Bosnia: On the Dangerous Edge of Things

By Foster, Charles | Contemporary Review, March 1996 | Go to article overview
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Bosnia: On the Dangerous Edge of Things


Foster, Charles, Contemporary Review


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.

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