by Kinia Adamczyk
The physical beauty of Croatia is deceiving. Beyond its crystal clean, turquoise Adriatic Sea waters, luscious green mountains, and lavender fields and vineyards, I have slowly discovered many personal stories of suffering and destruction. Some discoveries came when I first visited Croatia three years ago. I decided I had to come back to dig deeper into the consequences of civil war and subsequent international intervention in the Balkans. I want to put a human face on the statistics I read about in the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) reports. I want to know what it is like to work with an NGO in the Balkans.
My favorite writer and reporter, the late Ryszard Kapuscinski, wrote that he had to read a hundred pages to write one of his own. There have been countless books and statistics written about the former Yugoslavia and I couldn’t possibly absorb all of this information. As I result, I will try to tackle the issues with humility and care. That’s why I decided to give myself three months in the Balkans, to have time to learn the language, observe, and absorb what is going on around me.
The former Yugoslavia, including Croatia, broke apart in the early 1990s, destroyed by civil wars and ethnic cleansing. Bosnia’s beautiful capital Sarajevo, shook from nearly constant shelling and explosions, endured a four-year siege. In nearby Kosovo, Serbians murdered Albanians, and Albanians murdered Serbians. The world watched as the Untied Nations’ International Criminal Tribunal eventually indicted Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia’s former president and a central figure in its many conflicts, in May 1999 for crimes against humanity. He died before his trial ended.
For CIDA, the Balkans became a priority soon after the regional conflicts began. So far, CIDA has donated over $530 million in assistance since the early 90s. According to a CIDA report, the Balkans capitalized on Canada’s vast knowledge and expertise in peace-building and post-conflict reconstruction. Likewise, Canada benefits from positive relations with more stable and increasingly viable Balkan countries. Militarily, Canada has also sent more than 40,000 troops on peacekeeping missions to protect civilians and to stabilize and reconstruct the Balkans. Twenty-three Canadians have died.
The Balkans presents a complex challenge as it takes time and genuine interest to understand its people and conflicts that took place in Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, which includes the UN-administered Kosovo region.
Sarajevo, where I am currently staying, is nicknamed the Jerusalem of Europe because of the many ethnic groups that live there. The city earned infamy in 1914 when a Serbian student named Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. The event thrust Europe into World War I. In recent times, it was the site of the 1984 Winter Olympics.
Within eight years, civil war tragically transformed the city when Serbs attacked Bosnia following its declaration of independence. A quarter-million people died, and much of Sarajevo lay ruined, its people fishing for jeans in garbage cans because the material burned longest in woodstoves.
Today, bullet holes still scar many buildings and traces of mortar shells that hit the ground haven’t been removed from the pavements. Painted red to symbolize the blood they shed, these war “sculptures” are known as Sarajevo Roses.
In Srebrenica, a village 150 kilometers northeast of Sarajevo, gutted buildings barely hang on to their foundations. People still live in half-destroyed houses with plastic sheets replacing glass windows. It looks like the war just ended there yesterday.
Six kilometers away, a memorial pays tribute to those killed in the worst massacre in Europe since World War II. Here, in 1995, Serbians led by Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadic exterminated 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the forests surrounding the village. Ten years later, the two leaders are still free, likely hiding somewhere in Serbia.
While Srebrenica’s past holds onto the town, Sarajevo’s future seems brighter. On city streets, fragrant odors mingle: little minced meat sausages and cheese pastries, Bosnian coffee and Turkish delight. Young Muslim women wear colorful veils, makeup and Western clothes, and walk hand around waist with unveiled friends. Cafes in the old Turkish quarters, as well as the modern part of town, are filled with young and old. Traditional and Western music compete with Orthodox bell chimes and the five daily calls to prayer echoing from the dozens of minarets towering over the city’s mosques.
Thanks to this Millennium Grant and the collaboration of the Canadian Journalism Project, I’m here for three months to interview Canadians, working with international organizations and NGOs in the Balkans – Canadians like Djenana Jalovcic, the project manager of the Balkans Primary Health Care Policy Project.
Jalovcic, who moved to Canada in 1994, two years after the war in Bosnia broke out, came back to Sarajevo in September 2006 to work on CIDA-funded primary health care and youth projects, lead jointly by Queen’s University and the Canadian Society for International Health.
“We are part of the global village,” Jalovcic told me. “Our lives are so interconnected that we cannot avoid others’ suffering: AIDS in Africa, people dying of hunger, of poverty; people abused in institutions, denied of any rights… It doesn’t matter where it happens in the world; it shouldn’t be happening.”
During the next few weeks, I will be contributing more observations and interviews to the Canadian Journalism Project, to student and alternative presses, and to my own blog.
Read “After the war“