Sarajevo and Sudan

Everyone told me Dubrovnik would be the highlight of my trip to the Balkans last week. The Adriatic is what seas should be, they said. The city walls are beautiful. Croatians are so nice. You’ll fall in love.

In some ways, they were right. The Adriatic is what seas should be, and the walls are beautiful, but Dubrovnik wasn’t perfect. The city was overrun with cruise ship crowds and tour buses, and everything was pretty in a postcard way, complete with designated photo opportunities. And I didn’t fall in love until I got to Sarajevo.

Sarajevo is not pretty, at least not conventionally so. Buildings still bear the scars of the four-year-long siege during the Yugoslav wars, and the pavement is pockmarked with Sarajevo roses, places where mortar shells wiped out concrete and, sometimes, people.

I don’t know why this meant more to me than coastlines and carefully preserved ruins, why I felt more at ease in Bosnia than in Croatia. A professor once accused me of being a conflict junkie; I’m not sure if that’s true, but there is something about Sarajevo — something about an old man in a café, consuming an endless stream of coffee and cigarettes, telling me stories of four years without electricity or running water, urging me to drink from the fountain with magic waters so that I will always come back. Something about his girlfriend, who sits down at our table and orders a saucer of whipped cream for Snoopy, a tiny dog who keeps her company while her daughter studies in the States. Something about the one-room war museum, its stained glass still shattered from the war. “Beautiful” is perhaps both the least and most appropriate word: the city is sadly, richly captivating.

Yesterday was the 13th anniversary of the genocide at Srebrenica, where over 8000 Bosnian Muslims were killed by Bosnian Serbs in a UN-protected “safe area.” Some survivors of the massacre have brought a lawsuit against the United Nations, particularly the Dutch troops in Srebrenica, for failing to stop the killings, a move that is understandable but probably useless.

Ian Williams has a post on the Guardian’s Comment is Free comparing Unprofor, the UN protection force in Bosnia, to UNAMID in Sudan. His main point is that both forces are (were) maddeningly weak: under-supported, under-funded and consequently facing impossible tasks. For UNAMID, this weekend’s announcement that the International Criminal Court is likely to seek an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir on charges of crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur will probably make things even worse. Williams writes:

After Srebrenica, the phrase “Never Again” was again on everyone’s lips. In international Diplo-Speak, maybe that phrase misses punctuation. Maybe it should be written “Never! Again?”, meaning something like “Whoops.”

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