Thursday, 18 February 2010

Tunnel Vision.

This morning we caught a cab to a small garage on the northern side of the airport runway - which for three years hid the only tunnel in or out of Sarajevo. Food, arms, casualties and occasional dignitaries were smuggled through this cramped space. Every day hundreds of people crouched their way along the 700 metres of dark and damp claustrophobia, each trying to carry as much as possible to prolong the time before they next had to make the dangerous trek. The opening at either end originally led into a maze of trenches designed to give the weary travellers a chance to escape the snipers in the hills and get their precious cargo home.

Now only thirty metres of the tunnel exists, but it's enough to understand how tough it must have been to ferry enough supplies for the 300,000 people trapped in the city. As you'd expect use of this survival passage was strictly regulated, with travel only allowed in one direction at a time. Given these conditions it's amazing that this tiny space managed to ferry over a million people in and out of the siege. At just a metre wide it was the slimmest gateway to a better future.

In the afternoon I had a meeting with Ines Kadic, a young curator at the Bosnian Institute. She took me round the art collection and we talked a little about image, literature and symbolism. (she's doing a PhD on Metaphor.) As with many of the young people we've met, bright intelligence was married with a sad resignation about the future. Tired, I tried to challenge it.

'Wherever I go I hear that the war will begin again,' I suggested 'and then I see these wonderful paintings and I wonder why so few Bosnians seem to believe in the creativity needed to prevent it? This pessimism is scaring me a little'

'...but you can't stop history repeating,' Ines replied 'the story is already unfolding.'

'Of course, but whilst it's being written, you can change it. You can write an alternative. You need vision, leadership, you need art - but I can't accept that all is already lost. Can't you think that time will pass and peace will hold? Isn't this institute an investment in the belief that Bosnia will grow in confidence and begin to consolidate its right to exist? And that life will be easier?'

'Maybe, but shall we say Bosnia is in a deep depression. Maybe even trauma. How can we look forward - just practicing a routine existence is hard enough. You talk of creativity, but this is not possible in depression. For now it is too aggressive an act to contemplate.'

'I think I understand. My parents lived through the second world war and you could say they are partly defined by the experiences they had and the lessons it taught them. In turn I carry some commitment to prevent the repeat and I hope that if I became a father I would pass this on to my children. All the time the immediate memory fades, but knowledge of the horror does not. The balance is what matters.'

We finished the tour. As I prepared to leave Ines produced another thought.

'Why tell your children?' she asked. 'They can't empathise with what your parents experienced. Why terrorise them with your fear? Better to let them live and make up their own minds.'

'Now I'm scared of your optimism,' I said and headed off towards dinner at a restaurant on Marsala Tita avenue, where the eternal flame pays homage to those who liberated the city in 1945.

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