This morning’s New York Times prints (digitally produces?) an essay by Aleksandar Hemon and Jasmin Mujanovic about the current demonstrations in Sarajevo and Tuzla. Here’s how the essay begins:
ON National Geographic Traveler Magazine’s Best of the World list this year, Sarajevo joined such select destinations as Liechtenstein, Puglia and Rocky Mountain National Park. But had the innocent tourist recently visited “the Balkan urban phoenix,” as the list labeled the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, he would most certainly have run into packs of stray dogs roaming the city.
In 2009, animal rights activists succeeded in passing a law that outlawed killing stray dogs, and mandated that every municipality build a shelter, which, of course, no municipality could afford. As a result, Sarajevo became home to more than 13,000 dogs; packs attacked children; cats and squirrels disappeared. No government functionary took responsibility for the situation; nobody resigned; nobody was fired. A friend described holding her lap dog over her head to save it, while strays bit into her legs. The average tourist probably lacks this particular survival skill.
Last summer, the tourist might have witnessed the singularly dysfunctional national Parliament in session, surrounded by an angry mass of the citizens it was supposed to represent. They blocked the Parliament building, protesting the Legislature’s failure to pass a law allowing new personal identification numbers to be issued.
For weeks, and for nefarious reasons too tedious to explain, the proposed law had been stuck, which prevented the issuing of ID numbers for newborn children, so that they were born but did not bureaucratically exist — the state depriving them of citizenship with their very first breath. Some had health problems so serious they couldn’t be addressed in the crumbling Bosnian health care system (which the good tourist would be wise to avoid), but they couldn’t seek help abroad, since their passports couldn’t be issued without the ID numbers.
The blockade, led by angry parents, lasted for days, until police officers finally disbanded the protesters. The national soccer team was playing an important match that day, and they wanted to watch the game in peace.
The law was eventually passed, but the new numbers reflect the part of the country where each child is from, serving only to further cement ethnic divisions. Nobody resigned; nobody was fired; nothing seemed to have changed.
This protest, however, was the first time in the almost two decades since the war that Bosnian citizens stood up to their representatives, who are elected on party lists, and therefore far more responsive to their party leadership than to their constituency.
The “good tourist” is led to Tuzla, whose “industry has been destroyed by negligence, corruption and what is politely called privatization” and to “unprovoked brutality” by the police. The tourist is asked to think about the country’s unworkable constitution set up by “apartheid logic” that “effectively awarded to the [ethnic] cleansers their ethnically cleansed territories.”
I remember my own experiences with the aftermath (which means, originally, second cutting of hay) of the wars in the former Yugoslavia, the neologism after Richard Holbrooke’s intervention: “we’ve been Holbrooked.”
The essay is informative. And hopeful.
What is truly amazing in the whole story is that it doesn’t seem to have ever occurred to the Bosnian elites that the situation is not sustainable. They have become so used to ruling over divided ethnic subjects that they were shocked by an uprising of united citizens.
Every Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian writer I have read over the last year (Albahari, Radakovic, Velikic, Prcic, Basara, Obreht, Pavic, Brkic, Jergovic, Kis, Andric, Hemon, and others) already knew this before the wars in the 1990’s and know it now, at home or in exile.
Peter Handke once said that “the first casualty of war is language.” Politicians know and exploit that. Writers know that as well and, like Hemon and Jujanovic, work to resuscitate the patient.