(Susan in Sarajevo, Part 2)
It is hard to believe that I have been here for 5 weeks already, the time has flown by super quickly. Several of you have sent me emails wondering if I am still alive and if so, how long I will stick around here. So here are some answers and comments on life here in the capital of Bosnian techno. (Believe me, the war destroyed the musical talent of this country, the techno leaves a lot to be desired.)
A. Yes, I am still very, very alive. So far, I have avoided the landmines pretty well. The recommendation to just ask the locals where it is safe to walk is not the best. I found that out on Sunday after telling someone where I had gone for a picnic with a Bosnian family and the Bosnian I was speaking to informed me that we had gone to an area which has not been demined yet. When I asked the family if it was ok to walk around, they said yes. I think I will pay the Mine Action Center (MAC) a visit very soon and get a detailed map.
B. I DO NOT KNOW HOW LONG I WILL BE HERE. This is probably the most commonly asked question and I can not answer it as I am still looking for a job and only have leads for temporary positions. So we will see… My best bet as of now is to work for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in November as an international election monitor or advisor for Bosnian national elections. Apparently there is a lot of election fraud, so I can see myself getting extremely frustrated. But hey, that comes with the territory. My passion is to work on an economic development project and I hope to find something in this arena. Some positive cash flow would be very welcome to refill my coffer of Deutsche Marks (the Bosnian convertible mark is linked to the Deutsche Mark).
One of the elements of coming to Bosnia which scared me the most was revealing my identity. When I mentioned this to people before coming here, I was told that as long as I said that I was American I would be fine. Yeah right! That’s fine if I am speaking in English, but I prefer to communicate in Bosnian and when I open my mouth and utter my Tarzanic prose in Bosnian, I ain’t no gringa, that Russian accent is so strong that there is no way to hide my Slavic roots. (Even Paula laughs when she hears me speak in Bosnian, because she can hear my accent.) But to my surprise, I have felt absolutely no ejection for being Russian at all. (As the Russian helped the Serbs, who were the main perpetrators in this last war, I had reason to fear being chastized for being Russian.) However, even when I have spoken to Muslim refugees from Srebrenice and other places where the Serbs committed genocide (or ethnic cleansing, as they prefer to call it), there was no animosity at all.
Versace in the ruins
I thought that the bombed out buildings would have shocked me, but the most shocking thing that I have seen so far has been the Versace store. Who would have thought that in a country just ravaged by a gruesome war, a country which does not produce anything but Bosnians and a country where there is basically no positive economic activity that a Versace store could afford to sell its wares in the heart of the city. I don’t know of anybody in the states who shops at Versace, though the purchasing power in the US is exponentially higher than that of the average Bosnian. My naïveté about war profiteers and corrupt government workers did not prepare me for that shock. The United Colors of Benetton shop here opened in 1994, during the war. Yes, that’s right. Let’s just say, some people really made a lot of money during the war and could afford meat at 100 Deutsche marks a kilo ($25 a pound) when most people were living on humanitarian donations of flour, beans and rice.Perhaps after traveling so much in the developing world, bombed out buildings do not faze me as much as I would have expected. When I went to the Croatian medieval resort town of Dubrovnik, it was so natural for me to be surrounded by beauty. Returning to my new home, Sarajevo, and seeing the reality of the war was also natural for me, almost a seamless journey from first world comfort to a destroyed city. When I went to visit those refugees from Srebrenice and Jefa and I saw the miserable life they have in the abandoned Serb homes outside of Sarajevo, I thought, well it could be worse. The favelas (shanty towns) in Brazil and the other impoverished residential areas I have seen in Latin America are much, much worse. However, these refugees used to live in their own homes and are more or less educated, so they are aware of the misery they live in. Many peasants and laborers in other parts of the world never had the opportunity to have their own homes or learn how to read or write, so their realization of their own misery may not be as high as that of these refugees.
I think that more than the landmines, my main fear is of Bosnian drivers. They are kamikazes at the core and blaze down my one way street at night with no mercy for those of us walking in darkness. (there are very few streetlights on my street.) If Slobodan Milosovic of Yugoslavia wants to avenge the US for the NATO bombings last year, all he has to do is export the population of Yugoslavian drivers to the US to wreak havoc on US highways.
Though my tone may be sarcastic, actually I am just seeing so many things and it is hard to absorb all the information and try to explain it to someone who is not here. Maybe, after a while my wordsmith skills will aid me in relaying more about life here. For the moment, I am enjoying myself and especially the view on the terrace above my cottage. Amazing! I just melt into my chair and look at the beautiful (yet untouchable) mountains and gaze into the horizon while listening to the call to prayer from the mosques’ muezzins. My attraction to the former Ottoman Empire and old Byzantium is no secret and I revel in the beauty of the mosques.
Below, I have copied an email Paula sent out over a month ago about the war. Please read it when you have time. It is not something to skim.
Sorry if my emails are sporadic and short.
If your trajectory carries you this way in the Balkans, please let me know, I have a couch where you can stay.