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Human Development 2016;59:81–106
DOI: 10.1159/000448228
Developmental Affordances of War-Torn
Landscapes: Growing up in Sarajevo under
Luka Lucić
Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies, Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, N.Y., USA
Key Words
Environmental affordance · Narrative · Development · Youth · War · Bosnia · Siege ·
Young people growing up in war zones experience significant changes of their
physical and social environments caused by urban destruction. Employing the methodology of narrative inquiry, this work theoretically explores environmental and spatial
affordances enabling sociocognitive development among young people growing up
during the 4-year military siege of Sarajevo. The theoretical analysis focuses on two environmental contexts – war school and the Sarajevo war tunnel – and examines how affordances of physical environments, symbolically enacted in language, scaffold developmental activities during this highly specific wartime period. The developmental
meaning of environmental affordances comes to life in contemporary narratives written
by 16 adults who as young people attended war schools or worked in the Sarajevo war
tunnel. Theoretical foundations of sociocultural and ecological psychology are employed to illuminate how environmental affordances contributed to the development
of psychological functions well suited to everyday life in circumstances of war and urban
© 2016 S. Karger AG, Basel
© 2016 S. Karger AG, Basel
Luka Lucić
Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies
Pratt Institute
DeKalb Hall 414, 200 Willoughby Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11205 (USA), E-Mail llucic @
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Dated January 3, 1994, a short single-page typewritten memorandum titled “Request for exemption of school furniture” addressed to Commander Vahid Karavelić
of the Sarajevo First Corps, Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina, reads: “For the purposes of holding classes, we kindly ask you to loan us back the following pieces of our
furniture: 40 tables; 70 chairs. We will return the exempt furniture immediately after
our classes have concluded.” Signed by the school’s principal, this somewhat cryptic
letter – which asks the army to give back the furniture it appropriated from the school
building at the start of the war – serves well to capture the material realities faced by
young people during the time of war. From the vantage point of relatively peaceful
western societies – where armed conflict and urban destruction are frequently seen
as something that happens to other people in faraway places – it is difficult to imagine
the everyday lives of young people growing up in Sarajevo during the winter of 1994,
perhaps the most violent winter of the Bosnian War (1992–1995). Possibly even more
difficult to recognize is that learning and development continued to occur during this
violent time, and that multiple contexts for developmental activities were available to
children and adolescents throughout the war.
Beginning in April of 1992, Sarajevo abruptly found itself besieged and at the
epicenter of an ethnic conflict which, at its conclusion, totaled 100,000 dead and 2
million displaced as a direct effect of the war [Ball, Tabeau, & Verwimp, 2007; Young,
2001]. A New York Times report published on January 6, 1994, under the title “Heavy
shelling and firefights rake Sarajevo,” offers an accurate description of urban destruction, interethnic fighting, and overall chaos that befell on Sarajevo that winter. The
report reads: “Smoke billowed from burning homes along a battlefront in the southern part of this city today after predawn artillery barrages were followed by furious
infantry clashes and heavy shelling that lasted until dusk. Soldiers of the Muslimdominated Bosnian Government and Sarajevo radio reports said the Serbs had
launched the attack. Serbian radio blamed the Bosnian Army for starting the clashes,
which took place along a front line near the old Jewish Cemetery” [Sudetic, 1994].
Much has been written about the siege of Sarajevo since December of 1995 when the
war ended. The city, which only 8 years prior to the onset of armed hostilities projected a successful model of ethnic and religious integration into the world by hosting
the XIVth Winter Olympic Games, suddenly found itself battered and in ruins. However, despite the abundant interest in the siege, both inside and outside an academic
purview, very little is actually known about the lives of the approximately 65,000
young people living in Sarajevo during the Bosnian War.
Amidst war and destruction, children and adolescents are seen as being amongst
the most vulnerable of all. Contemporary research examining the psychological development of young people during armed conflicts overwhelmingly highlights the damage to their emotional health. A number of systematic reviews examining studies that
involve methods aimed at measuring the prevalence of posttraumatic stress disorder
(PTSD), trauma, anxiety, and depression among people exposed to war show that such
problems affect between 10 and 50% of children [Attanayake, McKay, Jeffres, Singh,
Burkle, & Mills, 2009; Fazel, Wheeler, & Danesh, 2005]. However, research also shows
that even the more resilient among us, such as conflict-affected adults and those who
leave the conflict-laden areas to seek refuge elsewhere, experience high levels of PTSD,
depression, and anxiety [de Jong, 2002; de Jong, Komproe, & Van Ommeren, 2003;
Fazel et al., 2005]. Yet, young people living in war zones are disproportionately labeled
as depressed, traumatized, aggressive, or revengeful, and are frequently described as
“a lost generation” [Qouta, Punamäki, Miller, & El-Sarraj, 2008].
Strange, is it not, to think that almost the complete experience of all young people growing up during a time of war can be captured by answering a question: “How
did they all really feel in the end?” Surely, different wartime experiences result in
vastly different intensities and ranges of feelings and lead to different cognitive and
emotional processes. Yet, due to the overwhelming emphasis on establishing the re-
Human Development 2016;59:81–106
DOI: 10.1159/000448228
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lationship between stress, anxiety, deprivation, and loss to the development of posttraumatic stress symptoms, psychological research has largely neglected or has at best
obscured the developmental effects caused by the dynamic complexities of everyday
life during the periods of war (see Daiute [2010] for an exception). Often neglected is
the exploration of how young people muster their cognitive and emotional resources
to make sense of what is going on around them even during times of armed conflict
and urban destruction [Daiute, 2010]. Furthermore, despite a growing body of research, studies which directly examine the relationship of psychological development
to affordances of environments disrupted by war have not been conducted.
Emerging research that builds upon the work of Lev Vygotsky suggests that
young people growing up in times of social, political, or economic instability often
use the affordances of their volatile contexts as tools for psychological growth [Daiute, 2010; Daiute & Lucić, 2010; Lucić, 2016a]. Consistent with this line of research,
in this work I apply a sociocultural approach to the psychological theory of environmental affordances in order to understand the relationship between environmental
and sociocognitive aspects of young people’s psychological development. While this
is essentially a theoretical analysis aiming to advance the current understanding of
child and adolescent development in a specific sociocultural setting – rather than a
test of the success or failure of a particular intervention – I will draw on narrative data
collected with 16 participants during March and October of 2015.
All 16 participants who contributed to this work grew up in Sarajevo, lived there
during the siege, and continue to reside in the city today. At the time of data collection, their mean age was 35 years, with ages ranging from 33 to 39. As a group, their
mean age in 1992, at the start of the siege, was 12, while in 1995, at the conclusion of
the hostilities, it was 15. Based on their activities during the war, participants can be
divided into two groups. The first group consists of women and men who, as children
during the siege, attended temporary makeshift educational institutions known as
Sarajevo “war schools.” The second group consists of men who, as adolescent boys,
worked in and around Sarajevo’s “war tunnel,” a military object serving as the sole
route in and out of the city. Data presented in this work were collected in the participants’ native language using the dynamic story-telling method [Daiute, 2010]. This
method employs narration as a way to enact and study the sociocultural development
of young people during times of political violence. The method was previously successfully used in the same cultural context to understand the psychosocial tools that
youth use to mediate self-society relations in the complex situations of their postwar
societies [Daiute, 2010; Daiute & Lucić, 2010].
Three specific questions that guided data collection workshops, and this work
more generally are: (1) What affordances of physical environments (and by the extension social world) become relevant as adults recall growing up during a specific wartime period? (2) What developmental activities do such affordances scaffold? (3)
What (if any) is their impact on sociocognitive development? In particular, during
the workshops, each participant was asked to write three narratives. In the first narrative, participants described one day during the siege of Sarajevo. Depending on the
group, they either wrote about attending school or working in the tunnel. In the second and third narratives, participants were asked to write about their activities before
and after the war from the perspectives of different narrator-audience relations.
Varying the narrator-audience relation for the prewar narrative was accomplished by
asking each participant to write one letter addressed to a child or a younger person
Human Development 2016;59:81–106
DOI: 10.1159/000448228
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Developmental Affordances of War-Torn
and describe one event (or one day in their life) which happened in Sarajevo before
the start of the war. Similarly, in order to engage the postwar period, participants were
asked to write a letter to a friend who emigrated abroad and describe how Sarajevo
changed since the end of the war. All participants were eager to share their life experiences with the research team.
Environmental Affordances of War-Torn Landscapes Enable Sociocognitive
Developmental psychology is rich with theoretical and methodological paradigms that allow for the dynamic study of child and adolescent development during
the times of war. In line with previous research, in this work I draw on Lev Vygotsky’s
[1978] theory of sociocultural development. This theory in its basic form aims to provide an explanation for how social and cultural activities become part of an individual’s psychology. For Vygotsky, cognition is a social product and he strives to describe
its development from the vantage point of an individual’s social interaction and active
use of cultural tools. According to Vygotsky’s theory, whenever an artifact, object or
an environmental aspect is incorporated into the individual’s sphere of meaningful
activity, it begins to assume the properties of a “cultural tool” [Cole, 1996]. The significance of cultural tools in cognitive development is that while acting as a meditational property between the individual and society, they by extension shape internal
cognitive processes [Vygotsky, 1978].
One of Vygotsky’s main theoretical concerns is the mechanism through which
the social and cultural aspects became part of the individual’s mental life. He primarily locates this mechanism in the dialectical interaction of thinking and speaking.
Particularly relevant for this work is Vygotsky’s hypothesis that cognitive development occurs through the everyday experiences individuals engage in as they interact
with members of their community, across various physical contexts of their everyday
lives. The use of language and other cultural tools across these social interactions creates opportunities for cognitive growth.
Furthermore, an increased understanding of cognitive development during war
can be achieved by considering the functional significance of environmental features
encountered during these violent times. Approaches to psychology which emphasize
perceptual learning and cognitive construction based upon meaning derived from the
environment will be used in this work to highlight how environmental factors present
in (or absent from) war-torn landscapes affect cognitive development. In this effort,
defining J.J. Gibson’s [1977] theoretical concept of “affordance,” used to describe the
functionally significant properties of the physical environment, is particularly helpful.
In Gibson’s theory, affordances are theorized as environmental, similarly to the way
tools are theorized as cultural by Vygotsky. But while affordances of the environment
are objective, real, and physical, the possibilities they afford are also subjective, phenomenal and mental. Discussing this subjective-objective dichotomy in 1979, Gibson
points out that an affordance is “equally a fact of the environment and a fact of behavior. It is both physical and psychical, yet neither. An affordance points both ways, to the
environment and to the observer” (p. 121). As this theoretical analysis will attempt to
show, because environment provides multiple opportunities for human action, it can
under certain conditions be a basic factor in the process of development of meaning.
Human Development 2016;59:81–106
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In most routine everyday activities, we perceive environmental affordances in a
direct and unmediated manner. For example, if everything goes smoothly, we rarely
actively think about or assign much meaning to countless objects that we encounter
during our daily commute to work. This type of interaction with the environment is
referred to as the first-order experience, as our experience is understood to be embedded in the flow of ongoing perceiving and acting [Heft, 2003]. As Heft [2003] further
explains, during multiple routine activities that we perform daily, our awareness of
the environment often sinks to a minimum. In other words, our encounters with the
world seem “nearly automatic and habitual, and the experience of a boundary between the self and the world is negligible. We are ‘simply’ immersed in situated doing
and being” (p. 151). One can observe this mode of interacting with the world when
considering the myriad of routine activities that we perform daily. A ball encountered
at a playground affords kicking, a pen on the desk affords grasping – and if these are
the activities we are involved in (or seek to be involved in) we rarely spend much time
thinking about the affordances of a pen or those of a ball. In other words, at times
when we are immersed in situated routine activities, cognitive processes in relation
to our environment frequently sink to a minimum. That is, of course, unless some
trouble interrupts our routine.
As this work will attempt to illustrate, extremely challenging and rapidly changing environments encountered during times of war and urban destruction require
individuals to step outside of the ongoing flow of immediate perception-action and
develop a heightened awareness of their environment. During such times, even seemingly mundane everyday activities, such as walking to school, can necessitate cognitive processing in relation to the physical environment. In other words, situations of
war often activate processes of perceptual learning in everyday interactions – defined
by Eleanor Gibson [1992] as the increase in the ability to extract information from
the immediate physical environment. According to the theoretical viewpoint implicit in the idea of perceptual learning [Gibson, 1984], the task for the perceiver in activities that happen across the landscape of war is not to add structures to an impoverished environmental context. Rather, the task is to detect and engage the environmental structures that already exist, albeit often with a different understanding of
what they afford in comparison to the prewar times.
During the times of war, individuals often need to shift their attentional focus
from simply experiencing the immediate flow of events, to the second-order mode of
knowing [Heft, 2003]. At times of trouble, meaning and value frequently need to be
cognitively constructed around the environments, objects and artifacts which used to
be functionally neutral. Old environmental structures must be reconceptualized
while new ones must be engaged. Previously functionally significant objects, locations and environments might lose their prior meaning. As the proceeding analysis
will show, during the times of war, school buildings may suddenly lose their educational function, schoolyards might lose their significance for child play, but basements and hallways might assume significance as spaces for learning, while a muddy
makeshift tunnel assumes a paramount psychosocial importance.
However, rather than highlighting how prewar activities are emptied of their
previous meaning, narrative examples offered by people who were young and grew
up during the siege of Sarajevo will enable us to see how the landscape of war provides
young people with numerous opportunities and resources for action. As they narrate
about their experiences before, during, and after the war, we can also observe how
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Developmental Affordances of War-Torn
they gather and generate information about their rapidly changing environment. By
studying the relationships of various formal narrative properties (such as causal connectors, prepositions, negations, cognitive or affective words) in relation to one another, and in relation to environments in which the narratives are situated, it will also
be possible to analyze participants’ socioculturally enacted cognitive processes. Especially relevant for this inquiry will be the analysis of narratives describing situations
encountered during the siege. They will be contrasted with narratives that describe
participants’ pre- and postwar activities.
Environment Is Enacted in Narrative
Because action and speech are often part of the same complex psychological function directed toward the solution of the problem at hand [Vygotsky, 1978], the role of
environmental affordances in cognitive development will be primarily analyzed by
examining their symbolic enactment in language. While discussing the multiple roles
that language plays in cognitive development, Vygotsky [1978] notes that “language
enables children to provide for auxiliary tools in the solution of difficult tasks, to overcome impulsive action, to plan a solution to a problem prior to its execution, and to
master their own behavior” (p. 28). Vygotsky’s thinking aptly captures the sentiment
that motivates contemporary research on social cognition as it continues to offer insights into processes of the mind in relation to the sociocultural circumstances that
surround the individual [Fiske & Taylor, 2015]. However, contemporary research is
increasingly focusing on cognition in daily life explored as a narrative, not only as a
metaphor, but as instrument for examination of a lived experience and a tool for sensemaking [Bruner & Haste, 1987; Daiute, 2010; Daiute, Campbell, Cooper, Griffin, Reddy, & Tivnan, 1993; Daiute & Nelson, 1997; Lucić, 2013, 2016b; Nelson, 1985, 1996].
Narratives are usually employed in answer to some outside stimulus, such as establishing a point of personal interest [Labov & Waletzky, 1967], examining and clarifying
relations among the interlocutors [Lucić, 2013, 2016c], or managing interpersonal and
intercultural relations [Daiute et al., 1993]. According to this line of research, narrative
and narrative organization are important tools in the process of sense-making [Daiute
& Nelson, 1997]. But because the psychological process of sense-making is seen as sociocultural, it is understood to be situated in interaction with extant social, cultural and
physical environments (Lucić, 2016b). As Nelson [1985] points out, a language-based
perceptual system serves our cognitive processing by establishing “representations of
the present scene and makes available perceptual representation of previously experienced scenes or imagined scenes” (p. 9) for examination, interpretation and meaningmaking. Because language is frequently the primary source of perceptual information
gathering across various human activities, the narrative organization of language embedded in its grammatical structure allows researchers to explore the context-specific
and context-situated nature of cognitive development.
Labov and Waletzky [1967] made initial steps in articulating the method of narrative analysis employed by contemporary psychologists, by attempting to establish
a direct connection between the fundamental narrative structures and their originating functions. According to this viewpoint, grammar, which is implicit in a narrative,
is not solely employed as a tool of logical analysis (although it does that too), but can
also be used to offer more nuanced information about pragmatic features of activities
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that a narrative is referencing [Labov, 1997]. In other words, by examining the formal
narrative properties, it is possible to also study the individual’s relation to context
from which the narrative arose. Although lifelike, narratives reflect individual cognitive processes as they mediate the narrator’s relation to events rather than reflect it
cinematically [Daiute, 2010]. For this reason, the lifelike center of a narrative – the
context, setting, person, action, or emotion – “embodies the narrator’s selective perception, the reason for telling this story at this time” [Daiute, 2010, p. 86]. Seen from
this perspective, narrative analysis also enables us to discern the relationship between
the cognitive processes and the environmental setting.
Narrative organization is, in this work, theorized to reflect the cognitive aspects
of the participants’ experiences, both enacted and represented. Labov [1971] hints at
the direction of this method when he points out that grammar is always busy with
“emphasis, focus, down-shifting, and up-grading; it is a way of organizing information and taking alternative points of view. Grammar allows us to see every side of
every question if we so desire” (p. 45). In line with this theoretical view, the goal of
narrative analysis in this work is to understand what participants are narrating about
by focusing on how it is narrated. Throughout this article, narrative responses by both
groups of participants will be analyzed in order to answer the following framing questions: (1) What affordances of physical environments (and by the extension social
world) become relevant as adults recall growing up during a specific wartime period?
(2) What developmental activities do such affordances scaffold? (3) What (if any) is
their impact on sociocognitive development?
Lives of Children in Sarajevo prior to the Siege
Today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina (henceforth Bosnia) lies at what is often considered the nodal point of great historic civilizations [Lovrenović, 2001]. Geographically
positioned at the center of the western Balkans, Bosnia was an Ottoman province from
the mid-13th century until the late 19th century. However, while situated at the confluence of the major world powers of the period – the Habsburg Empire, Venetian Republic, and the Ottoman Empire – the inhabitants of Bosnia seldom derived much privilege
from their fortunate geographical position. Instead, Bosnia historically served as a border region, a buffer between religions and ideologies, at the crossroads of the western
and the eastern worlds. Hence, its people continuously experienced various military
occupations together with the social and political unrest that accompanied them.
The multiethnic composition of the population which arose out of the Ottoman
period simultaneously contributed to the development of a pluralistic society and
planted a seed of future troubles. Bosnia entered the 20th century ideally suited to
benefit from the emerging projects of modernization manifested in the region primarily through the forging of Yugoslavia. Instead, the country suffered as a geopolitical and social vanguard. History imposed a disproportionate amount of political
tensions and suffering upon the people of Bosnia during the early 1900s. Caught in
the tension between the modernizing Yugoslav project and the pressure imposed by
the waning Ottoman and Habsburg Empires, Bosnia served as the setting for the
events that led to the start of World War I [Clark, 2014].
Following World War II, the region experienced a brief period of relative peace
and prosperity as part of the socialist Yugoslavia. The tail end of this period frames
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Developmental Affordances of War-Torn
the prewar narratives solicited for this inquiry, as most participants were born around
1980, roughly 10 years before socialist Yugoslavia fell apart. In the early 1990s, the
disintegration of government authority and the rise of nationalism caused Bosnia to
be torn apart by ethnic wars which eventually put an end to the multiethnic and multinational Yugoslav state [Woodward, 1995]. The overlapping settlement patterns of
the tightly woven multiethnic population and the intriguing geographical position of
Sarajevo, the capital city, helped to set the stage for the social and urban destruction
during the Bosnian War (1992–1995).
By contemporary global standards Sarajevo was never a large city. The 1991 census indicates that at the start of hostilities 525,000 people resided in the city and its
surrounding areas (including Ilidža, Hadžići, Pale, Hrasnica, Trnovo, and Vogošća)
[BiH Census, 1991]. The city itself, largely destroyed during the war and rebuilt in its
aftermath, is an architectural blend of three major cultural influences which tell the
story of Sarajevo’s history: the old Ottoman heart of the city, the turn-of-the-century
Viennese city around it, and the post-1945 socialist high-rise apartment buildings
and industrial facilities at its outskirts. The Old Town, built by the Ottomans, contains ancient structures and objects of great cultural importance. Its center, the medieval square known as Baščaršija, serves as a marketplace and the focal point of the
city. Not far from there, on June 28, 1914, a student named Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, thus setting into motion the events
that led to World War I.
In 1984 Sarajevo became the focus of world attention by hosting the XIVth Winter Olympic Games. According to the 1991 census, the city’s multiethnic population
distribution during this period was 49.3% Muslims, 29.9% Serbian, 6.6% Croatian, and
10.7% Yugoslav [BiH Census, 1991]. Jews and other groups made up the remaining
3.5% of the population in this religiously plural and multiethnic city often nicknamed
the European Jerusalem. Furthermore, data shows that the intermarriage rate between
ethnic groups during this period of the city’s history was high, with every fifth marriage involving partners from different ethnic backgrounds [BiH Census, 1991].
A multicultural city where diversity was celebrated and persons of different religions and nationalities lived and worked in relative harmony appears to be an excellent context to grow up in. Recalling his childhood before the war, more than 25 years
later, Meša – one of the participants in this inquiry – wrote:
Before the war broke out, the celebrations of Christmas, Bayram, Orthodox and Catholic
Easter were really events which we were widely known for. I can’t think of anything other
than a feeling of warmth, security, peace of mind, socializing, going to kindergarten, playing
with my friends.
Reflecting a sense of pride, while directly referencing the start of war and the time
before it, Meša aptly captures the demographic of the city by referencing major religious holidays celebrated in Sarajevo during this period. Additionally, the proximity
of Meša’s expression of emotional experiences (warmth, security, peace of mind) to
the interpersonal and contextual activities (socializing, going to kindergarten, playing
with my friends) begins to highlight the relationship between psychological processes
and their contextual basis that will be explored in more detail throughout this work.
During a peaceful time, cities such as Sarajevo can be exceptionally interesting
places for children and youth. The city presents a series of environmental affordances upon which young people can perform a multiplicity of activities that engage their
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sociocognitive development. Ordinarily, a child might live in one neighborhood and
go to school in another; afterschool activities (cinema, theater, sports, etc.) would be
a bus ride away, while weekends might be reserved for sightseeing and visiting relatives in the old town. As Lila points out while discussing a day in her life before the
onset of war, Sarajevo was a great place to grow up in. She writes:
Days before the war are retold in the same way among all my peers. Levis jeans, All-Star
shoes, baggy T-shirts and denim jacket were sufficient for happiness. One day a neighborhood shop started selling cans of Coca-Cola. What a joyful event that was! We were all able
to get some money from our parents and step into this undiscovered world of foreign products and interesting items that until then no one has ever seen. And so, with a can of CocaCola, we quickly flew over to Baščaršija and like every other night, we sat down on the
wooden bench in front of a small shop and eat hot bread from the Imaret bakery. While we
were sitting and eating, we were laughing and gossiping about the passersby, not realizing
how carefree we are.
References to environmental affordances abound in the narrative that brings to
life a happy and carefree day before the onset of war. Four overt references to emotional states (happiness, joy, laughter, and carefree) are employed as Lila describes how
she felt about her everyday life. But the happy, joyous, and carefree emotional undertone which captures the psychological experiences of the narrator is also made prominent by a narrative content that emphasizes environmental and social elements of her
immediate context. Narrating from the position of first-person plural (we), Lila emphasizes activities (i.e. step into, quickly flew, sat down, sitting, and eating) enabled by
multiple environmental affordances that play a prominent role in her experiences (a
can of Coca-Cola, neighborhood shop, Baščaršija, wooden bench, small shop, Imaret
bakery). The relation of these affordances to the activities described by the narrator
does not only highlight the relevance of urban infrastructure in the emotional and cognitive experiences of young people, it also allows us to understand how psychological
experiences are constituted by environmental affordances. In other words, it is precisely by referencing environmental affordances in her narrative that Lila so poignantly creates and communicates the sense of freedom that characterized her childhood
before the war. As readers, we can hardly imagine that her experience would be the
same in another context without the bakeries, benches, and small shops of Baščaršija.
Bosnian War and the Siege of Sarajevo
Sarajevo is a long and narrow city surrounded by the hills and mountains of the
Dinaric Alps. Straddling the narrow Miljacka River, the city is 15 km long along the
east-west axis and only 4–6 km wide. Crowded into a narrow valley between steep
foothills and four Olympic mountains, the city is in an exceptionally poor defensive
position. As such, it could not have been more perfectly situated for siege planners
(fig. 1).
The siege of Sarajevo by the Army of Republika Srpska began on April 5, 1992 –
the eve of the European community’s recognition of Bosnia as an independent state.
It was finally lifted 4 years later, on February 29, 1996. Lasting exactly 1,335 days – 3
times longer than the battle of Stalingrad and a full year longer than the siege of Leningrad during World War II – the siege of Sarajevo is considered to be the longest
blockade of a city in modern military history. During the siege, approximately 300,000
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Developmental Affordances of War-Torn
Sarajevo Valley
Fig. 1. Sarajevo under siege 1992–1995. For almost four years, citizens of Sarajevo lived under
daily siege imposed by the Army of Republika Srpska. The above map depicts Sarajevo valley, the
populated area of the city, and the surrounding enemy positions.
citizens of Sarajevo were physically and psychologically cut off from the external
world. Stern mountains encircling the city served as a physical barrier for the blockade that was enforced by 13,000 occupying troops, who controlled the flow of goods
and prevented citizens from leaving. During this period, the city was exposed to intense daily shelling from the surrounding mountains, upon which the artillery units
were stationed [Karavelić & Rujanac, 2009]. On average, Sarajevo experienced 330
shell impacts per day, although there were periods – such as the summer of 1993 –
when more than 3,500 daily impacts were recorded. By the end of that summer, virtually all the buildings were damaged and more than 30,000 were completely destroyed [Bassiouni, 1994].
Once the war broke out and the fighting started, the scope, the mode, and meaning of activities available to young people drastically changed. The destruction of the
built environment that began in April of 1992 abruptly transformed the everyday activities of the entire civilian population. During the initial months of the siege, the
supply of water, food, electricity, and other daily necessities was frequently interrupted, precipitating abrupt changes in many routine daily activities. Perhaps nothing symbolizes the harshness of life during the siege more than the image of exhausted people with plastic jugs queuing for purified water in front of the Sarajevo Brewery.
The abrupt breakdown of norms amidst the situation of war made young people’s
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Fig. 2. Sarajevo Airport. Dur-
ing the early months of the
siege UN Peacekeepers stationed at the airport provided
humanitarian assistance that
barely kept Sarajevo going.
From June 1993 until December of 1995, the Sarajevo War
Tunnel, which established a
more reliable supply route,
stretched beneath the width
of the depicted runway.
experience of the siege different from that of their parents. For example, unfamiliar
activities that involved gathering sources of heat and queuing for water often brought
about a sense of shame and humiliation to adults. Children, however, regularly recognized that electricity, water, and gas were so rare that their availability should be
celebrated [Maček, 2009].
Amidst the war and destruction, the environment of everyday activities for children and adolescents underwent considerable changes. Many of the city’s playgrounds, cinemas, and theaters were destroyed or reassigned to other wartime uses.
With the outskirts of the city under enemy occupation, Sarajevo’s parks often became
burial sites, hence making these previously fun environments largely unsuitable for
child play. Schooling activities were interrupted as approximately 100 school buildings were damaged due to the constant shelling [Jabučar, 1994]. Because of general
shortages of food and water, the lives of young people sometimes became a continuous struggle for acquisition of basic necessities.
The scarce humanitarian assistance that kept Sarajevo going during the early
months of the siege was administered by the United Nation Peacekeepers stationed at
the Sarajevo Airport (fig. 2). This geographical location, which will be explored further
in this text, assumes a paramount importance for the survival of the besieged city. As
a location, it is featured frequently in the narratives written by participants who contributed to this study. In stark contrast to the carefree and happy days before the siege
described by Lila and Meša, the narrative written by Edin serves to gives us a glimpse
into daily activities of a 13-year-old boy during the period of the early siege. He writes:
Before the tunnel opened you had to run across the runway. It was dangerous but we had
to cross it in order to obtain food. As a boy I was crossing the runway and I risked my life
for the soup powder, milk powder, etc. After a while the tunnel opened, which made life in
Sarajevo easier. I guess that’s why it is called the Tunnel of Hope.
A sense of danger, explicitly referenced in the narrative is once again implicitly
emphasized and brought to prominence through references to the environmental setting. The runway of the airport which is mentioned by Edin 3 times in this short nar-
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rative is actually a 1,340-meter (0.83 mile) wide area which was exposed to daily artillery and sniper fire (fig. 2). To cross this area, often referred to as the most dangerous
section of the city, was certainly not a small feat for an adolescent boy. Even during a
peaceful time, the trip would take an average adult approximately 12–15 min to complete. In his narrative, Edin emphasizes activities in this setting by using verbs (had
to, run, risked, cross). But just as in Lila’s narrative, his experience is highlighted and
brought to prominence by references to the environmental objects (soup powder, milk
powder) that he sought to obtain. Furthermore, a reader can notice that Edin’s narrative is framed by the temporal axis (before and after) not in reference to the siege, but
in reference to yet another environmental affordance – the tunnel underneath the
airport runway.
At the height of the siege approximately 300,000 inhabitants remained in the
city, out of whom roughly 65,000 were children [Bassiouni, 1994]. While their daily
experiences and activities during the siege varied a lot depending on the geographical
area of the city in which they lived (some city areas were shelled more than the others), scarce survey data depict a grim everyday reality for most of the children. Data
tell us that approximately 40% of children had been directly exposed to gunfire, 51%
had seen someone killed, 39% had seen one or more family members killed, 19% had
witnessed a massacre, 48% had their homes occupied by others, 73% had their homes
attacked or shelled, and 89% had lived in underground shelters [Bassiouni, 1994].
Drawing upon these data, a UN report compiled at the height of the hostilities concludes by suggesting a high probability that psychological trauma suffered during the
siege will bear heavily on the lives of these children in the years to come [Bassiouni,
However, rather than having a monolithic experience of the siege, a few studies
examining the relationship of the Bosnian War to trauma allow us to envision young
people growing up during the siege as a heterogeneous group. For example, a study
by Husain et al. [1998] conducted shortly after the siege had been lifted, highlights
that symptoms of PTSD were primarily noted among those participants who experienced a loss of a family member or suffered from prolonged deprivation of food, water, and shelter during the siege. Furthermore, using primarily survey methodology,
Allwood, Bell-Dolan, and Husain [2002] examined the relationship of violent and
nonviolent experiences during the siege to trauma reactions and adjustments in a
group of 791 children from ages 6 to 16. Their findings suggest that children exposed
to both violence and deprivation exhibit more symptoms of PTSD than children exposed to more limited trauma (such as persistent coldness, lack of food, or need to
relocate). Nevertheless, their study also shows that children exposed to direct violence
did not show more posttraumatic stress reactions and adjustment difficulties than
children who experienced only nonviolent trauma. Many war experiences noted by
participants in the study were not associated with trauma reactions [Allwood et al.,
The differences in young people’s short-term and long-term reactions to war and
urban destruction can be explained by their diverse wartime experiences. As narrative
data collected for this study help to depict, the everyday lives of some of the 65,000
children living in the occupied Sarajevo varied, sometimes slightly and sometimes
vastly. In spite of the extraordinary circumstances, places and spaces for child and
adolescent development were available in Sarajevo during the siege, albeit in an altered form as compared to those available during a more peaceful time.
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Attending School in Hair Salons and Atomic Shelters
On September 10, 1992, shortly after the start of the hostilities, Sarajevo’s major
daily newspaper Oslobođenje published instructions issued by the Ministry of Education. These directed elementary and secondary schools to adjust educational activities
to specific wartime conditions. Each school unit was instructed to independently decide the time, duration, and location of classes based on an assessment of safety in the
area [Berman, 2001]. With the entire country at war, the capital under siege, and
daily shelling of the city, organizing educational activities became more difficult with
each passing day. Occasionally schools were directly hit by artillery fire. On November 9, 1993, a shell fell and exploded close to a school building entrance in Sarajevo’s
Alipašino Polje neighborhood (for location, see fig. 1), killing 4 students and 1 teacher and injuring 23 students. By the end of the siege, 17 of the city’s schools were completely incapacitated due to shelling and 90 school buildings were damaged [Jabučar,
Moreover, holding classes even in school buildings not damaged by shelling was
rarely possible. The particular spatial and physical affordances that characterize
school buildings made them ideally suited for military use. Namely, a majority of Sarajevo’s schools were designed as large and multifunctional buildings in order to facilitate the instruction of a relatively large number of students. Customarily, a neighborhood would have one primary school, while a larger city area would also include
a high school. The primary schools, in particular, were planned and built to house
eight grades of students, as this was the duration of elementary education. There were
approximately 3–4 classes per each grade, with each class consisting of 25–30 students. With an average space of 2 m2 allocated per student [Prosvetni Glasnik, 1990],
on average each classroom measured between 50 and 60 m2 (roughly 550–650 square
feet). School buildings also included a school yard and a gymnasium suitable for
sporting activities.
At the start of the war, the units of the Bosnian army regularly appropriated
school buildings for military purposes because of these environmental affordances.
In the absence of appropriate army barracks, schools were chosen as spaces suitable
for accommodating a large number of troops. Quickly after the siege had started,
spaces built for learning thus became spaces where troops could gather, sleep, eat, and
prepare for upcoming battles. This effectively forced the relocation of all educational
activities to informal spaces such as the basements of neighboring buildings, retail
spaces, and bomb shelters (fig. 3).
A combination of urban destruction caused by shelling and appropriation of
schools by the army forced the relocation of schooling to informal spaces. In them,
students were largely brought together in an ad hoc manner, often without regard for
the grade that they were meant to attend. Classes started and ended when shelling
halted. As the letter quoted at the beginning of this text shows, tables and chairs frequently had to be borrowed back from the army, while teachers delivered lectures
using improvised materials, such as photocopies of old books. When one informal
location became too dangerous (due to fighting or shelling in the area), classes relocated to another.
Perhaps due to this fluid and malleable organization of educational activities,
students became quite aware of their geographical, physical, and social environment.
When prompted to write about one school day during the siege, Senad recounts:
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Fig. 3. War School. During
the siege educational activities relocated to makeshift
classrooms located preliminarily in basements of neighboring buildings, local retail
spaces, and bomb shelters.
These spaces became better
known as “war schools.” In
this picture you can see children wearing winter hats,
scarves, and jackets as they attend a war school class in one
Sarajevo basement. Photo reproduced with permission of
the Historical Museum of
Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Schooling during the war implied the classrooms in the shops, basements, apartments, hair
salons. Usually these rooms were very close by and in 7–10 minutes we would arrive to the
“school”. It is interesting that in ‘93 all students from grade 1 to 4 for 2 months attended
classes together. Almost 200 students in the great hall of the atomic shelter in Breka... sad.
Books we received in the form of copies, pencils and notebooks we received as donations. I
remember when I got the report card which said that I finished the 4th grade.
Examining this vivid and broad description of schooling during the war from the
perspective of narrative content in its relationship to environment, it is particularly
striking to observe a number of references to geospatial aspects such as: neighborhoods (Breka), buildings, their prior uses, functions, and locations (shops, basements,
apartments, hair salons, atomic shelter). Furthermore, even though these events took
place more than 20 years ago, Senad’s precise quantification of the time it took to get
to the school, the number of students attending class (almost 200), the length of the
school year (2 months), and the desegregation of students by grade (all students from
grade 1 to 4) is detailed and precise. Except for the sole reference to an emotional state
(sad) and one explicit reference to a personal memory (I remember when I got the report card…), the narrative content does not directly reveal much about the narrator’s
own thoughts and feelings. Rather, Senad relies on environmental elements to structure and enact his cognition and thoughts about these events. As his narrative response
shows, during this period, Senad was quite attuned to the meaning and significance of
environmental elements of his daily life. He is able to recall a great number of precise
details about schooling during the siege, as he narrates about the changes in functional significance of many environmental elements that surround him.
Psychologists tend to think of cognition exclusively in terms of higher psychological functions such as problem-solving, reasoning, conceptualizing, remembering,
etc., and emotions in terms of anxiety, depression, and trauma. However, as Gibson
[1991] points out, these processes “begin with and depend on knowledge that is obtained through perception” (p. 494). Due to war, armed fighting, and the informal
and malleable nature of educational activities that the young people growing up in
Sarajevo were involved in, their daily activities during the siege often required ex-
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treme vigilance, alertness, and attentional focus. In other words, young people growing up in Sarajevo were often required to shift the mode of interaction with their environmental affordances from the unmediated first-order experience to the secondorder mode of knowing [Heft, 2003].
Because these young people were placed in situations that required a heightened
process of making sense of the environment, their narratives allow us to observe how
their cognitive functions directly draw on a foundation attained through perception.
Asked to describe one school day during the siege, Safija writes the following:
Every day was different. I was in my second year of high school when the war started. The
school could not be in its usual place because of the shelling, and was transferred to another place which we could reach. And that was pretty far away. One had to walk about 10 minutes and during that time period this was too long.
The narrator starts with emphasis on causality in relation to environmental elements, when she writes that because of the shelling the school was transferred to another place which the students could reach. However, in further analyzing this narrative excerpt we are aided by Safija, the narrator, who highlights a number of formal
elements directly in the narrative content. In particular, the dimension of time, which
implicitly frames the entire narrative is explicitly referenced (everyday, second year,
10 minutes) in relation to environmental factors such as space, distance, and their
subjective meaning. If she had to walk 10 minutes to school under peaceful conditions, Safija would not have interpreted the school as being pretty far away. She is
aware of this and hence explains that during the siege and due to obvious dangers
inherent to this situation this was too long. By analyzing the language Safija employs
to makes sense of her experience, as readers we can observe how time and space, as
well as the subjective meaning of these two important categories, are juxtaposed and
re-examined in light of their shifting functional significance.
In dangerous situations, characterized by abrupt and frequent changes to routine
daily activities, the processes of perceptual and ecological learning – referring to an
increase in the ability to extract information from the environment – becomes understandably heightened. It is therefore not surprising that spatial-causal-temporal relationships were often emphasized in narratives that describe situations of war. Such
relationships help enable an understanding of how participants enact their sociocognitive processes even when considering events that happened more than 20 years ago.
Responding to the writing prompt about one school day during the siege, Sena also
reveals a heightened awareness of her environment as she writes:
In the center of town, where our apartment was located, there were no snipers but shells
were falling around the clock. I went on foot and frequently it happened that we would be
sent back home because the shelling started. The school was transferred to another building
(now the building of BKC), and classes were held in the hallway. The classroom was improvised. We were in the hallway, sitting in chairs, and we kept books on our laps. The school
was held depending on whether or not there was electricity.
In addition to contextual markers (center of town, another building, hallway,
chairs etc.), Sena overtly alerts the reader to the conditions of war by mentioning snipers and shelling. She also indicates a complex and sensible environmental awareness
by writing there were no snipers but shells were falling around the clock in the area in
which her apartment was located. Environmental context is further brought to bear
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on her experience at the point when Sena mentions that here classes were held in a
hallway. Just like basements, hallways of large buildings were often chosen as setting
for classes because they are commonly designed on the inside of the building – not
facing the street, and thereby not directly facing artillery fire.
In Sena’s narrative, the second-order mode of knowing in relation to environmental affordances is explicitly highlighted through her use of prepositions in narrative. A preposition is a word or set of words that indicates location (in, near, beside,
on top of) or some other relationship between a noun or pronoun and other parts of
the sentence (about, after, besides, instead of, in accordance with). As narrative devices, prepositions introduce key and necessary spatial-relational information hence
orienting the reader through the narrated space. For example, Sena mentions that
classes were held in the hallway, that students were sitting in chairs with books on our
laps. In general, participants used prepositions almost twice as much when writing
about their life during the siege, than when writing about pre- or postwar activities.
Frequent use of prepositions renders this short narrative so precise and telling
that a reader can almost imagine the improvised classroom in the hallway with students in it.
Throughout the response, Sena also infuses her narrative with personal elements, such as the location of her apartment and the book on her lap. Furthermore,
narrative markers of causality are employed to logically and explicitly indicate relations among events and their environmental context as she writes we would be sent
back home because the shelling started. However, noticeably absent from this spatially and contextually rich narrative are any overt references to the narrator’s own
emotional health, trauma, and/or explicit suffering. This example is consistent with
recent findings on the relatively constrained character expressions in autobiographical narratives as compared to their expansive and psychologically rich expressions
in third-person narratives [Daiute, 2005, 2010; Daiute, Todorova, & Kovacs-Cerović,
The relocation of schools to basements and other informal spaces clearly afforded the possibility of attending classes to a great number of children living in Sarajevo during the siege. However, due to occupation of certain city areas by Serbian
troops (particularly Grbavica, Hrasnica, and Iliđza), a number of children were released from school entirely. Some of these children were on their own, and had to
fend for themselves in order to survive or to provide sustenance for their fragmented families. Some joined the Bosnian army, participating in noncombat activities
and carrying out practical and technical responsibilities related to supplying the
fighting troops. One such group of adolescent boys worked in an army facility known
as the Sarajevo War Tunnel. Examining the way in which these men use language to
make sense of their activities as boys in and around the tunnel further highlights the
relationship between the environmental affordances and their psychological development.
Tunnel of Hope
As the siege of Sarajevo intensified during the early months of 1993, it was becoming increasingly difficult to supply the city with basic necessities and to equip the army
with ammunition. The confluence of civilian and military needs contributed to the
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120 cm
160 cm
220 cm
80 cm
100 cm
160 cm
Fig. 4. Cross-section of the tunnel. The cavity of the tunnel was narrow and low. At first the tun-
nel was a wooden muddy path through which supplies had to be carried by hand. Within the first
year a mine railway track was laid allowing for small carts with supplies to be pushed through the
tunnel. The final construction of the tunnel included permanent lighting, a 12-megawatt voltage
cable, a telephone cable, and a gasoline supply pipe aimed at providing essential services to the
besieged city.
decision to build a tunnel underneath the runway of Sarajevo Airport that would link
the city with government outposts in the Neretva River Valley. Digging at the average
speed of roughly 3 m/day, over the period of 5 months [Zorlak, 2014], units of the
Bosnian army completed a tunnel under the airport’s runway in June of 1993. The aim
of the project was to link Dobrinja and Butmir – two neighborhoods at the outskirts
of the city and in close proximity to the airport (fig. 1). This clandestine project, in effect, established a supply route that started in the besieged city, passed through the
tunnel, exited south of Sarajevo Airport at Butmir, and went on to the government
outpost across Mt. Igman. From there, mountain roads could be used to reach the
Adriatic coast from where goods and ammunition could be imported into the country.
Officially named Objekat Dobrinja-Butmir (now better known as the Sarajevo
War Tunnel or the Tunnel of Hope), the length of the tunnel according to the technical plans was 785.5 m (859 yards) with an average height of 150 cm (4 feet 11 inches)
and an average width of 1 m (3 feet 4 inches) [Branković, 1993] (fig. 4). However, due
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to various technical considerations at certain portions toward the middle of the tunnel, the height dropped to only 110 centimeters (3 feet 6 inches). Similarly, the length
of the tunnel that had to be traversed by those who passed through was actually closer to 1,400 m (1,530 yards) due to the existence of two masked transit points that were
built in order to camouflage the exits and protect them from shelling.
While a deeper and wider tunnel would have undoubtedly made the transportation of goods and the movement of people easier, the geotechnical characteristics of
the terrain, such as the dense presence of underground water streams that frequently flooded the tunnel, did not allow for a more robust engineering project [Zorlak,
2014]. Even after it opened, flooding was frequent. It is reported that individuals
passing often walked through the tunnel up to their waist in water [Andreas, 2008;
Halilbegović, 2008; Zorlak, 2014]. For the next 28 months, as the tunnel continued
to function, electricity, phone lines, and fuel pipes were connected in order to supply
the city with limited electricity, phone service, and diesel fuel. Rails were installed in
1994 in order to carry 6 mining cars. This made it possible to push rather than carry
goods through the tunnel. Over the next two and a half years of its existence, this
narrow tunnel served as the de facto lifeline of the city, with approximately 400,000
people and more than 3 million kg (6.7 million lb) of food passing through [Šadinlija,
The convergence of geotechnical and logistical elements limited the type and
range of activities that adults could carry out inside the tunnel. Adults of an average
height could rarely stand up straight in it or move quickly through its narrow cavity
(fig. 5). However, the constraints imposed by the tunnel presented a unique set of affordances for adolescent boys who matched its height and width almost perfectly.
Short in height compared to adults, while physically strong in contrast to even younger children, they could carry heavy loads while standing upright and walking swiftly
through the narrow and low cavity of the tunnel. For the duration of the siege, together with other army personnel, these boys frequently carried loads weighing more
than 50 kg (110 lb) filled with army supplies and goods for civilian consumption.
While their same-age peers attended war schools throughout the city, a group of
approximately 30 adolescent boys spent a significant portion of their time in and
around the tunnel and the accompanying military installations. Most often these were
orphaned boys who lost one or both parents during the early days of the war. In order
to survive, they frequently had little or no alternative but to join the Bosnian Army as
auxiliary military personnel. In the interviews conducted as part of preparation for
narrative data collection, they overwhelmingly draw attention to the distinction between a soldier and a fighter. Emphasizing that while they were, strictly speaking,
registered as solders in the army, they did not fight at the front lines, but rather carried out technical and logistical supply tasks.
After it opened, access to the tunnel was strictly reserved for military use. But as
the siege progressed, the rules were relaxed and the transport of commercial goods
was allowed. A dynamic underground economy (quite literally) quickly developed,
turning the tunnel into a major war-profiteering center [for a detailed study of blackmarket economy in Sarajevo, see Andreas, 2008]. Informal groups (largely operating
in gray economic zones) organized to supply the besieged city with meat, cigarettes,
gasoline, sweets, alcohol, and other (otherwise unavailable) commodities frequently
employed the labor of these adolescent boys. Reflecting over this period of his life,
Vedad, one of the boys who worked in the tunnel almost from its inception explains:
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Fig. 5. Adult walking through the tunnel attempting to stand up straight. The built structure limited the type and range of activities
that adults could carry out inside the tunnel.
Adults of an average height could rarely stand
up straight in the tunnel or move quickly
through its narrow cavity.
We worked 6 – 6, as a soldier for 6 days you are with the army and 6 days you are stationed
in the city. So for those 6 days that you are stationed in the city you have a note, either from
your commander or someone else higher up the chain in the military that allows you to pass
through the tunnel – in principle, between ‘94 and ‘95 most of the smuggling happened,
mostly coffee, oil, sugar, salt.
Rich with temporal markers (6 days, year ‘94 and ‘95), the narrative written by
Vedad enables the reader to situate his activities temporally. At the height of military
operations, his time was split between being stationed with the army (working close
to the front lines) and being stationed in the city (either off duty, or working in the
tunnel). Environmental aspects referenced in the narrative, such as spaces, objects
and goods (tunnel, a note, coffee, oil, sugar, salt) add a material dimension to this narrative which, in essence, provides the reader with information about how Vedad
made sense of his social position in this highly unusual context. Having the ability to
pass through the tunnel was a privilege which was bestowed on the boys by the commanders and could lead to the profitable work. It was affirmed by a note which aside
from being a physical property afforded Vedad much symbolic meaning. It allowed
him to pass through the tunnel. The narrative shows that Vedad is quite aware of the
social hierarchy, he is so immersed in the microcosm of the tunnel that he does not
even reference the enemy, or the fighting, that is happening outside.
Daily activities for Vedad and other children were fraught with danger. Bosnian
Serb forces occasionally shelled both tunnel entrances; in May 1995, a shell killed 11
people waiting to pass. Perhaps due to the overwhelming danger, from the vantage
point of the young people, just getting to the tunnel often assumed fictional elements.
Amar, who began working in the tunnel at the age of 15, writes the following in response to the narrative probe about his first experience in the tunnel:
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Getting to the tunnel looked like a war movie. Since I lived on the other side of town, the
trip was followed by gunfire and explosions until Dobrinja (where the tunnel was located)
and was a really scary experience. Afterwards the soldiers stationed at the entrance hurriedly guided us through the ruined and destroyed buildings to the house where the entrance/exit was located.
The psychological aspects implicit in this narrative are once again brought together by the juxtaposition of spatial and contextual references. Drawing directly
from his experiences, Amar provides a careful reader with the opportunity to retrace
and reimagine his journey from home to the tunnel, and to relive some of the experiences involved in it. Yet, he makes sense of it by comparing it to a war movie. This is
understandable, given that prior to the onset of the siege, his primary experience of
war was mediated through films. We can see cinematographic elements in his narrative in the next sentence, when he mentions that the trip to the tunnel was followed
by gunfire and explosions. Additionally, Amar weaves together a number of spatial
and contextual features important to this work. In particular, he uses the narrative to
indicate the location of his home other side of town, employing the adjective other
relative to the tunnel which was located in Dobrinja. At the point when he reaches the
ruined and destroyed buildings the reader is, yet again much like in Vedad’s narrative,
alerted to the hierarchy and the social organization surrounding the tunnel, as soldiers at the entrance hurriedly guide Amar to the house where the entrance/exit was
While vivid and descriptive of their lives during the siege, the responses by the
participants also point toward the development of sociocognitive functions required
by the specific sociocultural circumstances inherent to the tunnel. To illustrate how
their work in the tunnel brought these boys into situations that required them to
make sense of situations that would, under more peaceful conditions, be interpreted
as well above their age – consider the following fragment of a story recounted by Jašar
[Lucić, 2016a] who started working in the tunnel when he turned 13, having just finished the 7th grade:
…I was on my day off [from the Army] and I passed [though the tunnel] in one direction,
they would note in my military ID that I passed in the direction from Dobrinja to Butmir…
That was the regular method of passing through the tunnel, and then there were the irregular ways… when someone whispers in your ear – would you carry goods for Begler-beg? So
they would form a group of about 20 of us, and that’s it… The commander tells you, this
evening, from 7 till about 10 pm we are moving goods for Begler-beg – and 20 of us would
show up at the entrance to the tunnel – no one else would be around, everyone clears off, as
if Bill Clinton was coming to pass through the tunnel, no military police, no one. So sometime it happens that you come out really tired, around 10:30 pm and people who are waiting
to pass through the tunnel are asking the guards – did general so and so pass? Come on let
us through!
Examining the narrative content, it becomes clear that Jašar is primarily using
this narrative to emphasize and invoke the covert elements of his experience. He does
this presumably to put an emphasis on the point that the tunnel, as an environmental
affordance, allowed him multiple opportunities to form social ties and to realize economic gain. By serving as the sole route in and out of the city, during the siege the
tunnel served not only as a place where profit could be made, but as a central context
for the formation of social capital. Confluence of military, economic, and civilian factors brought individuals of diverse ages, professions, and intentions together in time
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and space. A reader can further observe the emphasis on the clandestine nature of
Jašar’s activities through references to commander who appears to be in charge of the
logistical operation, as well as a reference to someone who whispered into Jašar’s ear
and recruits him to work for Begler-beg – one of the informal smuggling groups operating in the tunnel [Andreas, 2008]. Furthermore, negations employed in the narrative, at instances when he mentions that no one else would be around….no military
police…no one, are used to further emphasize exclusivity of his task.
How context is directly related to psychological processes becomes clear when
we consider Jašar’s swift reactions to deviations from the expected course of events at
the narrative junction he mentions that there was a regular method [of passing
through the tunnel]… then there were the irregular ways. This is the instance in the
story when, rather than merely passing through the tunnel, he is recruited to smuggle
goods. By juxtaposing regular and irregular ways of passing through the tunnel, he
logically qualifies referential activity (what happened), and shows the ability to make
sense of interruptions to the expected (canonical or culturally scripted) circumstances. The narrative form thus alerts us to the psychological process by which Jašar logically relates and integrates a series of events that may be interpreted by others as
highly anxiety provoking.
From a formal perspective, a number of material features such as the military ID,
entrance to the tunnel, as well as temporal references (day off, from 7 till about 10 pm,
around 10:30 pm) act as a narrative frame. While recounting his initial encounter with
the tunnel, Jašar examines his experience by weaving together various cognitive functions in order to make sense of his activities. Sense-making here involves a number
of elements directly related to environmental affordances, such as spatial location
markers (at the entrance to the tunnel) and his direction of movement (direction from
Dobrinja to Butmir), his temporal understanding (time of day, length of passage, etc.)
and causal-relational reasoning (so they would form a group… commander, other
boys). Such elements, undoubtedly important in psychological experience of an individual, are frequently neglected by psychological research at the expense of exploring
more intrapersonal processes. By examining Jasar’s narrative, we can clearly see how
environmental affordances become potential contexts of development that we must
consider, as they determine, frame, invite and manage a number of internal psychological processes.
Seen as a major cognitive and emotional challenge even in peaceful times, the
developmental process of making sense is theoretically described as occurring
through iterative and narrativized use of language across a variety of settings [Daiute
& Nelson, 1997; Nelson, 1985]. However, while the process of sense-making often
involves construction, interpretation, enactment, and expression of the multiple relational meanings, the analysis offered in this work shows that individuals growing
up in extremely challenging and rapidly changing environments specifically draw on
spatial, causal, and temporal relations as they attempt to make sense of their everyday
activities. Hence, it would not come as a surprise, if their subsequent cognitive processes are overwhelmingly shaped by the attentional focus on environmental affordances.
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Conclusion: The Effects of War Persist Long after Armed Fighting Has Ended
The postwar period is often characterized by an unstable and explosive political
situation, multiple social and economic tensions, and altered physical environment.
While war technically ends with the conclusion of armed fighting, its effects persist
long after armed fighting has ended [Collier, 2003]. Human social activities rarely (if
ever) return to their prewar routines. Furthermore, the effects of urban destruction
(and subsequent rebuilding) greatly alter the structures of activities for individuals
living in postwar societies. As some physical and symbolic structures are destroyed,
others emerge. Environments enabling prewar routines and mores of life are regularly transformed or entirely replaced by the emergence of new structures, both built
and social.
Developmentally, an entire generation of children and youth is affected by armed
fighting, displacement, political instability, and interrupted education during a war.
In the immediate aftermath of war, young people living in Bosnia were faced with
ethnic and social tensions that characterized the postwar transition. In order to successfully navigate such context, they require vigilant cognitive and tactful social skills.
Given the typically chaotic conditions during times of war, it is counterintuitive to
think that it is precisely during this period that young people were offered possibilities to develop the knowledge and skills that they will need in order to successfully
navigate in their postwar environment.
In the attempt to highlight the relationship between education, learning and cognitive development, Bruner [1960] notes that “the first object of any act of learning...
is that it should serve us in the future” (p. 17). Preparing war-affected young people
to assume responsibilities of adulthood in postwar environments entails equipping
them with skills and knowledge that will serve them in a volatile transitional context.
While it may sound counter to common sense to theorize that an impoverished and
war-afflicted developmental context can enable the emergence of adaptive cognitive
skills, this case study and other emerging research are increasingly pointing in this
direction. By examining the context-dependent aspects of human development, researchers are starting to show that even during extremely dangerous and challenging
situations, development activates uniquely human capacities of sense-making, meaning-making, thought, and creativity, which children and adolescents learn to use in
context-specific ways [Daiute, 2010; Daiute & Lucić, 2010; Lucić, 2013, 2016b; for an
overview, also see Daiute, Beykont, Higson-Smith, & Nucci, 2006].
It is never easy, lest it be too easy, to construct a comprehensive assessment of
cognitive development during the acute phase of war. However, the relative historical
distance of 20 years since the end of the Bosnian War allows for a better understanding of the events that shaped the lives of the young people who contributed to this
work. This historical distance also allows us to conceptualize the role of affordances
as environmental interventions enabling development and further cognitive growth.
As the narrative data reported in this work shows, young people who attended the
war schools or who worked in the Sarajevo War Tunnel developed psychological
functions that could become particularly useful in the context of their contemporary
lives. Even 20 years after the siege of Sarajevo, psychological functions developed during the siege can enable them to meet the challenges of life in an ethnically fragmented society where cultural scripts are often negotiated, rules are implicit, and norms
are intersubjectively defined.
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Bosnian society today is still functioning in the long shadow of the war. The
relative peace brought about by the conclusion of the hostilities in 1995 is nonetheless
characterized by a volatile social situation. The economy is very weak, the rates of
unemployment among youth and adults are over 40%, and the political situation is
characterized by a fragmented and dysfunctional government. Not surprisingly, perhaps the most emotionally laden narratives were written by participants when they
were instructed to write a letter to a friend who moved abroad and use this letter to
explain how Sarajevo has changed since the end of the war. In her response to this
prompt, Amra writes:
Everything changed. It was horrible to see the city that you once loved so much and comprehend that it no longer exists. Everything was destroyed and ruined. Old friendships are
no longer here. Many have gone and many of them died. Grief and disbelief. During the war,
we made new friends and that gave us strength to go on. There was not time to think. We
did not want any pity. Afterwards, the city began to be built again. New smiling faces were
there. There are many new residents in the city now. Unfortunately, we have to adapt to
them rather than they adapting to us. Primitivism comes from all directions. Corruption
and thieves are everywhere. Yet again Sarajevo has something, it is still the most beautiful
city in the world.
When comparing this postwar narrative to multiple examples of prewar and war
narratives presented earlier in this work, we can observe differences in formal narrative aspects as well as the narrative content. Due to the phrasing of the prompt, participants were given the opportunity to describe the environmental and spatial changes in Sarajevo – yet their narrative responses were largely devoid of such environmental detail. These postwar narratives are also characterized by a less frequent use of
prepositions, causal connectors or spatial-temporal references in comparison to two
other narrative contexts.
One way to explain these differences is by considering the cognitive psychological processes and relate them to their environmental context. Through their everyday
experiences during the siege, young people such as Amra were often required to shift
the mode of interaction with their environmental affordances from the unmediated
first-order experience to the second-order mode of knowing [Heft, 2003]. Because of
this, their process of sense-making during the siege was shaped by environmental
forms present in the context of their activities. However, when narrating about the
events in the aftermath of the war, Amra shifts back from the heightened awareness
in relation to her environment. In the absence of the rich juxtapositions of cognitive
and environmental elements that characterized their narrative responses about the
events during the war, participants primarily used the postwar narratives to describe
an overall dissatisfaction with their current sociocultural environment.
In terms of formal narrative aspects, the postwar narratives were far richer in
emotional references when compared to the narratives written about the times under
siege. On the other hand, specific references to streets, buildings, parks, as well as time
and context are largely absent when participants described the change in Sarajevo
since the end of the war. This is even more surprising given the massive rebuilding of
urban landscape that was conducted in Sarajevo in the 20 years following the war. For
this reason alone, it would not be hard to imagine that the content of postwar narratives would be infused with multiple references to the process of rebuilding. Additionally, a particularly striking point standing out in stark contrast to the rest of Amra’s narrative – that generally attempts to describe the unfortunate situation, the grief,
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and the disbelief – is the juncture where she references the siege and explains that
during the war, we made new friends and that gave us strength to go on. Characteristic
of the narratives describing the postwar context is that, in light of the current circumstances, the period of war is often employed as a narrative high point around which
the past and future are organized. In the postwar narratives, the time of war was very
frequently described as a dynamic, socially rich, and creative time period.
When considering child and adolescent development, contemporary psychology
often tends to make a distinction between perception, social interaction, and cognition. This distinction is misguided as it artificially tries to separate a complex psychological function of sense-making that is directed toward the solution of a problem at
hand. Moreover, as narratives explored in this work show, environment that surrounds the developing individual bears direct relevance on sociocognitive development, both by framing interactions and affording possibilities for action. To rephrase
the famous principle of modernist architecture, which states that “form follows function” – and suggests that the shape of a building or object should be primarily based
upon its intended function or purpose – we can say that during the times of war development of “psychological functions follows environmental forms”. Contemporary
psychology would benefit from further exploration of cognitive processes in relation
to their environmental origins.
Furthermore, narratives examined in this work show that children who grew up
during the siege of Sarajevo are neither hopeless nor revengeful, and certainly not a
lost generation. If anything, they are trying hard to make sense of their lives, which
have been characterized by seismic social and environmental changes. Therefore, in
addition to considering questions such as how do children who experience the war
and are not affected by psychopathology respond, contemporary psychology would
be wise to consider the interfunctional relationship between the environmental, emotional, cognitive and sociocultural developmental spheres among the war-affected
population. As this theoretical analysis shows, by focusing on the relationship between environmental learning and cognitive growth, we can explore whether or not
growing up during armed conflict contributes to the development of psychological
functions that may otherwise remain dormant. Additionally, understanding how
abrupt and frequent exposures to a changing environment of everyday life during the
time of war affect an individual’s ability to make sense of novel situations later in life
can contribute toward designing environments that can be used to prepare young
people to meet, and hopefully overcome, developmental challenges of our rapidly
changing world.
This study is a part of research that was made possible by the financial support of the Mellon Foundation Fellowship for Faculty Research and Faculty Development Fund of Pratt Institute. The author would like to thank the Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina for their
hospitality and immense assistance with the collection of archival data necessary for this research
project. Without their help, this study would not have happened. Additionally, gratitude goes to
the Department of Psychology at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, Turkey for their hospitality,
support and engaging conversations during the early stages of this research.
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