Driving Bosnia: Sarajevo finds peace under an abbreviated occupation

Fellows Spring 1999

By Richard Byrne

June 08, 2009

SARAJEVO Spring, 1999 - It's dusk in the Sarajevo village suburb of Doglodi, and except for the sound of 12 year-old Elvir Jusic pedalling an old bike up and down the street and occasionally working its tiny bell, there's an almost unearthly silence here.

We're at Elvir's grandparents' house, and his family (with whom I am staying for a month here in Sarajevo) sits outside and sips coffee in the faded light. Elvir's mother Dulsa and his father Nijaz puff away on Croatian cigarettes. It's a placid, laconic feeling that stretches out like taffy for a few minutes, and is suddenly cut by the rotors of three NATO helicopters slicing the air. They're distant at first, and then, just as quickly, over our heads.

For that brief taffy moment, tucked into the exquisite sensation of warm sweet coffee drunk in a slight and silent chill, I'd forgotten where I was. The helicopters brought me back, and we gawk up at them as they sweep past. Off to the east, in Serbia, they're fighting the same kind of war that blasted life here into a smoking and savage ruin for four years. Earlier in the day, playing soccer in the yard, we heard NATO bombers roar overhead.

Elvir's family lives in Alipasino Polje -a neighborhood of large and opressively gray housing estates west of Sarajevo's downtown. During the war, Elvir's neighborhood was right on the front lines here. It still looks it too. A couple of the units have been rehabbed, and they're rebuilding a colossal mosque nearby. But the building where Elvir's family lives, like most in the general vicinity, are still pockmarked by direct hits that they took a few years back. One apartment building that directly faced the front line looks has a horrible case of explosive acne splotched and scarred beyond any hope of repair.

You can't escape the war here. Sarajevo's physical devastation was utterly complete. But after a day or two, the war becomes more of an undertow than a tide a sudden, dangerous spasm that hits you in the odd moment, and with no warning. Everything and everyone is pockmarked in some way. But there's so much pulsating life here, and so many young people crowding the streets, holding hands and jabbering excitedly, that you often forget that. The streets are full of spontaneous greetings, and daily life is often adjourned for a quick cup of coffee. There's something warm and sweet here, something beautiful, and something utterly resilient.

The family that I'm staying with is a case in point. They're Bosnian Muslim, but they don't seem at all crazed by nationalism, even though they lived in this apartment near the front lines for most of the war. They watch every TV station, even the Bosnian Serb stations. They even rent bad Serb comedies from the local video store. They seem to just want to get on with their lives, and make some extra cash by putting up with me. Elvir and his parents eat an enormous amount, and all the time, and they look at me and my more subdued appetite with a mix of amusement and aggrievement. Dulsa serves up huge heaping plates of various Bosnia specialties cabbage and beef and potatoes and meat pie and spiced ground beef (called "cevapcici") that I can barely slam down without exploding. The meals are usually supplemented before and after with apples and oranges and candy and coffee laced with lethal amounts of sugar.

I give Elvir the nickname "Candyman." He never stops gorging on it, and forcing it on me too, as he forces his computer games and cassette tapes on me as well. Elvir is precocious, but he's also easily bored and annoyed, flitting from television to computer to basketball court. He speaks pretty good English for a twelve year-old, peppering it with phrases like "Perfecto!" and "Finito!" He likes to watch me type on my laptop, and tags along when I go to the Internet Center in the Skenderija arcade downtown to check e-mail and file stories. He wants to work with computers when he grows up.

Like everyone in Sarajevo, the Candyman has his war story, which he tells me one day when we're out seeing the sights. In 1993, when Elvir was six years old, he was grievously wounded by a Bosnian Serb grenade as he stood outside his school. "I still have a piece in here," he says, sipping a Coke and tapping a finger against his forehead. I'm stunned by his nonchalance about it as I sip my coffee. After all, Elvir's the one who insists we rent the stupid Serb comedy videos. But everyone I meet in Sarajevo who lived there during the seige is pretty much the same way. "Oh, yeah, this is where my cousin died." Or, "yep, this is where I had to get water and carry it up the hill so I could cook or give myself a bath." Let's have a coffee.

One afternoon, I walk past the compact buzz of Markale in the center of town. It's the market where the bomb that finally helped bring NATO bombers into the Bosnian war exploded in August, 1995. The blast killed 37 people and wounded another 88 in a space about the size of a large bodgea, but the only person in Sarajevo who mentions that attack to me is a drunken Brit who harangues me one night in an Irish pub, telling me that the Bosnians bombed Markale themselves. The vendors in the Markale are too busy trying to sell me cigarettes and underwear.

In fact, the first thing that I noticed about Sarajevo when I stepped off the airplane wasn't the effects of the nearly four years of seige warfare there. It wasn't the beauty of the green hills that ring the city either. Rather, it was the persistent aura of occupation, however benevolent. It's an occupation of international initials. Acronyms are inescapable here stencilled onto vehicles and signs, or cluttering up the newspaper articles like pieces of undigested meat. There's NATO, and the OHR, and the UNMIBH. There's the OSCE and the IPTF and the IMC and the UNHCR as well. You go to press conferences at the CPIC, and the resulting footage ends up on RTVBiH or HRT. On one of those staggeringly clear April days that Sarajevo seems to toss up with no effort at all, you can almost see SFOR armored personnel carriers cross the IEBL into RS to implement some portion or other of the DPA, or to alleviate tensions caused by the NATO air attacks on the FRY.

Of course, Bosnia is no starnger to occupation. The country has been almost continuously occupied since the 15th century, first for many generations by the Ottomans, and then, with considerably less success, by the Austrians. (Archduke Franz Fedinand's assassination on a street corner here in 1914 sparked World War I.) Hitler and Mussolini divvied up Bosnia and let the thugs of the Croatian Ustashe puppet regime administer it in the Second World War. The present acronym occupation arrived with the Dayton Peace Accords. Signed in 1995, the accords committed all the three ethnic parties to Bosnia's vicious three-sided war (Serb, Croat and Bosniak) to stop killing each other, and paved the way for the international community to babysit them until such time as the country is rebuilt and stabilized.

These international babysitters speak in English acronyms, and those acronyms are as much a part of Sarajevo now as the burnt-out shells of buildings, the ubquitous taxis and trams, and the residents themselves. It's not as if the city is on military lockdown; it isn't. Instead, it is as if Sarajevo is covered at all times by a green camouflage sky dotted with puffy white clouds bearing the initials "UN." It's as close as you'll find in our day to what British colonial rule must have felt like in its best days. The international community here to implement and enforce Dayton in Bosnia hover over the place and exude a kind of relaxed exasperation with the locals, backed up with force of arms in case anything happens to go horribly wrong.

But since the killing stopped here, not much has gone horribly wrong. The political leadership of all sides have chosen to take their feuds to the political arena. Or, more correctly, they've decided to foul up the country's politics with obstructionism and corruption and naked patronage. There are no local statesmen in Bosnia and Hercegovina, or, if there are, you rarely hear their voices. Instead, nothing gets done in local government, and decisions are taken by the Office of the High Representative, headed up by an affable career diplomat (Spain and the European Union) named Carlos Westendorp. In the absence of local political will, Westendorp has made many of the major decisions in Bosnia and Hercegovina over the last few years. Westendorp has shoved through the issuing of ethnically ambiguous license plates (to make travel easier) and a new local currency called the "convertible mark" (called the KM) that's pegged directly to the Deutschmark. He even had to shove through a new flag for the country. It's an angular design of gold triangle and white stars imposed upon a royal blue field that eschews all the elements and colors of the constituent ethnic groups: the Bosnian green triangle and fleurs di lis, the red and white checkerboard of the Croats, and the red, white and dark blue stripes of Serbia and Montenegro.(many Sarajevans refer to it as the "Carlos flag.")

Just have a look at the OHR's "Chronology" on the office's web page (http://www.ohr.int) if you are in any doubt about Westendorp's centrality and necessity to Bosnia. The first two entries from July 22, 1998 will suffice in making the point:


· The BiH House of Peoples rejected the Framework Law on the Privatisation of
  Enterprises and Banks.

· The High Representative decided to impose the Framework Law on
  the Privatisation of Enterprises and Banks.

Ask Sarajevans (and I asked many) how they feel about having their lives run out of a few floors of an office building in central Sarajevo by a Spanish diplomat and his staff, and they are almost unanimous. They love Carlos. "We're able to breathe because of (the international community)," one woman selling newspapers told me at a kiosk near Westendorp's office told me.

Sarajevo media analyst Dusan Babic puts it simply: "There are three entities here, and three truths, but there is one president: Carlos Westendorp."

In fact, the overwhelming complaint here is not that Westendorp has done too much; it's that he's done too little."Nothing works easy here," says local journalist Mirsad Fazlic, "The international community needs to act or it needs to leave."

Almost no one wants the international community to leave Bosnia just yet. In fact, most Sarajevans' way of registering any protest about the international presence isn't through direct comment, but through subtle yet pointed complaints about one aspect of the international presence here their horrendous driving. Broach the topic of how the UN or SFOR or the OSCE handle Sarajevo's roadways with a native, and you get volcanic torrent of abuse or an acidic chuckle.

"The international community drives like they just don't give a fuck," says my friend Sabe Selimovic, as we whip his car down the town's main drag. "They are terrible." I think he's exaggerating until one day when I find the tram that I need to get to an interview downtown stopped dead in the street. After I wave down a taxi and we speed off, it's only two minutes before I see what the problem is. A white UN vehicle has swerved right into the middle of the tram tracks that literally bisect the city, knocking out all the trams in the city.

"A UN car," says the taxi driver, waving an exasperated hand at the stalled car.

It's no easier task for the internationals here to balance the pace of the reconstruction against the democratic values that ostensibly inform their entire Bosnian enterprise. It's a classic walk it like you talk it problem that hasn't escaped the OHR. As Westendorp's principal deputy here Jacques Klein put it in an April 21speech to the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, "These are the sort of powers that make democrats uneasy, and Carlos Westendorp rightly exercises them reluctantly and only as a measure of last resort. We are conscious of encouraging a dependency culture, and of absolving local leaders from responsibility for getting the job done themselves. But set alongside the danger of almost total paralysis in civilian implementation, I am clear that we had no alternative."

As blatantly colonial as this may seem to those weaned on Western democracy, Westendorp and those NATO guns that are right behind him have been the key to ensuring any normality in Bosnia and Hercegovina. And normality does exist in Sarajevo now. In many ways, it's flourishing into outright vitality.

I took Robert Musil's death march for the Austro-Hungarian empire that once ruled this place, The Man Without Qualities, along with me on my trip, and one passage whichMusil describes Austro-Hungary in 1914 is startling in its applicability to post-Dayton Bosnia."The country was full of such goings-on," writes Musil, "among them the sort of nationalist movements that rightly attracted so much attention in Europe and are so thoroughly misunderstood today. They were so violent that they jammed the machinery of government and brought it to a dead stop several times a year, but in the intervals and during the deadlocks people got along perfectly well and acted as if nothing had happened. And in fact, nothing really had happened."

Nothing on the grand front is happening in Sarajevo. There's a palpable relief that the war is somewhere else for a change. But in the city's streets, and in its neighborhoods, it seems to me as if something small, but vital, is happening. Everything is open almost continuously. Everyone's got some sort of hustle or scam to supplement salaries that are only 300 to 500 marks every month.

Cafes and video stores and shops have sprung up like weeds in the cracked and fractured architecture of the town. It's hard to resist the endearing charm of places like Cafe Muppet a tiny coffee shop tucked just off the main pedestrian drag that's always stuffed full of 18 year-olds grooving on techno and house or to not stop into a bookshop/cafe just across the river from the Academy of the Fine Arts with the delightfully imperative name "Buy Book."

My favorite places in Sarajevo match up favorably with those in any other city that I've visited. The Cafe/Milk Bar Metropolis located at the heart of Marshal Tito Street is one of the best cafes in Europe. Inside Metropolis' clean glass and wood exterior, the service is impeccable, the food is great, and the atmosphere is echt young Sarajevo, with spiffy young people smoking and chatting as they flirt from table to table. When the weather's good, the staff opens up the glass facade and the onrushing traffic and trams flood into the place.

Even more of a trip is the basement bar Titanic, hidden in a little covered alley just off the Square of Sarajevo's Children. The genius who devised Titanic merely tacked up sheet metal to the walls and dressed the waiters as porters on the doomed ship, but the blatant concept merely enhances the bacchanal down in the cellar each night, where patrons drown in a sea of cigarette smoke, cheap beer, and raucous Yugoslav rock favorites of the early 1980s -- played at ear-splitting volume. Every time I left Titanic and walked back up its steps into the fresh, dark air, I felt completely elated and drained.

Trying to reconcile the growing vitality of Sarajevo with its political paralysis and its still-visible trashing by the Bosnian Serbs left me equally drained. The undertow of war knocked me off my feet more than once. I can't help but feel that everyone in power here is failing kids like the Candyman, who seems to have made it through one war with his bouyancy and good cheer intact.

(I got so sentimental about Elvir that I bought him a joystick for his computer games as a farewell present.)

And Elvir is lucky, as my bus ride out of Sarajevo to Zagreb revealed. At least he lives in Sarajevo, where there's something to rebuild. As the bus rolled through the gorgeous wooded cliffs and valleys of central Bosnia, where spring had just taken hold, it passed through blasted village after blasted village. Most seemed only to be creeping back to life slowly. Some seemed beyond ever being revived. The damage was too extreme. My annoyance at the lack of progress here started to soften a bit. Shit certainly happened here. Bad shit.

As the bus trip dragged on, I started reading a tiny book that I had been given as a farewell present Vlajko Palavestra's Legends of Old Sarajevo. The book is an often unintentionally hilarious recounting of outrageous Sarajevo fables, punctuated with a pedantic running commentary purporting to underscore or demolish the historical accuracy of the tales. (For instance, Palavestra tells the story of one Sarajevo bridge built by two shepherd brothers with hidden treasure, and then notes that "There are no historical data concerning the origins of this bridge.")

The last tale in Palavestra's book, however, has no footnotes. Titled "A Farewell Story," it tells the tale of an Ottoman official who came to rebuild some of Sarajevo's defenses in 1816. As palavestra tells it, this official liked to sit out and take in the view of Sarajevo, and one day he heard a wedding party pass over a bridge. He asked what was happening and a servant told him that a girl from a "distant and god-forsaken" village was being brought to sarajevo to be married. He sent the servant to ask the woman for a gold-embroidered kerchief.

Later on, the same official heard another wedding party, and he again asked his servant what was happening. This time, the servant told the official that a Sarajevo girl was being taken from the town to be married in a distant and god-forsaken village. The official took gold ducats out of his pocket and told his servant to delver them to the girl.

When the servants ask the official why he wanted a kerchief from the one girl, and why he gave gold ducats to the other, Palavestra writes, the official tells them: "That first girl was happy because they were bringing her from a small god-forsaken village to a big town, and that is why I asked her for a kerchief. But this second is unhappy and sad because she is parting with her native Sarajevo leaving a great town for a distant god-forsaken village! That is why I am sending her these ducats."


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