FROM THE ARCHIVES
Two Trips to Sarajevo
by William Ney
The following account of private life in Sarajevo during the second year of the siege first appeared in the Autumn 1994 issue of The New Combat.
Hazim and Minka Prolić were the story's gentle stars, for it was in their apartment that I stayed during visits, and learned so many things, most of all about courage. The family name is pronounced PRO-lich.
Their son Haris, a filmmaker then just shy of 30 (I guess), was also there in the family home when in town. Haris and his younger cousin, Seno (SAY-no), became my great guides around the city, and we also, of course, became friends. Whatever I learned about Sarajevo's life during wartime was largely thanks to them.
Two-thirds of the photos below are mine. Many are linked — whether captioned or not — to others and to explanations written in 2012 that expand on the story -- so if a photo looks interesting, give it a click.
There is also a public album of photos on Facebook, enriched by comments from Sarajlije (Saray-LEE-yay), as the people of the city call themselves.
The text published in 1994 has been edited for clarity and restored to near the form it had assumed before its confrontation that year, across a hot August weekend, with Robert K. Watkins, the New Combat's art designer and merciless typesetter, whose spirit and labors at this late date remain deeply appreciated and underpaid. Care has been taken, however, to preserve the original story's frame and naivete. Comments may be posted here, where perhaps in time an Afterword may also appear.
Minka's sisters, Nada and Jasmina (Yahz-MEE-na), with husbands Braco (BRAHT-so) and Sado (SAH-do), rounded out the family circle I came to know best during the siege. Today, of the six elders, Jasmina and Sado
-- Seno's parents -- are still among us.
Braco died during the siege, of natural causes, if such may be said of any death in a strangled and crippled city. Nada, the eldest of all, passed away in 2010. Their daughters, Maja (MY-uh) and Mirela, the very first of the family I met, are alive and well (as are Haris and Seno, their cousins).
Hazim passed away on March 3, 2007. And Minka last year, May 26, 2011. Alas. I last saw them in in 2005.
When Haris wrote of Minka's death, I said I would post the old photos of his folks, some of which he had never seen. Then it became clear that the story centered on their home, in which they introduce the city to a perfect stranger with such generosity and clarity, should also be online to nurture their memory.
And then I realized that April 5, 2012 marks the 20th year since the day that Suada Dilberović, a fifth-year medical school student from Mostar, marching in a peaceful demonstration of unity across a Sarajevo bridge, days after the first attacks to the east, was shot down in cold blood by a Serb nationalist sniper, the city's
first victim of the Bosnian war.
I hope the following, then, may serve to honor the memory of all the Sarajlije and Bosnian patriots of those years of suffering and disillusion. I was lucky now and then to be among them.
mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmApril 6, 2012
TWO TRIPS TO SARAJEVO
I VISITED SARAJEVO, the first time, for twelve days in December 1993
and then ten days in April 1994.
In December the siege was roaring. Every common thing needed for life
was hard to come by. Each day between a hundred and 150 mortar shells
fell on the city, often targeting outdoor markets. Avoiding snipers was a
routine preoccupation of any walk.
The NATO "exclusion zone" of February 1994, provoked by a shelling of
a market that left 68 dead and over 200 wounded, halted for a few
months most attacks on civilians, and allowed the vital tram (or trolley)
to resume its rounds.
NATO also wrung an agreement with the surrounding Serb nationalist forces
to open a land route into the city, while the Bosnia-Croatia pact of March,
brokered by the Americans, meant that convoys could now pass through
Croatia from the coast into Bosnia.
As a result, the supply of essentials in Sarajevo improved dramatically
in April. Yet the Sarajlije remained surrounded, unsafe and imprisoned,
in a city on the verge of economic and physical ruin.
Conditions have deteriorated since the spring. Snipers by August
had again shut down the tram, and have grounded the UN airlift
for 24 days since July 1. All roads into the city are again closed.
An August visitor encountered no electricity in five days.
As for the future, Serb nationalist forces throughout Yugoslavia
have been losing minor engagements in 1994, against both the
Bosnian and the Croatian armies. The trend seems likely to continue,
and so reprisals against the besieged cities may be expected.
December has been emphasized in what follows because it was more typical
than April of the twenty-nine months of siege, and is probably a more
accurate picture of the near and midterm future.-April's food and sunny prices
provoked yelps of joy — but were recognized moments later for what they were:
a fleeting chance to stock shelves for the third bitter winter to come.
THE FOOT OF SNOW that fell on Sarajevo in the first days of December 1993 had almost melted
by the ninth. Bright spinach was still growing, popping up through the snow and floating like lily pads on patches of mud.
Striding a step ahead was a French photographer named Alexandra. We had met at the airport outside Ancona, Italy, waiting for spots on a UN airlift cargo plane. We each intended to stay with families in older parts of town, so upon arrival in the modern western half had struck out together east.
The reappearance of the sun had people in the streets, despite the danger of falling mortar shells.
I was lucky to never see anyone killed in Sarajevo. Block after block of ruined buildings and fresh graves
were wrenching and sad enough. Children ran in circles practicing English with "Hello mister!"nI imagined they guessed that my bags were filled with food, and I stopped a few times, happy to dump the weight from
my shoulders, to reach into a pocket filled with old-fashioned candies in fruity wrappers. "Bon-bon!" Alexandra, frowning, warned that the children were sneaky.
To bring as much as possible, I had stuffed heavy things like cheese and sausage and flashlight batteries into the many pockets of my jacket, where they would not be weighed by the UN bagpeerers. The carry-on limit was twenty kilos (up to thirty in April), but everyone showed up at the airport with more, and the RAF corporal in charge had let me pass with 28. About 62 pounds. After a couple kilometers with it balanced on my back I began to question his compassion. Alexandra bounced along with only a camera bag. Everything else she had left at the home she was returning to.
Two soldiers in fatigues, cradling rifles, strolled by, nodding with cordial interest to Alexandra. When I asked who exactly they were, she laughed. "They are Bosnian Army of course!" I had imagined there were factions, loose in the city, and that one must be careful which side was which. That was mostly wrong.
One central neighborhood, Grbavica (Gur-bah-VEET-za), is barricaded by Serb nationalist irregulars and detached units of Belgrade's Yugoslavian Peoples Army (the JNA). Snipers in the hi-rises here are a danger, but otherwise Sarajevo is at peace with itself. Most of the aggressors, as the Sarajlije tend to call them, are in the surrounding mountains, which the entrenched perimeter skirts (snaking down then back up a ridge to
encompass Grbavica). Most of the shells and bullets that have killed 10,000 and wounded 56,000 were fired upon the city from afar and on high.
Alexandra paused at the edge of the old Viennese center, to turn south across the Miljaska River. All I knew of my own destination, Jelica Street, was that it was near the Cathedral, on the edge of the Old Town of Ottoman times. Alexandra pointed further east with a smiling ciao. The sun was down, I had little idea where I was going, and no idea if anyone would be there to take me in. Perhaps I would sleep in a bombed-out building. Curfew was ten o'clock.
A tall vibrant man with a wild white mane down his back, and bad teeth, stared hard at my question — then laughed, "Kah-day-DRAHL!" correcting my pronunciation. I followed his finger north and east, then startled a nervous woman coming out a door. But my question made her smile, and point back to an elegant building that I had bypassed as a mere "church."
Moments later a young soldier walked me the first steps up Jelica Street. In gratitude I offered a cigarette — but he brought out his own pack, showed me he had enough, and said no thanks. He was the only one ever to refuse a smoke.
The intercom plate at the door had been torn off long ago. I stood back, and looked up, then yelled "Minka!"
Twenty feet above a head popped out, eyed me curiously a moment then called down "Haahlow!" with a jolly British accent. Odd ...
The fellow popped down, pulled back the massive, unlocked door, and waved me into a dark lobby. Slide-stepping I splashed through puddles and slush — and looking up sixty feet saw the twilit sky. Later I learned that a shell had destroyed the atrium skylight in May 1992.
English Jack graciously helped drag the bags up a dark winding stairway, while making wry comments about the state of the building, the city and civilization. Isn't it lovely, eh what? On the pitch-black third floor he disappeared behind a door. Then popped his head out a minute later. "He's coming — see you!" But I never saw him again.
Time passed in deep space. Then I heard movement, another door theretofore invisible cracked open, and a tall bony man, early 60s, stood there in a housecoat with a glowing lantern. Hazim, I'd been told, was the name of Minka's husband.
I tried to explain in simple English who I was. I know Maja and Mirela in Czechoslovakia ... I couldn't tell how well he understood, or how surprised he may have been to hear it. But after listening for a while he nodded a bit amused and extended his hand, then waved me inside. "Come."
We stepped along a balcony on the grey lobby atrium, where a huge plastic barrel stood filled with water — quite valuable, I would soon understand. From there we passed into a dark foyer, then through another door and down the pitch central hallway of the flat. Hazim's lantern, burning naphtha, vented sweet whiffs of smoke. After what seemed a hundred yards, he rattled a doorknob and some light spilled out from the master bedroom.
Life had been compressed into this single room. A small gas stove had been set up, both for heat and for preparing small dishes and tea. Visitors were entertained here, most meals were taken here, and Hazim and Minka slept here. Often Minka would sit up in bed while others talked around the coffee table. The TV sat here, almost always dark and silent, unfed, in December. The room was about eighteen feet square.
The windows, like the lobby roof, had been blown long ago. Plastic sheeting emblazoned with the big blue UNHCR logo was tacked across the frames. Hazim peeled it back. Below was Jelica, where I'd stood minutes before. The street's narrowness protected the room from flying shrapnel, and that the windows faced west meant, in this locale, that snipers could not target them. Visitors in the street could also be heard and addressed from these windows. All in all, the best room in the house to wait out a siege.
Hazim said the building had been built a century ago in the "European style" of the "Austrians and Jews." He thought it beautiful, preferred it to the "Turkish style" that flourished just a few blocks east. In the bathroom he pointed out the hot water system he had installed a few years back, for which he had run new plumbing up from the street. Now, he shrugged ... Useless.
At the back of the flat was a living room with two bay windows and a baby grand piano. But such a room, in such conditions, would be impossible to keep warm, and the windows opened north on the wide boulevard that rings the old Centar, leaving them vulnerable to snipers and shells. These too were covered with UN plastic. Carpets had been rolled into logs. A grandfather clock stood pushed into a corner with its face against the wall.
Hazim explained quietly that this is where they had once enjoyed their life, where visitors would take tea, where the grandchildren would roll around on the floor and practice the piano. I was there only once, during this first formal tour. As we stepped back to the black hallway and Hazim pulled the double doors closed, closing off all that light and space, the peculiar cruelty of being forced from a home was made clear.
As we sat to talk in the bedroom I brought out some dried fruits and nuts. Apples, apricots, pineapples, prunes. Almonds, peanuts, cashews and brazils. Hazim hadn't seen such things in a year, and was due to enter the hospital in a few days for prostate and then gallstone surgery. I gave him half of my camping supplies, which he accepted with quiet thanks, explaining that the vitamins and protein would fortify him for the surgery. Minka is a nutritionist.
Hazim told a story about nine thousand tons of food that had recently been paid for in Macedonia by a collective of Sarajevo businesses. Oil, sugar, coffee, corn. The idea was to feed people, but also to drown sinful prices by flooding the market. Potatoes were twelve deutsche marks a kilo. After the flood, it was estimated, the price would drop to two.
"So they arrange it," Hazim continued, "with UNPROFOR, with Serbians in Belgrade, with Macedonia firm that has trucks. Every week one convoy will come, with four hundred tons. From Macedonia, across Serbia, to Pale, then here. The first convoy started twenty days ago. All was arranged, with Serbians, UNPROFOR, Serbians, Boutros-Ghali. There was difficulty with snow, but the trucks came to Pale. And in Pale they stopped it, and took it all. To give to Serbian people. Took it all! Four hundred tons."
Hazim was an engineer by training, and had been the general manager of a furniture factory before comfortably retiring. When the war began he had $2,000 in cash in the house, many more local credits in the bank, and a cottage in the mountains southwest of the city. Now, after twenty months of siege, he and Minka were broke. The banks had closed with their savings. The cottage had been occupied by aggressors. They still had a car, but it needed parts, and gasoline was $60 a gallon.
Minka arrived around 8 p.m. She had heard I was coming in December, but like everyone else had expected me to appear at the house of her elder sister Nada. I explained that I would never have been able to find it before dark. She grew pensive, listening, but then invited me sweetly to stay in her home, and set about making tea. Later I discovered that her anxiety grew from worries that Nada might think she had "stolen" her guest.
I finally remembered to turn on my tape recorder, and this prompted Hazim to declare, "You are welcome in Sarajevo!" He then retold his stories for the benefit of history, as Minka brought the tea and joined the conversation, punctuating her husband's long paragraphs with crisp footnotes.
With the tea Minka served crackers: thin, brittle and perfectly tasteless. She giggled at them. "It is cake of United Nations. Community Assistance. There is protein." The story around town was that the crackers had been fabricated in the 1950s to provide Americans with nourishment after a nuclear exchange.
"Those cakes they give to our children," Hazim said, "from three to 18 years. Only for children."
"They give only to children, but we bought it." Again Minka giggled. "It is black market."
She meant people selling things on the street. The city is in ruin both physically and economically; I saw no open stores in December. Stalls at open-air markets that had survived the shelling were being used to sell odds and ends. And slightly "blacker" markets sprung up in between: a woman sits on the sidewalk with a baggie of lentils, a pack of cigarettes and the ubiquitous can of European Union mackerel, deep blue with twelve yellow stars in a circle, the mere sight of which seemed to turn peoples' stomachs. They loved it, they were grateful, it had nourished them with grease and protein these many months, but they were sick of passing it across their tongues. Rare was the vendor who did not have it in stock.
Did they buy all their food at black markets? Minka laughed. "All markets are black market."
"There is nothing else."
"One liter of oil is 40 marks. Sugar 50 marks."
For a kilogram?M"Yes!"
Hazim's pension had been equivalent to five marks a month in Yugoslavian dinars, and since the war began, of course, Belgrade had stopped mailing checks. Dinars were now worthless in Sarajevo. Marks and dollars were the currencies in use.
Imagining that the UN crackers and horror stories about the markets had me panicked, Hazim said that a cafe had just opened where I could buy čevapćićis (tasty mini meat kebabs) and a piece of bread for ten marks. "I will show you," he promised. "If you are hungry you can go there." But I was never hungry, for the three sisters — Nada, Minka and Jasmina — fed me all too well.
Hazim told a story about their two grandchildren, the daughters of Haris (their only child). An organization named Children's Ambassade had evacuated about 500 women and children by bus, in early May 1992, weeks into the Bosnian war, when the city was under heaviest bombardment.
"Then on 19th of May they said one big convoy is going again. And my son said to his wife, Selma, Will you go? They had only half an hour to talk about it, before the convoy went out. Where will you go? To the sea? In that time we were all afraid, because bombs and grenades (mortar shells) were very heavy. So we decide they will go. Will you go? Where will you go? My daughter-in-law had one relative in Split, so she said, I am going to Split and after that I will call you.
"My son had a little Yugoslav car, called Yugo. One mother was with her child inside. My daughter-in-law didn't know who she was. After that came another mother with another child, and then my daughter-in-law with two. Seven people inside a little car, three mothers and four children, and they drove out. And they went out on the bus. My son came back here and he said, It is good they are gone.
"After that the convoy was stopped. Četniks — in that time we didn't call them četniks. Serbians. Serbians stopped that convoy in Ilidza, near the airport, in the suburb, and they made them wait there. For 72 hours they don't move. And Serbians said, You must do this in Sarajevo, or we will put out the children!"
"They will kill them," Minka clarified.
South Slav guerillas who resisted Ottoman rule were called "četniks" (CHET-niks) for centuries. After the first Yugoslavia was formed in 1921, a patriotic league of Serb officers adopted the name, and when civil war broke out in the 40s after the German quasi-conquest, these Četniks fought for the Serb monarch in Belgrade, against the Germans and their Croatian puppet state and against Tito's pan-Yugoslavian Communist Partisans.
But as Hazim took care to note, in the spring of '92, in the early weeks of the assault, "četnik" was not yet in use, because in normal times it would be an overbroad slur, comparable to calling any German a nazi. But soon enough the usage became common, partly because murderous gangs of Serb nationalists proudly wear the četnik insignia from the 40s, but also out of respect for the many Serbs who are sharing and defending Sarajevo with Muslims, Croats, Albanians, Jews, Hungarians, etc. That is: A Muslim, a Croat, would not want to curse as damn Serbs the snipers who harry his steps, because the friend at his side may well be a Serb. So he curses the četniks instead.
"In convoy was maybe five thousand children, two thousand mothers," Hazim was saying. "They said, You must give us something! You must do this, you must do this! and our daughter called us on telephone and said, Some good Serbian family took us inside their house, maybe 50 children are in house, we are sitting on the stairs and waiting, and we ask what they will do to us.nShe took maybe 2,000 marks. Nobody here knew what they will do to them.
"After 72 hours, the radio said they are going out to Split. Selma goes with children to the seaside, where usually we have our vacations. After that she talks to her sister in Austria. Her sister went out from Višegrad the month before, when they attacked that town.nShe said to Selma, Come here, the Austrians are good,
they will take you like me and give you a flat, and it will be alright.n
"So they are now in Austria.nIn a village nearby a very nice city.nAnd they are now good.nBut it is a story that ...n Our head went white. Our hair went white, during that time. Seventy-two hours."
"Are you married?" Minka smiled.
Hazim described the bureaucratic Chinese fire drill performed whenever convoys were organized.
"It is arranged with UN. Then permission must come from our government, from Serbian, from Croatian government, from UNPROFOR. UNPROFOR takes the names over there to Pale. They look and say, Hazim! No, no!nBut he is sick. No, he cannot go!nUNPROFOR always goes over there. Serbians must always give permission."
Why? nBecause UNPROFOR, said Hazim, was surrounded too.
"Do you know what duty of UNPROFOR is here?" Minka asked with bitter humor. "Nobody knows what duty of UNPROFOR is here. We thought that it will protect us, but UNPROFOR does not protect us. There is always very much of these appointments in Geneva, everywhere else, and they give resolutions, and we think UN- PROFOR does that to protect us. But UNPROFOR has given forty resolutions. All are broken. All rules
are made from Serbia. What Bosnian people do is decided by Serbia and Pale."
Why does UNPROFOR allow the Serbs to make the rules?
"I ask you!" Hazim shouted and laughed. "I ask you!"
"Because Serbia has guns," Minka explained, "has force. Everybody respects Serbia, all of the West. They have force, they are strong. The rule of the world is who is strong is also just. If he has force, everything is okay. Because they respect force."
There was some silence. Then Hazim tried to explain.
"Inside Sarajevo it is our rules. We have our army around Sarajevo. They stopped the aggressor in the mountains. They cannot come here. In our Sarajevo, we have our rules.nBut if we want to go out, they make the rules. Serbia makes the rules."
"We are occupied," Minka said. "Most of our towns are occupied by army from Yugoslavia. Yugoslav Army two years ago was army of all nations, Serbia, Croatia, Muslim. But Yugoslav Army was prepared to fight with us. To kill us. It was prepared, maybe, four years ago, but we didn't know. It was trick. In war they occupied some parts of this town and many parts of Bosnia-Hercegovina. And they occupied our airport, and because they have the airport, they decide everything. UNPROFOR controls the airport now, but if Serbia says make it so, they make it so, because Serbia has force and they are afraid they will kill them. But still we have resolution that UNPROFOR may use force too, to use arms, to protect —"
"To shoot!" Hazim said. "But nobody shoots."
Again there was silence.
"We know something," he resumed. "On Sunday there will be more shooting, more grenades in Sarajevo, because it is vacation for them. Četniks come from Serbia and Croatia, Saturday and Sunday they come, and they must do something, so —"
"They come to kill us. To fight with our army."
"And on Sunday you will see that there is more shooting."
"Are you afraid of snipers when —"
"Oh we are always afraid of snipers!" Minka cried abruptly. "But the big danger is from bombs."
"It is a game," Hazim said. "It is a game where they will drop. It is russian roulette. And some people — you will see. When the bombs drop on the streets, maybe a hundred meters over there, you will see people run. But you don't know where it will drop again. It is better to stay where you are, because three or four grenades are put in the same area. It is better to go where the first bomb explodes, or inside a house. Go inside, wait ten minutes or so, and if they don't do anything, then you can go out.nI will show [the craters] to you.nOne bomb drops here, then ten meters over there another bomb drops."
The tape rolled quietly.
"The chance to die was ten percent," Hazim offered, estimating the spring of '92. The atrium skylight ... n"Now it is one percent. Now it is better. But too much."
"Our son Haris is making a film now. Death in Sarajevo."
After a while Hazim brightened.
"You know, we can talk about who are Muslim people. I am Muslim man, but I am not Mohammedan. I am Bosnian Muslim. I am atheist. But now, if some Serbian, some četnik, takes me over there and reads [on his passport] that I am Hazim—"
"Only his name!" Minka cried, angry and at this late date yet amazed.
"You are Muslim!nthey say. Get out! Go!nAnd they take me out."
"They kill him."
"When I was your age, I didn't know what I was. I was Yugoslav. My friends were Yugoslavs. I didn't know what Serbian was, what Croatian was — all were Yugoslavs. I was Sarajlije people. But now I am Hazim. And
I must be shooted."
"Killed," Minka said. "What about your President Clinton? He is a young man. Is he serious?"
I replied that he was. But was inexperienced in foreign affairs. And that even though he was inclined to do more — to lift the embargo, use airpower — he followed the French and British because his inexperience left him feeling insecure, and because he thought European leaders should lead, since Yugoslavia is in Europe. I didn't say anything about domestic politics — which in Clinton's first year were determinative.
With somber nods they indicated that they understood. And asked no more questions about my President Clinton.
I said that people around the world knew what was happening. That the crimes had been reported, that people cared —
"But everyone is blind," Minka said wearily. "I know that everybody — I think Europe, America, all those countries, they have very super machines, to see everything. But everyone is blind."
BEFORE THE WAR, HARIS directed four feature films, winning prizes at Venice and Krakow. Death in Sarajevo was his first documentary, written and narrated by novelist Tvrtko Kulenović, who headed Sarajevo's PEN chapter throughout the war.
Death in Sarajevo premiered in the besieged city on February 4, 1994, and concluded with Kulenović reading his Open Letter to Georg Konrad, the President of PEN International.
Half an hour after the premiere, a 120mm mortar shell fell on the Center's crowded open-air Markale market, killing 68 people and wounding nearly 300. Five days later, the late Manfred Warner issued NATO's ultimatum, establishing the 20-kilometer "Exclusion Zone" and the now nearly faded Phony Peace.
Minka and Hazim live a hundred yards from the market and shop there daily. Returning from their son's film that afternoon, they came upon the carnage. There were no people in Markale that day, Hazim recalls —
Hazim's nephew, Seno, in the Lion Graveyard
A GARDEN HOSE snaked through the kitchen window, then down the long dark hall.
This was the new gas line, with which the family cooked and heated the rooms in use, part of an entirely new system jerry-rigged since the siege began. Here and there around town the lines of the old system were being disinterred and spliced into the new. Behind closed doors an activist also demonstrated how old pipes might usefully be cut into foot-longs and loaded with gunpowder to harry the četniks.
The new gas was a boon, but tightly rationed and unreliable. If it came at all, it came at night, and at best would last only a few hours past dawn. The latter perhaps indicates concern in high places that people have their morning Turkish coffee, when there was any coffee in town to be had.
The government must also realize how important the telephones are to morale. They were usually working, and the few times they were not it was clearly the last straw, especially for Minka, who didn't go out much and perhaps worried more. Dead phones mean complete isolation in the cold, dark, hungry house, with no way of knowing if family and friends have survived the day's perils.
Temperatures in Sarajevo are comparable to New York's, and during the terrible first winter of '92-93 most inner-city trees were cut down for firewood. Now, a year later, men could be found waist-deep in the earth, chopping at exposed stumps for chips of fuel. Bombed-out buildings are routinely stripped of wood framing, leaving inorganic ruins with an odd, cleansed air of classical antiquity. And yet, in April, after two winters of siege, the wooden backboards at an outdoor basketball court were still in place, and in use.
I slept in an unheated room but with plenty of blankets. The only discomfort about the night was the noise — a lot of crackling in the air, as carbines and machine guns asleep during the day came alive like crickets. Haris explains that the četniks like to test the city's defenses at night, and to loot homes along the perimeter.
But this nighttime crackling, I point out, seems right outside the window. Echoing through the stony streets of town. Surely not up in the hills?
"Don't worry, we will protect you." He smiles inscrutably.
Without electricty the pattern of life abruptly changes. One rises at dawn and runs all day, racing the sun. The plan in December was that each district on the grid should get four hours of juice every three days. Like the gas, it came at night, when the sun's light was absent and the air usually coldest, and its coming made everyone jump out of bed, regardless of the hour, to work with excited fury until that helpless moment when the lights and the machines again abruptly die.
Childish groans greet the darkness. And then sounds of scraping, stubbing, tripping ...
And then the lighting of the lamps.
The first time electricity came I snapped awake at 4 a.m, shocked to find a ceiling light ablaze, and the shriek of a tortured animal filling the air: Minka's vacuum cleaner. Later, at morning tea, she said yes, she had not slept at all, because when electricity comes she must work. There are cooking machines and a clothes washer that she also hastens to make use of.
Jelica is not far from a border on the grid. One night I came home and tripped over a new fat cord in the dark hall. Hazim explained that it ran out a north window, over a couple roofs, and into the house of a friend in the adjacent district. So when the friend has electricity, he gives Hazim a call, the fat cord is laid out, a switch thrown, and voila. And vice versa on all points. In this way each household enjoys twice as much juice as allotted by the rule.
Even so, we had only four spurts of electricity in December, and one, outrageously, lasted only an hour.
In all, then: About twelve hours of electricity across twelve days.
One couple had a constant supply, "nonstop" as the Sarajlije like to say, courtesy of a friend in an Army office next door. A fat cord came snaking through the window ...NFor this reason, but also because the couple are activist types, their flat seems one of the best places to be. Visitors drop by in a steady stream, friends and family, journalists, aid workers, librarians-become-ministers in the newborn government, to relax or collapse on the floor along the walls, to sip bottled beverages and smoke cigarettes — perhaps visitors from the Outside have thought to bring supplies? — but most importantly to talk.NAll the while half a dozen incandescent bulbs reflect warmly and merrily off the paneled walls.
And some music, perhaps?
Simon and Garfunkel.
This is luxury.
Minka and Hazim are lucky to have water in their pipes now and then. It came only once in December, but ran long enough to fill the bathtub and an impressive collection of vessels, including the huge barrel on the balcony. It must be boiled to drink, so here the shortage of gas is a problem.
Baths and showers are unheard of. People wash up with a cloth. At first I also stopped shaving, naturally, but then noticed that the local men had not — for beards are a big part of the četnik sensibility and look.
It took me four days to realize this, however, after arriving in town with a week of stubble. Once Hazim gently suggested, with a precious bowl of warm water, that I might like to shave, but he did not say why, nor spoke of it again until finally one morning I appeared with a pale face. Then he clapped my back. "You are handsome!"
On the day he is to be admitted for his first operation, Hazim is accompanied on the long trek by Haris and his nephew Seno (SAY-no), son of Jasmina and Sado (Yahz-MEEN-a and SAH-dough). Koševo Hospital is some twenty buildings on a hilltop campus north of the Austrian center. Twice in thirty minutes the building we visit is rocked by mortar shells. A nurse, nodding at my camera, asks if I would like to see the ward where people with head wounds are healing or dying or turning into vegetables. I reply that I am sorry but am already late for another appointment.
We had met Hazim's surgeon days before — in a long line waiting for bread. He is a distinctly plump and bubbly man, with active fingers that wiggle like insect antennae as he speaks. In his office at the hospital he asks Seno to reach up for a big specimen jar atop a cabinet. This, he proudly displays, is the biggest enlarged prostate ever successfully removed from a man's loins!NFloating in a sickly yellow cloud is a bloated grey sausage nearly the size of the human brain.
"And ten days later the patient walked home!"
A snapshot of the lucky man and his talented surgeon suggests the historic operation took place circa 1975. Ever since, in this jar — Can you mail a letter to my son in Italy?! Once you're back on the Outside, tee hee?!nMore than forty such letters were in my bag when I left town a few days before Christmas. The Serb nationalsts forbid the UN to carry them, and the C-130s fly back with empty cargo bays.
The gay surgeon sobered up and pulled Haris aside. His father's operations would consume six bottles of intravenous fluid, and unfortunately the patient must supply these himself. But the news is not all bad — for the bottles are usually available on the black market, at, Well, you know, the price the market bears.
This market was "black" in the familiar sense: behind closed doors, selling things that likely have been lifted off a truck. Sarajevans report that UN soldiers run such markets — that they pirate the airlift and cows in the countryside to sell to the besieged at captive prices. One bitter resident offered to prove the rumors for 300 marks. I replied that I did not have the cash, but would pass his number to a professional journalist.
In any case, Hazim's six bottles would cost 200 marks, a devastating chunk of the family's hard cash. Haris told me all this quickly, in bad temper, at the office. But after procuring the bottles, and showing them to me at the house with some pride, he refused to speak of the transaction. The only moral is that the black markets will remain essential until the siege has been broken.
The need for food and in many districts water forces people to the markets and filling stations almost daily. Such gatherings, like the hospital, are targeted for bombardment. Twice in three days in December a market in the Hrasno neighborhood — Nada's market, a quarter mile from her flat — was hit by a spread of mortar shells, killing six and then eight, and wounding dozens.
Each time Hazim and Minka with dull horror sat and told me of the attacks, having heard the gory details from Nada by phone. Each morning Hazim told me how many people had been killed and wounded the day before, having heard on the radio, while gently leaving the obvious unasked: Why don't you help us? Or at least allow us to defend ourselves?
The shelling increased steadily from late November until the disaster in February, after a somewhat quieter autumn. Across two weeks in January about a thousand shells were counted each day by UN observers (once over 1,300), or roughly eight times the daily toll of my December visit.
Each shell leaves the mark of a crime.
GREY MARKETSlASIDE, there are two civic sources of food. The neighborhood Community Assistance centers, long established, handle the UNHCR distributions, which come, Hazim said, every three or four weeks, depending on how aggressively the aggressors disrupt the airlift. The baking of bread is a separate operation, run by Sarajlije but dependent on UN flour.
George Soros, whose foundation is a top contributor to Bosnian relief, drew Western frowns in December when he charged that Sarajevo is a "concentration camp" organized and policed by the United Nations. Days later I walked with Hazim as he gathered the UN dole. At the first stop (pictured atop this section) he was given two candles and two tickets for each person in his household. He then waited on lines at two other locations to redeem the tickets for the allotted amounts, per person, of flour (0.85 kg), oil (0.50 liter), dried beans (0.30 kg), sugar (0.20 kg) and mackerel (one blue can with twelve yellow stars). That was all.
These are the rations of a harsh prison, which no one may leave without UN permission, which permission is unobtainable for 99.99% of the city's residents. And in Sarajevo and the other besieged pockets, refugees fleeing genocidal assault have indeed been concentrated.
Mr Soros, then, was neither impulsive nor off target. The status quo in Bosnia, which European diplomats have intentionally held frozen since late 1992, is unacceptable, and takes on a sinister look when one notes that the West's relief operation is itself used to justify its political policy:NIf we lift the arms embargo, Paris and London argue, then the (trickle of) food — and our peacekeepers — will be imperiled.
Yet the Bosnian government has long expressed its willingness, if forced to choose, to trade the limp-wrist UN presence for the ability to buy arms.nBut the UN embargo stands because Europe's leaders (so they say) think it the best way to contain the fire within its present limits.nThere they are willing to let it burn.
AFTER SIX DAYS IN DECEMBER I go back to Ancona to post mail and shop. People have requested a long list of items. Cigarette lighters, bike inner tubes, the new Guns 'N' Roses, aspirin, sleeping pills, unguents, umbrellas, underwear, socks ... The daughter of Nada's neighbor, a regal teenage beauty, has given me in strict confidence her siege-reduced blue jeans inseam and waist.
My friend Warren takes the train down from Gubbio to assist. We scramble about the stores of town looking for recherchè items, then chat about civilization's dissolution over dinner in the sooty trattoria across from the train station. The pedestrian pasta and frutta del mare are distracting and delicious.
More food has been waiting to be hauled across the Adriatic, checked at the station in my father's Korea duffel bag, having already been hauled over the mountains from Prague, where Nada's daughters had hoped to somehow send me off with a water heater carton full of goods for their parents. The grim prospect of packing for the return to Sarajevo -- the value-laden struggle to cut my bags to within begging distance of 28 kilos -- darkens dinner, a bit.
Flying time between Ancona and Sarajevo in a prop-driven C-130 is fifty minutes. But waiting time on Maybe Airlines — Maybe You'll Fly, Pal, and Maybe You Won't— is measured in hours and often days. Sometimes one gets lucky and waits in good company. In the end I am lucky that the shopping spree, round trip, consumes only thirty-six hours.
In contrast to the anxiety of the first arrival a week before, it is now a pleasure to walk through Sarajevo, especially at night. Jelica Street is right where it should be. Inside I drag the bags up the dark winding stairway, and use a key to access the balcony. Then bang with the bags into the dark foyer, bang the door shut — and hear through the walls Minka cry out in what sounds like alarm. Does she fear intruders?
I shout to identify myself and she shouts back my name, over and over, rolling out of bed. Hazim is still in hospital, he is okay and Haris is nonstop working his film so she has been spending the time alone. She ushers me into the bedroom, helps me dump the bags, and then we say hello with a long hug. The shelling has been very bad this day and she is worried about Haris and has been worried about me because I did not come before dark and I did not call! "Everyone is calling about you!"
We sit and talk, slowly unpacking, nibbling the new food, as the automatic weapons rattle outside. At one point she says that she simply cannot understand "the logic" of the arms embargo. Morality aside, it does not even make sense, she insists, referring, I think, to something like the logic of Hobbes. Axiom: No law that deprives one of self-defense coheres.
She sits there massaging her temples with her fingertips, the candlelight pale on her face, and in her pale blue eyes.n"I cannot understand.nThe victims of aggression ...n To defend ..."
She closes her eyes, perhaps to hide tears.
"We are like the Indians. They come and they will kill us."
LIKE MOST able-bodied men in Sarajevo, Haris was in the army. During the first months of the siege he fought with one of the city brigades, led by local heroes (some of whom some saw as gangsters), and took part in a crucial battle centered on the monumental post office on the riverfront, an heirloom of the Austrian period now reduced to a burnt-out shell. Then Bosnia's Territorial Defense Organizations, founded during the Tito era and akin to american National Guard units, coalesced into an army of regular shape. Haris started working for its film unit, where his skills were better exploited.
The Skenderija complex (right) combines sports facilities atop a sunken shopping mall. Good times of the 1984 Winter Olympics happened here, and it seems all Sarajlije remember proudly the excitement and, with tragic eyes, the sudden sense of international community. Tito had passed, Gorbachev was rising ...
Eight short years later, n
all the concrete and steel and underground shops came in handy. The Bosnian Army film unit is sheltered beneath Skenderija, along with a large French UNPROFOR force.
Thanks to the martial French presence, the extension cords and light bulbs of Skenderija's underground are somewhat more lively than the upper world's. A cafe is open (!?!) and seems a find. Six idle pool tables stretch back and fade into grey fluorescent twilight. Four teenagers quietly hang out.
Then Bojan (BOY-yan) pops in, the energetic proprietor of Design Trio, a graphic arts concern that publishes a steady stream of political art despite the lack of paper, ink, electricity and other hard-to-do-withouts. A second third looks dead at his desk in the office. It seems the three live here, in the underground, talking, dreaming, planning and snoozing, then jump to the computers when the electricity pops on.
Design Trio churns out ironic postcards. Some feature war photos, framed by "Welcome to Sarajevo!" in five languages. Others are appropriations — Coca-Cola, Munch's Scream, Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Gone With the Wind, Neil Armstrong on the Moon, Roy Lichtenstein's "It's hopeless!" and Uncle Sam — all on the theme of:
mmmmmmmI WANT YOU !
mmmmmmmn( To Save Sarajevo )
An adulterated bottle of Absolut Vodka informs the readers of its label that:
Absolut Sarajevo is made from Authentic Bosnian citizens: Muslims, Serbs, Croats, Jewish and Special blends, born in rich Country of Bosnia. The Spirit of togetherness is an age-old Bosnian tradition dating back more than 800 years.
From this would derive the Autumn 1994 New Combat's back cover, which blends Absolut Sarajevo with a Sarajevo Angel poster, one of several made by Frenchman Louis Jammes to memorialize children killed by the aggressors. One finds the angels wheat-pasted on ruins here and there all around town.
Across the underground avenue, the Bosnian Army's film unit occupies perhaps half a dozen rooms. The brightest breaches the earth's tilting surface, but the view is due south, of a steepening ridge, and everyone reminds me to beware here the snipers. Six bunk beds crowd what seems a supply closet: Several filmic soldiers are always holding down the fort.
They live and work in shadows when not darkness, sans the special treatment afforded the French neighbors, enjoying no more electricity than Boyan's shop across the way. But even this could not stay the feverish games of Risk in progress at the unit nonstop. Once I observed that the man in North America seemed poised to conquer all, while the fellow burrowing in Australia was about to pay, as always, for caution. Geography, in Risk, is destiny indeed, and the perpetual negotiations in Geneva this winter are revolving around Bosnia's all but landlocked state.
It isn't easy to find a street map of Sarajevo, anywhere in the world. There is one on a wall at the film unit, however, among big movie posters. With my penlight I faintly illuminate it, while a citizen-soldier quietly indicates the strategic points of the entrenched mountaintop front line surrounding us.
He then points to a poster, and quietly recounts the scenario of Valter Brani Sarajevo, probably, he says, the most famous Yugoslav movie, about the man who rescued Sarajevo from demolition as the Germans were retreating in 1945. Walter Saves Sarajevo seems a romance to stand side by side with Is Paris Burning?
Someone scratches at a dark window. Excited words — then my guide spins and holds out his hand. For my penlight. With some hesitation and much anxiety, I hand it over. And out the window it goes.
Minutes later a heavy-duty cord snakes in the same window, bringing electricity, one suspects, from an illicit tap into the French army system. Moments later the film unit's chief technician strides in, drops to his knees and sets to work on the cord with my penlight in his mouth, splicing away with quick cuts and deft wraps, introducing a transformer or something ...
And the lights snap on. The man hops to his feet, smacks off his pants, and hands back my penlight with a tight bow of thanks. The conquistadores of Risk seem not to have noticed the turn of night to day.
A week later, the same miracle worker installs a huge camera boom at the foot of the proscenium in the Children's Theater, a place with a place of some reverence in my imagination. It was here, in July, that a production of Waiting For Godot had opened, to local love and distant acclaim, under the guiding hands of Haris Pašović, a leading mover of the Bosnian theater, and Susan Sontag, a writer of New York. Her stirring account of the venture, in The New York Review of Books, Our Finest Periodical, was the last straw, the catalyst that provoked my own visit.
The Chief Technician has welded his boom into being from burnt and blistered plates and beams of steel. I imagine (without bothering to ask) that they'd been pulled from the glass-and-steel ruins of the business district beneath the Old Jewish Graveyard, south of the river between Skenderija and Grbavica. This zone, to the casual observer of artillery fire, seems the focus in December of the ongoing professional army battle. The wounded graveyard lies paralyzed above, sprawled across its mountainside. Slashed with trenches. Now and then a pale puff of smoke blossoms, as a death shell finds its final resting place.
The boom arrives in heavy sections, the color of dried blood, and men grunt like apes putting it together. Once assembled, however, balanced and counterbalanced, it swings and slides like a dream. Proudly its inventor demonstrates the mechanism that will operate a remote camera.
Meanwhile, onstage, one of Yugoslavia's most famous pop stars is rehearsing with a young local band. Several people in hushed tones tell me how good it is for Sarajevo, that the singer has come to the city to play. The Chief Technician's boom will allow the concert to be videotaped with some style.
Payday at the film unit falls two weeks before Christmas. Each citizen-soldier receives, for patriotic services rendered, cigarettes.
Ten packs. A month's salary.
A year ago, Haris says, it was thirty.n"You see Bill — things get worse and worse. It is normal."
His commander at the unit (on the right) is a Serb — as is the second-in-command overall of the Bosnian Army, General Jovan Divak.
The Sarajlije would long ago have broken down and submitted to the foul desires of Owen, Vance, Stoltenberg, Juppe, Hurd and, alas, now Christopher and Redman, if not for cigarettes. Foreign brands circulate through the city as currency (along with coffee and chocolate, the "Three Cs"), but not the homegrown, which are much less expensive, yet very good, the produce of a well rooted tobacco tradition.
But without paper — to make the packs for the cigarettes (not the tobacco wrappers themselves) — the butt robots, the fag factory machines, refuse to go through their motions. And paper is a rare commodity. The aggressors forbid its transport into the city — as Strategic Material — and the Western police generally obey.
So it is that the local cancer sticks appear in the strangest packs: pages of old magazines, office forms, a woman's colorful knee & thigh once destined to adorn a plastic sleeve of nylon stockings ...
The ironic chic wore thin in '93, however, when books not destroyed in deliberate attacks began to be fed to the Drina cigarette mill. On payday at the film unit, 200 packs sit neatly stacked on a table. Haris picks one at random, and finds verses by Husein Tahmiščić, a government poet of the old times, under Tito.
"I will smoke him," Haris explains, rapping the pack against his palm, "because I do not like him and I do not like his poetry." He winks without humor.
Another day with a wink and nod elsewhere Haris takes us north across the river a few blocks to meet his friend Kemal at the Presidency, another monumental Austrian structure, which houses the government's top offices. Yet today it has no electricity.
On our way through security and upstairs, a mortar shell, just one, casually shakes the old building's shoulder. I then speculate aloud about a likely second and third, demonstrating my new triangulation sophistication, and Haris snorts, noting that the target's coordinates, after twenty months of practice, are well mapped.
Kemal Bakaršić, a scientific librarian in spirit and by profession, was tapped for government work soon after the first attacks in 1992. He now serves as Assistant Minister for Science (broadly speaking), in the Ministry of Culture, Science and Sports.
The three of us talk for more than three hours. Kemal's English is fluent, eccentric and artful, and he uses the instrument with discipline, to tell stories and relate facts of the distress and needs of Bosnia's old society and new state. (Do read his beautiful account here.)
In particular Kemal focuses, but without naming names, on the "total communications blockade" that cuts Bosnia out of the global discussion of its future. The claim strikes my green December ear as exaggerated. But by April it is manifest that Sarajevo is indeed held incommunicado, and as much by the Western organs controlling the city as the aggressors surrounding and tormenting it.
Chopping off communication in the other direction — into the past — was a priority for the Serb nationalists during the first months of the siege. One after another, libraries, archives and museums were shelled, often, pointedly, with incendiaries. Kemal recites the roll of dead and wounded institutions, culminating with the National and University Library, the destruction of which in August 1992 was, by his figures, the biggest book-burning in history.
The library had been housed since the 40s in the old City Hall, Vijećnica, a civic palace done up in the Pseudo-Moorish style, one of the more spectacular of the city's souvenirs of Old Vienna. Now, like the Post Office, it stands upon the river a burnt-out shell, and to reconstitute the library is one of Kemal's jobs. "We have to do something about it. We have many good ideas. But one is most important: to be connected, in many ways, with the world."
HARIS TOOK his main meal of the day the film unit. All the city was eating soup and bread and little else, and I was loathe to drain a single calorie from the system. But Haris insisted, and after a few days of hiking around town I began to look forward to our stops at Skenderija.
The soups were tasty: lentil or bean, often with spinach, and potato goulash, perhaps with a little EU mackerel thrown in as a special treat. Once I called out my compliments to the chef, provoking groans of disgust from the fellows along the table.
"Bill!" one of them cried in alarm, "if you like this, you are a happy man in Sarajevo!"
And how could that be?
One day at lunch a man named Jovo (YO-vo), who once worked in Hazim's furniture factory, nods at my tape recorder and tells Haris that he wishes to make a declaration.
For five minutes he speaks intently, holding the little Walkmanlike machine to his lips. When finished, he heaves a sigh, and pumps my hand. Haris smiles soberly and winks. "He is Serb."
We step outside, into the light, so I can take their picture. Ten feet above, along a brick wall that separates sunken Skenderija from its neighborhood, half a dozen children are laughing, and playing with a big wire hook on a string, fishing things out of a dumpster below. Perhaps the French soldiers routinely drop food scraps and other goods here, and the kids are on the beat, three times daily.
Suddenly they go shy. Nobody fesses up to speaking much English. Just "Hello Mister!" and smiles from the sun god. I reach to my pocket and start tossing up bon-bon.
The smallest kid (on the right below) can't catch anything. The hard little lemon or pineapple or strawberry floats up to zenith amid his frantic fingers ... then somehow slides back down out of reach. Again. And again. He seems about to cry. Finally somebody snags a few for him.
One of the girls, with black hair, beams down a brilliant and constant smile. Then calls out each time I turn away to leave. She wants me to stay. And to toss up something intangible, and impossible: assurance that somehow things will be okay.
Instead I toss up Brooklyn Bridge Chewing Gum. Made in Italy.
They all hoot, hitting the second word hard — "Thank YOU!nThank YOU!" — as I turn away and return to the underground.
Coming of Age in Sarajevo
(with more Brooklyn Bridge Chewing Gum)
Click map to enlarge, or here for a tour.
Haris and the Post Office
Seno in Hrasno
SENO IN DECEMBER had recently finished a stint in the army, and thus was often free to guide a visitor around town who otherwise might have found a hole in his head. We spent our first day together walking among tall, modern apartment buildings in the western neighborhoods, destination Hrasno. We both had things to deliver to Aunt Nada and Uncle Braco (BRAHT-so).
We talked as we walked about music and books, and I astonished him with my ignorance of Eastern European and Russian literature — waters I can usually tread while talking in New York. But Seno for an hour recited names I had never heard of, assuring me all were elementary and essential. I was soon as appalled by my ignorance as he, and realized I would never catch up. The universe was receding faster than the speed of thought.
The city's spine is an east-west boulevard, named in parts for Marshall Tito and Ban Kulin among others, roughly twelve kilometers long, including its big loop about the old eastern districts. Alexandra and I hiked a good deal of this monster the day of our arrival.
Near its end in the wide open west, just inside the siege line, is the PTT (post and telecom) Engineering building, where journalists and other freeloaders on the UN airlift are dropped after courtesy-cab hops from the tormented airport in white Armored Personnel Carriers.
The ride is only a couple kilometers but can bog down badly at a pair of chetnik checkpoints. Earlier in the year a French APC crew duly stopped when flagged, but then, contrary to protocol, popped the rear hatch, through which a Serb nationalist soldier of some sort promptly fired eight rounds, murdering Hajika Turajilić, Bosnia's Deputy Prime Minister.
The glassy hulk of PTT, in its ruin, also houses the UNPROFOR press office. Here professional journalists gather each morning about the knees of the Western colonels who control the subsisting city, to record the daily briefings and official explanations of daily tragedies such as befell Mr Turajilić.
Just east of PTT is the Radio Televisa broadcasting center, a concrete fortress with a science-fiction air that was built to survive strikes by Soviet bombers. Tito's Cold War caution left the city a year after the Soviet collapse in good stead. Televisa's windows may shatter but its signals continue to radiate forth and bounce about the bowl of surrounding mountains. Here in December Haris was busy editing his film.
The flat, straight and open modern stretch of the boulevard earned its tiresome nickname, Sniper's Alley, early on. Taxis hop and bang along like rabbits, APCs seem to whistle as they cruise, and the cyclists are reminiscent of Evel Knievel. Much of its length cannot be safely walked, however, and the strip along Grbavica's northern edge is a killing field.
Prudent drivers, cyclists and pedestrians, therefore, use a parallel series of streets just north, which have been armored with steel construction plates (as here), wrecked cars and buses, and containers that usually get stacked on freighters. This armored thoroughfare is the city's second and most valuable axis under siege.
Walking at night in Sarajevo is very beautiful. Everyone seems relaxed because the darkness blinds the snipers — although when I recited this theory to an army officer he guffawed and assured me that both sides had "the most sophisticated urban warfare equipment," including infra-red headsets and scopes. Nevertheless, the people do walk peacefully in the night.
Imagine a darkness so complete that one bumps into fences and stumbles over bushes. On a clear night the moon might help, and the stars will be brilliant, not only because there are no earthlights to drown them, but because Sarajevo has stopped burning fuels. Seno said that since the siege settled in he has never seen, nor tasted, the air so clean.
Imagine the silence, in a city without electricity and gasoline. Along the armored thoroughfare one moves in a murmuring throng, talking hushed with companions and transient neighbors, and always on the lookout for people appearing out of the blackness ahead. I had no choice but to imagine walking at night without electricity in New York. How strange, I told Haris, that I had to come to his city at war to walk in peace with fellow inwoners in the darkness. And it bears repeating that these are Croats, Muslims, Serbs and many others walking side by side.
One night the mood was broken by the chug-chug-chug of an anti-aircraft gun, from somewhere over in Grbavica, half a mile to our right. Moments later, six orange tubes of glowing ether flew by about forty feet overhead. They moved as fast as geese, and gave off a low soothing whizzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz before vanishing into the tall building on our left. Without a sound.
I thought it within reason to have expected some sort of bang. Tracers, it would seem ...
But why are the četniks shooting blanks?
"They are drunk," Haris snorted. "They are bored, they have nothing to do. They want to say I fuck you.nThey are idiots."nSo every so often the mountain men rattle off some fireworks for the townsfolk strolling the thoroughfare. The tall target that night had been a hospital. The basement and first two floors were in use, the ten or so above black and full of holes.
As for snipers, after a few days in town one begins to react as the Sarajlije react: as one reacts to a dog that has suddenly launched itself across the sidewalk at your leg. Instincts govern, and one takes appropriate steps, but the intellect's view is one of scorn. The animal is nasty and stupid. Nothing sensible has provoked its attack, but rather something brutish, or merely missing, in its brain. After leaving Sarajevo I passed through Prague, where the good Czechs and Slovaks were celebrating Christmas with firecrackers that sounded like the rifles of Sarajevo. I simply could not stop myself from hunching down, stepping lively and cussing aloud whenever one went off.
Late one sunny day in April between snow storms, during the Phony Peace, a fire fight erupted half a mile from the Presidency. The gents in Grbavica were mixing it up with UN anti-sniper units, which, since the Markale massacre, were now authorized and sometimes even willing to respond.
After listening to the racket curiously for a minute, I asked the man sitting beside me, waiting for the tram, what was going on. He glanced up from his Oslobodjenje, only then seemed to notice the steady crackling in the air, remarked "Oh, probably snipers," and returned to his newspaper.
Looking toward the river, across which the aggravated lead was flying, I saw a stream of people just getting off work, strolling the embankment and enjoying the lovely weather.
SENO LIKED TO CARRY my tape recorder as we walked and let the music sing out. It was the most modest of ghetto blasters, but made a spectacle of itself nevertheless, for no one else dared waste batteries on luxuries. People overtaking us from behind would slow down to match their pace to our own, to steadily listen, while those approaching ahead would start and mutter at the sound then pass on by with a wistful sigh or word.
We drop in on Seno's girlfriend, Ruby, who shaking my hand with a lovely smile informs me she doesn't go out very much because she is afraid of getting killed. But this evening she will join us, and has dressed like a dream. Stubborn attention to cosmetics has a political sense. It is a way to say, more delicately than Churchill, "We shall never surrender."
Ruby is an active member of the Resistance. She works on air at a radio station. I am able to meet her father (pictured here on their balcony) but then we rush off for Seno's home, where the city master plan
has decreed that the flow of electricity shall cease at 7:30. Seno wants to show me his records and books.
The family lives in a high-rise south across the river, climbing a ridge toward the entrenched siege line. Here, since summer 1992, the water has been off. It is Seno's daily chore to haul ten gallons or so, twelve flights up. If the electricity is flowing, and the elevator in working order, that is heaven.
We enter the flat at 7:10 pm, and Seno is frantic. Waving an introduction to his accomplished parents, he starts asking me what records I want him to play, having forgotten it seems the new Eurorock albums that he'd insisted were essential and I simply must hear. As I listen he rushes back into the room with an armful of books written or edited by Jasmina, then waves me to the door of Sado's neat study, where the computer sits dark, and the walls are lined with the yellow spines of standard French editions. Perhaps four tunes spin on the turntable before — right on schedule — the flat goes dark and the music dies with a little moan.
We head out to a cafè, called Academia, a favorite of young intellectual types. Everyone is neatly dressed, and nurses an expensive ersatz kaffè like a demitasse of Napoleon brandy. The conversation is somber and seems smart. Everyone smokes despite the expense. A visitor from the Outside is happy to contribute half a carton of Marlboro but then has his shoulder gently slapped by Seno and gets asked if he's read La Pelle.
Skin.NThe novel by Malaparte, that quirky dreamer of Italian fascism and then its deconstructor.n
I reply that I know of Malaparte, have encountered him in history and writings by others, but, alas, no, have never actually read him. Seno cannot believe it.
"Bill you must read Malaparte — it is about this."nHe waves at the quietly intense scene. Sharing his smile, I nod, and take another look around the smoky room.nBright Nights, Dark City ... nThen despite the murk I pull out my camera, and step back against a wall to try a couple shots.
Meanwhile Haris has dropped in with two friends, Zlaja (ZLEYE-uh) and Mišo (MEE-sho). In December I never saw one without the other. I join their table, the four of us constituting les èminents gris in this crowd, and after some chat Zlaja turns and demands with a big brilliant grin, "Why did you take our picture?" He has an extraordinary acquaintance with things American. We talk about FDR and Henry Kissinger (he admires both), the Gulf War, and his perfectly shaved skull. Is it a protest? He assures me soberly, "I am not a skinhead."
Mišo, for his part, doesn't seem to speak English, but seems happy to listen and chuckle along, and to sip the tasty local beer, the production of which in the city is a miracle. Mišo and Hazim's happy surgeon are the only people in December who seem well fed.
A WEEK LATER Minka, who like Ruby does not like to go outside, appears in the door of "my" room in fancy dress. "Bill! We must go!"nHer younger sister has invited us to dinner.
Snow has been falling all day, dressing in lace the muddy mess left by the last blizzard's melt. Minka waiting at the foyer door taps her umbrella tip on the floor to expedite my efforts to make myself presentable. Hazim is still recuperating in hospital. Over the river and up the hill to Jasmina's house we go ... The center's lieblich Viennese square seems a scene from The Nutcracker.
Sado Musabegović is a philosophy professor at the University of Sarajevo and a fan of the French postwar style and schools. Jasmina runs her fingers through his thick hair, and kids that he even looks like Derrida: a short dashing silver-maned man with bright eyes. Sado smiles but seems terribly embarrassed.
The standard series of Yugoslavian writers of fiction numbers twenty-five volumes. Work by Jasmina Musabegović is among them. As she prepares our dinner in the kitchen, I ask if she has managed to get much writing done lately.
"Ach," she cries, half amused and half not. "When your throat has been slit you cannot sing."
Yet here in December she and a co-curator are putting final touches on an exhibit of photos and testimonials that would open in January at the National Gallery, just off Nutcracker square. The Suffering of Women in War, one surmises, was among the first documentations in public light of the sexual side of so-called ethnic cleansing, and of the particular pain of surviving the sudden slaughter of fathers, brothers, husbands, sons ...
In April Jasmina would see Madeleine Albright, the American ambassador to the United Nations, speak in Sarajevo at the acquisition of a villa to house the new US embassy to the Republic of Bosnia and Hercegovina. Albright that day borrowed JFK's famous line from his confrontational trip to West Berlin. "Ja sam Sarajka," she declared.nI am a Sarajevan.n At the sound of those words, said Jasmina, "my heart grew big."
But the big words only illustrate Bill Clinton's shyness. He has had opportunities to speak them himself. Months later in '94, with the third siege winter on the make, but her throat perhaps mending, Jasmina would write a short but moving meditation on the dead souls piling up between her ears: Family Album.
Soon it's dark. The electricity is off but the new gas is on, so Jasmina hauls the garden hose in from the kitchen, with its homemade steel head spitting serious flames. She holds it up like the Statue of Liberty for a moment, then jams it down the maw of a wood stove to take the chill out of the living room.
Sado reports quietly that he is writing about urbicide. Specifically, the systematic destruction, block by block, by Belgrade's misnomic Yugoslavian Peoples Army, of the city of Vukovar, in Slavonia, northeast Croatia, on the tragic-historic krajina
(cry-EEN-uh), borderland, pale, frontier, which since the fateful distinguishing extinguishing stroke of Diocletian the Boy-Tax emperor of Illyria, here, has separated east and west within West. In April Haris and I would have fun for a week wrestling nightly to translate Sado's essay: The Death of Vukovar.
We also try to talk politics, the current round of negotiations in Geneva, circular indeed in deed and word, sans telos and temporal terminus. But we don't find much to say. For the Sarajlije the winter of absurdity has settled in. Hibernation seems the best idea.
So instead we talk Deconstruction. I say that one reason the US neither helps much directly nor forces the arms-embargo issue is that simple value judgments strike most Moderns as false and (worse) in bad taste. Yet such statements must be ringingly endorsed in public before political action can take place in a Western state. The Četniks are wrong and are criminals! The Bosnians have truth and justice on their side!nBoth are true, but not respectable.
And the Deconstruction idea — that all statements can be shown to be in some way incapacitated — degrades especially those statements about things other than matter and force. Such statements can't be tested, so people more easily lose faith in their meanings. They would have to be judged, but that calls for confidence, and special knowledge. An editor in New York has no idea if his reporter's dispatches from Bosnia are true. So instead he insists that they be objective, i.e., that they conform to a certain standard, or style, that the readership finds acceptable and familiar. The Objective Style Sheet includes a vocabulary, and words for non-material things are not listed. We are a civilization of satisfied Doubting Materialists. And the Deconstruction idea — vaguely met at college then bumped into at parties, dressed in its mystic yet scientific jargon — the Deconstruction attitude, much more than the practice (which few have ever practiced), contributes in a small way to this satisfied nihilism.
Sado responded oui certainment, but of course, for the complaint of nihilism is familiar and elementary. He thought the complaint wrong, but understandable, as a reaction to superficial abuse of the technique. Deconstruction is a tool, not a doctrine. And only one of many tools. Clearly, if one merely vivisects phrases, negates propositions, nothing can be said. Nothing comes together, everything falls apart. A surgeon must use the scalpel, but also the suture.
I suggested that these truths didn't matter much, politically, because it is the superficial view, that Deconstructive Feeling, that people carry out of college into the world. Ignorant Cynicism (a telling oxymoron), a sophisticated form of life, is fashionable, forceful, and convenient for a people preoccupied with advancing its flesh through history. Certainly Deconstruction has not brought us to this, and is more an effect than a cause. Still, it swims in and so strengthens the mainstream egoism that the society encourages with its every gesture and institution. Materialism and the flight to science go deeper and further. Sentences about non-material things fall further out of fashion, into deeper misuse, and finally out of touch with their meanings. We still say and write them, still affirm them, declare them in resolutions of the United Nations, but we cannot love or respect them anymore.
Ruby, Seno, Ignoto, and Sado
Fuko, Maja (?) and Danila
(with even more Brooklyn Bridge Chewing Gum)
Markale market, April 1994
SARAJEVO CAME to life in April. Gardens were in progress everywhere, and gardening lifted spirits.
The trams, frozen dead in December, were routinely rumbling down Sniper's Alley and around their one big loop in the sublime east. Breathtaking lilacs were busting out all over, in white, lavender or an intense magenta, most beautifully in the old Muslim cemeteries, where children play among bleached stelae and talk with their friends while lying on top of their grandparents' bones, staring into the sky.
The price of sugar was down in April from forty marks a kilo to four, vegetable oil from forty marks a liter to fifteen, and coffee from fifty a kilo to five. The town was abuzz. A local translator defiantly confided that four trucks of coffee had arrived in the city that very morning — she knew it for a fact! She was glowing like a buddha. All thanks to a single open road. Yet although prices were returning to the limits of imagination, few but the translators, drivers and fixers working for the foreign disaster professionals had any cash.
I met Slobo at the market in Hrasno near Nada's home where in December fourteen people had been killed by shells. Potatoes, eggs, lettuce, onions, and the constant spinach, were in good supply. This was luxury.
For a house gift I bought some paprika in a soda cup, with a rubberband and plastic wrap for a lid. The woman selling said five marks. Later I was told I had paid a bad price.
Slobo was squatting to her right, squinting up and eyeing me with friendly curiosity. His placemat had only one item for sale, a huge, two-kilo tin of margarine, and when I bent down to take a closer look at the monster, he nodded at my dangling camera and asked what kind it was.
The man on his right selling EU mackerel immediately commented in reply. They discussed my item with the reserve, quick eyes and detail of art dealers. Then Slobo gave me a shy smile, and asked how much it had cost.
Three hundred, I told them. Dollars. Used. Second-hand. In 1987.
Briefly they conferred. Then told me I had paid a good price.
Slobo's English was serviceable, I knew some Russian words (close kin to Serbo-Croatian), and we both had a little Italiano Touristico. I offered him a cigarette, from a pack decorated with yesterday's news.
"Journalist?" he asked, smiling shyly again. I nodded yes, which made him smile a bit more.
"Professional journalist?"NDid I not look the part?
A woman came browsing and rudely barked, asking about the margarine. Slobo's face hardened as he responded without a glance with a flat monosyllable that made her scowl and move along. Never in the markets did I notice people haggling. As the woman passed by, I slipped her weary four-year old daughter a bon-bon.
"American journalists see with one eye," Slobo was saying. He covered an eye with four vertical fingers, suddenly looking like a pirate with his stubbled face. "History of Serb people molto complicato. Americans think Serbs are the black man."
In April much of the city had a better supply of electricity (though still irregular and regulated), thanks to the import of fuel on the open road. As a result the Sarajlije were now keenly aware of what the TV world was saying about them. Slobo was angry at "the girl" on CNN, at something called SkyNews, and at numerous Brits he deemed twits.
I told him I wrote for a magazine and newspapers. Nothing to do with television.
"All are same. In America, Serbs are the black man. But in Sarajevo, all are black. In truth, all are black. Muslim, Serbs, Catholic. Serbs are heroic people." I could hear his jaw tighten.
He apologized for his English, then I for not knowing a stitch of his language. He wasn't sure he had used the correct word. "Truth," he repeated, as if rubbing it between his fingers. "Veritas."
"Pravda," he agreed. "Veritas. Istina in Serbian. Istina."
"EEESS-teena," he smiled, hitting the first syllable to correct my pronunciation. We shook hands and exchanged names.
"Slobodan," he said proudly. "Means freedom. Libertas." He said to call him Slobo, and that his father had fought in the war.
"World War II, you mean?"
"World War II."
"With Tito," I said quickly.
"Yes Tito! I am not nationalist! I am internationalist. I live in Sarajevo four-five years." He flashed the count with his fingers: four tens then a five. "I am not nationalist. I am Sarajlija."
"I have studied the history of the war here a little bit. It was very bad."
"Very bad," he nodded, examining my eyes to see if I really understood or was just trying to grease him. "And very complicated. Molto. Tanto — many Serbs — massacred! By Ustaše. Catholics." Having named the Croatian fascists (the "Ooos-TASH-uh") installed in Zagreb by the Nazis, he then named Jasenovac, their prison and death camp.
"Before this, five hundred years Turkish occupation. Five hundred years!"
I turned my palms to the sky, as if to test for rain. "But there are no Turks here now!"
He laughed a bit, perhaps granting a point scored. He certainly had something more to say, about the presence of Turks in Sarajevo, but speaking of such things with his neighbors at his elbows was making him uncomfortable. So instead he thought twice, and then told me, "I shut up."
He stood there rocking on his heels with his fists jammed into the pockets of his wind- breaker, smiling at my forehead to see if I understood. Perhaps we spoke of the price of paprika.
Then he suddenly squatted again, to draw a line in the dirt. Then pointed to one end.
"Karadžič," he named it (after the Bosnian-Serb leader at Pale). Then he pointed to the other end. "Izetbegović." And I nodded (the Muslim philosopher-president of the new Bosnian state). "But truth," he said dramatically — "Istina — !"
"In between," I suggested, pointing to the middle.
"Yes. In between."
"Razumijem." This was my favorite word in his language so far. Hazim had given it to me. It means I understand or I agree.
But to be sure I understood,nIstina in between,nSlobo repeated the momentous sentence three or four times. Truth's remote place in the middle was to somehow explain all the brutality and mass murder of the past three years.
I told him I was looking for local writings to publish in New York. He lit with pleasant surprise, and asked who I was in contact with. I produced a folder and let him look through it.
He eyed the many sheets of paper curiously, nodding with what I took to be approval, then handed the folder back with a wry smile.n"You see? All Muslim. You see with one eye."
But no, or not quite. I showed him things by two men who, I was lucky to know, were Serbs. But these he dismissed with a wave as "the opposition" — supporters, that is, of the Sarajevo government, opposed to the Serb nationalists at Pale and Belgrade.
"But you are opposition, too," I said puzzled, "aren't you? You said you weren't a nationalist."
"No, I am internationalist. But Izetbegović is nationalist. He is the same." The same as Karadžič.
I pointed to the ground.n"But they're at different ends of the line."
"All are same. It is circle."
We laughed. But I also complained that the Pale and Sarajevo governments are not the same. Or, at least, they don't behave the same. Do they?
Slobo shrugged and smiled.
I asked if he favored partition of the new state.n
No, he did not, he was not nationalist.
Did he support the militarists in the hills?n
Of course not.n
The massacres and expulsions in other towns?n
"I am not četnik."NThen aren't you, too, in the Opposition?
He laughed and wagged his head.
"I shut up."
He then invited me to visit his home. He had a friend, a doctor, a man involved in politics in a serious way, who was also fluent in English. He could explain things better. We could talk with clarity, and in private. He asked me to call him the next day at noon.
APRIL'S FLOWERS ONE MORNING are found covered with snow. But Ivica Pinjuh, whom everyone calls Bimbo, still shows up at Skenderija bridge. Our plan is to walk around south of the river, and then head west, closer than was prudent in December to the zone of disaster beneath the Old Jewish Graveyard.
We visit the Academy of Fine Art, which along with Vijećnica (the National Library) and the University palace are the riverfront's most magnificent creations. All date to the decades when Austria-Hungary held sway, 1878 until the first war, and radiate the graces of Vienna's Fin de Siecle.nIn its surviving monuments one senses Modernity's last moment of optimism.
The Academy building was completed in 1899, to house and glorify the Evangelical Church. Since April 1992 its spires and dome have been used by the Serb nationalists for target practice. All the big buildings, new and old, along the waterfront have received roughly the same treatment. The river's breadth leaves them badly exposed to direct fire from the hills both north and south.
The city's hundred minarets are also inviting and, being so slender, quite a challenge for the professional artilleryman. But the aggressors are well equipped for their struggle; guide wires that direct "smart" high-tech ordnance to target still entangle ruined mosques here and there around town. The one monumental structure standing signally inviolate is the Cathedral, my beacon of hope that first afternoon, home to the Serbian Orthodox Church.
We visit Bimbo's friends at the office of Dani Magazine, who continue despite all to put one of the city's most important publications to bed. Along with Oslobodjenje, the heroic newspaper, Dani keeps the conversation that is politics alive.
Another such humane miracle is Sineast, one of Europe's best film journals since its founding in the 60s. The wartime staff includes Bimbo, Haris and Sado, editor Milan Cvijanović and Jasmina Duraković, who has offered kind instruction on numerous matters both cultural and geopolitical during my retreats to the Last Homely House With Electricity West of the Drina Nonstop.
Sineast, Dani, Oslobojene. The acute art of Design Trio. The cigarettes of Drina Co. wrapped in books.n
The beer cooked in Bistrik's grand Austrian brewery, up the hill not far from where Bimbo and I sit with Dani's valiant editors ...
One begins to wonder. In a world, a city, without electricity, where teachers are paid with sacks of flour and citizen-soldiers with packs of cigarettes, where paper is forbidden, and the roads are closed, and across any given month the only link to the Outside may be a Soros Foundation satellite or a coal-miner's tunnel that may or may not exist ...
One begins to wonder about the nuts and bolts. How people manage to keep keeping on. (Sineast's Ratno Izdanje 2 — War Issue 2 — has just been published as we go to press in the dog days of summer.) An optimist
might posit the existence of spiritual Means of Production, parallel to those analyzed so well by Marx, immaterial Means, generally underground, apparently occult, and often unemployed, but which, once unearthed, perhaps by artillery, and set into play, perform as perpetual motion machines.
So one wonders, watching Sarajevo work. Alexander Dubček's gracious memoir also comes to mind:nHope Dies Last.
But no. Until the siege is broken, the report of Kemal Bakaršić, from his ministerial seat in the Presidency, must remain the spirit warrior's mission statement:
The Serb nationalists, the aggressors, say there is no way that Serb and Muslim can live together. It is ridiculous. And it is not true.
Or the Croat nationalists say, “We want all of Mostar! Or let’s divide it into east and west, we can live side by side.”nHow can I, with my wife, in one bed?
I want to live in something that is dynamic and universal. That is the only intellectual atmosphere I can live in. Our destinies are crossed. We have to treasure the common tradition, a tradition of mutual understanding. This is the only hope for our future.
We are frustrated. We don’t have any food. I am crazy about cigarettes. I am crazy about running hot water, about electricity.
But one can get used to all this. The thing that is most important is
to communicate with the world, to exchange ideas. The debate, the dialogue.
This is the main thing we must secure to have a future. We are suffering from a total communications blockade:n telephones, mail, convoys, buses, trains and planes, computers, intellectual conferences, and so on.nIt is something we must struggle for:
a new structure of communicating with the world.
The boys at Design Trio also publish a magazine, now and then, called Koktel (Cocktail). The idea is simple: Lift and translate articles about the disaster from Der Spiegel, Le Monde, L'Express, La Repubblica, The New York Times, Newsweek, Vreme (a Belgrade opposition paper) and whatever else looks good. Koktel is a precious connection. Minka studied the latest issue across the short dark days of December, and made it a point each night to talk about the foreign views. They left her, in the end, less bitter than I would have guessed. Contact seems a salve, even when the word is banal, misinformed, misguiding and grim.
ANOTHER DAY I WANDER in April's freedom into a south-central neighborhood that seems a scene from vanquished Vukovar.
Why the aggressors concentrated such heavy fire here, the surviving structures don't say. Most are houses, looking beat. Were they just unlucky, to lie so snugly with clear lines of sight beneath the batteries of Mount Trebevica? Or were the old brick factory and warehouses, now ruins, productive targets two Aprils ago, and the rest collateral damage?
At first and second glance the block seems abandoned. Then children resolve before my eyes.
Fifty yards ahead a boy strides out to the middle of the wide street — Is there no danger? — then suddenly turns to face me, jumping it seems into the pose of a gunslinger from the Wild Wild West, feet spread wide, hands dangling twitchy above his hips on each side. I shoot him with my camera.
On a sidewalk, a girl stands watching with a bike.
Further down, two women are weeding, trying to cut a garden bed out of wild growth along a pock-marked warehouse wall.
Bon-bon, as usual, bring the kids in for snapshots. The eldest, a teenage girl, seems well balanced and in charge. The youngest is perhaps three. All have the lean and hungry look of siege, and seem experienced, if not wise, beyond their years. Sad emanations from The Lord of the Flies.
One of the women beckons, waving me inside the ruined factory. Fearing a business proposition, I beg off, shaking my head, trying to convey respectful regrets.
But then she reappears sheparding a boy, who seems ill, or crippled, perhaps like the factory a permanent victim of the epic shelling of the spring of '92. Or perhaps, like the neighborhood, a slow healer.
The woman kneels to embrace the boy, then looks up expectantly — striking, I realize, a pose for my camera. Perhaps she had waved me inside not for business but to take the boy's picture as he lay in bed.
Perhaps it had pained him to rise and come outside.
Do they sleep in a bombed-out building?
My bag has nothing to offer but Marlboro. The woman accepts a couple packs with a faint nod and the averted eyes of those who no longer expect things to get better.
The girl with the bike has not crossed the street to join the bon-bon photo shoot.
Instead she is cycling, twenty yards each way up and down the street, through smooth, slowly bending Figure Eights, and watching. And expecting to be watched.
The display is so explicit, and complacent, that again I worry about snipers in the hills.
Crossing the street, I catch her eye, and wave her to the southern sidewalk where she first appeared, and where a ramshackle roof blocks the thunder god's line of sight.
Her English, and her spirits, are distinctly better than those of her neighbors.
Her elegance is in part by nature, and in part by careful dress, which burnishes her image with Ruby's heroic cosmetic resistance. Had she been off on an innocent date, on her freedom machine, when the stranger had appeared in the dead street with a camera? Is she old enough to socialize at Academia?
I ask to take her picture, and she shrugs a smart smile. When I ask about snipers, she shrugs them off.
In general she seems to find me foolish. Then says she has to go.
But rather than speed off to a slightly better place, she pedals in a big circle, as wide as the street. Around and around. Floating on air. Again the performance is so bold as to seem a provocation. Is she taunting the barbarian aggressor in the hills? Carving him a bull's eye at the very center of the zone of maximum exposure?
Or does she do it for the camera?nWhy don't I take a picture of her riding her bike?
HAZIM AND MINKA, like Slobo, were suddenly seeing television in April, as enough fuel was trucked into town to generate some daytime electricity. One afternoon we watched Sylvester Stallone's wisecracking momma terrorize the aggressors of Los Angeles with a .357 Magnum. Hazim chuckled throughout, but when a Yugoslav movie followed he hurried out of his chair to turn it off.
"I know it. Not as good as yours."
News broadcasts from Belgrade were still playing in town, delivered in the high grey Soviet style. The news from Pale, however, ten miles up the the hill, is something completely different. Hazim warns that the anchor is "a funny man" — a real comedian who throughout the sloppy program mugs and cracks jokes. Viewers may feel they have entered a bar.
Each show concludes with a skit. The Funny Man reports grimly that another ultimatum has arrived from Uncle Sam, threatening Serbs with fire and brimstone.
But that's okay!nhe suddenly beams, because this ultimatum is witten on paper no sturdier than all the rest, and therefore will be treated in similar fashion!
He reaches up for an imaginary water-closet chain, and with a wink and a grin gives a good yank. We hear the sound of a flushing toilet as he tosses off the three-finger Holy Trinity salute. That's all, folks!
Another night the skit begins with a wild video of a little car careering down a highway, pursued by two delivery trucks, which eventually squeeze and crush it between them. (Difficult no doubt for amateurs to film.)
Suddenly everything is still. The wrecked little car lies overturned in a ditch — and the Funny Man is in the driver's seat, unconscious or worse, his face grotesquely twisted. An obvious victim of aggression.
But then we cut to the TV studio, where he slouches against a stool, smirking, arms folded, in liesure slacks and an unbuttoned polo shirt.
No, don't worry, they can't get rid of me that easy! You see, they called me to Geneva to stand before their war crimes tribunal, but that didn't last long, and then there was this rumor on the way back I was killed in a so-called accident. But this, too, as you can see, was a lie. I'm back! Next time we'll be sending the muslims to Geneva.
I assumed I was missing much in translation which would improve the impression, but Hazim said he thought not.n"Every night I watch a little bit, I hope for just a little bit of truth. But every night is the same — and I must turn it off!"
On April 28 the Funny Man reported that the US Senate had declared that February's mass-murderous Markale so-called shelling was perpetrated in fact by radical muslims who brought the bomb to market in a box. To put this not-unheard-of scuttlebutt in the mouth of the Senate was pure fiction.
The Sarajevo news, in contrast, is respectful and respectable. A man and a woman in business dress read conventional copy in a somewhat tense tone.
Reports from foreign networks are also replayed, with translations overlaid so the original tongue remains audible. It was here, most likely, that Slobo heard what the girl on CNN was saying, and that the mass of Sarajlije confirmed their impressions that the Geneva diplomats were on the moon.
One afternoon brought a video report of the sudden tribal slaughter in Rwanda. Minka was moved to mutter sadly from the bed. The figure of 200,000 dead was now being cited — the same number often used to estimate the war dead in Bosnia.
Hazim stood transfixed as the report concluded, scratching absentmindedly his stomach through his t-shirt. Then he met my glance, raised his eyebrows, and shrugged his wide, bony shoulders.
"Well ... Two hundred thousand. In four weeks."
He didn't know what to say.
"It takes us two years to do that."
EACH SPRING the EuroVision TV network sponsors the EuroVision Pop Music festival. Singers from twenty-five countries compete. It's a very long night. All twenty-five songs are performed live for the cameras, and then the entire continent must vote.
Hazim is excited. For Bosnia has an entry in the competition — which is hosted each year by the previous winner. So if we win tonight, Hazim explains quietly, then next spring all of Europe must come to Sarajevo. He smiles like a sneaky child. Minka is snoozing.
This year the show radiates from Ireland, which has won the competition five times out of twenty. The first songs are a bit bland but not bad. There seems some effort, perhaps programmatic, to preserve National distinctions, the music of the Folk, amid the stream of globalized MTV pop derived from the lowest common denominator.
After watching a few acts, I excuse myself to work on the day's notes.
The hills are alive with the sound of machine guns again. The impression NATO made on the aggressors in February is wearing thin in April. Twice the night before shells exploded on the nearest ridge, certainly a violation of the Exclusion Zone.
The open road of the Phony Peace is not a two-way street. To escape Sarajevo still requires the permission and martial escort of UNPROFOR, which for Sarajlije are as all-but-impossible to obtain as before the Markale massacre. As for the rumored tunnel beneath the airport (running from brutalized Dobrinja on the Pocket's inner edge to Butmir on the Outside under Bosnian Army control), that too seems closed to all but a credentialed missionary few.
But for exiles looking to go the hell home, the false peace while it lasts does offer hope. After driving or busing through demolished frontier towns and a couple dozen checkpoints — Croatian Army or HVO militia, Serb nationalist in uniform or četnik regalia, the stray UNPROFOR watchdog, perhaps a stray renegade or stray mad dog, and finally the Bosnian Army — the returning native will find the gates of Shangri-la open.
Barbara Legat I met in 1993, in the new Czech Republic, with her brother Igor and a pair of friends: Maja (pronounced like the Mayans) and Mirela, the daughters of Nada and Braco. In Bohemia at university when the war broke out, they had tarried there ever since, as accidental refugees, ridden with guilt and anxiety as their parents and friends underwent back home the torments reported by the global press. Now and then they were able to speak by phone. And exchange letters by unofficial couriers.
Between my December and April trips to Sarajevo, I saw Barbara again, in Prague. She said she had decided to go home, despite the objections of Igor and friends. Her departure days later left them upset, and all of us gloomy, but struck me also with admiration for her courage, and some wonder at her feelings, her decision, her calculus of values. She was traveling alone, to be with her mother in a hungry war zone.
And now here she is. We took a long walk today out west. Her mother and Nada are neighbors and friends.
Hazim knocks on my door. Bosnia is about to take the soundstage.
The burden, the fate of the newborn republic in turmoil, falls on the shoulders of a stiff-looking man in his 30s and a dark belleza ten years younger and busting out with life. She is Muslim, Hazim notes, and the man Croatian.
With five backup voices to add punch to the chorus, the pair sing a slow, soaring duet, clearly promising each other things to last a lifetime. Not a bad song at all. And the woman's performance is perhaps the best of those I see. Her muscular mezzo could fill the candlelit Children's Theater ...
She makes her trembling and thunderous finish — and the black-tie audience of EuroPop luminaries, arranged around dinner tables bristling with ice buckets, jumps to its feet to applaud the act.
But also, of course, in homage to Bosnia.
It strikes me as an all too easy venting of EuroGoodWill.
But the woman, teary, holds her head high.
And Hazim nods, satisfied, it seems, that Bosnia's voice has been heard.
I ask him the name of the song. He stumbles once or twice with the translation, then reports: "All My Luck
After the last performance in Dublin, the show reflects through space to visit each of the twenty-five capitals, where panels of pop authorities allot fifty points or so among their favorite acts. Twelve for Ireland, nine for Spain, seven for Ukraine and Luxembourg, etc. Again I go off to write notes.
NADA, A GREAT COOK, fed me well this afternoon, and after lunch two groups of neighbors came by with questions about the Western position. Could you please explain the logic of allowing us to be penned up and slaughtered like cattle? We cannot even defend ourselves. It is not just.
I nodded and replied that I was unable to explain it myself, and shared, in the easy way of a foreigner, their distress.
Dino, who has travelled throughout Europe in his work, was at pains to emphasize that Bosnians are a modern people, they are not fundamentalists. They are incomparably closer to Paris and London than Istanbul and Arabia ...
I was ashamed to find myself growing impatient. I've now addressed these questions enough times to know that they lead almost nowhere. The Western position is founded on pretense and a shallow logic. It is hard to talk about seriously.
But Bosnians naturally assume that it must be a ponderous logical substance indeed that pins them down and demands their death two by two in the marketplace, that a geopolitical theory of human sacrifice, or a valise of spectacular secret treaties — Major-Milosević, Milosević-Mitterand — must surely somewhere
exist as the argument for their condition. If they could just get their hands on it ... nPerhaps it could be criticized.
But the Western position is best explained by absence. The absence of interest. The absence of care. The mere dull desire to avoid a fight, and the absence of the vocabulary and political wherewithal to criticize that desire. The leaders of the West are willing to allow the Bosnian state and people to be erased from the face of the earth, and have demonstrated this repeatedly through two years of atrocious horror. But still the Sarajlije are unable to believe it.
After an hour of polling, Hazim's EuroVision Peace Plan has followed Vance-Owen and Owen-Stoltenberg into the dustbin of history. With half the vote counted, Bosnia sits in sixteenth place. Europe won't be coming to Sarajevo when next the lilacs bloom.
But Hazim is still on the edge of his chair, for the final rankings will seed next year's contest — and Bosnia must finish no lower than seventeenth to assure itself a spot in 1995. Otherwise it will have to compete in the grueling preliminaries — for in EuroVision's Europe there are many more than twenty-five countries. Morocco, Turkey, Israel ...
Bosnia's biggest supporter turns out to be France. Ten points! Hazim mutters in confusion and disgust. The French troops in town have a reputation for arrogance. Most comically, they refuse to recognize the simple English words that everyone else uses to get by. More crucially, it's the French veto threat in the Security Council, with Britain's pledged echo, that keeps the arms embargo in place.
Still, Hazim is glad to tally the points from Paris. They help the Bosnians keep their heads above water.
They finish, if memory serves, fifteenth.
The winners once again are the Irish. Hazim shrugs.
"They have good songs."
Nada and Seno
Minka, Mrs Miller and Nada
SLOBO IN THE DISTANCE was walking head down on Otoka Bridge, back and forth, with a big brown book tucked in his arm. When he saw me he smiled and nodded with approval. My mere appearance seemed the answer to his most important question.
His friend the doctor had just finished two days without sleep at the hospital and would not be joining us. "But I have this," Slobo smiled, holding up the book: a well worn antique "Croatian-English" dictionary.
We walked to a modern apartment building, there in the postwar center. There was a big TV in the living room, and a handsome wall of books.
To take my seat as invited, I had to pick off the couch a novel by Ivo Andrić (EE-vo AHN-drich), Bosnia's Nobel laureate. Slobo received it as if suprised to find it, and with a smile and an elaborate sigh.
"Oh, Travnik Chronicle — great book. Very important. Very beautiful." He turned and swept his arm across the wide bookcase. "Books absolute!"
"Razumijem," I nodded smiling.
"Good, bad, not absolute. Books absolute."
Mirianne, his wife, appeared, and sat through the visit, speaking now and then in Serbo-Croatian, and with a voice that Slobo paid genuine attention to. They struck me as familiar, a balanced modern couple.
As Mirianne brought tea and the petrified UN crackers to the coffee table, I set down a pack of Marlboros and some candy. The latter she enjoyed piecemeal across the hours, while her husband restricted himself to two of my coffin nails before bringing out his own, wrapped in absolute.
What don't you like about the Sarajevo government?
Slobo replied that he didn't like nationalists, and that Izetbegović was stupid, that his refusal to negotiate with Karadžič had forced the war. Karadžič had asked for only 45% (of the territory of Bosnia and Hercegovina). Izetbegović could have kept the rest, which wasn't bad.
What about the Croats?
Back then they wanted to be with the Muslims, they were together. Serbs were alone.
But why should Bosnia's Serb nationalists, who speak for only a portion of its Serbs, get 45% when Serbs comprise, in total, only about 30% of the population?
Because Serbs were alone. But numbers are not important. It is important to negotiate. Karadžič was bargaining, so his number was a little big. He would have made it smaller. But Alija (Izetbegović) was too stubborn, and not clever enough.
"Negotiate, Alija!" Slobo cried, advising the president as if he were there on the couch and a childhood friend. I had noticed Sarajlije of all stripes refer and talk to their leader this way.
"You can't negotiate with a gun to your head, can you?"
"Now he has nothing," Slobo shrugged. "Now he has thirty percent. Now we live in this." He waved through a wide window at the broken city, spread out a bit perhaps six floors below.
I suggested that the plebiscite had confirmed Izetbegović's policy. (Sixty-five percent of eligible Bosnians went to the polls in February 1992, despite a ban by Belgrade; over 99% of those voted to leave rump Yugoslavia, which since 1991 had been in conflict with departed Slovenia and Croatia.) What else could Alija do, in a democracy?
Slobo smiled. "There is no democracy in war. Not in Bosnia, not England, not America."
"What about Churchill?"
Churchill is popular in Sarajevo, the man who armed Tito (both seen here with Anthony Eden) and told the fascists with more thunder than Ruby, "We shall never surrender."n Nevertheless, he lost an election and his job before the war had even ended. "So that's an example of democracy during war."
"There is no democracy in England and America. Elections are not democracy. Democracy is way of life. England and America are Liberal. Capitalist. There is no freedom in capitalist way of life. There is property. Money. Not freedom. Democracy needs freedom."
"That's half true," I said, and he was pleased.
I asked how he was getting along in Sarajevo. He said fine. There were three other Serb families in the building and the neighbors treated them well, the same as before the war. They were friends.
But then he hopped from his chair in sudden agitation and told of an incident with some soldier-policemen who had stopped him in the street to inspect his papers — a normal thing for any man at any hour, since army service is mandatory and recorded on one's papers. Seno, too, hates to get stopped for documenti. He panics, afraid that by some moronic twist out of Kafka or Husak he'll be carted off to jail or back to the front.
Slobo's paper problems began when the policemen noticed that he was born in the same village as Ratko Mladić (ROT-ko MLAH-dich), the erstwhile JNA general who commands the detached JNA units now known as the Bosnian-Serb Army (seen here, in fancy hat, with Karadžič).
Mladić is unpopular in Sarajevo. On an infernal night of shelling in April 1992, during the first shocking weeks of the siege, a Sarajevo radio station picked up transmissions from the general's command post, and broadcasted them live as the city cracked and burned.
A blue-eyed Slav of the mountains, unfamiliar with the big city, Mladić that night had trouble pronouncing the Turkish names of some of Sarajevo's districts. In one now familiar exchange (extant on tape), an artillery officer repeatedly tries to clarify the General's command, to be sure he drops his bombs on the right neighborhood — and Mladić grows furious as the Turks twist his tongue:
"Shell Velesh— Veleshch—!nShell Velesheech—!n Shell Vel— Veleshcheech—!
Shell Veleshcheecheechee! There aren't many Serbs there!"
God was left to choose his own.
Nearly two years later, in March of '94, his daughter Ana presented Mladić with a critique of his work difficult to dismiss. She killed herself, at 23, with the prize pistol he'd been awarded for high achievement at war college. A Serb commander told the New York Times a month later that General Mladić had gone mad.
Slobo got mad recalling his encounter with the local police. Mirianne watched drolly, having heard the story before. The policemen asked if he knew Mladić. They are roughly the same age. Were he and Ratko old friends? Was Slobo a četnik spy in Sarajevo?!
"Me!" he cried, slapping his chest — a Sarajlija for four-five years! They yelled at him as if he were a dog. They said he was disgusting, then began pushing, yelling, Go! Get out of here! Get out of my sight before —!"
Slobo's indignation is justified, for Sarajevo is a place where such things don't happen, and Izetbegović's new government stands for principles that condemn them when they do. And yet, when one compares the incident to things that have happened in towns where Mladić has taken over ...
The brochure for the exhibit Jasmina co-curated, The Suffering of Women in War, includes a poem by a Bosnian girl pregnant after rape, and this testimony by a woman in Foča (FOE-cha), on the Drina river, across which Belgrade's army and paramilitary gangs came pouring in spring 1992:
My husband was lying there, facing the sky, with two fingers — his index and middle finger — cut off, a cross carved on his forehead, bullet riddled (there were twelve bullet casings scattered around) and with a finely made, twenty centimeter thick, polished wooden cross nailed to his chest. We have wrapped him in a blanket and buried him.
I asked Slobo if he sympathized with Mladić, with the četnik view.
"Of course not, I am not nationalist."
But if you don't like Izetbegović, or the opposition Serbs — are you in the Liberal Party?
"Liberal?!? nI am internationalist!"
But which side are you on now, here in Sarajevo?
"No side. All sides are nationalist."
But don't they behave very differently?
With a teacher's gentle smile, he brought a piece of paper to the coffee table, took up a pencil, and began to write. 1389. 1448. "History of Serb people ... nVery complicated ..."
It was the mantra he had used in the Hrasno market. It was his universal solvent. In the end he would fill three pages with numerals and names and arrows and maps.
Ivo Andrić (seen here) was imprisoned as a young man for associating with the "Young Bosnia" Serb nationalists who arranged the assassination of the Austrian crown prince, there in Sarajevo, in 1914. He was at university in Poland on June 28, however, and no one today argues that he was part of the conspiracy. The Austrians released him in 1917.
His dissertation, The Development of Spiritual Life in Bosnia Under the Influence of Turkish Rule (1924), is a calm but biased and spotty account of what the Ottomans did to Bosnia, culturally, across the centuries they held sway. Written quickly, under publish-or-perish compulsion, it often seems more of a novelist's notebook than historian work product. And one notices things here and there that don't seem quite true.
Only a specialized historian may hope to ably criticize the book, which was published in English in 1990 — but laymen may use it to better understand what both Serb and Croat nationalists feel to be their true history.
Slobo told me several stories about the Ottoman era that one can read in Andrić. Did he learn them growing up with Ratko Mladić, playing heroic war games in the woods of Božanovići? Or from books in his urbane Sarajevo apartment?
Bells — the loudest and most arresting symbols of Christianity — have always riveted the attention of Turks. Wherever their invasions would go, down came the bells, to be destroyed or melted into cannon ...
Only in 1860 did [a] priest ... get permission ... to hang a bell at the church in Kreševo [and] only on condition that "at first the bell be rung softly to let the Turks get accustomed to it little by little." And still the Muslims of Kreševo were complaining, even in 1875, to Sarajevo that "the Turkish ear and ringing bells cannot coexist in the same place at the same time"; and Muslim women would beat on their copper pots to drown out the noise.
In 1870 the governor granted permission ... to hang the first bell in the catholic church of Sarajevo. That concession was preceded, however, by prolonged negotiations between the vizier and the Muslim clergy over the issue of "whether a muslim can live in a place where bells ring without its being counted a sin." ...n [O]ne fanatic cleric "hit his opponent over the head with the holy book." ...
[A]t Easter in 1871 the first bell was hung with great ceremony in the presence of foreign counsels. One year later, on 30 April, 1872, the new Serbian Orthodox church also got a bell.
So reported Andric in 1924. Seventy years later, Slobo tells me that Christians weren't allowed to ring bells in Bosnia until — He stops and writes it down:n1872.
The Ottomans took Slav boys away to their capitals, to be educated as leaders. That their Byzantine and Roman predecessors had done likewise — Diocletian was a local boy kidnapped to Rome — doesn't stop Andrić from writing that the practice was "brought by the [Ottoman] conquerors" in his dissertation, which condemns it at some length. Later he wrote a moving account of a kidnapping in The Bridge on the Drina.nAnd now Slobo calls the "Boy Tax" to my attention with indignation, to paint the Turk as the Devil, and today's Bosniaks, with their cosmo-meta-Christian multiculturalism, as sons of Turks.
Sarajevo was built into a city by the Ottomans. Slobo tells me that when permission came for the erection of the first Serbian Orthodox Church, the sultan decreed that it be cruelly small. The building could occupy a plot no larger than what could be enclosed by a rope created by slicing a single ox hide around and around from the outside in. Like removing the peel of an orange in one piece.
It was an atrocity I had difficulty understanding. As Slobo tried to explain a third time, Mirianne, a bit exasperated, grabbed one of his sheets of paper and started cutting with scissors, around and around. Was this her critique of his subtle history? I watched having no idea, until she handed the finished paper "rope" to Slobo, who formed a circle with it on the table, then indicated a church steeple rising from the center.
"Bill, you must go, look at the church." The many centuries and loyal custodians have preserved it, just east of Jelica. "It is so small. It is sad."
"But what does all that have to do with this?" I finally managed to ask.
"With Sarajevo! Today! With the war! This history does not justify what has happened in Priejdor and Zvornik and Bijeljina —"
"Zvornik is Serb town."
"It was majority Muslim in 1991."
He shook his head good-naturedly, and took up the pencil. 1944. June.
"Ustaše kill many Serbs. There was massacre in Zvornik. 21 June, 25 June — not sure. Big massacre in Zvornik."
A terrible crime. But does it justify crime today?
"Emigration in war is normal. No massacre in Zvornik. Emigration only."
"That's not true."
"Yes true, no massacre." Quickly, perhaps unconsciously, he waved at the dark television to cite authority. He had his truth about Zvornik's recent history from the Funny Man in Pale.
"There have been mass killings and expulsions in all the Drina cities. Višegrad, Zvornik, Foča —"
"No killing," he insisted quietly. "Emigration, yes. War is war. But Serb has no need to kill. Only to
clean his town."
"You said you weren't a nationalist."
"No, I am internationalist."
"But you want to clean towns and divide by nation."
"Not all towns. Some towns. Muslims have their towns. Sarajevo is muslim town."
"But that's the nationalist idea. And what the četniks have done to clean towns is genocide."
The last word irritated him, and he retreated again to the 1940s and the concentration camp at Jasenovac, where the Ustaše regime murdered approximately 80,000 (?) people, most of them Serbs. So that was genocide, and today in Slobo's view the mess left behind by the war was finally getting cleaned up. "It is best way," he assured me, "for peace. Because of history. Very complicated. In some towns. Not all towns."
nnn “What about Knin? Is that a Serb town?”
The question made his eyes pop and he laughed.
"Of course it is Serb town! Many Serbs live there a long time."
But the Serbs at Knin, a strategic crossroads in Croatia amid the Dinaric Alps, were forcefully resettled there by the Austrians in the late 19th century, to create a buffer against the Turks, turning Catholic town into Serb town for reasons of state. So if Knin is now a Serb town, then Zvornik by the same rule is a Muslim town, no?
Slobo laughed, seeming to like the ironic and twisted logic. Then he picked up his pencil, to sketch a map of Bosnia enfolded by Croatia, which he then shaded, in the northwest, and in the east, to indicate the areas he considered Serbian.
While I looked the sketch over he brought to the table a published map that pictures with pie-charts the results of the 1991 census. I had bought a copy myself in a Zagreb bookstore. It was labelled "Ethnic Map" and stood side-by-side with the "Geographic Map" in the rack.
Hazim had a copy too. We had pored over the ethnic pie charts, town by town, one night, having a similar chat, during which he encapsulated the Serb-nationalist cartography with a rule of thumb:n "Where a Serb shits, that is Serbia."
With his pencil Slobo now points to the pie chart hovering over Knin. In 1991, 88.6% of the population called itself Serbian when asked by census takers. Serb town.
But Zvornik, I point. 59.4% Muslim. Bijeljina, the same. Višegrad, 62.8%. Goražde, 70.2%. Foča, 51.6%. Šrebrenica, 74.8% — but no, he says again, there were more Serbs than that before the world wars, history of Serb people very complicated ...
I try to break out of the circle by forcing him to choose either people or history. How do we identify what kind a town is? Which governs, the people there in our time or the history before? If we're going to divide by nation, we have to use the same rule for every town.
He smiles again and thinks about it for a while. It should be emphasized that our talk was a relaxed affair.
In December, Kemal and I had been talking about the programmatic hypocrisy in Geneva when suddenly he jumped up to pull Ezra Pound off his shelf, flipped through, then handed me the conclusion of Canto 81, as the best gloss on the whole schmeer, good, bad and ugly:
“Master thyself, then others shall thee beare”
Pull down thy vanity
Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail
A swollen magpie in a fitful sun
Half black, half white
Nor knowst’ou wing from tail
Pull down thy vanity
How mean thy hates
Fostered in falsity
Pull down thy vanity
Rathe to destroy, niggard in charity
Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.
But to have done instead of not doing
This is not vanity
To have, with decency, knocked
That a Blunt should open
To have gathered from the air a live tradition
or from a fine old eye the unconquered flame
this is not vanity.
Here error is all in the not done,
all in the diffidence that faltered …
Now in April I ask Slobo if he knows Ezra Pound.
"Of course. Great poet. Great poet."
"And kinda crazy, and he supported Mussolini —"
"Yes, but not so important. Poetry is one thing, politics different."
"Do you know this, from one of his cantos?" I reach out and for the first time he hands me the pencil, and I write Canto 81's three famous lines on his third sheet of paper, finding space between the Drina and the tragic Krajina ...
What thou lov'st well remains, the rest is dross
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov'st well is thy true heritage
He took at least a minute to examine the verses, then confessed, rather nobly, that he didn't recognize or understand them.
The word "lov'st" was confusing. So I erased it and wrote "love" instead, then said amore.n"Si, si," he replied quickly, scanning the verse again having already understood.
This inspired a rewrite of all three in plain English. "The things you love well will remain." Mysterious "dross" was clarified with "Nothing, niente!" and a flick of the wrist — worthless dreck, toss it in the garbage. In the final line I drew a score beneath "heritage" and beneath the score wrote "history."
"Istina storia — capisce lei?"nOne needn't love all the numbers of the Nation simply because they've been left in books. One might decide 1878 is more loveable than 1913. One might love one bit of history unconditionally but criticize another, discover it's dreck, and toss it in the garbage. True heritage, true history, is people and life, not just numbers and maps —
Suddenly he gasped.n"Yes!nI love my history very much!"
No no, I moaned in my distress, then spewed another gloss, confident neither then nor now that what I wanted him to get was very gettable. But this time he at least understood what I was mumbling. The academician's verb "criticize" helped. We must criticize everything, to discover what things should and must be loved. And these, if we love well, cannot be taken away.
Slobo nodded warily, indicating interest but unwilling to commit or comment just now. Perhaps he would talk about Ezra with his doctor friend. And look — you are late for your next appointment.
On our feet, he took my hand, and called me Druže. Friend. An important word in a land with such a complicated history.
The notion of love born of criticism may be an imposition on the Pound. But the famous lines were certainly about the dawned age of science, and industrialism triumphant, in which everything solid was melting into air every half-generation or so, making it hard to sustain societies. They evince the despair that led the dandy Fin-de-Siecle poet out of America to a half-crazy idiosyncratic European land overrich in history. That one is indeed free to choose what one shall love (the West's most/last optimistic idea?) seems implied.
Then again, the lines often sound like whistling in the dark, past the graveyard, the same somber sense that creeps up when Dylan Thomas intones that death shall have no dominion.
Croat, Serb and Bosnian Muslim at peace in the Lion Graveyard, April 1994
THE HOLIDAY INN, a bright yellow cube perhaps twelve-stories tall, built for the Olympics the day before yesterday, is home to diplomats, professional journalists and other transient elites. Each Friday night there's an all-you-can-eat buffet, $30 a head. By luck I hear of it in early December, from a professional journalist.
The room is lit by poorly fed fluorescent tubes that create an unpleasant dim. The air seems filled with white dust. The pale, bony waiters, somber in brown jackets and black neckties, look like zombies propped against the wall. Heavy blue velveteen curtains are drawn, always drawn, against the world outside, but once night falls the sound of machine gun fire filters through. Grbavica is just across the street.
A platoon of video journalists tramps in covered with stubble and mud. Once a week, somebody says, they truck in from the bush of central Bosnia to chow down bigtime in Sarajane.
The appetizers make their appearance at 7:30: pita pastries filled with cheese, sliced lox and tender cold roast beef, a mushroom salad, a rich brown soup — Mock Oxtail perhaps? — a cheese not unlike parmesan ...
Soon the room is jammed. I see Alexandra for the first time since our arrival together. She waves from a distant table, then bends to smile Bon soir, Beeeel in my ear as she passes behind my chair. Watching her charm one group after another, I realize she's the belle du jour of the Sarajane press corps.
The avalanche at the buffet is unrelenting: breaded fish fillets ("very good!" notes report), ham, hamburgers, čevapćićis, a rice dish, roasted potatoes, carrots, peas, chick peas, a delicious bean and onion salad, a liquored-up fresh fruit salad ("superb"), apple strudel ("superb!") ...
The waiters, who after cleaning up go home to hungry children, impassively watch it all go down and with admirable panache deal with a hundred separate checks.
Later I tell Haris about the weekly debauch. His eyes flicker with disgust. "Of course, it is normal." His standard response to ugly news.
I ask if he would consent to attend the next round as my guest. "Of course we will go. I will learn things and I will eat like pig."
When the day comes I ask Seno along as well. During the afternoon I get a hot tip from a professional journalist that there'll be a cocktail party in the Newsweek suite upstairs prior to feeding time.
The three of us enter the cavernous browned-out premises, rise through the pitch black concrete stairwell, find the bash by its noise, and pass in without challenge. Days before the Newsweek Man (not long out of college, he seems) had behaved like a child in need of a spanking. But perhaps it had been a bad day. Now he greets us cordially.
The bar offers twelve bottles of brand-name booze. Seno cannot believe it, and asks for scotch. The same sad waiters, brown jackets, black neckties, pour our drinks. One calls me "Sir" four times in thirty seconds. Seno doesn't know whether to laugh or cry.
I meet Senada Kresno, the chief Press Liaison for the Presidency, a very nice woman, and, it so happens, Jasmina's favorite translator into English. Senada and a friend, an architect in his 30s, watch and listen as the professional journalists get drunk and loud. A British video crew has just rotated back into town and the cameraman, a real pro in his 40s, tends to address the room as one. "These people have to realize ..."
"These people" are the Bosnians in toto, and what they must realize is that "they are not the center of the universe,"nthat "fifty percent (of Bosnia) is all they're going to get,"nthat they'd damn well better get it while the getting is bloody good,nand — when someone forecasts with embarrassment the feast being prepared in the dungeons below — that if these people expect professionals to come to this godforsaken place then they're going to have to put up with an amount of humiliation.
Haris smiles in deadly fashion.
Somehow Senada and her friend keep their cool.
Later, across the table at dinner, Haris winks while carving a curlicue in the smog with the tip of his nose, indicating he has something privileged and confidential to report. Returning to buffet I then lend him my ear.
"It is good for me to see all this," he says in good humor. "Someday I will make a movie."
The feast again is dazzling. Seno, with several scotches atop eighteen months of soup beneath his belt, cannot believe it. But midway through the meal something distracts him from his plate. He squints across to the corner tables where diplomats, generals and other dignitaries confab.
His jaw drops. He laughs out loud, then tries to hold it in and begins to shake, then to choke, brings his forearm crashing to the table, and starts to turn red while hooting with laughter.
"Seno is drunk," Haris observes.
Choking with eyes popping as he wags his finger at the VIPs, Seno now has the full attention of the professionals at the table, who seem afraid he may leap to his feet with a roar and overturn it with their goulash and baklava.
"Bill! This man!"
Tears of hilarity stream from poached eyes.
"This man is our mayor! You must read Malaparte!"
Seno at the Holiday Inn
The first assault, at the Drina river town of Bijeljina, March 31, 1992
David Owen, for the European Community, and Cyrus Vance, for the United Nations,
managed the Geneva diplomatic charade in '93 and '94
Karadzic and Mladic host brit General Michael Rose, UNPROFOR commander, and Yasushi Akashi, the
UN's Special Emmisary, at Bosnian Serb headquarters in Pale, 1994.
Srebrenica, July 1995
WALKING HOME with Haris my last night in December, I spot Zlaja and Mišo (ZLEYE-uh and MEE-sho) inside a cafe. We go in and chat for a while, then Haris excuses himself to accomplish an errand before curfew.
Heretofore all I knew about Mišo was that he was a high ranking officer in the army. I had refrained from asking questions because we had met among friends. But this night he invites, through Zlaja, my questions.
I ask about communications between the government cooped up in the Sarajevo pocket and the bulk of the army in the central region. Zlaja transmits the question in Serbo-Croatian, they talk for a bit, Mišo chuckles rather incessantly, and then Zlaja delivers the reply.
"There are physical problems, of course. Technical problems with communication. But the chain-of-command is intact. Don't worry."
I ask if the military situation around Sarajevo has changed much in the last six months. Mišo replies (through Zlaja) that the aggressors have no wish to conquer Sarajevo, that they only want to pressure it, to force a bad political solution, and so are happy to shell and shoot civilians with impunity. It is their best strategy, the strategy of the terrorist.
So no — the situation in general is static. But of course you know about the recent offensives?
No, I reply. What offensives?
"But UNPROFOR has told you," Zlaja cries incredulously, for the first time losing a bit of his cool and brilliant smile.
It so happened that in the past two days the Bosnians had, for the first time, taken back a few blocks of Grbavica, and a piece of Dobrinja, the brutalized suburb near the airport. Of course such actions would have been thoroughly hashed over at the PTT briefings.
"How can you not know?!" Zlaja demands.
I confess that I had stopped going to PTT. One can observe there the feeding habits of professional journalists, but aside from this the briefings aren't very interesting, and it's a pain in the arse getting out there so early each day. I could catch up on the official news in New York, I explain, by reading the wire reports on my home computer. (This was 1993, recall. America Online was just starting out against CompuServe and Prodigy.)
I ask if Izetbegović and his mildly nationalist party are popular in the army. Which other parties are?
The reply is that some generals like the President and some do not, just as in any other democracy. There are several parties, and officers, like other citizens, are free to choose. "But he is our President, and the Army is professional and loyal."
The President had recently endorsed Europe's latest partition plan (with important reservations about a port and an extra 3% of territory). I ask if the army would respect the "peace" if the government signed on.
Mišo seems both amused and irritated discussing his response. Finally Zlaja reports, with a bigger smile than ever, that "These things you ask are unimportant, but may be inconvenient for you."
Then, two minutes later, he stopped giving answers. "Bill. Next time you must bring a better cover. Everyone comes as journalist. Relief worker is a little better." They had concluded (not unreasonably) that I was on a mission for the US government. "Why else would UNPROFOR let you into Sarajevo?"
I was flabbergasted, but also amused, and protested my innocence in unconvincing fashion. I explained that I had simply applied for press credentials, as the editor of a (tiny) political journal. And somebody at UNPROFOR Zagreb had rubber-stamped it. It was normal to be approved. But normalcy they could no longer judge very well. They had been living in a weird time and place too long.
We continued to study each other in silence. Then Mišo launched his transcontinental bell laugh, called out "Billy!" and reached across to seize and shake my shoulder, to tell me that everything was okay. We were friends. Of some sort.
"It doesn't matter if you are an intelligence agent or not," Zlaja explained, "because in intelligence the only thing that matters is intelligence. The smarter man wins. So it's okay." I asked Zlaja what he did for the army, and he replied deadpan that he worked in the press office. Everybody laughed, and I gave up trying to convince them that I was not an agent of the Washington apparatus. Once such a notion gets jammed into place there is simply no way to dislodge it with logos.. The better the logos one offers to the dubious, the more convinced they become that their intuitions were dead right.
Curfew had arrived. Four soldier-policemen sauntered into the cafe, cradling carbines and submachine guns. I handed up my passport and UNPROFOR press card, the soldier glanced — then let out an irritated sigh, flicking the back of his hand at the face of his watch. 10:20 or so. No doubt I looked worried.
But Zlaja shrugged. "His job is to look at papers. It's okay." And after a cursory glance at Zlaja's documenti, the soldier handed back my own with a smile and moved on to join his comrades, chatting up the two waitresses in the back. Minutes later the four troopers left in good cheer, and soon after I said I thought I should go.
"My last night in town. I don't want to spend it in jail."
"There is no room," Zlaja replied humorlessly. "Our jails are full." Police actions in October had ended the careers of the patriot-gangsters who had risen to power after helping to defend the city in 1992. Caco, Ciello I, Ciello II ...N
They were already legends. Some were dead. And their minions were in jail.
"What will happen to them?" I asked. Zlaja's smile bounced back. "They will go on trial, like criminals in America. We are a democratic country."
I saw Mišo several times in April. Like everyone he was depressed, for when the shells had suddenly stopped falling in February people had had time to look around and see that their lives had been ruined. Mišo's parents are Serbs, living in their native northeastern Bosnia, not far from the fateful Drina, land now controlled by Serb nationalist forces. His wife, a Croat, has fled to the coast with their son.
Mišo then is stretched to the point of paralysis by the geography and the alignments of the struggle. At great risk he had left his career in the JNA to defend Bosnia against JNA attack. Now, two years later, he was worried that the principles he'd thought to both defend and take refuge behind were bleeding and would never revive, even in Sarajevo. Echoing Slobo, he said that the nationalisms are all the same, and refused my optimistic observances about good behavior. He wasn't sure there would be a place for him when the war was over. Would he, his wife, his son, and his parents ever sit in the same room again?
All of this was issued under his persisting certainty that surely I must have influence in Washington. And it all came through another translator, for Zlaja in April, like Seno and Ruby and hundreds of others, was under quarantine with hepatitis. (Or so I was told.)
Hazim's last story was a fresh one, from the months-long battle for Gorade, fifty miles to the southeast on the Drina, which in late April was still winding down. A chunk of the pocket had fallen to the Serb nationalists. And now Hazim had word, through connections from his general-manager days, that a factory in the lost territory had been dismantled and taken across the river into Serbia. I thought of the Soviets in Germany in 1945.
So even if NATO makes them give back the land, Hazim said, "they have factory for themselves. For their sons." He itemized the industrial plants that had been destroyed in Sarajevo. "I am old man. I die tomorrow I do not care. But how do young men make life here now? How does my son?"
In December I say goodbye to Zlaja and Mišo outside the cafe, an hour past curfew. Minka's house is only a quarter mile off, but at the base of her street, just past the cathedral, a sentry suddenly shouts and steps from a dark doorway. I unzip the breast pocket of my jacket. He extends his arm, but then mutters in surprise when I had him my passport, hands it right back, and brings a finger to his lips. He had asked not Who goes there? but rather for a cigarette. Fishing through twelve pockets for any of half a dozen lighters, I begin to try to explain my curfew violation, but he gently slaps my shoulder then points back down the street. "Cafe!" he laughs. "Okay!" He was one of the four who'd been chatting with the girls.
We were ten feet from the spot where in some panic twelve days before I had asked for directions to Minka's street from another young man who had suddenly been given a gun, and a code, to wear on his shoulder in chaos. The cigarette then refused so good-naturedly I now lit for another.
Neighbors back on Jelica Street
I find Seno awake on a cot in my room. He had lingered too long at some hipster joint to make it home across the river before curfew. As we lie in the dark listening to the rattle of small arms fire, he tells me about his nightmares during wartime. Rarely during our walks had he spoken about his stint in the army, and always with black humor, and few details. "It is crazy," he would half-laugh, "you cannot believe." In English, anyway, he would not try to say more.
I ask if his dreams are ever funny. For a moment he is silent. "No. They are terrible."
That night I have the first bad dream of my visit. I am walking with my army unit, perhaps twenty of us, with no uniforms, up through a gigantic skyscraper being used as a warehouse. Sad with fear, and absolutely quiet, we step along, floor to floor, wing to wing, strung out along catwalks and climbing over mountains of packing crates, feeling hunted every moment by stupid enemies occupying perhaps the next corridor. Any moment the shooting might begin, shattering even the floors and walls, which are made of thick green glass like old-fashioned Coca-Cola bottles. Because of the glass we see other movements, floors above, floors below, refracting through walls a hundred yards away, but not clearly enough to distinguish friend from foe. One simply hopes they won't start shooting, pulls up one's collar, and moves along. Our orders are to occupy a certain section of the building. I press into a crack between two crates, worried about lines of fire, watching for movements that I would not understand until it was too late. At dusk the order comes to return whence we came. Going back would be dangerous, but anything was better than standing around waiting to be shot.
I wake before dawn. A few diehards are still squeezing triggers in the hills. But things are much quieter than at midnight. A shell thuds. Seems distant.
Seno snorts up half an hour later, and groggily groans good morning. I tell him I've had my first Sarajevo nightmare. With a laugh he comes to consciousness.
"No!-I gave you my dreams!"
At home after the war, Springtime 1998
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