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Letter From Sarajevo

A friend and colleague recently sent this missive from Sarajevo. Doug had been working on an investigative journalism project, and he has great insights into the history and culture of this region. He has graciously allowed me to share his thoughts here. Soon, I will have the pleasure and honor of working with Doug on a journalism training course in Thailand.

Dear Friends,

Sarajevo is a wounded beauty. Its great virtue—ethnic diversity—once a source of civic pride, somehow turned malignant. The city was savaged. For four years, death rained from Bosnian Serb guns from the surrounding hillsides. An estimated 10,000 died in the city. Everyone was wounded. The city survived.* Now, 13 years later, most of the city’s physical wounds have been patched with mortar and hidden under a fresh coat of paint. Cafes along the famous Ferhadija esplanade hum with coffee conversation of fashionable young people, some too young to remember well the war. Now each man and woman who does remember seeks his or her path to the future as best they can. Times are better, but they are uncertain.

I have been in Sarajevo for 11 weeks as an editor for the Center for Investigative Reporting, an NGO launched four years ago by an American journalist. A staff of 10 Bosnian journalists work on investigative projects usually dealing with corruption and organized crime.

Every evening on my way home from the center, I walk through a lovely park. Kids neck on the park benches between the tombstones that seem to sprout like mushrooms where they will. Most are venerable and stained with age. Some are among the thousands of new white markers throughout the city that bear the dates of the war – 1991-1995.

I was last in Sarajevo in 2002, and the city was a lot worse for wear. The big landmark buildings were still sullen, pockmarked gray hulks then. In the basement of one of them, a group of journalists risked life and limb to put out Oslobodenje, a daily newspaper that published throughout the siege with support from journalistic colleagues abroad. The feat has become legend in the journalism world. Several died as they drove the gauntlet of sniper fire down the main boulevard from the city center to the office. I had a coffee with one of the staffers last week. I asked him what drove the staff to risk their lives to get the news out. He said, “Do you want the answer we give everybody, or do you want the truth?” He said matter of factly that, yes, it was dangerous putting out the paper. But the journalists were excused from the military, which was more dangerous, and they were paid 50 Duetch Marks a month. His version didn’t diminish the staff’s bravery, but it did add a nice balance, don’t you think?

Most folks here have war stories. E—, a center reporter, told of how his single mother, in a desperate attempt to escape the madness of Mostar, packed the kids in her old car and made a dash for the border, not knowing if she would be allowed to leave the city. After some tense moments, the border guard waved her through, but as she grasped the stick to put the car in gear, the floor shift came off in her hand. E— remembers her jamming the stick back through the floorboard and miraculously, it found home, and the car lurched forward and out of harm’s way. I think he remembers that moment as crossing the line between surviving and not surviving. The family was resettled in a cold European city—another story of hardship as refugees.

Mostar is a city built astride a river soon after it flows out of the northern mountains. Mostly Muslims (who are mostly about as religious as American Presbyterians) and Croats (Catholic) lived in relative harmony with Serbs (Orthodox Christian) for a long, long time. After the minority Serbs were defeated and expelled by the Muslims and Croats, the particular madness of the war pitched those two communities against each other in a way that it now seems like a metaphor for madness. For more than two years, the Muslims and Croats squared off and pounded each other with every sort of ordnance across a road that bisected the city. The city was destroyed, but neither side ever gained ground.

The Croats shelled a famous bridge that the Ottomans built over the river in 1556, probably because it had been built by Muslims. After the war, German stonemasons recovered what original stones they could from the river and lovingly rebuilt the bridge. It was supposed to be a symbol of the reunification of Croat and Muslim, and once again it is among the biggest tourist attractions in the country. But Bosnians will tell you that although repairing the bridge may have made the European donors feel good, Mostar remains a bitterly divided city. Law laid down by foreign peace keepers requires Catholic and Muslim children to attend the same schools. But they use separate entrances and separate classrooms, where they learn separate accounts of who started the war, and who won.

When I came here in 2002, it was to conduct diversity training for journalists. As I recall, the idea was to help heal this shattered nation by teaching journalists to sow seeds of diversity-as-strength in the media. This longer stay taught me how silly we outsiders must have looked to the Serb, Croat and Muslim journalists in the workshop. Diversity may be a dream of a few, but the war has left most Bosnians disinterested in living with their former neighbors. In villages throughout the country that once had three places of worship—a Serb Orthodox and Croat Catholic church and a mosque—only one remains. The other two typically stand in ruin. Villages are now either Serb, Croat or Muslim.

I’m told that the war changed the way Bosnians feel about ethnicity. Serbs, Croats and Muslims all speak the same language. But in the name of ethnic nationalism, Serbs have adopted the exclusive use of Cyrillic script. Croats busily add new words to distinguish “their language.” Muslims add Turkish words to promote the “Bosnian” language. It’s hard to escape, even in a friendly kiss. I once tried to kiss the cleaning lady on both cheeks at a gathering on the event of her birthday. She resisted, and there was an embarrassing collision of noses and eyeglasses. Apparently, Serbs kiss Dutch style, three times on alternating cheeks. So Muslims won’t.

Joan Baez was in town for a free concert in July. She played here during the siege, and she is fondly remembered for that. The venue was an outdoor stage under a canopy. It was across the river from Sarajevo’s famous Ottoman-inspired national library, shelled to ruin by spite and Serb cannon during the war. I have always admired Joan Baez, but I had no idea what a class act she is. She paused in the middle of a song to accommodate the evening call to prayer from a nearby minaret. She accepted a swig of beer from a fan she recognized from her war visit when he staggered up to the stage. And she played John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

“Imagine there’s no country . . .  and no religion, too.”

Lots of people cried.

There is a palpable fear here that Bosnia is headed for division despite the Dayton Agreement that ended the war and called for semi-autonomous Serb and Muslim/Croat regions. The Bosnian Serb president, tapping the mood of his region, appears to be moving toward independence, toward realizing the dream of Radazan Karidzic, the former Bosnian Serb president now on trial for genocide in The Hague. This does not set well with may Muslims or Croats, who finally were gaining territory dramatically when the West pulled the plug on the war, ceding half of Bosnia to the Bosnian Serbs. No one denies that atrocities were committed by all sides, but it’s clear that the Bosnian Serbs were responsible for the great majority of them, including the massacre at Srebrenica. People in Sarajevo ominously remind visitors that Bosnia has a war about every 50 years. No one is taking peace for granted.

Enough about this war. The coolest thing that happened while I was in Sarajevo had to do with another, far away, fight. A friend who observes war crimes trials here for a living guided A— and I and his wife one night through a labyrinth of alleyways under an old flat block to a little drinking establishment that was as much a time machine as a bar. The place was maybe 25 feet by 25 feet, but I counted 32 portraits or photos of Tito on the walls, not counting the framed Tito postage stamp collections and statuary. Tito represents a time, a golden age to some, when a peaceful Bosnia was part of Yugoslavia, a relatively enlightened communist outpost free from Soviet control.

Two grizzled old men sat drinking and smoking at one of three tables. This was not a place foreigners stumble into very often. We ordered raki, a strong, usually homemade brandy made from just about anything. We had grape. Another old guy stumbled in with a sack of groceries and started carving up dinner at the third table. He approached our table and plopped down a plate of cheese, smoked meat and bread. We toasted to his good health, and I bought a round for the house.

The old guy who ran the place spoke Spanish, as well as French, Russian, German and Bosnian, but not English. He told me in Spanish that he had spent eight years in South America, some of them fighting with Che Guevara. I was struck silent by even the possibility of bumping into someone who fought with Che, here, in a back alley bar in Sarajevo. We toasted the revolution in Spanish. As the old guy ambled over to the bar, he said something under his breath like, “That has all passed now,” and refilled his glass at the tap. I felt a moment of sadness for the passing of the dream of the communist revolutionaries. Who knows if he was telling the truth, but his age and communist sentiments added up.


* The movie, “Welcome to Sarajevo,” is a good primer on what the siege of Sarajevo is like seen through the eyes of journalists who covered it.

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