The streets here are littered with divots in the concrete, splashed with red paint and framed. They are the Roses of Sarajevo and they are scars in the ground from the explosions of mortar shells during the war and serve as a monument to the innocent lives that were lost in that spot. As the asphalt of the city gets slowly replaced the roses disappear, but the memory of the very recent war will take much longer to die out.
My time here happened to coincide with the persecution of Former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic but his imprisonment I’m sure brings very little solace to the survivors the 1,425 days(!) of horror the siege of Sarajevo bore witness to at his hands only just over twenty years ago. This may read as very white-traveller-esque, but I don’t care. For me being here has been completely engrossing and important and learning about this war that I knew very little of (because the Australian school system teaches nothing of the real world) has humbled me beyond comprehension. Nothing opens the eyes like seeing a photo of a man waiting for bread, inside out and hanging on a railing. Sarajevo has come a long way since the war, but it’s too recent to not still be considered fresh. When someone who is younger than me can remember being shot at, it really brings things into perspective.
It’s not like every citizen of Bosnia and Herzegovina is crippled from the war, indeed I have met a lot of people who seem fine and well adjusted, and the country is in some parts moving on as best it can. Yet, under the skin of it all, it’s very hard not to see the root of devastation and the core pain of a people trying to live with the shadows of the recent past hovering over them.
For a break from the darkness of Sarajevo, I took a day trip to Mostar. It was beautiful and enthralling and again, completely saddening with its history. To say that one area of war was less horrible than another is impossible, so seeing photos and reading about the time that these people were going through while I was happily running about a farm in rural NSW oblivious to children my own age dodging gunfire, was confronting. I checked out the Snipers Nest at the suggestion of a friend. It’s the old bank tower and was used during the war by Serb snipers to take out the people of Mostar. It had an eerie feel to it, broken glass and old bank receipts littered the ground and the walls were covered with graffiti depicting motifs of war in many variations. While I was there a group of tourists were laughing and running around and trying to take the perfect group shot on the roof. It made me feel ill.
I met with a young local gay man, who fed me a point of view of his life I hadn’t considered. I was talking to him about the marriage equality postal vote passing in Australia and with it the months of negativity and brutality that the LGBTQIA people of Australia had to endure, and he said that he wasn’t at all surprised, that with exposure and spotlight came danger. If you are out in the open you are susceptible to fire. If you are hidden and safe, no one can find you. In this country, no one speaks of the gays and indeed cannot find them enough to throw an insulting word let along a hate crime. They may not be free to hold hands in public or marry one another, but at least they are safe from persecution of any kind. It was an interesting take on gay rights that I had never even thought of, indeed, one really only people who had spent their lives under literal fire would perhaps consider. For the voices of the sunken to be heard we have to bear the brunt of resistance and that’s the price we pay, but some pockets of the world are still trying to fix the core of their society and I guess the little people just have to wait it out till their time comes, safe in the shadows.
Back in Sarajevo I went to a “museum”, which is at least what the young man who ran it referred to it as, which was a bunker built in the basement of his home that his father put together from memory of his time in the war. This young man showed us news footage of the war that looked like something from the dark web, and after he sat down to talk to me and the other girl I was with about his experience, and his honesty was shocking, but to him I supposed was part of his healing process. He was born into the war – born into hell, as he described it – so knew no other way to be. Life as he knew it was in extreme poverty and rationing and caution at every corner. The first phrase he learned and said often was “Budi pazljiv”(“be careful”) because that was what everyone said to each other as they left the safety of the house and chanced the streets in the open air of sniper fire. He was shot at and nearly killed when he was playing in his backyard as a toddler, and he was one of the lucky ones. He described his wishes and dreams to us which seem idyllic, of a world where no one is hurt and everyone lives in peace with nature because we are all just people. We are not different, we are just humans. He showed us a clip of George Carlin describing the insanity of human behaviour, how we are the only creatures on this planet who torture kill and segregate one another. He laughed along at the ridiculousness of the species of animal he was born into. This young man dreams of a world of harmony but was born into the throws of hell and raised in a world trying to make sense of the senseless. He is fragile and broken. His parents are broken shells of the people they used to be, the time in the three and a half year long siege has left scars within them that refuse to heal. This young man refers to himself as Zero One, because who he presents himself as to the world is the only thing in his life he has any control over. His childhood of innocence and evolution was robbed and the child his parents named and raised at that time was not something of his choosing. Who would choose that? He talks of bafflement as to how anyone could wish harm on others in that way. The people of Sarajevo did not believe that war would happen, but then there it was, and it didn’t recede for years and will continue to loom for many more.
While here learning all I could about the war and engulfing information and first-hand accounts, it was impossible not to reflect on my own country. Back in Australia the Manus Island atrocity (because it is not a ‘situation’ it is an atrocity) reached fever pitch while I was here in Bosnia, and reading and hearing stories of war survivors and refugees just only two decades ago – in my lifetime – really brought home how disgusting the entire situation is. How anyone can abide or partake in a situation of war is beyond me. How anyone can refuse the aid of another begging for it is beyond me. How Australia, a country built on the backs of migrants and the charred flesh of its indigenous people, could turn a blind eye to its cruel history and learn nothing of sympathy and kindness, is beyond me. What is history if not the mistakes of a past era to reflect on and blocks to use to build a better world? Zero One described tradition as the disgusting marks we bear and use to inflict savagery on one another. He puts it thus: if a piece of technology, a smartphone for instance, becomes outdated and a newer model is released; what do we do? We discard the old phone and get a new one. We don’t cling to it because it no longer fits into the society we’ve moved into. The values that used to be held at a different time no longer suit the world we have evolved into and should, therefore, be subject to shelving as part of history. The horrors of the siege of Sarajevo seemed like the echoes of a person who learned nothing from the mistakes of World War 2. Atrocity did not win then and it didn’t win in the 90s and it won’t win in the future, but testing the thought out will cost so, so many lives. The dead are relieved of the pain but the living suffers from the memory. Australia is free and safe and there are people on their open knees begging for help and instead of opening the door and being a mate, it shoves them into another form of hell, different from the one they’re fleeing but a similar shade of evil nonetheless. These are not the actions of a sound-minded nation. It’s a kid with a magnifying glass burning ants not because he knows why but simply because the other bigger kids are doing it, a kid who is not yet big enough himself to step back and say no, this is wrong.
Zero One ended our time together by again lamenting why people are the way they are. He said that we keep looking back and clinging to tradition when we should be letting go, embracing what we have and where we are. The world is ours and we should take care of it, and each other, for we are all the same people, and instead of looking back on the pages of history we should look to each other and to the stars and the possibilities of the future. It’s all very utopic I know, but if even one person who has the power to stop someone from losing their life at the hands of another had the same train of thought, then maybe we could let roses bloom from the earth we live on instead of carving them out in shame in the concrete.