Wednesday, 17 February 2010

What country, friends, is this?

This morning it was Nefa's turn to open up. Over breakfast she began to tell us her version of Bosnia's story. It was a lyric and moving account.

'Originally we were Illyrians and had our kingdom - but we were curious and as others arrived we welcomed them and learnt from them. So now what can we do? The waves of history keep hitting us and we are just the still point. Time, culture and men rush through the Balkans and we receive them all. Too big to be a lake; too small to be absorbed into the ground. We began at our destiny and have lost ground ever since. Now we learnt not to invite, not to trust and all our stories are about defence, they are not about the future. We can't do that. Perhaps we don't care? Perhaps it's honest to say that. But isn't honesty a form of madness?'

Passion is everywhere in Sarajevo but Nefa's romantic pride comes at huge personal cost. Originally she is from Zvornik in the East, but after the Serbs ethnically cleansed the region she, still a child, was sent to a concentration camp before escaping to Zagreb. Now back in Bosnia she unsurprisingly has little time for - 'those who murdered my family' - and has no desire to return to her home town now firmly within the Republic Srebska.

'We are a tolerant people,' she says 'did you see how we preserved the cultures of even those who were attacking us. We have never looked for revenge.'

We set off to the Zemaljski Muzej (National Museum) to see the 14th century Sarajevo Haggadah. A book brought to the city by the Jews who arrived in 1492. It's stunning and amazingly, for the time, portrays the world as being round. A Muslim scholar hid it during the Holocaust and it was taken from the library only days before that was destroyed in the shelling. In itself it's a wonderful symbol for a country that seems to value the academic and the plural over nationalism or partisanship. I get the sense that this open honesty is Bosnia's great strength, but may also be it's fatal weakness.

This afternoon we caught a bus across the Dayton drawn border into the Republic and the mountain town of Pale - which was the military centre for the Bosnian Serbs during the war. Both Military Commander Mladic and the Bosnian Serb president Karadzic were based here at times. It's a place to make you shudder - just twelve kilometres from Sarajevo there is no memory of the siege, only a memorial crucifix dedicated to the soldiers who lost their lives trying to capture the city. The Serb story is that they were fighting to keep Yugoslavia together, to stop Bosnia ceding. Beyond this is a crazy belief that the attempted destruction of the Bosniak people was just the final liberation of the Balkans from the tyranny of Ottoman influence. It's dark age logic - in such contrast to the illuminations we'd spent the morning with. We walked around for twenty minutes in stunned silence and caught the first bus back out. It's a journey I don't need to make again.

No comments: