Editor's note: Charles Foster travelled through Bosnia in the last weeks of the fighting before the implementation of the Dayton Agreement. He reports on how it appeared in those final horrible weeks.
HALF an hour south from the immaculate suburbs of Zagreb you hit the war. It is actually there even earlier if you know where to look - in the roads broken up by tanks; in the bullet pock-marking around strategic windows; in the general weariness and pride of the place. But it comes out and grips you in Turan, near Karlovac. Turan was re-possessed by the Croats in their Krijina offensive in August 1995: it is the Arc de Triomphe of the Krijina war. The victory was complete. The Serbs died or took to the road. But the Croats have not come gratefully back to welcoming homesteads. Croatian flags flutter unconvincingly from every boarded-up house in the place, proclaiming the most technical of sovereignty: Turan has been excised from Croatia and grafted into an unreal land subsisting only in the minds of ideologues. Turan could be the capital of the previously-warring Balkans. It is typical enough. Nobody lives there, there are lots of flags; there is lots of graffiti, the churches have been blown up, you have to stay on the road because the verges are mined, and the main thing the driver wants you to see is the house where a Swiss journalist was cut in half by shrapnel in August. But we have to remember that it has been gloriously liberated.
But the pity and complexity of it all elbows out the cynicism. The pity is well documented: the fact of the complexity is not. It is not generally a good thing for a journalist to admit that he's hopelessly confused. But in Bosnia, confused is the only intelligent thing to be. If you're confused, you're on your way to understanding your subject. Nobody has the first idea what is going on. Anyone who attempts a comprehensive account of it is a fool. It would be as presumptuous and vain as attempting a systematic theology, and not at all unlike it. At 10 o'clock one morning I sat in a bar in Bihac drinking Austrian beer with exhausted Muslim soldiers in German boots, who had been shooting all night with Israeli ammunition from American sub-machine guns at (they thought) Orthodox Bosnian Serb commandos armed with Russian weapons. The scrap was being watched by Fijian UN troops who shouted excitedly and incomprehensibly in English through loud-hailers throughout the night. We were being served by a Catholic barmaid with the highest cheek-bones in the world and a skirt almost level with them, who tried to give us our change in tokens (there is a shortage of currency in Bosnia-Herzogovina), or alternatively in chocolate. Bosnia is a great iconoclast: the streets are littered equally with the fragments of armour-piercing shells and the fragments of long-cherished presumptions. It is the natural habitat of Browning's Bishop Blougram, whose interest was 'on the dangerous edge of things: the honest thief, the tender murderer, the superstitious atheist...'
Not, mind you, that there are many tender murderers in the Balkans. But a good number of them are well-scrubbed, well-educated, middle-class murderers. It's a war of the nice boy against the other nice boy. It is quite something to be a refugee from the kind of places that the rural road-trampers of the northern Balkans are refugees from. They have been pushed out of plush country houses (the kind which would be sold through glossy Savills brochures in England) in idyllic valleys - places of real dream-weaving. And they have been pushed out by the nice middle-class boys from next door. The war would not have been as furious if it had been about cities, since most cities are invested only with fragile, theoretical significance which cannot survive a couple of months of trench warfare. Nobody dies enthusiastically for multi-storey car parks.
I walked out of the bar, and through the Muslim cemetery with its Qur'anic quotes over the footballs engraved on the headstones of goalkeeper martyrs, and went on past the apartment blocks, whose balconies are stacked high with winter wood, and past the black marketeers, selling Rumanian soap to side street crowds, and I came to the edge of the town, where the roads lead south and east to the big arenas of war. It was hot, and a Croatian convoy had stopped to smoke and sleep by the river bend. Boys jumped up and down on the blown belly of a pack horse, shot by the road side, and it burst as they jumped, and they fell into the body cavity and screamed, and ran off down the road, shaking the maggots from their boots. A soldier offered me his sister, and when I said no, said that he didn't blame me, and asked for a cigarette, saying that it is good to smoke. Two weeks before, he said, his best friend had stepped on a mine near Banya Luka, and the blast had blown his legs, still dressed immaculately in his khaki jodhpurs and black boots, into the tops of the nearby willow tree. They couldn't climb the tree, he said, because the branches were too thin, and they had to shoot the legs down. He said that he was sure that there was some significance in this, but that he hadn't been able to think of it. He had been responsible for a survey of kingfisher populations in southern Croatia before the war, and was worried that the old game of fishing with grenades would have depleted the fish population and driven out his kingfishers. Also his father had been bayoneted to death. Then he shook my hand, and asked for another cigarette, and walked back to his platoon.
Getting significantly further south or east than Bihac is expensive. Lots of rules to ensure the safe passage of foreign journalists appear, and need dollar bills to dissolve them. Swinging east to Banya Luka, the soldiers get jumpier. The car which went through the checkpoint before you has always been fired on. There are, it is true, a good number of pastoral psychopaths on each side of the river which forms the frontier who go out hunting every day, shooting Croat cars or Muslim sheep or Bosnian nurses. My driver, an avowedly nonpartisan suburban Croat, who had done a student exchange in Dallas and subscribed to Paris Match magazine, assured me that the Bosnian Serbs practised cannibalism, but that they would only eat Muslims shot by snipers: the splinters in shell casualties made them too risky to eat. I later heard almost identical things from Serbs about Croats, the only real difference being an elaborate description of marinading in oil drums filled with vinegar. That came from a Serb who sold luggage in the Old Kent Road in the early 80s, and who had a Master's degree in Medieval French.
When you get nearer the hot edge of the war, and hear the firing, you expect the ironies to be distilled out by the guns: to find a relative simplicity of purpose; to find that slogans mean more. But it is not so. In the Staff Headquarters and in the front lines the same complexity co-exists with the same savagery. The human pieces on the Banya Luka road were shovelled into a bin liner by a mournful Serb who muttered lines from Camus' The Plague as he did it, soliloquised like an over-analytic Hamlet over the first two beers afterwards, and damned the Muslims to hell over the third.
That it can be so is the terrible thing which Bosnia has taught to self-righteous Europe. The lesson was learned slowly, but it has been learned thoroughly. Bosnia threw civilisation onto the couch and asked it a lot of embarrassing questions about itself. The reporting of the Bosnian war has been, vicariously, the unravelling of the West's democratic subconscious. At the beginning of the war, everyone, secretly, welcomed it: if white, jeans-wearing, Mozart-listening Europeans can do this, we thought, then not only were we (being like them), proper men, not divorced from our basic animalness, but we didn't have to undergo the discomfort of being animals ourselves in order to remain integrated creatures, since the stereotypic Balkans men were doing it for us. The columns at this stage were either silent about the Balkans or blandly factual. Then the reporting went into the second phase. The next generation of broadsheet leader writers did their apprenticeships in Sarajevo, and they know very well that clean shirts and doctorates don't reverse the Fall. That is what they said in their newspapers. This insight is a completely new one: the opinion makers of the western world, until then, had, with more or less overtly patronising imperialism, believed and practised the opposite. The danger now is of that lesson being over-learned and a despairing anarchy taking the place of confidence in enlightened democratic order. Some of the papers now talk, with an earnestness which their editors previously despised as the medium of religious soft-heads, of the 'core of evil at the heart of us all'. The others have accepted that further analysis of causes would be futile, and taken refuge in the cosy and self-indulgent last resort of the psychoanalytically challenged - their own immeasurable complexity. One way or another, things will never be quite the same again.
The reporters still sit in the bars of Bihac and Banya Luka, peeling layers off themselves and layers off Bosnia, and drawing parallels between the two processes. The war has become important only for what it tells them and their readers about their own nobility and nastiness. This is the most illuminating thing about it: its bestiality should have been able, if anything could, to excite mere, undiluted compassion in the west. It is a frightening indictment that we were all too narcissistically interested in what it showed us of ourselves to weep about something which was happening outside us. It is a difficult syndrome to avoid. Going back to Zagreb along the road through Turan you forget that the war is to the south: the important bits of it are the notes in the pocket-book and the cherished recollections of your own reactions when the shells burst nearby. We are Bishop Blougram's people, interested in the dangerous edge of things. But it is nothing to be proud of. We are interested in the edges only because that's where we ourselves are to be found paddling.…