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The Bright Side of the Balkans

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Sara Terry
A local athlete jumping from the newly rebuilt Mostar bridge, which had been destroyed during the Bosnian War, July 2004

1.

I went to Sarajevo this spring to take part in an international poetry festival, and to receive an award and launch a book of my selected poems that had just been published in Bosnia. This was my first visit to a city known for its extraordinary suffering during the siege by the Serbian forces led by Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić, which lasted from April 1992 to February 1996. Flying in on a clear day and seeing the way the mountains and hills press against Sarajevo on three sides, I could easily comprehend the destruction that artillery, mortars, heavy machine guns, and snipers could inflict on its inhabitants, who would have had great difficulty defending themselves. I could see the Serbian siege for what it was: a deliberate effort to collectively punish a city, and terrorize and starve its inhabitants, while taking satisfaction in firing from safe and unassailable heights.

Once on the ground, I felt even more the proximity of these hills that dominate every view, loom at the end of every street, and in time of peace adorn the city with their greenery and the red rooftops dotting their slopes. Sarajevo combines the appearances of a mountain resort one would visit for one’s health, an Ottoman town with mosques and minarets from a nineteenth-century hand-painted postcard, a turn-of-the-century Austro-Hungarian provincial capital with the kind of public buildings one finds everywhere the empire set its foot in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, and a city of high-rise modern office and apartment buildings that resemble many other places in Europe.

Today one is astonished to discover that almost every building in Sarajevo suffered some degree of damage during the siege, and that 35,000 were completely destroyed, including most famously the national library with its thousands of irreplaceable old books and manuscripts. Since a great deal of what had been blown up has been rebuilt, the city appeared to be thriving, and given the warm and sunny weather during my visit and the sight of many people strolling in the streets or sitting in cafés chatting amiably, everything that occurred here fifteen years ago seemed inconceivable.

I was soon busy meeting people, being interviewed, grabbing an early dinner with a Bosnian poet I’d met in Berlin years ago, and afterward attending a delightful group reading in a gambling casino where the poems were read on a small stage accompanied by the sound of chips on the gaming tables and slot machines in the background. “Sarajevo Days of Poetry,” as the gathering of poets was called, had brought together poets from Austria, Montenegro, Armenia, France, Croatia, Cyprus, Kosovo, Hungary, Macedonia, Malta, Morocco, Germany, Romania, Russia, Slovenia, Serbia, Sudan, Switzerland, and Turkey, as well as poets from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Such meetings tend to be both exhausting and rewarding, since one spends days and nights drinking and talking, not just about literature, but about everything else, in addition to hearing poems read in a dozen languages and being introduced to the work of poets one never knew existed and wishes one had.

Many poems by Bosnian poets I heard and read during my stay were about the war. Knowing how rare that subject is in contemporary Serbian and Croatian poetry, from which one would not learn that the mass slaughter of the innocent had taken place next door, I found this sobering. These were not just moving accounts of what someone living through horror had experienced; they also had about them a Job-like eloquence and inability to comprehend how man and God could allow evil and injustice on such a scale to take place.

I have always been mystified by how incurious our American poets have been about people being killed in the wars we are fighting. Now I understood. Unless you’ve seen a child or an old woman lying on the sidewalk in a pool of blood and heard someone shriek their names, you can’t fully understand what actually happens when we mistakenly gun down, or attack by drones, all those wedding parties, funerals, and shepherd boys gathering sticks for a fire in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, and now Yemen. Just reading about them is not enough.

I also had to get used to speaking a language I don’t speak very often. Despite having left Belgrade fifty-eight years ago, when I was fifteen, and returning only a few times for short visits, I still retain its distinctive accent. Once my confidence returned in Sarajevo and I started chattering freely, the locals could guess where I came from, and yet my clothes and manner didn’t match the way I spoke, so they had to ask. In the interviews, too, there were questions about my childhood in Belgrade, my life in the United States, and my poetry, but no overtly political questions, as was also true in Serbia a week later. (Mladić’s arrest came a few days after I left.)

This was a surprise and a relief, because when I was in Belgrade five years ago, every other question the reporters asked me was either an open or a veiled reproach for what they called my failure to defend Serbia during the previous decade. In Sarajevo my views on Serbian crimes during the Bosnian War were well known, and I had the impression, besides, that everyone was weary of the subject and would rather talk about something else.

Two survivors of the Sarajevo siege described in a calm, matter-of-fact way what life was like without water and electricity and with constant fear that members of their family might die as they stepped into the streets. Both had known Karadžić and some of his nationalist cronies before the war and had no presentiment of the kind of monsters they would turn out to be. It was hard to find words for the collective tragedy that had taken place. In addition to all those killed and maimed, so many lives had been ruined; so many people had fled, never to return, and the city they shared and liked ended up changing too. Sarajevo, I was told, doesn’t have many Serbs left and almost no Croats. That people with three different religions could live side by side in harmony—indeed had once done so—was deeply offensive to nationalist and religious bigots; it had to be remedied.

After two days in Sarajevo, I traveled by bus with some thirty other poets to Mostar, one of the prettiest towns in the Balkans, where a dozen of us gave a reading. We left Sarajevo in the late morning and an hour later made a leisurely stop in a roadside tavern to eat roast lamb with thick slices of delicious freshly baked bread. Everyone was in an excellent mood because the company was good and the weather was gorgeous. We reached our hotel in Mostar after traveling a few more hours along a narrow, curvy, two-lane road, through a landscape of high mountains, rivers, and canyons of stunning beauty.

The Bosnians I talked to were not hopeful about the future. The two political entities (the Serbian Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina) supposedly function under a three-member presidency representing Muslims, Croats, and Serbs; but this system does not work. The Serbs have no interest in coordinating the two economies or cooperating in any other meaningful way, even if that means having a greater chance to export their products and attract foreign capital. After visiting Mostar, a city that was divided in two between Muslims and Croats after another vicious siege, and seeing the numerous ruins along the dividing line, I could not even imagine the federation functioning effectively with such palpable tension still in the air. We heard of Croat mothers forbidding their children to cross the bridge into the Muslim neighborhoods.

We gave our reading in a theater on the Croat side of the city. The hall was full of young people, some of whom wanted to talk about poetry afterward, but we were hurried off to dinner in a Franciscan monastery that houses a library going back to the fifteenth century. Since we had a marvelous Slovenian musician with us who performed during our readings and who carried his guitar wherever he went, he and a couple of others started singing Bosnian songs during dinner, which they continued back at the hotel late into the night, broadening their repertory to Serbian, Hungarian, and Russian songs. Despite all the bad blood and suspicion between them, the various ethnic groups in that part of the world like each other’s music.

The next day we saw the old part of the city and its famous bridge, which had been destroyed by Croats during the siege and rebuilt since, and visited the Oriental-looking towns of Počitelj and Blagaj. With the Adriatic Sea only an hour away, the vegetation, the sunlight, and the air are Mediterranean. As is true of Bosnia, Herzegovina is spectacularly beautiful. Lunching on freshly caught grilled trout in view of the high sheer rock where the Buna River has its source and the sixteenth-century Dervish meeting house is wedged into the cliffs, recalling the attractive, high-spirited young Croats who danced half the previous night at the hotel celebrating their high school graduation, it was easy to forget the region’s bloody past and put aside the thought that it could happen again.

2.

I flew from Sarajevo to Belgrade—where another book of my poems was being published—on a Serbian airline and arrived just after seven in the morning. At the airport I was met by two cousins who are the only remaining members of my family who remember me as a child, and we took a taxi to the hotel where I was staying. In the busy morning traffic, we drove through the new part of the city—first built in the 1950s and recently spruced up with wide boulevards and huge buildings with lots of glass, housing domestic and foreign businesses and banks and even a shopping mall advertising such stores as Zara, Marks & Spencer, and Esprit—and crossed the river Sava into the old city, which lay ahead spread over several small hills at the confluence of that river and the Danube.

Despite my infrequent visits to Belgrade, I can still find my way around its older neighborhoods, having spent my youth skipping school every chance I got and roaming the streets till it was time to sneak back home. I found the city cleaner and more prosperous-looking than it was five years ago. The only exception was my old neighborhood, where the once-elegant small apartment buildings that had survived World War II bombings and more recent NATO ones were shockingly unkempt, their façades badly cracked, their terraces precariously hanging, and their entranceways dilapidated and uninviting. But as is typical of Belgrade in good weather, by ten in the morning, its cafés were packed with people drinking coffee and gabbing. By lunchtime the restaurants—which had multiplied since my last visit, with the older ones remodeled and the new ones showing off their stylish modern interiors—had filled up too.

Ratko Mladic; drawing by Pancho

I had no idea what to make of this, since Serbia, like most of its Balkan and East European neighbors, is in terrible economic shape, with close to a million unemployed and another million and a half living on small pensions in a country of only six and a half million. Obviously there’s considerable wealth in Serbia, because the country has rich agricultural lands, some industry, and foreign investment. William, the archbishop of Tyre, who traveled to Constantinople in 1179, described the Serbs as being rich in herds and flocks and unusually well supplied with milk, cheese, butter, and meat. This is still true. Nevertheless, I was told that for the first time in modern history there are soup kitchens for the hungry.

The Serbian Orthodox Church also seems to have loads of money to build new churches with contributions it is said to get from local and Russian oligarchs. These are often huge and poorly attended, since Serbs, despite what they may say if challenged, are not very religious. They go to baptisms, weddings, and funerals, but generally stay away on Sundays. As in Bosnia, where money from Saudi Arabia is erecting mosques and even a luxury hotel in Sarajevo where no liquor is served, this effort to encourage greater religiosity among the populace without paying heed to local customs is most likely bound to fail.

About politics, my friends had the same air of exasperation and disgust that our fellow Americans have when talking about our politicians in Washington. The foreign policy of the coalition government of President Boris Tadić has been by and large moderate. Even in the case of Kosovo, he has tried not to inflame the situation further, knowing that had he done so, he would have had the support of the majority of Serbs. Domestically, he has not reformed the corrupt political system and there is danger, as there is in many other places in Europe, that with the worsening economic situation, the voters will start listening to some nationalist demagogue who will do what nationalist demagogues usually do: find a scapegoat for their country’s troubles.

Had I been in Belgrade at the time General Mladić was arrested, I would have witnessed some of the ugly side of Serbia. As was easy to predict, except for the extreme nationalist parties, the ones in power had pretty much decided to hand him over to the court in The Hague. What was unexpected was the amount of support he received from ordinary people, who disgraced themselves by calling him a national hero, and the despicable cowardice of television networks and most newspapers: they not only failed to spell out his crimes but gave time and space to his defenders, who minimized or even denied that he and his forces tortured and massacred their enemies in Bosnia. War criminals are to be found living happily in lots of places in the world, but Serbs take a special pride in mindlessly defending their own, simply because they are Serbs, going so far as to glorify the crimes committed in their name, and in the process making themselves look like a nation of heartless thugs.

This is a familiar defense mechanism of every tribal society that comes into play when a member of the tribe or family is accused of a crime. “He was a good boy,” a mother tells reporters every time a murderer is caught in Brooklyn or Palermo. When that archaic instinct combines with virulent nationalism, you get a type of human being who admires the swagger of the pitiless and despises the powerless and the weak. A chief characteristic of that sort of mind is the inability to see yourself through the eyes of the people you have tormented. Nationalists everywhere are unmoved by the suffering of people they hurt. You’d think Serbs might recall how often in their history they have been victims, and some of them do, of course. Serbia has always had a small, brave, and articulate opposition, and probably countless others who know in their hearts that Serbs are no angels.

Belgrade is probably the most multicultural city in the Balkans. Watching men and women on the street, one sees every ethnic type from the former Yugoslavia. These eternally warring tribes are handsome people. The young men and women are dressed like their counterparts in Sarajevo and New York. They are articulate, tough, and funny, as big-city youths tend to be. Still, two out of three of them, according to a poll I saw in the papers when I was there, want to leave because there will be nothing for them to do when they finish school. They no longer need visas to travel to other parts of Europe, but since neither they nor their parents have enough money, fleeing the country, as thousands of others had done in the past, is no longer a realistic option.

Belgrade is a culinary paradise. Serbian cuisine com- bines Greek, Turkish, Austro- Hungarian, and Mediterranean influences, and a restaurant menu can be far more exciting and satisfying than reading about local politics in newspapers. Like any former native deprived for years of his favorite dishes, I replenished my gastronomic memories while also reminiscing with friends about other meals and people long dead. I have always known that, if not for Hitler and Stalin, my parents would never have left the city where they were born. What they didn’t know, of course, is that they were the early wave of what was to become a huge political and economic migration of Serbs over the next fifty years. Walking in a few of the neighborhoods I know, and seeing a building where my mother once took me to visit someone as a child, I kept recalling names of families and their children who have vanished from Belgrade, giving the city in my eyes the look of a ghost town.

Passing by the house where I was born, I remembered the boxes of toys that our only well-to-do relative stored in the attic of our building after the Communists kicked him out of his villa in 1945. Bought in the best stores in London, Berlin, and Vienna before the war, they stayed in the attic for years to the huge annoyance of my mother and her sister, who kept hoping that the selfish man and his wife would finally come to their senses and distribute the toys among their poorer relatives. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the toys were still there? I thought to myself. Perhaps there is an old man or woman still living in our building who knows their hiding place and pays them a visit from time to time, so they can hold one of the moldy rag dolls in their hands, or a British soldier in khaki uniform and shorts made of clay, and turn the wind-up key in the back of a smiling monkey with large, intelligent eyes. On my way to my hotel, it made me happy to think so.

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