I’m doing some spring cleaning, one part of which is a much-needed reorganization of the files on my hard drive. In the process I found some notes from my trip to the Balkans last summer.

Besim hurried out to us from under the awning of one of the countless tiny cafes lining Baščaršija Square. “Ladies,” he called, “you need a room, maybe?” We were the worst sort of travelers, trudging through the old part of the city under the weight of trendy hiking backpacks designed for treks at much higher altitudes. Besim’s advance spared us the embarrassment of winding our way through an endless maze of narrow cobblestone streets in search of a hostel that had once managed to impress the writer of our guidebook, and after a moment of whispered debate we agreed to see the room.

Besim + Coffee

We followed him up a slick twist of stony stairs to his apartment, a two-floor collection of rooms filled with Persian rugs and hundreds of postcards from around the world. “From my tourists,” he said, beaming. “They send postcard to me from their home.” A field of sunflowers caught my eye; someone else from Kansas had liked her stay enough to write Besim and thank him.

He led us upstairs to the room, a breezy, open space with a terrace overlooking the city. He pointed to the hills across from us. “The war,” he started, then faltered, unable to find the English words for what he wanted to say. “Snipers. Broke all the glass.” We found out later that the room had been destroyed by Serbian mortar fire.

The morning we left, Besim made us Bosnian coffee and sat with us on the couch, sipping and smoking alternately. “You send me postcard,” he reminded us. “Drink from the fountain. You come back, you stay with me.”

I spent hours on the train between Sarajevo and Budapest scribbling in my notebook about how I would make it back to Bosnia before I’d finished grad school. I’m halfway done, and it hasn’t happened yet. I did manage to send Besim his postcard, though.

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.”