Sunday, May 26, 2013

"Sarajevo Daily" by Tom Gjelten [9]

Chapter 7: Winter
The opening sentence of this chapter is something of a shock:

"I returned to Sarajevo in January 1993 after a six-month absence and was astonished at how wretched a place it had become."

All of the earlier scenes of struggle and survival, the reader is reminded, were from the earliest months of the war. At that point, Sarajevo had yet to experience the deprivations of winter. In this chapter, we see how the grinding, relentless struggle to survive in a city under siege was wearing people down, and eroding the sense of community in the process. Society wasn't fracturing on ethnic lines, but rather atomizing into a collection of  families and households, each able to do little more than look after their own.

The cold, the darkness, the lack of adequate food, the constant work involved merely in acquiring water, the loneliness, the isolation...the nobility and spirit of Sarajevo was being reduced to grim day to day scramble for firewood, rations, shelter from sniper and mortar fire, favorable relations with the inconsistent UN officials who were the only conduit to the outside world.

Ivo and Gordana's son lost his only friend, an older neighbor boy who shared his love of hard rock, when that neighbor--serving as a soldier in the army--was killed. On average, Oslobodjenje gave over a quarter of each issue to obituaries, which now served not only ceremonial purpose but also informational, as people around the city often had no other way to learn of the fate of family members, coworkers, and acquaintances around the city.

The Cyrus-Vance plan legitimized the ethnic division of the country, scoring a victory for Bosnian Serb propaganda and triggering the Muslim-Croat civil war of 1993. The war in Bosnia took a step closer to being a self-fulfilling prophecy, the three-way war between "nations" that Karadzic and company always claimed it to be.

Gordana was able to travel to New York City for a few days to receive an award. The guilt at her temporary escape coexisted with the sense that if she allowed herself to get used to the comforts of life in a city not at war, her return to Sarajevo would be unbearable. And indeed, when she returns, she finds that the cold was worse than anyone expected; her bathroom shelves are gone, having been used as firewood.

It is only January.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

"Sarajevo Daily" by Tom Gjelten [8]

[Sorry it's been such a long break--almost two full months--between posts. I couldn't give much free time to anything but graduate school.]

Chapter 6: Fighting Together, Falling Apart
Sarajevo was a cosmopolitan, multicultural city that was a bridge between different worlds--the East and the West; the capitalist world and the communist; Christianity and Islam; Orthodoxy and Catholicism. The population was mixed, and during the Yugoslav period the city had a very high percentage of mixed marriages between Serbs, Croats, and Muslims. The demographics of the city were very mixed. Therefore, the fact of Sarajevo presented a challenge to the Serb nationalists which was both pragmatic and existential. They wanted to divide this thoroughly mixed Sarajevo on ethnic lines for military reasons; they needed to divide the people of Sarajevo against each other in order to validate their own ideology.

Therefore, the siege of Sarajevo had a dimension beyond the military, because the Bosnian Serb Army wasn't merely trying to conquer the city but to destroy its social fabric. And as the war dragged on, the bonds which connected people across ethnic lines were tested frequently. Many thousands of Serbs stayed loyal to Bosnia and suffered along with their fellow Bosnians--and one absolutely cannot assume that a decision by all Serbs was a sign of support for the nationalist cause. Many, Ljiljana Smajlovic, had complex feelings about their Serb identity but did not join the nationalist cause. And human nature being what it is, many simply took advantage of the opportunity to escape. And some, it must be said, probably left because life as a Serb in besieged Sarajevo was not easy.

It was not easy for anyone, of course. But for Serbs who stayed, it was hard to escape suspicion, as some of their fellow Serbs had indeed betrayed friends, family, and neighbors to join the forces tormenting their own hometown. Senka Kurtovic wrote a piece for Oslobodjenje, an open letter to her ex-boyfriend turned Serb nationalist Dragan Aloric, which touched a nerve because so many in Sarajevo had felt the same betrayal. At the same time, in the early days of the war the militias which defended the city never shed their origins in the criminal underworld, and it was much easier to justify preying on "suspicious" Serbs when the inclination to loot and otherwise "acquire" goods took hold.

Many resisted the temptation to give in to sectarian fear and hostility. But as the siege dragged on, old loyalties continued to wither in the face of paranoia and suspicion fueled by nationalist propaganda and accentuated by every sniper's bullet, every mortar shell.