Not everything is death and
mourning in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Life goes on and recovery takes place in
some manner. Here and there strands of the old spirit re-weave.
Memories, not only of the dark times, resurface. The residue of
nurturing traditions lingers; creativity happens. What kind of healthy
community will arise once the wounds heal is hard for many people to
imagine, because that time seems so far off. But the seeds of that
recovery are there in the young people, handed down from some force in
time that is more powerful even than war.
Back in Tuzla a few weeks ago: I stayed an extra day to go to a concert
by Damir Imamovic, a modern exponent of the traditional Bosnian urban
folk song, “sevdalinka.” If you don’t know about sevdalinka, you should,
and if you know about sevdalinka, make sure you know about Damir
Sevdalinka is a soulful body of song that goes back into the centuries.
Its rich lyrics conjure up the Ottoman-era aesthetic of stone courtyards
and water fountains, rose gardens, cushioned sitting rooms, and
Sevdalinka was the dominant urban folk music until about a generation
ago, when modern Western pop music started to edge it out. After the war
someone here asked me what kind of music I liked, and then laughed when
I mentioned Himzo Polovina. But the folks over 40 or 50 still know the
songs, and somehow, they are still in the blood of the younger people.
Unfortunately, the lip-synched television performances of this kind of
music contribute to its decline, as they tend to be spiritless
repetitions of the old form. Then comes Damir Imamovic, the grandson of
one of the greatest post-World War II sevdalinka singers, Zaim Imamovic.
Damir, somewhere between 30 and 40, did not start performing until after
the war. When I first heard him a few years ago in Mostar, I was carried
away by his sense of nuance and the power of his expression. The old
feeling is there.
Some people are not fond of Damir Imamovic because he has introduced
modern elements into his interpretation. In Tuzla he sometimes scatted
or sang in falsetto, or wandered off into musical fantasies all but
detached from the tradition.
But the tradition is still with Damir. If anyone thinks that “tradition”
refers to something that does not change, I suggest thinking about a
flowing river. It’s different water but the same river. If the river
stops flowing, it stagnates.
For my taste, Damir Imamovic saved the tradition by bringing it up to
date. The hall at Tuzla was full, and there were plenty of younger
people. Probably at least two-thirds of the songs Damir sang came the
old-fashioned way, but there was something for everyone. And for people
who are not interested Damir’s modern fantasies, I still say that his
command of the subtleties of ornamentation and his excellent vocal
quality make him a voice worth studying.
What Damir Imamovic has done with sevdalinka reminds me of what some
klezmer bands, notably the Klezmatics, did with East European Jewish
music in the 1980s. After young people had rediscovered the nearly
moribund old form, a few bands led the way and brought it into the
modern realm of “world music.” That is why klezmer now has a million
listeners around the world.
For more about Sevdalinka, see
My friend Sanja told me that when you see a black rose about to bloom,
you must sing to it, or play some music, or else that rose will not
While still in Tuzla I took the opportunity to visit Sadeta Osmanovic in
nearby Lukavac. She is the mother of some friends of mine in Seattle and
possibly the only woman saz player in Bosnia. The saz, brought to Bosnia
by the Ottomans, is still played in Lukavac and a few other parts of the
country, especially some of the smaller towns. I used to go hear a saz
player from Lukavac named Suljo when I lived in Tuzla in the late 1990s.
Suljo would come to Tuzla and play in a hotel every Thursday night. Some
Thursdays I was the only one there.
I went to meet Sadeta, who greeted me with typical Bosnian hospitality.
After coffee she took a saz down from the wall and sang me a few songs.
She happened to have two sazes, so I played along with her for a while.
I had never touched a Bosnian saz before; compared to a Turkish
instrument, a Bosnian saz is something like a Jeep next to a Corvette.
But it is just right for the local music.
I went to Gorazde to visit my
friend Vahid Kanlic and catch up on the news. I had met Vahid, a social
worker, in 1999 when he was leader of the refugee return movement in the
region of southeast Bosnia. During the war Gorazde had been separated
from its suburb, Kopaci, a mainly Bosniak-populated area with an
industrial zone. Kopaci found itself on the other side of the
inter-entity borderline (IEBL) between the Federation and the Republika
Srpska (RS). As people told me in that time, “I can see my house but I
can’t go live there.”
Obstruction of return to the Serb-controlled side of the line was
fierce. After nearly four years of waiting, the displaced people of
Kopaci, as a way of pressuring the international community to help, set
up a tent encampment in the snow by the IEBL. I went and visited that
camp in November ‘99, on the very day that the disruption of the
international WTO conference in my home town of Seattle was making
I’ll skip most of the story of that return campaign, but you can read it
http://advocacynet.org/resource/1038. Return happened; when I came
back to Gorazde a few years ago, Vahid and his family and neighbors were
lounging in sun in the yards of their rebuilt homes in Kopaci. Vahid
said to me, “Now our only problem is love.”
Vahid greeted me at the bus station and took me to his apartment in
town, where I met his wife, Zaima. I was hungry and they fed me a
monstrously huge lunch. We then went to Kopaci, where Vahid showed me
his greenhouses and his fields of strawberries, broccoli, cucumber,
tomatoes, wheat, and apple trees of hybrid and local variety. This is
what Vahid does in his “spare time,”
We took a walk down through the fields to a path alongside a lake. While
we were walking, Vahid pointed out the walnut trees. He told me that it
is bad luck to sleep under a walnut tree, because one can get a sickness
from them. If you sleep under a walnut tree, he said, the vapors from
the tree will enter your head and body, and the discomfort from those
vapors will take a long time to pass. The trees offer pleasant shade in
the hot summer, he said, but they deceive people with their shade.
As we walked I asked Vahid about the life of the returnees to Kopaci,
and whether any of the old industries have been revived. He told me that
the local authorities had broken up what was left of those industries
and that there was no economic development in the town. People are
living from pensions and agriculture. Kopaci has reverted to a village.
Vahid Kanlic at his farmland in Kopaci, where he led refugee return
While Vahid was watering his gardens I sat with Zaima, who told me how
there were seventeen airplane attacks on Kopaci during the war, and that
now when she hears an airplane, she is still frightened. She mentioned
the names of people who were killed in the nearby houses during the war.
One bomb threw up a huge tree from across the road and tossed it all the
way over to her yard. There were other stories about the war, along with
interjections, “What can you do?”, and “Biće bolje” (“Things will get
better”). She said, “Those are ugly memories. I don’t like to talk much
about them, but I’m telling you…”
Zaima also told me, “We were close-knit during the war. Whenever anyone
had a little something extra, they would share it. Then as soon as the
war stopped, people stopped sharing; now we’re not so close anymore.”
The town of Gorazde is looking better than it used to. The old
department store that was so trashed -- it had suffered several direct
hits from missiles -- has a bright new façade. Bit by bit things are
being fixed up, although -- as in so many other parts of the country --
this does not represent much solid economic improvement.
The most prominent change is a rather large mosque right in the center
of town on the river, dominating that part of the city landscape. I
noted to Vahid that the mosque was built in an Ottoman style, rather
than in that austere Middle Eastern style that has been transplanted to
some parts of Sarajevo and even Tuzla. Vahid commented in a
non-committal way, “Yes, but it changes the look of the town.”
Gorazde skyline with new mosque
From Gorazde I took the bus to
Foca. As I walked into town from the bus station, I couldn’t help but
notice many posters with Vojislav Seselj’s photo. The posters were
advertising a book that was recently published by the accused war
criminal. Some of those posters were taped on the front of the numerous
empty storefronts, contributing to the bedraggled look of the town.
I checked into the only hotel, “Zelengora,” which cost thirty dollars
and it looked like the carpets had not been changed since Tito died. I
went to meet with my friend “Marko,” whom I had met a few years ago. He
was a journalist before the war, and last time I came to Foca he showed
me around very helpfully, introducing me to all kinds of people -- from
elderly Bosniak returnees to other ordinary townsfolk to extreme Serb
“The atmosphere is a little better in Foca now, less nationalist, than
it was a few years ago,” Marko said. “People are tired of that; they
have had enough of that extremism.”
I believe Marko, but the atmosphere is not very good. Foca looks like a
place that has been left behind. Perhaps a few facades have been
repaired, but this out-of-the-way town still looks like it did when I
first came there a few years ago. Other places that were very
sad-looking, like Gorazde and Srebrenica, have at least gotten a coat of
paint and some new stores.
There is something different about Foca. It was closed to return for a
long time, and even boycotted by the international community for a few
years. In recent years there has been a new mayor who is more liberal
and even “pro-Bosnian” (as opposed to Republika Srpska prime minister
Dodik, who thinks Bosnia can go hang). Zdravko Krsmanovic has a fairly
good reputation, but Foca is for all practical purposes a mono-ethnic
town where people are isolated from the current of events in the world
and even in Bosnia.
Krsmanovic is a politician who has made people’s ears perk up in recent
months, during the build-up to the October national elections, because
he offers a message of tolerance that is rare in the RS. Foreign
officials especially like him. But Marko told me that Krsmanovic been
criticized locally because he “waffles” in his loyalties. Local
hardliners have accused him of “working for the Americans.” He also
seems to have done well for himself, says Marko; he owns several
buildings around town.
Marko expressed to me some opinions that were a combination of his own
and the mainstream of the town, although I think Marko is more open than
the average person in Foca. He told me that people there say, “There was
enough of that bratstvo i jedinstvo (brotherhood and unity, the
unifying anti-nationalist catch-phrase of Tito’s Yugoslavia); don’t try
and force us to live together again.”
About the war, Marko says, “Someone wanted to break up Yugoslavia, to
take our industries, and to have our workers as a cheap labor force. The
war started because people were afraid of being outvoted by the Muslims.
There is still fear of that.”
On the other hand, traffic and commercial exchange between Foca and
nearby Gorazde have opened up. Marko says, “I go to the car mechanic in
Gorazde. He is Bosniak. He says that the fact that I would come there
from Foca says something about his skill and my trust.”
Marko says, “Who got anything out of this war? Maybe about 0.002% of the
people came out better. For example, there was a Bosniak, a doctor who
had built the hospital here in Foca. He was expelled along with everyone
else. How did he bother anyone? Now there is a displaced Serb in his
apartment, someone from a village, who throws his garbage out through
the window. And in Sarajevo they are saying, ‘Bring back our good Serb
Marko told me that he misses the old feeling of Foca, when the place
felt like a city. I doubt that feeling will come back soon. The city had
a Bosniak majority and one of the most beautiful ancient mosques in the
country. The Alaga mosque still lies ruined and it doesn’t seem that
there is any point in rebuilding it, since there is no longer a Bosniak
community in Foca to use it.
Foca, nestled in the dark green hills, is situated in a lovely
mountainous region. Although it is just a small place, Foca is even
older than Sarajevo. Like many small and middle-sized towns of
Bosnia-Herzegovina, Foca had its own deep-seated urban culture that
developed in the course of its long history. The war ruined that; now
Foca more resembles an overgrown village where forgetfulness reigns.
I have written earlier about grassroots activism in various parts of
Bosnia. In Sarajevo I met briefly with a member of “Dosta,” the
grassroots movement that has been active in various parts of Bosnia over
the last six or eight years. As I have moved around the country I have
been asking various activists for their evaluation of this group that I
have valued highly. I received a whole range of answers: that they are
“true radicals;” that they are “no longer radical;” that they “have no
program;” and other variations. My impression after my visit with one
member of Dosta is that the group is not in a dynamic phase, and that
overall, local activism on the very grassroots level (with some
exceptions), is in a slump.
Apropos of this, in Gorazde I had a long and stimulating talk with
Slavko Klisura, a journalist who works there. First we talked about the
economy of Gorazde, and Slavko told me that there are a few relatively
successful companies in Gorazde, and thanks to those companies this
Canton is the only one in the Federation that exports more than it
imports. But in spite of that, the social situation is quite bad. People
lack work. Before the war there were around 13,000 jobs in industry, and
now there are only about 3,000.
Slavko said, “It is hard for the Canton to exist economically without
significant assistance from Sarajevo. Each year the Canton receives
about eight million KM from Sarajevo. This is a grant from the
Federation, but it is affected by politics. That is, if one party is in
power in Sarajevo, and a different party here, then there is a problem.”
A huge part of the dysfunction of Bosnia-Herzegovina comes down to what
some people refer to as the “structural problem,” that is, the unnatural
division of the country into entities, which resulted in the dissolution
of regional markets and the disruption of transportation. Slavko gave
the example of someone who died of a stroke because of the complication
of having to travel to a distant hospital within the same entity, rather
than being able to go to the nearest hospital, which was across the
Gorazde, part of the Federation, sits between Visegrad and Foca, both
part of the RS. Slavko said, “We should form economic regions; before
the war Gorazde was the center of this region. Now there is an absurd
division of markets. The biggest problem is that in these closed areas,
who will invest? As a result of local stagnation, all the potential
intellectual and economic power ends up going to Sarajevo. And there,
the young people who are not students spend their time in the kafanas,
and the students are “shminkers” (roughly, unserious people).
I asked if there could be a change forthcoming as a result of youth
activism. Slavko, in his mid-fifties, said, “It will be difficult. There
is no one who will fight. People do not have revolution in their blood.
In Serbia there will be change coming from the intellectuals and the
youth, but that is not happening here.”
I asked about Dosta, and was told that they are “tied up with the SDP,”
the entrenched opposition party that has pretty conclusively shown
itself to be unprepared to lead the country to change.
I described my experience in talking to activists in several different
organizations in Tuzla, where each stated that their organization was
independent of all political parties, but asserted that the other was
actually the “youth wing” of one party or another. In response to this,
Slavko burst out impatiently, “There is no movement! You can’t lead a
revolution from the offices.”
And on the topic of NGOs, Slavko said, “They should be the carriers of
change. But there is nothing worse than ‘projects’ in Bosnia -- we live
from one project to the next.”
NGO activists get grants from governments and from international NGOs
for what they call “projects.” It is how they exist and how they get
things done. “Zene to Mogu” (Women Can Do It) in Banja Luka is an
example of an NGO that does good work, and then there are examples of
NGOs -- and political parties -- that just exist to finance someone’s
own private projects.
A friend of Slavko’s who was present gave an example of that kind of
practice: “In the Balkans, people see that an election is coming up, and
they form a political party. They get signatures, register, and get
donations. Then they remodel their apartment, maybe take a vacation to
Greece. Then the elections happen, and they disband the party, and
that’s the end of it.”
We can see that there are all kinds of NGOs, and I would not agree with
the implication that all NGO activists should disband their
organizations and take to the streets. Probably they should try to do
their work and revolt -- in this country, people need to be in
the streets, and the grassroots movement is just not measuring up.