Sarajevo Diary

Sean Maguire

In the summer of 1946 Nikola Blazevic was in a partisan prison in Mostar awaiting his date with the hangman. Blazevic had been a railway superintendent. His position of local power, as well as the remoteness of his home on the edge of the village of Slipici in south-western Herzegovina, had made him the ideal man for a local Serb to ask to shelter his family. The Serb’s wife and children remained with Blazevic until the end of the war when the Serb returned from the hills with the Partisans. The Serb then denounced Blazevic, a Croat, as a collaborator with the Ustashe.

In this village of 175 families the local management committee had four members – the heads of the only three resident Serbian families and one Croat. The Partisans may have carried the idea of local self-management down from the mountains with the ideological fervour of Marxists, but here power was still yoked to ethnicity. Ironically, a Jew saved Nikola Blazevic’s life. As railway superintendent, Blazevic had used his prior notice of plans for the rounding-up of local Jews to forewarn them. One so notified became the high-ranking Communist commissar who had Blazevic’s sentence cancelled.

In the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia Communism never did more than overlay the centrifugal forces of national feeling. It deep-froze them like a Siberian mammoth, ready for an awful resurrection. With hindsight the idealistic paraphernalia of Yugoslavism seems ludicrous. Yet it had been so heavily invested in diplomatically that when the Federation began to fall apart the response of Western governments was to offer quick-drying cement. Sarajevo’s shell and sniper fire is a rebuke to their caution: a reminder of the fact that unsolved histories don’t go away.

Mladen Ancic lives in the Vojnicko Polje suburb of Sarajevo, an unmoving settlement of scattered high-rises. It’s a front-line suburb, and Ancic and his neighbours dart from corridor to stairwell, like spies, to avoid injury. Their front door is chained shut to prevent the suicidal from presenting themselves to machine-gunners as prey. They climb through small windows into basement living-quarters where pale children who haven’t run down the street in months sit drawing pictures of Bosnian Army soldiers.

Ancic is a historian. He was very proud of his small book-crammed study and apologised for the fact that we had to clamber through the rubble of his mortar-wrecked apartment to get to it. As we stood in the dust, he tried to explain the conflict in terms of Slobodan Milosevic’s opportunistic development from Communist apparatchik to national socialist. Our conversation was hurried by the threat of incoming fire, so the intricacies of an enthusiastic argument were lost. The theme, however, was simple. The Serbian lust for great leaders had experienced the rule of Tito, the Croat, as a happy mutation of their dynastic traditions: under Milosevic, Serbia is once again ready to retreat into the past alter the confused interregnum of the post-Tito rotating presidency.

The cliché about the Balkans is that they produce more history than they can consume. In Sarajevo, parents unload their weapons and give them to their children to play with. In the suburb of Skenderja Mr Dzizo, an art-gallery owner, has given over his viewing space to an exhibition of used munitions – spent bullets, exploded grenades and the tailfins of rockets. Each piece is labelled with data as to its type and calibre and where it fell. Above the recently acquired ordnance hang summery watercolours left over from previous times During the night Mr Dzizo, a soldier in the Bosnian territorial defence, collects more exhibits.

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[*] Radius, 288 pp., £17 99. 14 May, 0 09 174619 1.