I don’t know why I haven’t written about Bosnia before. I guess I was just distracted by the summer and various shenanigans. It tends to happen. I still haven’t written about Israel in 2010 or Colombia last year! So anyway, Sarajevo…
‘Leaving Belgrade was the right decision but I was happy there. The friends I made, both local and international met me on the last night and we had dinner together. The nightlife is pretty intense so I was fleeing the city very content.
I got off at Sarajevo’s East Bus station at 5am in the Serb part of town. It provided the perfect opportunity to ask and learn your way into a culture. I needed direction, didn’t want to get a taxi and needed money. I walked down the main road, generally aware of my destination but knowing it was impossible to actually walk it.
At the bus stop was an older man with rudimentary English and an understanding I was clueless but genuine. He directed me to the ATM in Bosnian and when the bank only gave me 50KM (about 25 euro) notes, he explained to the bus driver and I got a ride for free. The rest of the journey into town consisted of him pointing out buildings of note and some significant war damage. He was of the age to have seen the city in his prime. Now aged about 55, he would have seen much. That area of the city is predominately Bosnian-Serbs, the generally acknowledged bad guys in a war with almost no good guys.
My friend got off the bus a few stops before me, informing me to wait 2 minutes for the river. I descended and was greeted by near silence. No traffic ruled the streets and only a few people scuttled to work. This was Sarajevo before the day begins. I noted where I needed to go and started taking pictures of the city, a guide to the streets without humanity.
Sarajevo has some grand buildings, fixed up from afar but on closer inspection the damage of the siege and battles is still visible. Next to the river it is noticeable how many cars parks there are. In the past, in that space would have stood history. Sarajevo is a very long but narrow city. Entering it, it feels like a major world city. The trip takes time. But it is only 346,000 people. Geographically Sarajevo is slightly bizarre, nestled in a long narrow valley with a small river through it and beautiful green hills spotted with red roof houses. Yet even at that early hour the cultural symbols which helped fuel the war sit majestic throughout the city and importantly alongside each other. The squeaking of trams, trawl of buses and hum of cars indicated the city was waking. The smell of coffee and cigarettes at the breaking dawn accompanied humanity to the streets.
I won’t bother too much about the sights of the Old Town with its cobbled streets and vendors or the bridge of Mostar and the stunning countryside in between. You can find that out for yourself. Bosnia has geography beyond its size. It’s now a safe and hugely satisfying part of Europe with its recent culture wars indicative of its diversity of cuisine, music, religion and dress. It is not unusual to see a woman in headscarf walking through the old town alongside a Serb smoking and a Croat drinking. The women are beautiful and the men are wide.
In Sarajevo, we sat in the parks near the river, drank beer and the local brews and generally enjoyed the magnificent weather. Later we could be found in cafes and bars, listening to live music and encouraging Jan to drink. Some nights were remarkably drunk. There are videos to prove it. I probably met 10 cool people including locals. I enjoyed it and the football too.
The war museum is haunting, disturbing and strangely small, possibly to avoid welling up tensions. The look-out near the cemetery is a good spot for a beer as the sun falls behind the hills. The World Press Awards was in town and generally highlighted the beautiful nature of the world and the destructive nature of humanity. Oddly I wasn’t as impressed by Sarajevo as I expected. t was still great but I had very high expectations. They were almost met but I was surprised by its small size. And you can’t sit in a cafe, park or bar forever. Inevitably the time to move came and we (now four of us) took the bus ride to Montenegro, a truly stunning little gem.
The political impasse in Bosnia caused by a flawed constitution emphasising multiculturalism and economic stagnation are hard to note. Serbs are very keen to talk of their issues while in Sarajevo I heard little despite cafes dominating the social scene. Possibly it was linked to the Presidential elections taking place in Serbia at the time or on the flipside possibly the lack of political initiative in Bosnia. Bosnia is more ethnically and politically divided than ever as the political and economic goodies are handed out equally to different groups.
While war or a full-scale conflict is unlikely now, the rise of identity politics and the overriding notions, nay, laws of cultural rights bring into focus how best to manage these contentious rights. Repression or forced assimilation (like France) is not the answer but something between recognition and the destructive notion that only ‘we in question’ have the right to decide needs to be found. Democracy is a flawed system at times but one in which the majority has a duty protects the minorities. Right now Bosnia is not a democracy but in peaceful limbo.
The people haven’t been empowered or trusted with power. Decisions ultimately still rests with the UN High Commission. The present constitution enshrines total multiculturalism to the farcical extent that almost every position has a Serb, Croat and Bosnian holder. The Dayton Agreement has managed to enforce the idea of Serbs-Bosnians (i.e Serbs who happen to live in Bosnia), Croat-Bosnians and Muslim-Bosnians rather than Bosnian-Serbs (for example) or simply Bosnians. The hope for a collective identity has been lost. The further out of Sarajevo you go, the more strident national symbolism are seen. The future isn’t hopeless but it is stagnant and it will lead to inevitable political fragmentation and all the possible consequences.