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April 24, 1995
. Vreme News Digest Agency No 186
On the spot: Sarajevo

A Pound of Flesh

by Stojan Cerovic

I didn't want to go to Sarajevo. I believe that during these past three years whoever wished to, could have found out and realized what was important about this place without leaving home. Even if your home is in Belgrade. I didn't have any particular business there; I wouldn't make anyone particularly happy, or help anyone. I knew that tinned food, coffee and cigarettes weren't all that necessary anymore. In such circumstances one should be ashamed of one's curiosity. Why should a man who is powerless to change anything wish to go an look at other people's misfortune, if not to feel happier and live ones' life more easily.

If you go to Sarajevo, you can be sure that you will meet many people who will envy you for living elsewhere, where water and electricity are not a luxury, where snipers and mortars don't wait in ambush for you, where one dies in bed and where you will probably succeed in returning. If our self-respect is fed by other people's envy, Sarajevo should be a place of healing in that respect. The biggest European sanatorium for the humiliated and the insulted. Everyone can come back from Sarajevo feeling happy and content.

The citizens of Sarajevo know this very well. This is why there are so few of them, and all who can, and wish, take every opportunity of getting out into the world, perhaps mostly in order to return, desperately defending the pride of the city. None there will accept your condolences and pity, and in spite of everything, you won't get them to feel envious all that easily. They won't show you that they are having a great time, but they will discreetly show that which they have borne and still suffer and which you probably wouldn't be able to.

I felt that it could be difficult to talk to people who have been risking their lives for the past three years. I anticipated misunderstandings which come from a different sense of the value of life but I didn't know how to prepare for it all. But when they invited me to come, I didn't hesitate, convinced that this was something that could not be turned down, and that I couldn't explain my reasons properly to anyone.

A large and motley group gathered in Belgrade, linked by a readiness to invest as much masochism as necessary to make the trip in both directions and this readiness was never challenged. I was among the lucky few who managed to get onto an UNPROFOR plane in one direction at least, from Zagreb to Sarajevo, even though there was shooting in and around the airport and people were dying, so that luck is something one can only speak of in retrospect. Not counting transporters, we changed five-six buses and passed several recognized and not recognized borders and states. Nobody grumbled even when crawling through the famous Sarajevo tunnel, nor while climbing in the rain and pitch darkness up muddy Mt. Igman in order to reach a warm bus which would then get stuck in the snow three times and break down somewhere near Vodice on the Croatian coast. That's when one former citizen of Sarajevo who had arrived from Germany to attend the convention of the Serbian Civic Council (SGV), gave up and started off on foot. This convention of "Alija's Serbs" (Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic) turned out to be bigger and better than was expected. It was held in the battered and scorched Holiday Inn Hotel which is approached from behind, from the direction of the Writer's Club, and at a smart pace. I found the speeches a bit old fashioned and boring, probably because everything else in Sarajevo is so exciting. The biggest star, of course, was former Serbian President Ivan Stambolic who has decided not to say anything, but has yielded in face of the great expectations, realizing that silence would annul the gesture of his presence in Sarajevo. The hosts were innocently happy to see Ivan Djuric (Serbian Presidential candidate in 1990, now living in France), who was regarded as living proof that Sarajevo is still not passe in Paris. I got the impression that many Serbs who have remained in Sarajevo live in certain confusion with regard to their position and future in a state whose future profile none as yet know. This confusion is not felt by them only, but their's is greatest. Some are perhaps still unsure and don't say all they think, but those I met have definitely and unequivocally rejected Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his gunmen. As citizens of Sarajevo, they will never forgive them. But, that's the only thing they are sure of. One of the speakers at the SGV convention, one of many who had come in the Bosnia-Herzegovina Army uniform, demanded to be told what he was fighting for. He didn't ask against what, because this is recognized from Sarajevo as primary evil, but neither he, nor many others weren't absolutely sure that they would like the final result of the struggle, even it were to end in victory. None in the hall had a good answer to this question, and Alija Izetbegovic, Bill Clinton and Boutros Boutros Ghali would not be able to come up with a satisfactory answer either.

It was possible to conclude that the SGV is not a negligible and insignificant body from the reports from Pale (Bosnian Serb political center) which claimed that Serbs in Sarajevo had been hijacked on the streets and brought to the convention by force. Karadzic would find it very embarrassing if a strong and serious Serbian alternative movement in Bosnia spread, one which would show that a genocidal attitude wasn't as widespread as Karadzic claims. But many of the people rallied around the SGV don't wish to create yet another national party. Just like many true citizens of Sarajevo, they believe that evil was born with the founding of three national parties. They haven't forgotten that these parties tricked them, that they appeared jointly against the Reformists and the Communists and promised mutual cooperation and agreements.

The consistence of Sarajevo's followers of the "civic option" is wondrous, even though I do think that political realism would demand that all the complexities and contradictions of Bosnia be recognized and that both the civic and the national principles be taken into consideration. I don't believe that the existence of national parties as such implies war, just as I don't believe that a consideration of the national element can be avoided there. But, as a SGV activist said, "if that's the way it has to be, then let someone else do it".

But all this belongs to the political part of the story about Sarajevo, including talks with Izetbegovic and others which were conducted by political and party men from Belgrade and Podgorica, and it struck me as less important and less interesting.

I cannot assess the significance and meaning of such contacts, all I can do is convey an overall impression that the Muslim side shows a great curiosity and readiness for reaching an understanding with those representatives of the Serbs who don't shoot. But, politics are not a major topic in Sarajevo. Things were perhaps different in the beginning, but now, after three years of war, the people hardly mention politics, except in jokes. One joke explains why the Bosnian Government has lost favor with the international mediators. Izetbegovic, allegedly invited, Owen and Stoltenberg to dinner and served them pre-prepared food in aluminum foil distributed by the UNHCR. They were supposed to get an impression of what it was like living in Sarajevo, and show some compassion. But when they arrived in Pale, the Serbs roasted a whole ox, which impressed them much more.

This story illustrates Sarajevo's impression of the world as being intolerably amoral and cynical. The citizens of Sarajevo saw from close up the biggest world powers, they saw their houses and streets on CNN, glamorous faces and names visited them in order to encourage and support them, and in the end they were left with the impression that their misfortune was just a good background to the pictures which were sold in world metropolis. This disappointment with the world order is perhaps greater than the horrors created by Karadzic's mortars.

Mortars have probably maimed and killed most of Sarajevo's 10,000 victims. The citizens of Sarajevo claim that they fall very precisely as if they always carry a message which the people later try to interpret and decipher. I'm not quite convinced, but all the same, the snipers leave a more shocking impression than the mortars which for months systematically destroyed an apartment building. The snipers look at their target directly and calmly send their bullet through someone's window into someone's dining room where a man, woman and child are eating.

One must come to Sarajevo in order to realize the scope of the crime. Here one cannot understand, see or imagine any political goals. You don't see the war either. Just plain murder, repeated many, many times. But this quantity doesn't change the quality, it doesn't become war, just mass murder. And you find it hard to understand, no matter how politically opportune it may seem to negotiate with the author of this oeuvre, with Karadzic and in the final consequence Milosevic, about anything and hope that they will be capable of reaching a peace? If someone wishes to know, Mostar and its vicinity look a lot worse than Sarajevo, but this feat will be described by some Croat.

I don't see, however, how the problem can be solved without the Hague Court. That tunnel under Sarajevo Airport seems to be the best metaphor of the overall situation, not just of Sarajevo and Bosnia. Small people can crawl more easily through this hole which is 1.5 meters high. If some court does not single out the rats among us, we'll all end up crawling on all fours.

It seemed to me that the people in Sarajevo talk a lot. I went to lunch with Marko Vesovic and Gavro Grahovac and it went on until midnight. All Sarajevo stories are personal and not typical. People tell you what happened to them and they don't infer their fate from some general misfortune. Or the other way round, they interpret everything on the basis of their personal case. Global subjects don't interest them much. They are aware that it is just luck that they are alive or that some other people are dead, and this experience makes them indifferent to all peace plans, borders, federations and confederations. At the same time, they haven't become selfish. I heard and saw for myself of the fantastic neighborhood solidarity of the citizens of Sarajevo. I'd say that the general picture in Belgrade is just the opposite: there is a lot of talk about politics and great national goals, but in their personal relations people have become quarrelsome, intolerant and selfish.

Marko Vesovic told me that Karadzic had said during the election campaign that neighbors were sacred to the Serbs. Then he went to war against this vital Bosnian social institution. I don't know what it's like in other places, but the neighbors in Sarajevo are standing strong. And Sarajevo is bigger than Bosnia in the sense that Belgrade is bigger than Serbia. And regarding the well known city division into city folk "raja" and arrivals (papani), things have become more complicated, just like in Belgrade, only more so. It is believed that only 30% of the prewar population has remained in the city, so that the arrivals are now in the majority, which means that the national proportion has been changed. Nevertheless, viewed from outside, no aggressive Islamization is visible, even though the Muslims do feel more comfortable than the Serbs. But it would be unusual if the Serbs were to feel comfortable both from where they are shooting and where they are being shot at.

It was impossible to reconstruct all that the citizens of Sarajevo have gone though in the past three years. They must have changed many feelings and moods. Just one or two mortars daily. Death has taken on a settled rhythm, like in fairy tales and myths when the monster must be fed its regular pound of flesh. The people hope that the beast will not go wild again. In the meantime, they have organized life on the experience of elementary survival, on the deepest and most natural feelings. In the first place, they take care of themselves, their loved ones, and their immediate neighborhood. It wouldn't be quite right to say they were citizens. I think that today they have the rare privilege of just being human beings.

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