new internationalist
issue 316 - September 1999

I started it
The diary of entertainer Eric Nagler, written while he was on a concert tour of Bosnia,
records that the truth is not always the first casualty of war.

Eric Nagler in action These kids are eating up the show. We’re all loving making music together. They seem starved for any kind of fun and silliness.

Earlier we visited a small ‘collection centre’, where refugees are brought to be relocated but wind up staying. We got the projector working and showed videos to some 50 people, all Kosovars. And then I played.

Edo, my translator, was the perfect straight-faced foil to my antics. He translated my English into Bosnian, then a local man converted his words into Albanian. The height of absurdity was teaching the audience to speak Chicken through two translators. When we were done with the song, at least we had Chicken as a common language. It is just this kind of absurdity that these dislocated people need, to take them away from the miseries of daily life.

In Sarajevo there is no direction you can look without seeing bombed-out buildings, derelict hotels and office towers. The devastation in the countryside bears a remarkable resemblance to Italy and Ireland, where I visited with awe the relics of ancient civilizations – the roofless houses, the castles with empty windows and crumbling walls. Here the scene is eerily similar, except the devastation is made by people, not time. The shape and size of houses haven’t changed much over the millennia, and neither has what we do to them.

Ironically, this timeless apparition of war aroused in me the same anguish I felt absorbing the pristine charm of the impeccable Croatian coast. What shame. What shame to destroy such beauty. What shame that, no matter how old we grow, how civilized, how wise, we continue to insist on transforming our lives into misery.

Why do we do that? Oh I know, the Croats will blame the Serbs, the Christians will blame the Muslims – and vice versa. When you ask these people for a reason, they hark back to atrocities committed in the fifteenth century. How did humankind ever become cursed with this chronic ‘you-started-it’ disease?

Who started it? I started it. It keeps floating into my mind that the deeper you look into someone’s eyes the more you see yourself.

Along the sidewalks of Sarajevo are decorative flower-shaped craters a few inches deep, about two feet across, with a spray of smaller pock marks covering another five feet. They are what happens when a projectile explodes on the pavement. My guide pointed to the distant hills where, during the war, the Serbian Army had been stationed. In the evening, he said, you could hear the soldiers singing as they sat and drank Slivovitz until it was shelling time. Their singing became the take-cover warning. Sarajevo underwent four years of shelling. After a while the artillery fire became like a minor annoyance. You heard the report of the cannon and looked up to the hills. If it wasn’t coming your way you went about your business. At home you heard the grenades around you but you didn’t put down your book. If one landed on your roof it might knock out the plumbing, or it might kill you. After three million rounds of bombardment, what the hell is the difference?

One day we drive out of Tuzla to a Serbian area which has only recently reverted to Bosnian territory. The local government is still Serb. In the midst of this district is a Muslim village.

In the school the children are all essentially Muslim refugees, their families chased out of their village during the war, to return years later to repair their burnt homes and resettle. The field beside the school was once a front line and scene of battle – we can see the dried-up irrigation ditches used as trenches. Now the returning Muslims are in a tense situation, back in their village, surrounded by people who don’t want them there.

And yet, at our concert, the kids are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, raring to go and irrepressible.

As we leave school, my translator confides in me that he feels sorry for those Muslim people.

‘Why?’ I ask him, guessing the answer. He is a Muslim converted to Christianity.

‘Because they don’t know the truth,’ he says.

I feel it’s this sort of ‘knowledge’ that paves the road which leads to war. War is run by those who know what’s right. I find living in the question quite peaceful.

Eric Nagler grew up in New York and moved to Canada in 1968 as a conscientious objector. He is now one of Canada’s most popular entertainers, well known for his TV work on Eric’s World and The Elephant Show. He spent a month in Bosnia performing for war-affected children and families.

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New Internationalist issue 316 magazine cover This article is from the September 1999 issue of New Internationalist.
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