Trouble a-brewin'

Trip Start Feb 04, 2007
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Trip End Mar 09, 2008


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Flag of Bosnia and Herzegovina  ,
Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Sarajevo has been selected half by plan and half by petulance. For the former qualification its a city that carries hundreds of years of history including all too much in the last 15 years. For the latter, it was a place in the map that met my criterion of "not in Croatia". Yes, sometimes grumpy decisions get made.

But rarely do they work out so well.

We had no real idea of what to expect, and in retrospect it would be tough to create an accurate preconception of what is here just through a guidebook or a webpage.

The city itself is part classical Europe, part Turkey - unsurprising after 400 years of the Turkish Ottoman empire being here, but astounding given its just a couple of hours lazy train ride from the traditional European feel of Croatia. Its a city like nothing I have ever seen - a big call given how similar much of the world comes to seem after a while.

Sarajevo was once one of the most truly multicultural cities on earth: Orthodox churches, Catholic chruches, Islamic minarets and synagogues interspersed a few hundred yards apart from each other. It was calmly thus until 1992, but more on that later.

This is the most rational and normal Islamic society I've ever seen, and one which I had no prior conception of being possible to exist. Its Islam the way most people are Christians: a passing understanding of the big rocks that make up your faith, that its part of your heritage, and lets all relax about the whole no booze thing and screaming at women.

A central motivation for both of us coming here was to try to fathom what happened in the wars of the region through the 1990's - a series of events I have never seen well explained. There is no comprehensive resource to resolve this for the visitor even here, but in persevering, little by little, you can piece it together.

Our accommodation this week was a result of well balanced risk and good fortune. A lot of bravado went into an estimation that there would be a gaggle of elderly babas with little cardboard signs hawking spare rooms on the train platform on our arrival. But tired from a 4am wake up and 5:30 a.m. island departure we were in for a disappointment on our 9:00 p.m. arrival into Sarajevo. No babas.

Leaving the station one middle aged woman whispered an offer of a room, and we tried to be as subtle as possible in our enquiries, trying to avoid the appearance of massive desperation which would have been the wholly accurate response. Stroke of luck: for 20 euro we got a private house to ourselves, in the heart of the old town, two doors down from the British Ambassador's residence. Sure it took us three days to figure out the hot water, but overall it was a huge win. No invite around for cucumber sandwiches with the Ambassador either.

Our first step to learning more of the city's history was right at the end of our street - a graveyard. Every grave indicated the deceased passed in 1995. And scanning the city from our slightly elevated position we could see how many green patches had become graveyards - fresh with still-white marble freshly hewn and not yet browned by the passing of years. Even the parks surrounding the Olympic stadium had been surrendered to the necessity of interring the war dead.

Yet this is not a macabre scene. Sarajevo is a living city, living openly with what happened to the town. Its welcoming, fun and positive, and the graveyards are not places people avoid - passing the one at the end of our street each day there are always people going through it and remembering old friends.

The reminders are starker still. There is a fitness club on our street: on its exterior walls are 15 plaques remembering the young men, younger than me, all killed in 1995.

We started our learning process at the History Museum. Its still a wreck: pock marked with high calibre bullet and shell indentations. It has only two rooms, and it logically isn't very well funded. But it makes one point well: the city was held under seige for nearly 4 years - the longest seige in modern history - and survived. Life was brutally tough: food, water, electricity and every other necessity choked off by Serb encirclement. Yet they survived.

Background, as pieced together from a few books and a couple of really good tour guides, appears to be this (subject to amendment as we figure out more). As Yugoslavia breaks apart after the Soviet Union itself fell apart, countries in the former Yugolslavia made a bid for a bit of extra territory. Its not like they knew what to do with their existing territory, but a good war would be easier than building public institutuions or a functioning economy. Croatia established itself in its historical borders and charted a course to economic prosperity based on gouging tourists and selling $7 bags of muesli, Slovenia kept its head down and figured no one would bother it, while Serbia woke up and realised that most of the Yugoslav army identified themselves as ethnically Serb. And conveniently, they were armed and entrenched throughout their neighbours territory. Opportunity knocked while ethics slept.

In a state of fluidity over national borders, Serb President Milosevic then talks wistfully about reestablishing the Greater Serbia of hundreds of years past. Idiot.

As part of normal army preparations and training, no one notices when the Serb/ Yugoslav army starts building bunkers and fortifications surrounding the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo. Bosnians, unsurprisingly, consider Bosnia a country. But as they haven't been one for about 500 years, their neighbours tend to see them as a piece of territory to be contested. But no one thinks war is on the agenda, and no one frets at all that hilltop construction activity.

Then in 1992 the Serbs start a propaganda campaign warning of Islamists posing danger to people who are ethnically Serb in Bosnia. Ethnically Serb turns out to be a bogus term by the way... its just a shorthand for your religious group. If you identify with the Orthodox Church, you are "ethnically Serb" or a "Bosnian Serb". If you live in Bosnia but see yourself as Catholic, you are Bosnian Croat - as your religion matches that of your Croat neighbours. And if you are Bosnian Muslim, then you're stuffed, because you don't have any big neighbour to protect you. I asked guides if he could tell Serbian people apart - the way that Chinese and Japanese people looked different. He looked askance... of course not, the only betraying difference is the person's surname. Just enhancing how extra nuts it is to feel ethnically divided.

A little after this, unsurprisingly, the Serbs start to shell Sarajevo indiscriminately in an effort to get the population to flee. With them fled, they will be able to get ethnically Serb people in and then point out to the international community that, hey, its all Serbs here, why not acknowledge that this is part of Serbia. Good logic. Zero ethics.

The UN respond as only the UN can. Blue helmets are deployed around the city. Shiny new armoured personnel carriers, modern weapons, and absolutely no permission to actually shoot back at the Serb army firing from their entrenched fortified hilltop positions encircling the city. But they warn the Serbs - one more shot, and by God, we will write that down in our notebook. In red pen maybe. Maybe even underline it and get someone to write you a very VERY stern letter.

12,000 Sarajevo civilians die over the following 47 months.

Eventually the Serbs push it too far, firing into a crowded marketplace and killing 120 civilians in one go. A photographer captures two or three unignorable photos, and to his credit, President Clinton orders NATO airstrikes. Clever. Bypass the UN and use a body that doesn't have the sound democracies of Russia and China wielding a veto. With a galling ease that a couple of the former soldiers justifiably seethed about to us, US airpower routes the Serb positions in four days. Four days. Ex Sarajevan military people who host a couple of the tours initially hold their tongue, but when pressed, burst with exasperation before releasing their complaint about why this couldn't have been done in 1992, and why they had to endure 4 years of Smurfs (their description) in the interim.

The Serbs managed to shoot down a couple of hundred million dollars worth of stealth fighters, and perversely show off this trophy in Belgrade, presumably not yet learning shame. Odd. Thats our next country to head toward, so we plan to see the flipside of the argument there.

More perversely, the UN reward Serb aggression by basically partitioning the country and giving the Serbs half the place. Today, the mention that our next stop will be Banja Luka, capital of the Serb controlled Republic Srpska meets with an icy reception. In just four days, both Claude and I are left with the feeling a lot of quite justified feeling of injustice is very close to the surface, and there is probably another battle not too far off in the future.

Much of the Sarajevo identity comes from the seige lifestyle. At the core of this is an 800m tunnel that was built from the city under the UN position out to the free Bosnian territory: through this 3ft wide tunnel flowed food, oil and weaponry to fight back. It is in visiting the embryonic museum and memorial here that you also meet the former soldiers who are the most candid about their treatment at the hands of the UN.

Its notable from the visitors books that a lot of Australians are visiting here: about 60% of the comments show that the writer was from Sydney or Melbourne. Our trip is also giving us a pretty good insight into categories of people leaving guestbook comments. About a quarter leave a straight out of Frontline Mike Moore/ Ray Martin-esque note of "War. Never Again", "Peace to all" or "How does this happen?". Another group leave genuinely interesting comments that Claude and I talk about after we leave. The Italians, worldwide, tend to write "Viva Italia World Cup 2006" and add pictures and stars. I guess we all react differently to tragedy.

After all that history, we dined today at a nice little restaurant with a nice little story behind it. Over a century ago, as the city was building river embankments to stem repeated flooding problems, it became necessary to demolish one citizen's abode to make way for it. He kicked up sufficient fuss such that the local government agreed to relocate his home, brick by brick, to a location of his choosing. Quite wisely, he picked out a nice spot by the river, and in a nice touch named his new abode The Spite House.

My kind of guy. Also, perhaps unfortunately, the region's kind of guy.

* * *

Sarajevo.  This is a place which has stood for war for as long as I can remember.  The war in Bosnia was constantly in the news.  If I am completely honest, I never really engaged in the numerous news stories to really follow or understand what was happening all the way over
here in downtown Bosnia.  Of course, I had other much more important things to worry about: uni exams, assignments, my Honours thesis topic.

If I felt badly about the Cambodian atrocities going on in my life time - here was a place I felt particularly ashamed for my ignorance.  I was otherwise occupied gearing up for the HSC year when Sarajevo was first surrounded and by the time 12,000 Bosnians were slaughtered I was deliberating over my second year university subjects.  That is, 12,000 of their total population of only 500,000.

In Sarajevo lives a city so freshly ravaged by war that it sits licking its wounds openly while the visiting tourists watch in horror.  It is an astounding thought that this siege happened only 12 years ago.  So many of the people we met or spoke to during our visit had friends or relatives that were murdered or had parents or children who fought to defend the city whilst others fled. 

Our own history tour operator who was 12 to 16 yrs old through the siege told us about how he regularly bicycled across the city carrying 50L of water (from the city's only fresh water source, the brewery).  This was no insignificant task as there were snipers camped out in the hills, missiles falling and unexploded ordnance littered throughout the streets.  He regaled us with stories about how he lived in a bomb shelter underground for these 4 years along with 80 other families.  They went to school every day in a hidden basement.  I was asking how they could focus on school and get on with normal life when it was so dangerous on street level.  He assured me that after a while it just became their normal life.  Four years for a 12 year old is a significant amount of time and enough to forge a new outlook on life.  He talked about their underground beauty pageants and other things to keep morale high (-ish).  "Besides", he reasoned, "nobody thought it would actually last that long".  

This is the major recurring theme which was articulated by numerous people that we met.  It was more than the sadness of death or the hate towards the merciless Serbian troops.  It was the utter bewilderment that the world watched it happen and did nothing.  We waited and observed while Bosnians were massacred and starved.

From what I understand Bosnia did not have its own army, rather the Yugoslav army was the army of this people.  Therefore, when the army turned on Bosnia, heavily equipped, formally trained and numbered in the thousands - Bosnia was largely a defenseless civilian city who felt the brunt of this extended attack extremely personally.

I am always confused about whether "foreign" intervention in someone else's war is the right thing to do.  Will it escalate frustration?  Will it create a whole new different coloured monster?  Is it even more dangerous than letting sleeping dogs lie?  In this case, I can see that something needed to be done.  Perhaps though with the benefit of hindsight.  How was this brutality able to continue for almost 4 years?  It really is shocking.  Particularly when it was  concluded in only 4 days after the decision was made to intervene (after the Makale Markets massacre).

The Bosnian ethnic cleansing carried out was even more inhumane than just guns, tanks and missiles.  Bosnian women were raped with the sole objective of conception so that they would give birth to Serbian children.  This was a vicious war.  Many 10 to 12 yr old Bosnian children today are, perhaps unknowingly, a product of this war.  How could all this have happened in the 1990s?

The simmering rage is quick to surface in many Sarajevans.  Understandably so.  The city commemorates the recent dead via clean, white tombstone plots, shiny gold plaques, fresh graves, memorials and cut flowers deposited wherever people died.  That is, all over the bullet riddled city. 

It was an incredible experience speaking to so many Bosnian people who were directly involved in this siege.  We watched them start to speak slowly and carefully, maintaining a semblance of control before they could not hide the rawness of their pain: their nostrils flaring, their eyes flashing with caustic anger.  It was almost difficult to ask any questions as you could see just how personal, gruelling and brutal it had been on them. 

I also have a new understanding of the UN forces from this visit.  I was unaware that the UN are unable to return fire on attacking troops.  There is a great photo of a UN tank driving alongside a group of civilians crossing the street under enemy fire, providing cover.  In this situation they were helpful - I suppose.  Our guide recalled that "the smurfs" improved morale by handing out sweets to the local children and letting them climb on their tanks.  This seems like a lot of money being spent on doing not very much at all - particularly considering that the siege ended so quickly after intervention was decided upon.  How is this a solution for anybody? 

When asked about the UN we were told that they were "professional apologisers".  They would do nothing and then apologise when bad things happened.  No wonder morale at the UN is so low.  It sounds like a tough job.

I acknowledge that this could be a biased view as we have just been immersed in the city.  But for exactly this reason we plan to visit Serbia next to better understand "the other side".

It seems almost callous to change the topic here, but I just wanted to add a few general comments about the city.  Sarajevo is one of the easternmost European cities and for this reason it retains a distinct European-ness with its cobbled streets and European feel.  Combine this with a perfectly complimentary Turkish aspect and you have a city unlike any other. 

Turkish coffees, pides, kebabs abound and our home - the old quarter, Bascarsija, housed a zillion Turkish pepper grinder and coffee set metal works.  I discovered here that the greasy Borek pastries that I mentioned in Croatia also come in a highly recommended light, fluffy 'zeljanica' cheese and spinach and a tasty 'krompirusa' potato version. 

Sarajevo is an appealing city filled with a beautiful, fashionable population.  Suprisingly, this is also one of the only Muslim cities I have visited where I felt extremely comfortable wandering the streets by myself.

Sarajevo has been a suprising city to me in terms of how much I enjoyed being here.  I am pretty sure my affinity with the city is more than just about supporting the underdog.
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