When the Dead Open the Eyes of the Living
Complicating Care (3/13)

When the Dead Open the Eyes of the Living

In Zagreb, Croatia, the Women to Women collective commemorates lives lost along the Balkan migrant trail through slow craft stitching as a gesture of care and protest.

Between 2015 and 2016 nearly one million refugees crossed the Western Balkans in an attempt to enter the European Union. Migrants hoping to settle in northern and western Europe traveled from the Middle East (Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan) as well as North, West and East Africa, making their way through Turkey, Greece, North Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Hungary. In 2016, the route was officially closed as part of the Turkey-EU agreement, which delayed the journeys of migrants desperate to escape oppression at home and added months to the journeys of migrants who were already along their routes. Those who reached the EU were turned back by border guards.

Due to the increased security presence at the southern border of Hungary, refugees were forced to reroute and travel instead through Bosnia and Herzegovina. Along the route, refugees endure harsh environmental conditions, and even if they reach a border are often caught and returned in what is called “push back.” Many die along the way from accidents, exposure to harsh conditions, old landmines, and drowning.

The Passage is a series of embroidered portraits on fabric, hand-dyed with local plant materials, as an enactment of memorialization and rage at the violence of the border system. Traditionally, needlework spans many cultures and often—but not always—lands in the laps of women. The feminist tradition of using needlework as resistance both reclaims and subverts the labour of handwork traditionally expected of women and engages with it as an intentional and slow craft of shared or personal resistance, particularly in the face of industrialization. For banich and other artists reclaiming handwork as resistance, it is the deliberate, slow care embodied in this work that acts as a response to injustice imposed by border regimes on human lives at their most vulnerable.

selma banich is an artist and activist in Croatia who works with the Women to Women Collective (WWC) in handwork as activism. In the following article, banich offers insight into a project called The Passage, a labour of handwork as commemoration taken on by banich and the WWC in 2021 to address border violence and migrant deaths along the Balkan trail. 

Anna Bowen

When the Dead Open the Eyes of the Living 1

In a small village cemetery in Prilišće, near where the upper course of Kolpa river outlines Croatia’s border with Slovenia—and thus the Schengen Area—an anonymous wooden obelisk marks the burial site of an unidentified body. A hole freshly-dug in the ground reveals the complex limitations of the freedom of movement. The sound of families mourning their loved one reflects off the surface of a nearby river towards the cracks in the ground where the body resides. Human remains rot under the weight of the earth, as we stand over the grave in emotional turmoil. 

Last summer, I joined Marijana Hameršak and her associates from ERIM (The European Irregularized Migration Regime at the Periphery of the EU: from Ethnography to Keywords)2 on a series of ethnographic research projects in Karlovac County, Croatia, This frontier land, shared with Slovenia and Bosnia and Herzegovinia, quickly became one of the most heavily-trafficked and deadliest clandestine passages from Bosnia and Herzegovina to the EU after the closure of the Balkan Corridor in 2016. Our research was focused on understanding deaths on the fringes of the EU borders, which led us to local cemeteries where we attempted to retrace the postmortem itineraries of migrants.3

Those who die along the Balkan migrant trail are too often buried without a name, without any indication of identity or context for their suffering, which renders them invisible and disposable. Communal, state, and consular institutions in Croatia care for people on the move only when the living become corpses. 

The hidden migrant graves, scattered all around the world, are sites of pain and loss caused by various regimes of oppression. Deaths along the migrant trails around the globe, from the Balkans to the Americas, are not accidents resulting from treacherous, inhospitable terrain. Rather, the migrants’ suffering and death is the inevitable outcome of the existing political and economic systems of oppression and capitalist exploitation, and the social hierarchies in which we all participate. It is illusory and misleading to believe that along the current migrant routes, which lie in the midst of an inherently destructive system, borders can truly be democratized and asylum systems reformed. Rather, borders themselves and oppressive migration laws are working against human freedoms of movement and resettlement.

Therefore, our present political demands should be aimed at creating a borderless world. Ultimately, current transnational, and trans-local calls for the liberation of humans and the planet as a whole by various indigenous communities, migrant, anti-capitalist, anarchist, anti-racist, feminist, and queer liberation collectives, and animal and earth liberation movements, offer hope that a world without borders and border violence can be imagined, and moreover, achieved.

The images that accompany this article are a part of The Passage Memorial4 collection, which consists of 36 memorial portraits of people who have died along the Balkan migrant trail.5 The portraits were handcrafted with red and black thread on a botanically dyed fabric by artists, researchers, translators, and other members and supporters of the Women to Women collective6 and ERIM research project, during a series of art and research workshops held in Zagreb, from Winter 2020, to Spring 2021. 

By mourning the dead together—those who have been marked as expendable, undesirable, worthless—with this act of radical commemoration, woven with a simple needle and thread, we condemn the past and present of fascism. By practicing weaving as an act of collective remembering, we embrace both the tame and tender surfaces, and the power of the mordant.7 We embrace the passage—the flow from a fading autumn leaf to an early spring sprout, from a pale botanical imprint, to a memorial. 

The Passage: Storytelling by Lija from the Women to Women Collective
red and white stitching of  man with beard
Lija’s memorial stitch for a 20-year-old man from Syria, who died from hypothermia and exhaustion in Slovenia, November 2019. His family in Germany hurried to his aid after receiving his call for help from a forest near Ilirska Bistrica, ten miles from the Croatia-Slovenia border. Unfortunately, it was too late. He died in front of the police station in Ilirska Bistrica.
To Rashid and an unnamed refugee,
We never got a chance to meet. I’ve tried so many times to imagine your passage; from the first time you opened your eyes to the very last. I’ve imagined you taking your first wobbly steps, your mother’s voice coaxing you forward, arms wide open, and your tears when you stumble and bruise your knee. 

Did you ever climb a tree, experience that exhilarating sense of looking down at the world while being hidden away in the branches? This feeling is how I describe my childhood; teenage-hood was like being pulled out of my hiding spot in the branches and forced to confront reality—the wonderful as well as the awful.
What did you dream of when you imagined a better life? As a teenager I longed for acceptance, for someone to hold me tight and tell me that I was loved no matter what. My heart clinches in pain knowing your loved ones will never embrace you again.
I want you to be more than just another story, another name, another statistic. And even without knowing you, without knowing who you loved and who loved you, with this stitch I embrace you, all of you, for the first and last time.
With love, 

Author's Note: The Passage Memorial is currently on display at the History Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo as part of the Wake up, Europe–Support and solidarity mobilisations for Bosnia and Herzegovina and its citizens during the 1992-1995 war exhibition.


[1] The title refers to the monument The Dead Open The Eyes Of The Living by Stanko Jančić. To honour the inhabitants of Jasenovac who died during World War II, the monument was erected in the park in the center of the village. During the entire time that Jasenovac concentration camp was in operation, the inhabitants of Jasenovac and the surrounding area lived under a special regime. Their fate was directly linked to the nearby camp. They would witness prisoners being brought to the camp and killed on a daily basis. They tried to help, as often as circumstances would allow, but they risked their lives in offering even crumbs of bread or scraps of fruit, or by carrying messages or performing other small services.

[2] Research project The European Irregularized Migration Regime at the Periphery of the EU: from Ethnography to Keywords (ERIM) coordinated by The Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Research, and financed by The Croatian Science Foundation (IP 2019-04-6642), strives to document and analyse irregularized migrations in the transnational space formed by migratory movements that in various directions cross borders between Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia etc. Based on the multi-sited ethnographic research (observation, participation, interviews and other methods), research associates from Croatia, Slovenia and Serbia in the framework of ERIM aim to encompass the levels and experiences of different agents, from refugees and other migrants, to members of local communities, and employees and representatives of local authorities, international and other organizations. By distancing from the notion that the migration regime is a signifier of the abstract and monolithic power of the state, ERIM approaches the irregularized migration regime as a dynamic field of heterogeneous and even opposed practices and interactions of various actors that are articulated in specific ways on the peripheries of the EU.

The goal of the project is to document and explore these specifics on multiple levels, and to offer their empirically based and theoretically relevant conceptualizations. The expected outcomes (primarily, the keywords collection, i.e. a network of ethnographically documented and analytically elaborated concepts within the individual research papers, project publications, and the e-ERIM multimedia internet platform) will be aimed at contributing to a deeper understanding of the contradictions and potentials of the concept of migration regime and irregularized migration movements in the academic, but also the broader social sphere.

[3] A postmortem itinerary or postmortal migrant journey are the practices of notifying, identifying, burying, mourning, commemorating and representing various material and immaterial dimensions of border deaths (cf. Kobelinsky 2020). Kobelinsky, Carolina 2020. “On Border Deaths Management and Ungrievability”. ERIM Keywords (2021, draft version).

[4] Artistic, commemorative, and decolonial practice of The Passage Memorial represents a continuation of previous fierce collaborations, intertwining fabric artwork They Can’t Kill Us All – Love & Rage crafted for International Women’s Day and the Memorial Page launched by Transbalkan Solidarity in the summer of 2020, and is based on the ethnographic fieldwork conducted within ERIM.

[5] As formulated by Maurice Stierl, counter-memorialization is a practice based on the “merging of grief for particular and general losses with a radical critique of the European border regime” (2016: 184). Stierl, Maurice. 2016. “Contestations in Death. The Role of Grief in Migration Struggles”. Citizenship Studies 20/2: 173-191. ERIM Keywords (2021, draft version).

[6] Since 2016, the Women to Women collective has been a key No Borders program at Živi Atelje DK. Through workshops, gatherings, excursions and public engagements, this project empowers participants socially, therapeutically and economically through skills learned. Women build a support network and shared values of mutual understanding, tolerance and embracing of diversity.

[7] Any substance used to facilitate the fixing of a dye to a fibre; usually a metallic compound which reacts with the dye using chelation.

Filed Under: Articles & Essays


selma banich (1979, Yugoslavia) is an artist, activist and community organizer. Her socially engaged art practice is grounded in explorative, processual, and activist work, and is politically inspired by anarchism and feminism. selma has worked independently and in collaboration with other artists, curators, groups, and initiatives in the Balkans, Europe, and the US.

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