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13 September 2019

Welcome to Sarajevo


Mark Neville 


‘Pygmies in suits,’ that is what we looked like as we clambered off the air force cargo plane onto the cracked concrete Sarajevo runway. It was a mid‐summer’s day, July 11th 1996 to be precise. We were hopelessly incongruous amongst the men in military fatigues and the small army of humanitarian aid workers in khaki slacks bustling around. The heat from the concrete burned through the soles of our feet.

The flight had already been less than comfortable. The political, legal and human rights ‘Generals’ of the Council of Europe –, had travelled first class, which meant they got to sit on the metal benches running along the side of the aircraft, with the luxury of a seatbelt and a pair of earmuffs to cut out the noise. I was only a ‘grunt’ and there wasn’t even standing space, unless you wanted to risk getting your feet stuck under the pallets of cargo stacked along the centre of the plane, and then having them snapped off at the ankles on take‐off. An Aircraftman, who could not have been more than 16 years old, clambered across the piles of netted crates, and showed me how to make myself comfortable at the far end of the plane. “Here’s a good place,” he said, indicating a coffin‐shaped box, “and on take off, hook your arms through the netting and that should keep you from flying round.” He then scrambled to his own seat, which was well supplied with a fourpronged seat belt. If anyone were going to survive a plane crash, it would be him. The discomforts only deepened on arrival. It was hot and uncomfortable in the metal hangar where we sat and waited for our luggage to be unloaded and it was frustrating the length of time it was taking for clearance. We weren’t in Sarajevo to slow cook inside a metal box.

I stepped out of the cooker for a breath of air. Standing together in the shade of the building were what appeared to be a group of hardened aid workers and journalists chain smoking cigarettes.

Propped up against the tin wall I started to feel twinges of guilt at my petty lack of comfort. We were in Sarajevo on the anniversary of Srebrenica, one of the worst massacres in modern history, with 8,000, mainly men and boys, hunted down in the hills surrounding Srebrenica and executed. How was it possible that we were still capable of such genocide in Europe? The question wouldn’t leave my head.

I attempted to strike up a conversation with the others standing around. “Have you been here long?” I asked.

One of the group, a woman in her mid twenties with long rusty hair and a sun hardened freckled complexion, turned towards me. I wasn’t sure if she was squinting because of the light, or scowling at my suit, or my question.

“How long you come for?” she asked, in an American accent.

“Four days … ” I began to explain.

“Four days, huh?” she said, without giving me a chance to continue. “You’re going to sort it out in four days? Good.” And then she looked up at something infinitely more interesting in the sky before turning away.

I was surprised by her dismissive tone, by the fact that she had not even let me finish my sentence. Another American took pity on the man in the suit. “What was our group doing in Sarajevo anyway?” he asked, politely.

I told him it was our first mission to Sarajevo after the end of the war. We hoped that one‐day Bosnia and Herzegovina would be able to join the Council of Europe, an organisation promoting democracy, the rule of law and human rights. It probably sounded like a cloud of candyfloss to him, but at least he listened. I brooded over the words of the woman with the rusty hair as I went back to my bench to stew in the heat of the metal hangar. I was stung not only by her dismissive attitude but by the note of competitiveness in her voice ‐ You’re going to sort it out in four days? Good ‐ as if we were a bunch of fly‐ins and fly‐outs. As I fumed, still waiting for the paperwork to be completed and the luggage to arrive, I realised that she might have been rude but there was more than a little truth in what she said.

“Four days, huh?”

Those three words were packed with accusations that went beyond the single shot fired and started to detonate questions in my head: “Where were you when the war broke out? Conjunctivitis, huh, when Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs dragged one another from their homes, killing each other? Sitting easy in Alsace as Sarajevo was encircled, mortared and sniped at? Enjoying Strasbourg choucroute as women bartered themselves with peace keepers for food for their children?”

Worst of all was the interrogation in my head ‐ “Where were you a year ago today when Ratko Mladić’s men, cigarettes in their mouths, ribbons of ammunition draped over their shoulders, strolled past 400 Dutch peacekeepers on their way to slaughter men and boys, and crate off 25,000 or was it 30,000 women and children?

Crates. It took an eternity for them to be unloaded from the plane and for our luggage to appear and our passports to finally be stamped. But the words “four days, huh?” kept reverberating in my ears all through that sweltering arrival. As we left the airport and drove towards Sarajevo, passing blackened ruins and blown‐out buildings, I saw a house with the words “Welcome to Sarajevo” crudely painted on the side. And the full irony of it hit me.

In Sarajevo there was no space left at the Holiday Inn. That was the hotel favoured by journalists during the war. “Inner court, no view” was what they asked for as they banged down their dollars and deutschmarks on the counter: it was the only hotel in the world where rooms with a view were the cheapest option. No one wanted to be in the snipers’ view from the overlooking hills. Our group was lodged in guest rooms around Sarajevo. My lodging was in a tiny flat about as big as the hold for cabin baggage, and owned by a Bosniak couple in their late thirties who spoke a few words of German. The bedroom was freshly painted and it had a small window just above my head, with the luxury of glass in it. Most windows in Sarajevo were still covered in plastic sheeting stamped with blue UNHCR insignia to prevent the stuff from being stolen and recycled on the black market.

From the bed I could peer upwards and see out of the window towards the sky. It could not be overlooked, this little box room; it was carefully hidden from any vantage point in the hills around Sarajevo, so I reckoned that it had been safe from snipers during the war. And that was the start of how I judged my every step in that city, my every moment during those four days. I could not walk anywhere, stand anywhere, sit or lie down anywhere without imagining the lives of those who had endured the siege. I could sense them wondering if their next step would be safe, glancing constantly up and around, peering anxiously to the right and left, or looking at the walls and ground about them in case there were signs of bullet holes or shrapnel damage within sight; warnings of danger. At the foot of my bed was a glassed‐in bookcase. Inside it was a fluffy key ring, a small red, well‐worn cuddly bear and a selection of plastic figurines of the quality one would find in a McDonald’s Happy Meal. There was also the photograph of a girl in her teens, too old for the toys. The bookcase could not have been cleaner and more dust free if it had been standing in surgery. The girl smiled back at me throughout my stay.

My hosts had had just one daughter and had spent their entire savings on finding her a way out of Sarajevo, to Germany to be safe from the war, to have an education and a future. But fate and irony, something Sarajevo had mountains of, were cruel to them. Far from the dangers of Sarajevo, far from her family, she had been killed in a car crash on a country road in Germany.

Over the next few days in Sarajevo and in Banja Luka we had our meetings with Ministers; we had our interviews with journalists; we had our seminars with members of civil society. We shook hands with people who had blood on their hands but peace in their pockets; we smiled in photographs with those whose smiles were only meant for the cameras. And we preached the Gospel according to the Council of Europe.

We spoke about our legal and human rights standards. We explained the cooperation programmes, the legislative expertise, the routine study visits and the full arsenal of democratic defence mechanisms we could offer. And we met the other bureaucratic beasts, the OSCE, the UN and the post Dayton power broker, the High Representative. We examined their shiny shields and new furniture and talked co‐operation.

“Robotic pygmies,” this was a term once used to describe the international community during the war. Is that all we were, inconsequential Eurocrats on our missions to save? Pygmies in inappropriate suits? Were we today as naïve and dangerously misinformed as in those first weeks of the war, when propaganda kept telling us that the killings and atrocities were made up, or at worse exaggerated? Were our attitudes nonchalant, our approach condescending, our intentions self‐serving? What could we possibly achieve here ‐ ?

“Four days, huh?” came back into my head.

On my last evening in Sarajevo, I walked through the Markale Market, where two bombardments by the Army of the Republika Srpska had targeted civilians, leaving one hundred and eleven people dead. I jogged through the streets, glancing up at the mountains that bore down on the city, just as its vulnerable inhabitants had done so often. I angled my way across “Sniper Alley,” infamous for its death toll, barely able to stop myself from breaking into a run. And I finally reached what had been the front lines, just yards apart, between the opposing forces. In one building I stood facing the Army of the Republika Srpska, and then I crossed the street, entered a burnt out building and childishly poked my head around a blown out window and pretended to fire a pistol at no one. I was close enough to throw a tasty meaty burek at the other side.

How little I had understood of that conflict while it had raged. How little I could do, or we could do to deal with its aftermath in these four brief days. I was in a strange state of mind as I walked back towards the centre of town. Tied between trees was yellow tape with the words ‘pozor mine’, stamped along its length. I ran my hand along the tape, tempted to step over the boundary – it was like looking over the top of a tall building and wanting to jump off. There was definitely something about this place and its divisions its boundaries, its frontiers. Everything was a minefield: language, ethnic protection, religion, history, blame, guilt, constitutional arrangements: we had to be careful what we said and where we put our polished shoes.

We couldn’t work alone; we had to work together.

There’s no competition, I wanted to tell the rusty‐haired American. We’re all on the same side; we all have our contribution to make.

After our four days, we returned to Strasbourg, worn out, war‐weary, but undaunted. And we started digging new trenches, establishing different battle lines. Our small army of Eurocrats got to work providing Bosnia and Herzegovina with whatever expertise and assistance we could. We set up our programmes in our Directorates and Departments. We worked on providing assistance to the human rights Ombudsmen and the Human Rights Chamber. We translated human rights documents; we initiated training programmes for lawyers, judges, prosecutors and any other officials that moved. This was a very different war, and we were in the thick of it.

Months and years passed and the engagements multiplied, the activities increased. The Council of Europe opened an office in Sarajevo, we obtained funding from the European Union, and the country joined the Council of Europe. It has been almost nineteen years since I first stepped onto that crumbling concrete runway, but no matter what the Council of Europe has done, no matter how much has been achieved since then, I have always had in the back of my mind the words, “Four days, huh?”

Next week I go back to Sarajevo. Bosnia and Herzegovina continues to be embroiled in its past, tied in the straightjacket of the Dayton Peace Agreement and in the stranglehold of some of the most complicated constitutional arrangements ever devised in the world. In spite of this, it has defied the prognosis of implosion over and over again. Even if the two Entities and the three constituent peoples, and others, regularly move into and away from that dangerous frontier, it has somehow survived as a democracy. It has now been a member state of the Council of Europe since 24 April 2002 and in 5 days time, on 19 May 2015, it will, for the first time, take over the Chairmanship of the Council of Europe.

Maybe a little of the old guilt has finally rubbed away since that first day in Sarajevo on the first anniversary of Srebrenica, and perhaps I can now say on behalf of that small group of sweating persons from the Council of Europe who flew out on that military plane: ‐ “not a bad result from four days, huh?” ‐ I have often wondered who the woman at the airport was: humanitarian worker, journalist, or perhaps CIA spy? I did not know then and I am still not 100% certain now. But when President Obama made a senior appointment in the summer a few years back, and I saw her face on the news broadcasts, it screamed “four days, huh?” at me all over again. I stalked her on the internet: she had been a journalist covering the Yugoslav Wars and had gone on to be a political activist and leading writer on genocide.

I now understand better her words on that sweltering anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. I think I probably understand what her feelings might have been too, as she left Bosnia and Herzegovina behind to the men in dark suits with shoes not yet covered in the dust of the conflict. 

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