01-05-2012 - Traces, n. 5

20 years later

The invisible war
A tragedy that left us without words. Today’s boundaries “drawn in our souls,” and a nation still silent. The assistant editor of the Italian news service TG5 recalls those 44 months of siege he lived through, and explains what is left of Bosnia, and of the indifference at the time.

by Toni Capuozzo

If we look at the numbers, we see relentless decline. Bosnia-Herzegovina is far away from Europe even in its crisis. Poverty, which in the year 2000 touched 15% of the population, raised its white flag two years ago at 18.2%, and now it includes 25% of the population, a quarter of the country. Half a million pensioners live on the minimum pension, 150 euros per month. The numbers of unemployed have reached 43%, and the average salary is around 400 euros a month. We speak of euros with an easy calculation because the convertible mark is worth exactly half a euro, and this alone, as a currency, confers something surreal to the Federation that is the child of the peace accords of 17 years ago. It is the only corner of Europe in which there still exists a currency tied to the German mark, as in a world that is struggling to extricate itself from the past.

Time-bombed peace. Twenty years have passed since the siege of Sarajevo began. Lasting 1,426 days, it was the longest siege in modern times. It began with the shots of Serbian snipers on a pacifist protest march, and went on to the widespread indifference of Europe, which looked on during the ethnic cleansing in the countryside, the mass rapes, the extermination in Srebrenica, and the human target practice in Sarajevo–doing nothing but shaking its head and handing out a little food and medicine that only prolonged the agony. Few voices were raised against those disgraceful events. Ideological loyalties prevented people from choosing on which side to stand.
We didn’t catch on at the time, but what happened in Bosnia went beyond our ability to express it in our inadequate vocabulary. We speak of “war,” yet we don’t really know what it means, so much so that we find it difficult to define what’s going on in Afghanistan, or Libya, or Syria. We speak of “post war” and we have in mind “farewell to arms,” reconstruction, rebirth. And we are unable to define those hatreds that still fester underground, the time-bombed peace agreements from Kosovo to Iraq. We believe ourselves to be the continent of rights and values, yet we sat with our hands in our pockets while the faded images we had seen in our history books–concentration camps and extermination camps–came to life in full color a few miles from our homes.

Milena and the dark. Then, 20 years ago, there were no cell phones, much less the Internet and social networks. Those under siege were still sending letters, through us journalists, like messages in a bottle. But today you can go online to see a virtual museum of survival (you only need to type the keywords “Sarajevo,” “survival,” and “virtual museum”), created by the University of Sarajevo. This museum is dedicated to the thousand stratagems with which the city survived, inventing stoves and lanterns, soap and food. I am always intrigued when I look at that museum, because we live in a world that has made trekking and survival a weekend religion, and it always moves me, because I don’t know much about technical things. I am reminded of my father, who lived through the Second World War, and never threw anything away, not even a bent nail. In Sarajevo, I learned that, in our world, cluttered with all kinds of things, everything can be useful. But I learned too that what is of most use is dignity, precisely what those who attacked us wanted to take from us, reducing us to a target, a chance survivor of the snipers’ bullets.
I have an indelible memory of those four years, and I don’t need anniversaries to bring them before my eyes. Often I would prefer to close them, but there comes back to mind an interview with Milena, a blind woman of Sarajevo, who described the noises and the smells of the siege to me; she had a strong advantage over the others in that she didn’t realize that the lights were out in the evening, and that “everyone was in the dark, like me, but I am used to it,” and not seeing how her city was reduced to rubble. When people ask me what is left of the Sarajevo that was, I find it hard to think of the dream that kept the city alive in the days of the siege, of once more being a laboratory of diversity, of language, and religions, a kaleidoscope of cultures and lives. It was only a dream, inevitably. And I think of that day in Tuzla, in the huge warehouses, where thousands of bodies recovered from the mass graves and the surrounding woods were waiting for the world’s biggest ever forensic operation, in the attempt to link the DNA of the remains with that of the survivors, and give a name and a burial to the victims. Despite the refrigeration, you could not avoid being overcome by the stench of death, amid the rows of shelves where the nylon bags bore labels with a ticket and a number. But there was one relief for the visitors, a refuge for the eyes: the envelopes with the personal effects that could be of use to the relatives for the identification–a pair of spectacles with the frame fixed as well a possible with a piece of tape, some faded photographs creased from being kept in a wallet or a pocketbook, a cigarette lighter, a watch, a comb, a set of false teeth, fingernail scissors, some tablets, or a bunch of keys, as if one day the person would go home. That is what remains. With dignity, yes. I remember that once, along snipers’ alley, I saw an elderly couple collecting grass in a traffic island, surely to add some flavor to their broth. We were filming them bent down over the grass, and they noticed us. I apologized for the intrusion (who would want to be filmed collecting grass?) and they, very firmly and politely, said no, it’s right that the world should know how they were reduced. Show them. For me, it was worse, because I knew the world already knew, and that nothing would happen, because dignity was lacking elsewhere, not there.

We were distracted. Some days ago, I dedicated an episode of the weekly program I direct [“Terra!”–a documentary series on TG5 Italian news] to the 20 years passed since then. A friend of mine wrote me a message, surprised at the images that the late hour had allowed, asking me why I had not sent them on the air back then, and why she was seeing them for the first time. No, they were all images already seen, already sent then, when we were about to lose the illusion that telling and showing could be of any use. We were simply distracted, still enjoying the images of the fall of the Berlin Wall, still running toward a magnificent and progressive end of the century, and what was happening in the Balkans seemed only a leftover of the past, a Rwanda across the Adriatic, a residue to be swept away. The new century, with its September 11th, was still to arrive, and world disorder was still a happy disorder, with a happy ending. This is why remembering this now, those 20 years, is a kind of posthumous ransom, like recalling how much we loved a person only when he is dead.

Invisible boundaries. Last month, ceremonies were held in Sarajevo to mark the anniversary. Nothing pompous or special, because it is a city that knows very well that, in the Balkans, memory has often conjured up repetition; because it is a city that would like to forget, but cannot, partly because of the modesty of the present, and the emptiness of the future, in a country of invisible boundaries, drawn in the souls of its inhabitants.
And if the numbers I quoted at the beginning were not enough to describe what is left of Bosnia, 20 years later, watch a football game where the national team is playing. No player sings along with the national anthem, not because they don’t know the words, but because they cannot agree on a text.