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I took the bus from Sarajevo to Tuzla in mid-July, and got in a
conversation with the man in front of me. His name, Dragan, told me
that he was not of the majority Muslim ethnicity in Tuzla.
Throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina, each locality has been dominated by
one ethnicity or another, often resulting in discrimination against
the “minority” groups. But, Dragan said, “Tuzla is somehow the
healthiest city in Bosnia.”
As I entered town I saw a new building, rather tall, with a big
MacDonald’s’ “M” on top, near the Mercator shopping center.
I had a meal in a quaint, older restaurant on a side street near the
statues of Ismet Mujezinović and Meša Selimović. The WC was of the
old-fashioned Turkish variety. That’s not the most comfortable
thing, but somehow I was pleased that not everything has been
commercialized, modernized, and homogenized in dear old Tuzla.
New MacDonald's tower in the center of Tuzla
relaxed with my landlady “Nermina” and her neighbor “Mano” while
they were playing cards. I commented that I had been told that no
sex is allowed during Ramadan. They clarified that, saying that it’s
only prohibited during the daytime fast period.
From that discussion we somehow got to the subject of the sex
scandals of high officials. There were Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe. I
mentioned Clinton. Mano said he admired Clinton (presumably because
of Clinton’s role in the NATO intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo).
And there is the recent scandal associated with the (now former)
Bosnian Serb Archbishop Kačavenda. Somehow, footage of Kačavenda’s
sex capers found its way onto YouTube (you can enter his name there
and find various clips of his messing around with minors and young
men, for which he eventually lost his job).
Mano said, “Now, there are more Caligulas than ever. We are the
worst of all the animals. In the animal world, dogs will compete for
primacy. When one wins, the other turns tail and slinks away. With
us, it’s brother against brother….It is a return to the times of the
Inquisition. The hodžas (Muslim priest) and the priests make
deals with each other, and then they get rich deceiving the
Nermina lives on “October 2nd Street.” While we, for some
reason, would not name our streets after July 4th or,
say, June 6th (D-Day), it’s not uncommon in Eastern
Europe to name a street after a day of glory.
I mention this date which, as it happens, just passed a couple of
days ago, because the event that took place in Tuzla exactly seventy
years ago has something to do with why a bus rider would define
Tuzla as the healthiest place in Bosnia. On October 2nd,
1943, in the middle of the anti-fascist war, Partisan units
liberated Tuzla from the Nazi-collaborationist regime that was
ruling it. For the next forty days Tuzla was the largest liberated
city in Europe.
Tuzla was important to the Nazis because of its relative economic
development and because it was a transportation hub between Serbia,
Bosnia, and Vojvodina. Bosnian Croat, Serb, and Muslim units from
the surrounding region participated in the liberation of city.
During the period of Tuzla’s liberation, thousands of people who
were of anti-fascist orientation joined the Partisans. The
liberation forces withdrew from Tuzla the next month, in advance of
a Nazi reprisal, in order to spare civilian lives in the city.
The final expulsion of the Nazis from Tuzla took place less than a
year later, in September of 1944. Of some six thousand fighters from
Tuzla who had participated in the fighting, nearly one thousand were
killed. The anti-fascist legacy of Tuzla influenced the atmosphere
of the town up to the present day.
here to see photos of free Tuzla from October 1943.)
I walked into town with Nermina. I asked her if many people were
fasting for Ramadan. She launched into an explanation of the
multi-cultural nature of Tuzla, how many people came from Austria,
Italy, Serbia, and Croatia, and other countries to build the energy
plant Termoelektrana, in 1965. They stayed, as did their
children, and married here. So with the greater ethnic mixture –
that held fast during and after the recent war – the influence of
Islam is not as great there as in Sarajevo.
I should add that this multi-culturalism is much older than 1965;
the international influx of workers that took place in that year was
just an echo of what had been happening for a hundred years. When
the Austrians occupied Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1878, Tuzla was a place
of special focus for them because of the minerals and other natural
resources that were in abundance in that region. The Austrians
resettled people from all over their empire in Tuzla and founded a
technical university. These influences brought the Tuzla area into
the modern period more quickly than it happened in much of Bosnia.
“People entered into mixed marriages here because they fell in
love,” she said. “I didn’t marry my ex because he was Muslim, but
because I was in love.”
There was a hot spell. I went to the salt lake, the Panonsko
jezero (Pannonian lake) near Nermina’s house. The Pannonian lake
is named after the Pannonian Sea, which used to exist in this region
– from present-day Tuzla on up to eastern Croatia and into Vojvodina
– about ten million years ago. The sea went away, but left a lot of
salt under the ground, much of it mixed with water in concentrations
higher than that of the Adriatic. That salt has defined Tuzla, whose
name, after all, means “place of salt” in Turkish. People have been
mining salt in that region since the Neolithic period, with a great
acceleration of that industry when the Austro-Hungarians took over
in 1878. Due to that massive extraction, large sections of Tuzla
started sinking a few decades ago, and many of its old monuments
have been lost. Presently the old municipal building stands empty on
the fountain square, uninhabitable because of the settling of the
earth under it.
The “Pannonian Lake”
(salt water) in Tuzla.
Men playing chess at the lake.
Meanwhile the ambitious mayor of Tuzla, Jasmin Imamović, who fancies
Tuzla as the biggest tourist attraction this side of Venice, keeps
building things to attract visitors. He – or someone, but according
to him it was he himself – had the idea to convert the smelly swamp
on the edge of the central neighborhood of Tuzla into a salt lake.
The city created one lake and it filled up with bathers immediately
as the weather got warm. Then they built another, and a third one,
and a replica of a Neolithic village on the edge of the park, and a
salt-water waterfall to boot.
There also stands one remaining wooden tower that was used on this
very site for salt extraction. And looking into town, directly
across the street from the park you can see the attractive old
I went to visit this complex in the middle of the heat wave. At the
entrance there was an admission fee sign: one KM for children; two
KM for pensioners, disabled veterans, and family members of fallen
soldiers; and three KM for others. (One KM, konvertabilna marka,
equals about $0.70.) I walked into the lukewarm water. Everyone else
had the same idea. It was the most crowded lake I’ve ever seen.
I’m sure it helps business in Tuzla that Croatia has now, as of the
beginning of July, become a member of the European Union, and it is
more difficult for Bosnians to cross the border and to go sit on the
beach near Dubrovnik for an innocent afternoon of relaxation. It is
difficult unless they are Bosnian or Herzegovinan Croats, many of
whom have dual citizenship with Croatia. If they are Bosniaks/Muslims,
Serbs, or “Other,” that’s an opportunity for the bulls at the
Croatian border to lord it over them with their new-found powers,
and to search their cars and personal belongings relentlessly.
Border guards wherever I’ve traveled seem to have all the time in
the world, and little respect; apparently the Croatian guards are no
Not to mention the fact that food and drink on the Dalmatian coast
are priced exorbitantly compared to those in Bosnia. I’m told that a
kilo of plums costs $4.00 there, and about one KM in Bosnia. A
coffee costs four KM in Dalmatia, and usually one KM in Bosnia. All
of which helps increase domestic tourism in Tuzla.
Bosnia has a few miles of coastline at Neum, but people who are
trying to go vacation there have to drive through Croatia via
Metković in order to get there. The road that leads directly to Neum
from within Bosnia is in poor condition.
On the way home, Nermina pointed out some houses where they sublet
rooms for visitors to the Pannonian Sea. It is clear that Tuzla is
benefitting economically from the lakes.
Right in the center of town is “Solni trg,” (Salt Square) in the old
center of Tuzla, where people came to mine salt as far back as
pre-historic times. Solni Trg has been developed into a bit of an
attraction, with a small historical museum, a couple of kafanas, a
fountain, and, unfortunately, a new building that looks like a
failed artistic experiment. Nermina told me that it was supposed to
house crafts workers, but that no one has wanted to occupy it.
Next to the museum there is a plaque mounted, which reads, “Tuzla is
one of the oldest settlements in Europe. For seven thousand years,
from the Neolithic period to today, people have produced salt and
lived in this area. The citizens of Tuzla renewed this square in
2004 in the belief that love is the source of the origin and eternal
duration of this world.”
Plaque on Solni Trg in Tuzla.
visited my friend Nesim Tahirović, an artist,at his studio
in Solina on the outskirts of town. It was pleasant out, and he was
working outside on some of his “pictures.” Nesim calls them
pictures, but that doesn’t describe them. They are works in wood,
steel- and bronze-colored metal, nails and tacks, and paint. The
themes are abstract but clearly celebrations of multi-culturalism
and spirituality in Bosnia, inspired by aboriginal art from around
There were four or five of Nesim’s semi-wild pet dogs hanging about:
a cute little terrier named Lazar, one named Nesim, and one named
Umjetnik (artist). The butcher gives Nesim cow remnants free of
charge, and Nesim brews them up and feeds them to the dogs.
Nesim goes into his customary monologue of anger and disappointment,
but it is not entirely negative. He’s complaining about the
corruption, the separatist politics, the nationalist madness, the
greed, all for profit. He says it’s killing Bosnia, it’s a tragedy.
Then he says, “Why can’t we recognize that we are all one? One
universe. One God. One Love. Jews have a rich culture. Let it be
celebrated. So do Muslims. But don’t use it to divide people.” Nesim
curses the politicians. “Communism was good here, in spite of some
bad things. There was peace and stability. There was order.”
Nesim, 70, had cancer last year and a stroke in the spring, but
somehow he is still in shape to work. He works alone all day out
there in Solina, away from people. Nearby there is a
neuropsychiatric hospital, in what used to be an army barracks.
There are only ten people in the hospital, one of whom brings Nesim
bread and helps clean up the place.
Nesim has recently held a couple of very successful exhibits in
Serbia, and a few years ago, one in Sarajevo. But he gets no
official support for his art from the mainstream cultural
establishment. I asked about the prospects for more exhibits. He
said there are supposed to be additional exhibits in Serbia: in Niš,
Pančevo, and Novi Sad. “Serbia paid for my exhibits,” he says, “but
Bosnia does nothing.” The Federation Minister of Culture is not
interested in supporting his work.
Nesim points to the piece he is working on, and other work he’s
doing, and says, “Ovo radim za duh (I’m doing this for my own
spirit)… What if I had a villa, and a pool? It would just be a
distraction. I want to work. Happiness is in working.”
For more about Nesim, including some views of his artwork, see
here. Here also is a
review of Nesim's work
by my friend Michelle Facos, translated into Bosnian - but there
are good photos here of his work
One example of the art of Nesim Tahirović
evening Gordan Isabegovićinvited me to a gathering of people
from the youth activist group Revolt, on a rooftop overlooking the
Jalska džamija (mosque). I spent most of the evening talking to
bright young “Mirela.” She studied English literature, likes
Shakespeare most. Now she is one year into biology studies. She
wants to become a geneticist and help with identifying the remains
of people exhumed from mass graves. She is an activist and,
regarding identity, she says she is “first of all, čovjek” (a
We talked about literature, American history, and local events.
Mirela told me that that during the Bebolucija (the Baby
Revolution – see my second report from this series), people gathered
around the fountain square and filled it several times, conducting
various activities in support of the demonstrations in Sarajevo. She
said that it was hard to predict when people would mobilize.
Sometimes people came when it was rainy, but not when it was sunny.
Mirela said that people are “more passionate” in Sarajevo, more
likely to react to events than in Tuzla, where people are “more
passive.” She told me that Tuzla’s multi-cultural atmosphere
uniquely resembles that of the former Yugoslavia. But she said that
economic conditions aren’t much better in Tuzla than elsewhere in
Bosnia and that it is hard to get a job, even with a diploma.
The Bosnian school system is changing in response to the Bologna
Process, which regulates university practices according to EU
standards. People now must attend every class, as in the West, and
not just study and pass the tests, as has been the custom in Bosnia.
Mirela said, “you have to give 200% of yourself.” She said there
aren’t hard classes, but hard professors. A very small number of
students ever pass a test the first time.
Mirela was born in the mid-1980s, and she remembers the time before
the war. There was enough money and enough to eat. She remembers
asking her mother whether she was “Jewish, or Croatian?” She had not
previously heard that she was Muslim. Her parents responded, “That’s
the least important thing. But if someone asks, you are Muslim.”
We talked about the Roma in Tuzla. It is not that they can’t go to
school, says Mirela, but that they don’t have the custom of going to
school. In earlier years there was more discrimination than now.
Teachers have literally gone from door to door in the Roma
communities asking the parents to bring their children to school,
but there is not a strong response. However, somewhat more Romani
children are going to school than before. I commented that there
needs to be a concerted policy on the part of the government to
encourage school attendance. Mirela said that there is no such
I chatted briefly with Gordan. He said that during the Bebolucija,
there were symbolic activities in Tuzla, Mostar, and Zenica, and the
main activity was in Sarajevo. He guessed there were somewhere
around 200 or 300 people who participated in demonstrations in Tuzla.
I heard some remarks in contrast to all this from a friend of mine,
an American scholar who did much of her doctoral field work in Tuzla
and had just finished visiting there as I arrived. She characterized
the mood in Tuzla as having gone from anger to resignation, a “dull
desperation.” She had heard of the demonstrations in Tuzla during
the Bebolucija but was told that people were making a party out of
it, bringing drinks, and that there was a disappointing showing.
Night scene at the Fountain Square in Tuzla.
in Tuzla I had the chance to meet with the journalist Hasan Hadžić,
whom I mentioned in an earlier report (go
here). He has been as busy as ever, and is full of ideas for
writing projects and films that he would like to create. Originally
from the Zvornik area, Hasan escaped from there during the war and
has been working for various press outlets, primarily in the
Federation, ever since.
We discussed the SDP (Social-Democratic Party), which I have written
at length about recently (see
this). For some part of its post-war period, the SDP was the
principal anti-nationalist party in Bosnia. It has governed Tuzla
since before the war, making Tuzla the only municipality whose
government managed to avoid coming under the control of one or
another of the nationalist parties. This is at least partially the
result of the anti-fascist legacy that I mentioned above, and the
SDP’s governance has helped to maintain a healthy atmosphere in the
In the rest of Bosnia-Herzegovina, however, the SDP has been in the
opposition most of the time since the end of the war. There was an
exception from 2000 to 2002, when the SDP garnered enough votes to
form a government at the state level. Then, in 2010, it had another
chance, and it has held considerable power at the national level and
in the Federation ever since.
The period since then has been a political disaster for Bosnia, as I
have discussed before. But the SDP was already starting to show
strong signs of corruption and careerism – in other words, the same
attributes of the rest of the political parties – at least a few
years before that. One serious problem is the fact that the party is
run by the autocrat Zlatko Lagumdžija, on the model of the Communist
Party that was the forerunner of the SDP. Now, in the midst of a
period of stalled government, the nature of the SDP is clear to all
except its staunchest loyalists.
Hasan has characterized the leaders of the SDP as “insatiable
egomaniacs and greedy people who, grabbing for power, have shown
that they are just poor copies of those who had previously destroyed
Hasan told me that he was hoping to work on a project about the SDP.
He had maintained neutrality about the party before, and had not
criticized them because, he said, they had not been in power. But he
told me that the party’s highest officials, including those in Tuzla,
had been raised on a pedestal. Some of them had been good leaders,
but they “fell,” and became profiteers. Hasan told me that even in
Tuzla the SDP is now a lot weaker than they were before.
Hasan called on another valiant event in Tuzla’s history, the “Husinska
buna” of 1920. The Husinska buna, or uprising of Husino village,
was a short-lived miners’ strike and armed uprising against
industrial slavery in the new, post-World War I, Yugoslav regime.
Seven thousand miners, from a region stretching from Tuzla to Zenica
in central Bosnia, participated in the strike. When the local
government tried to force miners back to work, they resisted with
firearms and the uprising was put down with great violence. Seven
workers were killed and four hundred arrested. The uprising was put
down, but its memory was preserved as part of Tuzla’s
Referring to the careerism and opportunism of SDP’s politicians even
in Tuzla, Hasan said to me, “The bones of the miners are turning in
their graves. The leaders of Tuzla have now spit on their ideas.”
We discussed Željko Komšić, Croat member of Bosnia’s state-level
presidency. A long-time member of the SDP, he left that party last
year, during his second term in the presidency, due to disagreements
with the direction of the party. This was a rather brave move, to
split from the powerful party that basically created Komšić’s
career. But Komšić counted on his own popularity, and he was
interested in returning to the original political ideals of the
party. He focused on corruption above all, saying, “Honesty is the
I had noticed a poster around town announcing the founding
convention of Komšić’s new party, the Democratic Front. Hasan said
that Komšić will need to attract all the honest people in Bosnia in
order to have any success. That is difficult, because of the extreme
level of cynicism that people have about any politician, regardless.
Add to that the fact that, although Komšić is a Croat, he was
primarily elected by the votes of the progressive Bosniaks – thereby
earning the permanent animosity of the “professional (nationalist)
Croats.” Still, Komšić is the darling of those progressives in
Bosnia-Herzegovina who have any faith at all in the political
system. Come the general elections one year from now, we will see
how Komšić’s ambitions play out.
Poster announcing a public panel discussion presenting Željko
Komšić's new party, the Democratic Front of Bosnia-Herzegovina