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Stumbling through past conflicts in non-tourist Sarajevo


After two weeks of staying in various Airbnb rooms in the heart of Sarajevo’s historic Old Town, I’m forced to move to the outskirts of the city for a few nights as Sarajevo deals with an inundation of guests, mostly bussed in from Croatia, for the New Year’s Eve celebrations. It’s Saturday 30th of December.

Under the weight of my backpacks, I jump on the tram at Baščaršija and ride for about half an hour, through the unmelted snow of the previous day’s fall, to the neighbourhood of Otoka, an old-school concrete jungle of Communist high rises, 18 storeys high, built at the start of the 70s to accommodate a rapidly expanding city.

I jump off the tram. The place looks and feels tough, the atmosphere surly and boisterous, completely different to the areas of the city where you might find tourists. The tram line runs down the middle of a wide, miles-long boulevard. Behind the tram station is a bridge lined with old, poor people, mostly gypsies, selling whatever they have laid out on the ground in front of them: Socks, slippers, onions and little bags of lavender. They pay me no attention as I ask for directions. I wander off none the wiser.

After 10 minutes I find the street I’m looking for, but it takes another 10 to find the block as the numbers are not in any sensible order. A plaque on the side of my building informs me that “In this spot on the 9th of December 1993, Serbian criminals killed three citizens of Sarajevo.” The plaque isn’t rare, you come across them at every turn in the city, but it is somehow more poignant when you know bloody death came to the building you’re about to call home, in the form of a mortar round fired in from the surrounding hills. You close your eyes for a second and picture the scene. You hear the screams. You smell the flesh. You can’t help it.

I get to the main door and realise I don’t know my host’s name, meaning I don’t know which of the 60 or so buzzers to press, nor do I have internet data to WhatsApp him. He knows to expect me around 11 so I decide to wait in the door until he gets curious and comes looking. From nowhere, the sound of a distinctly Balkan flavoured brass band fills the air, starting quiet and getting louder, until a small orchestra of gypsy men pass by, in full musical flow, before disappearing round a corner. I have entered a Kusturica film. Nobody bats an eyelid.

After a few minutes a tall man who may be in his late 50s or maybe his 60s, wearing a dirty green trench coat approaches. He has a prison pussy beard and looks like Colonel Kurt Von Strohm from 80s sitcom ‘Allo ‘Allo. He greets me in heavily accented English. His voice is deep and booming. He is Mišo, my host. We enter and take the lift up to his 6th floor flat.

His breath smells of a combination of cigarettes, stale brandy and sick. As he talks in the tiny lift, I hold my breath. The flat is basic but comfortable. He is the first person in Bosnia to not make me take my shoes off on entering. He lives in the front room, there is a shared kitchen at the back, and then in the other half of the small flat, behind a shower curtain installed for privacy, are the two guest bedrooms and a shared bathroom. One room is mine, the other, he tells me, is occupied by a Bosnian girl who lives in Switzerland and has rented the room for New Year but is never actually in. “Kris, I have to ask you to not walk around with no clothes on,” he tells me deadpan, “I have told her the same.” “OK.”

My room is comfortable, consisting of a single bed, a little table, a wardrobe with hangers, and a bookcase. Above the bed is a painting of a girl in nightwear sat at a bedside table, looking seductively at a bottle of perfume. Or absinthe. There is just one book on the bookcase: The Quest for Radovan Karadžić. I have a balcony. I stand on it and look at the building in front, a mirror image of the one I’m in.

Mišo knocks on my door to invite me to the living room to drink what he calls “homemade brandy.”

Bosnia/Herzegovina, flats

“Rakija?” I ask.

“Ah, you know rakija. Good.”

He offers me a choice between the apple, plum and grape varieties. I tell him in his language that I’ll take the jabukovača, the apple one. Surprised, he asks how I know the word. Without switching back to English I tell him that I speak a bit of the language and that I’m in Bosnia taking an intensive course to improve my level. He asks me where. I tell him it’s a language school. He pauses for a moment before asking in a tone that reeks of arrogance, “And just what language do they say they teach?”

 

His question confirms what I have felt since the moment I shook Mišo’s hand: That he is a Serb; and one who can’t wait to tell me that Bosnian isn’t a language.

“They call it BCS,” I tell him, “Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian.”

He snorts, wags his finger and says “Ha! Well that’s not too bad. But I should tell you, I am a Serb and there is no such language as Bosnian. You know that? It is Serbo-Croatian language. Or Serbian.”

“I know it’s all one and the same, but I don’t get involved in the naming of it. If I’m speaking to a Bosniak I’ll call it Bosnian. I’ll call it Croatian for a Croat and I’ll call it Serbian for a Serb like you. And if you wanna call it Serbo-Croatian I’ll do that too. I’ll let you natives fight over that one yourselves.”

I mean what I say. I don’t give a shit what you want to call it; I just want to speak it without pissing anyone off. It’s not my war, man.

He pours the drinks and sits down next to me, offering me a non-branded bootleg cigarette from a little polythene bag. I quit smoking over a year ago but I take one. As I light it, I discover it’s not only Bosnian as a language that Mišo refuses to recognise.

“You know, the term Bosniak, it’s controversial. I’m not happy with this word. You know, you know, we are Serbs, Croats are Croats, fine, but Bosniaks, huh, you know,” he pauses to curve his mouth down at the ends, raise his eyebrows and shrug his shoulders. “You know? Well I don’t want to talk about that. But it’s a controversy.”

If you don’t want to talk about it, why did you bring it up? That’s a question not worth asking.

On the wall is a black and white picture of his parents when they were young. I ask him if he’s always lived in Sarajevo. He has, apart from during the war when he went to Montenegro. On his return he worked in some capacity with the UN peacekeeping forces, something to do with real estate, I’m not sure what, and he tells me that’s how he learned English. I wonder privately what it is like to be a Serb living in a building with that plaque on the wall outside. I’ve spent a lot of time listening to Sarajevans’ war memories over the years I’ve been visiting the city, but I’m yet to hear a Bosnian Serb point of view. I decide to prod. I start gentle. I ask if there are many Serbs living in the neighbourhood.

“Not any more. Before the war this area was majority Serb. But many were forced to leave.”

I then ask directly how relations are now between the communities in the neighbourhood, “Is it like before the war, that people aren’t interested in what religion their neighbour is, or…”

Mišo doesn’t appreciate my line of questioning. He interrupts me.

“You know, I get very angry when people still want to talk about or even think about the war. It is the past; it is history. Why would I want to think about it now?”

His voice is deep and his posture aggressive, but it is a natural aggression and nothing exceptional brought on by the topic. Serb men, particularly Bosnian Serb men, just tend to protrude an alpha-male demeanour. That’s not a criticism, it’s an observation. I spent three years living in the ex-Yugoslavia. I know Serbs well. Some of my best friends are Serbian. It is what it is. The rakija burns the throat as it goes down. The bootleg cigarette dries the tongue. Mišo continues, “When I think about the war, it makes me sick in the stomach. People should just move on. Forget about it. Stop remembering the past and look to the future. Bosnians are always looking at the war, that is their problem, they can’t move forward. Why still care? Why still remember?”

A part of me feels for him; it can’t be easy. But that part is small. It’s ridiculous that he thinks people should forget, but he is far from alone in this mindset. Playing down, glossing over or flat out denying the actions of the Bosnian Serb army during the war is more or less official policy in the Republika Srpska part of the country.

Tell the relatives of the 100,000 people killed in the conflict, 80 per cent of whom were Bosniaks, to forget the past. Almost 14,000 were killed in the siege of Sarajevo alone; the pop-up cemeteries testament to the fact. There’s not a family in the city that wasn’t affected.

I tell him I’m not trying to wind him up; I’m simply curious to understand.

I’m going to push him more on the subject when the time is right, but right now it’s not. I ask him what he does in life. He tells me he’s a poet.

“Do you make money from writing?”

“No.”

Who does?

He tells me with bitterness puncturing his voice that he’s been unemployed since 2002 and no one will give him a job because he’s never been a member of any political party. He becomes animated, “It’s bullshit! Bullshit! All fucking bullshit!” before calming himself and saying that he manages to make ends meet by tutoring maths and chess.

I ask him how rakija’s made. He tells me that sometime in the next few days he will take me to his cousin’s house in Eastern Sarajevo so that I can see the process for myself. I ask him if he knows where I can wash some clothes. He leads me to the kitchen, points at a washing machine and tells me I can use it, before adding “But it will cost you, of course.” He doesn’t say how much. Then he goes out, leaving me to return to my bedroom to charge my phone and watch the boulevard from the balcony. I pick up the book on Karadžić. Inside the front cover is an inscription, it reads “To the great chess master, Mišo. Best wishes, Marko.” A strange choice of gift.

Later that evening I come back to the flat to find that my key won’t open the door and nobody’s home to let me in. I go to the little greasy spoon caff next door, order a burger and text Mišo to let him know I’m locked out. He turns up after 20 minutes and apologises profusely; he gave me the wrong key. “I’ll pay for your dinner.” “You don’t have to.” He disappears to the flat and returns five minutes later with the correct key, apologises again, orders himself a plate of kebab meat with bread on the side and sits down opposite me. We eat dinner together and then he stands up and pays for the two of us, before leaving me to stay and watch the match showing on the little TV screen above the counter.

I don’t have much interaction with Mišo over the next couple of days. He spends New Year’s Eve sleeping on a neighbour’s sofa so that he can rent out his own room to a couple from Croatia. I spend the evening in my room studying grammar.

Late on New Year’s morning the Croats have left and Mišo has returned from his neighbour’s. He knocks on my door and hands me my washed t-shirts and underwear in a bag. I ask him how much I owe him. He asks how much I think is fair. I say “Six marks,” which is three Euros.
He says “Come on,” and does the same thing with his mouth and eyebrows that he did when giving me his feelings on the term ‘Bosniak.’

I say “Seven?”

He says “Come on,” and does it again.

“Ten?”

“Yes, I think ten is fair.”

Five Euros to wash a small handful of t-shirts and underwear, less than a week’s worth, is pretty expensive by Bosnian standards, but hey, the guy could use the cash and I need clean clothes. I hand him the money and he says “Happy new year! Come to the living room for a rakija.”

I join him on the sofa, he pours us each a glass of the clear and potent liquid, hands me a cigarette and then says, “You know, you have some very funny jokes in English. Like when you say ‘She’s not bad, but in my bed.’”

He laughs heartily at his words. I say “What?”

“Yea you know, the English joke, ‘she’s not bad, but in my bed.’”

Again he laughs raucously. I look at him blankly and say “What?”

“You know, she’s not bad, like she’s not bad looking, but…. in my bed.”

Same laugh again.

“Oh yea, that old classic. That’s funny,” I say, and fake a laugh. What the fuck is that?

He then says “Another funny one is Don’t happy, be worry.”

He nearly pisses himself laughing. It’s the same joke he told me a couple of days ago but he doesn’t seem to remember. As far as he’s concerned, it’s the funniest joke in the world. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not even a joke. It doesn’t make any sense on any level.
Finally he gives me “What do you call a deer – you know, the animal, a deer – what do you call a deer with no legs and no arms?”

“I don’t know.”

Surely he’s not going to say what I think he’s going to say. Surely not.

He says it.

“A no eye-deer!”

He’s bent over laughing. I don’t tell him. I don’t have the heart.

Later in the evening I return to the flat after a good meal and half a bottle of Bosnian wine, feeling good about life in general, and allow Mišo to persuade me to go with him the following morning at 9 to visit his cousin who makes the rakija. It will be my first visit to the part of Sarajevo that sits in Republika Srpska territory. I pack my bags, as tonight is my last at Mišo’s. Tomorrow I’m returning to the city centre.

The morning sky is grey and the air is wet with drizzle as we get into Mišo’s car at 9.30 and set off for Eastern Sarajevo. It’s just a ten-minute drive to the invisible line that separates the country’s two entities. There’s no sign welcoming you to the other side, nothing official to let you know you’ve crossed into a different territory. Mišo tells me that in all other parts of Bosnia there are big signs along the border, but they decided to keep it low key in Sarajevo. All advertisements, road signs and even graffiti have switched from the Latin alphabet to Cyrillic, though.

We climb the hill and begin to enter a built up residential area, full of newish blocks of flats, orange-coloured, ugly. Serbian flags hang from windows and balconies. A piece of graffiti on the right mocks the siege of Sarajevo, “Pazi Snajper” « Beware sniper » – the warning that was painted all along sniper alley during the war – with a large smiley face next to it. We pass the East Sarajevo Bus Station, which receives and dispatches coaches for Serbia, Montenegro and other parts of Republika Srpska. I arrived here once a few years ago from Belgrade; I remember now.

A bit further to the east we are met by a large mural on the side of a residential building, dedicated to Gavrilo Princip, the young Bosnian Serb who in 1914 shot and killed the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, triggering the First World War. It also shows support for the local football team that represents Sarajevo’s Serbs, Slavija.

Most Serbs see Princip as a hero, while to most Bosniaks and Croats he was nothing more than a terrorist. School books in the region reflect this.

We drive a bit more until we hit a little residential area of cul-de-sac streets, lined with identikit semi-detached houses, none of which seem finished. Mišo tells me the whole neighbourhood was built from scratch at the end of the war, 20 years ago, to host Serbs who didn’t want to live in the Federation.

We roll up to Mišo’s cousin’s house just before 10 and tap on the front door. A voice shouts for us to go round the back, which we do. Nikola is 50 years old and barrel-chested; made of bulky muscle. His hair is short, his face freshly shaved and friendly. He looks younger than his years. His handshake is tight. He takes me into the garage which houses his distillery and explains in Serbian the process of turning fruit into rakija – he claims not to be able to speak English – before inviting us into his home for a drink.

Entering through the sliding back door, we are immediately in the open-plan kitchen/living room combo. A furnace burns in the middle. I’m led to the sofas at the back of the room, and told to sit down in front of the large screen TV and glass table. A couple of shelves on the wall are filled with basketball trophies. “My son’s,” Nikola tells me proudly. On the wall above my head is a little shrine to an Orthodox saint. The Orthodox cross can be found in numerous places around the living room, as can old black and white pictures of important Orthodox cathedrals. Identity in the Balkans is everything. The TV is set to a music channel that plays turbo folk exclusively. I’m offered a choice of rakija, white wine or red wine, all of which are made in the garage. It’s too early in the morning to be starting on the rakija so I opt for red wine. Nikola pours a huge glass and hands it to me. He and Mišo decide rakija’s the path they wish to take.

“Sit back, make yourself at home,” Nikola instructs me. As I do just that, Mišo leans in close to me and says “Now I want to ask you about the war. Tell me, for you, the war in Bosnia was a purely civil war or it was a war with an aggressor?”

I’m momentarily knocked off guard by the question. Both men are staring at me, waiting for an answer. I’m being subjected to an interrogation. I drink from my glass before replying.

“There was aggression.”

It’s not what they want to hear. It’s probably not what they expect to hear either. After all I’m an outsider, in Republika Srpska, inside the home of a Bosnian Serb, drinking the man’s wine, I’m supposed to toe-the-line. But I can’t do it.

“So who was the aggressor?” Mišo asks, angrily.

“Listen, I’m not going to lie to you, I see the Bosnian Serbs but also Serbia as the aggressors.”

I put my glass to my lips and think about what I’m doing. Do I want to be going down this road? The atmosphere is tense. I didn’t need to make it so; I could still fix it by just telling them what they want to hear. But I just can’t do it. As I have already mentioned, I have nothing against Serbs. It’s bullshit I have a problem with. I have to call it out for what it is. Both men are still staring at me. Nikola decides to give his argument.

“How can you say it was a war of aggression when I am from Bosnia, I am Bosnian, this is my land as much as it is any Muslim’s, I am not from outside, I’m not from Serbia, yea I’m a Serb but I am from here, my family goes back generations and generations and generations of Bosnians from this land. It was a civil war.”

I say “OK” and let Mišo take over from his cousin.

“The Serbs were the victims in the war. In our ancestral village all Serb men and boys were massacred by the Muslims. Nikola was 25 at the time and was there. He only survived because he managed to escape through the mountains over a couple of nights and reach Serbian territory. On the way he touched a landmine and was lucky not to lose his whole leg. He was injured badly.”

Nikola pulls up a trouser leg and shows me the scar. I ask who laid the mines.

“They were Serb mines,” he admits, his voice showing appreciation for the irony.

Mišo shouts that this whole suburb, Eastern New Sarajevo, was built after the war to house displaced Serb refugees. “So tell me how it was a war of aggression! It was Bosnians against Bosnians. Everybody who fought in that war was from here and was fighting for their land. There was no outside hand.”

“That’s not entirely true,” I reply. “When the war started, it was waged by the Yugoslav National Army, in Serbia’s interests, ordered by Slobodan Milošević. The Bosnian Serbs were supported by the Government of Serbia and the Yugoslav National Army. They had all the weapons, all the hardware and all the manpower. It wasn’t a fair fight.”

“So what should we have done?” Nikola asks, laughing, “Destroy our weapons? Or maybe share them with the enemy? We should have said ‘Hold on, this is not fair, we have more weapons than them, we don’t want to fight until it’s even?’ You know, that’s not how war works.”

He laughs again.

“You asked me a question. I gave you an answer.”

“And what about the Croats? You think Croatia didn’t support the Bosnian Croats in their war against the Muslims in the west?”

“No I don’t think that. It is recorded fact that both the Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats were supported by the governments of Serbia and Croatia respectively. It’s also irrelevant to the original question.”

It’s getting tense. Nikola says “OK, no more talking about the war. How do you like the wine?”

“It’s lovely.”

I am poured another glass. I ask about the saint plastered all over the wall. It’s Saint John, Nikola’s family’s patron saint. How does that work? Every Orthodox family has a saint, and when a woman marries she takes on the husband’s saint and gives up her own. If she divorces, she gives up the husband’s saint and returns to her father’s. Nikola then tells me about the time he spent working abroad, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Djibouti, Kenya. He’s been all over, contracted to the US military, building installations for them. He’s looking forward to them calling him again and sending him away, because it pays well and gives him something to do. He asks my opinion on Brexit. I tell him I’m not happy about it. he says he thinks it’s a good thing for Britain because they’ll have a better idea of and control over who’s coming into the country. He illustrates his view with a story from his time in Iraq. His best friend on the compound was an Iraqi guy. He tells me the Americans had to employ local Iraqis so that there would be less attacks on the base. He also says the Americans had to pay the local insurgents like a million dollars not to attack them. Anyway, the one day the Iraqis weren’t on the base, there was a suicide bombing that killed some Americans. The bomber was his Iraqi best mate. “You see, you can never tell who’s good and who’s bad until it’s too late,” he tells me. Right, OK.

Nikola and Mišo take the time to explain to me their plan for turning the upstairs of the building into a guesthouse for tourists. They want me to write the Airbnb listing for them, make it appealing. Nikola tells me he’s got a small minibus that, for a fee, he could take guests on excursions in, up into the mountains. As I listen, I’m fed cured ham, salami and smoked cheese, all produced by Nikola and his neighbours. The ham is more tender than anything I’ve eaten before in Spain, the country that prides itself on its ham more than anything else. With the meat I eat bread, also made at home by Nikola’s hand. I’m taken out into the garden and shown the vegetable patch inside the greenhouse, with the ingenious irrigation system that catches rain water and runs it through pipes under the ground before spreading it evenly over the vegetables. The guy is totally self-sufficient. I’m told to write about it in the listing, to let people know that they’d only be eating and drinking home produce.

Every time my glass gets close to being empty, Nikola fills it.

I write the listing for them, but I am sure tourists won’t come. People visit Sarajevo to walk around Baščaršija, the Turkish quarter. They come to enjoy the café culture and to see the spots that shaped European 20th Century history, such as where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. They come to see Ottoman architecture. Tourists don’t come to Eastern Sarajevo. It’s too far from everything, for a start, and isn’t well connected. It’s also not the most welcoming place in the world. Plus the fact that there’s nothing to see apart from houses and blocks of flats, all built within the last 20 years. Still, I wish Nikola all the luck in the world in his pursuit of tourists. He’s a good host and a good guy.

The three of us continue drinking through the morning. After a while, Nikola’s two teenage sons emerge from their bedrooms. The younger of the two, aged 18, was on track to become a pro basketball player for local team Bosna, before he started, according to his dad, “fucking around as teenage boys do and not taking the training seriously.” He’s now dropped down the pecking order. He’s at least 7 feet tall. The older boy, aged 19, is shorter and more of a footballer. When Nikola separated from his wife, both his sons opted to live with their dad.

Eventually it’s time to leave, but not before Mišo talks me into buying a bottle of wine from Nikola for 10 Euros. It’s still late morning but it feels much later, on account of all the drinking. I’m tipsy. No I’m not tipsy, I’m pissed. I’ve drunk a whole bottle of wine, to myself, before breakfast. Mišo’s not tipsy; he’s wasted. He’s been knocking back rakija without pause all morning. I follow as he sways towards his car, and we both get in. He starts the engine. I tell myself fuck it, if we die we die.

He starts driving and as we move through the streets he slurs stories that have no beginning and no end. We stop at the Princip mural so I can take a photo. Close to the mural, I discover a monument dedicated to the man; a miniature amphitheatre, in the middle of all these ugly blocks of flats, along with a statue bearing little resemblance to Princip but bearing his name all the same.

I return to the car to find Mišo stood, dick in hand, pissing in the middle of a patch of grass. I ask “Was Princip a hero?”

“Yea he’s a hero. Of course he’s a hero. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was only here to take our money and to colonise. So yes, he is a hero.”

He then says he wants to say hello to some friends before we leave.

I follow him to an inconspicuous glass door at the foot of a block of flats.

The door enters into a tiny bar – standing room only other than for a little table by the door, around which are sat a woman and three men, all chain smoking, drinking, talking and laughing.

The woman stands, greets us and moves to behind the bar. She’s about 45 years old and wearing a light blue hoodie. Her face is that working-class blend of motherly and tough. She seems reluctant in her acceptance of Mišo grabbing her and kissing her three times on the cheeks to wish her a happy new year. The three men at the table alternate between paying us no attention and eyeing us suspiciously, as if we’ve intruded on a secret meeting. It is safe to assume this place doesn’t see many foreigners. Mišo decides to introduce me. They show the bare minimum level of courtesy required for such a situation, nodding their heads slightly to acknowledge my existence. The woman pours us each a large glass of red wine. Basically a pint. It has been watered down and tastes like it’s been sat in an open bottle for weeks.

I’ve gone from drinking the most delicious wine I’ve ever tasted, to the worst tasting, in the space of 15 minutes. I pay for the two of us, it comes to about 4 Euros. The woman rejoins the little table, leaving the pair of us stood quietly at the bar to down our awful wine. The atmosphere is uncomfortable. I get the feeling the regulars don’t like having an outsider in the place.

Mišo keeps trying to join in the conversation they’re having, but they blank him completely. It’s awkward to watch, as Mišo’s just been telling me these are his old friends. They seem like the complete opposite. Either they don’t like him, or they don’t like that he’s brought me along. Or both. It feels like both. I start to feel pity for Mišo. He’s no longer the brash alpha but the unpopular kid at school that nobody wants to play with.

Mišo tells me that the guy sat next to the landlady drives the bus from East Sarajevo to Belgrade and back. I look at him in his bus company uniform, boyish face and expression, skinny chest on top of a round beer belly, like a little boy sat on a barrel, slurring his words and swaying from side to side, smoking a cigarette out of the side of his mouth. He’s pissed.

“Is he driving today?” I ask, jokingly.

“Yes, later this afternoon,” comes the serious reply. “When you are next in Sarajevo, if you need to go to Belgrade, this is the guy to call. I’m sure he will give you a special price, and his bus company is the most reliable,” he continues.

Mišo calls over to the bus driver, asking him how long the journey is and telling him that he’s just been recommended to me for the future. The bus driver looks up with contempt, annoyed to have been bothered, then goes back to his conversation without saying a word in response.

In case you’re wondering, the journey takes about seven hours.

The landlady is in love with the bus driver. She can’t stop touching his hair, his face, his knee, and pulling him close for mock drunken hugs.

The love appears to be unrequited.

Mišo catches me taking a candid photo of the group and takes it upon himself to call over and ask them if they’d mind the Englishman taking their picture. They don’t look thrilled about it, but begrudgingly accept. I feel like an idiot. I didn’t want a photo of them posing, I only wanted the candid shot. But what can I do now? The landlady throws her arm around the bus driver and tries to pull him close. I take their picture and we leave.

Now more visibly drunk, we walk to the car. It’s still only midday. The weather is still miserable. We start driving towards the Federation, as Mišo tells me what good people I have just met.

“They seemed a little put out by our presence,” I suggest.

“No, not at all. They are good people, nice people, they have no problem with anyone, but they are Serbs, this is how it is in Republika Srpska. People here don’t do the fake niceness of the Muslims in the city centre. They mind their own business. But they are good, friendly people.”

After a few minutes, Mišo pulls the car over and tells me he’s going to buy cigarettes. Do I want to come? Now I’ll wait here. He wanders up the road and into a bar. Three minutes later he steps out of the bar and starts waving for me to join him. He wants me to meet another of his friends is code for he wants another drink. The bar is only slightly larger than the one we just left. Sat at this place’s table are three hard-looking older men, dressed in hoodies, talking amongst themselves in deep voices.

Stood at the bar is the friend Mišo was talking about. He says in Serbian “You are an Englishman? Really? In Eastern Sarajevo? Eastern Sarajevo…” then pauses to laugh for a few seconds before finishing, “You are the first. Your people never come to see us.” He laughs again.

I tell him I’m curious to see every side of Bosnia; every side of Sarajevo. Mišo orders two glasses of wine from the silent barman, and also three packets of homemade cigarettes, 20 in each little polythene pack. He pays for the cigarettes and then turns to me holding the bill for the wines and says “Oh my god, 10 marks, it’s so much. I don’t have money.”

“Don’t worry, I’ve got it.”

Mišo’s friend tells me his trade is air conditioning installation but that he hasn’t had work for a long time. He then points through the window to the football stadium opposite and tells me it is the home of Slavija Sarajevo, the team for the Serbs. “The Muslims have their teams in the city. And we Serbs have our team here. The greatest in Bosnia.”

 

Slavija has an interesting history. Founded in 1908 when Sarajevo was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the club embodied the movement for a unified land of all Southern Slavs – a Yugoslavia – and was comprised of players from both the Croat and Serb communities. The Croats left to form their own club at the end of 1913, though, and Slavija became a club for the Serbs, and had links to the Young Bosnia movement of which Gavrilo Princip was a part. Members of the club were arrested following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914, and the club’s stadium was ransacked and burnt down by a mob of Croats and Muslims angry at the assassination. The club was inactive for the duration of the First World War but came back in 1919 and played in the Yugoslav (Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes) league until WW2, when in 1940 it again became inactive. After the war, Tito’s authorities disbanded the club without giving any reason. They stayed out of existence until 1993 when, as Yugoslavia was violently falling apart, the club was reborn to give Sarajevo’s Serbs a team they could identify with.

I stand quietly and finish my wine while the two men drunkenly talk politics. I’m tired.

We say goodbye and stagger to the car. The 20-minute drive back to the Federation will be the last minutes I spend with Mišo. I know he is drunk enough to talk candidly. Now is the time to ask him about his experience of the war. I ask what he can tell me.

he points to the field on our left, next to the football stadium “was the barracks of the Army of Republika Srpska. I remember the tanks parked here like it was yesterday. And all the soldiers. All the people. This is where the Serbs of Sarajevo came to escape the city. And here was the frontline,” he points just ahead.

“Did you come here?”

“I spent the first three months of the war inside the city. Then I paid some people to get me across the line to the Serb side. Then I lived for a few months right here, right next to the Slavija stadium, until I was able to pay some more people to get me to Montenegro where I stayed until after the war. I came back in 1997.”

“How did it all feel to you?”

“You know I told you, it makes me feel sick in the stomach to talk about the war.”

“Yea I know, I understand that, but I’m just trying to understand. How did it feel?”

“OK, if you really want to know. The war was fucking shit. I still can’t believe what happened to my city, OK?”

“How was it to return to Sarajevo after the war? How did people react to you?”

“Half of the people were happy. Half were not. Half said ‘Thank you for coming back. You are one of us. We are all Sarajevans.’ The other half said ‘What the fuck? You run back and forth freely between the two sides. You got out and went on a holiday for years; left us here to suffer and die. You want the best of both worlds. What the fuck is this shit?’ But you know what, I’m too old and too tough and I don’t give a shit what people say.”

There is pain in his eyes and in his voice as he speaks.

“Did you know war was coming to Sarajevo? When Yugoslavia first started to fall apart, when fighting started in Croatia, did you have any idea then that it would spread to Bosnia?”

“None at all. When trouble broke out in Croatia, we thought it was going to be a ten maybe 15-day problem. We never imagined it would turn into a war, and even less that it would spread to here.”

“You really had no idea?”

“Really. You know, my uncle was high up in the Yugoslav military and he called me some months before war broke out and told me to get out of Sarajevo because the shit was going to hit the fan. But I told him ‘What are you talking about? I don’t believe you. This is my town, this is Sarajevo, nothing bad will happen here.’ And he said No seriously, you have to leave, shit is going to go down. And I said No, it can’t be. And then it happened. We were living in a war. I couldn’t believe it then and I still can’t believe it now.”

“So the Yugoslav Army knew months in advance that war was going to come to Sarajevo?”

We finish the drive in silence and part with a handshake. I go my way, he goes his.

 

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