Walden World

The wacky and wonderful tales of Beth's and Catherine's global adventures. And all things Walden too.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Sarajevo

Nestled in a valley is the city of Sarajevo. It is surrounded by small hills and mountains. In the basin of this bowl are bridges, old buildings and a little river that runs through the mid-point of the old town. At the corner of one crossing is the 'Latin Bridge'. There, is a plaque which reminds all passers-by that it was here that Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914, thereby ushering in the First World War. I laugh, because it brings to mind a headline from an "Onion in History" front page dated some months before the assasination: "Franz Ferdinand boasts 'Nothing Can Stop Me!'"

The hell, that was the trenches of that Great War finds echo in all of Sarajevo. Their war, however, was only this 10 years past.

In Sarajevo every building is covered with the scars of artillery and reminders of the seige; pellet to golf ball sized holes, marks made by sniper bullets gouge every wall. The larger holes were left by countless shells and grenades which rained down on Sarajevo and its over 300,000 people.

Cement repatching is mid-way through in many places. They are starting to erase the marks and to repair the reminders of the war. On buildings where the pasting has just been started it looks like some skin healing on a body rife with pock-marks.

Every person we meet here is a survivor of the seige. They are mostly Muslims.

Here now, some nine years later, they try to put what they lived through behind them and look to the future which is their hope.

In 1992, after everyone else in Yugoslavia declared independence, Bosnia and Hercegovinia followed suit. Unlike the more Croatian or majority Serbian parts of the former state, Bosnia was really quite a mixed bag. It was a large part Serb. Serbs are Slavs and are Eastern Orthodox Christians. It was also a large part Croat. The Croats are Slavs and are Catholic. It was also a larger part 'Bosnian'. The Bosnians are are Slavs who were Christian but, many centuries ago converted to Islam after the Turks came and conquered these vast lands in the late 1400s.

And this is where it all appears to start. Like Count Dracula who bemoans his journey to find his beloved 'Mina',this story "crosses oceans of time". The Serbs held bitterly to a vision of a land which long ago, in their dreams they rule;'before the Turks ever came'.

When the country fell apart the Serbs began to "ethnically cleanse" areas of Bosnia they felt should be Serbian only. They also began to committ genocide of the many Bosnians east of Sarajevo, made infamous by massacres such as Visegrad or Sbrenica.

As the Serbs controlled the vast arms of the former Yugoslavian army they were able to used this this asset to gain an advantage;'unofficial' militias and armed forces supported by the Serbian state next door quickly surrounded Sarajevo and demanded its capitulation.

I looked today, the last week of Ramadan at fair haired young men and women kneel down in the many mosques of Sarajevo and pray. Head scarves are a rarety in Sarajevo and in fact, in most of Bosnia. Everyone's last name, in the Slavic fashion, ends in "vic". Yet out of this population, wherein parties had everything in common, came genocide and something akin to the madness of a medeival seige but using modern tanks and bombs. It ended ultimately with the deaths of over 11,000 people in a city which is set in the midst of Europe.

In Sarajevo, I speak to our 'pansion' owner. She lived through the seige but can't comprehend or explain how she came through it alive. Neera speaks with a broad 'Aussie' accent as a consequence of the years she spent living 'Down Under'. Like all other Bosnians she is a Muslim, yet she wears no head scarf nor any other trappings of what the 'west' has come to consider "Islam".

I ask Neera about the war. She and her two sons and husband 'bunked down' the entire seige in the large cellar of the building where she lives today. During that time her family and, every other family on the street, lived in the basement of the building where I now stay. Everyone lived downstairs because the large and deep old basement quarters were far safer than any above ground flat.

"How did you survive?" I ask. She says she doesn't know. "You just did it, you took it day by day; You think 'ok now it will just be another day and then they (the international community) will come...they won't let it continue. They won't let this continue. They will put a stop to it."

It, however, continued for four years.

During the seige Neera weighed 88 pounds because she was starving. What food they had, she mostly gave to her sons. For example, her two boys aged 10 and 12, got to share one egg sometimes as their ration for the day.

Much of the food people could get either came from scarce UN rations or was smuggled in by way of the claustrophic 800 metre tunnel dug secretly by the Bosnians under the airport.

One night Neera said she woke up in the basement where all the neighbourhood lived. The toilets stank of feces and sewage because there was no water. In the basement it was pitch black because there was no power at all during those four years. It was also very cold because there hadn't been heat or oil since the beginning of the seige.

She told me she woke up crying because she had dreamed of an apple but found that there wasn't one. "What is an apple??" she says now, "I can't believe it, that I cried over an apple, but that is how hungry I was..an apple...?!"

The Serbian forces who surrounded the city posted snipers, artillery and tanks in the hills above. Anyone who came out was shot, machine gunned or shelled.

Many UN people and special guests came to visit: Boutros Boutros Gali, the President of Pakistan, Andre Previn flew in to direct a special concert. Even Susan Sontag came and directed "Waiting for Godot". Still Neera and her husband and sons waited. Beckett couldn't have dreamed of better irony.

Four years after the city was surrounded, the United States bombed Serb positions continuously for two weeks following gross violations by Serb forces of "safe zones" intended to keep Bosnians protected from genocide as well as in response to attacks by Serb forces on United Nations humanitarian troops.

The seige was finally lifted.

When I was in Mostar in Bosnia, an ancient and enchanting city, I went to a restaurant in an old mill which was set in between small streams running off the emerald green waters that flowed from the River Buna. On the walls were two photos of a man diving off the famous Mostar bridge.

The Mostar bridge was some 500 years old and a work of unimaginable beauty and grace. It had been the centre of the city for centuries. Yet it had been built by the Turks many years ago. This city, divided between Bosnians and Croats equally, held old, strange grudges. The Croatians during the war, buoyed by Serbian territorial grabs rallied their army and in turn attacked the Bosnian side of Mostar. They destroyed the bridge to show that there was no turning back.

Before the war, over the centuries, the young men of Mostar had a custom. They would leap or dive from the bridge into the swirling and bright green Buna River below in an effort to catch the eye, perhaps, of a young lady they might fancy.

After the war, the EU helped rebuild the bridge and again young men have started leaping from it, though I never saw any dive. This time they jump for the few tourists who are starting to drift back and not for the fancy of pretty women.

I asked the waiter, jokingly, if the photos of the man, diving so beautifully from the bridge were of him. Such perfection of form caught in those photos, mid-motion. "No" he told me gently, but proudly. They were of his father who was one of the most famous divers of all, of the bridge divers of Mostar. He then began to cry. His father died in the war. He was shot "just over there" he motioned behind him "by a sniper". A soldier had looked through a small scope and aimed and killed his father.

Telescopes were invented by the Muslims. Gailileo and others, learning from the crafts and knowledge of 'infidels' gathered first during contacts in the Crusades, constructed their own small and beautiful tools out of polished glass. They used these scopes to look forth into the sky, and into the heavens. There they sought and found answers to questions about the world.

From Sarajevo and Mostar, I find my own questions. But I look through my own scratched lenses and see Bosnia; it is like the deep and great green of the Buna River: untold beauty, strength and for now, some calm.

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