Greetings from Sarajevo.
A quick summary. The interesting stuff comes further down.
Arrived in Sarajevo this afternoon and was immediately welcomed by the Bosnians here. One student I met hadn’t even asked me my name when he was convincing the university lunch ladies to fix me up with something to eat – half an hour after the canteen had closed. The soup was very good. Thanks Daniel.
For those that don’t know, I’m here interviewing survivors of the Yugoslav wars who moved out and then back in, asking them about the process of reconciliation with their formerly “enemy” neighbours and how difficult restarting a normal life is when you’re living next to people who, a year ago, probably wanted to kill you.
“The last person who interviewed me went away crying. Why do you want to interview me?”
That’s how a war veteran from the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina opened conversation with me. For the record, the journalist crying was a woman from Der Spiegel, so hardly a rookie.
Between that and the 3 coffees I’d had in quick succession (its the social drink as anywhere else in the world, but about three time stronger), I was a little jittery. He was imposing, leanly built with a rough beard and long, unkept hair, all pitch black with a streak of grey. His face rough and tanned, he smoked throughout the interview, only occasionally looking me in the eye. I convinced him to talk, and his story was amazing, even more so when I switched the camera off again.
“I call other war veterans, Serbs and Croats. We chat and have coffee.”
Mernin fought in Sarajevo throughout the war, was here for the entirety of the siege and fired against both Croats and Serbs. Now, he says, through his studies in the Scripture and teachings of his God, he has realised he needs to reconcile himself with the people he fought.
Despite tensions, he sits down, and makes others sit down, opposite of the former enemy, to talk about the other point of view. Personal stories to personalise the conflict, to make people see the other point of view. He drives up to the Repubblica Srpska sometimes, calls his one-time adversaries and they talk of the past, face it, digest it, understand it.
He says he has discussion groups with both young people and veterans in trying to build peace. “I try to build peace at all times, everywhere I go, even as I’m walking down the street”
And then I turned the camera off.
“What happens if the war starts again, as you’re sitting in a room with these opposition veterans?”
“I’d immediately pick up a weapon.”
This is what’s worrying, according to my translator Dejan. That despite all the good will and rebuilding, there is always an undercurrent of violence, and of jumping to arms before the other person does. “Thats why there’s a war here every 50 years. Welcome to the Balkans.”
My translator is called Dejan, and has also been extremely helpful with setting up contacts and interview. If I hit the ground running in Sarajevo, this guy has made me run even faster. I could be done with my interviews in two days time.
More tomorrow. Sarajevo is beautiful and I hope to have some pictures next time.