SARAJEVO, JANUARY 27, 1996|
There's something nasty in the air here.
A condition that gets little, if any, play in the press. It is the sheer burnout that cloaks this land like a wet blanket. Everyone is feeling it, from old Bosnian press hacks and aid workers to NATO troopers and the Bosnians themselves. No one can quite put a finger on the Bosnia blahs and it's not just the weather.
Let me go back in time, to the crazy days of the war. While it is true that there was a great deal of hardship and tragedy, there was something about life during wartime that was bonding. Life had an edge to it. Life was something that you felt, as well as lived. Death could come calling in any number of ways and at any moment. We all lived with that, and the adrenaline rush that life on the edge kicks into your gut. There was urgency in everyone's day, adding flavor to life. I think we all might have even savored it a little. It was the kind of situation that brought people together, closely, however fleeting the moment.
Slowly, Sarajevo cleans up after four years of war. New dumpsters replace those trashed by shellfire.
During a botched cease-fire attempt early last year, the U.N. removed anti-sniping barriers. This time, a wary Sarajevo is leaving them up.
|In the press corps, the blah
is instantly apparent. I start with them because when you go trekking around,
the press are the first people you usually check in with. The standard
question is, as it always was, "what's going on?" These days,
the answer is a groaned out, "nothing." The fixers, those enterprising
locals who translate for the foreign reporters and somehow make
things happen, feel it too. Everyone is in a bad mood. The war
has ended, but not with a Paris-in-'44 bang.
It is more like a maddening pause and no one seems to know if the bang-bang will start again. For now, for this year at least, all will be quiet. Certainly there is still a hint of danger in the air from the ever-present mines and the still-lurking Mujahadeen, but these are very shadowy things, devoid of the certainty of an active front line. For now, the story is all about following special envoys to the special envoy of the super-special attaché to the supreme special diplomatic mission to the former Yugoslavia while they go looking for mass graves. An important story in the bigger sense of things, of course, but lacking the dash of a hundred mile-an-hour run down sniper alley to Kosovo hospital with a rental car full of wounded.
Don't get me wrong. People are no longer dying
and that is a good thing. But there's something missing, even in Sarajevo, that
held us all together. The Bosnians are feeling it, too. In Sarajevo,
that little wink from the old people as we scuttled from cover
to cover is gone. People no longer smile on the street. Everyone
is grumpy from the hangover of mega-proportions that follows
a four-year-long adrenaline binge.
Now there seems to be a general dissatisfaction with everything. I asked around to try to find out what was bugging people. The thing I got back was that people were dissatisfied with the Dayton plan. I could understand that to a degree, but the shelling had stopped and once the handover of all of Sarajevo to the Bosnian government takes place, no one would ever again be able to blast away at the city again. Not good enough, say most of the Bosnians I talk with. They want all of the country. That was the politics of it.
With peace comes a return to near-normalcy. A mother buys her child a treat at a kiosk in what was once one of the deadliest parts of Sarajevo's 'Sniper Alley.'
Waiting for rotation out of Bosnia, a fundamentalist attack or a chance to hit the new, portable Burger King at Tuzla AFB, NATO soldiers face long, boring hours staring into deserted zones of separation.
I've started seeing Bosnia's problem clearly. The problem with
Bosnia is the Bosnians. Serbs, Croats and Muslims all, they seem to
be never satisfied. They had a beautiful country with beautiful
women, beautiful mountains, good wine and intelligent, creative
youth. But it wasn't good enough. They had to go and dig up
their own special brand of Ethnic-Balkan politics, wreck the place,
then act like the rest of the world owes them something for their
This is particularly evident in the BiH-controlled areas. Anyone who deals with foreigners on a regular basis is definitely on the take now. Crime is also a new danger, and I don't mean the petty stuff expected in a city under siege. Crime now has a sinister, murderous edge to it that didn't exist before. It is even more baffling to me, since the roads are now open and commerce is flowing and people can go to work. There is a younger element in the city that will kill you for forty Deutche marks. I know, because I met them, and if I hadn't been perfectly ready and able to defend myself with deadly force, they would have killed me.
It's like the fog of war has cleared and people are looking around and seeing just how badly they have bankrupted themselves. No matter who you hold responsible for this war, let me assure you. When it comes to the root cause, point the finger at the Balkans themselves. There's a word for it in the dictionary: Balkanization.
Remember, it was not the West or the East that started this war.
The Chech and Slovak republics split with no problems. Other nations
emerged from the Iron Curtain without slaughtering each other
for four long and miserable years. What happened here was a direct
result of Balkan society, Balkan culture and Balkan politics.
All this is contributing to the "Balkan Blahs."
There is also a new complaint among those in the American sector. The Americans are not as friendly as the Danes or Norwegians. This is a symptom of the "IFOR Blahs." The American Army is trained for fighting, and largely attracts fighters to its ranks. It is not an army that likes to sit around on checkpoints directing traffic. We also have been briefed on the Balkans in perhaps the most evenhanded manner possible. American troops generally look at this lovely land and ask themselves, "what the hell happened?" They have not been tainted by the press, whom they largely distrust (from domestic exposure anyway) and so they are not really pro-anybody. Fact of the matter is, the American troops generally trust no one here, the concept of mutual slaughter for vague ethnic reasons being so alien to their thinking. Instead, U.S. troops face the threat of terrorist attack from fundamentalist Muslims that even includes an American. Match that with endless and numbing boredom and "Blah" becomes an understatement.
As I said earlier, it's hard to put a finger on it, this general feeling of being covered by a stifling, wet blanket. If you have not been immersed in this place, it is impossible to understand. But it remains odd. Thousands die, a country is destroyed, and people are more depressed now than when it was happening.
The foreigners here tend to be passionate; war hacks, aid workers and soldiers, we all tend to be passionate about life and our jobs. It is a feeling we share with the Bosnians who are also a passionate peoplepassionate about their food, their smoking and drinking, their politics and their wars. It is those passions that makes this place a love-hate relationship for a lot of us. It's those passions that breathe fire and light to this place, sometimes too much. It is also passion that will make or break this place. The fires that ignited this country are banked for now. What will happen when they stir themselves awake is anyone's guess.