the peace

Peace is a concept that has changed dramatically for me since experiencing the war here. It’s something I believed in a very idealistic way. It’s something I believe in now, even more so, in a very realistic way. Peace for me isn’t the absence of war, the rumors of war, or the threat of war. What it is, for me, is a state of being. Yet ‘peacetime’ here has given me a schooling of sorts. Peacetime can be harder than wartime. The initial transition from war to peace was easy, I think. It was jubilation..until it wasn’t. If post-war is peace, then that is what this section is about. Our triumphs and tribulations from Dayton until today. The good, the bad, the ugly.

Dog eat dog world

This may be depressing. Then again, maybe not. No, it probably will be.

Not too long ago we had the good fortune to move into the eco-house we have been building for seven years. It was a rewarding and equally frustrating process. One I am most certainly grateful for.

I sat on the terrace to admire the view a few days back. Trebevic Mountain dominates our southern skyline. The peak of Bjelasnica veers into view to the southwest. We even get smaller peeks (no pun intended) at Jahorina and Treskavica. It was a sunny day. The birds brought the silent forests to life. We were finally home.

Then the chainsaws kicked into action. Several of them at once. The echo from the surrounding valleys tricking me as to their location. The sounds of trees being felled was soon dwarfed by the explosion of machine gun fire. Although I didn’t have a visual and the echoes of rapid gun fire bounced back and forth across the valley, I knew the exact location and origin of this violent disruption.

Well over 300 trees, small and large, were illegally cut down this past winter in our little neighborhood alone. We all know the name and surname of at least one of the culprits. I have regular conversations with the police, who have – on several occasions – caught him in the act. The dispatcher sighs in annoyance when I call now. I call almost every day when I hear the chainsaws yanked into action. And promise to keep calling until it stops.

One of the culprits, a man named Enver Klico, pulled up to my house not long ago to apologize for stealing around 20m3 of wood from our little patch of forest. He said ‘I didn’t know it was yours.’ My answer to him ‘but you did know it wasn’t yours?’ He was confused by my rebuttal. Why would I care if he cut someone else’s forest down, right? In the trunk of his car he had around 15 fresh logs. When I inquired about his load he said ‘ oh, this is from state owned land.’ He asked me not to report him. I told him if I saw him again in this neighborhood I would call the police. He sneered ‘zovne’ (call them). Two hours later he was back with his unregistered car and driving his vehicle without a drivers license. The police caught him. He was back the next morning and again that afternoon cutting down trees. And most mornings since then. I still call the police almost every day.

Maybe I’ll find myself in court again for naming names. But the truth has to mean something, n’est pas?

Donje Biosko, our little village of a dozen homes at 900 meters in the hills around Sarajevo, is a water protection area. The large karst field feeds Moscanica River in the valley below, which provides most of the Old Town with drinking water. The loss of forest cover from here will and does effect the quality and quantity of water that finds its way to the Moscanica source. No one seems horribly interested in this fact. Not for now anyway.

The rapid gun fire comes from the police shooting range down the road. The only open air range in Europe that is located in a residential area in the capital city. A residential area that survived 1,400 days under siege. Although every single resident of the neighborhood has signed a petition to stop the constant gunfire just a hundred meters from their homes, the municipality has issued a questionable ‘concession’ to the ‘Green Berets Association.’ These are supposed to be the men that defended the city during the siege. They have switched roles now, offering free and prolonged torture for all those traumatized by the longest siege in modern European history. It is a playground for police with heavy machine guns, right smack in the middle of town.

Now back to the terrace.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw a large man walking a pit bull down our street. The pit bull had a heavy chain around its neck that dragged on the ground. He was severely undernourished. The pit bull that is. The man walking him more resembled the mountains around us in size.  A neighbor later confirmed my suspicions that he was ‘training’ (aka starving and torturing) the animal for dog fights in Hladivode. Happy days.

I looked around at the handful of handsome homes in our idyllic little community from our perched terrace. Almost all of them had been robbed at some point in the recent past. Some more than once. The police regularly tell us it’s a ‘local job’ and they ‘have their suspicions’ as to who it might be. Yet no one has ever been caught. None of us believe anyone ever will be.

This is most certainly a mere drop in the ocean in comparison to the monumental problems Bosnia and Herzegovina faces. I find it, however, rather indicative of the current state of affairs. Nothing seems sacred or safe. Not much of anything here is fair. It’s a brutal and bitter reality that the citizens of this country have to swallow on a daily basis. And I wonder how long it will be until something gives way. When and if it does, it ain’t gonna be pretty.

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A Heroes Welcome

It’s a party in Pale. The flags are out. So are the three fingered patriots. The collective has awaken.

Momcilo Krajisnik is on his way home after serving a part of his sentence for war crimes that took place during the Bosnian war. I thought we may have witnessed an unheard of breakthrough when he said “I don’t know why an arrival celebration has been organized, I am a war criminal after all.” For a nanosecond I was proud of his jail-aged wisdom until his next sentence….”I still have to prove the truth (of his innocence) in the revision procedures.”

This is testament to the seemingly eternal Bosnian dilemma called perception, warped or otherwise. With no victor in this war, except the thieves and thugs, all sides see themselves as victims and defenders.

Momcilo Krajisnik was sentenced to 20 years in prison for war crimes including; murder, execution, deportation, and crimes against humanity by the International War Crimes Tribunal. Tonight he is a free man. Thousands await his arrival in full celebration mode for this wartime celebrity. He will get a heroes a welcome. He has been and will be portrayed as a victim of an unprecedented international conspiracy against the Serbian people.

There will be no recognition that any crimes took place. There will be no reconciliatory tone. No one will take responsibility for the brutality that ravaged this tiny nation and its people for four long years. In a war marked by concentration camps, ethnic cleansing, and mass murder most claim to have simply defended themselves. All sides are victims.

We are stuck between a rock and a hard place with no movement in site. And no side, whether perpetrator or victim, is willing or able to empathize with the other. That’s why we all lose. We are a multiple vortex tornado wreaking havoc on the souls and minds of the masses. This is Bosnia.

There’s a party in Pale tonight.

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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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Poison mushrooms

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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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I second that emotion

I go about my daily business lately with just one slight adjustment to my routine. Ok, I’m lying, I don’t really have a routine. But I do make that one adjustment. I click, about every half our, to the BBC website to see if a war on the Korean peninsula has started-  as if that information will drastically change the reality I’m/we’re currently in. Maybe it will. Ko zna?

That got me thinking about war again (imagine that). Well, maybe not war itself but what Gil Scott Heron so appropriately defined as peace. Peace is not just the absence of war. It is the absence of the rumors of war, the preparations for war, the threat of war. He also said the revolution would not be televised. I think he may have gotten that one wrong.

damir

Shortly after one of my obsessive excursions to BBC-land I read a piece by Damir Niksic. For anyone who is familiar with Damir, our ‘mini-star’ of culture as he puts it, they know that his brain never stops. Well, none of our brains actually stop, but perhaps they do rest on occasion. Not Damir’s. If I translated his most recent text I don’t think it would do it much justice. So I’ll try to paraphrase.

“In this country we don’t need to bring investors, scientists, experts, electricity, water, gas or medicine. In this country we don’t need to build factories, dams, coal plants, or football fields…we don’t need hospitals, churches or mosques…in this country we don’t need law and order or courts…much less God or Goddess’. In this country we don’t need to work or to rest.

In this country we need to bring, build and begin – peace. This country needs peace. However, peace is a dove that will not land is this country or build its nest as long as the fear of war persists, or even just the talk of war.

Nothing is served in this country – not burek or baklava – without the spicy talk of war trauma.

That’s why those who are hungry or thirsty, poor and pathetic, sad or sick, in trouble or lost their will, just like those with or without jobs, young or old…should first wish for peace.” DN

I second that emotion. Play it Smokey!

 

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Sad times indeed

The period around April 6th is usually a nice one for me. We celebrate our city in what I find to be a  very dignified and modest way. Manchester City football star Edin Dzeko and the SOS orphanage shared the 6th of April award given out by the City of Sarajevo each year for the person/s who most made their humane mark on this city and its people. Jim Marshall had his inspirational photo exhibition ‘there is a light that never goes out’ at the Boris Smoje Gallery. Bel Canto Ensemble from Zenica claimed the Farah Tahirbegovic award. It is a time for affirming all that this city and country aspires to be. 

Junaci_FarahBut as Farah said from her death bed ‘all this you see, all of it, is from sorrow and sadness.’ She was talking about how cancer, like our silence, grows. She was 32 when cancer ate her away in less than month.  She wasn’t…and still isn’t…alone.

For those of you who sometimes plug in to this blog you might remember the story of the little boy who was killed by an unexploded ordinance near Mostar. His father called me this weekend, asking me to come to Mostar to talk to his only remaining son. I have known him since he was 11. He was a twirpy teenager then. He’s like a bear now. A teddy bear, though. He’s a veterinarian. He loves his job. He’s an exceptionally good kid. Just after Sabina and I had Noah, he had twins.

 

The other day he picked them up from school. He was so drunk he remembers none of it. When he went to pick his wife up from work the kids were in the back, unbuckled. He could barely keep his hands on the steering wheel. He reeked of alcohol. The next day he repeated his binge, albeit without his small children…and his father was called to rescue him from self-destruction. Literally.

So I answered the SOS call and went to talk to him. We spoke for hours. It was upbeat and positive. It seems as if everything is crumbling around us and there is nothing we can do to stop it. The sadness seeped from him and his wife like sap from a maple tree. It’s a sadness that I think we all feel here, whether we express it or not. We all cope in different ways. Some better than others. Too many not at all. It is this collective burden, this silent sadness, that effects me most, though. In all honesty, I think it’s killing us off more than the bullets and bombs ever did. We have fallen so deep into an emotional crisis – not to mention the moral, social, economic, and political ones – that few of us can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

With so many here bearing the scars of the war and its aftermath, we have no one to share our sorrow with. I’m not sure there is the emotional capacity to deal with the burdens we collectively and individually carry anymore. I have my doubts that we ever did. And it seems like every day we add insult to injury. The one step forward two steps back syndrome is an epidemic in Bosnia. We just can’t seem to get a break. But that would putting the blame elsewhere, wouldn’t it? Perhaps it would be better said that we just won’t give ourselves a break. So why are we such gluttons?

We are on our most slippiest slope since Dayton ended the slaughter in 1995. I would love to be wrong…but I fear things have come to a breaking point. What that will look like I do not know. It may be ugly. It might be violent. We could remain gluttons though too, and simply drown in our own sorrow.

What I do know is that this is a sad time for us here. Let’s hope Jim is right…and that there is a light that will never go out. peace.

 

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no Slavic Spring in sight…

I said I wouldn’t talk politics. I lied.

This place never – ever – ceases to amaze me. I think we’re the only city in Europe that does not directly elect its mayor. We ‘the people’ have no say-so whatsoever in who will represent us in the city we purport to love so much. So much for Bosnian democracy.

Led by the media shepherds, we continue to loyally follow, discuss and argue within the narrow confines of this political farce. When did we stop thinking out of the box? When did we stop thinking period? The city council, which at this point (in my humble opinion), has zero legitimacy, is for some reason mandated to be our voice and choose a mayor. They haven’t been able to do so for five months. Many of the these city councilmen/women were not even able to muster a few thousand votes in a city of almost a half million. How on earth did they earn the right to represent us or select this city’s mayor? Ne znam.

If we would have the option of directly electing our mayor, the people would decide in one day. One day. But five months on we have a total blockade of the city. We are supposed to be a European City of Culture next year to celebrate 100 years of Europe’s triumphs and tribulations. It was almost a century ago that Franz Ferdinand and his pregnant wife Sophie were assassinated in Sarajevo. That sparked the bloodiest war of all time. But the aim of this anniversary is to celebrate the progress of Europe as a union and, inshallah, the end of Europe’s bloody conflicts. They chose Sarajevo to do so. A perfect time to pull us out from the bottom of the barrel. Apparently we like lurking as low as we can go so much we’d rather flounder about down there as long as we can. What gluttons.

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We have a shitload of work ahead of us. It is estimated that up to a million visitors may come to Sarajevo next year. Leave it to us to miss the boat on this once-in-a-lifetime event. Many EU embassies here in Sarajevo already have commissions and committee’s set up to organize events for next year. Their work has already begun. We haven’t even begun to think about the daily business of this city let alone the monumental task of organizing an entire year of events.

We have an airport with a drastically reduced capacity due to the loss of several key airlines like Malev, British Airways, and Swiss Air. Our airport taxes are so high and our government so obstructive that we are the only European country with no budget airline connecting us to the west. (I don’t consider Germany Wings to be budget at all).

We have no where to park tour buses and no plans to resolve that issue. We have no plans to increase security, particularly in the old town where tourists will flock to. With the social and economic state of this city, I fear the con-men, thieves, and pickpockets will be out in droves. The major tourism fairs such as ITB (Berlin) and WTM (London) have come and gone without this city’s presence to market what should be the greatest year of events since the Winter Olympics of 1984. Tour operators plan their itineraries a year in advance not a few months before. Again, we miss the boat on this one.

Passengers who do manage to find a flight into Sarajevo will have to be clairvoyant or telepathic to know that the Tourism Information Center is about 100 meters away from the exit gate. In fact, the info booth is at the entrance of the airport instead of the exit. Bosnian logic. There are also no airport shuttle buses to and from the city. Our posteni taxi’s charge exuberant prices that the government chooses to ignore, adding insult to injury.

We don’t have a website dedicated to the theme or to highlight the events of next year. We don’t even know what events there will be. We don’t have a planning committee or a liaison between the mayor’s office and the EU embassies here in Sarajevo. All of this because we don’t have a mayor. All of this because our public servants do not know the meaning of public or servant. All of this because we have a joke of a government. And yet the fierce debate is not based on these questions but rather which left-right coalition (I prefer the term backward-ass) should appoint their peon in our names. If I’m not mistaken neither of the current candidates speaks a foreign language either. That’ll make for smooth communication with the diplomatic corps and the long list of delegations that will pay homage to Sarajevo and its place in Europe.

I know the Slavic Spring will never come. We are too lazy and apathetic for that. This government understands this well and has mastered the virtue of patience. They can stall and wait out any protest, strike or discontent…knowing that it won’t be too long until we go home, turn on the boob tube, light a cigarette, and watch the news cursing and kicking for its entirety.

The question is not whether this or that candidate should or should not be mayor. The question should not be is Nasa Stranke playing victim by abstaining from the deciding votes. The question is when will our community realize the responsibility of being in a democracy. Nothing is going to be handed to us. We must take it, for it is ours to take. By being passive observers and eternal whiners we will get exactly what we deserve: no mayor; a government that more resembles a circus; and a moral crisis that continues to wear and tear at the very thin fabric that holds this society together.

We need a serious head check. It’s time to go to work people. Time to go to work.

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Syria’s unwanted anniversary

It’s been two years since the Syrian ‘crisis’ began. Two years since CNN and BBC, and now even Al-Jazeera, tell us the same stories they were telling in 1994 about the sad fate of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Years of failed ‘diplomacy’ had seen millions flee their homes, hundreds of thousands dead, and billions of people around the world who really didn’t give a shit. And who still don’t.

I could be naive or even stupid, but I am more and more convinced that the pressure from grassroots movements across the United States and Europe was the tipping point in influencing western powers to finally put the Bosnian conflict to an end. Some may or may not agree with the means or the end. But it ended the bloodshed. Something I think the Syrians will not see anytime soon.

There are touching stories from Aleppo with almost identical headlines as they had for Sarajevo. The artist who keeps on making art in the midst of the horror. The young girl who risks life and limb to fetch water for her hungry and thirsty family. Reports from refugee camps in Iraq, Turkey or Jordan on the hardships of refugee life. We’ve seen it all. Even though every time we see it we say ‘never again,’ that never again always seems to happen, time and time again, and usually sooner rather than later. So much for wishful thinking, huh?

Esma, 7, and a friend peer out of a tent in Lebanon that has been home to her family since last year

So maybe three years of being ’embedded’ in a brutal conflict has made me cynical. Maybe it just gave me a sour dose of the reality of the geo-political game of chess being played with the lives of millions of us in every corner of our globe. I wonder if we’ll ever realize that in their eyes, we are all simply considered as collateral damage. We are numbers and calculations. Our very human stories don’t really count for much at all on the grand political scale.

The media age now brings us the gore and false glory of war right to our living rooms in real time. And quite frankly I think most of us have become immune to it. We may or may not follow events that, for the people living it, certainly last more than the 30 second clips we get at home. War engulfs every second of every day. It does not let go at any moment in time.

The Syrians, I’m sure, are hopeful someone, sometime in some way will help or intervene. But like Bosnia, I think they are up for a rude awakening. They will continue to be killed. Their children will continue to die. They will be forced to lead humiliating lives in refugee camps and hope and pray that the UN World Food Programme begging for money on CNN interviews will result in another months worth of flour, oil and sugar.

From their cold, wet and damp tents they dream that the ‘international community’ will make a moral and immediate decision to stop things – at whatever the price. But that will not happen. The illusion that there is such a thing as a cohesive ‘international community’ that has the power, or any power for that matter, to end it will soon be replaced with the devastating reality that ‘they’ really don’t care enough to end your nightmare. And for the few that do, there is nothing they can do except share your pain or maybe volunteer in a camp or a make-shift hospital.

Your two year anniversary I’m sure is a not a happy one. Many of your homes are gone. Loved ones killed. Dignity left to linger somewhere between despair and disgust. But the horror will end. Many of you will go back home. Some will not. After the euphoria of ‘peace’ begins to fade…then the real challenge begins. The switch from survival mode to stability is a rocky road. The world will come running in with aid, money and advice. And some of that may or may not trickle down to you. The war mongers will become money mongers.  The moral crisis that always seems to follow in recovery phases of war sometimes seems harder than the war itself. It will be a tough pill to swallow.

Despite the many prophetic-like thoughts on war and its horrors, we always seem to plague ourselves with this universal human ritual. What I find so devastating is the amount of time needed to heal from a war. Several generations are lost before the roots of real peace begin to take. And the process of getting there is a horribly frustrating one. War doesn’t last only for the duration of the violence. It lives and breathes in the generations that follow.

‘There is no honorable way to kill. No gentle way to destroy. There is nothing good in war except its ending.’ Abe Lincoln.

I hope peace finds its way to your doorsteps soon. God speed Syria. peace

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Don’t believe the hype

Yup, Sabina was right. Definitely not much flowin’ off the fingertips.

Danis Tanovic’s film won the Silver Bear at the Berlinale. That made me happy.

The topic of his film made me sad. Or maybe even mad. But problems don’t get solved until we start talking about them. So let’s hope we start talking. Thank you Danis.

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There’s never a shortage of saddening, maddening and riveting stories to be told from Boz. Luckily we have wizards like Danis and a long list of others who are trying to steer us down the yellow brick road.

And although Boz’s (and in particular Sarajevo’s) artistic community can be rather dysfunctional, whether they know it or not, they are our knights in shining armor. They are a good bunch. I just wish they’d see it in each other a bit more than they do.

There are a lot of things about Boz that make it special. Constructive discourse is usually not one of them. The more time I spend here in the states, the more I come to the sad conclusion that the rift between the whopping two options of this two-plus centuries old democracy is only widening as well. Granted, I was a whee lad of 21 when I left but I have been back and maintained regular contact ever since. People on other sides of the aisle – and no, I’m not just talking about politicians – can barely speak to each other without rage. Who says Bosnia and America are worlds apart?!

So I ask myself, have the profound scars of the soul from the Bosnian war and 9/11 shaken and driven us so far into our respective corners that we are not willing to come out unless we’re swinging?

When and why did other people’s beliefs and ideas stop mattering? And why oh why do we mercilessly slap these dehumanizing labels on each other? Is that our excuse to not listen? If I’m honest to myself, when I think of my many friends who tend to share much more ‘conservative’ views than me – on both sides of the ocean and aisle – I understand and embrace many of their values. Whether it be a Christian Republican from the south or a conservative Muslim from Sarajevo, there is always common ground to be found. Always.

And that’s where we feel most comfortable, n’est pas?….in a space and place where we feel like someone can see, feel, and understand our point of view. It at least gives us a starting point. It at least establishes some trust. It may even encourage us to put the gloves down. Perspective really can pack a punch.

If there was ever a need for a fresh perspective it would be now. Because regardless of what we individually believe to be best, or the values and ideals that we hold so dear, we do happen to share space with a lot of people who, naturally, think differently. Democracy comes with a shitload of responsibilities – numero uno for me is the one we have towards each other. Don’t buy into the vitriolic rhetoric that makes our blood boil – that’s what they want, to keep us on each side of the ring so they can continue the pillage of our wealth and our minds while we duke it out.

Behind the sometimes harsh, thick-headed bravado of the Balkans and the obnoxious, self-aggrandizing, ‘we-walk-the-moral-highground’ attitudes of Americanism I see a lot of tin-man’s, lions, and scare crows lurking in the midst…just waiting to be listened to and understood. And sure, I’ll admit it, a lot of people don’t seem to deserve our undivided attention or any attention at all for that matter. But if we don’t try, who will?

I’ll just keep clicking my heels hopin’ to find home. Anyone seen Toto?

 

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Imtiaz

This was supposed to be a continuation of a family’s reunion. That was my intention. But it’s gonna have to wait another day I’m afraid. Something else came to mind. And continues to do so. So I will go with the proverbial flow.

Newtown.

The name doesn’t seem to want to leave. Sometimes it’s replaced by Sandy Hook. Regardless, it/they have been floating in my head. It’s been a month. One month since 20 sets of parents lost their babies. Grandparents lost their grandchildren. Brothers and sisters have lost a brother or sister. You get how it goes.

30 days. I do believe that time heals wounds. But I’ve become painfully aware that the sore lumps of scar tissue that build beneath those healed wounds not only ache but are like permanent ghosts. The haunting types.

Ten years had passed since the end of the war. My friend Ismet had returned to the Podvelezje plateau that was razed during the war several years before that. He had rented out a warehouse to the international community who were rebuilding the hundreds of homes of this highland shepherd community that were demolished. With those savings he built a modest, family-run motel called Sunce (sun in English). His wife Mevlida does the cooking. It attracts visitors from many parts of the world. It’s quiet. Exceptionally peaceful. The food is amazing. The sunsets are to die for. To die for.

Imtiaz Stranjak

Imtiaz Stranjak

So ten years after the end of the war. Life is good. The motel is doing well. Their little boy Imtiaz turned nine I believe. He loved to roam the rocky plateau, catching lizards whilst carefully avoiding the many snakes found on this moon-like landscape. This area was controlled by the Bosnian Serb army during the war. There were no mines laid there. So it goes.

 

 

Everyone in the village of Smajkici heard the explosion. No one knew what had happened. Parents called for their kids. When the smoke cleared all but two boys were accounted for. Ismet’s son did not answer his fathers call. The terrain looks so similar that it was impossible to tell exactly where the thud came from. Ismet wandered the plateau for what must have been 20-30 minutes looking for Imtiaz. He found him and another boy his age. The other boy was already dead. Imtiaz was bleeding out. Ismet ran with his baby boy in his arms for almost a kilometer before reaching the car. It was another 20 minute ride to the hospital in Mostar. I never asked Ismet but I think Imtiaz passed before they reached the hospital. Imagine carrying your maimed, dying baby in your arms.

It was the saddest funeral I have ever been to. I had known him since he was a few days old. I had known Ismet and his family since the beginning of the war.

The other boy had apparently found an unexploded ordinance. There are plenty of those lying around the countryside. It must have looked like a fun toy. Fun enough that the boys picked it up and ran around with it, took it to a flat rock and started pounding it with another rock. Imtiaz stood next to the boy as he banged away at what would be the master of his fate. It exploded. The other boy died instantly. You already know how it ended for Imtiaz.

It’s one of the few stories of many sad ones from this place that physically pains me. I write with that pain now. But nothing in comparison to what Ismet and Mevlida lived and live through. It’s been seven years now since Imtiaz was taken from them in a most violent way. Just the mention of his name has Mevlida fall apart. Ismet cannot and does not want to talk about him. They are captives of their pain. They have been unable to break those chains. Life does go on, of course. But the anguish that lingers at their once cheery motel has forever changed them.The sun has set in Smajkici.

They cannot leave that place. It is the place where they lived with Imtiaz. It is where all of his memories are from. So they stay. They think of him everyday yet never speak a word of him. He lives in their agony. That is the only way they know to keep him with them. I wish it wasn’t so. But it is.

They can laugh still. There are happy moments. The motel holds weddings and party’s. Ismet and Mevlida are always pleasant and attentive hosts. But that one day. That one incident has snatched the joy only your child can bring to you. And when that light goes out nothing can kindle it anew.

Newtown. Thirty days without the light of their lives. I cannot fathom the misery.

There needs to be a lot of soul searching about mental health, video games, and movies. But the thing that gets me is all the pain and suffering we unleash on each other with tools invented solely to kill. I’m not even slightly prepared or willing to discuss gun control. I’m talking about the constant war we wage on each other in every corner of this planet. I find it incredibly defeating that these things have become normal.

We accept them. Defend them. Allow them to rule us with fear. And then they take our children from us. One at a time…or 20.

Imtiaz. Newtown. Aleppo. Peace my little ones.

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