Saturday, July 03, 2010

Journalist Peter Lippman Bosnia Journal #6

Bosnia Journal #6
June 28, 2010
Roses and Walnuts

Not everything is death and mourning in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Life goes on and recovery takes place in some manner. Here and there strands of the old spirit re-weave. Memories, not only of the dark times, resurface. The residue of nurturing traditions lingers; creativity happens. What kind of healthy community will arise once the wounds heal is hard for many people to imagine, because that time seems so far off. But the seeds of that recovery are there in the young people, handed down from some force in time that is more powerful even than war.


Back in Tuzla a few weeks ago: I stayed an extra day to go to a concert by Damir Imamovic, a modern exponent of the traditional Bosnian urban folk song, “sevdalinka.” If you don’t know about sevdalinka, you should, and if you know about sevdalinka, make sure you know about Damir Imamovic.

Sevdalinka is a soulful body of song that goes back into the centuries. Its rich lyrics conjure up the Ottoman-era aesthetic of stone courtyards and water fountains, rose gardens, cushioned sitting rooms, and unrequited love.

Sevdalinka was the dominant urban folk music until about a generation ago, when modern Western pop music started to edge it out. After the war someone here asked me what kind of music I liked, and then laughed when I mentioned Himzo Polovina. But the folks over 40 or 50 still know the songs, and somehow, they are still in the blood of the younger people.

Unfortunately, the lip-synched television performances of this kind of music contribute to its decline, as they tend to be spiritless repetitions of the old form. Then comes Damir Imamovic, the grandson of one of the greatest post-World War II sevdalinka singers, Zaim Imamovic. Damir, somewhere between 30 and 40, did not start performing until after the war. When I first heard him a few years ago in Mostar, I was carried away by his sense of nuance and the power of his expression. The old feeling is there.

Some people are not fond of Damir Imamovic because he has introduced modern elements into his interpretation. In Tuzla he sometimes scatted or sang in falsetto, or wandered off into musical fantasies all but detached from the tradition.

But the tradition is still with Damir. If anyone thinks that “tradition” refers to something that does not change, I suggest thinking about a flowing river. It’s different water but the same river. If the river stops flowing, it stagnates.

For my taste, Damir Imamovic saved the tradition by bringing it up to date. The hall at Tuzla was full, and there were plenty of younger people. Probably at least two-thirds of the songs Damir sang came the old-fashioned way, but there was something for everyone. And for people who are not interested Damir’s modern fantasies, I still say that his command of the subtleties of ornamentation and his excellent vocal quality make him a voice worth studying.

What Damir Imamovic has done with sevdalinka reminds me of what some klezmer bands, notably the Klezmatics, did with East European Jewish music in the 1980s. After young people had rediscovered the nearly moribund old form, a few bands led the way and brought it into the modern realm of “world music.” That is why klezmer now has a million listeners around the world.

For more about Sevdalinka, see


My friend Sanja told me that when you see a black rose about to bloom, you must sing to it, or play some music, or else that rose will not open.


While still in Tuzla I took the opportunity to visit Sadeta Osmanovic in nearby Lukavac. She is the mother of some friends of mine in Seattle and possibly the only woman saz player in Bosnia. The saz, brought to Bosnia by the Ottomans, is still played in Lukavac and a few other parts of the country, especially some of the smaller towns. I used to go hear a saz player from Lukavac named Suljo when I lived in Tuzla in the late 1990s. Suljo would come to Tuzla and play in a hotel every Thursday night. Some Thursdays I was the only one there.

I went to meet Sadeta, who greeted me with typical Bosnian hospitality. After coffee she took a saz down from the wall and sang me a few songs. She happened to have two sazes, so I played along with her for a while. I had never touched a Bosnian saz before; compared to a Turkish instrument, a Bosnian saz is something like a Jeep next to a Corvette. But it is just right for the local music.


I went to Gorazde to visit my friend Vahid Kanlic and catch up on the news. I had met Vahid, a social worker, in 1999 when he was leader of the refugee return movement in the region of southeast Bosnia. During the war Gorazde had been separated from its suburb, Kopaci, a mainly Bosniak-populated area with an industrial zone. Kopaci found itself on the other side of the inter-entity borderline (IEBL) between the Federation and the Republika Srpska (RS). As people told me in that time, “I can see my house but I can’t go live there.”

Obstruction of return to the Serb-controlled side of the line was fierce. After nearly four years of waiting, the displaced people of Kopaci, as a way of pressuring the international community to help, set up a tent encampment in the snow by the IEBL. I went and visited that camp in November ‘99, on the very day that the disruption of the international WTO conference in my home town of Seattle was making worldwide news.

I’ll skip most of the story of that return campaign, but you can read it here: Return happened; when I came back to Gorazde a few years ago, Vahid and his family and neighbors were lounging in sun in the yards of their rebuilt homes in Kopaci. Vahid said to me, “Now our only problem is love.”

Vahid greeted me at the bus station and took me to his apartment in town, where I met his wife, Zaima. I was hungry and they fed me a monstrously huge lunch. We then went to Kopaci, where Vahid showed me his greenhouses and his fields of strawberries, broccoli, cucumber, tomatoes, wheat, and apple trees of hybrid and local variety. This is what Vahid does in his “spare time,”

We took a walk down through the fields to a path alongside a lake. While we were walking, Vahid pointed out the walnut trees. He told me that it is bad luck to sleep under a walnut tree, because one can get a sickness from them. If you sleep under a walnut tree, he said, the vapors from the tree will enter your head and body, and the discomfort from those vapors will take a long time to pass. The trees offer pleasant shade in the hot summer, he said, but they deceive people with their shade.

As we walked I asked Vahid about the life of the returnees to Kopaci, and whether any of the old industries have been revived. He told me that the local authorities had broken up what was left of those industries and that there was no economic development in the town. People are living from pensions and agriculture. Kopaci has reverted to a village.

While Vahid was watering his gardens I sat with Zaima, who told me how there were seventeen airplane attacks on Kopaci during the war, and that now when she hears an airplane, she is still frightened. She mentioned the names of people who were killed in the nearby houses during the war. One bomb threw up a huge tree from across the road and tossed it all the way over to her yard. There were other stories about the war, along with interjections, “What can you do?”, and “Biće bolje” (“Things will get better”). She said, “Those are ugly memories. I don’t like to talk much about them, but I’m telling you…”

Zaima also told me, “We were close-knit during the war. Whenever anyone had a little something extra, they would share it. Then as soon as the war stopped, people stopped sharing; now we’re not so close anymore.”

The town of Gorazde is looking better than it used to. The old department store that was so trashed -- it had suffered several direct hits from missiles -- has a bright new façade. Bit by bit things are being fixed up, although -- as in so many other parts of the country -- this does not represent much solid economic improvement.

The most prominent change is a rather large mosque right in the center of town on the river, dominating that part of the city landscape. I noted to Vahid that the mosque was built in an Ottoman style, rather than in that austere Middle Eastern style that has been transplanted to some parts of Sarajevo and even Tuzla. Vahid commented in a non-committal way, “Yes, but it changes the look of the town.”


From Gorazde I took the bus to Foca. As I walked into town from the bus station, I couldn’t help but notice many posters with Vojislav Seselj’s photo. The posters were advertising a book that was recently published by the accused war criminal. Some of those posters were taped on the front of the numerous empty storefronts, contributing to the bedraggled look of the town.

I checked into the only hotel, “Zelengora,” which cost thirty dollars and it looked like the carpets had not been changed since Tito died. I went to meet with my friend “Marko,” whom I had met a few years ago. He was a journalist before the war, and last time I came to Foca he showed me around very helpfully, introducing me to all kinds of people -- from elderly Bosniak returnees to other ordinary townsfolk to extreme Serb nationalists.

“The atmosphere is a little better in Foca now, less nationalist, than it was a few years ago,” Marko said. “People are tired of that; they have had enough of that extremism.”

I believe Marko, but the atmosphere is not very good. Foca looks like a place that has been left behind. Perhaps a few facades have been repaired, but this out-of-the-way town still looks like it did when I first came there a few years ago. Other places that were very sad-looking, like Gorazde and Srebrenica, have at least gotten a coat of paint and some new stores.

There is something different about Foca. It was closed to return for a long time, and even boycotted by the international community for a few years. In recent years there has been a new mayor who is more liberal and even “pro-Bosnian” (as opposed to Republika Srpska prime minister Dodik, who thinks Bosnia can go hang). Zdravko Krsmanovic has a fairly good reputation, but Foca is for all practical purposes a mono-ethnic town where people are isolated from the current of events in the world and even in Bosnia.

Krsmanovic is a politician who has made people’s ears perk up in recent months, during the build-up to the October national elections, because he offers a message of tolerance that is rare in the RS. Foreign officials especially like him. But Marko told me that Krsmanovic been criticized locally because he “waffles” in his loyalties. Local hardliners have accused him of “working for the Americans.” He also seems to have done well for himself, says Marko; he owns several buildings around town.

Marko expressed to me some opinions that were a combination of his own and the mainstream of the town, although I think Marko is more open than the average person in Foca. He told me that people there say, “There was enough of that bratstvo i jedinstvo (brotherhood and unity, the unifying anti-nationalist catch-phrase of Tito’s Yugoslavia); don’t try and force us to live together again.”

About the war, Marko says, “Someone wanted to break up Yugoslavia, to take our industries, and to have our workers as a cheap labor force. The war started because people were afraid of being outvoted by the Muslims. There is still fear of that.”

On the other hand, traffic and commercial exchange between Foca and nearby Gorazde have opened up. Marko says, “I go to the car mechanic in Gorazde. He is Bosniak. He says that the fact that I would come there from Foca says something about his skill and my trust.”

Marko says, “Who got anything out of this war? Maybe about 0.002% of the people came out better. For example, there was a Bosniak, a doctor who had built the hospital here in Foca. He was expelled along with everyone else. How did he bother anyone? Now there is a displaced Serb in his apartment, someone from a village, who throws his garbage out through the window. And in Sarajevo they are saying, ‘Bring back our good Serb neighbors.’”

Marko told me that he misses the old feeling of Foca, when the place felt like a city. I doubt that feeling will come back soon. The city had a Bosniak majority and one of the most beautiful ancient mosques in the country. The Alaga mosque still lies ruined and it doesn’t seem that there is any point in rebuilding it, since there is no longer a Bosniak community in Foca to use it.

Foca, nestled in the dark green hills, is situated in a lovely mountainous region. Although it is just a small place, Foca is even older than Sarajevo. Like many small and middle-sized towns of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Foca had its own deep-seated urban culture that developed in the course of its long history. The war ruined that; now Foca more resembles an overgrown village where forgetfulness reigns.


I have written earlier about grassroots activism in various parts of Bosnia. In Sarajevo I met briefly with a member of “Dosta,” the grassroots movement that has been active in various parts of Bosnia over the last six or eight years. As I have moved around the country I have been asking various activists for their evaluation of this group that I have valued highly. I received a whole range of answers: that they are “true radicals;” that they are “no longer radical;” that they “have no program;” and other variations. My impression after my visit with one member of Dosta is that the group is not in a dynamic phase, and that overall, local activism on the very grassroots level (with some exceptions), is in a slump.

Apropos of this, in Gorazde I had a long and stimulating talk with Slavko Klisura, a journalist who works there. First we talked about the economy of Gorazde, and Slavko told me that there are a few relatively successful companies in Gorazde, and thanks to those companies this Canton is the only one in the Federation that exports more than it imports. But in spite of that, the social situation is quite bad. People lack work. Before the war there were around 13,000 jobs in industry, and now there are only about 3,000.

Slavko said, “It is hard for the Canton to exist economically without significant assistance from Sarajevo. Each year the Canton receives about eight million KM from Sarajevo. This is a grant from the Federation, but it is affected by politics. That is, if one party is in power in Sarajevo, and a different party here, then there is a problem.”

A huge part of the dysfunction of Bosnia-Herzegovina comes down to what some people refer to as the “structural problem,” that is, the unnatural division of the country into entities, which resulted in the dissolution of regional markets and the disruption of transportation. Slavko gave the example of someone who died of a stroke because of the complication of having to travel to a distant hospital within the same entity, rather than being able to go to the nearest hospital, which was across the entity line.

Gorazde, part of the Federation, sits between Visegrad and Foca, both part of the RS. Slavko said, “We should form economic regions; before the war Gorazde was the center of this region. Now there is an absurd division of markets. The biggest problem is that in these closed areas, who will invest? As a result of local stagnation, all the potential intellectual and economic power ends up going to Sarajevo. And there, the young people who are not students spend their time in the kafanas, and the students are “shminkers” (roughly, unserious people).

I asked if there could be a change forthcoming as a result of youth activism. Slavko, in his mid-fifties, said, “It will be difficult. There is no one who will fight. People do not have revolution in their blood. In Serbia there will be change coming from the intellectuals and the youth, but that is not happening here.”

I asked about Dosta, and was told that they are “tied up with the SDP,” the entrenched opposition party that has pretty conclusively shown itself to be unprepared to lead the country to change.

I described my experience in talking to activists in several different organizations in Tuzla, where each stated that their organization was independent of all political parties, but asserted that the other was actually the “youth wing” of one party or another. In response to this, Slavko burst out impatiently, “There is no movement! You can’t lead a revolution from the offices.”

And on the topic of NGOs, Slavko said, “They should be the carriers of change. But there is nothing worse than ‘projects’ in Bosnia -- we live from one project to the next.”

NGO activists get grants from governments and from international NGOs for what they call “projects.” It is how they exist and how they get things done. “Zene to Mogu” (Women Can Do It) in Banja Luka is an example of an NGO that does good work, and then there are examples of NGOs -- and political parties -- that just exist to finance someone’s own private projects.

A friend of Slavko’s who was present gave an example of that kind of practice: “In the Balkans, people see that an election is coming up, and they form a political party. They get signatures, register, and get donations. Then they remodel their apartment, maybe take a vacation to Greece. Then the elections happen, and they disband the party, and that’s the end of it.”

We can see that there are all kinds of NGOs, and I would not agree with the implication that all NGO activists should disband their organizations and take to the streets. Probably they should try to do their work and revolt -- in this country, people need to be in the streets, and the grassroots movement is just not measuring up.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Aladža Džamija was one of the finest examples of 16th century Ottoman architecture, and if only for that reason it can't be just left to oblivion, and also to show the Serbs that their genocidal nightmarish crusade project has FAILED. It is true- houses of worship are symbols. But this symbol is older than any Orthodox church they could build there. It has more legitimacy.
So the Serbs do not want any “bratstvo i jedinstvo, to live together with Bosniaks”, and they committed genocide, mass murder, terror, rape, robbery and destruction against the Bosniaks because of fear of being outvoted? Then let them move to Serbia and never come back. Bosnia is not Serbia and Serb ultranationalists have no place in Bosnia, and should have no rights there. Foca was never a Serb city and ist should not remain Serb. If the Serbs made it Serb through violence and military means it is only logical and rightful that the Bosniaks get it back the same. But better would be if they would let it “wither on the vine”. Indeed, the whole of Serb-conquered Podrinje should be let to wither on the vine. Even the roads should be torn up and electric power should be cut off and people forced to light themselves with candles and travel on oxcarts, like in the 17th century. Until they finally let go of it. I feel nothing but contempt for all the serbofascists who thought out, planned, and executed the monstrous genocidal anti-Bosniak crusade and they all, down to the last man, and everybody who defensds or justifies the genocidal anti-Bosniak crusade should be made to suffer in exactly the same way they made the Bosniaks suffer. They have been allowed to get away with murder and worse things and it is high time they were made to pay for it, with interest, and any Serb who does not sincerely and believably distance himself from the genocidal anti-Bosniak crusades of 1941-45 and 1992-95 (many Bosniaks who had survived the first one were murdered in the second one) must pay likewise, in any case lose their Bosnian citizenship and the right to live there. And their property should be taken from them and be given to the victims. They should be made to go to Serbia only with the clothes on their backs - summer clothes, in winter, that is. And to SWIM across the Drina! And all that Serbs have done between 1992-195, and that obviously a majority of Serbs in Serbia, Bosnia and abroad still backs and justifies those crimes makes me want to stay away as far as possible from these people. I don't want to visit their contry, nor the part of Bosnia they still hold under occupation, I don't want any friendship or any contact with Serbs and I am forbidding my daughter to marry one!
(Friend of Bosnia and Bosniaks)