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new internationalist
issue 243 - May 1993

Love and death in Sarajevo
We’ve been waiting a long time for the right article to publish on the war in the
former Yugoslavia. The pattern of events there has been changing week by week, while we
plan our magazines months in advance. But we felt this vivid account of everyday life,
love and sorrow in Bosnia by the Filipino journalist Criselda Yabes justified publication in full,
so we have changed our usual format to accommodate it.

Marija held my arm reassuringly. ‘And now,’ she said holding her breath, ‘the adventure begins. Are you ready?’

I had no other choice.

We were leaving the damaged newspaper building in Sarajevo where she works. There was no other way to get out except to cross a deserted railway line exposed to sniper fire.

Marija was still holding my arm. Her friend Senad was our front guard, armed only with an umbrella. We dashed across the tracks, took a safer route behind an abandoned warehouse for dilapidated trucks, then crawled into the bushes beside a river. That over, we faced the final obstacle – climbing over a fence; if done quickly it meant we had less of a chance of being shot.

For a split second I was so immobilized by fear that Marija and Senad had to pull me off the ground. But we made it to safety. Marija gave me a hug of relief and we broke into nervous laughter. ‘I think we need a vacation in Los Angeles,’ Senad said jokingly, ‘where the sun shines and there are people everywhere.’

Almost every day since the civil war came to Sarajevo ten months ago Marija and Senad have taken the same route to and from work. They’ve naturally developed the mental strength to ward off fear – the bravery of fatalism.

Marija, a reporter, and Senad, a photographer with the underground newspaper Oslobondenje – which means ‘liberation’ – have taken upon themselves the dangerous work of covering a complicated war.

That sunny day Marija was wearing a flak jacket for the first time. A year ago before she became a war reporter Marija had a glamorous job working for a women’s magazine. She hadn’t lost any of her sophistication. Her lips were painted red, her hair nicely trimmed. She wore a fake diamond stud in her left ear, a dangling earring in her right and a bright blue jacket over her bullet-proof vest.

Everywhere I went in the former Yugoslavia the images of women like Marija belied the ugliness of war. It was as if keeping themselves beautiful with cosmetics and stylish clothes were a psychological defiance of misery. ‘We have to do this even if war is going on,’ she told me. ‘We can’t just stay in the basement. Life has to go on.’

Marija left me at the guard post of the UN military base that was once a post office. She reminded me about the letter she had written hastily over lunch. It was a love letter I was to deliver to a man named Amer in Pristina, where I would be going the following week. I promised her it would get to him. We embraced each other and said goodbye.

As I walked into the UN base a man with whom I spent most of my three days in Sarajevo waved at me. Nebosja ‘Neso’ Marijanovic beamed an avuncular smile and pulled me close to him. ‘How’s my favourite?’ he said, as if I had just come home from the neighbourhood playground.

Neso is a Serb. Anyone who thinks Serbs are monsters would not think it of him.

Neso is as much a victim as any Muslim or Croat of the civil strife in Bosnia-Hercegovina. His wife is a Croat; he had to send her and their son to a refugee camp in the Croatian city of Split.

For hours he talked to me about his life ‘before all this’. Those who tell their stories steer away from the tragic narratives that are the stuff of journalism. He sticks to the past: ‘I was an economics major working for a computer company’. And to the present: ‘I’m now a driver for UNICEF’. He takes the emotional leap to avoid what happened in between – to his own people. Pointing to the urchins lurking outside the fence of the UN base he said: ‘They used to be bright boys who went to school every day. Now they’re beggars.’

Neso showed me what has happened to Sarajevo. In a white Land Rover he drove me through the streets of what had been one of Yugoslavia’s most charming cities. The park had lost its habitués; the presidential office stood as helpless as its people; the cemetery was overcrowded. Near the cemetery is the stadium, now a storage space for humanitarian relief goods, once the pride of Sarajevo during the 1984 Winter Olympics.

Neso counts himself lucky. Working for a UN agency at the heavily guarded military headquarters of the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) accords him the privilege of electricity, water and heating – the basic necessities of which many Bosnians are deprived. He has access to armoured personnel carriers (APCs) – the only mode of transport, aptly called ‘taxis’ – and to the daily flights of about 15 UN cargo planes known as ‘Maybe Airlines’, which may or may not give you a lift out of Sarajevo once they’ve unloaded crates of humanitarian food.

‘This is California,’ said Neso, gesturing to a four-story building with a basement. ‘Outside is Cambodia.’

I was given a room in the ‘California’ basement with French nurses. It is the safest place to be. The daily grind of military planning to help humanitarian relief operations takes place upstairs. That’s where I ran into the captain.

On our first encounter he took me to the rooftop, from where we could see the deadly ‘fireworks’ at a distance and hear the sound of artillery amid the darkness of the city. ‘The Serbs fire 5,000 artillery shells every day,’ he told me. ‘People are still living in that apartment building,‘ he added, pointing to the one closest to the firing. ‘They sleep at night but they don’t know if they will wake up the next day.’

Inside the captain’s office another UN officer appeared to join us in conversation. He carried a thick file of papers and dropped them on the floor. They were records of Serb prisoners in Muslim hideouts: 700 in Tarcin, 1,050 in Pazaric, 23 in Hrasnica (including 16 of them beaten to death); and Muslims in Serb camps: 57 in Kula, 479 in Hadzici. The officer had collected dozens of reports about prison camps from both sides.

A soldier jaded by war can either pretend it doesn’t exist or joke about it. This officer had the gift of humour and he turned his experiences into a comic adventure that lasted all night. We were within listening distance of the commander’s quarters and we had to lower our voices like adolescents disobeying a curfew.

I asked if the senior UN officials had taken any action concerning the reports.

‘It’s buried underground,’ the officer told me.

‘Do you know what that means?’ asked the captain. I nodded. It meant the papers had been consigned to an obscure corner, waiting to gather dust on a shelf.

Politicians arriving regularly in Yugoslavia for ‘assessment trips’ leave without answers. Workers on the ground focus on short-term solutions, like handing out food to refugees.

‘I’m solving hundreds of little problems every day but I don’t have the overall solution to the problem,’ said Anthony Land, head of the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Sarajevo. ‘It’s a humanitarian problem, not a humanitarian solution,’ he said. ‘We’re buying time for the politicians to come up with a solution’. And if there is still no solution in sight? ‘We’ll buy more time.’

Colonel Robert Bresse says there is a solution.

‘The Serbs need a beating. We need to have planes up in the air and hit targets. If we don’t interfere we will be here for 10 years.’

This is a French commander talking.

The ramrod Colonel Bresse, who is chief of the UNPROFOR infantry battalion in the Bihac Muslim ‘pocket’ says things that could get him into trouble with his superiors in Geneva. He says he doesn’t care.

He holds court at his headquarters. His men adore him. He regularly entertains visitors and journalists in the officers’ mess, with soldiers in uniform serving a wide selection of cheeses, St Emilion wine and roast chicken or hare. The chef must never run out of chocolates – they are the colonel’s favourite.

He barely concealed his sympathy for the Muslims – or his disdain for the Serbs. He kept such thoughts to himself, however, when he came face-to-face with a Serb colonel. At a prearranged meeting in the abandoned Hotel Kamesko in Donji Lapac, Colonel Dusan Banjac was pleading for humanitarian help.

Colonel Bresse showed up at the rendezvous with Jacques Franquin, the outspoken Belgian chief officer of UNHCR in Bihac. The Serb colonel, seeing that Franquin brought his female Muslim translator with him, remarked: ‘Ahh, why do you have such a pretty one and I get stuck with this?’ jabbing a finger into the underling who served as his interpreter.

Franquin’s translator said nothing and sat down to begin a gruelling two-hour session of translating from Serbo-Croat into English. The Serb colonel is a man she holds responsible for wounding her father and the death of her best friend. Occasionally she smoked, holding her cigarette with trembling fingers.

Colonel Bresse privately believed the food would go to Colonel Banjac’s ill-fed troops. Franquin therefore gave the Serb a hard time. He demanded permission to visit every house and meet with civilian authorities. He said that if the Serbs wanted access to food they must open a restricted road leading to Kajina.

Colonel Banjac scratched his head and pounded on the table. He would agree to every demand except opening up the road.

‘Then maybe some kind of a cease-fire can be arranged,’ Franquin suggested.

The Serb was astounded.

‘If there were a cease-fire,’ he replied, raising his voice, ‘then there would be no war!’

The look of disgust on Franquin’s face was unmistakable. Alone with Colonel Bresse after the Serb officer had left, Franquin blurted out: ‘It was all bullshit!’ The French colonel tried to lighten Franquin’s mood. He said teasingly, ‘I think this is the beginning of a love story’.

There are real love stories, even in wartime.

I kept my promise to deliver Marija’s letter to the man she had not seen in ten months.

When I arrived in Pristina I immediately called Amer. He came right away to get the letter and returned to my hotel the next day with a reply for Marija.

Amer has a handsome face, and it dissolved in fear and self-pity as he spoke. He was close to tears while recounting the first days of war in Sarajevo. A Serb had aimed a rifle at his face. That near-death experience had driven him away from the city where he had lived for a decade and had fallen in love with Marija. He had to leave because he is a Muslim. Marija would not come with him. She had to be with her family. Her father is a Croat and her mother is a Serb. She calls herself a ‘Bosnian’.

‘You’re a journalist,’ Amer said, speaking to me in a flat voice. ‘You can look at war, but you can never feel it in your skin.‘ Amer used to be a journalist too. He is now a construction worker, saving money to seek asylum somewhere, anywhere – ‘maybe Germany, maybe Switzerland, maybe Austria’ – to escape the war.

‘I told her she must live, not because I want her to live,’ he said, putting the letter in my hands. ‘She must live because she must never give the Serbs the glory of killing her. And maybe... maybe years from now we will be together again.’

Criselda Yabes has been on a year’s fellowship at the Fondation Journalistes en Europe in France. She previously worked in Manila as a correspondent for Agence France Press, Associated Press and Reuters, followed by freelance work for Newsweek and the Washington Post.

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