Pain, potentiality and worldmaking in the aftermath of war

Pain falls upon us, threatening to rob us of our language. It is destructive, leaving traceable scars on our bodies and minds; it confronts us with the uncanny and fearful.[1] Pain also opens up possibilities for being, doing, speaking, and thinking otherwise.[2] Being in pain is not a totalising experience that materialises seemingly out of nowhere. It means being immersed in temporary situations that manifest locally in the body and mind, dispersing as they merge to form new assemblages, and slip away only to then re-emerge transformed.[3] Being in pain is a form of engagement with the world. It harbours potentiality for worldmaking – a world that is, in the words of Deleuze and Parnet, “constantly being made by each of us, on [our] own body.”[4] Painful worldmaking, therefore, does not happen in the abstract. It arises at the interstices of situations, sites of potentiality, that allow us to reimagine things while also threatening to crush us to the core.

Painful worldmaking was what women survivors of the Kosovo War engaged in as they bravely and laboriously rebuilt their lives, their communities, and their state.[5] They could pinpoint the exact moments when they had first experienced being in pain. Moments when their lives had started to feel disjointed, when they felt shouldered from reality.[6] Moments of violence and hardship when they experienced brutality and degradation, when they witnessed how other people were tortured and killed, when they were forced to flee to the hills and surrounding villages, when they were on the road walking or crammed into cars and overcrowded tractors to reach safety, when they returned to their village seeing their homes and neighbourhoods burned to the ground and looted. Moments that were shattering, confusing, and destructive. Moments during which their consciousness temporarily stopped processing as it was robbed of rationality, structure, and normality. Moments of existential vertigo.[7]

With the environment crushing, breaking, and spinning around them, many women had felt as if they were losing their grounding. They knew right then and there that life would never be what it once was. Life had violently broken into a ‘before’ and ‘after’ discontinuity – into para luftës – before the war – and pas luftës – after the war. In conversations with me,[8] women made this break apparent in various ways. Many distinguished between a healthy and wealthy life before the war; and a life characterised by sickness, economic difficulty, and interpersonal conflict since the war. They declared that they had never been sick, nervous, or stressed para luftës. When I asked Ardiana[9] during one of my many visits if she had ever experienced this sort of pain before the war, she exclaimed: “No, no, no, no! I was thin, but I was so strong. I had no high blood pressure. And just very seldom I experienced stomach pain. But not like this. This came all after the war.” Shaking her head, she leaned towards me saying: “To tell you briefly, we’re all destroyed. When you have had all these things and you come back and you find nothing left, how would you feel?”

Widowed women explained that the loss of their husbands and, connected to this, their status as married women, had turned their lives upside down. They equated their husbands with a life in which they wore beautiful clothes and abundant jewellery, used makeup, were allowed to dance, had plenty of money and, above all, were completely healthy. Adelina said passionately: “I was never nervous. I was always dressed up, wore makeup and I didn’t care about the rest. Why should I have been nervous? I had my husband, my children, our two houses, I had clothes and food. No one was better off than we were. But now after the war, I have only worries on my hand.” There were days that her worries materialised unbearably through strong headaches, neck pain, heat moving up through the body, and sleeplessness.[10]

This before and after discontinuity made palpable past and present losses, excesses, violence, and hardship while also calling for reparative mechanisms capable of redoing the social order. [11] To some extent, it allowed women to accentuate war-related violence and present hardship against the backdrop of an idealised image of the past as they infused the past with what the anthropologist Orkideh Behrouzan has called “conflicting nostalgia.” A nostalgia “for the good and the bad, for warmth and solidarity and hope intermixed with fear and anxiety.”[12] Nostalgia, in its complexity, brought together conflicting realities in that the idealised past did not seem to be at odds with memories of the difficulties the women will have experienced due to surgeries, being forced to give birth to a great number of children until the longed for son was born, domestic violence, disrespectful in-laws, arduous labour in the house and in the fields, or conflict over property with family or neighbours. Depending on the situation in which such memories were voiced, they blended into current feelings of grief, the frustration of not being understood, jealousy, and helplessness in the face of exploitation.

Such feelings manifested variously such as in conversations during which widows told me that they felt overwhelmed by their role as head of the house and that they missed their husband’s authority and, somewhat surprisingly, their limited power and opportunities to make their own decisions. Arieta explained during an interview that her work used to be restricted to household chores and that she could have never imagined managing a whole compound and making her own decisions prior to the war. “All of a sudden, I was the head of the family and I had to take care of everything. I must be the strongest one and I am constantly worried that I might not be fair to everyone as we are all grieving.” After a moment of silence, she continued: “In the past it was like this: when I wanted to visit my brother or a friend, I had to ask my husband whether I could go. Now I find it almost an obstacle when I think that I can do anything I want to do and that I can go anywhere without asking. I am not satisfied that I don’t have to ask.”

While the war had violently ruptured the social order of things – the way life used to be – the ruptures themselves made space for the creation of new social forms, voices, and identifications as women engaged in worldmaking however painful it was. Ruptures were as much destructive as they were potentially creative – there were new possibilities to change the situation through sustained social, economic, and political labour[13]. Part of such sustained labour of worldmaking was the disclosure of already existing situations. Women made visible and palpable for others their country’s post-war political and economic situation in which corruption was normalised, gender-based discrimination was engrained in new structures created by the international community, unemployment rates were soaring, and poverty was rampant.[14]

Although the women lamented the current situation, they simultaneously fashioned themselves into entrepreneurs working the land, building enterprises to sell their processed peppers and honey, selling handicraft, applying for grants and aid, and finding employment with local and international organisations. Their engagement changed social and physical landscapes as they raised greenhouses in the fields, built little shops along the village roads, put up signs advertising their produce, and drove their cars and tractors thanks to newly acquired driving licences. Such worldmaking did not come easy; it was often backbreaking and emotionally draining, and yielded, at least initially, only small returns. When the women sat together exchanging experiences and reflecting on life’s challenges, they tended to translate felt “economic pressure” into a more abstract sense of “emotional pressure” or a more physical sensation of “high blood pressure.”

Rovena sighed saying that she always felt pressure and asking: “When you have such a lot of pressure, how are you supposed to feel good?”

Adelina, on the other hand, complained that she had suffered from high blood pressure for nine years and related this to felt pressure “on her head” to educate her children, and to buy clothes, carpets, and household items. She concluded: “My head is full of pressure.”

When talking about their dire economic situation and health, women often asked me rhetorically: “How is it possible not to become nervous?”; “With so many problems on your hands, how not to worry and get sick?”; “Wouldn’t you get sick if you felt that you were unable to properly support your children?”

There was little that was wholesome or glamorous about post-war worldmaking as it manifested in the ordinary as part of the daily grind. Once a month, this became sorely visible when widows gathered at the bus station to drive to the bank in Rahovec to collect their meagre widow’s pension of 62 euros (which was later increased to 130 euros in 2007). Dressed in their black skirts and dark blouses, they waited in front of the bank chatting and complaining about being humiliated with 62 euros. Once they received their money, they left in groups of two or three to buy items for their household. By the end of the afternoon, most of their pension had been spent on soap, detergent, hygienic items, sugar, noodles, rice, and other necessities. Once at home, many developed headaches and complained about high blood pressure, they often felt unable to work in their houses and fields, and could hardly sleep during the night. On one such January morning, I was supposed to interview Adelina. She greeted me at my car looking tired and weak. “I don’t feel like the interview,” she said. “Yesterday, I went to Rahovec to get my pension. I started to feel sick; I had pain in my chest, had difficulties breathing, and suffered from high blood pressure.” We postponed the interview, and I went to visit Makfire instead. Makfire looked equally tired, pale, and worried. When I asked her what the matter was, she provided me with a similar explanation. “One can only get sick going there [the bank]. You go there to get 62 euros. What do you do with 62 euros when you have children to feed? Nothing! It is not fair that old people get a pension of 42 euros and we, who have to raise children, get only 62 euros.”

I responded, treading carefully, “Well, it is neither enough for the old nor for you.”

Makfire countered, “That’s right, but they use 42 euros for themselves, and, in addition, they have children who care for them. We, on the other hand, are alone and have to care for our children with that money. When you get the money, you buy a few things for the household and a bit of food. After that, hardly anything is left, and the next month has not even started.” She repeated, “We all get sick when we have to go there.”

The ever present gruelling and demoralising social and economic struggles of worldmaking can be considered, what the anthropologist and philosopher Elizabeth Povinelli describes as, “quasi events.”[15] Unlike catastrophes, quasi events never quite achieve “the status of having occurred or taken place.” Sometimes, they were just little inconveniences or outwardly manageable obstacles; yet these “little things” piled up to almost insurmountable difficulties as they chipped away, little by little, the women’s inner strength and health. Yet, it would be wrong to assume that the women were somehow passively exposed or overpowered by life’s challenges. On the contrary, they refused to give up their uphill struggle to achieve a better life for themselves and their children, to improve the economy of their households, and to demand tangible recognition and justice from the international community and the Kosovar state. Painful worldmaking was, in all its facets, a multi-dimensional, reciprocal, and dynamic experience. It manifested in the niches of the ordinary as women articulated political, economic, and institutional inequities, and made visible social and historical realities, injustice, and exclusion while problematising and celebrating their country’s vision of itself.

(Author: Hanna Kienzler)

[1] Elaine Scarry’s seminal book, “The body in pain: The making and unmaking of the world,” provides an analysis of physical suffering and its relation to vocabularies and cultural forces that confront it.

[2] In my article “SymptomSpeak: women’s struggle for history and health in Kosovo,” I contribute to a new understanding of pain as language which straddles the fine line between socio-political commentary and illness; produces gendered political realities; and challenges the status quo through its communicative power.

[3] This process and the notion of worldmaking are inspired by Jarrett Zigon’s book “A war on people: Drug user politics and a new ethics of community

[4] Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet (1977) Dialogues II. London: Continuum.

[5] Kosovo War 1998/99

[6] I took the expression “shouldered from reality” from Cora Diamond’s article “The difficulty of reality and the difficulty of philosophy. Partial answers

[7] The concept of existential vertigo has been developed by Allen Feldman in the book chapter “Ethnographic states of emergency

[8] Ethnographic research on which is blog is based was carried out in two Kosovar villages between 2007-2008 and 2009.

[9] All names are anonymised to protect the women’s privacy

[10] See my article “SymptomSpeak: women’s struggle for history and health in Kosovo” and other blog pages Mërzitna: A conspiracy of emotion; The politics of nerves; Symptom Lexicon; Utterances of Distress

[11] Inspired by Robin Wagner-Pacifici’s book “What is an Event?

[12] Read more on ‘social ruptures’ in Orkideh Behrouzan’s book “Prozak diaries: Psychiatry and generational memory in Iran.”

[13] Inspired by Jarrett Zigon’s book “A war on people: Drug user politics and a new ethics of community

[14] See also my article “Mental health system reform in contexts of humanitarian emergencies: toward a theory of ‘practice-based evidence’

[15] Elizabeth Povinelli develops the concept of “quasi events” in her book “The economies of abandonment: social belonging and endurance in late liberalism

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