line with Kalyvas’ wider project of investigating the ‘micro-politics’ of conflict, this hypothesis can be extended to even smaller units of analysis: identifying the biases created by certain spaces, such as the hotel, in contemporary understandings of conflict.
“Sarajevo was the lens through which most outsiders viewed the conflict…At most times, the army of privileged observers could get into and out of the city, stay in relative comfort at the Holiday Inn…ride in armoured vehicles along the city’s most dangerous routes, and send dispatches to the outside world using the latest communications technology” (2006: 287).
Many of the large news outlets had set up shop in the hotel’s larger suites and rooms and by December 1992, all the big names in journalism were in attendance. A shot from Marcel Ophuls’ documentary on war correspondents pans around the make shift dining room of the Holiday Inn to reveal John F. Burns – Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times journalist – noshing with John Simpson from the BBC and an assortment of international correspondents and stringers (Ophuls 1994). Other notable names include Kate Adie, Anderson Cooper, and Paul Marchard. All of these have also published auto-biographies describing their time in Sarajevo and in all of them the Holiday Inn figures, sometimes prominently (Adie 2003; Cooper 2006; Marchand 1997; Simpson 1998).
John Simpson spends several pages describing the hotel. When he arrived in December 1992,
“[m]ost of the big plate-glass windows on the ground floor had been smashed and covered with thin clear plastic….Inside, the hotel was dark and very cold. It had been built in ‘atrium’ style, so that there was a large open space bigger than the Center Court at Wimbledon. The upper floors had been walled with glass, sheets of which fell whenever the hotel was hit…In the bedrooms, the “windows had long since been knocked out, so there was nothing between the curtains and the outside world except a single thin sheet of clear plastic. There was no electricity, and no water of any kind, hot or cold…Our rooms were on the fourth floors: the others, lower down had been taken” (1998: 435-6).
But despite this dismal description, the Holiday Inn remained the hotel of choice for the international community. Even those freelancers and stringers who couldn’t afford the outrageous room rates, still relied on the Satellite Phone connections to file their stories and on the connections and information that was found in the lobby and dining room. The hotel was also the place to access visiting foreign dignitaries or experts who stayed in the Holiday Inn during their brief trips to Sarajevo (2010). Most days, the UN held a briefing at the Holiday Inn (Rose 1998: 105). The UN spokesman, Aleksander Ivanko, was a regular fixture and many UN staff slept in the conference centre which – especially early on in the conflict – doubled as an operations center. Starting in 1993 the US Embassy occupied one suite (Donia 2006: 315) and for ten months in 1994 and 1995 the French army was also accommodated here. Part of this was lack of choice – it was the only hotel that remained open throughout the war. And although this changed as the war wore on, other attributes made it an attractive base, particular for those wishing to construct a story of what was going on.

Writing lines of sight
The Holiday Inn was located on the front line of the conflict (Figure 3). Just north of Sniper Alley, the hotel’s south side was only a few hundred yards from Grbavica, the Serb controlled neighbourhood on the opposite bank of the river Miljacka. “The rooms at the front …looked out at the Jewish cemetery a few hundred yards away on the hillside opposite. The Jewish cemetery marked the Bosnian Serb front line” (Simpson 1998: 434). When the fighting was less intense, journalists would sit on the terrace of the restaurant and watch the Serbs firing from the hills overlooking the city (Figure 4): “[t]he Holiday Inn became a grandstand from which you could watch the snipers at work. A journalist could convince himself on a slow afternoon that he was doing his job by peering through a window at people running for their lives” (Maass 1996: 146). An examination of this “hotel balcony gaze” (Toal 1996: 297) provides insight into the consolidation of a dominant narrative emerged whose clear moral lines paralleled those visible from the terrace of the Holiday Inn.
The first aspect that needs to be considered is how this practice consolidates the position of ‘viewer’ and separates it from that of ‘viewed’. Although not unassailable, the act of looking out over Sarajevo – up to the hills where the snipers were positioned; out to the city where civilians were being killed – undeniably entailed a degree of power over: over all those who were not protected by the Holiday Inn and by the international norms and conventions it implied. From their windows, from the terrace, journalists and others “exploited their verticality…their ‘visual control’ of the city” to collect the information and witness events that would inform their stories (McNeill 2008: 387; Wharton 2001: 139). The ability to survey the scene, with a degree of security that (on a good day) they would not be targeted, contributed to what Jay, Feldman, Cambell & Power and others have referred to as a ‘scopic regime’: “an ensemble of practices and discourses that establish the truth claims, typicality and credibility of visual acts and objects and politically correct modes of seeing” (Campbell and Power 2010: 168 quoting Feldman 2005; Jay 1988). In the context of modernity, there has been “a tendency toward both mimetic and ‘authentic’ visual representations and an imposition of this sense of natural order on the ground” {Gilbert@228}. In the case of the hotel in conflict, this does not necessarily imply intentionality on the part of the journalists, but that the confines and constrains of the building and its associated environments such as armoured personnel carriers (see below) contribute to the way in which journalists see, understand and in turn represent the events and environment that they survey. This observation is supported by work by Crary who stresses the co-constitutive role of both the observer and the instrument of seeing in a given scopic regime (Crary 1990; Gilbert 2010: 230). While Crary’s instruments of observation are more traditionally occular – the camera obscura, phenakistiscope, kaleidoscope and stereoscope – his observation may equally be applied to the hotel balcony where vision and what is observed, is shaped, ordered and constituted by the space, position and limitations of the building. Further, as the hotel balcony (or the hotel more general) has become a recognizable space of conflict geographies is it possible that the resultant vision and commensurate ontopologies are no longer dependent upon their precise location and are rendered increasingly interchangeable through their reliability upon a “visual propinquity between viewer and visual device” (Gilbert 2010: 231).
This structuring effect of the hotel is implied in its opposite, by Maggie O’Kane’s “anti-geopolitical eye” which “rather than adopting the detached perspectivalism of diplomats [or journalists]…brings a ground-level traveling eye to bear upon the landscape of the conflict. Her eye records the fractured lives and broken bodies of the victims of war that fall between the lines of official governmental cartographies of the war” (Toal 1996: 221). Unlike those “visual contortions of war” described by Jay – the gunfire of the trenches, the haze of the battlefield, the trickery of camouflage – which serve to destabilize and undermine a rational, Cartersian scopic regime {Gilbert@228} war as reported from the hotel balcony re-inscribes their assumptions, replicates their ontopologies.
Even when journalists did leave to cover a story, it was often done en masse. The Olphus documentary shows multiple scenes where Simpson and Burns are covering the same story, within earshot of each other, talking to the same witnesses, shooting the same scenes. This is hardly a phenomena that is unique to Sarajevo however, in the context of Sarajevo it was amplified as journalists were hyper-limited in their movements, and restricted to covering only the events that happened in their miniature world. Those journalists, such as Marchand were considered to be rogue, and were actively threatened (by outside forces) or discouraged (by their colleagues) from pursuing a line that differed from the established ethnocised narrative of good/bad; victim/aggressor. There was an overwhelming tendency of journalists to report upon the conflict from an “instinctive pro-Bosnian and anti-Serb position” (Simpson 1998: 440). According to Simpson, other viewpoints “weren’t welcome at the Holiday Inn. The prevailing mood among the Western journalists was profoundly partisan” (1998: 440). Says Simpson, “much of the reporting from Sarajevo was openly one-sided” (1998: 440) a claim supported by Brock (2006), Smajlovic (1993) and ICTY testimony (2010). The generalized sense of “occluded vision and unknown depth” with regards to Bosnia also made those areas with clear lines of sight all the more important to international understanding (Toal 1996: 207). According to General Lewis MacKenzie, of UNPROFOR, many journalists now contact him, concerned that they may have not been wholly representative in their reporting: “[a]nd my message to them when they start wallowing in their anguish is, ‘Don’t feel too guilty about all of this – because you only reported what you saw, and what you saw was only 150 meters on either side of the Holiday Inn’” (quoted in Brock and Binder 2006: 177).

In his book, Blue Helmets, Black Markets, Peter Andreas frames his analysis of the three year siege of Sarajevo by Serbian forces using Goffman’s famous dramaturgical metaphor of front and back stage behaviours to describe the formal and informal roles that international and local actors played during the course of the siege (Andreas 2008: 8). According to Andreas, although the actors’ “front-stage behaviour was often carefully staged and choreographed for various audiences, sticking closely to the official script and engaging in what Goffman calls the ‘art of impression management,’ backstage there was greater room for improvisation and deviation” (Andreas 2008: 8). However, in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, the book in which Goffman details his front/stage backstage analogy, Goffman is less concerned with creating a binary opposition between front and back stage behaviour, and more focused on identifying a range of behaviours that will depend upon the position, intent and self-awareness of the actor and upon the audience (1990). A crucial part of this is the physical setting or stage in/on which these performances take place: “the furniture, decor, physical layout, and other background items which supply the scenery and stage props for the spate of human action played out before, within or upon it” (Goffman 1990: 33). The setting influences the types and range of behaviours that the actors may choose from (Goffman 1990: 34-35) and when combined with setting, appearance and manner contributes to a front which “becomes a ‘collective representation’ and a fact in its own right” (Goffman 1990: 37). Applied to the setting of the hotel in conflict, this raises questions with regard to the ways in which the setting influences the actors who use it – its residents, workers, visitors, snipers.
The last section looked at how the hotel structured the vision and epistemology of its residents. This section is concerned with the way in which the hotel contributed to the performance and practice of a distinct space and associated identity – that of ‘the international’ – amongst its users and why this is important. In the same way that Habermas’ attention to the spatial and social significance of seventeenth century coffee shops elucidated the emergence of what we now understand as ‘the public sphere’ (1989), attention to the spaces which have become associated with the category of ‘the international’ helps us to understand what this term means, and how its members understand themselves and their role. I am not necessarily saying that the presence of grand hotels led to the creation of ‘the international’, but rather asking how the latter has been influenced and enabled by the former. How has the built form of the hotel enabled certain types of actions, performances, ways of doing that have become accepted as commonplace? How do these spaces forge shared understandings, positions and expectations?

Sanitized for your protection
The first practice, which is central to the creation of an international subjectivity, is that of maintaining stability, even in the context of war. Be it a peace-keeping base, a diplomatic embassy, or a hotel, the spatial demarcation of the space of the international is crucial. It not only provides symbolic and physical protection, but it also creates the affect that it is a physical extension of a stable (Western) normality (Calhoun 2010).
In Sarajevo, it may not have incidental that the hotel was a Holiday Inn. The brand, named after a Bing Crosby film of the same name was quintessentially American (Wilson 1996). With its signature green and yellow sign, it evoked for the Western journalists, a sense of normalcy, a sense of home:
“[f]or me, Holiday Inns represent suburban quiet and comfort, everything that is ordinary and unexciting about the world. They are reassuring, because you know what you will get, including an ice machine at the end of the corridor, a Bible in the top desk drawer and a toilet that, according to the white paper strip across it, has been sanitized for your protection” (Maass 1996: 122).
The Holiday Inn was designed in the city-in-miniature style of hotel architecture (Ibelings; Katz) : hotels like the Embarcadero Center in San Francisco or the Bonaventure in Los Angeles that went to great links to ensure that their visitors had no need and no desire to venture outside (McNeill 2008: 286). This embodied expectation “actively constitutes the consumption of the hotel…as bridgeheads of American culture in ‘hostile territories” (McNeill 2008: 387&395; Wharton 2001) and conversely constructs the surrounding hostile territories in contra-distinction to the interior rationalism of the Holiday Inn. Speaking of motels, Morris refers to this process as the making of “a myth of the Modern Universal: seriality, chain self-reference, territorialisation by repetition-and-difference” (Morris 1988: 4). In the same way that the Bosnian war was in Europe, but not of Europe (Toal 1996: 203), the Holiday Inn was in Sarajevo but not of it.
Staff too went to great lengths to try and maintain the spatial and temporal standards expected of their international (American) establishment. “Uniformed maids came everyday to make up the beds” (Di Giovanni 2010) and “waiters carefully placed salad forks and soup spoons in front of us” (Carter 2004: 252). Interviews with staff revealed the effort put into preserving the guise of normal functioning. Initially, they attempted to keep up the weekly tradition of a fancy meal resulting in more and more bizarre combinations, including one memorable dinner composed entirely of scampi and caviar. The eventual and inevitable decline in standards led to the company revoking the franchise but this didn’t mean that the staff stopped working. Simpson describes “[t]he reception staff huddled in a little room on the edge of the foyer around a stove which ran on bottled gas. They wore long overcoats and gloves” (Simpson 1998: 435). Similarly, Maass says, “I dragged my backpack and computer bag across the atrium to the reception desk, where a shivering woman was to be found under a half dozen sweaters and jackets. She gave me the keys to a fourth-floor room and apologized for an absence of towels” (Maass 1996: 123).
And while the performance of normalcy was being performed on the ‘front stage’, in full view, the actions that kept the hotel running were taking place behind the scenes. Power depended upon “the amount of fuel the manager had procured on the black market” (Maass 1996: 122). And although initially, there were huge food and wine stocks in the cellars, these ‘mysteriously’ and quickly disappeared. With the cellars depleted, it was up to the managers to find ways to put food on the table. This was procured through a variety of channels the three main ones being through the black or ‘grey’ market at Ilidža (a Sarajevo suburb), diplomatic and journalistic largess and or smuggling. Staff tell the story of the first time they had to go to Ilidža to get food. The infamous market was set up on the front lines – between the Serbs and Bosnian Muslim forces. Getting there meant a dangerous trip down Sniper alley and the first time they went – in Autumn 1992 – one staff member said that he “almost died in fear.” They arranged it so that three staff member went together: a Serb, a Croat, and a Muslim. The Serbs across the border organized that food be brought to the border and then given to a Muslim who passed it to them. In this way they once bought a cow (which they then cut up and drove back to the hotel in the back of the van). It is unclear the degree to which the food being for the Holiday Inn facilitated this exchange, although it is certain that someone higher up permitted it to occur – potentially signifying the importance of the Hotel to both Serb and Muslim sides (see ‘Resource’ section, below).
What is striking, as Andreas (2008) documents, is how the front stage narrative of ethnic homogeneity and grievance was perpetuated and sustained as the official story while the back stage behaviours were well known by all those who visited the Holiday Inn; obvious for any who choose to see them. But perhaps the explanation for this oversight can be found in Habermas’ emergent European public sphere which “could never close itself off entirely and become consolidated as a clique; for it always understood and found itself immersed within a more inclusive public of all private people, persons who…as readers, listeners, and spectators could avail themselves via the market of the objects that were subject to discussion” (1989: 37). In the same way, the residents of the hotel were oriented elsewhere: toward their viewers and audiences back home, intent on providing them with the front-stage story of ancient hostilities, or toward each other (Jeffrey 2007).

In our lobby we were all the same
The second practice fundamental to the creation of a distinct ‘international sphere’ was the forging of affective bonds between patrons: patrons who, though exceptional vis-à-vis their surroundings, were united in their common experience. Similar to Habermas’ coffee shops, the space of the hotel disregarded status, but celebrated “rank with a tact befitting equals” (Habermas 1989: 36); “nervous and cynical journalists from the world’s biggest newspapers…[mix with] Humanitarian workers, diplomats, international bureaucrats, military officers, wheeler-dealers and one or two dumbfounded intellectual-humanists” (Vasic 1994).
Prior to the war, the hotel was the city’s only luxury category hotel, and its position as a space of elite and interaction was acknowledged by the city at large. As the siege commenced, these distinctions became increasingly marked. As described by the infamous Sarajevo survival guide, “The hotel is well supplied …you try the best of local cuisine – big selections of Viennese and Oriental delights… At night, the hotel resembles Casablanca” (Prstojevic 1993: 82). Initially, the “hotel had its own generator, so during the long spells when the city had no electricity or heating, the Holiday Inn might have some for a few hours a day” (Maass 1996: 122) and by 1994 “[e]lectricity supplies have been restored” (Davico 1994). The hotel also produced its own bread and was even known to produce cakes for special occasions for purchase by those who could afford them (usually staff of international organizations). However, the supply of water was erratic. Staff were sometimes able to secure water from the brewery cistern; other times, they had to truck it in.
The prices within the hotel, already exorbitant before the war, reached preposterous rates during the siege. “Prices are war-like. The average menu is 50 DM per person” (Prstojevic 1993: 82); “bed and breakfast (croissant, butter and a spoon of marmelade), cost 122 US$” (Davico 1994). “You could order wine for $40 a bottle, a fortune by siege standards but for journalists on expense accounts this was no problem” (Maass 1996: 124). This rate was only affordable for the top international newspapers, and well established international agencies such as the UN. But, the centrifugal force of the hotel, meant that many other individuals involved in international affairs would venture in for a meal, a phone call, or merely to exchange information.
The hotel attracted a variety of sentiments from the local population. On one hand the physical presence of the internationals may have fed the hope that their city’s plight would not be forgotten. On the other, the disparity between what they had and what was on offer at the Holiday Inn was sometimes hard to bear. Ivan Štraus recounts an evening at the height of the war where he was invited to dinner at the Holiday Inn to honor some academics [sic]. At a time when the rest of Sarajevo was struggling to find food, the guests of the Holiday Inn “could eat and drink all night… there was champagne, whiskey.” Štraus, disgusted, said that as Sarajevans living under siege, “[i]n our poorness we were all the same” while within the walls of the Holiday Inn, the journalists, the diplomats, the generals were all the same in their bizarre and enclosed experience of the war. Meals were supplemented by diplomatic luxury items such as wine, and foie gras. “In Sarajevo, it was very easy to convince yourself that you deserved any luxury that came your way” (Maass 1996: 124). A clip from the Ophuls (Ophuls 1994) documentary shows John Simpson, his camera man Nigel and a French journalist discussing the availability of Stilton cheese courtesy of the BBC.
The social and economic disparities were reinforced through highly visible security measures. “The battered and extremely expensive Holiday Inn Hotel is full of foreigners: …Armed men guard them—there’s a police station in front of the lobby. It’s the Saigon ‘Inter Continental’ of the late sixties revisited: an air-conditioned island with an armed guard” (Vasic 1994). There was a use of bulletproof vests and armoured vehicles to a degree never before seen in any humanitarian operation (Cutts 1999: 2). “The basement garage of Sarajevo’s Holiday Inn was packed with ungainly steel-plated white Land Rovers with the logos of news organizations stencilled on the doors” (Kifner 2002). Even sortees from the Holiday Inn were done as an extension of the building itself with passengers and driver in constant communication with the hotel (Vasic 1994).
The vests, helmets and cars and the hotel itself formed a material shell that separated out those that had the freedom to leave, and those that were forced to stay. Describing a scene where Maass and other journalists went to report on a nursing home on the front lines (Jan 6, 1992) where they found dead and dying residents
“[w]e were aliens in that room, dressed in our high-tech clothing, wearing Gore-Tex gloves, our wallets stuffed with money and passports that meant we could leave this hell at any moment we wished and fly, for example, to Paris, where we could stay at the Ritz and impress our friends with tales of adventure from Bosnia…We left in a hurry, and I would be lying if I didn’t admit I was relieved. I returned to the Holiday Inn, wrote a thousand-word story and, later on, drank several glasses of wine with dinner” (Maass 1996: 139).
In contrast to the lived experience of a city under siege, “the atrium [of the hotel] was like an alien pod” (Carter 2004: 224): utterly separate; utterly strange.
In the early days of the siege, when accommodation was ad hoc, and when shelling was bad, all types of people were sleeping together in the nightclub. As the number of visitors increased staff decided to convert the large second floor conference room into a dining room. With movable interior walls, a bar, and most importantly – no windows – the conference room was big enough to accommodate any number of diners. The lack of windows and easterly position made diners feel safe (even if they were still exposed) and the access to an enclosed staircase, which led down, to the underground nightclub, provided an escape route, should one be needed. “Dinner, served between six and nine, was a communal affair in which everyone sat together at large tables and ate the same food, like at boarding school” (Maass 1996: 124). The shared experience of living within the Holiday Inn created a bond between patrons and and may have contributed to the lack of perspective which developed.
“Dubbed the ‘Pack Shack’ by critics who felt [sic.] the close living quarters, scrounging, supping and the regular late-night boozy roundtables, the not-so subtle peer-pressure for pro-Muslim, pro-Bosnian government bias that fostered pack-journalism, the Holiday Inn at Sarajevo was home to over 200 journalists in August 2003” (Brock and Binder 2006: 178).
In the case of one of the most high-profile journalists, Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times journalist, John F. Burns, Brock claimed that Burns lost objectivity completely and was effectively in the pockets of the Muslim leadership while Simpson claims that “if you share the sufferings of a city under siege you instinctively side with the people in it; that’s natural enough. But what many of the journalists based there did, and it has to be remembered that they were young and inexperienced, was to line up with the government rather than with the people” (Simpson 1998: 440). Part of this lining up was due to the fact that the journalists were not sharing in the experiences of the city at large, but forging their own awareness – and narrative – of the war from within the elite space of the Holiday Inn – an awareness not lost on other actors in the war.
Even those journalists who attempted to disrupt the binary spatialisations enabled by the hotel, found themselves reinforcing rather than disrupting them. In a famous incident, Paul Marchand, a French free-lance journalist abseiled down from the fifth floor into the middle of the atrium/lobby onlookers cheered and clapped. (“It was acrobatics” said one informant.) Marchand was acutely aware of the over-simplifications and sanitization that occurred in the process of reporting war. A troubled individual (he committed suicide in 2009) he was known for engaging in constant risk taking , all the while refusing to wear a flak jacket, or a helmet and driving a battered car (Burns 1992; Marchand 1997; Ophuls 1994). Exercising his “anti-geopolitical” eye, he sought out necro-geographies – “J’aime les morgues des pays en guerre “ – in order to better understand the nature of death, of war (Marchand 1997: 17). An obituary essay says, “he despised those who reported from the confines of the hotel and admired those who worked amongst the ordinary people who were the victims of that war just as he did and he never failed to tell anyone exactly what he thought of them.” But his performances – the abseiling, the lack of flak jacket – remained oriented toward to ‘international’ and were often practiced within and with reference to the Holiday Inn (Burns 1992; Marchand 1997).

The hotel was considered by all parties to be a protected space, evidenced by the fact that it generally avoided intentional shelling. And although it was hit – the upper floors and south facing rooms were closed (Prstojevic 1993: 82; Simpson 1998: 434) – when compared to the utter decimation of the parliament buildings across the road – the hotel was left relatively unscathed. Although some analysts attributed this to logistical considerations – “snipers could angle their shots inside the rooms; thankfully, they had easier targets to go after” (Maass 1996: 122) – as the war wore on the hotel’s relative lack of shelling became less about luck and more about design. Three explanations may be put forward as to why the hotel was too valuable to be hit.

War Economies
A huge body of work has been done on war economies: on how conflict is both driven by economic interests (Collier and Sambanis 2005; Keen 1998; Nordstrom 2004; Pugh et al. 2004) and more recently, how the event of the conflict itself permits criminal or extra-normal economic pursuits (Andreas 2009; Kalyvas 2004). These often criminal activities then become an important factor in sustaining the conflict and often transforming its dynamics, allegiances and rationale – particularly at the micro-level (Kalyvas 2004). In the case of Bosnia, these economic incentives are widely accepted to have been a decisive aspect of both how the war was fought (all sides relied heavily on irregular soldiers, and criminal gangs) and in sustaining the conflict. Particularly, in the case of Sarajevo, the siege dynamic, created uniquely lucrative opportunities for those who were willing to take the risks and make the moral sacrifices (Andreas 2004; Donia 2006). In this reading, the Holiday Inn was spared as a particularly lucrative asset – for one or possibly both sides. It was well known that the hotel had “two directors. One was appointed by the City Parliament, and the other one by the Republic” (Prstojevic 1993: 82). It was reputed to have contributed to the grey economy either as a money laundering mechanism or as a key interface between local and international actors seeking to cut a deal. This is largely and necessarily speculative as information on the economic significance and role of the hotel during the war, is almost impossible to find. However, its prominent and controversial position in the post-war privatization exercise indicates that its economic potential has not gone un-remarked upon by key political actors. The hotel was notoriously sold for just over 10% of its estimated worth to group led by Nedim Čausević – a prominent Sarajevo business figure with close relations to the director of the Federation Privatization Agency who in turn was “a close relative of former Federation Prime Minister Edhem Bičakčic, a senior figure from the Muslim-nationalist Party of Democratic Action (DSA) and widely considered to be among Bosnia’s most corrupt politicians” (Donais 2002: 7). While USAID – the organization in charge of privatization in post-war Bosnia – said that they were unable to discuss the sale of the hotel, the Čausević contract was annulled in February 2001“even though many of the international community continued to insist the sale was ‘technically’ legal” (Donais 2002: 7). The hotel has subsequent been various sales and is currently owned by an Austrian consortium with plans to redevelop the hotel into a large retail and leisure center.

Since its construction in 1983, the Holiday Inn has been a metaphor for the age. The government’s original intent for the building was to use it to showcase the city on a global stage during the Olympics, however, it can also be read as an attempt to embody and unify the competing philosophical and ideological trends present in Sarajevo in the post-Tito era. The building includes (then) contemporary Western architectural elements such as an enclosed atrium and clean exterior lines, while the interior modifications such as the circus tent and the use of light and space in the lobby, evoke the Morića Han (a café/inn in the Baščaršija), and are intentional nods to Sarajevo’s cosmopolitan, urban history (Figure 5). While, the architect, Štraus, was intent on using the building to weave together competing strands of civic identify (Štraus 1994), these subtle nuances of design were outshone by the brilliant yellow façade and the internationally recognized sign.
It was these qualities, and the prominent placement meant that meant it lay physically and metaphorically at the heart of the city. “If you stand on the mountain Bjelaànica and look down onto the city of Sarajevo, the only building that you see clearly is the Holiday Inn: right at the centre of the city.” Its position between the Baščaršija and the Marin Dvor districts symbolizing an attempt to reconcile the modern and the traditional in Sarajevo’s built heritage (Alić and Gusheh 1999). The significance of the structure itself to Serbs as well as Muslims is evidenced by the suggestion of the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) leader and Republica Srpska Vice President, Biljana Plavšić, in September 1992 that “Sarajevo be divided at the Holiday Inn” (Donia 2006: 288).
Indeed, Bogdanović, Coward, and Štraus make the argument that the Serbian attacks on Sarajevo (and other Bosnian cities such as Mostar) were a clear case of urbicide – the destruction of the urban environment as an extension of warfare (Bogdanović 1993, 1996; Coward 2009; Štraus 1994). Drawing on Heidegger, Coward (Coward 2009) suggests that the pointed destruction of sites such as the Mostar Bridge, the Sarajevo Library and the Bosnia and Herzegovina Parliament buildings were an attempt to destroy the lived togetherness that defines all urban spaces, and in particular, the cosmopolitan identity that had been a self-conscious part of Sarajevo’s built identity during the Tito era (Neidhardt 2004; Štraus 1994). The lack of shelling of the Holiday Inn, could therefore, be seen as an indication of a recognition on the part of the snipers – Štraus’ anti-cosmopolitan ‘barbares’ – that the hotel was not a space of togetherness – that this was a space of separateness, of the other, of the international. Instead of being a “metaphor of cosmopolitianism”, the Holiday Inn consolidated a particular and bounded notion of ‘the international’ (Berens 1997; McNeill 2008: 385). Kate Adie describes a Serb soldier apologizes to her for accidentally hitting the Holiday Inn with sniper fire (Coward 2009: 7) and Mauss himself describes an encounter with a Serb sniper in Grbavica “’You see that yellow building?’ Slobodan pointed with his pistol. ‘Is Holiday Inn. No problem! No problem!’” (Maass 1996: 152). Although Maass is not clear as to whether the sniper “meant that it was no problem to kill the hotel’s guests, or whether I should not be worried about staying at the hotel” (Maass 1996: 152), what is evident from this exchange is that the sniper was well aware of the relationship between the building and Maass, as a foreign journalist. The building of the Holiday Inn and the presence of the elite, civilian international community in Sarajevo were considered as one by the snipers who looked down on them.

A Visual Echo Chamber
A final way in which the hotel was a significant resource, was in its informational value. The wars of the ex-Yugoslavia were always closely tied to media representations (Myers 1996; Robinson 2000; Robison 2004) in particular in those areas which suffered from a lack of access. And while Sarajevo, was very much one of the locations, the apparent ease of access disguised the reality that the journalists were little more than embedded reporters – seeing what the elites wanted them to see; going where they were allowed to go resulting in a situation where almost every major news channel carried the same story (Brock and Binder 2006). There was a disregard – either intentional or accidental – of Kalyvas’ warning against taking “elites’ descriptions of who they are and who they represent at face value. Because these elites are aware of this propensity they manipulate it accordingly” (Kalyvas 2004: 171). Returning to the Holiday Inn and Adie and Mauss’ conversations with snipers with regard to protection of the Holiday Inn as a space, it seems almost certain that the hotel and its residence was considered – either implicitly or explicitly; officially or unofficially – to be an audience to be performed for, entertained, excited, horrified. As least, both sides were aware of the potential that the presence of these embedded journalists provided. Speaking to Karadžić’s spokesman, Ljubica Rakovic, Maass was told “We read your stories very carefully. I personally was very interested in the stories you have written about so-called mass rapes by Serbs” (Maass 1996: 157). This quote demonstrates the elite awareness of the potential risk – and utility – of the hotel and its residents in the war of information.
The importance of the televised news as a way of promoting one side over the other, was amplified by the fact that most Sarajevans had little other diversions than to shelter at home and watch TV, the reporting from the Holiday Inn was streamed back to them via London or Washington. “The citizens of Sarajevo saw from close up the biggest world powers, they saw their houses and streets on CNN, glamorous faces and names visited them in order to encourage and support them, and in the end they were left with the impression that their misfortune was just a good background to the pictures which were sold in world metropolis [sic.]” (Cerovic 1995). Štraus’ wartime journals regularly describe his witnessing of local events via international television networks, as he and his family were confined to their flat (Štraus 1994: 99). And so, with a limited number of potential scenes, stories and angles, “[a] visual echo chamber developed: rather than encouraging reporters to find the news, editors urged them to report what was on TV” (Maass 2011).
The relationship between a place, observers and events is one that has not gone unremarked upon in the context of war (Baudrillard 1995; Retort and Boal 2005; Virilio 1989). In the more specific context of hotels, Maass argues that the proximity of The Palestine Hotel, in Bagdad, was not incidental to the ostentatious and arguably somewhat staged display of the now famous destruction of Saddam’s statue in the city’s Firdos square, suggesting that the US military, aware of the concentration of journalists only meters away, enabled the removal of the statue with the recognition of the part of a media-savvy general, that this would make good viewing ‘back home’ (Maass 2011). While the strategic objectives and nationalities of the actors in Sarajevo and Iraq are quite different in both cases, their tactical use of the hotel as information resource is the same. Both situations recognize the potential of this information resource to disseminate information in ways that appears, from the audience’s perspective, to be of their own interpretation. That is, in distinction to situations of ‘embedded’ journalists where there is a consciousness on the part of the journalists that what they observe is what they are being allowed to see, in the context of the Holiday Inn (and hotels more widely) an illusory space of autonomy is created which suggested to its residents that they had more power, more independence than was actually the case. Maass was one of the journalists who had been present at the Holiday Inn, and who frequently returned in his writings to descriptions of the building and his experiences in it. It is not coincidental that he recognizes the significant role of these places in the construction of international geopolitical narratives.


This article has tried to expand upon existing explanations of conflict narratives, by looking at the built form of the grand hotel and arguing three things. First, that the ubiquitous presence of the ‘grand hotel’ which becomes the centre of international activity in a conflict zone, should not be taken for granted, but need to be understood as constitutive of the conflict geography, and therefore how the conflict is understood and represented. These observations emphasize the need to bring considerations of the material and built environment on par with other factors of conflict (Coward 2006).
Second, an examination of the hotel in conflict points to their importance, and the importance of spaces like them to create shared social identities. This is some through affective factors, for example shared living conditions, shared risks, but also through the perpetuation of clear demarcations between who is inside ‘the international’ and who is not. This allows the maintenance of a sphere of (relative) normality, against which the exception of the conflict can be contrasted, as a sphere in need of intervention (Calhoun 2010). It was possibly the attempt to maintain normalcy that contributed to journalists clinging to a coherent (if flawed) narrative of clear-cut ethnic conflict, in spite of conflicting evidence to the contrary, in the kitchens and back corridors of ‘their’ hotel. These affective considerations of how shared subjectivity are formed is essential to gaining a better understanding of what is meant by the ‘international community’ at large and how its members identify and understand themselves both vis-à-vis each other and their surroundings. If identity is closely linked to the notion of a figurative, or literal home space (Bulley 2006), how does the predictable and globalised environments provided by hotels such as the Hotel Holiday Inn, the Inter-Continental or the Serena influence what is thought to be possible?
Finally, there is the need to consider the hotel as a strategic resource in conflict,
materially, symbolically and informationally. This adds to the existing literatures on war economies, by highlighting the particular ways in which international interventions need to be considered for their simultaneous feedback effects on the conflict. It is worth considering how advancements in information technology may change this – by opening up new avenues for information, but also disinformation.
Taken together, these three insights, point to the need to consider how spaces and the built environment are not only stages upon which we perform, but integral and constitutive of the performance itself.


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