Diary

Sean Maguire

I thought about the dingy high-rises in Grbavica, the last Serb redoubt in Sarajevo, when I went back to Edinburgh and saw the grey wash over the buildings there and, in front of one tenement block, the rusted stumps of metal railings that had once fenced off presentation gardens. I suppose the iron posts were harvested for recycling into tanks during World War Two. Looking at the stunted rose-bushes, I wondered how long it would be before Sarajevo council workmen replaced the metal banisters ripped from the stairwell outside Nina’s flat. Defeated by peace, Sarajevo’s rebel Serbs preferred to scorch the earth of their city rather than leave it for others to enjoy. But even nationalist destruction took second place to mercantile self-interest. Roofs were dismantled, window-frames stripped from walls and plumbing torn out of floors and carted away. Some looted for profit; others hoped they could refabricate homes elsewhere, in the shells of buildings destroyed after their Muslim owners were kicked out in the early days of ethnic cleansing. Alter a property had been thoroughly asset-stripped, it was fire-bombed. Nina had been worried that there would be nothing left to take from her block of flats after the banisters, so she and her neighbours distracted the dismantlers and hid their cutting-gear in the basement. There were seven floors left to shred but the Serbs’ time ran out, which saved the old people, war invalids and cripples who had stayed behind in Grbavica, barricaded into their apartments, from having to try to rescue their building from the arsonists with a few buckets of water.

It’s a sorry mess that remains. The building is surrounded by rubble and rubbish, as if bits of it had been shaved off by a large grater. It was near the front line and Nina told me that a neighbour had been picked off by a Bosnian Government sniper when she unwisely switched on a light to find her way to bed. During the war Grbavica seemed like a concentration camp, she said: there was no way out, the besieging Serbs held the suburb whose inhabitants were themselves besieged. Nina’s misfortune was to be an anomaly in a war fought to categorise people. The widow of a Croat, daughter of Russians, born in Serbia and harbourer of Muslim friends in the conflict’s deadliest days, she was rejected as untrustworthy by those concerned with ethnic purity. Anyway, as a staunch Partisan she held that nationalism was the root of all evil. Tito’s ideology now seems as remote as the morality of a fairy tale, but it is fondly recalled by some.

In her sixties and with her son and grandchildren safely out of the city, Nina survived on chain-smoked throat-stripping cigarettes and plum brandy. She recovered from the bad beating the paramilitaries gave her for helping her friends escape the death squads. The outside world came to her through television. She watched the Muslim Government’s evening news programme and Serb television – competing versions of the lies that sustained the war. You could not average them out; the truth was never halfway between the two, she said. When the shooting stopped and Nina emerged to find her city destroyed, her friends dead or abroad, there was nothing much left for her to believe in.

Her pessimism reminded me of the story of the Sarajevans who bought cattle from Serbs leaving suburbs due to fall under Bosnian Government control. The beasts were fed chalk by the vendors just before the sale. They sickened and died and the meat was spoilt, leaving the new owners a useless carcass and empty pockets. I never met any of the unlucky buyers and the story may be apocryphal but it captures the sourness of the time. The city’s reunification brought no reconciliation. The Serbs who fought to live apart triumphed – their people believed that they had to flee from the Muslim-dominated city – and the Muslims and Croats who were happy to see them go inherited a wasteland.

If Nina wants to go to the city centre she can now cross the reopened bridges and travel along roads which used to be on the front line and are now lined by devastated buildings. She can then visit the Partisan memorial which still stands at a junction on one of the main streets, with an eternal flame that flickered and died in the grim winters when the gas supplies were cut. The flame rises from a badly-built surround that unfortunately resembles a burning tyre – which is how it is described by some foreign visitors who cannot take the symbols or the substance of Bosnian statehood seriously.

There was always diplomatic mileage during the war in laughing at the Bosnian Government’s army as puny, their claim to sovereignty over Serb or Croat occupied lands as ludicrous and their organisation as chaotic. The chortling has never died out. Bosnia was recognised as independent in 1992 but has never been believed in, particularly by Europeans. The Dayton peace deal affirmed the Government’s lordship over all of the geographical area of Bosnia, but nothing since it was signed last December has diminished the rump state’s inability to extend its authority.

Above Sarajevo on a formerly Serb-held hill there is another battered monument to the glories of the Partisan movement and ethnic tolerance. Pictures of Tito were engraved deep into the rocks of the fort built to commemorate the city’s liberation at the end of the Second World War. The images survived the reverberations caused by the artillery position dug in behind nearby bushes, from which potshots were taken at the city laid out invitingly below. But the fort walls, which used to be covered with thousands of little white letters spelling out the names of 60,000 Jewish and Communist victims of the Nazis, did not survive so well. Most of the letters were knocked to the ground by the shock-waves and then trampled by soldiers who used the museum as a command post and ammunition depot. Dozens of alphabets lie strewn in heaps under the walls. The Bosnian fleur de lys flies above, to the irritation of the Serb communities in the valley, but restoring the fort will not be a priority. It will join great buildings like the city’s Habsburg-built, Moorish-style library, destroyed by hostile fire in 1992, and become a magnificent ruin in the manner of Dresden Cathedral. For the moment visitors step gingerly around the grounds, in the hope that they might notice a buried anti-personnel mine before it blows off their foot.

Bosnia’s best hope lay with its young, but many of them are already buried or have fled to lives of exile in suburban squats in European capitals. Abroad, the older refugees dream wistfully of going home. They gather and cook heavy meals of lamb and veal steak and fill crowded rooms with sad songs and cigarette smoke. Few have anywhere to return to. My 57-year-old Bosnian barber, cutting hair in the front room of his London flat, complains he has lost his past. He was chased from his home in the clothes he wore and has no photographs of his children growing up. Nothing remains from forty years of labour. I went back to his former home in Grbavica and found a boarded up and empty ruin. Meanwhile, Sarajevo is awash with refugees competing for housing, food and preferment and the cafés are full of soldiers nursing injuries and grievances. Those who stayed say their city has been overrun by outsiders; the newcomers complain they are unwelcome. Native Sarajevans tell cruel jokes about country cousins who fled the Serb Army’s rampage across eastern Bosnia and now keep their goats in the lifts of apartment buildings. The governing Muslim Party for Democratic Action (SDA) dominates society and opposition politicians claim there are few jobs for those who ignore its orthodoxies, fewer still for ethnic minorities. It’s all part of the war’s grand irony – the Muslims fought for tolerance and against prejudice, but came to realise that it was at the expense of their own survival. With little outside backing they seemed to have no option but to adopt something of the ethnic selfishness of their enemies.

Long-serving Bosnia-watchers find if hard to believe that the conflict is really over, although their doubt may be fuelled by nostalgia for the adrenalin-charged days of the war. American diplomacy will press hard in Belgrade, Zagreb and Sarajevo for stability once Nato troops depart. But you can get even money on the 12-month Alliance presence being no more than an extended R’n’R for local soldiers who will then go back to the Front. The brisk diplomatic line is that Bosnia is being given a year of intensive therapy and should then learn to live in peace without us. But the notion that there could be a ‘clean’ solution is wishful thinking on the part of those reluctant to acknowledge that the Dayton peace deal is not what was hoped – the end of the war and Bosnia’s salvation – but merely an interim stage in the country’s disintegration.

This is why arguments about who triumphed in the war or gained most from the peace rather miss the point. Crucially, the peace deal used the regional power-brokers, Tudjman and Milosevic, as its primary enforcers and left their influence unchecked. To dispute which man was the cannier is silly. Milosevic believes that the half of Bosnia under Serb control will gradually fall under his sway and Tudjman is already the quietly acknowledged overlord in the 20 per cent of Bosnia held by Croats. It takes very little imagination to see the political contours that will emerge in Bosnia: the country will be divided between Croat and Serb spheres of influence, held in an uneasy balance, with an overcrowded central Muslim homeland as a buffer. For peace to hold requires Muslim acquiescence in their given role – a passive posture they are not sure to accept after three years during which they have been radicalised by hardship. But if this division of power in Bosnia ensures calm it is unlikely to be denounced loudly. Milosevic in particular has gone unpunished for his role in fomenting war – an acknowledgment that he and Tudjman are more useful helping to keep the country at peace. Only they can secure the conditions that will allow the gradual disentanglement from Bosnia that the West wants. But conventional wisdom also states that stability will only return to Bosnia through ethnic reintegration. There is no sign of that happening. There are thousands of Nato troops in Bosnia to keep the peace and dismantle the barriers that kept people apart. The strategy of Bosnia’s Serbs and Croats is to tell Nato it will sacrifice tranquillity if it tries to rebuild the links between communities. The Muslim Government thinks that the return of refugees to their homes will be a means to achieve gradual reconquest. Caught in this impasse, Nato is taking the path of least assistance and hoping everyone will stay put.

This is where the high ideals of the Dayton plan run into the sand and the impotence of the Nato armies becomes clear. It is difficult to make people who distrust each other live together. It is impossible if their leaders reject it. Which is why some Nato officers believe that their single greatest contribution to the peace process would be to snatch the Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic from his bed and deliver him trussed to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. They think it would be too tough to grab the other prominent war criminal, General Ratko Mladic, head of the Bosnian Serb Army, who would go down fighting. Karadzic directs the continuing nationalist struggle to secure the war aim of a Serb state torn from Bosnia Seizing him would frighten other recalcitrants into co-operating. But fear of a Serb backlash, a reluctance to take casualties and a desire to keep Bosnia off the front pages make such dramatic action unlikely.

Diplomats hoped that Milosevic would spirit away his former protégé, with his bouffant hair and practised mendacity. Karadzic and Mladic are quarantined in their mountain strongholds in the Bosnian Serb Republic, missing the shopping opportunities of negotiating trips to Geneva but otherwise comfortably feather-bedded. Their survival is an affront to the Muslims and will fuel their well-worn outrage. Will Muslim discontent dissipate when the roads are rebuilt, factories reopened and every refugee is rehoused and watching satellite television? Or will hatred fester until war erupts again in a year, or five years, or ten years?