Bosnia Ten Years On: Fortress of Dignity
Alfonso Barata travelled to Bosnia, a fascinating land which, not surprisingly, is still struggling to come to terms with the dreadful events that tore the whole country apart.
It seems it was long ago, yet it is only ten years since a painful agreement put an end to what became known as the Balkans war. Yes, it was only ten years ago that Europe and the rest of the so-called Western world heard but didn't listen, watched but didn't (want to) see the atrocities committed against civilians who - unable to grasp the perverse rules of the diplomatic game - waited for a Godot that would eventually rescue them from hell. That never happened and Bosnians soon found out that their fate would remain in their own hands and the aid provided by the humanitarian agencies on the field.
My late teens and early twenties were - in a political sense - influenced by what happened in the former Yugoslavia and particularly - due to its striking circumstances - in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Trying to make sense of what was going on in those three disgraceful years (1992-95), I would plunge into every book or article that could give me some clues about a complex reality that stretched well beyond Tito's death and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Yet nothing could explain such cruelty and intolerance. It was as if Europe hadn't learnt anything from the experiences of Primo Levi, Jean Amery and the like, those who had shouted loud the horrors of Nazism well before Srebrenica.
Being this, the tenth anniversary of the Dayton agreement, that brought a fragile peace to the region, it's worthwhile to remember that today Bosnia is an ethnically divided country.
It is clear that a decade is not enough time to heal the open wounds and in most cases relationships between Croats, Serbs and Bosnians remain tense, when not openly hostile. Of all three parties involved in the war, Bosnians suffered the worst; they are the ones who were attacked by the Serbian army first, then by the Croats; they were deprived of means to defend themselves from the invasion through a shameful embargo of arms led by the international community that only helped to lengthen the already long lists of dead people. They asked, begged for help to the outside world, only to find excuses but not actions that could stop the slaughter.
Bearing all this in mind, it was with surprise that I met a hopeful population that - despite the suffering and the humiliation - looks ahead without - of course - forgetting. Speaking to them, sleeping in their houses, chatting over a 'bosanska kafa' (Turkish-style coffee) or two, or befriending in a crowded and agonisingly slow bus to Travnik, I couldn't see any victimisation or resentment.
What I saw though, was welcoming, friendly and dignified people, willing to talk and make one feel comfortable, even when sometimes language barriers made it difficult to communicate.
My trip around the country was full of encounters with all sorts of people, from different generations and walks of life; I'm amazed at how easy it was to be engaged, all of a sudden, in a discussion that would easily last for hours.
It seemed as though Bosnians were purposely offering responses to many of the questions that I had asked myself, in vain, during all these years. To my delight, this happened innumerable times throughout my two weeks over there and - perhaps inevitably - at some points the conversation would turn into a personal account of their experiences of the 'aggression', as most Bosnians, rightly, refer to the war. Their tales of sheer horror would change the mood of the conversation, bringing to their faces the same old expression of loss and suffering etched in any victim of violence, whether in East Timor, Ulster, Colombia or a young Somali seeking asylum in Liverpool.
Strolling around streets of cities whose names had become so familiar over the years of mayhem, I met Faruk, the doctor who refused to be a refugee in his own country and stayed in his native Mostar to work in the local hospital with his colleagues of Medecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders). I chatted with Mohammed - a devout Muslim and also a traditional dancer - outside the small mosque where he works and I learnt about the perils of religious hatred and prejudices.
I had breakfast with Mugdin, a charming man who lived through the cruel
siege of Sarajevo and who had to go through an impossibly narrow tunnel
in the outskirts of the city with the hope of getting some food.
Then I came across the youth of Travnik, a small town north of Sarajevo where I used to be pleasantly awoken by the muezzin's calls to pray. There a new generation has to fill the gap of another - mine - virtually wiped-out and whose only presence is now in graveyards, their names carved in tombs bearing witness. These sensible youths want to study Philosophy, they work in cafes during the summer to pay the expensive university fees and spend their free time in a vibrant community centre that is an artistic hub - rapping their concerns and ambitions without fear and in peace - "respecting but also wanting to be respected".
My strongest wish is that they can fulfil their aims and that they will never experience the same as their parents did. So when I see them again, they will greet me with a smile and tell me that everything is dobro (fine). Then I will write in my notebook that, just sometimes, life is a miracle.Printer friendly page