Articles on the Bosnia Conflict



Report #4 – Tuzla
By Peter Lippman
July, 2013

2013 Report index

Report 1:  Kosovo, mid-July, 2013
Report 2Sarajevo, July 2013
Report 3Sarajevo, continued July 2013
Report 4Tuzla, July 2013
Report 5Mostar, July 2013
Report 6Srebrenica, August 2013
Report 7Srebrenica, continued, August 2013
Report 8:  Prijedor and vicinity, August 2013
Report 9:  Prijedor and vicinity, part two, August 2013
Report 10: Tomašica, December 2013

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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

I 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 ignorant.

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.
(Click 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 Orthodox church.

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 exception.

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.

I 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 the world.

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, and 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

One evening Gordan Isabegović invited 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 person).

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 thing.

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.

While 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 and 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 town.

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 our country.”

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 anti-authoritarian legacy.

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 real patriotism.”

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

Next report: Mostar

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