Category Archives: Yugoslavia

How Many Slavic Languages vs. Dialects?

From Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages, by Gaston Dorren (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2015), Kindle Loc. 2006-26:

Whether they’re from the Baltic port of Kaliningrad or from Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan, there’s little difference in the way Russians speak. In Poland, the same holds true: North Poles and South Poles can chat away effortlessly to each other, as can West and East Poles. Even people speaking different Slavic languages can often communicate without much trouble. Bulgarians can converse with Macedonians, Czechs with Slovaks, and Russians with Belarusians and Ukrainians. And, for all their political differences, there is no great language barrier between Croats, Bosnians, Serbs and Montenegrins. In fact, as the eminent nineteenth-century Slovak scholar Ján Kollár suggested, the Slavic world could, with no great effort on the part of its citizens, adopt just four standard languages: Russian, Polish, Czechoslovak and, lastly, what you might call Yugoslav or South Slavic.

There is one language, however, that wouldn’t so easily be absorbed into Kollár’s scheme: Slovene, also known as Slovenian. Admittedly, this is the language of a very small nation. Its entire territory fits no fewer than twelve times into the area of the UK (which is itself not large) and the population, at just over two million, is just a quarter of that of London. And yet, when Slovenes speak their local dialects, many of their compatriots can make neither head nor tail of what they are saying. So just imagine how these dialects would bewilder the members of some of the other nations that Kollár lumped together as ‘South Slavic’, such as the Bulgarians.

How come? Why does Russian span more than four thousand miles from west to east with next to nothing in the way of dialect diversity, whereas the Slovene language area, measuring just two hundred miles from end to end, is a veritable smorgasbord of regional varieties? Which in turn raises the question: how do dialects come about in the first place?

One school of thought, or rather thoughtlessness, holds that dialects are corrupted forms of the standard language – as, for example, in the view that ‘Scouse is just bad English’. This might be one’s automatic reaction, but it’s in fact the wrong way round: dialects come first, and tend to be at the root of any standard language, which is always an artefact. It would be nearer the truth to claim that standards are ‘corrupted’, ‘unnatural’ or ‘perverted’ dialects. For any other variation of any language, regional or otherwise, develops in a largely unselfconscious way, influenced chiefly by its degree of isolation and contact.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Belarus, Bulgaria, Czechia, education, language, nationalism, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, Ukraine, Yugoslavia

Occupation Policy in the Balkans, WWI

From Russia’s Last Gasp: The Eastern Front 1916–17, by Prit Buttar (Osprey, 2016), Kindle Loc. 672-92:

As soon as the fighting men had moved on, occupation authorities began their work. Bulgaria intended that the territory it gained from Serbia would become completely Bulgarian in character. Accordingly, all schools in the Bulgarian zone were required to teach exclusively in Bulgarian, and thousands of Serbian males were arrested in an attempt to reduce the risk of resistance. Officially, they were interned, but the reality was rather different, as an Austro-Hungarian officer reported:

It is known that most of the Serbian intelligentsia, i.e. administrators, teachers, clergy and others, withdrew with the remnants of the Serbian Army, but some have gradually begun to return for personal or material reasons. Here, in occupied territory, it is virtually impossible to find either them or those who did not flee; they have ‘gone to Sofia’ as the new Bulgarian saying goes. These men are handed over to Bulgarian patrols as suspects without any due legal process, with orders that they should be ‘taken to Sofia’. The patrols actually return the following day without them. Whether they are taken 20 or 200km [12 or 120 miles] it is all the same. The patrols take up shovels, disappear into the mountains, and soon return without the prisoners. Bulgarian officers do not even try to conceal the executions, but boast about them.

Whilst such killings were shocking, even to the Austro-Hungarian officer who reported them, they were not unusual for the region. After Serbia seized territory from the Turks during the First Balkan War, Serbian irregulars had carried out many such killings, not stopping with the intelligentsia. 32 During the invasions of 1914, the k.u.k. Army had also committed many atrocities, and after the 1915 invasion there was widespread internment in the area under Austro-Hungarian control, though fewer killings than in 1914. Nevertheless, there were summary executions at the hands of the Austro-Hungarian authorities with little or no legal process. Many of those interned became ill or died as a result of poor housing and inadequate food, and those who were not actually ill were frequently used as forced labour. As was the case in the Bulgarian zone of occupation, schools used the language of the occupiers.

Such policies, designed to crush Serbian national consciousness, had severe effects on productivity in a land already badly scarred by war. Agricultural production plummeted due to the absence of so many men from the countryside; in an attempt to make the conquered land more productive, both Bulgarian and Austro-Hungarian authorities resorted to harsher measures, and inevitably these merely resulted in further resentment and even lower production.

Leave a comment

Filed under Austria, Balkans, Bulgaria, education, Hungary, migration, military, nationalism, war, Yugoslavia

Aftermath in Sarajevo

From Logavina Street, by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau, 2012), Kindle Loc. 3246-3271:

There are some positive developments in the region, mostly emanating from Belgrade. Slobodan Milošević was toppled by popular demonstrations in 2000 and died in 2006 in The Hague, where he was standing trial before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Boris Tadić, Serbia’s president since 2004, is a pro-European liberal who has tried to steer his people away from the belligerent nationalism that was the undoing of Yugoslavia. On May 26, 2011, Serbia arrested sixty-nine-year-old Ratko Mladić, who had been living under an assumed name with relatives. “We have ended a difficult period of our history and removed the stain from the face of Serbia and the members of our nation wherever they live,” Tadić said in announcing the arrest.

Tadić was born in Sarajevo and has come several times as president; a formal state visit to the city in July 2011 raised expectations of better relations. The year before, Tadić had made a tearful pilgrimage to Srebrenica for the fifteenth anniversary of the massacre, July 11, 2010, kneeling at the memorial for victims. (Unfortunately, Tadić has been less conciliatory when it comes to Kosovo, which declared its independence in 2009 and has been recognized by the United States and European Union, but not by Serbia.)

Bosnia’s current leaders are mostly Social Democrats, who inched ahead of the ethnic parties in the general elections in 2010. At Sarajevo’s City Hall, I was ushered in to meet Mayor Alija Behmen, who told me enthusiastically about the various initiatives he hoped would reintegrate Serbs into the city. Working together, he and the mayor of Pale (“a very nice fellow,” said Behmen), had begun a $40 million project to restore the cable car from Sarajevo to Mount Trebević. An even more ambitious proposal would extend Sarajevo’s trams to Pale to make it easier for the estimated ten thousand people per day who commute to the city. “Multiethnicity is the sine qua non of civilization,” said Behmen, a genial man with white wispy hair and pouches under his eyes that reminded me of Frank Morgan playing the Wizard of Oz. “I know everything is still not in the best order, but we are going in the right direction.”

Unfortunately, it’s hard to get things done in Bosnia. The multilayered structure of the Bosnian government almost guarantees paralysis. After the October 2010 elections, it took fifteen months for the Social Democrats to get a coalition government approved. “The reform of public administration is essential,” said Behmen. “Each official has two assistants and each assistant has two assistants and so you have this big pyramid.” With the benefit of hindsight the Dayton pact has been judged a great success insofar as it stopped the war, but it was in essence a cease-fire agreement, not a plan for a functional government.

Bosnia faced an almost-farcical predicament in spring of 2011, when the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) threatened to ban it from competition because there were three presidents of the Bosnian football association instead of just one as required by FIFA. The Bosnian Serb president, Milorad Dodik, put up a fuss, telling reporters he was “against having one president of anything in Bosnia, even a beekeepers’ association.” Although a compromise was reached, it underscored Bosnia’s dilemma: If it barely qualified for international soccer competitions, how could it possibly dream of joining the European Union.

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, nationalism, war, Yugoslavia

Not Exactly Ethnic Conflict in Sarajevo

From Logavina Street, by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau, 2012), Kindle Loc. 1206-1258:

The conflict was commonly defined as “ethnic warfare,” yet everyone comes from the same ethnic stock. The difference among people is primarily in the religions they practice, yet to explain the fighting as a “religious war” would be equally misleading, since most Yugoslavs were not religious people.

The Yugoslav (literally “south Slav”) people are mostly descendants of the Slavic tribes that wandered through the region in the third and fourth centuries. Those who settled to the west took the faith of the Roman Catholic Church in what is now Croatia. To the east, the Serbs assumed the Orthodox Christianity of the Byzantine Empire. The Muslims were Slavs who converted during the four centuries that Bosnia was ruled by the Ottoman Turks.

If you watch a Sarajevo street scene for a few minutes, you will see brunettes, blonds, and redheads, blue eyes and brown eyes, tall and short people. They are more diverse in appearance than the residents of many European capitals. You cannot tell a Serb, Croat, or Muslim by appearance. The only way to tell the difference is by traditionally Muslim, Catholic, and Orthodox given names—although even that method is not fool-proof. Lana Lačević, so named because her mother liked the actress Lana Turner, once told me with her wicked sense of humor, “I’ll decide whether Lana is a Serb or a Muslim name when I see who wins the war.”

In the former Yugoslavia, religion and ethnicity are contentious subjects. Even some of the historical scholarship is slanted by underlying political disputes. Serb and Croat militants—who agree on little else—consider the Muslims to be lapsed Christians who betrayed their faith by collaborating with and taking the religion of an occupying power. The Serbs trot out historical treatises that suggest the Muslims were originally Orthodox. In this way, they have tried to bolster their claim that Bosnia is truly part of “Greater Serbia.”

In 1993, when fighting between Croats and Muslims broke out in western Bosnia, the Croat nationalists adopted a similar tack—insisting that the Bosnians were really lapsed Catholics and that Bosnia belonged historically to Croatia. Actually, some historians have theorized that the medieval Bosnian Church was neither Catholic nor Muslim. Some evidence suggests that pre-Islamic Bosnians were Bogomils—members of a heretical Christian sect. Under this theory, the Bosnians eagerly embraced Islam and the protection the Ottoman Empire provided them from persecution by the Bosnian Church.

In any case, the prevailing view among modern historians is that it was not the Ottoman Turks’ policy to force conversions. Other than the Albanians, the Bosnians were the only Turkish subjects to convert to Islam in large numbers. Nevertheless, under Ottoman rule, Muslims enjoyed certain tax benefits and stood a better chance of retaining large land holdings. As a result, much of the feudal aristocracy converted. This set the stage for a dynamic that would persist into the twentieth century.

Conflicts between Serbs and Muslims were often about economics—a Serb peasant class revolting against a better-educated and wealthier Muslim elite. Not surprisingly, after World War II the Serbs joined the Communist Party in disproportionately high numbers. Muslims lost out when private estates were socialized. The Chetnik militia was inspired by the Hajduk bandits—Robin Hood figures in Serb folklore who robbed Turkish merchants. In 1992, the Serb militiamen who perpetrated the “ethnic cleansing” of Muslims in northern and eastern Bosnia boldly carted off the Muslims’ televisions and VCRs, often in stolen Mercedes.

These class distinctions were more or less obliterated in Sarajevo by the 1990s. There were rich Muslims, poor Muslims; rich Serbs, poor Serbs—and Communists of all religions. On Logavina Street, the last vestiges of the old class order were apparent only in where people lived. The Serbs tended to be clustered in the newer apartment houses, built in the 1950s and 1960s, some of which were used as army housing. The descendants of some of the area’s oldest Muslim families—people like the Džinos, Telalagićs, and Kasumagićs—occupied the single-family houses.

Logavina Street is in the heart of Sarajevo’s old Muslim neighborhood. Nineteenth-century postcards, printed during the Austro-Hungarian period, refer to it as the Turkische Viertel—or Turkish Quarter. Along the street, which stretches less than a third of a mile, there are three mosques, their minarets piercing the distinctive Sarajevo skyline.

Under siege, the call for Muslim prayers came not from the minarets, but from behind a brick wall. Fear of sniper attacks kept muezzins from climbing the stairs of the minarets. At one mosque, a microphone and loudspeakers were installed so that prayers could be called safely from inside. The electricity went off soon after the installation, so the muezzin began summoning the faithful from within a walled courtyard. “It was better before, when you could call from the minaret. It was higher up, louder,” said Alija Žiga, head of a tiny mosque on Logavina.

Despite the faint call, more and more faithful responded. While the cosmopolitan residents of Sarajevo had always thought of themselves as just like other Europeans, the war had made them acutely conscious of their differences. As Šaćira Lačević commented, “We never knew we were Muslims before. The Serbs forced it on us, so now I try to remind my girls not to forget who they are.”

Religion was one of the few refuges for those with little hope. With most businesses closed, no movie theaters or electricity to watch television, praying at the mosque was at least something to do. “People are coming back to Islam, sort of like rediscovering themselves and their roots,” said Edin Smajović, an army officer in his late twenties who lives on Logavina. Like others of his generation, he had come of age under Marshal Tito’s Communist regime, when religion was discouraged.

“Islam is very appealing to people right now because Islam is a religion that is not afraid of death. Every day here is a game of Russian roulette—you don’t know if you will be alive or not—so you have to believe in something,” he said. “We used to say ‘Thank Tito.’ Now we say ‘Thank you, dear God.’”

Most of the Muslims on Logavina Street did not follow the religious strictures. Some didn’t eat pork, but very few were averse to an occasional beer or brandy. Ekrem and Minka Kaljanac showed me their old photo album filled with pictures of the boys sitting on Santa Claus’s lap. “I celebrate all the holidays—Christmas, too,” Ekrem said.

Muslims visited their Catholic friends for Christmas dinner, and celebrated Christmas again with their Orthodox friends in early January. For Bajram, the most important Muslim holiday, Muslims hosted their Christian friends and neighbors.

Leave a comment

Filed under language, nationalism, religion, war, Yugoslavia

Sarajevans Angry at Everyone, 1994

From Logavina Street, by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau, 2012), Kindle Loc. 2113-2184:

NATO had executed maneuvers during 1994 to try to dissuade the Serbs from their attack. In April, U.S. F-16s and FA-18s bombed Serb troops when they attempted to overrun the UN safe haven, Goražde, in eastern Bosnia, and NATO warplanes struck again in November to protect the enclave of Bihac.

The air strikes were timid measures—pinpricks, denounced the critics. They only enraged the Bosnian Serbs, who retaliated by seizing UN soldiers as hostages and cutting off humanitarian access to Sarajevo.

The NATO ultimatum was a bluff and the Serbs had seen through it. By mid-December, the Bosnian Public Health Institute reported 109 Sarajevans killed and more than 500 wounded since February 9, when the ultimatum was issued. Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter flew into Bosnia the weekend before Christmas to patch together a new cease-fire. He was in Pale with Radovan Karadžić the afternoon of December 20, when two 120-millimeter mortar shells hit Marije Bursać Street, around the corner from Logavina. They mangled a bicycle, sent laundry flying, and annihilated the kitchen of a house whose elderly occupants were out collecting humanitarian aid.

Logavina residents were enraged, none more so than Esad Taljanović. The dentist’s six-year-old son, Emir, was playing outside when the shells detonated about a hundred yards away. Emir came back home, frightened and tearful.

“You see, I should not let my son out for thirty seconds,” raged Taljanović. He was furious with the Serbs, the United Nations, and Jimmy Carter. “It is the same thing as if Truman stood next to Hitler and negotiated with him.”

Ekrem Kaljanac picked up the telephone, the only working appliance in his apartment, since the electricity was off again.

“Yes, hello,” he said. Then, cupping his hand over the mouthpiece, “It’s Hillary Clinton. She’s worried about us and was wondering how we’re doing.”

Ekrem’s mischievous performance was intended to point out the absurdity of the idea that anybody in the United States, least of all in the White House, cared about Sarajevo.

Sarajevans were fed up with politicians, diplomats, bureaucrats, relief agencies, and everybody who had promised to help, then failed to deliver.

People were especially frustrated with the United States and the vacillating policies emanating from the White House. Sarajevans had believed Clinton when he promised, during his presidential campaign, to be more proactive in Bosnia than George Bush. “If the horrors of the Holocaust taught us anything, it is the high cost of remaining silent and paralyzed in the face of genocide,” Clinton had said in August 1992, while Sarajevans were huddled helplessly in their bomb shelters.

Ekrem mercilessly teased his wife. Minka, like many of the women on Logavina, had been charmed by Clinton, who they thought resembled John F. Kennedy.

“I saw Clinton a lot on television. He was so good-looking. He was promising a lot and I believed him,” Minka confessed sheepishly. “I was convinced that the Americans were going to bomb the Serbs and end the war.”

“Clinton lies. He behaves like an actor,” interjected Ekrem bitterly. His brother, Safet, joined in. “I watch the news. Americans are more interested in a cat in New York than they are in Bosnians.”

It was not only Clinton’s political rhetoric that persuaded Sarajevans the United States would rescue them; they saw America as the embodiment of the multiethnic state they hoped to create in Bosnia.

A popular poster hanging in cafés around Sarajevo depicted an American flag with a Bosnian lily next to the stars, suggesting that Bosnia become the fifty-first state. Moreover, Bosnians were so utterly convinced of the righteousness of their cause, they simply couldn’t believe that the United States would not do something—anything—to intervene.

The invective was also directed against journalists. An emotionally unbalanced woman in her thirties who lived in the Kaljanacs’ apartment building cursed and spit on the ground whenever she saw us coming. Although most Logavina residents remained unfailingly polite and hospitable, they, too, vented their frustration.

“Aren’t you ashamed that your country has done nothing but stand by and watch us die?” Esad demanded of us as his wife served us coffee in their dining room.

Sead Vranić best encapsulated the mood of Sarajevo during that increasingly dangerous month of December 1994. “All days are the same now. You get up and see if you have electricity, or water. You listen to what Clinton says in the morning, and hear that he’s changed his mind by afternoon, then discover in the evening he has forgotten what he said in the morning,” Sead said wearily.

It was not as though Bosnia was being ignored. The peacekeeping mission in the former Yugoslavia was the largest and costliest in the United Nations’ history, consuming some $1.6 billion a year. That didn’t take into account the extra $700 million spent by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

The UN Security Council had passed more than one hundred resolutions dealing with the Yugoslav conflict. Most of them were laughably ineffectual. For example, Resolution 752 stated: “The Council demands that all parties concerned in Bosnia and Herzegovina stop the fighting immediately.”

Between the diplomats and bureaucrats, the soldiers, aid workers, and journalists, there were more foreigners in Sarajevo than there had been since the 1984 Olympics. By a conservative count, there were at least 150 nongovernmental agencies working in the area, ranging from Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) to the comic spin-off Clowns sans Frontières, which brought jugglers to entertain Bosnian children.

Yet all the money and good intentions didn’t alleviate the cold, dark nights with nothing to eat. It didn’t stop the shellings and it didn’t stop the sniper fire. Sarajevans resented the foreigners, witnesses to their indignity. They scorned the UN anti-sniper teams who did too little to stop the snipers. They hissed at the TV crews that staked out the dangerous intersections, waiting to film the next sniper victim.

Sarajevans had turned against the United Nations since Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s visit to the city on New Year’s Eve 1992, after which he commented: “I understand your frustration, but you have a situation that is better than ten other places in the world.… I can give you a list.”

Their anger had turned to outright paranoia. “It is like they are experimenting on us to see how much we can take,” remarked the normally sensible Jela, echoing an increasingly common sentiment.

Sarajevans were angry—at everyone. Their free-floating rage hung over the city. The summer of 1994 had been like a furlough from prison, a chance to relax. Having let down their guard once, they couldn’t psychologically gird themselves for the relapse of war. They were starting to lose it.

The spirit of cooperation that had sustained Sarajevo through 1992 and 1993 was under enormous strain. Hardliners in Izetbegović’s ruling Party of Democratic Action proposed banning Serbian songs from the radio. Sarajevans cherished the maudlin Serbian love songs and the proposition failed, but the militants persisted and in October, BiH Television censored a comedy skit poking fun at Islamic fundamentalists. Ljiljan, an Islamic magazine, set off another debate by questioning the propriety of mixed marriage.

“To be honest, I hate Serbs a little more now. The Croats, too,” Ekrem Kaljanac declared in a pique of resentment. Sarajevans were quicker to speak deprecatingly not only of Serbs and Croats but also of the Muslim refugees who were pouring in from the villages of eastern Bosnia. They called the refugees papaks, or peasants.

The neighbors on Logavina Street quarreled more frequently. Jealousy was rife, especially when it came to utilities. One evening when I was visiting the Kaljanacs, the family was using enough stolen electricity to illuminate a twenty-five-watt lamp. Each time they heard steps in the hallway, they guiltily unscrewed the pathetic little lightbulb, lest anyone discover their secret.

Twenty years later, the “International Community” has hardly changed its modus operandi.

Leave a comment

Filed under nationalism, NGOs, publishing, U.N., U.S., war, Yugoslavia

Serbs Stymie UN, NATO, NGOs, 1994

From Logavina Street, by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau, 2012), Kindle Loc. 2413-2434:

Whatever semblance of order the United Nations had brought to Sarajevo disintegrated in the last week of May. Serb soldiers marched into a UN-guarded compound and rode off with confiscated tanks and heavy artillery that were off-limits under the latest cease-fire. In protest, NATO warplanes bombed a Serb ammunition depot near Pale.

The Serb retaliation was pitiless and highly effective. They shelled a strip of outdoor cafés in the northern Bosnian city of Tuzla, killing seventy-one people, mostly teenagers. (Unlike the February 5, 1994, market bombing in Sarajevo, nobody bothered to deny it. Serb commander Ratko Mladić boasted that the shelling was punishment for the NATO air strikes.)

Across Bosnia, the Serbs captured hundreds of UN peace-keepers as a deterrent to further air strikes. Pale television flaunted the Serbs’ captives, broadcasting footage of the peace-keepers shackled to poles and bridges. On June 2, a U.S. F-16 flying above the Bosnian Serb stronghold of Banja Luka was shot down and disappeared.

“They are the UN Protection Forces, but they cannot even protect themselves,” said Bosnian prime minister Haris Silajdžić.

It was almost unbelievable. The Republika Srpska, with a population of 800,000—about the size of Greater Pittsburgh—had brought the combined powers of the United Nations and NATO to their knees.

The roads northwest of Sarajevo that the United Nations had been using for land convoys were now shut down. The Serbs stepped up their attacks on the Mount Igman Road, opening fire with anti-aircraft guns on the armored cars of journalists and aid workers. With the siege tightening, there was no flour or sugar for sale anywhere in Sarajevo.

I ran into Suada’s sister-in-law, Aida, who was desperately looking for powdered milk. She had had a baby in May and her breast milk had dried up from poor nutrition. The monthly distribution of humanitarian aid had dwindled to one cup of oil and half a pound of dried peas, beans, and rice per person.

“Believe me. The person who is eating only that humanitarian aid is dead already,” declared Jela.

The sense of abandonment was acute. “The whole world is protesting three hundred UN peacekeepers in chains while we, an entire nation, have been in chains for three years,” complained Esad Taljanović.

Leave a comment

Filed under food, NGOs, U.N., U.S., war, Yugoslavia

Hoping for D-Day in Sarajevo, 1994

From Logavina Street, by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau, 2012), Kindle Loc. 1930-75:

Enough was enough. The shelling of Sarajevo had to stop. Led by the United States and France, NATO issued an ultimatum: The Serbs were to withdraw their heavy-caliber weapons twelve miles away from Sarajevo or place them under the control of United Nations forces. Any weapons left within striking distance of Sarajevo would be subject to air strikes. The Serbs were given ten days to comply. The deadline was set for one o’clock on the morning of February 21—D-day as the Sarajevans were calling it, giddy with anticipation.

The planes were invisible, obscured by the persistent cloud cover of a Bosnian winter, but they made an impressive roar, drowning out normal conversation and rippling the plastic sheeting taped across the broken windowpanes. Sarajevo shuddered, but nobody complained about the noise. They looked up to the fog-shrouded skies with anticipation that the roar was a message from above and redemption was on its way.

“I’m so happy. I’m trembling when I hear the airplanes,” said Delila, her eyes glittering with excitement.

NATO forces had been patrolling the skies over Bosnia since 1992 as part of a limited mandate to enforce the no-fly zone, and to provide air cover for the UN troops on the ground. The United States had the largest number of planes in the NATO fleet, and Sarajevans had cherished the belief that these Americans would eventually come to their rescue. It was a hope nurtured by a steady diet of American films, television, and recollections of World War II.

Alija Žiga, the seventy-two-year-old head of the mosque behind the courtyard, had just finished leading services for the start of Ramadan when he came out to talk to some neighbors. He had fought with Tito’s partisans. “I was behind the front lines. The Germans had us surrounded and they were trying to starve us to death. Then, all of a sudden, these American planes flew overhead and they dropped—you are not going to believe this—hot goulash.”

Some had darker recollections. In 1943, when the Allies tried to bomb a Nazi headquarters housed in the Razija Omanović school, they mistakenly hit the Hajrić house two doors down. Suad Hajrić’s father was killed in the accident.

Almost all anybody could talk about was how the Americans were about to liberate Sarajevo. They imagined it would be a cross between the Normandy invasion and the Desert Storm bombing of Iraq in 1991. Nermin Džino declared, “The Americans missed a few targets in Iraq. I want the air strikes, even if they end up bombing my backyard by mistake.”

Delila agreed. “If I get killed by an American bomb, I won’t mind so much as if it’s a Chetnik bomb.”

As the deadline grew closer, and the Serbs continued to balk, the NATO planes flew lower and more frequently, buzzing the Serb artillery positions in warning. Everybody was convinced the Serbs would be bombed into submission. Delila was out of control. Four nights before the deadline, she ran out of the bomb shelter in the orphanage at midnight to cheer at the NATO planes flying low through the clouds.

“Come on! Come on! Do it!” she yelled, until a policeman walked by and urged her to go back inside.

Tarik Kaljanac woke up one morning, stumbled into the kitchen as his parents were watching the television news, and asked Minka, “Mom, is this the end of the war? Are the Americans really going to help us?”

The weekend before Monday, February 21—D-day—police knocked on doors up and down Logavina Street, advising people to take precautions in case the air strikes missed their targets, or, more likely, the Serbs sought retribution. A rumor swept Sarajevo that the Serbs had a new weapon, a poison gas they planned to unleash on the city. The police showed residents how to fashion a gas mask out of dishwashing liquid and a cotton rag.

After one police visit, Minka confessed she was more afraid than ever. “I worry that the Chetniks will be so angry they have to withdraw that they’ll shell us with all they’ve got. They are sore losers.”

As darkness descended on Sunday evening, Minka hung a heavy blue wool blanket over her living room window, which faced Mount Trebević. You never wanted any light glinting out to make a target for the gunners in the hills. She packed sleeping bags for the family, bread, and a canister of water in case they needed to take cover in the basement of the school. The dishwashing liquid was on the kitchen table, just in case.

The anticlimax should have been predictable. First, the Serbs balked at the conditions set by NATO and Sarajevo filled up with television crews from around the world who were expecting a rerun of the Persian Gulf War. Then Russian president Boris Yeltsin offered to send Russian troops to secure areas from which the Serbs had withdrawn. The Serbs viewed Russia as their political ally and accepted a deal under which most of their heavy weapons were delivered to UN-monitored collection sites.

Ekrem and Minka had stayed up until 1 A.M., playing cards and listening to the radio. “You always expect something to happen, and then the next morning, it is just the same old crap,” Ekrem complained the following day as he wolfed down a lunch of rice and canned meat.

Kira was also annoyed, having stayed up all night not to await the NATO bombardment, but because the baby was fussing. “Let me tell you about the world,” she said wearily. “I’ve heard all of it before. They always make promises they don’t keep. They said they would attack—they didn’t do it—and now, whatever they do or say really doesn’t interest me.”

Yet it couldn’t be denied: The shelling had stopped. Sarajevo was quiet again. You could even hear the birds. Sure, there was an occasional burst of gunfire around the Holiday Inn, or an odd boom from the direction of the front lines, but Sarajevo was, for the most part, safe.

Leave a comment

Filed under France, U.N., U.S., war, Yugoslavia