Return to Sarajevo

A Dutch-funded project to connect survivors of the Balkans wars by video launches in the former war-torn capital.

By Steve Korver,  14-04-2005,  cover feature, Amsterdam Weekly


The first time I was in Sarajevo, four years ago, a man I came to call The Professor treated me to a roller coaster ride through Bosnia’s worst hit areas. He deemed the optimum volume of his car radio as “when the doors started shaking”. This was so that everyone in the vicinity could share the tunes he chose to play. In Croat neighbourhoods the doors shook with Serb partisan songs, while in Muslim sections they shook with the Croat hit parade.

A Serb who had stayed in Sarajevo in the name of a united Bosnia, he had dodged Serb snipers for three years during the siege, only to lose his teaching position to a Muslim once the war was over. So basically he was pissed off at everyone. His DJing style was certainly an efficient way to get frequently pulled over by the local police. So was his driving style, which consisted of jerking erratically between 40 and 100 kph, while screaming stories about ‘bastards, fascists’ and the general assbackwardness of these parts.


‘The Bosnian people failed by falling for self-serving politicians… See that veterinarian hospital? Once they identified a dead animal as a radiation-swollen rat, then as some sort of tiny variety of the dinosaur family, until someone finally recognised it as a skinned fox… The UN failed the most. They couldn’t even teach the local police how to button their shirts or tighten their belts…’ But by then I had come to respect these scruffy law officers for their ability to sense a madman coming straight for them at 40 or 100 kph.

If The Professor was anything to go by, things were still by no means normal in Bosnia, five years after the signing of the Dayton agreement that formally ended (excessive) violence in Bosnia.

This past visit also rated as my second date with my lady friend, herself an (ex-)Yugo. Our ensuing courtship is documented by a series of snapshots showing us in front of bombed-out buildings, crippled bridges, and scenic views overlooking Srebrenica, where around 8,000 Muslim men and boys were massacred in the worst single slaughter since World War II.

An inadvertent photo album of love among ruins. We weren’t sick, sick ramptoeristen (“disaster tourists”), though, but victims of circumstance. Her work as a researcher involved interviewing both war criminals and victims. I was just often along as a bit of arm candy.

Return to Sarajevo
Our respective roles had only evolved somewhat when we returned to Sarajevo last week to attend the premiere of a remarkable series of documentaries, Videoletters, by Amsterdam film-making couple Katarina Rejger and Eric van den Broek, who won the Special Prix Europa, International Journalism Prize, and the Human Rights Prize for their 2002 documentary The Making of the Revolution, which covered the last days of the Milosevic regime.

Each episode of Videoletters involves an exchange of letters on video between two friends, colleagues, family members or neighbours from different ethnic groups who lost contact during the war. Most exchanges offer apologies along the likes of ‘I can blame MiloÅ¡evic for his politics, but I can’t blame Milocevic for me not answering your letter.’ Many express regrets, too. ‘Now, everything that happened seems bizarre, laughable, senseless.’ Often the two became reconciled and met up later too. Even now, doing so can be dangerous, since many of them still live in communities where ‘consorting with the enemy’ is still regarded as a crime.

We journeyed down to Sarajevo to celebrate the completion of this 5-year project with around 40 associates, sponsors, friends, journalists, and Dutch civil servants. We even had musical accompaniment in the shape of by Blijburg house band Hotel.


I figured I’d help out by explaining to any fellow travellers who wanted to know that the local swearing traditions don’t centre on diseases, as in Holland, but on the private parts of one’s mother. I could also assist with the pronunciation of such essentials as cevapcici and pivo. I was even willing to hold master classes with my handy colour chart that explains the Balkans’ two basic food groups: rakija and mixed grill.


But I also had selfish motives: I wanted to collect stories about Amsterdammers abroad being peckerheads. I already had plenty with me as the star; but my lady friend, who had hand-held many visiting Dutch academics in her time, had told me a lot of juicy ones that made me suspect there must be even more. My favourite was the one about the posh history professor visiting Srebrenica. ‘Where can I find a good gym?’ he asked. The town did not even have running water.


But this time it was a fairly sensitive bunch travelling to Sarajevo. In fact, the whole trip was very tightly organised. I counted a dizzying array of four different food groups at most meals. And I was also happy to discover that Sarajevo had come a long way in the last four years. Out of the media spotlight and relatively pumped with reconstruction funds, Sarajevo had become a town again that now even non- disaster tourists could love.


But almost the first thing we encountered after leaving the airport was a Technicolor image of that (in)famously smug sense that the Dutch have of themselves that they can fix anything (This is the same presumption that got them into a whole shitload of trouble in Srebrenica. But let’s not speak of collective guilt here…) It turned out that the Netherlands had sponsored the painting of refurbished apartments in the city — but in really garish colours. This in the name of ‘brightening things up’. The residents were less than appreciative.

‘Great. Now we’ll be the first targets when the war starts again.’


Cutting to the chase
A friend of mine once referred to Marshall Tito as ‘one funky dude’, a phrase suggesting a relatively benevolent dictator who just happened to love uniforms — and the ladies.

There are probably many reasons for the Balkans wars of the 1990s, but one thing is for sure: Tito managed to die just as he would have had to deal with the economic downslide that came with the fall of the Wall. Before then, the ruler of Yugoslavia had been savvy enough to keep the country out of the Eastern Bloc by playing the USSR and the USA off each other and collecting money from both sides. Yes, funky.

‘Under Tito, we were all Yugoslav,’ observes one of the people in the Videoletters. Dictator or not, he did set up and rule a genuinely multiculti country with a healthy, well-educated and well-travelled urban population.


At his death, microphone politicians sought to fill the void by appealing to rural populations and blaming the other. Milocevic got the ball rolling in Serbia. But Tudjman in Croatia, and Karadzic for the Serbs and Izetbegovic for the Muslims in Bosnia, were all quick to apply similar tactics. It is, unfortunately, a familiar story. (An Amsterdam dinner party with ex-Yugos these days is incomplete without the observation: ‘Isn’t it incredible how Geert Wilders looks exactly like a young pig-faced Milosevic?’)

It was only when the war actually started that things get really confusing. The media — regional, national and international — got involved. Other countries, mostly from the EU, got involved to protect their many vested interests. It was just next door after all, and bizness is bizness. The worst point was probably when Madison Avenue PR companies began representing individual ethnic groups. The Internet was exploited to spread myths. Truth had become fluid; and it wasn’t tasty, like rakija.


By the war’s end in 1995, atrocities had been committed by all sides on such a scale that any finger pointing became irrelevant. Hundreds of thousands were dead and millions had been displaced. (In Amsterdam, the ex-Yugo population is now around 6,000, just a few hundred less than the Indonesians.) The true victims of the war were, as usual, the people who just wanted to get on with their lives without bullshit.


Today the former republics of Yugoslavia are independent states: Serbia & Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Only Kosovo is still being disputed. And while now there’s plenty of cross-border bizness relationships, the same can’t be said for personal ones. That’s where Videoletters comes in…

Videoletters: the project
Film-maker Van den Broek explained the initial inspiration. ‘We met Samir, a Muslim living in Sarajevo, who was depressed from the war at having to dodge snipers all the time,’ he said. ‘He was also depressed about not having heard from his best friend, who happened to be a Serb. He was so desperate that he decided to commit suicide. He went up onto his roof to wait for a sniper to kill him. Nothing happened for an hour so he finally gave up. But it turned out that Samir himself had never tried getting in touch with his friend either. This was the seed of the idea.’


Five years later, he and his partner Rejger, whose roots lie in the region, has produced a cathartic 20-part series. It produces tears in the eyes of everyone who sees, it, non-ex-Yugos included. But the project’s real success came last summer, when representatives from all the former republics’ public broadcasting stations — all of them once enthusiastic broadcasters of propaganda — came together in Amsterdam to hash out a deal by which the episodes would be simulcast by all the stations. A booze cruise and a dinner at Panama helped grease the wheels of history. This would be the first time since the war that all ex-Yugoslavs would watch the same show at the same time. And on 7 April this year, the first weekly episode was aired.

A few months later, again in Amsterdam, during the screening of several episodes during IDFA, all the ambassadors from former ex-Yugo countries were left crying and speechless. Yes: politicians rendered speechless. A very positive sign indeed.

A representative of  the Dutch Department of Foreign Affairs  was also on hand to present a cheque to help take the project to the next level: telephone help lines for traumatized viewers, a website with search engine where people could make contact again, counters all over former Yugoslavia where people can make their own video letters (at no charge), and even buses equipped with computers and webcams that travel to the more isolated spots.

As a symbol of the Bosnian war, Sarajevo was the perfect setting for the official premier. And in many ways, the city has much in common with Amsterdam. OK, Pim Fortuyn  will never compete with Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination triggered World War I. But both cities are cosmopolitan despite their small size, painfully scenic, artily inclined and mellow. There’s even a shared humour based on dark understatement.


As a major crossroads and trading centre, Sarajevo is also very welcoming to visitors. Before the war it rated as the most multicultural city in the region. ‘Forget “Venice of the North”,’ I heard a newly converted fan in the group exclaim. ‘We should start calling Amsterdam “Sarajevo of the North”.’ And certainly these days it’s much easier to recognize it as a cool city again. Every exchange with a local feels like you’ve made a new friend. I only encountered one cabdriver (I remember many more from the last time) who started muttering about ‘what they did to us…’

But I had also grown. I no longer asked who ‘them’ and ‘us’ were.

But it’s still easy to equate Sarajevo with war. The valley is smeared with white patches that mark the clustering of graves. UN troops are still everywhere, keeping the peace and acting as regular customers for the overpriced restaurant sector. Damaged buildings and damaged people are still everywhere too. A car with Serbian license plates will still likely get its windshield smashed. But one attending Dutch baby boomer was quick to observe: ‘A car with German plates in Amsterdam will still get pushed into the canal on Queen’s Day, and that war ended 60 years ago. Reconciliation usually takes generations.’


In Sarajevo, the war hovers over every conversation. As a visitor, you are of course neurotic about coming across as a lucky bastard. The boyfriend of a friend I made last time surprisingly expressed certain nostalgia for the war. ‘People smile less. My friends are working harder, staying home more and watching more TV.’

‘It’s only gonna get worse once you join the EU,’ I replied. ‘Or maybe you and your friends are just getting older and more boring. I know I am.’

He laughed and agreed. So maybe universal processes can still happen when there isn’t a war.


It’s easy to get too optimistic. However it’s a feeling that’s quickly cured once you drive by a ‘Welcome to the Srpska Republic’ sign. The Serbian section of Bosnia is still more of poverty-stricken livewire with a population still very much under the thrall of one of the world’s most wanted war criminals, the one-stringed-lute-plucking freak Karadzic. Reconstruction funds aren’t exactly raining there. The region remains seriously damaged. But there’s still a celebratory mood at Cafe Dayton, where several of the series’ reunifications occur, that not even the obvious security presence can douse.

Van den Broek sees the irony. ‘Now the police are helping us,’ he says. ‘Before, when we got stopped, we’d have to negotiate a price and discuss what exactly we as drivers with foreign licence plates were doing wrong.’


When we returned to Sarajevo, I had the opportunity to enter an iconic building that was once the oldest library of Oriental books. It was torched during the siege, though; some two million irreplaceable books were burned. But I saw its renovation and recent function as unique setting for plays and exhibitions as a positive sign.


Later, I tried to impart this optimism to a NOVA cameraman who also happened to come from Sarajevo. ‘I don’t give a shit about that building,’ he said. ‘I give a shit about those two million books that will never be read again.’

Right. It’s sometimes easy to forget. We returned to our ongoing argument about which is the grimiest bar in Amsterdam.

During a luncheon in a beautiful riverside restaurant — complete with tree growing through the building — I was curious to see what the Dutch ambassador to Bosnia and a high-ranking civil servant from  Foreign Affairs  would say. But neither had a clue about microphone technique, and so we all heard nothing. This gave me another rush of idealism, oddly enough — for the future of Dutch politics, anyway. No one could accuse these gentlemen of being microphone politicians.

But the real story was occurring away from the podium. The different protagonists from the series were meeting each other, recognizing that they were part of a larger group and one that may very well grow exponentially. Normal people ready to embrace a truly post-war future with their pre-war friends.

It reminded me of what my lady friend’s 93-year-old great uncle once said to us. ‘If there were more stupid people than smart ones, then the world would have ended a long time ago.’ Here was a man who’d managed to witness a wide spectrum of 20th-century disaster and still stay an idealist.


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