Sunshine Recorder

Link: Mapping Home

Learning a new city, remembering the old.

In the spring of 1997, I flew from Chicago, where I was living, to Sarajevo, where I was born and grew up. This was my first return to Sarajevo since the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina had ended, a year and a half earlier. I’d left in 1992, a few months before the siege of the city began. I had no family there anymore (my parents and my sister now lived in Canada), except for Teta Jozefina, whom I considered to be my grandmother. When my parents had moved to Sarajevo after graduating from college in Belgrade, in 1963, they’d rented a room in an apartment that belonged to Jozefina and her husband, Martin, in the part of town called Marin Dvor. In that rented room I was conceived, and it was where I lived for the first two years of my life. Teta Jozefina and Čika Martin, who had two teen-age children at the time, treated me like their own grandchild—to this day, my mother believes that they spoiled me for life. For a couple of years after we moved out, to a different part of Sarajevo, I had to be taken back to Marin Dvor to visit them almost every day. And until the war shattered our common life we spent every Christmas at Teta Jozefina and Čika Martin’s, following the same ritual: the same elaborately caloric dishes crowding the big table, the same tongue-burning Herzegovinian wine, the same people telling the same jokes and stories, including the one that featured the toddler me running buck naked up and down the hallway before my nightly bath.

Čika Martin died of a stroke toward the end of the siege, so when I went back in 1997 Teta Jozefina was living alone. I stayed with her, in the room (and, possibly, the very bed) where I had commenced my messy existence. Its walls had been pockmarked by shrapnel and bullets—the apartment had been directly in the sight line of a Serb sniper across the river. Teta Jozefina was a devout Catholic, but she somehow managed to believe in essential human goodness, despite the abundant evidence to the contrary all around her. She felt that the sniper was essentially a good man, because during the siege, she said, he had often shot over her and her husband’s heads to warn them that he was watching and that they shouldn’t move so carelessly in their own apartment.

In my first few days back in Sarajevo, I did little but listen to my grandmother’s harrowing and humbling stories of the siege, which included a detailed rendition of her husband’s death (where he had sat, what he had said, how he had slumped), and wander around the city. I was trying to reconcile the new Sarajevo with the version I’d left behind in 1992. It was not easy for me to comprehend how the siege had transformed the city, because the transformation was not as simple as one thing becoming another. Everything was fantastically different from what I’d known and everything was fantastically the same as before. The buildings were in the same places; the bridges crossed the river at the same points; the streets followed the same obscure yet familiar logic; the layout of the city was unaltered. But the buildings had been mutilated by shells and shrapnel showers, or reduced to crumbling walls; some of the bridges had been destroyed and almost everything in their vicinity was levelled, because the river was the front line; the streets were pocked with mortar-shell marks—lines radiating from each little crater, which an art group had filled with a red substance and which the people of Sarajevo now, incredibly, called “roses.” The map of the city that I carried in my head had to be fundamentally emended.

I revisited all my favorite spots in the city center, then roamed the narrow streets high up in the hills, beyond which lay a verdant world of unmapped minefields. I randomly entered building hallways and basements, just to smell them: in addition to the familiar scent of leather suitcases, old magazines, and damp coal dust, there was the odor of hard life and sewage—during the siege, people had often taken shelter from the shelling in their basements. I idled in coffee shops, drinking coffee that tasted like burned corn, instead of the foamy pungency I remembered from before the war. Everything around me was both familiar to the point of pain and entirely uncanny and distant.

One day I was strolling, aimlessly and anxiously, down the street whose prewar name had been Ulica J.N.A. (the Yugoslav People’s Army Street) and now was Ulica Branilaca Sarajeva (the Defenders of Sarajevo Street). As I passed what had been called, in the times of socialism—which now seemed positively prehistoric—the Workers University, something made me turn and look over my shoulder into its cavernous entranceway. The turn was not of my own volition: it was my body that turned my head back, while my mind continued forward for a few steps. Impeding impatient pedestrian traffic, I stood there puzzled until I realized what had made me look back: the Workers University used to house a movie theatre (it had shut down a couple of years before the war), and whenever I’d walked by in those days I’d stopped to look at the display cases where the movie posters and showtimes were exhibited. From the lightless shafts of corporal memory, my body had recalled the action of turning to see what was playing. It had been trained to seek out stimulation in the form of a new movie poster, and it still remembered, the fucker, the way it remembered how to swim when thrown into deep water. Following that involuntary turn, my mind was flooded with a Proustian, if banal, memory: once upon a time in Sarajevo, at the Workers University, I had watched Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America,” and I recalled the acrid smell of the disinfectant that was used to clean the floors of the cinema; I recalled having to peel myself off the sticky fake-leather seats; I recalled the rattle of the parting curtain.

20 Years Later: The Bosnian Conflict in Photographs

The photographs in the gallery above are from the book Bosnia 1992 – 1995, available July 2012. The book will be self-published by the photographers who covered the Bosnian conflict—which began 20 years ago today—and printed in Bosnia. The captions below these photographs are the personal reflections of the photographers on their experiences in the region.

If the last lines of the 20th century were written in Moscow in December 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the prelude to the 21st century was written months later—and 20 years ago this month—in Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo, as the disorderly break-up of Yugoslavia turned into genocide. In that bloody April, America’s moment of triumph over totalitarianism was transformed into a tribalist nightmare as Bosnian Serbs, determined to seize large parts of Bosnia as part of a plan to create a Greater Serbia, targeted Muslims for extermination. What some at the time hoped was just a communist death-rattle at the periphery of the Soviet empire, now looks like the birth cries of our current geopolitical reality.

In Bosnia the U.S. learned it would preside over a world where borders and ideology mattered less and transnational allegiances of ethnicity and sectarianism mattered more. Interviewed by TIME in August 1995, weeks after his troops had slaughtered more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys near the town of Srebrenica, Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic, now on trial for war crimes at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia at The Hague, declared he was acting out of fear of a new Islamic push through the Balkans to Europe. “By this demographic explosion Muslims are overflowing not only the cradle of Christianity in the Balkans but have left their tracks even in the Pyrenees,” Mladic said.

As the slaughter unfolded in Bosnia, and Europe and the U.S. belatedly mustered the will to stop it, Western attitudes towards the post-Cold War world took shape, as well. Neoconservatives and hawkish Democrats found common cause in humanitarian intervention. The media and the public learned from the NATO action in August and September 1995 and the Dayton peace agreement in November that American military might could impose stability—for a time. But 20 years later, with international military and police forces still keeping the peace in Bosnia, we have found there—and at much greater cost elsewhere—that an initially successful intervention by America’s unmatched armed forces cannot impose sectarian comity.


Bosnia: 20 years on
Visegrad, site of one of the worst atrocities of the Bosnian war, is still in denial about the past. 
Bikavac is a hamlet on the fringes of Visegrad, a 15-minute climb from the mighty Drina river, which cuts through the town. It has one of the more dramatic views in the Balkans. In The Bridge on the Drina, Andric describes how on one side of the town the Drina “flows with the whole force of its green and foaming waters from the apparently closed mass of the dark steep mountains”. On the other “like from a spring spreads the whole rolling valley of Visegrad and its surroundings with hamlets nestling in the folds of the hills, covered with meadows, pastures and plum orchards”. Even now, after all that has happened there – and on the bridge in particular – the hills with their pink-roofed farmhouses have an Arcadian feel.
Bikavac was a medieval Christian village when Visegrad was just a few huts. By 1992, it had long since become a mixed community, where – as across Visegrad – Muslims and Serbs attended each other’s festivals and shared troubles and joys. In the last census before the Bosnian war, Visegrad’s 21,000 people were 63 per cent Muslim and 33 per cent Serb. Yet, when I first heard the word Bikavac that harmony had ended and Bikavac was Christian again – as it still is now – and the town’s 13,000 Muslims had been either killed or expelled.
It was a sweltering morning in August 1992. I was sitting in a hillside plum orchard 10 miles west of the town. All around me was the debris of war: unexploded cluster bomblets, shrapnel-scarred houses and refugees, endless refugees. “Beekavats (as it is pronounced), Beekavats…” shouted the refugees. They stared at their visitors and cursed the negligent west.
I had just spent 24 hours in the besieged town of Gorazde, further up the river valley, with Maggie O’Kane, a correspondent for The Guardian, and we were walking back through a tiny pocket of free Bosnian territory seeking to cross the lines to send our dispatches. We had a powerful story to tell of how Gorazde was being suffocated by the Serb siege. The plight of the besieged cities was then dominating the attention of the west. It was only as we listened to the stories of the survivors of Visegrad that we realised the people of Gorazde, facing daily bombardments as they were, were the lucky ones.
The refugees spoke of a virtual genocide. From May, Muslims, particularly men, had been rounded up and murdered; as in Rwanda, the educated and wealthy were the first in line. Scores, if not hundreds, were slaughtered on the Ottoman bridge. Hundreds of women were detained and mass raped at the local spa. My most abiding memory is of the face of a slender young Muslim textile worker, Zehra Turjacanin. She was sitting under a tree in the shade. Two older women were waving away the flies hovering over her wounds. Her hands and feet were bandaged. Her face was covered in black scabs. Her ears had all but melted away. It was clear her wounds were badly infected and that she might not live. (Much later, I learnt that it was about then that a doctor suggested to her she should not have precious medicines, as she would not survive. She answered that she had to live.) She spoke in a whisper yet with astonishing force. On the night of June 27, a Serb policeman called Milan Lukic knocked at her door. She had known him from their days at high school. She, her mother, two sisters and four children were bundled into a house down the road with dozens more.
“When I got to the balcony I saw there was a wardrobe against the front door and all the windows had been blocked with furniture. They started to throw stones at us to make us go inside, then they threw hand grenades. We were the last ones in … I said to my mother ‘don’t worry they won’t kill us.’ Then they set the house on fire … I saw a window in the garage door … I was the only one who got out.
About 70 people were murdered in the Bikavac fire. It was one of the worst single atrocities of the war. It featured prominently in both O’Kane’s and my own dispatches, but even after a year of chronicling Yugoslav atrocities, I was wary about reporting with confidence the accounts of mass executions on the Drina bridge. The refugees talked of people having their throats cut like livestock, with their hands tied behind their backs, and then being hurled into the Drina. But these accounts had the hysterical flavour of wartime propaganda. The bridge had for centuries been a ritual place of atrocity, both in myth and recorded history. For more than a year, the Serbian newspapers had been filling column inches with fictional accounts of Croats stringing children’s fingers as necklaces and such like – and the Croatian media had repaid them in kind. I remember asking myself how could they be confirmed, and suspecting that if we recorded them, we would be deemed to have lost all journalistic perspective. (This was a time when John Major’s government in Britain was desperate to avoid intervention, and officials routinely briefed that correspondents covering Bosnia had lost objectivity and were biased against the Serbs.)

Bosnia: 20 years on

Visegrad, site of one of the worst atrocities of the Bosnian war, is still in denial about the past.

Bikavac is a hamlet on the fringes of Visegrad, a 15-minute climb from the mighty Drina river, which cuts through the town. It has one of the more dramatic views in the Balkans. In The Bridge on the Drina, Andric describes how on one side of the town the Drina “flows with the whole force of its green and foaming waters from the apparently closed mass of the dark steep mountains”. On the other “like from a spring spreads the whole rolling valley of Visegrad and its surroundings with hamlets nestling in the folds of the hills, covered with meadows, pastures and plum orchards”. Even now, after all that has happened there – and on the bridge in particular – the hills with their pink-roofed farmhouses have an Arcadian feel.

Bikavac was a medieval Christian village when Visegrad was just a few huts. By 1992, it had long since become a mixed community, where – as across Visegrad – Muslims and Serbs attended each other’s festivals and shared troubles and joys. In the last census before the Bosnian war, Visegrad’s 21,000 people were 63 per cent Muslim and 33 per cent Serb. Yet, when I first heard the word Bikavac that harmony had ended and Bikavac was Christian again – as it still is now – and the town’s 13,000 Muslims had been either killed or expelled.

It was a sweltering morning in August 1992. I was sitting in a hillside plum orchard 10 miles west of the town. All around me was the debris of war: unexploded cluster bomblets, shrapnel-scarred houses and refugees, endless refugees. “Beekavats (as it is pronounced), Beekavats…” shouted the refugees. They stared at their visitors and cursed the negligent west.

I had just spent 24 hours in the besieged town of Gorazde, further up the river valley, with Maggie O’Kane, a correspondent for The Guardian, and we were walking back through a tiny pocket of free Bosnian territory seeking to cross the lines to send our dispatches. We had a powerful story to tell of how Gorazde was being suffocated by the Serb siege. The plight of the besieged cities was then dominating the attention of the west. It was only as we listened to the stories of the survivors of Visegrad that we realised the people of Gorazde, facing daily bombardments as they were, were the lucky ones.

The refugees spoke of a virtual genocide. From May, Muslims, particularly men, had been rounded up and murdered; as in Rwanda, the educated and wealthy were the first in line. Scores, if not hundreds, were slaughtered on the Ottoman bridge. Hundreds of women were detained and mass raped at the local spa. My most abiding memory is of the face of a slender young Muslim textile worker, Zehra Turjacanin. She was sitting under a tree in the shade. Two older women were waving away the flies hovering over her wounds. Her hands and feet were bandaged. Her face was covered in black scabs. Her ears had all but melted away. It was clear her wounds were badly infected and that she might not live. (Much later, I learnt that it was about then that a doctor suggested to her she should not have precious medicines, as she would not survive. She answered that she had to live.) She spoke in a whisper yet with astonishing force. On the night of June 27, a Serb policeman called Milan Lukic knocked at her door. She had known him from their days at high school. She, her mother, two sisters and four children were bundled into a house down the road with dozens more.

“When I got to the balcony I saw there was a wardrobe against the front door and all the windows had been blocked with furniture. They started to throw stones at us to make us go inside, then they threw hand grenades. We were the last ones in … I said to my mother ‘don’t worry they won’t kill us.’ Then they set the house on fire … I saw a window in the garage door … I was the only one who got out.

About 70 people were murdered in the Bikavac fire. It was one of the worst single atrocities of the war. It featured prominently in both O’Kane’s and my own dispatches, but even after a year of chronicling Yugoslav atrocities, I was wary about reporting with confidence the accounts of mass executions on the Drina bridge. The refugees talked of people having their throats cut like livestock, with their hands tied behind their backs, and then being hurled into the Drina. But these accounts had the hysterical flavour of wartime propaganda. The bridge had for centuries been a ritual place of atrocity, both in myth and recorded history. For more than a year, the Serbian newspapers had been filling column inches with fictional accounts of Croats stringing children’s fingers as necklaces and such like – and the Croatian media had repaid them in kind. I remember asking myself how could they be confirmed, and suspecting that if we recorded them, we would be deemed to have lost all journalistic perspective. (This was a time when John Major’s government in Britain was desperate to avoid intervention, and officials routinely briefed that correspondents covering Bosnia had lost objectivity and were biased against the Serbs.)

The Death of Yugoslavia is a BBC documentary series first broadcast in 1995, and is also the name of a book written by Allan Little and Laura Silber that accompanies the series. It covers the collapse of the former Yugoslavia. It is notable in its combination of never-before-seen archive footage interspersed with interviews of most of the main players in the conflict, including Slobodan Milošević, Radovan Karadžić, Franjo Tuđman and Alija Izetbegović. This format, pioneered by the programme’s production company, Brian Lapping Associates, was very influential and the company produced many others in similar style. The series was awarded with a BAFTA award in 1996 for Best Factual Series. Because of the series large amount of interviews with prominent leaders and commanders of the conflict, it has been frequently used by ICTY in war crimes prosecutions.