There’s no escaping binaries these days. Every conceivable detail of modern life seems to be reduced to digital 1s and 0s. As computing technology encroaches ever further, it makes resisting binaries seem harder than ever. In/Out, Left/Right, Same/Different, Them/Us. Read more
I have stood at the very spot where Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were shot by Gavrilo Princip 100 years ago. And the impossible “What If” question occurred to me even then. So when I noticed that eminent historian Ned Lebow had published an examination of the issue, I leapt at it. The assassination was such a fluke, so preventable, so absurd that the yearning for a different outcome of that moment is great. As he says at the start (having summarised some of the counterfactual options),
None of these what-ifs strains our understanding of the world because most royal processions do not stray from their intended routes, and most security details would have rushed the archduke and his wife to safety at the first signs of violence. In this instance, the so-called factual, not the counterfactual, is what strikes us as unrealistic and incredible. (p16) Read more
Without a doubt, the greatest privilege of working for Langham Partnership is the opportunity to make friends all over the place, especially when one returns to specific places over time. This is certainly the case with a number in the Balkans, of whom Slavko has become the closest. He has been to stay with us in London on numerous occasions (including with his family), and I’ve been able to spend time with them over there. Read more
There is a clear counter-argument for every point I want to make here. In fact, I sort of agree with every counter-argument myself. But I feel the need to make them nevertheless. For my hunch is that one of the key factors in ministerial burnout is that we are far more influenced by post-enlightenment modernism than by the values of the Kingdom. It shouldn’t come as any surprise – we’re always more insidiously affected by our culture than we appreciate. It’s just so sad how little we face the problem. Read more
I don’t cry in movies. Sometimes I’d quite like to. But that’s a different story. I just don’t. Usually. But one of the greatest films of recent years (and that is no hyperbole) made me weep: The Lives of Others. The scene in question is one that affected many other friends similarly. It is the moment when the Stasi agent, Gerd Wiesler, eavesdrops on the playwright Georg Dreyman playing a piano piece given to him by an old friend driven to suicide by being blackballed by the East German officialdom. Read more
And as I was doing a bit of rejigging and final prep on it, I realised it was absolutely appropriate to include Miss Sarajevo at the end of the set list. (This (right) is the view from my desk as I was adding words to the song’s video).
During the talk there had been quite a bit of interaction and discussion – some sceptical of the general points I was making (inevitably!), some amazed by some of the content of songs they thought were familiar but which they’d never listened to closely.
But when we closed with the Miss Sarajevo video, there was stunned silence. Most knew the song. Few had seen the video. And as you can see if you watch it below (especially the last minute or so), it is agonising to watch. There was stunned silence and reflection, having been forced to reflect on the horrors of the siege. It was almost too painful.
For the unfamiliar, the song is about a Beauty Pageant that took place in 1993, while the shells and bombs fell all around. It is thus a potent symbol of the semblance of normal, peaceful life in the midst of war. Worst of all was the image of the girls lined up in the parade holding up a sign in English for all the world to see:
Don’t Let Them Kill Us
It’s a very simple song, essentially a series of questions. And interestingly, of all the songs he’s written, Bono says this is his favourite…
Is there a time for keeping your distance
A time to turn your eyes away?
Is there a time for keeping your head down
For getting on with your day?
Is there a time for kohl and lipstick?
Is there time for cutting hair?
Is there a time for high street shopping
To find the right dress to wear?
Here she comes, heads turn around
Here she comes, to take her crown.
Is there a time to run for cover
A time for kiss and tell.
A time for different colours
Different names you find hard to spell.
Is there a time for first communion
A time for East 17
Is there time to turn to Mecca
Is there time to be a beauty queen.
Here she comes, beauty plays the clown
Here she comes, surreal in her crown.
[Pavarotti’s Italian bit]
Dici che il fiume // Trova la via al mare (You say that the river finds the way to the sea)
E come il fiume // Giungerai a me (and like the river you will come to me)
Oltre i confini // E le terre assetate (beyond the borders and the dry lands)
Dici che come il fiume // Come il fiume…
L’amore giunger // L’amore… (You say that like a river the love will come)
E non so pi pregare (And i don’t know how to pray anymore)
E nell’amore non so pi sperare (and in love i don’t know how to hope anymore)
E quell’amore non so pi aspettare (and for that love i don’t know how to wait anymore)
Is there a time for tying ribbons
A time for Christmas trees?
Is there a time for laying tables
When the night is set to freeze?
This rather unprepossessing, pock-marked (i.e. bullet-riddled) house was Sarajevo’s lifeline during the 4 year siege in the mid-9os. I posted about that siege the last time I was here. Am here for the first ever Bosnian Langham Seminar (the preparations for which brought me here in February) and had an afternoon off yesterday to visit the Tunnel Museum. Road signs near by direct people to Tunel Spasa – the tunnel of hope or salvation. And it was well-named. For it kept a city of 1000s of people alive.
From the outside, it looks like many of the other buildings in this area – a narrow strip of land by Sarajevo airport which was held by the UN during siege (the main runway is beyond the end house’s garden fence in the right photo above).
The city was completely surrounded by Serb forces apart from the airport – an area that cut the city off from the Bosnian forces up in the mountains (as this map below shows). The UN was only allowed to occupy the airport (the blue strip crossing the neck of Bosnian territory) on condition that they did not allow Bosnians to cross it. As a result, the Bosnians were forced to build a tunnel underneath the airport. The Serbs knew it must exist, and they shelled the area constantly – but never actually found its exact whereabouts.
It was an extraordinary feat – nearly 1km (half a mile) long and only 1.6m (ca 5ft) high. It’s impossible for a man of average height to stand up straight in it – as my good friend Slavko Hadzic proves. But this was a lifeline – as someone rather ironically highlighted in the sign above the entrance (left): 1993-1995 SARAJEVO CITY GATE
Through this tunnel came troops, weapons, food, oil (in pipes along the roof), animals, supplies – everything in fact. It was controlled by Bosnian military police – and could only work if traffic travelled in one direction, and then swapped around every 30 minutes or so.
In my two visits to Sarajevo, nothing has brought home to me the horrors of a living in city under a 4-year siege more than visiting this place.
One edition of this book (more recent than the 1997 edition that I had pictured here) begins with a preface by someone who suggests (apparently) that it is impossible as an outsider really to understand or empathise with what happened in Bosnia in the 90s. Well, of course, we can never really understand what other people go through. But that doesn’t mean we can understand nothing. My copy, however, comes without a preface and so launches us immediately into Jergovic’s world – which is probably just as well. This gripping anthology of short stories can therefore speak for itself and stand on its own. And speak they do – with great force and poignancy.
Having visited Sarajevo recently, I kept on trying to imagine what it must have been like constantly to fear snipers and mortars from the surrounding hills. The hills loom large, of course, still, though the dangers have thankfully gone. It is just so inconceivable that in the 20th Century, months-long siege warfare (a phrase that has positively mediaeval echoes) still took place – and this in the era of TV cameras and 24 hour news cycles…
And yet this book does go a long way to help the outsider to be immersed. These short stories (and they are nearly all very short) powerfully capture what it must have been like. The evoke the sounds, the fears, the despair – above all they evoke the humanity of Sarajevo. For as such traumatic episodes in European history recede into the past, it is all too easy (for those with any interest in such tragedies at all) to focus on the statistics and decisions made in far-away conference rooms. But books like this won’t allow that. The fear and the despair are expressed on faces with names, they are expressed by people with pasts and memories. Shared experience from decades of living together, memories of who did what during the Second World War (say) are carried into the present, so that these inform who the individuals and their families are.
Ignorant and unaware of such legacies (inevitably), outsiders come in, looking for a story perhaps: like the nameless American journalist in the story from which the book gets its title (Sarajevo Marlboro was one of a number of localised cigarette brands Philip Morris produced for different markets). The gravedigger he interviews comes to realise that it will be impossible for this intruder to understand what being a Sarajevan is really like. Not because outsiders inevitably struggle with that – but because he’s not genuinely prepared to try. He just needs his story. So, the gravedigger depressingly realises he would have been better off saying ‘we are an unhappy and unarmed people who are being killed by Chetnik [i.e. Serbian nationalist] beasts, and that we’ve all gone crazy with bereavement and grief’ (The Gravedigger, p84), and thus complying with outsiders’ assumptions, rather than trying to explain nuances. For from the inside, a refrain could be ‘it’s never quite as simple as that.
Which of course does mean that it is hard for outsiders to understand, inevitably. But we can, and must, learn to empathise. And these stories help us do just that. Their protagonists are many and varied:
- From the daydreamer who feels he simply can’t leave or function well outside his home city of Sarajevo to the man surprised to be given a cactus by his girlfriend;
- from the retired boxer in a bar who can’t help himself from raising his fists and punching whenever the bell of a passing tram is rung, to the woman in a fairytale marriage who discovers the photograph of her husband’s lover when his personal affects are returned to her on his death at the front.
Tragedies, agonies, histories. These are all very human realities.
And yet through it all, there is resilience and hope, and not a little fatalism. The stories are beautifully, if sparsely, told. Every word is weighty, but every story economical – everything a short story should be, in fact. They all serve to evoke and illustrate, in some way or another, how life goes on even under siege, proving that people, through life together and hope for something else (however vague or wishful), can get through. Somehow. But this is not light reading, nor gentle escapism. Far from it. It is immersive and disturbing. It is an extraordinary collection.
The words that introduce one story (called ‘Bosnian Hotpot’) have stuck in my mind ever since, and they could stand as an explanation for the whole anthology.
‘I know what the speed of light is, but we haven’t learned about the speed of darkness yet’ – Dino from Zenica, twelve years old, temporarily at school in Zagreb (p35)
Having painted something of an amateurish potted 20th Century history of Sarajevo, here is one story that gave me great hope.
Last week, I was meeting in Sarajevo with a small group of pastors in Bosnia. It’s estimated that there are only around 750 Protestant believers in the whole country (pop: 4.6 million) – and one of the hard things about being Protestant in the Balkans is that you’re misunderstood at best, avoided or despised by everyone else (because, of course, religion is integral to Balkan identity: Croatia=Catholic, Serbia=Orthodox, Bosnia=Muslim).
And yet the Christian gospel has the power to rise above and transform these identities.
One friend, R, had been in what was then the Yugoslav army – after the fall of communism, this was commandeered by the Serbian government in Belgrade and in 1991 sent into Croatia to prevent it seceding from Yugoslavia. S was just a regular soldier, but found himself fighting in Vukovar – the subject of a post from a previous visit to Croatia and a brutal episode in a horrifying decade. R is ethnically Serb but from Bosnia, and wasn’t a Christian at the time. After a year, he went AWOL from Croatia, and left for his home town of Sarajevo. Only to find that this was now under siege. Unlike many of his relatives who joined the Serb army because of ethnic allegiance, S fought to defend his city with fellow Bosnians. But he was lost in life, a feeling exacerbated by month after month guarding his sentry post during the siege. Drink and despair drove him to a friend who told him about the Christian message. He is now full-time in ministry.
P is a Croatian by background, whose family comes from Vukovar. During the 1991 siege of the city, P’s mother was injured by gunfire, but mercifully not killed (unlike many others). P’s family has been in ministry over several generations, and he is now committed to working in Bosnia.
Years later, P was talking about the past in a meeting (not an easy thing to do in this part of the world) and he mentioned what had happened to his family in 1991. And suddenly R realised the implications – in fact, he could even remember the specific day. Horrified, he realised that it could even have been him who fired the very shot that struck P’s mother. And at that point, he was overcome. He asked R for forgiveness, which P was willing to give… to his brother in Christ. The gospel transcended horror, history and ethic strife.
What else could have the power to do this? What else could unite and reconcile like this or in the way I saw during a previous visit?
I fell in love with Sarajevo last week.
But this was no rosy-tinted romance, no naïve foreigner’s passion. Although, it’s true – being a Balkans outsider means I will always be ignorant and unable fully to grasp its historical complexities. I have some dear friends in the city, with whom I’ve been meeting at various points over the years. But this was my first time in Bosnia.
And there is a wonderful spirit to the place. Its history is everywhere – with clear remnants of its Ottoman past in the centre, then a sudden break into its Austro-Hungarian period, followed by the cold war era brutalist mass architecture. It was famously called the Jerusalem of Europe – it was a diverse and plural culture. The Austro-Hungarians shrewdly insisted that along the central streets should stand the Orthodox Cathedral, Catholic Cathedral, Grand Synagogue and Central Mosque. But that harmony (a harmony that always masked latent tensions) was often shattered by conflict.
And that is what struck me most. Sarajevo is a city plagued by war.
The Spark of War
I stood at the very spot from which the assassin of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie fired in June 1914 (roughly where the lady with the red umbrella is standing in the right hand picture below). The Museum is dedicated to the event and its aftermath but was unfortunately closed by the time we got there on Friday afternoon. The archduke was being driven down the main street from the Town Hall after some official function.
Standing on that drab, non-descript, narrow street corner beside the river, it was somehow not hard to imagine hearing the shots ring out nearly a century ago, after which Gavrilo Princip the assassin jumped into the river and his eventual death. No doubt in 4 years’ time we’ll be hearing a lot about that spot.
Who could possibly have predicted the consequences? Those 2 deaths led to the deaths of between 10 and 16.5 million people during the First World War, the bizarre result of a convoluted web of treaties and agreements. The war to end all wars. Well, Sarajevo stands as the evidence of the absurdity of that claim.
The Second World War exposed even more complexities in the Balkans – I’ve only just scratched a few surfaces and am already hopelessly confused about who allied with whom, over what, why and when. But like every conflict, however apparently just or unjust its causes or justifications, the consequences are tragic.
Here, then, is another memorial. This time, it stands in front of a classic Austro-Hungarian era building, an eternal flame in memory of the countless citizens of Sarajevo who lost their lives in that war, regardless of their ethnicity and religion.
As we walked past, a couple of Romany children took a break from their begging on the freezing streets to warm their hands on the fire. Yet another group of people who seem bound to society’s margins in a city that itself has become a byword for the marginalised.
And that is largely because of what took place here during the 90s…
The Traumatic Memory of War
The Serbian siege of Sarajevo that lasted from 1992-1996. The city is situated in a river valley surrounded by mountains, making its citizens sitting targets for snipers, grenades and mortar fire (see the relief map below – from MapCruzin). I was impressed by how much the city has been repaired and developed in the 14 or so years since the siege’s end. New buildings are going up all the time – although the credit crunch seems to have halted proceedings somewhat.
But every now and then, one would come across some buildings remain pockmarked by bullet holes. And everyone I met had stories of having to pelt across streets, cowering behind overturned trucks and trams. It is hard to conceive of living in besieged city in the modern era. I keep on picturing what it would be like to have to do this in London’s streets. One would stay at home as long as possible. But then necessity would enforce risks – not least because of the need to get food.
Sarajevo would have collapsed very quickly had the UN not held the city’s airport and thus protected supply lines. But still, getting basic supplies could be dangerous. Below is a picture of the central Meat Market – the scene of two terrible atrocities, when shells landed during market time. The memorial at the back of the building lists the victims of the second shell – a poignant list containing names from all the religious and ethnic backgrounds of the Balkans. In fact, 85% of the fatalities during the siege were civilian.
The most poignant memorial though was this one below, a beautiful glass composition erected in memory of Sarajevo’s children killed during the siege, 1500 in number:
This is all by way of background for a future post. Watch this space…
Well, there seems to have been rather a snow-theme in recent posts. But have had the joy of a few days in Sarajevo (again for Langham), talking and planning future events in Bosnia. Really exciting and encouraging. Only hoping that I get out tomorrow morning (as the snow has been falling all day and flights are being affected!).
This picture may not look like anything particularly out of the ordinary. It could be a scene from countless pastoral conferences around the world. But this moment last night, the closing night of this year’s Croatian Langham conference, was a very special one. For the 3 men praying at the front are Christian leaders from Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia (from l to r). They had been asked to lead our prayers for each others’ countries. It was a wonderful note on which to close our time together.
Our hosts, the Magdas, presented me with a super pair of gifts at the end – a painting by one of the pastors present, and this curious clay ornament.
It is an imitation of a very famous Stone Age ceramic discovered near Vukovar in 1938. It is called the Vučedol Dove and has since taken on greater significance as a symbol of peace for this profoundly troubled but historic region, steeped as it is in ancient, sophisticated cultures. It will be a great stimulus to pray for peace in the Balkans and the growth of the reconciling power of the gospel.