David Williams

Posted by on Nov 30, 2009 in Inspired by Dan


Lessons from Safari as a Way of Life in Bosnia
by David Williams

We have never had the truth…most of the time in our world, truth is just opinion… It’s different here, dangerous. Sometimes law is on the side of power not truth. Michael Ondaatje, Anil’s Ghost

When people tell me now that the 1992-95 civil war in Bosnia and Herzegovina was an ethnic-religious war, I think of being in Rome a couple of years ago. Being such a great Catholic I promised myself I’d go to St. Peter’s for mass in the square on Sunday morning, but didn’t quite make it after having a few too many drinks on Saturday night.

Most Bosnians I’ve met, whether Orthodox Bosnian Serbs, Catholic Bosnian Croats, or Bosnian Muslims, seem to be about as religious as me. And whenever any one side now claims that the truth is theirs – we are the victims, they are the aggressors – I think of Michael Ondaatje’s novel Anil’s Ghost and a character talking about the civil war in Sri Lanka – most of the time in our world, truth is just opinion.

Growing up in the West today means growing up well-fed, well-sanitized, air-conditioned and perhaps even well-tranquilized to worlds outside our own. In this kind of anesthesia, the desire for what Dan Eldon defined as safari as a way of life is placated by placebos. Living rooms have become the new train stations and departure lounges – our only departures being through the TV screen.

I can never pick one single reason why I decided to go to Bosnia five years after the war ended. At the most banal, I went out of boredom. At the most noble, I went out of guilt for being born in a ‘lucky country’ and a feeling of obligation to others born with less fortunate passports, those born casualties of ‘the sadness of geography.’

Over the Easter holidays in 2000, I took a break from my job in Munich and spent it with the family of Serb refugee friends I had worked with at home in New Zealand. Through a tangled web of connections I got a job that July as an English teacher at the University of Serb Sarajevo in Pale, in the Serb part (the Republika Srpska) of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Pale was the wartime capital of the Bosnian Serbs. It lies 16km from Sarajevo and pre-war was a weekend village with about 5,000 residents. Today it’s a never-ending construction site, trying to house around 35,000 refugees and displaced persons – nobody knows exactly how many, just like nobody exactly knows anything in Bosnia – we have never had the truth. Anyone can speak Bosnian fluently once they master the theatrical art of the long confused shrug of the shoulders.

I know I wanted to learn about heroism in Bosnia. It just turned out that I wasn’t very well prepared for the task. In western folklore, the good always win; fairytales assure us that fairness will prevail. In post-war Bosnia I found that truth or fairness, as in Ondaatje’s Sri Lanka, are of a far more ambiguous quality. Today, after living more than two years in the Balkans, I don’t pretend to have learned anything more about war, than the banality that suffering and desperate circumstances do not bring out the best in human nature.

Because the international community has adjudged the truth of the war in Bosnia as the Bosnian Serbs bearing the preponderance of responsibility, it has therefore seemingly divined that the Serbs should suffer post-war. Thus, in the interests of fairness, institutions like the University of Serb Sarajevo are largely ignored by international donors. I, however, could see neither the truth nor the fairness in mostly young girls having to try and educate themselves in a ramshackle former tank-engine factory. This was where the Humanities Department was located. The classrooms had no heating, the classes had no regular lecture timetable, the buses were hours late forcing one to linger in minus 20 degree winters. All this while the Dean of Faculty, an enthusiastic foreign traveler (Finnish vodka is better than Russian), went to conferences where he couldn’t speak the official language. His habit of crashing his Faculty-purchased BMW did even less to endear him to us.

I don’t know where the fairness or truth in this situation lies, but I found a kind of heroism existing in the young girl, who despite losing her home, perhaps some of her family – in any case definitely someone she grew up with – gets up each day, tries to study, attend classes, and involuntarily pretends that this is an acceptable situation in a country which is a day’s drive from Munich, Venice or Vienna.

In a civil war where civilians were targeted and the line between civilian and soldier often abstract, there is no truth or fairness for the ex-bank manager or waiter or librarian who is now forced to work in an illegal logging gang somewhere in the mountains for US$150 a month – paid months late – trying to provide for his wife and children in the post-war economic chaos.

In Bosnia I learned that truth and fairness and heroism are not represented by Rocky Stallone or his local equivalents (the Serb warlord ‘Arkan’, Bosnian Muslim ‘Juka’, Bosnian Croats ‘Tuta’ and ‘Stela’) but by the Bosnians of all nationalities who refuse to blame ‘the other’ for the fate of Bosnia; the woman who has lost a son but refuses to hate, the voter who ignores the jingoism of nationalist shepherds, or the journalist who points the finger at thieving local officials. As Ondaatje warns – sometimes law is on the side of power not truth.

Heroism is in the Yugoslav immigrants flung about the globe who have started small take-out restaurants from scratch, their painting and plastering and cleaning businesses. The highly-qualified surgeons and scientists who spend years fighting bureaucracy while delivering take-out pizzas; this for the right to work in the magical West. A student of mine told me the story of her 27-year-old sister who has spent the last nine years working menial jobs in an industrial city in Germany, sending half what she earns home so that her parents and younger sister in Eastern Bosnia can eke out some kind of existence.

Dan wrote this about what he had seen in Somalia:

One Sunday morning, they brought in a pretty
girl, wrapped in a colourful cloth.. I saw that both her hands
and feet had been severed by shrapnel. Someone had tossed a grenade
in the market. She looked serene, like she was dead€but the nurse
said she would survive. It made me think of the whole country.
Somalia will survive, but what kind of life is it for a people
that have been so wounded. I don’t know how these experiences
have changed me, but I feel different.

Whenever I travel to Bosnia now, after a year ofbeing away, these thoughts still chase me. The months after leaving Bosnia for the relative normality of Belgrade, Serbia, were like waking up one day and realizing that there were gaping holes where not only flesh and blood used to be, but whole spectrums of emotions and feelings and values. If I went to Bosnia to work the fat off my soul, then I might admit that the fat remained, but ironically the body became thinner.

A friend of mine came over for a beer the other Saturday night and was talking about how our grandfathers spent 6 years in World War Two, then almost as least as long trying to rebuild their lives afterwards. Yet nowadays we complain when we miss a year of our lives to civil or military service, or perhaps we fail an exam at university and have to repeat a year. It is seen as some kind of funeral or death.

I guess what bothers me in this rush to grow up is that time for safari as a way of life is never found. The search for clean water in a swamp, the therapeutic nature of a well-toned naked body applied to one’s flesh, the importance of cleaning the car windows and servicing musical devices is forgotten. And when we lose the time or desire for these seemingly smaller things, then alongside this, the fascinating and necessary search for abstractions such as truth and fairness and heroism also remains abandoned.

Dave Williams (b.1976) taught English at the University of Serb Sarajevo in Pale, Bosnia and Herzegovina from September 2000 until July 2001. He now lives in Belgrade, Serbia where he still teaches English and works as a freelance translator and writer. Dan Eldon’s story, art, and courage helped and inspired Dave to go to the former Yugoslavia from his home country of New Zealand.