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This is from Bosnia Report

Bosnia is Far Away

by Mirko Djordjevic

The journey from Belgrade to Sarajevo takes over twelve hours, and is by no means a simple excursion.

Images of a scorched land. This is a land made wretched by the madness of a Balkan nationalism; these are places lauded by talentless poets as the sites of 'great Serb victories'. Everything has been destroyed 'scientifically' and with system - the roads 'disabled', so that the police car escorting us moves with difficulty - just as the seeds of the evil bloom that flowered here so profusely were sown systematically. From Kladnje to Olovo the scenes never change. Vogosca has been burned down, only in Srednja does the occasional house show some sign of life and the Mrvica ['Crumb'] cafe remind us that there are still people alive here. And so, on to the martyred city of Sarajevo, whose ruins now come into sight. The tragedy of this country seen close up is far greater than we have been told by the press. And so, though the already revived streets of the city, to the Holiday Inn hotel where, under strict security, the Serb Civic Council (SCC) is holding its conference.

The Serb Civic Council

The SCC is not a political party, but a movement bringing all citizens of Serb nationality together, on the broadest basis, in hope of a 'single and united Bosnia-Herzegovina': a theme present also in the preparatory documents for the conference, and introduced likewise by the national anthem sung by girls from the Sarajevske pahulje ['Sarajevo Snowflakes'] choir. There was no shortage of excitement: you could sense it in the moist eyes of officers in Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina uniforms, or in the eyes of the conference participant who introduced himself as a 'Muslim and businessman'. Everyone did indeed pay homage 'in his own way' (as SCC president Mirko Pejanovic requested) to the victims of the war. These sentiments were expressed in messages to the assembly that included a warmly applauded one in the name of our Republika.

The Bosnian Cardinal Puljic asked in his message for a 'plenitude of blessings' upon the conference participants. Mihajlo Mihajlov, writing from the United States, called for the preservation of a free and multicultural Bosnia. All the messages, and the president's speech in particular, contained the same thought: the country will rise from the ruins as a free federation of its peoples, realizing the French Revolution's ideal of a nation as a community of citizens who, precisely in their diversity, gain the opportunity to preserve their individuality. The aim of the Serb people is for the war to stop, for the criminals to be punished, and for the process of democratization in Serbia and Croatia to begin - since without this, as Prime Minister Hasan Muratovic rightly emphasized, there is no future for Bosnia either.

The City and its Citizens

Sarajevo, for its part, still looks like a ghost town. Military patrols move by in APCs with machine guns on their turrets; by freshly dug graves in the town centre people stand honouring their dead; in front of the mosque young men prepare for their ritual ablutions, and are not in the least embarrassed by the questions of their Belgrade interlocutors: 'We believe in One God, but it seems we did not believe enough; whence this evil, equal for all.' You can sense the same idea in the words of a policeman, a Serb, who believes that 'this will all pass, of course, once we regain our reason.' Hope, it seems, is growing. But there is also the shadow of fear. 'What we have done will be remembered against us!': from the turn of phrase I gather she is a Serb, despite her tranquil expression. This is unfortunately how things are: collective memory is formed in accordance with some such laws, and here in the Balkans and in our lands it can last for centuries. A walk along the streets is marked by alternation between this kind of anxiety and hope. It is expressed to me best by a man who speaks of 'two factors that have saved the city' - and which, he believes, will save Bosnia as well. First, there was the unprecedented solidarity of all people, both our own and people from throughout the world; in the days of suffering they were all Bosnians - the most influential figures of world art and science, and the Pope in Rome, and people of all nationalities and faiths from Belgrade, who were alive to the voice of conscience and who rebelled against 'the destroyers from the hills'. And then the town too resisted, with its living spirit of centuries of established urban existence and multiculturalism, which really did prove to be a barrier: the Serb Orthodox priest - the only one not to leave Sarajevo - likewise speaks very convincingly about this second factor.

One discovers here that hope is not without foundation. Those who planned for partition on the ethnic principle are now confronted with the possibility that any other country - even their own - could be partitioned in accordance with that same principle. Authentic tragedy implies also catharsis, and it was with a discussion of catharsis that Mirko Pejanovic both began and ended his speech. Bosnia is far away, but from this hope to a free Bosnia is not too far.

The Thorny Path to Reconciliation

On the way back everything is the same: the ruins, the burnt-out houses, the wasteland all the way to Dizdarusa and the 'line of separation'; the same police escort through the land that emerges behind the wasteland of destruction. The Republika representative is now invited to go to Tuzla, where numerous meetings between representatives of all confessions have been planned, with the aim of seeking paths of reconciliation and mutual forgiveness. These are indeed thorny paths, but the tireless American diplomat Thomas Hudson is persistent. The 'Summer University' is just opening in the city, and representatives of all religions are meeting one another. The formal conclusions are not important, nor the appeals that are signed: what is important is the spirit of an encounter in pursuit of dialogue. In the real sense of the word, however, this is still lacking. Bishop Vasilije of Zvornik and Tuzla is not there in the handsome bishop's palace: he has left and is not returning, so that all Church duties are carried out by the hardworking Caslav Jevremovic whom the Serb Patriarch Pavle appointed as sub-deacon (he is now deacon), so that life in and around the Church might continue.

However, it is hard to get a proper picture of the situation in which the remaining Serbs in Tuzla find themselves - hard, precisely because there are still no real meetings and no real dialogue. According to Jevremevic, there are only about three thousand Serbs still living in the city, though others say that as many as twelve thousand have remained. Some say the situation is difficult, but Jevremovic insists that: 'to judge from its accounts this bishopric, though cut in half, is still one of the wealthiest in our Church.' There are other and far deeper problems that cannot be assessed even approximately, because not everybody here is yet ready to talk normally, says Jevremovic. But he praises the cooperation of the local authorities: 'We have no problems here; the police react promptly to every incident, however minor.'

The Serbs' greatest difficulties are in fact to be found - in the conduct of the Serb Civic Council! Strange, to say the least. But perhaps not. We all believe what we say, but a problem cannot be understood on the basis of what one side alone says. Jevremovic criticizes the SCC officials for being indifferent to the Church: 'The Church doesn't interest them. Pejanovic came, he visited the Catholics, but he didn't call at our Church.' The SCC representatives, of course, have a different tale to tell. The truth could be ascertained in a free dialogue, of a kind that still does not exist but that can be expected along the thorny path of reconciliation.

There is another problem here, even more complicated. Some citizens, according to Jevremovic, 'even advocate an autocephalous Church' in Bosnia. But to what extent this problem weighs upon relations within the Serb community is hard to judge, since, once again, there is still no dialogue. Nor is there enough relevant information.

At all events, Serbs in Tuzla do not have an easy time. The nationalist press frequently targets Jevremovic and even the Church. But if peace could be consolidated, all paths - including the path of reconciliation - would become easier.

There are plenty of encounters and that is good. They too have been important, because they open up and acknowledge problems. Some of them are painful. One such is certainly the daily commemorative one on the promenade where a shell took away seventy-one lives of young men and women who were sitting enjoying themselves in the old part of the city. This even is recalled by Mak Dizdar's lines - about the land 'in which people die so that people can live' - carved into the memorial wall before which prayer is the only comment a rational human being can or should make. That reminder is heard as a single voice at this place, when a prayer for the dead is said by a Serb Orthodox priest, an imam or a rabbi, by a Catholic prelate or by any other citizen who stops here.

It is only in places like this that meetings and inter-confessional dialogues acquire their full meaning. In Tuzla hope did not die with those young people: the warning remained, giving strength to others. Against all evil, both that 'from the hills' and that within us - within all of us.

All around - from Dizdarusa as far as Novo and Staro Brdo, and to the village of Rahici where no sign of life is visible - images of destruction, not a single house left whole.

The most sensitive questions here are: what will happen with the elections, and with Karadzic; who, and at what 'level', will be taking the final decision?

Human Rights in Semberija

On the way back, escorted by the OSCE police and nice Mr Hecker, on the 'Serb entity' border there are no problems when Mr Hecker is there. On the facades, pictures of Arkan and slogans about 'Serb Yugoslavia' - a symbolism and iconography that are not unknown to us. These graffiti remain - they are hard to remove. They remain on the ruins beneath which many human lives lie buried - along with the plans of the great fathers and teachers of hatred who, at the end of our century and our millennium, initiated this great engineering of death.

Bijeljina, in the heart of Semberija, appears peaceful. Mayor Misic gives our party a friendly reception. On hearing we are from Republika and Srpska Rec, however, he says meaningly: 'I know, I know!' Our journals do not appear to be his favourite literature, but neither do they appear unknown to him. To us he offers no greeting, but when speaking with Mr Hecker he is courteous, as he is with the other OSCE representatives in Bijeljina. He is terribly keen on cooperation with Tuzla and with responsible cantonal 'ministers' from the Federation; but if really delicate issues are touched upon, however fleetingly, he responds firmly: 'That's decided by the head of state.' He is ready to go to Tuzla and sort everything out, but insists: 'There can be no living together again.'

The most important event in Bijeljina is undoubtedly the founding of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights. The meeting is attended by Mr Hecker and other OSCE representatives, a Swiss ethno-psychologist, an American history professor, and ourselves. Branko Todorovic, a professor of literature from Bijeljina, and his one colleague are starting from scratch. They have nothing - no basic equipment even - but they have been registered and have even found an office. And the Helsinki Committee Statute is there too, testifying to the fact that in Republika Srpska people are denied human rights. All who resisted the regime were sent to the front, many of them never to return. For, as Todorovic emphasizes, this is 'a totalitarian regime governed by religious and national discrimination', and the authorities 'do not respect their own laws'. The fate of five thousand non-Serbs is highly uncertain - the madness of an ethnically pure state has become institutionalized.

Yet the first shoots of pluralism and democracy are emerging in Semberija, and the conflict with the authorities in Pale is already acquiring ominous dimensions. This has been particularly noticeable since 10 May 1996, when the Helsinki Committee appeared and began operating. Nowhere is the latter's position more difficult. They are in the same position as dissidents in the erstwhile East European states, their work not just hampered but treated as a criminal activity. Every step is risky, because in this so-called 'state' any aspiration to pluralism or religious tolerance is unforgivable. But there is a further difficulty as well. It is important to prevent this particular Helsinki Committee from coming into conflict with others - something that has already begun to happen elsewhere in the Balkans. If human rights are individual and universal, there should be no essential differences, still less divisions. This Committee, such as it is, after all represents an event meriting full attention. Its members are getting ready to travel to Tuzla and Sarajevo, since for them, as Todorovic insists, Bosnia-Herzegovina is their 'only homeland'. Journals such as ours are a ray of light in their darkness. It is a long way to the free Bosnian federation of which they dream, even if one casts one's gaze across Sremska Raca to where parts of our own country are visible All signs, even the smallest, show that Bosnia is not a land without hope, though it is still far away.

Mirko Dordevic writes regularly on religious matters for the Belgrade independent fortnightly Republika, which is now in its eighth year of publication and whose masthead bears the subtitle: 'Organ of Civic Self-Emancipation', and the motto: 'Against the forces of fear, hatred and violence'. The present report on a visit to Sarajevo to attend the third assembly of the Serb Civic Council (and the first to be held in peacetime) appeared in Republika 143-4 (1-31 July 1996).