A quick and dirty tour of Sarajevo
September 2-3, 1996, Sarajevo

On the first day, my friend Peter and I headed out a bit at random. I needed to get a bus ticket for the following evening, and I wanted to find a room with a bath. Beyond that, I figured whatever we saw we would see.

We headed down the main road towards the bus station. Early on we passed a fairly traditional looking mosque, and then the signs of war became more evident as we passed bombed out shells. At the same time, there are questions of scale. As usual, this camera is useless at showing the gorgeous homes going up the hillsides here, but you can see the kiosks that have sprung up, or still exist, in front of these shells. Other buildings are just shells without current redeeming social value.

The Holiday Inn, which I disdain to photograph, is just as ugly as always. Why someone felt that such a putrid yellow belonged on a building is beyond me. Now it is putrid yellow with holes in it and the Holiday Inn is charging $200/night with no one pressuring them to make the building look pretty. It was, after all, on the front line for the siege, and the sight of many dramatic events--perhaps even worth $200/night. On the other hand, almost next door is the ugly shell holes in tacky high riseUN headquarters, which is also still in use. How, I do not understand. We take the opportunity, however, to pose Peter next to a truck for his 'Stralian friends.

We still haven't figured out Serbian, er, Bosnian, for the local foods, so for lunch we just order a couple of items on a local grill, which turn out to be a spicy onions and meat patty, and sausages, and pita and salad, at a kiosk grill by the bus station. I get my ticket out the following night, and we are ready to take the tram back to the "Old Town" where the tourist merchants lie in wait, and where I should be able to find an agency that will book me a room for tonight.

While we are waiting for the tram I look across the street and see some apartment buildings being rebuilt. That something is being rebuilt is a comfort.

Peter related that he had heard that very little commercial property was being rebuilt yet--maybe after the elections. In the meantime, the only rebuilding was what the relief organizations were doing for housing. This led to some very interesting exchanges, as with a couple of friends of his over lunch, Mortimer and Eric, once we got to the Old Town. They worked with a Methodist relief group that, I believe, was based in the former Jewish museum, former Sephardic synagogue. They were a couple of relatively young eager beavers, one British, one American, all impatient with how the natives really couldn't seem to get anything done on their own, it all had to be done for them. Still they seemed competent enough. I tried to defend the locals and suggest that they might be seeing things through different eyes. As usually happens in such cases, they pished and toshed and suggested that I didn't know what I was talking about and backed their statements up with lots of amusing anecdotes that didn't seem to have a whole lot to do with anything, but they were amusing, and it is hard to forget Jovica saying that, before the war, everyone loved to make fun of Bosnians who were credited with being not the brightest--but definitely the most fun. When they weren't the butt of other's jokes, Bosnians could make up even better ones to share with everyone. Of course, since the war, Bosnians haven't been making up many jokes, and people haven't been laughing.

The guys also pointed out that the elections were not only a sham, but you could tell just because the only election posters in frequent sight were those of the SDA, Alija Izetbegovic's party, which had become significantly nationalist and in this case, significantly more Moslem religious since the ill-fated elections right before the Bosnian war. No one was seeing room for compromise, and parties that were calling for multiparty, multiracial society were marginalized financially, and in some cases, physically intimidated. There was one case of a former Izetbegovich supporter, now in a breakaway party that supported multiculturalism, who was hit over the head with an iron bar by an SDA supporter and hospitalized.

Something criminal is happening in Bosnia with these elections. It is absolutely shameful that we pull off this farce of make-believe democracy so that Clinton can pull the troops home and look good for re-election. I have written this over and over and still can't side-step it. To take a snapshop poll of people's fears at a time when they are still traumatized is absolutely a contradiction of democracy. Sure, everyone get's a chance to vote (in theory, relative to vote fraud and the fact that tens of thousands are unable to register or vote in their former districts), but making a snapshop choice out of fear is not the same as what happens when people vote in freedom, somehow having had a chance to consider issues as dispassionately as they can be considered. Of course, what would we know of this in America, where elections are commonly choices between chocolate and vanilla, conducted in competing soundbites (a great way to discuss increasingly complex issues!) and generally reflect the side which put the most money into the campaign.

Selling ideas is important. It is never enough to simply have a "better" vision of how society should work. It is entirely proper to have to package those ideas and to conduct public debate, part of which is a battle for public perception of the issue. But making peace in Bosnia has more important implications for more people, and affects them more deeply, than which brand of sugar water they choose to drink.

I suppose you could say the same is true in the United States, where polls show that voters are willing to try almost every flavor but chocolate or vanilla, or vacillate wildly between chocolate or vanilla, clearly sending a signal that things are not working, and having that signal ignored, I suppose, because it is mightily inconvenient at this point to figure out how to make the American system truly democratic itself--the sort of society where ideas can be credibly debated (and I don't mean Ross Perot tantrums as a reasonable extension of the debate) such that the average person, before voting, might possibly be able to explain what he or she is voting for or why. Hah! But we don't need to reform the American system right now. It would have been enough for me if we had refrained from forcing sham elections on Bosnia and even better, had we avoided the pretence that people voting their fears represent even themselves. If we cared about peace, we would owe Bosnians a commitment to work with them to rebuild, to try war criminals, to create bridges back to each other, and then, when there was a sense that this was a country and remembering that, then and only then, to talk about voting about a future. You can't vote your future if you are afraid to even consider the question. That is what we got on September 14th. A sham and a shame.

Oh, right, so we're on tour in Sarajevo. I apologize. I am just so ashamed of what our government might have done (which did stop the siege of Sarajevo, and might have been more) and what it has become, with all due deliberate cynicism. So, after lunch we walk over to a travel agency where these two uncommonly rude women, speaking poor German, find me a room for a mere DM50 cash. Fortunately for me, I ignore their directions (and later just take a cab a short ride from the Internet cafe when I am ready to crash). Outside the agency we find more IFOR folks, so we take a picture for Peter's folks back home. Later, Peter gets on the truck and captures a hill in the outlying Bosnian countryside, but we have to give it back--but not until we've forced an entire Srpska Boy Scout troop to pay us a fortune for transit visas across our hill back to their homes.

"So," I tell Peter, "as long as we're here, ruins of the main Sarajevo librarylet's go see the library! I have some contacts at the San Francisco Public Library who might be able to work with people here and help rebuild." Peter laughs. Rebuild, of course, is the critical word. There isn't anyone from the library inside, just the hard hats, hard at work in the shell of what was once a centuries-deep repository of history. As such, it was a prime Bosnian Serb target. It was highly inconvenient to have so many ancient books proving the Serb and Croat and Muslim and Jew managed most often to coexist. Himmler would have been proud.

Having said all that, we wander back through the market and back to our home away from home at the Internet Cafe and another night of carousing and drinking. The next morning, though, I am in a bit of a panic. First off, I am feeling guilty that I haven't looked up any Jewish stuff. Second, I want to stop by the Art Academy and see if I can find someone to offer help to--cadge equipment from Adobe, whatever--typography is my field, and it would be nice to have tangible results from this trip. Also, I want to wander the river that goes to Old Town, that was a fantastically lovely walk six years ago. And finally, I am in a panic because I haven't seen any copper merchants. I mean, Sarajevo used to be incredibly famous for its copper--ibriks and plates and souvenirs of every size and shape and all of incredibly good quality. But all I can remember from yesterday is standard tourist stuff. In my mind this is become symbolic of the city's fall from grace: the mysterious disappeance of the coppersmiths from Sarajevo, last seen playing klezmer music with gypies in Iosi, Romania, turning their hammers into tsimbl claws, and their decorative plates into Zildjian cymbals. I mean, that's not a terrible fantasy compared to what's come down in the last few years, but it's kinda scary.

Anyway, I first decided to go to the Jewish community center, but the Ruth Gruber guidebook, which had so far been infallible, was useless. Sometime, in the middle of the siege, half the Sarajevo streetnames had been changed. None of us knew where this street was or what it's new name might be. The phone was always tied up by people trying for hours to get online. I punted. We headed for the Art College, instead.

We cut over a block from the main drag to the river, and, as I remembered, the beautiful, mosque-like building dominating the far bank was the college. (On the near side of the river were the many buildings of the University, including its library, which we had looked at yesterday.) Art College closeupWe walked in and asked around until someone referred us to the dean. On the way to the dean's office we found a group of students sitting on steps waiting for their meeting with him. We asked one of the students what the meeting was about and she first gave us to understand that there were some mumble mumble sounded like the usual students vs. administrative stuff but, by gum, they were going to make the dean come clean on this one. Which, as we know from our own college days (even careers as short as my own) is both possible and worth doing. But then we got to talking and I intimated that perhaps the school might be suffering from the war and all, and the student leader immediately bristled and insisted that their school was as good or better as art colleges anywhere else. The curriculum focused both on art and graphic design. Computers were relatively new, but the students were quite excited about them, although not to the point of abandoning traditional materials. We walked off to find the typography instructor, who turned out to have left for the day. I left a card, and will have to follow up with e-mail. Still, of all places that I visited in Sarajevo, this felt like the most normal, and the most inspiring. It was a good break.

The day continued to get better, but not immediately. Peter and I were ready to walk down the river as I engaged in nostalgia. I don't know if you can catch it in this horrid photo, but the river is a dirty, unkempt mess. Few people walk alongside, there was all of one cafe abutting the river. It is now just a mess to be somewhat shunned, except by workers cleaning it up in a desultory fashion.

One fun part of walking along the river, though, was watching the trams. They were unbelievably crowded. Not only could they have used those Japanese subway folks with brooms to shove people in, but there were passengers riding the outside of the trampeople holding on to the outsides on all available surfaces. It looked like a lot of fun, really, and but for the fact that it would have meant shoving someone else off, I wanted us to finish our walk into Old Town just that way.

We finally got back to the main Old Town way, and there I found this street urchin playing accordionstreet urchin playing accordion. He played quite well, but was apparently just racked with pain. As I expected, when I got back to the Internet Cafe, folks went, "oh, yes, Bob (substitute common Bosnian name here), he's been around forever. Got a good act, doesn't he?" But, one is forbidden to pass street musicians without contributing, and so I did.

We stopped for lunch at a place that Peter favored where you could walk in and choose from a variety of stuffed peppers and onions and squashes and the like for almost nothing, for lunch. There we met a couple of OSCE folks and had more great talk.

A short way into the bazaar, we also found the street of coppersmithsstreet of Ari's missing coppersmiths. But for a shortage of cash and the lack of desirability of carrying anything in my overnight bag for two weeks, I could easily have spent hundreds of dollars in gifts. This is exquisite work, and for its quality, quite inexpensive. This is the sort of stuff for which Sarajevo was known, and should be known. I'll have to come back with cash--which is just another way of saying that I'll have to come back to Sarajevo, regardless.

The one piece of extraordinary good news? When I was in Sarajevo back in 1989, the first thing Jovica did is drag me to a place that sells a kind of cheese borekas (cheese in filo dough) that he swore was the best in the world. At that hour, at the beginning of the day, the shop was crowded like crazy. This afternoon, as we wander by, past the coppersmith's street, I suddenly realize that I am looking at the same shop. Yup. I go inside and check, andit's the same place. Had we not just had lunch, this would be lunch. The counterwoman is very adamant about not being photographed, though, so the only picture is this plain one of the outside of the shop.

[back] to Land of the endless fish girl
[on] to Passing through Srpska, like hemorrhoids
[on] to Sarajevo, continued
[on] to Sarajevo, at the Internet Cafe
[on to beyond Sarajevo: Semper in transit

Europe '96 | Ivritype | My WELL pages

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