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Crazy baldheads

When the war ended I remember one of the most eerie feelings was…the silence. During cease-fires there may have been a day or two, even a week by some freak chance, where the constant sound of machine gun and sniper fire was muted. But we always knew it could, and would, end at any moment. So ones guard was never quite down. Then it ended. And I felt uneasy about it.

I felt uneasy about being able to walk down a street where I knew their used to be a sniper looking at me through his scope. It made me uneasy because the body and mind fought with each other, one begging to let the guard down and other saying ‘don’t you fucking dare!’ The sounds of machine gun fire accompanied our lives for almost four years. It was as common as a trains rumble thru a city or a chain saw in a village. It guided us. Told us where to go and where not to go. And although it wasn’t a pleasant sound, it was a reassuring one – as strange as that may sound. In war, you take anything you can get to help you get to the next day. And the sounds of bullets being rapidly discharged from their cartridge did just that….unless, of course, one of those bullets had your name on it.

But what I find with a lot of people today is a strong adversity to those sounds, even if they are just fireworks for New Years. It comes from a deep sense of trauma. Which brings me to my point.

Not too far from the house that we are building is a Yugoslav era firing range. Whereas most urban military installations have been moved, this one remains an active shooting ground. Civilians live literally 20 meters from this site. It is not fenced in. I’d say within a hundred and fifty meter radius there are probably over 100 homes.

So for those who survived the longest siege in modern European history, they get to be reminded of the tortuous sounds and feelings on a daily basis. The range is now used by local special forces, police and, yes, EUFOR soldiers. They come to fire boisterous live rounds that resonate across the entire valley, from Sedrenik, Gazin Han, Hladivode, Faletici and Biosko. From my home, 1.5 kilometres away, it sounds like the war has returned to Sarajevo. For the people living next to it, it sounds like the apocalypse.

What astonishes me, and pisses me off, is the arrogant disregard for the local community.How on earth can they allow the special forces and foreign troops to come play war in people’s backyards.

I looked into which European capital city has open-air firing ranges within 20, or 50 or even 1.000 meters of a residential area. Funny enough, I couldn’t find a single one. So while we are often getting European standards shoved down our throats, including human rights, EUFOR (EU led NATO military force in BiH) have no problem with psychologically torturing the local population. I wish I was surprised at the hypocrisy. Obviously I’m not. (I’d like to point out that there ARE functional alternatives not too far from Sarajevo in a much more isolated location).

I was recently asked by the national tv station BH1 to give an interview about this. After I gave the interview the ‘concessionaire’ approached me. He shook my hand and didn’t let go.

Don’t you have anything smarter to do than this?” Although it wasn’t me that contacted the media nor was it my idea to bring up the issue, I got mad “Nope, nothing at all” I replied (admittedly with a chip on my shoulder). Still not letting go of my hand he moved his chin in the direction of the firing range where I had just given my statement in front of the camera “You know that is private property where you just were?! (slight pause) Is there democracy in America?” I wasn’t quite sure where he was going with this. My answer was “partially, at least, yes.” He shook his shiny, bald head “No, there’s not. You know in America that people have the right to protect their property, right?” Still not knowing is which direction he was heading I said “yes, they do.” His answer to that was “Even killing someone is justified, right?.” He squeezed my hand a bit more. Now I got his point. “And you were just on my private property, weren’t you?

I’m not quite sure where the chemical imbalance that occurs in me in these situations comes from. Perhaps it’s a defense mechanism to not shit myself. But I was fucking furious. I wrestled my hand away from this 6’2″, 210 pound, bald-headed man…”So now you’re threatening me?!?!” There were four other people standing there in silence, including the reporter. “Your house is just down the road, isn’t it?” His threats became even more ‘subtle.’ He was definitely sending me a clear message. So I walked off and yelled “Don’t threaten me!” His only reply was “I’m not threatening you at all.”

At this point I had the rage. But I had also pissed off a very powerful and, by the looks of his car, gold necklace, and fancy watch, rich war veteran (which is not, by the way, the state of affairs for veterans who honorably sacrificed pretty much everything except breathing for this city).

What pissed me off even more is that I knew the locals has signed a petition that ‘got lost’ in the municipality, complaining about the trauma inflicted on their families because of this firing range. Yet no one would stand in front of the camera. Everyone clammed up. I understand why. Really, I do. But I have been there before and witnessed how everyone disappears when the going gets a bit rough. One time it landed me in a five year court battle. Another exposed me to systematic threats that were, thank goodness, empty ones. So I called the tv station. I told them if I was the only one giving a statement then they don’t have my permission to air the interview. They confirmed that no one would speak to the media. I backed out.

It didn’t take me long to feel defeated. I chickened out. What a pussy. Yet I promised myself last time that I will always stand when even just one other person is ready and willing. But not if I’m to go at it alone again. I didn’t do a good job at convincing myself. I still felt like a loser. Baldy had won.

I was at my house the other day when the boyz with the noise showed up to practice their wares. They fired for hours. I was instantly brought back to the war. I thought of the old baba that lives literally a stones throw from where they were shooting. She had not only survived WWII and the brutality of the last war…but was being forced to relive the trauma several times a week when they bring the old front line right into her living room. There’s no fucking humanity in that. None at all. It’s just plain wrong.

So, with tail between legs, I write this pathetic blog. And tomorrow the Europeans will show up, standards and ethics and all, to fire away in our neighborhood. And the baldhead walks away with a bag full of cash.

not to be re-published in any form without the explicit consent of thebosniaguy – which basically means not to be re-published, period. 

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Smoo-thy or not Smoo-thie

The new census will surely show that Sarajevo is even smaller than we thought it was. Estimates put the four main city municipalities total population at just over 250,000. Granted, with East Sarajevo and the surrounding communities we eventually might reach 400,000. But still, we’re small. Smaller than I thought.

I don’t mind small places that wear big britches. In a lot of ways Sarajevo fits that match. In a lot of ways it doesn’t. We don’t have a Thai restaurant to speak of. This town is mainly white. I miss miss my brown and black brothers and sisters. We don’t have a good sports bar. There are zero no-smoking bars. But I’m not here to complain. Quite the contrary actually. We got smoothies.

Yup. You know, those deliciously healthy drinks that can also act as a meal. The drink that is sort of like pistacchio’s…you can’t have one but have to eat the whole bag. The smoothies I’m talking about don’t last long – they’re too good to dwell on or to be sabur with. I tried to savor the moment, really, I did. But I’m only human. One that loves smoothies. Boy, did they go down fast.

I had once toyed with the idea of opening up a smoothie/book shop. I’ve had lots of grandiose ideas over the years. Never managed to tick the box on this one. Somebody else did, though.

It is my pleasure to introduce to you – my fellow Sarajevans, visitors and ex-pats – the moment we all have been waiting for. Fresh smoothies. Organic teas. Delicious Illy coffee(s). Fresh squeezed fruit juices. And even cookies and scones… at Sirove Strasty Smoothy Bar. The icing on the cake? It’s non-smoking AND child friendly. Glory be. I have another winter friend alongside Torte i To.

smoothy bar

I’ve been twice over the past three days. I will try to taste as much of them as possible (as a sacrifice to  you crazy people who read my mumbo-jumbo). I must admit, it may take some time. I tried the Date & Nuts smoothie during my last fix. This melange of vanilla bean, banana, dates, walnuts, and nutmeg is much worse than a pistacchio addiction. Much worse. It may take me a while to get through them all. I’m not even going to go into the fruit juice combinations.

Sirove Strasty was opened by the yoga instructor pair of Mike and Aida. They have taken their passion for yoga and healthy living one step further. My suspicion is that the menu is Mike’s making. He’s 43 and looks as healthy as a 23 year old. The man knows his nutrition. Combine good nutrition with all the fresh delicacies behind the bar and you get a vice that you can actually be proud of.

My auto corrector keeps telling me that Smoothy is an incorrect spelling. So Smoothie or Smoothy, Mike and Aida’s Smoothy Bar (located right across from Havana Bar in the old town and next to Zeljo) comes with my highest recommendation. Fellow ferners, one less reason to complain about the long winter ahead of us. Another smoke free haven is born. Prijatno.

https://www.facebook.com/SiroveStrasty

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The Science of Understanding

The Chronicle of Higher Education from the US spent a year researching and writing an article, or perhaps story would better suit its description, about Sabina and her research (http://chronicle.com/article/The-Science-of-Hatred/143157/?cid=cr&utm_source=cr&utm_medium=en). It is titled the Science of Hate. It’s the only thing in the entire length of the story that I disagree with. I’m not a firm believer in hate. I think it’s an easy label to slap on without having to deal with the true emotions underlying ‘hate.’ But hell, who am I to say?

Sabina does not deal with politics as some may think. She is not in the business of pointing fingers. What Sabina does is try to measure human emotions, which, as we all know, are not always rational or even explicable.

The journalist, a soft spoken and exceptionally detailed Austinite named Tom Bartlett, visited us this past spring. He was genuinely intrigued not only about Bosnia and its schizophrenic plight but about how to move this place forward. He was objective. Thorough. Curious. A good listener. A great researcher. He shares a lot in common with Sabina.

Today some of us celebrate statehood day for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Probably about half of us don’t. What encourages me, though, is how many people still care about this place. Bosnia and Herzegovina is, quite frankly, piss-poor at nurturing its friendships. We have not tuned in to the abundance of soft spots that many fine people all across the globe have for this country and ALL its people.

The road ahead for us here in Bosnia is, at best, uncertain. It’s a reality that seems to come with the territory. Experience has taught me that not much of anything in life is black and white. Even if at times we all wished it were that simple, it simply is not. Our personal experiences shape our world view…if indeed we have a world view to speak of at all. For me, the value of what Sabina is doing is that it measures how we feel and not what we want or expect the outcome to be. It is an honest and open approach not only to science but towards basic human relations. For me that means to learn to respect feelings regardless of how absurd or misguided we might deem them to be. Regardless of the rights or wrongs, it’s fucking hard to wipe away an emotion. It’s hard for any of us to truly look in the mirror and acknowledge a lifetime of trash we carry with us, not to mention letting go of a torturous past.

What Sabina is looking for is the path forward…a path that is based on the fears and desires of the people that have to embark on that journey – in their own time and their own way (with perhaps a little positive manipulation here and there). Her research has proved that there is a way forward, although it may be contrary to what our logic (including mine) may tell us. The most valuable lesson I get from living and sleeping with Sabina’s research is that there is no place for assumptions or even wish lists. It has to be a clean and honest slate.

My ramble is over. Sretan Dan Drzavnost for those who celebrate it. And for those who don’t an honest desire that you will one day feel comfortable joining us. We would absolutely love to have you. And if not, that’s ok too.

peace

 

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One for the team

We had just moved into the second half of the second half and it was still nil-nil. We had all gathered for Bajram, or Eid (sort of like Muslim Easter) as we usually do. But this time the table was set around the tv. It was the final World Cup qualification match.

Sabina’s uncle sat next to me and although I didn’t count, I’m betting he went through an entire pack of napkins to swab the sweat off of his forehead. Her father took Persin to calm his nerves. My mother-in-law paced in the kitchen just out of view of the television until even that became too much. She banished herself into the other room. Sabina spewed out conspiracy theories about how Greece paid the Lithuanians to ‘play harder’ to beat Bosnia in our bid to reach our first World Cup. When I asked where she heard of such a ridiculous accusation and what her sources might be for such a claim, the entire male side of the family turned on me like I was a secret agent for the Greek national football team. Of course the Greeks had offered them money to beat us! Just look how the goalie is playing! (Silly me).

I sat in a room with a medical doctor, pharmacist, social psychologist, physicist, 2 mechanical engineers, an architect, and a certified accountant. The general IQ level in the room was fairly high. But that did not stop the madness. After 65 minutes of a no-goal game something had to give. Sabina’s uncle, the medical doctor, ordered her to change seats with her father. Then a very serious game of musical chairs ensued. The karma wasn’t right for a goal. We had to shake things up. In all honesty, I just had to pee. So i got up, peed, and stood next to the tv instead of going back to my seat.

Minute 68 the house broke into complete hysteria. Bosnia erupted.

brasil

Ibisevic scored the games only goal, sending Bosnia and Herzegovina to its first ever World Cup. Screams. Howls. Hugs. Praying to Allah. Rakija/moonshine shots for everyone. I went from traitor to hero. The doc stood up and thanked me, thanked America, for standing up for Bosnia. He wasn’t kidding. It was true, I did stand for the final twenty minutes of the game. But I knew if I even attempted to go back to my seat I would be shunned by a room of superstitious Muslims.

So I stood for the team. I made my sacrifice. Yes, the goal was my doing. It was ordered by God, America, and the angels. I was simply the means to channel this great gift. We outdid the Greeks with their devious bribery schemes. So much for the Greek Gods.

Obrigado Zmajevi. Idemo u Brasil!

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Connecting Naturally

I was helping a Swiss tv crew do a documentary on Bosnia some years back. I can’t recall exactly when but I do  know it was summer. They asked me to take them to Lukomir, the highest and most isolated permanent settlement in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It’s as close as one gets to a medieval village in this part of the world.

It was early morning and a weekday, so there were no tourists milling about. Most of the younger people from the village were going about their daily morning chores of milking the cows or taking the sheep out to pasture. I greeted a handful of the village elders as we wandered through their highland homesteads. We made a loop and upon our return I found a village elder, Dedo Duran (rahmetli), sitting on a rocky outcrop in front of a stone barn. He seemed lost in thought. I sat down a few meters to his left in silence.

The tv crew seemed confused. The producer politely asked me what I was doing. I wasn’t exactly sure… until I was. My answer was “I’m keeping him company.” I told them that more elders would soon appear and that they too would just come and sit. Dedo Duran rolled a cigarette. The producer seemed puzzled, doubtful even, of my answer. Within a few minutes a few elderly men strolled over, lifted their pants at the knees and sat down on comfy spot on the rock. Within ten minutes there was six of us there, minus the tv crew, sitting in silence.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I think the producer thought I had staged this for him. I assured him I hadn’t.  He asked one of the gentlemen who had come over and sat near Dedo why he did that. Without hesitation he explained ‘It’s ok to be alone in ones thoughts. But we should never leave each other alone. There are enough hard things about life here, we don’t need to make loneliness one of them. We depend on each other. So I sit next to Dedo Duran just like he would come and sit next to me. We don’t always need to speak but its important for everyone to know that they are never alone.’

The other men gazed at the producer in quiet compliance. Dedo Duran licked the cigarette he had just rolled and stuck it onto his bottom lip. This highland shepherd had just laid out, in the most simplistic of terms, the nature of our existence as social beings.

The producer, ecstatic about the elderly man’s profound answer, turned to me, still puzzled, and asked “But how did you know to do that?” At that moment I realized that this was the first time that I was one of ‘them.’ I was always warmly welcomed there. I felt accepted. There was most certainly a reassuring mutual trust among us. But I wasn’t one of them. Not until that summer morning. 

So my respect and admiration for ‘them’ transformed into a sense of belonging. And what I was grateful to belong to was not a state or a nationality, but rather the circle of ancient knowledge, often unspoken, that indigenous people possess about the value and essentials of our social fabric. They connect naturally.

Which leads me to my point…

White westerners have the habit of romanticizing or demonizing ‘old world’ traditions and lifestyles. We tend to view indigenous peoples as poor folks who, of course, need our help to be like us. But for me the highland lifestyles of the western Balkans are a precious – and rare – window into our not-so-distant past. I have learned a tremendous amount from the simplicity and wisdom of mountain peoples, whether they be in Lukomir or Lamay.

In my travels and wartime gigs in the western Balkans over the past 20 years I have discovered a small glimpse of the magic, warmth, and ruggedness of the people of the Dinaric Alps. It is not a pathetic illusion of a fairy tale world. Their lifestyles are difficult and, sadly, dying. They too grapple with problems of the world, old and new. But there is a fierce self-reliance that inspires me as much as the dramatic and pristine nature that is their home.

Many of us wrestle with the challenge on how to protect and preserve this precious heritage – both natural and cultural. There is certainly no single or simple answer. But along the Dinaric Alps that stretch from northern Albania all the way to Slovenia are dozens of remote, traditional villages that have lived in sync with some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in all of Europe for many centuries. So it seems logical to try and connect the dots as, forgive the cliche, there is strength in numbers.

This will manifest itself through a project called Via Dinarica. I believe it’s an idea whose time has come. I will ask you to join us on this journey and share with your friends.

More to come soon. peace

 

 

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I will wait

This song has been in my head for days. It won’t leave. I don’t want it to.

Being that I have been obsessively listening to it for days it struck a chord (no pun intended) with me yesterday, July 11 – the 18th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacres. It is always a sad day here on that day. Many are flooded with emotions and look to vent in any way they can. Many use social networks, like the one I’m using now. Some are angry. Some spew hate. Most are just overwhelmed with sadness by the fact that we could do this to each other.

Waiting 18 years to find 2 bones of your baby so you may bury him has to be a major head fuck for the mothers of Srebrenica. It is for me. And many still wait. Waiting is all they can do.

The lyrics of this most brilliant song seemed to fit the day yesterday. I have always found solace in music. And I found it in this song on that very sad day. This is for the mothers. For me. For you. For all of us. Listen….

 

And I came home
Like a stone
And I fell heavy into your arms
These days of darkness
Which we’ve known
Will blow away with this new sun

And I’ll kneel down
Wait for now
And I’ll kneel down
Know my ground

And I will wait, I will wait for you
And I will wait, I will wait for you

So break my step
And relent
You forgave and I won’t forget
Know what we’ve seen
And him with less
Now in some way
Shake the excess

But I will wait, I will wait for you
And I will wait, I will wait for you
And I will wait, I will wait for you
And I will wait, I will wait for you

So I’ll be bold
As well as strong
And use my head alongside my heart
So tame my flesh
And fix my eyes
That tethered mind free from the lies

But I’ll kneel down
Wait for now
I’ll kneel down
Know my ground

Raise my hands
Paint my spirit gold
And bow my head
Keep my heart slow

Cause I will wait, I will wait for you
And I will wait, I will wait for you
And I will wait, I will wait for you
And I will wait, I will wait for you

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No beginning and no end

Usually when the father of the bride addresses both families at a wedding he speaks of his love for his daughter, how pleased he is to welcome the grooms side into the family, and (whether he believes it or not) that his son-in-law is a great man that truly loves his baby girl.

Not my father-in-law.

At our wedding, exactly a half decade ago to the day, my 6’4″ father-in-law stood up, champagne in hand, and gave a speech a little something like this…

“Today is a very important day for me and for all of us. This wedding shows the unbreakable bond between Bosnia and America. America is a great friend of ours and this is one more step in solidifying the good relations between our countries. Good foreign relations between America and Bosnia is key for us, for without America, Bosnia wouldn’t be here today….

He carried on a bit more and I do believe he mentioned his daughter at least once in his state of the union speech. He is the only man (or woman) in my life who has successfully quelled my criticism of American foreign policy. He doesn’t want to hear it. And can talk volumes louder than I and is not at all shy about drowning out my misguided dissent with his boisterous voice. Bless him.

Five years ago today we gathered in the Derzelez House in Sarajevo’s Old Town. This house is the oldest Ottoman home in Sarajevo, dating back to the 17th century. There was only room for our immediately family and a small handful of close friends. In hindsight, the municipal ceremony must have been somewhat confusing for my family. The official from the municipality who legally married us carried on for some fifteen minutes about the rules and regulations of marriage and the state. A ceremony certainly inherited from Bosnia’s socialist past. I could see some of my family members cock their heads in confusion every now and then. Nothing like a cultural exchange during your wedding vows.

wedding

Just after the ceremony we moved to the ‘big room.’ This is the room where my father-in-law gave his inspiring speech. Then Sabina went to each of her family members and introduced them and what they meant to her to my family in English. I followed by doing the same for my family to Sabina’s in Bosnian.  I thought that would be a nice touch being that most weddings, besides having the same soundtrack (Celebrate Good Times, c’mon!), often find the brides family sitting on one side mingling only amongst themselves and the grooms side doing pretty much of the same.

Like Mido said (that’s my father-in-law), this was not only a joining of family but of continents and nations, right? So we thought it would be a good way to break the ice and encourage shuttle diplomacy. It worked.

It was a good day. And every day since then has been even better. My ‘better half’ (whatever) truly does make my life that much better. I am grateful for her friendship. I adore how much she loves our son. It fascinates me watching her grow into her own. It never ceases to amaze me how committed she is to changing me (keep tryin’, hon). I love how she thinks she is always right fully knowing that it is me who is always right. I am eternally thankful that we allowed destiny to do its thing! Happy Anniversary Sabina.

(For those of you unfamiliar with our courting process….http://thebosniaguy.com/so-you-dont-believe-in-destiny-you-say/)

peace

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R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

My Dad enlisted in the Marines just after he finished college in 1968. I was born on the base where he was stationed in Cherry Point, North Carolina (it’s definitely one of the reasons I’m a Tarheel fan as well). As a kid I loved to rummage through his old chest and try on his uniforms and admire his photos. His Dad was a career National Guardsman. My brother was US Army. My other grandfather was army too, serving in Germany at Remagen Bridge during WWII. My Uncle Dan, rest his soul, was a career Navy officer and served all over the world.

In all honesty, it never crossed my mind (at least as an adult) to serve in the armed forces. I was never attracted to guns or the prospect of a drill sargeant hurling insults at me let alone going to war to fight. I’m more the Hunger Project or Save the Children type of guy.

In my late teens and early twenties my worldview started to take shape. Part of that view was vehemently anti-war. Soldiers were, in retrospect, unfairly placed in that basket as well. But what I didn’t understand as a young and at times angry man was the dynamics of war and where (and how) to steer those emotions.

-Anti-War-Traffic-Sign

I came to a brutal war zone in 1992 with an army jacket that had a large crossed-off AK-47 patch across my chest. Sort of like a no-smoking sign. It didn’t take me long to figure out that every male between 18-55 had a uniform on (and an AK-47 in hand). The entire population was mobilized. There was no choice in the matter. Fight or flee. So most of my friends were soldiers. And to my surprise many of our views were rather similar. Our day jobs were just a bit different.

That period taught me a lot of things. I did a lot of growing up. I had often confused my dislike of the military industrial complex with ordinary men and women asked to do extra ordinary things for their family, community, and country. I was flat out wrong. Let me tell you why.

The support our troops slogan was and still is a nasty manipulation tool to me. The American public’s rejection of the Vietnam War led government to rethink its propaganda management. Vietnam Vets, as usual, were given the short end of the stick on their return home. The frosty and even bitter reception at home, however misdirected, led to a major shift in how the government would present America’s entry into new wars. It would deflect blame and responsibility from itself through emotional blackmail…and a very sensitive one at that. The troops. Our brothers. Fathers. Sons. Daughters. Sisters. Supporting our troops became synonymous with support our war. And to me the difference is night and day. My idea of supporting our troops is to keep them safe at home. I don’t support any war.

I now know what its like to be on the front line. I understand the rush and terror of continuous bombardment. I get what it’s like to dodge sniper fire in a foreign land where next to nothing is familiar. I developed a deep respect and equal dislike for snipers. It’s no walk in the park for any soldier to implement the agenda of their government. War is hell. Full stop. Soldiers, their families, and countless civilians have paid and still pay the ultimate price any way you look at it.

Soldiers are all too often mandated to do a governments dirty work. Whether it’s Bosnia, America or Chechnya. But what has been clear to me for sometime now is the need and desire for many of us to serve our community or country. We may do it in drastically different ways. But the bottom line is that for most of us it’s our way of doing the right thing and giving something back. Intent is 9/10th’s of the law.

So to all of you, like my friends Lawrence White, Robert Kendall, Ed Brinkley and CJ Watson, who have served and sacrificed in any capacity for community or country I have two words for you. Respect. Peace!

 

 

 

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No satisfaction

Speaking of Kosovo….

It was the summer of 1999 (now I have Bryan Adams ‘Summer of ’69 song in my head). I had been shuttling around Albania between refugee camps. By far the worst situation was in the border town of Kukes. So most of my energy was utilized there. Refugee camps were well established. Then we started getting famous visitors for the fundraising craze. We lucked out, Save the Children brought Maria Bello. We met in Tirana. She was not only cool as a cucumber but well-informed with both feet on the ground. It was enjoyable hanging out with her and she seemed genuinely interested in the plight of the people.

Unicef brought Bianca Jagger to a refugee camp in Kukes to address a group preschool children. Although UNICEF drove me crazy with their bureaucracy and flag waving, we were doing good things together in Kukes. Then Bianca showed up.

kukes

So picture this. We’re sitting on the floor on a hot summer day. There are 240,000 refugees squeezed into an exceptionally poor town of 20,000. There was always the slight (or not so slight) hint of sewage. It was dusty and dry. The mountain winds constantly made the tent doors and shutters flap. We gathered the children from their improv classrooms to sit in the field to listen to the one and only Bianca Jagger. Cameras rolling. The world’s press at her feet, just as she likes it.

(pls keep in mind, these are 5 year old’s)

“The people who have done this to you will be brought to justice. They will not get away with this!” blah, blah, blah “The international community backs the intervention to halt this ethnic cleansing.” blah, blah, blah “I am here to comfort you in these tough times” blah, blah, blah “That’s why UNICEF is here to help you and your families.” blah, blah, blah

By that point I was sick to my stomach and it wasn’t from the fresh smell of human shit.

UNICEF had been dragging their feet with our goal of get every kid in school as soon as possible. We had the money and the resources. Save the Children sourced everything locally. We were on the move. It was quite a rush actually. It was the first time in modern humanitarian aid that this type of frontline intervention was used. We literally took kids off the exodus queues and put them in school. It was working. UNICEF had to place orders to their main warehouse in Denmark for school supplies. Those packages would arrive very close to the date that all the refugees packed up and went back home to Kosovo. So much for emergency aid. But back to Bianca.

So she stood there in her blue jacket and white hat. Armored UNICEF vehicles were in the background with big blue flags blowing in the wind. Bianca talked a little more about herself. Then a bit more about herself. A word or two about UNICEF. As I watched these kids, their heads sort of cocked to the side like golden retriever puppies confused about was being said. Even the translator seemed uncomfortable. But she got her 10 minutes of fame that she obviously thirsted for.

The big blue flag entourage took off into the horizon, leaving a long trail of dust behind them. We never saw or heard from her again. Always count your blessings in war.

I admit I have memory troubles, particularly with dates. Bianca’s speech to small children was so political and heartless that it is carved in my memory. The date is not. I think this is what happened next. Most of the kids went back to their tent classrooms. In order to have as big of a group as possible, children from the neighboring camp from across the street were ‘invited.’ It was a dangerous street. The local Albanians were hired to drive aid from the main warehouses to the various refugee camps. They were slow and lazy so the aid agencies decided on a policy change. The drivers would be paid per delivery.

They all instantaneously reincarnated into Mario Andretti. These old and decrepit Chinese trucks would rumble down the narrow, pot-hole ridden roads at frightening speeds. One of the kids who had the pleasure of listening to Bianca headed back towards his camp. He didn’t look both ways (most people in the Balkans never do). The overloaded truck’s wheels screeched to a halt. The boy was struck by the tire, his head wedged between the tire and the asphalt. He died instantly.

I had become used to gore from Bosnia. Whenever it’s a kid, though, it tends to do your head in, no pun intended. It was a gory sight. His brains literally poured out onto the pavement. His uncle had been close. Dad showed up within minutes. They covered him with a blanket before mom arrived. When mom came things fell apart. That painful yell is etched. His legs veered from beneath the blanket and, like every mom, she recognized him from his shoes, his socks, and the little fuzzy peach hairs on his legs. Every mom knows their babies. This one had just been taken from her.

There wasn’t much any of us could do. We wanted to get the other kids away as quick as possible. Within minutes I had left. For the life of me I can’t remember what I did or where I went after that. It is a complete blank. So it goes.

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Poison mushrooms

poison_mushrooms_by_daadox-d31jluh

For a continent that has produced the likes of U2, the Beatles, Gainsbourg, Pavarotti, Goran Bregovic and ABBA, I am stunned, year in and year out, at the old continents enthusiasm for the Eurosong ‘contest.’ And yes, I’m well aware that ABBA won Eurovision before I was even in kindergarten. So what?! Even though there may be the odd hot act, Eurovision has turned into a spectacularly tacky display of really bad pop. So it goes. But that’s not the subject of today’s ranting.

The recent agreement, surprisingly well-facilitated by the EU, between Serbia and Kosovo has shed a flicker of positive light on the Balkans…it has even conjured up backroom talk of regional stability. I know, silly people, right? Even if Eurovision is a farce, let’s hope the EU-backed pact between Belgrade and Pristina isn’t.

Many people are completely dumbfounded by the conflicts that rocked the former Yugoslavia. Fair enough. So are the people from here. For even more folks it seems ridiculous that a group of southern Slavs that, more or less, speak the same language, share many of the same or similar traditions, and look pretty much alike had harped on the few differences among themselves enough to brutally duke it out with each other for almost four years. Kosovo is a different story.

Whenever I mingle with the southern Slavs they almost always refer to Albanians as ‘shiptar.’ Siptar, when spoken by an Albanian, is acceptable. Siptar, when spoken by a southern Slav, is sort of like using the n****r word. Plain and simple, it’s derogatory. Some may deny it claiming ‘that’s what they call themselves’ but they know all too well that when they say it and how they say it, the reference has a negative connotation. The Kosovars know that as well. Generally speaking, the Slavs have an emphasized prejudice against Albanians.

Most thought the break-up of Yugoslavia would begin where it actually ended – in Kosovo between the Serbs and Albanians. Whereas there is certainly room for optimism when it comes to this most recent agreement between Belgrade and Pristina, anyone close to this issue knows there is no love lost between these rival tribes. There is a poisonous relationship between them.

Case in point. In 1999 I was stationed in Kukes on the Albanian/Kosovo border with Save the Children. I mentioned in an earlier blog that approximately a half million Kosovar refugees were forced into Albania by Serbian forces. Another 800,000 into Kosovo’s southern neighbor Macedonia. Some of these figures may be overstretched, but it’s fair to say that at least half of Kosovo’s population was expelled. On the flip side, after the NATO bombing campaign, most of Kosovo’s Serb population fled north to Serbia. Two major exoduses in less than three months.

I was working right on the border post in a place called Morine. This is where we greeted the scared and tired masses with oranges, blankets, bread and water. The flow seemed to never waver. From our viewpoint we could see the border post controlled by the Serbian military. The policy was this – all license plates and ID cards were confiscated at the border. There were literally small hill-size piles of them in plain site. A key element in ethnic cleansing is erasing all traces. By expelling the Kosovar’s into neighboring countries with Albanian populations, it would be easy to say ‘we have no record of you, you don’t exist here, you must be from Albania or Macedonia.’

I witnessed this on a daily basis as the piles of license plates got bigger and bigger. It may seem a trite exercise to some but it was an integral part of the ‘Kosovo solution.’ Erase all traces that is.

One evening a vehicle from Pristina crossed the border. We were surprised to see someone from Pristina. Most people from the provincial capital were flushed south into Macedonia. It was mostly central and western Kosovars whose fates were directed towards northeast Albania. The man escaped with his wife and two kids. He was an aid worker from the NGO Mother Theresa based out of Pristina. He parked his car, kids and wife safe and sound, rolled up his sleeves and jumped in with us to help. He spoke perfect English. He had tons of energy. I wish I could remember his name.

As we stood there, handing out food and blankets and trying to get information on what was going on and where inside Kosovo, less than thirty minutes after he escaped with his life, he told me this joke:

“A Serbian military general came to visit the field to see the progress of the cleansing campaign. As they walked through a village they came across a dead Albanian. The general asked ‘Commander, what is this?’ The commander replied “General, this siptar ate poisonous mushrooms.’ The general shrugged as they walked on. They soon came across another dead Albanian. The general again inquired ‘Commander, and what happened here?’ The commander sheepishly replied “General sir, this siptar also ate poisonous mushrooms.’ The general looked confused. Then they came to a dead Albanian with an ax through his forehead. The general shouted ‘And Commander, what the hell is this?’ The reply was ‘General, this siptar wouldn’t eat the poison mushrooms, sir.”

Gotta love the dark humor of the Balkans. No love lost, though. It will be a long road to real peace.

peace

 

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