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OP-ED: Homage to Sarajevo

  • Published at 01:47 am January 24th, 2021
sarajevo
Photo: UNSPLASH

The city was a beacon of light during the wars that afflicted post-communist Yugoslavia

I remember where I was on September 11, 2001.

Sitting on a park bench in a London suburb enjoying a quiet day off. An elderly couple nearby were exchanging greetings with a park gardener. I wasn’t eavesdropping, but did overhear one phrase being repeated: “We’re lucky here. Look at other countries on TV, they have buildings falling down.” Until I got home, I thought they were talking metaphorically.

I am not as certain of the exact location where I first heard about the Srebrenica massacre. The atrocity which saw units of the Serb supremacist militia of Republika Srpska (VRS) under the command of Ratko Mladić and political control of Radovan Karadžić, massacre over 8,000 Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) men and boys whom they had separated from a larger group of civilians, took several days of reporting for its scale to become clear.

I do know that I was sat in a small hall full of Bosnian people in London. But exactly which venue and day in July 1995 eludes me. As does why and how an old family friend had come along. After three years of the most destructive conflict in Europe since WWII, which saw over 100,000 people killed and half of Bosnia’s population displaced, the news from Srebrenica, a supposed “safe haven” overlooked by UN troops was a new low.   

What I remember most is the solidarity in the room as a panel featuring Vanessa Redgrave read out harrowing details from some of the earliest reports of the atrocity. At the end, despite being given many reasons to feel upset or angry, the room, as one, silently composed itself to give the Bosnian ambassador a deeply dignified ovation.  

Moving as it was, the day soon sank into the depths of my memory, filed under “meetings I have attended.” That is, until a recent pandemic-induced bout of documentary viewing. 

Scream For Me Sarajevo, a 2018 film by Tarik Hodzic tells the unlikely tale of a concert by Bruce Dickinson, lead singer of the British band Iron Maiden, in the Bosnian capital in December 1994. This was during the 1992-96 siege of Sarajevo (longer than Leningrad), which saw the host city of the 1984 Winter Olympics surrounded by heavily armed militia bent on reducing it to rubble and murdering civilians at will.

The contrast between the theatrical legend and heavy metal frontman, (who each I am sure vote differently,) was big enough to prompt my memories of Redgrave’s speech to return.  

Why, besides not being a fan, had I not heard about Bruce Dickinson’s Sarajevo concert before? I bought War Child’s Help album and the U2/Pavarotti Miss Sarajevo single in 1995. I had a Workers Aid for Bosnia t-shirt and knew U2 used satellite link-ups during a world tour to speak to besieged Sarajevo residents, but did not play Sarajevo before 1997.

I assume the music press was lukewarm because he had become a solo act at the time. But it also seems Dickinson did not talk about it much until two decades later after Bosnians who attended the concert as youngsters had begun filming their recollections, and his band was invited back for a return visit and civic honour.

The film makes clear his uncharacteristic reticence. The experience itself was enough. Despite being told to return to the UK after it became unsafe to fly into Sarajevo, Dickinson and his fellow musicians on the spot decided to hitch a hair-raising ride through the war zone with The Serious Road Trip, a volunteer aid convoy known for its bright yellow trucks.

A choice as foolhardy and brave as it sounds. This journey alone makes every tale of rock star excess and smashing up hotel rooms on tour, redundant and trivial. It is heartening to see a documentary record it because though small, the 1994 gig is truly inspirational. 

Bosnia still bears the scars of ethnic cleansing. But Mladić and Karadžić have been duly convicted of genocide for Srebrenica by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Slobodan Milošević, the Serbian president who had armed them using his control of the former federal republic’s armouries, died whilst on trial for various war crimes. Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo are now at peace and seeking EU membership. 

Apologists for the Milošević regime (of whom the UK had plenty across the political spectrum,) will never admit it, but if the Bosnian government in Sarajevo had not been hampered by a one-sided arms embargo, it could have ended the siege years earlier. The fascist VRS only had a head start in weapons, not in allegiances of most of Bosnia’s people. 

I remember standing in a different, larger London park on February 15, 2003. It is possible that regret at the slow response to aggression in the 1990s helped turn Tony Blair into a rampant interventionist unable to tell the difference between a just liberation war and one that risks doing more harm than good. 

For what it is worth, I could still tell. As did the over a million other people marching into Hyde Park that icy day to protest the imminent invasion of Iraq.

Sarajevo was worth supporting. A beacon of light during the wars that afflicted post-communist Yugoslavia as it disintegrated amid a tide of hyperinflation and toxic ideology.   

Sarajevo’s residents did not turn against each other. Muslim, Catholic, Orthodox, Bosniak, Croat, Serb, or mixed, they stayed united as Bosnian citizens. For the most part, its people ate, drank, suffered, and looked the same anyway. Not that this would have mattered to the paramilitaries who had brought back concentration camps to the heart of Europe.  

If you are thinking Scream For Me Sarajevo might be depressing, it is actually the opposite. A highly watchable and uplifting documentary. Nobody pretends to be neutral. The performers and UN personnel do not shy away from showing their empathy and shell shock at what Sarajevo’s residents had to endure. For their part, the teenage fans turned 40somethings do not talk about wanting to fight during the war, they talk about wanting to survive and enjoy themselves and of how music inspired the dreams they have followed. 

As of this month, I have not been on a plane for four and a half years, to be extended no doubt by the pandemic. I am so accustomed to this that I have stopped imagining flying anywhere new again, only familiar places and family.  

This documentary is so life affirming, at least for me, I can now at least consider the possibility of maybe one day making an exception. For Sarajevo.

Niaz Alam is London Bureau Chief of the Dhaka Tribune.

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