I met a woman once who had survived the concentration camps. I was in awe of her. She was old and frail, but feisty. It was hard for me to imagine such atrocities, just as it is hard for me to imagine what it was like living in Belgrade during the NATO bombings or in Sarajevo during the siege. And yet I now know people who did live in these places and they’re my age, give or take a few years.They talk of playing basketball while the bombs fell. They talk of making sure their families we safe in the shelters and then going to sit with friends in a café, determined not to give in. They talk of doing their damnedest to continue to live life as usual.
And while all this was going on, I was in Ireland, or America, living in blissful ignorance. A mate of mine went to Bosnia with the UN so the war touched me briefly. He is remarkably reticent about his time there yet I know the friendships he formed are deeper than most. A shared experience will do that for you. He tells a story about the Irish lads being particular about how their meat was cut. One of them, the son of a butcher, showed one of the locals how to cut steaks to satisfy the Irish and their peculiarities. A friendship of sorts ensued and some time later, when their barracks was blown up, the Irish boys had been forewarned.
I didn’t know what to expect in Sarajevo and yet somehow all those unspoken expectations were met. The road into town from the airport, known to many back in the day as Sniper Alley, is bordered by tall block towers showing the scars of war. It was sobering. I don’t for one minute pretend to understand what went on or why it all had to happen. Much as I love the Balkans and enjoy the people, they remain unfathomable and all the more wonderful for that. I was in Sarajevo for a workshop where the concept of all-inclusiveness is something yet to be realised. The Balkans might be a region, but the players in the region still find it hard to sit at the same table. Growing up in Ireland, in a predominantly white, Catholic environment, I can’t begin to understand it all. Somehow, the IRA and the troubles in Northern Ireland seem quite different.
In the centre of the city, there are visible sides of the efforts being made to put the past behind. Buildings are being renovated. Bullet holes are filled in and plastered over, waiting for a new coat of paint. If only it were as easy to renovate people and their attitudes. There are large numbers of Muslim Turks studying at the three universities, opting to live in a country where as women they can openly wear signs of their religion. There is a Serbian quarter, too, complete with cyrillic signs. But there are no Bosnians. ‘Under the post-war Constitution, constituent people citizens are identified as Bosniaks (known during the war as Bosnian Muslims), Croats, and Serbs. There is no space for Bosnia’s minorities’, or so says a Refworld report published in April this year.
On another forage through the web in a vain attempt to sort out the mess that Sarajevo has left in my mind, I came across this quote by an American painter LG Hornby (Balkan Sketches: An Artist’s Wanderings in the Kingdom of the Serbs (Boston, 1927), p. 153) who arrived in Sarajevo in 1925.
Tolerance marks the respect with which these peoples of varying faiths mingle their common lot. Here one sees the Bosnian peasant of orthodox faith drop his contribution into the cup of a blind Mussulman who squats, playing his goussle, at the entrance of a mosque. Glancing at the peaceful little stalls where Christians, Mussulmans, and Jews mingle in business, while each goes his own way to cathedral, mosque or synagogue, I wondered if tolerance is not one of the greatest of virtues.
And again I wonder at the price of progress.
There is a beauty to Sarajevo that is found in the mix of the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian empires. Despite its scars, it is has an innate strength that speaks of tenacity and perseverance. In just two days, it burrowed its way into my heart and left a lasting impression on my soul. I’ll be going back – this time for longer.