The International Reporting (and Life) Adventures of Vivian Salama

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A memo from the former Yugoslavia

Posted by vmsalama on June 20, 2006

The following is a rather lengthy email I wrote to Newsweek correspondent Chris Dickey who covered the Balkan wars through the 1990s and had inquired about the situation today:   
(for more pics from my Balkans trip, click here)
The best way I can describe the situation in the Balkans as I saw it is by comparing the relationship of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia today to that of Israel and Egypt – they made peace, but that doesn’t mean they like each other.  
Sarajevo has not quite rallied out of its depressively dreary post-communist state.  The apartment complexes and offices around much of the city – particularly the area known as Sniper’s Alley (around the Holiday Inn, famed for being journalist central during the war)- remain scarred with bullet holes and a number of buildings still bear fire stains.  The National Library is a perfect example of the attitude still floating around the capital.  The doors are boarded up with wooden planks and rubble still surrounds both sides of the entrance.  Next to the door, there is a marble plaque that reads:
“On this place, Serbian criminals on the nights of 25th & 26th August 1992 set on fire national & university’s library of Bosnia and Herzegovina .  Over 2 millions of books, periodicals and documents vanished in flames.  Do not forget, remember & warn!”


I don’t know if that plaque was up when you last visited, but it seems they were more concerned with getting it hung up than with engraving it using proper grammatical format.   The most interesting place, I found, was the War Market which sold left over bullets from the Serbian-Bosnian war converted into just about anything from key chains to pens to quasi-vases for holding flowers (the souvenir shop salesmen say the flower holders are a symbol for peace). It sold old gas masks, military backpacks and military daggers to tourists (Not sure what’s worse – the fact that they sell these things or the fact that people actually buy them — ok, so i bought a few bullet pens, flower holders and an official Bosnian military backpack!)
Mostar (Herzegovina) is almost entirely rebuilt and its famed bridge is as good as new.  The city remains largely segregated with Muslims and Croatians living in their own communities on one side of the river and the Serbs on the other side.  When I asked one Muslim waiter whether the situation is as serene as it appeared, he responded very matter-of-factly saying, “of course not – a Croatian soldier slit my father’s throat.  Do you think I can ever find forgiveness?”  He shook his head, indicating his answer.  
Despite the city’s effort to rebuild all that was lost in the war, it certainly has no qualms about highlighting its losses.  An example is along one street which runs through a war market similar to that in Sarajevo.  As tourists come to the end of the cobblestone road, they notice buildings which have not been rebuilt since the days of the war.  Above many of those buildings, a sign reads, “tourists are asked not to stand underneath the rubble of bombed buildings.”  (Subtle.)
Meanwhile, as Montenegro prepared to enter the international guild of independent nations, locals were clearly more concerned with the World Cup (Serbia and Montenegro are playing as one team) than in politics.  When asked whether the secession of Montenegro was a positive step, most of the people agree, given that it increases their chances at EU integration (check out my article in World Politics Review on this subject)– providing for them opportunities to work elsewhere in Europe that they otherwise would not have had given Serbia’s economic instability.
Montenegro is operating exclusively on the Euro and – especially in its quaint villages along the Adriatic coast – it is equally as pricy to spend a day there as it would be in any town in the south of France.   Despite its higher standard of living though, I’d characterize daily life in the capital and several of the beach towns in Montenegro as being dull.  They are quaint, but I can see why a young Montenegrin would choose to work elsewhere in Europe and return only when they are ready to settle down. (photo from Budva, Montenegro)


Kosovo was one of my favorite places on the trip mainly because it was not at all what I expected.  Despite its ongoing political problems – government corruption is rampant – and its failure to stabilize its economy enough to convince the outside world that it is ready for independence, it was a lively place with New York City-style coffee shops and bars, fashionable young people and an upbeat atmosphere.   What struck me about Kosovo is that despite its political and economic problems, Pristina, the “capital,” had some of the nicest infrastructure of any of the other major cities.  This certainly may have to do with the number of ex-pats living there at this time.  
The presence of international peacekeepers is still high and evident to anyone strolling the streets — it is tough to walk more than 2 blocks without crossing men and women in fatigues.  While there, I came across a “freedom for Kosovo” march.  It was peaceful – so peaceful in fact that I couldn’t help but feel they were marching out of obligation and not because of any desperate longing for independence. Perhaps it is their nonchalance coupled with the downturn in politics that has delayed secession.  They have more talks in the coming weeks so we shall see what happens.  
I visited a number of villages in Macadonia and Serbia after Kosovo but the one place that really stood out on the trip was Belgrade.  I went for the first time with expectations similar to the dreariness I experienced in Sarajevo – but Belgrade was anything but.  Pedestrian traffic was far more active and every big name clothing store was available in the city center.  Belgrade University truly gave off the vibes of a thriving academic center with students coming and going (the University of Sarajevo looked more like a warehouse than a campus).   
A lot of Serbs talked to me about the recent burial of Slobodan Milosevic in his hometown of Pozarevac.  It was tough to find anyone who outwardly supported him though no one would come out and say they disliked him.   As one doctor I interviewed told me rather diplomatically, “If you like communism, you like Milosevic.   If you don’t like communism, you can’t like Milosevic.”  Many of those living in Belgrade, while refraining from outwardly criticizing Milosevic, admitted that Serbs will face the repercussions of burying him there because it appears to the world that they are out to preserve his legacy.  
Belgrade has also failed (ie, refused) to rebuild many of those buildings damaged in the war. I remember as I arrived into the city, I sat in a cab mesmerized by one building very near to the US Embassy which, it seemed, caught a bomb right in its belly.   It had a massive gap right down the middle yet the left and ride sides of the complex stood virtually untouched.  My taxi driver took notice as I stared and in a word pointed to it and said, “America.”   I later discovered that that building and many more around it were targets of the NATO bombing of 1999.  


Both Bosnia and Serbia have a long way to go before they can even seriously consider EU integration.  There were some towns in Serbia which, if you ask me, haven’t gotten the memo on the fall of communism.   Bosnia is not much better (I’d even go as far as to say that about parts of Sarajevo!)   At least they have some examples to look up to.  Croatia and Slovenia are doing brilliantly and passing through those places transports you to a different time and a different place.  Then there’s Albania… well, let’s see if Turkey gets into the EU, then we can talk about Albania!!
Hope you are well – speak soon!
Vivian Salama

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