|A cello player in the partially destroyed National Library, Sarajevo, during the war in 1992. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
|Photo from a Serbian position in the mountains overlooking Sarajevo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
|Nele circa 1980 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
|The government building in the centre of Sarajevo burns after being hit by tank fire during the siege in 1992 Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
I have just watched for the second time a sad, almost haunting AlJazeera programme got up by a former BBC reporter, Jackie Rowland, which bears on the tragedy of the Yugoslav war. Ms Rowland was a reporter covering Yugoslavia after the war, and she has vivid memories of seeing tapes of a show by a three-man comedy group called Toplista Nadrealista (or the Surrealist Hit Parade), whose mapcap comedy routines made life more bearable in the late 1980s and early 1990s, before the outbreak of the war, and later in the besieged city of Sarajevo during the almost four years the city was under attack by the Serbs.
All three, though of different racial and religious origins, were born in Sarajevo, which, famously, was a city totally integrated as between races and nationalities until that sense of perfect harmony was destroyed by the brutal war in which the country broke up into numerous self-contained, neighbour-hating entities.
Ms. Rowland was in Yugoslavia as a member of the staff of the BBC School of Broadcast Journalism in 1997. In one class she had a pupil called Zenit Djozic, whom she first regarded as a rather disruptive element, but with whom she later became friendly. He had been a member of this comedy group, and he showed her tapes of their shows, “rather Pythonesque”, as she describes them in her programme notes, which she greatly enjoyed. She never met the other major member of the group, by the name of Nele Karajlic, who had already left the city and was heard broadcasting some rather tendentious commentaries about the war from Belgrade. He was a Serb, and Ms. Rowland says on the AlJazeera web site that the remaining members of the troupe in Sarajevo were tending to regard him as a kind of villain. She says that in 1997 she sent Zenit to Belgrade on a mission of some kind, and while there he had met his old friend Nele, but the meeting had not gone well, and he didn’t say much about it afterwards.
Returning to the former Yugoslavia more than a decade later, Ms. Rowland was harbouring what she thought was the terrific idea that with a bit of feminine persuasion, she could persuade the three principals of the old show to get together and even to perform together again.
She set out by meeting first her old friend Zenit, who turned out to be still a delightful, well-balanced, amusing clown of a guy, who said he was willing to meet his former friend Nele and looked forward to having such a meeting, However, he had already visited Nele once in Belgrade, he said. But In fact, although he had always regarded Nele as his best friend, on that occasion he had discovered a new Nele, one who believed differently from him on questions arising from the war, such as who started it. “I lost my friend,” he said.
So off went the aggressive Ms Rowland --- to my mind she played rather too hard at being accepted as “one of the boys”, as it were, while carefully disguising the fact she had met only one of the three performers before --- to Belgrade to contact Nele himself, who was on a tour to plug a successful book. When she told him Zenit was ready to meet again, he said, “Well, he has my phone number, he knows where I am, what is the problem?” Asked why he left Sarajevo, Nele said he was forced out, along with 200,000 Serbs who had also been forced out. He said, ”I would be happy to go back to live in Sarajevo, but only when the other 199,999 who had been forced out were welcome to do the same.” But that, he added, will never happen. In Sarajevo, no one now mentions that 200,000 Serbs had been forced out of the city, he said. In his mind Sarajevo was a city in which Serbs should be living. Sarajevo had been a utopian idea, but “we failed.”
On the subject of Zenit’s failed visit to Nele in Belgrade he said Zenit had “come too soon. He came when I was hot, angry, on the subject.” But he shook his head vehemently when the reporter put it to him that Zenit had said he had found “a different Nele,” he had not found his old friend. Ms. Rowland discussed with him different places where it might be possible for the former partners to meet, but without getting any firm commitment. On this subject, the stereotypes of nationalist suspicions in former Yugoslavia were exhibited. Nele thought if Zenit wanted to meet him, it should be in Belfgrade; Zenit said he had already visited Belgrade, so it was not his turn to do so again.
Back in Sarajevo, Ms.Rowland, summarizing her discussions with Nele, said she was struck by his assertion that he was right, and everyone else was wrong, an assertion that would have come as no surprise to anyone who has studied this issue even superficially.
And so, on her quest, on to Ljubljana, where the third member of the trio, Banko “Djuro” Djuric, has been working successfully for the last 20 years, in films and other media. Asked if he would be ready to work again with the TopLista group, he shook his head sadly and said, “Unfortunately there are political problems.” TopLista, although it had been a beautiful experience, was just one of many projects on which he had worked. The three principals had not seen each other for more than 20 years, and they were no longer friends, he said.
Djuro said his mother was a Moslem, his father Serb. “I am therefore, in-between. I don’t accept these labels,” he said. He referred to his late grandfather who died during the siege of Sarajevo, but who, before his death, had asked forlornly who was bombing them? Djuro had said it was just…. someone. “Someone told me it was the Serbs,” said granddad, to which Djuro nodded his assent. “Who are ours?” the old man asked.
A good question, indicated Djuro.
At the end of this fruitless search for grounds for accommodation, Ms. Rowland asked Zenit to enact a contemporary version of a famous sketch done by the three which had forecast the war by having the proponents hurl insults across a wall. In its contemporary version, two garbage collectors engaged in a fruitless discussion, ending with their going off, each into his fastness.
Oddly, Ms. Rowland, anxious to the end not to report a complete failure, recited a line of pious commentary hoping that Bosnians would eventually realize there was more that united them than divided them.
A faint hope, given that the war was stopped by the American-imposed Dayton Accords which divided Bosnia into the Bosnian republic, and a so-called Serpska Republic, which officially is part of the Bosnian republic. The theory of the decision-makers was that these two entities would gradually accommodate to each other. But, as in the rest of Yugoslavia, this has not happened, but in fact the Serpska Republic seems more and more to have dug in its heels, and to have made not a single gesture towards reconciliation.
Earlier this year I was in the former Yugoslavia and had the experience of moving across the original republic, now divided into a panoply of borders that have to be crossed as one moves back and forth. Often they did not even bother to look at the passports, and it was sometimes difficult to tell which of the new republics one was leaving and which entering. The thought that struck me forcibly at the time was that these meaningless borders seem to be about the only thing these new republics have obtained from the brutal war, a war fought to solidify these borders, just as, further north in Europe, borders we moved across on a bus tour up to Prague seem literally to have disappeared, since whenever I asked the driver which country we were in now, he usually didn’t know.
Ms. Rowland’s programme, far from contributing to greater understanding, seems merely to fortify the deep levels of conflict that have survived even this most unnecessary and terrible of wars.