Wednesday, 12 October 2011

I live in a cloud on the mountain

I open my front door and see all this.
No, I haven't gone guru, it's actually true. Since pitching up in the Bosnian capital last Thursday, I've been billeted in a house, about a half hour walk from the Baščaršija, the old Ottoman market and tourist magnet just to the east of the city centre. And, almost as soon as I got here, winter suddenly turned up. Two weekends ago it was 23 degrees in Skopje, even as the autumn leaves were beginning to fall from the trees; this weekend, it fell to three degrees here, without even an acknowledgement of autumn. Locals are expecting snow on the mountain anyday, and, until today, when the sun re-appeared sheepishly and dramatically lit up the craggy ravine stretching below my place, I was literally living in clouds and mist. 

Tara National Park, just before the BiH border
Some of you are probably getting a bit bored of my sub- Revd. WS Gilpin discourses on the landscape, but to hell with it; the drive to here from Kraljevo last Thursday was nothing short of amazing; from the man made lake in between Čačak and Užice; the former hero city itself, emerging from the deep valley that surrounds it like a clenched fist imagined by El Greco; then, tumbling down the twenty miles or so of narrow road, through Tara National Park, that last part of Serbia before the geographical territory of Bosnia-Hercegovina begins. Whilst not quite matching Mavrovo in terms of wilderness, there was still enough to make me stop several times and take photos which only give an approximation of just how beautiful the place is.

The Bridge over the Drina at Višegrad
 If the use of the words "geographical territory" seem a little bit odd, there, then, welcome to this incredibly complex and nuanced part of the Balkans. The territory of Bosnia-Hercegovina, along with eastern Croatia and, later, Kosovo, were the main battlefields during 1991-95 and 1999, as the old Yugoslav federation clawed its own face off. The current state of BiH preserves in aspic the state of play as the conflict here ended in 1995, according to the dictates of the Dayton agreement; a treaty aimed at ending, at almost any price, the horrific conflict that devastated this land for three and a half years. 

The result, whilst welcome in the short term, has in the medium term ensured a situation of permanent instability. The territory of Bosnia-Hercegovina is now split between two entirely separate political entities; the Bosnian-Croat federation, which controls 51% of the territory, including the vast majority of Sarajevo; and Republika Srpska, the Serb entity, which controls the remaining 49%, together with a small corner in south-eatern Sarajevo. Whilst there is no Berlin Wall-style situation, and it is possible to move from the Federation to Republika Srpska and back, without noticing, the current outcome is one of political deadlock. Bosnia has a colossally bloated political class and attendant bureaucracy; it has three presidents, one each from Bosnian, Croat and Serb ethnicities; those presidents have been unable to agree on anything for the last year, resulting in damaging paralysis. Effectively, at present, BiH has no functioning or recognisable government and looks unlikely to have one for the foreseeable future.

Then, the layer of EU oversight has to be added, with the EU high representative in BiH effectively acting as some kind of viceroy, with wide ranging powers to intervene in political disputes, and to make decisions in the current absence of government. In the absence of a working government, BiH becomes, more than ever, a de facto EU protectorate. The future, with constant to-ing and fro-ing between separate political classes still bitterly divided and resentful, appears very uncertain, sadly. This in a country where the unemployment rate is estimated at 42%, with most of those in work reliant one one of the BiH political states for employment.

Entrance to the Sarajevo tunnels
So far, so dry, but the disfigurations of the war are much more obvious here than in any other part of the Balkans. 100 yards from my front door stands an abandoned house, windowless, with tall grass growing all around, slowly going back to nature, riddled with heavy machine gun fire. It's probably been empty for the last twenty years. Such houses can be seen all over the country; whole villages lie empty in the territory of Republika Srpska, like rotting teeth in a beautiful mouth. In Višegrad- the city made famous by perhaps the best known work of Yugoslav fiction, Ivo Andrić's Bridge over the Drina, the bridge is still there, but the city itself now something of a ghost town, populated only by Serbs; the rich mix of Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Turks and Habsburgs in that novel, is nothing more than a fantastical memory now.

I'm using this as an example, and I'm not meaning to take one side or another. There are as many stories of what happened here, all of them contradictory, some overlapping. If one is determined to pass judgement on one community or another for what happened here and elsewhere, then one is doomed to only ever understand partially the course of events; and quite likely to end up hating everybody. 

However, in BiH more than anywhere else, the shadows of events in the last fifteen years continue to blot out many hopes for future stability. The current impasse also humiliatingly reminds international political institutions, and western governments, of their abject failure here; of their shaming and disgraceful misunderstanding of this part of the world, based on books written 70-100 years previously; and the loathsome mix of self-interest, doublespeak and hypocrisy which has perpetuated the situation of 1995 here. The embarrassing shambles that was the UN / EC response to the Bosnian crisis during the 90s stands alongside the pitiful, supine hand-wringing concerning the Rwandan genocide in 1995, as events that to this day have undermined, perhaps fatally, confidence in the integrity and capability of supranational political institutions to intervene meaningfully in situations of civil war and ethnic conflict. Ironically, these very tainted institutions are still the ultimate guarantors of security here.

For more detailed discussion of the current situation in BiH from a legal and political point of view, see Matthew Parish's blog.


Habsburg fragments in downtown Sarajevo
Sarajevo is a long, narrow city, ringed by mountains. West of the tight warren of streets, stalls, hans, mosques and minarets that make up the Baščaršija, is the rectilinear centre, built by the Austro-Hungarians during their period of rule in this part of the world, forty years from 1878. More recent Titoist additions have sprung up in war damaged spaces, and along the former "Snipers Alley" of  densely packed towerblocks towards Ilidža and the airport. The lasting legacy of the Habsburgs, other than their trademark ornament-heavy apartment blocks and churches, is the tram system, which runs from Baščaršija to Ilidža, a stretch of about 11kms. On a guided tour on Saturday, our guide explained that the trams were tested out in Sarajevo; this city had the first functioning tram network in Europe; their success here saw them rolled out across the Habsburg lands around the turn of the twentieth century. It's as well the city is enjoyable to walk around and has good trams, as it's a pretty hair raising experience driving here; not in terms of psycho drivers (see entries passim.), but in terms of very steep, narrow streets that can barely accommodate tow cars in places. From Baščaršija, it's about a 2 mile stretch up a 1-in-5 hill; two long miles of whiny low gear cobblestoned struggle. 

I'll write more from here once I've seen some art to tell you about.  

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