Friday, January 18, 2013

Fools Rush In

I've been in Bosnia for the last couple of weeks.

Not in person, but vicariously through author Bill Carter. If you're a regular reader of my blog, you know that I was in Serbia last summer as a speaker at the Sozo Festival. One of my reasons for going was to get better educated on the Balkan conflict, which ultimately dates back centuries, not decades. I was moved by many things -- most of all by the resilience and warmth of the people I met, keen to move forward in peace and prosperity. 

Most of us who have not known war up close and personal tend to think that the lines drawn in war are clear: this side against that, this tribe against that, this ethnicity against that. It is almost always more nuanced. For example, my interpreter, a gentle man with a noble heart named Bože (pron. bozheh), is half Serbian and half Bosnian. Yet, as a Serbian citizen, he was expected to join in the collective nationalist sentiment of the Balkans of the 1990's. Yes, the Serbs did commit atrocities during the war, for which their ring leaders were prosecuted for war crimes at the International Court in The Hague; but the people of today's Serbia (i.e. the ones I met) are eager to put the past behind.

No conflict is one-sided, but Carter's first-hand account of the siege of Sarajevo is a heartbreaking tale of a proud, sophisticated city brought to its knees as experienced by many of the city's artists and other creatives, as well as ordinary citizens caught in a prison for no crime they committed. For three endless years, the Sarajevans had to carefully plot the simplest errand for fear of being taken out by a Serbian sniper in the surrounding hills. Fuel, electricity, food and other life staples quickly became a scarcity as faces thinned and eyes became hollow. Yet the city lived on -- that is, all but the estimated 12,000 who were either killed or went missing during the longest siege in a capital city in the history of modern warfare.

Driven by grief over the tragic loss of his girlfriend, Carter ends up in the former Yugoslavia and joins up with a ragtag group of humanitarian aid workers who do anything but play by the rules -- bureaucratic UN rules that can be so complex as to defeat the purpose of relieving the suffering altogether. Carter befriends a number of artists and other culture shapers in this avant-garde city, and his life is forever changed by them. The narrative of the Sarajevo siege is almost completely lost on the outside world until Bill Carter has an idea. Fools Rush In chronicles a series of unlikely but true events that culminate in the band U2 streaming Carter and his Bosnian friends' testimonies live to their European concerts attended by 50,000+ per night. The band ultimately arranges to do a concert in Sarajevo once the fighting is over (1997), and the well know song, Miss Sarajevo, deservedly if belatedly brings the plight of the city to the world's attention.

Fools Rush In is not for the faint of heart. It is raw and very real. But if you feel a need to be shaken out of a comfortable slumber -- or simply need to better understand a dark period in our recent history -- you'll be impacted by your trip to Bosnia, just as I was.


Mark A. Hollingsworth said...

Glad the book touched you the way it did for me, David. As I read I felt like I was in the midst of some of those shooting galleries, and won't soon forget the kids that befriended him.

Anonymous said...

Sarajevo was actually a DIVIDED city with the front lines between the military forces (Bosnian Muslims had a more numerous force in Sarajevo and within Bosnia as a whole) running near to the Holiday Inn where the journalists stayed.
The Serbian-held part ended up more damaged at the end of the war than the Bosnian Muslim part. This was mentioned by columnist Nebojsa Malic, who lived in Sarajevo through the entire war. So he was in a position to compare the 2 sides.
Also, UN officers who lived there during the war testified that Bosnian Muslims had their own snipers and they did use buildings in the infamous "Sniper's Alley" and they did target civilians and the UN.
James R. Davis, a Canadian soldier who was there during the war, wrote in his book "Sharp End: A Canadian Soldier's Story" that the Bosnian Muslim forces (the TO - Territorial Defense) provoked and staged attacks regularly for PR.
In one the few times that the UN (French Marines) actually did the footwork to trace the snipers, they found, to their surprise it was the Bosnian Muslims sniping from the former parliament building.

Today Sarajevo is almost pure Muslim. 150,000 Sarajevo Serbs are gone. Thousands of the Sarajevo dead were ethnic Serbs who were taken from their homes and apartments and beaten to death.