bosnia report
No. 4 February - March 1994
Sarajevo: a Death Rattle...
by Juan Goytisodo

HONED by the rigours of winter, the wounds and scars covered in a huge, pious shroud, the Sarajevo landscape still imprints itself on the mind with all the abrupt violence of an Homeric, hazy, unreal dream.

Whiteness, an unnerving panorama, a wasteland of ruins, skeletal buildings, gut- ted cars, carbonised tramcars, melted-down street kiosks, gaping holes, scrap, pathetic remnants from the devastating conflagration.

Snow, millions and millions of flakes of snow cut across the sky, dancing on the cold blasts, as if to cloak the magnitude of the crime beneath their innocence. A merciful carpet for the victims or a conniving cover-up for the aggressor? The whole expanse of Snipers' Alley wrapped in snow: non-existent traffic, the odd ghostly, elusive silhouette, the white armoured cars also belonging to the UN Protection Force.

But you must be suffering from an hallucination: the snow hasn't shown up today and the city is agonising - still struggling - in the etymological sense: its death rattle, last gasps, spasms, do not silence the din of mortars or the crackle of gunfire. Gradual extinction: a drastic reduction of births from the beginning of the siege, slow wasting of the elderly and sick, rapid decay of buildings, bodies and souls.

Only 300 metres past the Holiday Inn - protected by the battered, bullet-riddled buildings - whispering signs of life emerge. Exhausted passers-by pushing carts along, survivors from the ghetto in search of firewood or food, wandering be- ings, like lost souls, an old man pointing an accusing finger at the armoured cars as still as the Commendador's statue.

Marshal Tito Avenue crosses the ants' nest of a black market - the fragile shad- ows of the hungry and the brazen, well-equipped figures making money from their misery - then follows a zigzag line to the heart of the old city, to the Ottoman district of the Bascarsilja.

Nightmare reality has coined some new words: "urbicide", "memo-ricide". Together with the programmed extermination of towns on the grandiose alter of ethnic cleansing, monuments systemically destroyed, libraries burnt. The entire past and cultural symbols of a people blown to bits, succulent fodder for the flameÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌ°s.

Are we experiencing the gradual descent from the Divine Comedy into Dante's port of call on the so-called way to purgatory?

When we arrive in the centre of the Bascarsilja, which I visited daily six months ago, the spectacle is harrowing. Summer gave an illusion of life to the side-streets of boarded-up bazaars and tiles strafed by machine-gun fire, to the rare open bookshops or stores.

Today, the wintry desolation intensifies the funereal sadness that hangs over the area. Will the exquisite minaret in the Islamic district of Gazi Husret Bey, the covered market, the Islamic school, the caravanserai, all meet the same fate as the three mosques in Banja Luka or the centuries-old bridge of Mostar?

One day will we watch it live as they are pulverised and laid low by the "memo-- ricides", and are converted, as in the clean areas of Bosnia, into asphalted car parks?

The horror is perpetuated in Sarajevo. Each day, while the morning light filters through the fog, unveiling yet again the tortured faces of people and buildings, a sinister reveille welcomes the victims of the siege, salvos from mortars and bazookas, gunfire. The bloody harvest of wounded and dead continues to fill the wards of the Kosevo hospital and, sometimes, even the morgue.

Do the millions of television-viewers, passive witnesses of the spectacle, know that they too, without realising, are descending, step by step, the ladder of acceptance of the unacceptable, of a gradual, shameful dulling of the ethical senses? It's futile to shut one's eyes to the magnitude of the disaster. The Eu- rope of the 12 - wearied, cynical, fearful? - prefers to blame the besieged, to make a pact with barbarism at any price.

"Before the fascists' aggression", say the inhabitants of Sarajevo, "we weren't aware of our neighbours' ethnicity".

"In fact, it was an unimportant detail: nobody ever asked about it. Now they want to force us to wave it like a banner: `We are Muslims, we are Serbs, we are Croats!' To proclaim it from the rooftops so we can better hate our neighbours and erect between them and us an unsurmountable barrier, a river of blood!"

"That was just what the barbarians shooting at us from the hillsides want. But they won't succeed in separating us out, turning a wife into her husband's en- emy, the husband into the wife's enemy, changing our children, the fruit of the execrated multi-ethnical community, into pariahs and bastards!"

Like the rest of the Europeans in our secular societies, the inhabitants of the Bosnian capital had evacuated the idea of death from their daily universe. Once the burial ceremonies were finished, the cemeteries - Islamic, Catholic, or Or- thodox - were deserted areas which became animated only on the Day of the Dead, and by Muslim families bidding farewell on their 40 days of mourning. Now death forms part of their lives, they cohabit with death, she's a daily visitor.

One can't but help transposing to the city the words of Larra*: "The cemetery is Sarajevo, Sarajevo is the cemetery. A vast cemetery where each house is a family niche, each street, the grave of an event, the urn of a hope or a desire."

Faced with the choice of possible biological extinction or a surrender imposed by Community negotiators, the Bosnian democrats have, nevertheless, opted for resistance to the bitter end. Theyhave abandoned their illusions about a UN military intervention and seem to have become warlike in misfortune and for some months have been surprising the enemy with the panache of people who have noth- ing to lose.

Their small but real victories have stiffened their fighting resolve and exclude any submission to Slobodan Milosevic and Lord Owen's ultimatum. "If you are un- able to defend us", they tell us, "let us defend ourselves. The lifting of the arms embargo - like the arms Roosevelt sent to England in 1941 - will perhaps prolong the war. But undoubtedly it will prevent the peace of the graveyard reigning over Sarajevo foÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌ°r ever."

M.J. Larra (1808 - 1839) is the most important Spanish writer in the first half of the 19th century.

Juan Goytisodo is a Spanish writer who was reporting for El Pais.


   Table of contents

  Latest issue



  Support the Institute


home | about us | publications | events | news | Library | contact | bosnia | search | bosnia report | credits