Bosnia-Macedonia-Kosovo Journal -- September 2006

Peter Lippman


On my arrival to Sarajevo [early July, 2006] I headed immediately to Srebrenica, as the 11th anniversary commemoration of the massacre there was about to take place. Meanwhile, people were hiking through the woods from Kladanj to Srebrenica, a several-day hike retracing the path of around 15,000 men who tried to escape the massacre in July of 1995. More than one-third of them were picked off and killed along the way.

Arriving in Srebrenica, my bus passed the memorial compound in Potocari containing the graves of some 2,000 identified, reburied remains. These are victims who were exhumed from hidden mass graves in the past 10 years. New graves were dug for another 505 victims, to be reburied on the 11th of July.

In Srebrenica there were prominent posters calling for "Freedom for Seselj," one of the most notorious war criminals, now awaiting trial in The Hague. I commented on this to my hosts, Izet and Zekira, who were some of the first Muslim returnees to Srebrenica in 2000. They said, "Yes, this is our democracy."

I chatted with Hakija Harisljic, former police chief of Srebrenica during the war, now activist for return. He said, "Give me the Tito dictatorship, then at least we were in Europe. I am a Muslim, but we have more in common with Europe than with Saudi Arabia. ...Religion is now run by people who aren't religious."

My friends Merima and Edin received a donation of ten cows. They closed their kafana, built a barn, and are now selling milk to a Tuzla firm. They work hard. Edin showed me the calluses on his hands. He says,  "This is milk made with my blood."

Edin's brother, Rahim, was exhumed at the mass grave at Crni Vrh and identified with DNA testing. He would be reburied on the 11th.

I went to the warehouse near the battery factory (war-time headquarters of the Dutch Battalion) to look at the 505 coffins waiting to be buried. They are not exactly coffins, but traditional "tabuts" -- a board carrying the remains, with a stick frame covered by a green cloth. The remains seen through the green material are small, not body-size. They are already desiccated, "skeletonized."

On July 11th tens of thousands of people attended the reburial. Among the open graves there were temporary boards naming the victims, sometimes two brothers beside each other, or a father and son.

The head Imam of the Bosnian Muslim community made a speech during which he said good things, strong things, and consoling things. But his fine words contrasted with the pain that permeated the atmosphere, the pain of the mothers of still-missing men. In this contrast his words looked small, coming across like a kind of political kitsch. Srebrenica at this time of year is a very spiritual place, and it's easier then to know the truth, and to separate it from politics and manipulation.

People started carrying the tabuts out from the warehouse and into the compound, in one long green-tinged procession. I followed Edin and his family to gravesite #99. They shoveled and buried.

As Edin, his son, and cousins shoveled dirt over Rahim's coffin, I watched with great sadness. Edin's daughter began crying, and it was all I could do to hold back my own tears. But no one else cried.

I reached out to touch Edin in consolation. But he was somewhere else, unreachable, lost, absently shifting pebbles in the dirt as others shoveled.

Back in Sarajevo it was pouring rain in the middle of July. My landlady Hanifa said, "All this rain is falling because of so many unburied victims. As the people behave, that's how God will react."


I watched television; a German-language station was on. A news caption: "Panzer divisions enter Gaza."

I asked Hanifa and her sisters how they felt about the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Hanifa said, "We don't watch it. As soon as I see something about the war I turn off the television. I was at the Markale bombing, shrapnel was flying everywhere, it was a miracle I didn't get hit. That economics professor was there, he's in Canada now, he lost both legs.

There will be general elections on October 1st, and the nationalist parties are bringing out all their strongest rhetorical weapons to herd their "constituents" into a huddle, to ensure that politics will continue to be based on ethnicity, rather than citizenship. This doesn't fool everyone. Hanifa, speaking of the SDA (Muslim nationalist party) said, " are thieves, hard-core thieves. They get money to create employment, but then they keep it for themselves."

Another friend said to me, "The situation is the same here in Bosnia as it was the day the last shell fell on my doorstep. It's a stupid situation. We have a republic -- the RS (Republika Srpska, the Serb entity) -- which was created by murder, and it is recognized by the world. ...This seems to be a place where somebody, the world, is experimenting on us.

A common description of Bosnia:  Every normal state has a mafia, but here the mafia has a state.

In Tuzla I visited a friend of mine who is an artist. He said, "Everything the politicians say is a lie. If they say it is day, you can see that it is day, but then you have to wonder if it is some artificial daylight."


Cynicism knows no bounds. Survivors mourn their lost ones. But life goes on in spite of death, and there are times and places to defy death and celebrate life. One of these is Sarajevo in the summer. In July there is a summer festival there. Zvonko Bogdan, from Vojvodina, Serbia, came and sang in Sarajevo.

Bogdan is the greatest performer of old urban folk songs from Vojvodina, the northern part of Serbia. I had not heard him since 1981, when I was living in Novi Sad. I thought he must be terribly old by now, but he's only 64. I was excited to see him and relive some of those old times, formative times for me, when I was living in Yugoslavia and everything was (relatively) innocent.

The concert began with instrumental selections by a tamburica orchestra, fine versions of the richest Vojvodinan arrangements of folk songs and dances. This was followed by a selection of tunes performed by another whole orchestra, a Rom-style "Hungarian-Romanian" group. The music of Vojvodina is very influenced by music of these peoples. A very skilled and flashy fiddler performed some obligatory Gypsy kitsch, but of the highest quality, together with bass, flute, cimbalom, and clarinet.

Finally Zvonko Bogdan came on stage and began to charm the audience. I had expected only a few nostalgic, older people to attend, but there was a full audience including many younger people.

Zvonko introduced us to each other. He said, "There are some Croatians here, some Macedonians, and I have reliable information that there are some Montenegrins. You see some people from Serbia also (motioning to the orchestras). And if there are by chance a few Slovenians, so be it (laughs from the already engaged audience)." He presented the cimbalom player, a former 8-time national champion boxer from Romania. Then he introduced the first song, saying, "Now we will perform something from a time that will never return." Someone from the audience yelled, "Yes it will!"

He then performed a series of the best old songs of Vojvodina -- not the most popular, low-brow, nostalgic folky songs, but ones with fine and enduring lyrics. He explained who wrote each song, and when -- some were as much as 150 years old. People in the audience sang along. The musicians took solos. During a cimbalom solo, someone yelled, "Bravo Boxer!!"

An atmosphere of multi-ethnic celebration, "re-Yugoslavization," was formed. Towards the end of the concert Zvonko began singing some Bosnian urban folk songs, Sevdalinka. The audience warmed up. Zvonko sang in Serbian, Hungarian, Rom, Romanian, and the Bosnian dialect. In his own way, he introduced a note a reason, reminding people of the best of their former country. In the middle of one song the melody was enriched by the call of a nearby muezzin.

At the end of the concert, Zvonko introduced all the musicians by name, and I realized that two of them were the twin sons of my old music teacher from Novi Sad.


I realized that I needed contact with more Serbs and Croats in their respective ethnically-dominated areas of the country. I wanted to hear what they had to say, not because of phony "journalistic objectivity," but because they are people, and part of Bosnia and Herzegovina. So late in July I made some contacts in Foca and Bijeljina and headed east to the Republika Srpska. Both cities were places I had never visited before, places where atrocious crimes were committed at the beginning of the war, and where later, war criminals were said to frequent (especially Foca).

"Marko," a very helpful former journalist who now runs a coffee-shop/bar, took me around Foca, showed me the town, and set me up for conversations with lots of people. On the way I stood on a bridge over the Drina (not the famous one in Visegrad), looking at the wild and rushing blue water that travels through the rough hills of southeastern Bosnia. Foca is really a pretty little city in the mountains, but with an atrocious past. Muslims were thrown from the bridge, or driven from these parts early on; many were tortured or killed in the prison that I could see from the bridge, and there were notorious "rape motels" where Muslim women were abused during the war.

Most of the people I met in Foca were friendly people, but all the Serbs I spoke with were convinced that there had been a civil war, not a war of aggression, as it was seen by the Muslims. Some of the Serbs are still fans of Karadzic and Mladic. There are people in those parts who only believe in the Serb entity as their home, and don't particularly want to be part of Bosnia. There was a good measure of dissonance in their talk; people would say "I have nothing against Muslims...I go to Gorazde to see my old friends occasionally and we sit in the kafana and talk -- we just don't talk about politics." Then the same people would say, "Alija (Izetbegovic) wanted to create an Islamic republic in Europe, and then Pakistanis and Iranians would have come in and taken over."

Haris is an older Muslim, one of a small number who returned to the city of Foca. He doesn't have problems with people there now. They just go about their business without trying to reconcile their opposing versions of history. Haris said to me, "The rabble and the thieves are in command, not the smart people. The country is 100% divided."

Everyone knows the thieves are in power. I asked Haris why people keep voting for the same politicians. He said, "The people are like cattle; if you put a little salt in their hand, they will follow you." As to establishing some order in the country, he said, "We need discipline and fear. When there is no law, people become corrupted quickly."

One night I went out to a tiny village of houses far apart from each other, perched on a steep hill above Foca. I talked there with Stevo and Miso. Marko had driven me out there on the spur of the moment and dropped me off, introducing me quickly to Stevo. Stevo was more surprised that Marko left, than that he brought an American stranger from out of the blue. Stevo pulled out some bread, cheese, and rakija (a fierce home-made drink) and pulled some cucumbers and tomatoes off the vines, and we sat and talked.  Stevo told me, "If anyone had asked us ordinary people, before this all started, there never would have been a war... The last thing we expected was that there would be fighting here." He and Miso were convinced, like many Serbs I've talked to, that "America pushed the Muslims into this. The U.S. should have supported the Serbs better."

Stevo told me, referring to a bomb massacre of people in Sarajevo, "They bombed their own people at the Markale. The Serbs didn't do that. They didn't have any reason to do that." It's not hard to find people who believe this kind of thing in the Republika Srpska. But at the same time, Stevo told me how, when he learned that a Muslim had returned to a nearby village, he went to visit the returnee and offered him help and the use of tools to get re-established.


I heard very similar things from people I met in Bijeljina, in the very northeastern part of Bosnia. That city was the scene of early atrocities against the Muslim population. Today it has more the feel of a suburb of Belgrade than of any part of Bosnia. The first three things I saw upon leaving the bus station were a man carrying a gusla (traditional one-stringed bowed instrument for minstrels who sing epic Serbian poetry); graffiti on the wall reading "referendum" (referring to the drive for a plebiscite for separation of the Republika Srpska from Bosnia), and a kafana named "Caffe Argument."

All five mosques in Bijeljina were destroyed during the war, although there were no battles in that town. Now all the signs are in Cyrillic and the streets are named after medieval Serbian kings and other Serb folk heroes. Not even the museum bears a significant trace of Bijeljina's once considerable Muslim population and Ottoman culture. In the kafanas you hear music from Serbia. Muslims have returned to live in the town, but they are now just a "minority" in politics and economic life. Things are peaceful, but unhappy all around.

I was guided around town by Boro, a friendly electrician/poet who told me his life story and shared all his opinions with me. Some things he told me:

--"We aren't living, we are suffering. We suffer, survive, and manage."

--"You put money in your pocket only once a month, but you take it out constantly."

--"There are two kinds of people here: rich and poor."

--"In the Serb villages people did not use the term 'Muslim,' but 'Turk.' There were 500 years of slavery under the Turks."

--"There used to be a custom under the Turks that upon marriage, non-Muslim bride had to sleep the first night with the local Turkish lord. An ancestor of mine refused to allow his bride to go to the lord. So they sent two soldiers after him. He killed one of them, and hit the other on the head with a rock. Then he fled into the woods with his bride. They came out 17 years later, with 11 children."

--"The Muslims are Turkified Serbs who became Muslim for a piece of bread. They became fiercer Turks than the real Turks."

--"The story of the massacre in Srebrenica is a ridiculous falsification. If 8,000 Muslims were killed, there would have to have been 16,000 Muslims in Srebrenica. There never were that many Muslims in Srebrenica." [PL: In fact, there were over 25,000 Muslims who lived in Srebrenica, but there also thousands of refugees from all along the eastern part of Bosnia who had fled to Srebrenica.]

Q: How have people here received the story of the massacre at Srebrenica?

A: They could care less, they say, let them have been killed.

--"I'm not a nationalist. But Ratko Mladic is not guilty. I wouldn't turn him in. He doesn't bother me. He didn't do anything, other people did. I met him twice, and shook hands with him. He recognized me the second time, and asked, 'Do we know each other?' "

--"But Radovan Karadzic is a different story. He is a hardcore thief. He perpetrated a financial crime, together with Krajisnik, before the war. He is not popular among the Serbs. However, I still wouldn't turn him in."

...And so on. There's one sight that stands out, out of place in the new, post-war Bijeljina. The large mosque right off the main square in the center of town has been rebuilt and stands there shining, with its minaret, saying "We are still here." The muezzin calls five times a day and people like Boro hear it in a different way than they used to. Boro said, "It never used to bother me, but now it burns my ears."

There are good people in Bijeljina and Foca, but -- as is the case with Americans regarding their own history -- there's precious little memory of what took place, no admission of genocide, and it will probably be a long time before the Serb population confronts its own history or responsibility.


Between Foca and Bijeljina I stopped overnight in Gorazde, an outpost of the Muslim-Croat Federation in eastern Bosnia. Gorazde was supposed to fall along with Srebrenica and other towns of that area, but there was strong, well-organized resistance, and the Serb forces which took over Srebrenica had overplayed their hand politically by mid-1995. So in the Dayton agreement, Gorazde was allowed to remain part of the Federation. It's an attractive but out of the way place, suffering from economic isolation.

In 1999 and 2000 I had covered the movement for return of Muslims to the Gorazde industrial suburb of Kopaci, now part of the Republika Srpska (see, issues 17-18-19). People were camping in tents in the snow on the inter-entity borderline, agitating for return. Now, seven years later, 90% of the former Muslim population has returned to that suburb. This is testimony to the good organizing work of Vahid Kanlic and others who persisted, a thorn in the side of a not-so-concerned international community and a thoroughly obstructionist Serb nationalist infrastructure.

The returnees won, and are rebuilding their lives in Kopaci. I visited Vahid at his home there, where he showed me his prize garden and greenhouse full of tomatoes, strawberries, and cucumbers. It was a heartening thing to see, and quite a contrast from the winter of '99. Now, Vahid says, "Our only problem is love." That, and unemployment -- Serbs and Muslims in eastern Bosnia, in that sense, are in the same boat.


What I saw in Cevljanovici, a village about an hour north of Sarajevo, proves to me that bulls have much more sense than humans. If only the Spanish and Mexican bulls were so lucky as to fight each other, instead of humans, and if only humans would fight like these bulls (if fight they must), what a better world it would be.

There's a tradition going way back, where owners raise and train bulls to fight each other in an event called a "korida." These bullfights are staged in the context of a country fair ("teferic"), in the midst of a crowded scene of tents where people consume much meat and drink while listening to country-eastern music, stalls where other people sell all kinds of goods -- bootlegged cds, clothing, houseware, cigarettes, etc, and still other people dance the kolo to live music all day, rain or shine.

I drove up to Cevljanovici with some friends to take in that scene. It was a place of meat -- live, dead, and cooked. Workers were carrying lamb carcasses to and fro, roasting them on a turning spit, and burly butchermen hacked them up with knives and axes, selling portions by the kilo to hungry visitors from near and far. Families spread out picnic blankets on the hillsides and took in the action. People ate lamb and bread with their hands; not a fork was in sight.

The event was opened by the laying of memorial wreathes at a statue commemorating fallen defenders of Bosnia from the recent war. People then laid a wreathe at a nearby monument to fallen Partisans from World War II. The announcer explained, "...because, in some way, both wars were a fight against fascism." End of politics.

Pretty soon a duo started playing into a p.a. system in the field, and a few dancers took up the kolo. After a while there were hundreds, and the dancing continued throughout the subsequent thunderstorm.

Loud music pounded from the tents. Slinky folksingers were accompanied by accordions, synthesizers, a huge Bosnian saz, and a fiddler holding an obligatory cigarette in his bowing hand. They were performing an archaic, high-energy kind of music not heard much in the cities, more in the small towns and villages east of Tuzla. Some sang along, and others ate or drank along. All left the worries of unemployment, love, low pensions, return and reconstruction, politics, and survival behind. There were a couple of politicians present,  but for once, they didn't dominate the scene.

Later in the afternoon, at one end of the field, the Korida began. Crews led their bulls to the ring. The bulls would butt heads or just push against each other. Each fight took about 10 to 15 minutes. Some bulls needed to be prompted to fight. There was no blood or gore. The bulls have horns, but they didn't use them. The fights weren't very exciting. Once in a while a bull would look up as if to say, "Why the hell are we doing this?" One pair even refused to fight at all. In each fight, eventually one bull would give up and run or walk away. Then the other bull would be declared the winner.

A friend told me the bulls usually aren't killed in a fight. One time a bull was killed, and the owner held a dzenaza (the word for a Muslim funeral), and 700 people attended it.


I took a side-trip to Macedonia and Kosovo for couple of weeks last month, my first visit there in a few years. I attended a documentary film festival in Prizren, Kosovo, and visited friends in Prishtina and Gjakova; in Macedonia I visited friends in Gostivar and Skopje.

I saw the situation in both places as relatively stable and peaceful. But this can be deceiving, as events are showing that this peace can be shattered at a moment's notice.


The last, and a relatively brief, war in ex-Yugoslavia took place in Macedonia in the spring of 2001, when Albanians fought a campaign for improved rights. A couple hundred people were killed, and the conflict ended with the Ohrid agreement in August of that year. This was implemented slowly, accelerating after the election the next year of a relatively progressive coalition of Macedonians and demobilized Albanian fighters represented by a party named DUI. Now Albanians have achieved the right to use their language in state proceedings, and their university at Tetovo has finally been legalized. Albanians are better represented in politics and the police force. The mayors of Tetovo and Gostivar are both Albanian.

However, a nationalist Macedonian party was elected recently, and is preparing to form a coalition with the Albanian party which won fewer votes than DUI. This has prompted stormy protests by Albanian voters, and if implemented, could destabilize the country. In the first ten days of the new Macedonian party's mandate, the new prime minister Nikola Gruevski removed 1,800 people -- directors and functionaries belonging to the old party -- from their positions. This favoritism/clientism displays how little the political culture of Macedonia, which is ahead of Serbia and Bosnia in the EU membership process, has matured.

I went to Gostivar to visit my old friend "Agron," whom I know from Sarajevo. He finished his criminal science studies here and returned to Gostivar. As we were walking around the town, Agron told me, "While people were fighting in Tetovo and other places, Macedonians and Albanians were drinking coffee together in Gostivar."

Agron and I always have deep talks about politics, religion, politics, love, spirituality, and politics. I described to him my mildly spiritual agnosticism. He told me, "I had a phase of half-atheism like that, but after the war (in Bosnia) I read a book about Islam, and I started praying. That helps me remember that God is always nearby, and it helps me behave well." He stopped drinking and smoking, and never cheats on his girlfriend. But he hates the politicized version of religion that's done so much damage in this part of the world.

One day we decided to realize Agron's long-held wish to hike the mountain rising east of Gostivar, Suha Gora (Dry Mountain). At the crack of noon we headed up through the brush, never finding a path, but not much minding the bushwhacking.

Partway up the slope we heard the sounds of a drum and clarinet. A wedding was taking place down in the city, greatly amplified by the p.a. system of some reception hall. The rampant and quirky scales of Rom music urged us upward.

A couple times Agron stopped and went off to pray, providing me with a free rest-stop. The peak of the mountain kept receding as fast as we climbed. After a six-hour trek we were forced to return in order to arrive before dark. I asked Agron what could induce him to turn around and find the top, and he answered, "Maybe twenty Euros." That made me a bit sad, as I couldn't think of anything, even the resolution of some life-time problem, that could make me turn around.

We found the bottom of the hill at dark, and asked some kids at a house for some desperately-needed water. The father came out and talked to us, and treated us to some Turkish coffee. We chatted for a while, and then he invited us to dinner. This was Gostivar...

Another day,  in Tetovo, we walked by an old stone bridge and down to the Tekija (Turkish: "Teke"), a Bektashi (non-Sunni sect) place of worship.. There we were invited for coffee by the dervish, a tall, mild man with a long beard and clear eyes. He spoke with us rapidly in Serbian and explained the differences between Bektashi and orthodox Sunnism. He said, "They pray five times a day, and we, only twice, in the morning and the evening. The rest of the time, we work. Everything, including this conversation, can be a prayer." He told us about some sacred burial sites ("turbe") where the esteemed dervish Saltuk, from Turkey, is buried. As an elderly man he was traveling in Macedonia, Kosovo, and Albania (all under the Ottomans at that time), and people said, "Where shall we bury you?" He said, "Build seven turbes." He died and was buried in all seven places. Agron said, "Yes, a legend." The dervish said, "No, this really happened."

During the Tito era the Teke was a museum and café, and the dervish worked at a gas station.


Like in Macedonia, my first impression of Kosovo was that things are more peaceful and stable. In contrast to a few years ago, people generally are less nervous. The euphoria of having the Serbs off their necks has worn off, as well. I hear a certain amount of impatience with the administration of the UN protectorate. Things are not changing quickly enough for people. Unemployment is high. The overriding preoccupation currently concerns the ongoing but unproductive negotiations in Vienna for "final status" of Kosovo. It's an open secret that Kosovo will receive independence, but the nature of that independence remains to be defined. The international community is, rightfully, pressing the Albanian representatives to ensure respect of minority rights.

This is a serious question. When the Albanians received a measure of freedom after the NATO intervention, some of them started mistreating other ethnicities, especially the Serbs and Roma. Many of these people were intimidated into leaving the province. Much violence took place, and later there was a blowup, with widespread riots and attacks against Serb homes, in spring 2004. I talked to a lot of people about this event. Among decent people there was a lot of regret about that incident, but also the explanation that they had been "fed up" with Serbian meddling and obstruction of movement in various parts of Kosovo.

In formerly drab Prishtina, many bright new shops have been opened. But this shine only shows that people are interested in trading and selling, while production is stagnant. One Albanian man told me, "I'm not interested in independence, but in seeing the economy improve. Now the main thing we are exporting is money -- 95% of products purchased here are imported."

I was told that the atmosphere was "fragile" and could change overnight based on politics taking place at a high level, e.g., in Vienna. I left Kosovo with a feeling that things were calm, but then in late August an Albanian kid threw a bomb into a Serbian kafana in the divided town of Mitrovica, injuring nine people.

Some of this anger is a reflection of the current impatience, and some of it has to do with the memory of the violence done unto Albanians in the 90s. I regularly met people who had lost family members in the Serb assault, or whose houses had been destroyed.

Another expression of anger and impatience is presented by the radical organization "Vetevendosje," ("Self-determination"). This group is led by Albin Kurti, leader of the student demonstrations in the 1990s and later, for over two years, a political prisoner in Serbia. Vetevendosje opposes all negotiations with Serbia on the grounds that they can only lead to a compromise of Kosovo's sovereignty. I believe there is much danger in possible concessions the Albanian negotiators may be pressed to make, inasmuch as they give Serbia extraterritorial rights to participate in administration of Serb enclaves in Kosovo. But the negotiations are happening, and Vetevendosje has lost much of its popularity because of its perceived extremism. I was told that ordinary people are so preoccupied with survival that they're not about to participate in street demonstrations.

In late August Vetevendosje held a sit-in in front of the UNMIK (UN administration) compound, and 65 of them were arrested. But they are not going to be able to have a significant influence on the protectorate's policies. Meanwhile, they are also running a campaign to boycott Serbian products, which are very present in the stores in Kosovo. This campaign is more popular than some of Vetevendosje's other work.

Importation from other countries is a sore point because it reduces Albanian farmers' ability to produce and sell their goods. As a consequence many villagers have moved to the cities, where they still remain unemployed. New construction is overwhelming in the cities I visited, and Prishtina's population has at least doubled since the war.



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