Balkans part 3: three nights, three stories.
If you think about Sarajevo there are probably three associations popping op. In chronical hierarchy, first the shooting of Franz Ferdinand, which is seen as the start of the First World War. Then the Olympic games in Sarajevo as a communistic city. And as last the siege of Sarajevo during the Yugoslav war. Or when you are from my generation probably the first and the last will make some bells ring, but the details remain vague. Sarajevo is now pushing for a fourth story. Sarajevo as the city where the three biggest religions live peacefully together. Because in a world where everyone is obsessed with the immigration and radicalization of conservative Christians and radicalized Muslims, the three religions respecting each other is a huge accomplishment. It is the new pride of the city and the story that people like to share. For many the story of Sarajevo, is the solution for the ongoing conflict between the Serbians, Croats and Bosnians. But there is also a side to this story that is often neglected, the story of the youngsters who are part of the LHBTQI+ , who are atheist or who have found their own way in practicing religion. These groups do not get the same freedom as the three main religions have obtained amongst each other.
In Sarajevo it is not difficult to find people to interview or talk to. Many people I approached spoke openly and freely about their feelings about the war and modern society. It is not randomly that Bosnians have a reputation of being the most helpful and nicest people from the Balkan. I can most certainly attest to that. I heard some very different stories from different people I have met during my time in Sarajevo. I will tell you three of these stories by telling you about three different nights I spend in this mesmerizing city.
The night I arrived in Sarajevo the hostel manager took us to an old cinema that nowadays is used for live music. Except for the chairs they left the whole building like it was during its time as a cinema. So no ventilation or modern sewages system. We were there on a Monday night, which is apparently the only night they have live music. Hundreds of people gathered in this place, drinking Rakia and beer, smoking an awful lot of cigarettes while singing along with the old Bosnian traditional music played by the band. As a tourist this was an amazing experience. These people were celebrating their culture like it was a Friday night, both hands went up in the air and together with their best friends, or anyone next to them, they sing along with the old lyrics of folkish Balkan music.
I was surprised to see young people so invested in traditional live music on a Monday. But the harsh reality is that there is a youth unemployment rate of around 60%. This is excluding students as they are officially not allowed to work. The unemployment youngsters have the time to party on Monday or any other day of the week. It is what makes Sarajevo such an amusing city to visit as a tourist. Every night there is some party somewhere and during the day there are always people drinking coffee everywhere. It is easy to misunderstand this for a relaxed situation, because the spirit of the Bosnians is to make the best out of the situation instead of drowning in self pity. In the end, many people do not have a job, do not have a purpose for their day and do not earn enough money for a decent life.
This is a spirit that has been celebrated during the siege of Sarajevo. For almost 5 years the city was surrounded, there was no way out for the people. Walking on the street or even being at home, could mean your death if you were within the sight of a sniper who were hiding in the mountains. The siege of Sarajevo was classified by the UN as a civil war which meant that the UN could not interfere using weapons or helping one of the two parties. This resulted in unarmed soldiers that were in Sarajevo to protect the citizens. The citizens of Sarajevo had no weapons, no food, no clean drinking water and no way out. For four years they had to zigzag run on the streets to visit their friends, get water, go to school or work. And they did. They went to school, to work, they made a tunnel in secret, they fabricated improvised guns, they used trams as shields and they went to concerts.
The most striking story was of the Fashion show they did at the concert hall where I went on Monday evening to enjoy their Latin night. The women in Sarajevo used their beauty and pride as resistance against the siege and the war. They could siege the city but not the people in it. There are many stories like this. The famous Iron Maiden concert and of course the photo of the woman dressed up passing a soldier while holding her head up high.
The next evening I wanted to take some rest but I ran into Unkas, the owner of the hostel. He asked me to join him for a beer, I of course I saw my opportunity to speak with someone who actually experienced the siege. Unkas used to own a club in Sarajevo and booked many live rock ‘N roll bands. During the war he tried to maintain his passion for culture and music and continued doing so after the war was over. Because the bands had to sleep somewhere he opened the hostel that I stayed at. We talked about socialism, the war, communism and modern tourism. He was one of the many people that I met in Sarajevo who told me that times were better in Yugoslav. He longed back to the days of communism in Yugoslav. The next day when I went on a tour about the siege, I learned that Unkas was one of the guys who helped with the plan of digging a tunnel out of Sarajevo to get supplies from the market, cigarettes and tools. They trained along the street in front of the hostel to run in zigzag fast enough to not get shot by the snipers.
But that night we had an honest conversation about western misunderstanding of the situation. How the US believed they freed the citizens from communism, but by doing so fostered the national war. He told me how capitalism and the fear of communism destroyed the peaceful coexistence of Yugoslav. This is a story that many people will tell you in Bosnia, old and young. I am not sure which part of it is true, what the exact influence was of the US and Western Europe or how the nationalism started the war. But I do know that it is a popular story to refer to the capitalistic interference in the region. It also makes sense, because capitalism has not worked out for them that well yet.
In many ways the country and the people are very poor. We as tourists love it, because everything is so amazingly cheap to us. But when a country is that cheap, the real question is how that came to be. Unkas has experienced many tourists who came by and made a fuss about a difference of a couple of cents, tourists who use public transport for free because they don’t get checked or tourists who don’t take a cab because they are afraid of getting ripped of. But getting ribbed off in a country that is that cheap, is relative. Cheap countries are celebrated among young travelers as amazing, while part of the story is also that the country and its people aren’t wealthy. It is therefore not surprising that the communist days or the socialist area, as they prefer to call it, communism is what they did in Russia, are seen as better times.
In the end Unkas thanked me for being in Sarajevo and listening to his story. Something that has happened to me before, people thanking me for listening and not having an immediate opinion or not having a capitalistic opinion. It feels strange as I feel that I have to thank all these open people that I met for wanting to explain their perspective to me, to take the time to teach me about their stories and history. But his gratefulness was different. We had an honest conversation about misunderstandings of socialism and capitalism. And even with our differences in experience, places we were born and age, we agreed on many things about society and economy. He thanked me for having hope about the future and being open to his perspective, a socialistic perspective that is ignored by most parts of the European society, especially nowadays. It was one of the most meaningful and honest 'thank you' that I have received.
The third day in Sarajevo I went to visit the Kriterion Movie theater. An arthouse cinema runned by young people in Sarajevo. The cinema is founded with help from the Kriterion foundation based in Amsterdam. For three years I worked at Studio/K, one of the sister organizations in Amsterdam. Entering this place in Sarajevo felt like entering my beloved Studio/K or Kriterion Amsterdam. The only difference was that while I was finding my way up there, I had to take a detour because of a demonstration going on in the street in front of the Movie theater. These demonstrations have been going on for half a year, everyday. The demonstrators are old soldiers who fought during the war, but for some reason do not get their full army pension. In Bosnia there are three presidents, one Croatian, one Bosnian and one Serb. When the government wants to change something, all three of them have to agree. So you can imagine that the Serbian is not easily going to agree to pay the Bosnian soldiers more pension. Unfortunately the demonstrations are not peaceful and already many incidents have happened. Both the police and the former soldiers are using violence to solve the conflict. This results in diminishing support from for example the young people I met at the Movie theater. While I told them about what I had seen, the older men along the road with tear gas in their eyes and how sad it looked, these youngsters told me not to feel too bad about it because the older men are ex-soldiers and not so sweet themselves.
When I finally arrived we sat down at some couches with some of the colleagues and started talking. Sometimes someone joined in, or someone had to go, questions about the amount of beers in the bar had to be answered and the chairs for the event had to be put down. We talked for about three hours about their lives, the movie theater, Sarajevo, their European dreams and personal ambitions. They were energetic, involved, enthusiastic and sort of optimistic. They all wanted to answer my questions, sometimes with more than one at the same time. They fired so much information at me that after three hours of talking it started to dazzle me. Or was that the joint that we shared during the talking?
After all the optimistic stories about the spirit of Sarajevo, how the religions are living together peacefully, seeing the beauty of the town, the entertaining nightlife, the honest conversations with nice people, it was even better to hear their side of the story. Because the young people working at this cinema are artistic and open minded youngsters, who are also involved in the gay scene, or actually are the gay scene. And being that is not necessarily a pretty story in Sarajevo. Once a year they organise a queer movie festival. During this week they have to pay the police to protect their building because if they don’t, people will come in to start a fight, as has happened before. As part of the LHBTQI+ scene they even sometimes get attacked or intimidated at public spaces as well. This is also why the cinema is so important. It offers a safe place for these young people to be themselves and enjoy life with their friends. The cinema is always important because of the public influence it has, by changing and opening up the conservatism about their young community. This is not a side about Sarajevo that will be told often, as the emphasis in on the war and the three religions living together. While processing all this information, I do not think many people wonder how progressive the rest of the society is.
We also talked about their identity. In 2014 the state organized a public counting of the people. They wanted to know how many of each ethnicity was living in which part of Bosnia. Everyone could fill in this form ticking a box of their ethnicity. The options they were presented were Croatian, Bosnian, Serbian or others. To me that sounded pretty decent, but then they told me that there is a difference between being Bosnian, Bosniac and actually from Herzegovina. But because these terms are highly influenced by historical occupation and disputes between the ethnicities, these options were left off from the form. The identification is coupled with which religion you’re originally from and that is also influenced again by your last name. While Bosnian refers to the people from Bosnia, no matter the religion, Bosniac refers to the Muslim population that lives in Bosnia. Obviously many people who identify as Bosniac or Herzegovinian ticked the box of others. This resulted in many people questioning the actual result of this population count and say the statics of the percentage of each ethnicity living in each area is not the actual representation.
These young people did not want to identify with one of these ethnicities and also argued that the distinction between these ethnicities makes it harder to overcome the differences as they are always pushed back in these categories. At this arthouse the young people are working for a safe and open future. A future in which they can be who they want to be and a future that moves on from the war. But in a society where the scars and traumas of the war are still very much part of daily life of the people, moving on also polarizes the gap between the younger generation and the older generation.
One of the guys told me that during an exchange with a political school in Denmark, one of the students asked him how it is to live in a postwar society. The guy answered him that he doesn’t know because he never realized they were living in a postwar society. They are just living their life, in their society and aren't bothered with thinking about being a postwar society. To the question if they feel European they answered me that they know that they are. But many people see Europe as the EU, and as long as Bosnia is excluded by the EU, they will not identify as Europeans. Most of them could speak German, as they were taught at school, now German is seen as a way out. A way to go to Berlin and experience artistic freedom there, work on a future. It is not that they could not wait to leave Sarajevo, but they were longing to experience how it would be to live somewhere else. An experience that most Europeans of my generation can have, but is much more complicated when you’re from Bosnia.
I was hesitating what I should write about Bosnia, because I do not think I can write about their history, their identity and their lives as it is much more complicated than I can grasp. There are so many perspectives, sides, facts and fake news, it is easy to start believing one side and forget about the other. But seeing these young and old people struggling with the same question: ‘How do we go further from here’, is kind of heartbreaking. The situation in Bosnia is not solved, the separation of the Republika Srpska and the system of three Presidents is not the solution for a harmonious society. It is a solution for a crippled society that can’t make any comprises and so does not move on.
After Bosnia I moved on to Albania, to be specific Tirana. Albania is a country with a very unique history in the region, a country that was always under threat of occupation but also has been very closed off from the rest of the world during their communist area. The atmosphere in Tirana differed a lot from Sarajevo. The transition from communism to capitalism has been very abrupt and intense for a country that was cut off from everyone. The gap between the younger generation that grew up in capitalism against the older generation that grew up under the communist rule is immense. The public space is dominated by men and when wearing a short dress you will be haressed on the streets by young men and disapprovement from the older men. At the same time they have a president who became known because he wanted to paint more houses in Tirana in colorful patterns. He wore tennis sneakers to a summit with the EU leaders and has a weird obsession with mushrooms.
In this very two-sided city I went to do a walking tour, with again a very interesting guide. He sat us down somewhere on a side street where the statues were collected of Stalin, the working lady, Lenin and their communist leader. He talked about the modernization and the transition of the country towards capitalism. He talked about their way back to the EU and Europe. He told us how hard they are working to better their economy, to fight corruption, to work on infrastructure and law. He told us how hard the country is working to be a candidate for the EU and be part of the European family.
I would like to use the last words from the tour guide to end my writing about my trip as I think it does summarize the emotions of the people I met in the Southern Balkans.
‘Please don’t destroy the EU before we even had the change to be part of it, we are working so hard to get there.’