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Journey to the Alaska of my past

Serbian author Bora Cosic tells his impressions on his first visit to his divided homeland since leaving it in 1992

That a person is born here or there is a matter of chance. Seen this way, a certain quality seeps out of the words "fatherland" and "homeland". Everything is reduced to geographical coordinates, profane dots on the map of our destiny. As I today, after many years, start off on a journey to the land of my birth, I feel as if I were leaving for Africa or Alaska. I am leaving for the unknown lands of my past without actually knowing why. My emotions are neutral: I have no intention of proving the country I will be visiting either very special or utterly bad. I am in service of no idea, political or ideological. Maybe I just want to show my young wife the house where I was born, and go with her to her birthplace. So we go to the Alaska of our former lives, freed of everything, clean tourists on the paths of our own being, pilgrims to the land of what we experienced long ago. For even that which was seems dissimilar when approached again: there is no history which remains unchanged, many things escape, others grow in the places left behind.

Why are the streets of our former cities so uneven, the sidewalks so brutally dug up? Many facades are already renovated, the war ruins slowly vanish, sunshades appear in front of cafes and flowery ornaments on the girls' dresses. Flowers are sold at the corners and music is humming from somewhere, but the road we walk on, the sidewalks we cross are full of holes and threatening cracks. This is repeated from town to town, throughout the whole Alaska of our journey. The dug up state of the ground is like some universal symbol of life here. As if the residents of these places themselves had come out with pick-axes and thrown themselves like madmen at the roads. As if all the misery and all the hatred of these people whose destiny has been ruined, corrupted and set back so many times had spilled out onto the streets.

I think this is another paradigm of countries in transition, the bad roads left behind after being trammelled by the carts of history. They signify how the nations have lost the firm ground under their feet, the level surface on which they could move somewhere, ahead. Now we too, travellers to Alaska, drag our feet, getting stuck every moment in some crack, some pit in which a bygone time has fallen, a time hardly recognizable.

We enter a building in the centre of Zagreb, a solid old bourgeois home. But the door handles are dangerously loose, the floor tiles are cracked, the marble stairs look like they've been chewed away by wild, stone-eating beasts. The walls in our relatives' flat are dark from not being painted, moisture stains cover the ceiling, but the people have no time to do the repairs. All the bathrooms suffer from the same disease, the pipes are old and cracked and leak constantly as if the whole installation were weeping at its fate. The floors, once covered with the finest parquetry, are unrecognisable, the blinds don't work, the light-bulbs drape from thin wires where lamps used to hang.

Amid all this disorganisation, this nightmare of old furniture, useless machines and discarded objects sit young people, relatively neatly dressed, phlegmatically drinking coffee from old, cracked cups. They smoke and stare into a relatively good computer where some complicated game with car chases and gang wars flashes across the screen. And in fact, in this flat of a once respectable Zagreb family, a new, disinterested generation only cares about what happens on that screen: a mindless chase of a virtual Schumacher, a battle between yellow and green, a final settling of accounts in some unknown place. I would gladly get out of here, but these are our children, the children of our relatives and friends, they continue our life, supposing it deserves to be continued.

How to improve their life? The old bourgeois system is spent. To a certain extent it was renewed in the times of socialism. Now, during the period of transition, there is no such thing as betterment. Everything lasts as long as it lasts, then it ends. As if every tiniest device, every hinge or bolt on the doors or windows, all of it were at the end of its tether, as if there were no more chance to prolong these objects' lives. The hooks, handles and bolts of our time die on a daily basis, leaving behind a desolation, as if a gang of robbers, greedy for our plugs and connectors, had passed through our homes, ripping wires from the walls and nails from the woodwork in their barbarian rage.

On the other side of town grow monstrous objects of glass and steel. Everything in this new rich neighbourhood looks like something from a Flash Gordon cartoon. But the majority, those normal and abnormal people from the buildings in the centre of Zagreb, live in conditions like those of a travelling theatre whose equipment has been worn down by constant moving. Because the immobile buildings of our bourgeois class are in constant motion themselves, shifting from time to time, from regime to regime, from one authority to another, while buttons fall from our coats, mortar from our facades and tiles from our roofs. Everything becomes poor, dry, forsaken and neglected, as if most of the buildings and all of the people inside them were orphans, foundlings with no way to prove their origins or fight for their rights and heritage.

Because to this generation which kills its time with the narcosis of computer games belongs a life incomparably cleaner and better than the one it is living. Only it is not capable of taking hold of it, there is no tribunal to which it can appeal to get what it deserves. We come out on the street, jumping over huge bags of garbage. Zagreb, capital of a republic that hopes to enter Europe, has a special system for collecting trash. All day long the residents carry out piles of garbage which the trash brigade collects in the early morning hours. In the meantime people live on a heap of rubbish, stepping over it, inhaling the smell, as if the rubbish of their lives were the only thing they had.

I am sure that in the wealthy new rich households everything is shining. I believe the servants and housemaids pick up every little piece of paper. And still, when the mighty leave their homes they too run into mounds of trash, discarded objects, all kinds of rubbish, waiting for the remote time when the town will be clean. Can the doctrine of the countries in transition be reduced more or less to this: remove everything these people formerly had and leave them just their garbage, the refuse of their lives, so that it surrounds them all day long? Humankind is threatened by garbage all over the world. All major cities live under the weight of their rubbish, yet still, in these countries, the Alaska of our past, those heaps of wasted human material, those bags that whiten in the mild nights of May all along the streets of this city are not just useless waste, they are a graveyard.

Now we enter the second chapter of this journey to the Alaska of our past, the road to Bosnia. After an intermezzo of Slavonian green forests which frame the recently built highway, we enter Bosnian territory over the troubled water of the Sava River. The region is poor, and administered by local Serbian authorities. National insignia hang here and there, forsaken and dirty, making the images from Zagreb just a humble preview. Torn up roads, patched up houses, caricature-like shops selling all sorts of stuff, barefoot children, ragged peasants and here and there a sorry-looking soldier, all of which is like our Uganda, the Africa of our history. Nowadays it is loaded with things from elsewhere, as if every ugly region on this planet had discarded something in this poor but once cultivated area.

This whole stage of the journey from Slavonski Brod to Derventa, and farther south towards Zenica, the entire way is lined with torn and burnt houses. Smaller or bigger buildings, the homes, property and heritage, all of it is uprooted and devastated, Serbian houses by the Croats, Croatian by the Serbs, and the houses of the Bosnian Muslims have been destroyed by mutual efforts of the Croats and the Serbs. That is our joint work of war, our fabrication of destruction, our machinery of evil and insanity.

As I travel through this beautiful but troubled Bosnia, I wonder what could have provoked the people who burned and levelled it. What egged them on to make a wasteland of the place that inspired the paintings of Jovan Bijelic, and to tread it into the dust? In the brain of every evildoer, in the conscience of every monster ready to burn and destroy, there is always an impulse, a negative provocation, pushing them to do these horrible things. Generally what triggers it is a twinkling flash of beauty or harmony that they absolutely have to ruin and raze to the ground. I think of the slim, elegant, white minarets, like arrows fallen from the sky, shot from who knows where into this soft soil, creating - apart from their religious, spiritual or philosophic mission - a sort of magically beautiful and unique plantation.

Luckily, after all the armies, after all the bloodthirsty beasts have passed through, enough of these buildings remain. At first sight they seem incongruous, glowing white on the horizon like a vestige from an earlier life and the lonely happiness of those poor, humble and God-fearing people scattered about on what are possibly Europe's most beautiful mountains. They added to the idyllic landscape their own jagged towers, which did not only serve the local Khoja to yell his repentant prayers a few times a day. The minarets of Bosnian villages and towns, towers often belonging to utterly frugal mosques, make up a kind of thin forest of Islamic birches, a sort of believers' wood creating comfort, sweetness and a brief moment of happiness, even in my unbeliever's heart.

So that was what had to be destroyed in this war of my Serbian, my Croatian nation. Like in Chekhov's play when an unknown buyer gets ready to cut down the cherry orchard. At the same time the past life of a family, a civilization, is extinguished. In the Russian play it remains untold what the new owner is planning to do with the land where the orchard used to be. Here in Bosnia this unwritten chapter of the story is being played out. The new rich are too provincial to rebuild what has been demolished. Instead, grotesque buildings without beauty or sense spring up everywhere, and the desolation of the scorched earth is replaced by another desolation, of spiritual poverty, waste and tastelessness. It takes so much effort to break through the thresholds of ugliness to the clean lines of a Bosnian house. Bosnian buildings are like plants; the old Bosnian home is like a flower, a vegetable, a stone, charming in and of itself.

What constitutes the essence of people's souls here in Bosnia? I wonder as we enter Sarajevo, the city tormented in the last war, and yet a very vivacious, maybe too lively place. It is like someone who is too noisy, almost euphoric, whose ebullience hides enormous misery and despair. Because despair is the fundament of this land. It comes from being trodden on by so many soldiers' boots, and from the self-pity engendered in the people's hearts for lack of an idea about where or how life should go on. So the people around us talk loud, too loud, their shouts echo through the narrow passages and down the cobbled pavement of the centuries, while what actually lies in their chests would be better expressed by sitting silently in a corner. There is a primeval image of the Bosnians, sitting by the water in the shade of time, drinking mellow brandy in short sips. Now there is only shouting and noise, everything broiling in this carnival of talk, and when you try to understand a word in the cacophony, everything comes out distorted and incomprehensible.

That is why today almost no one can tell you where to find which street in Sarajevo, or in which part of town it can be found. Everything is reduced to indirect descriptions, which are of little use even with the vigorous gesticulation and shouting that accompany them. These people do not know where they are themselves, so how could they explain to foreign travellers which way they should go? This unique city is beautiful in an ugly way, there are streets but there is no place to go. No one can find a distinctive direction, everyone is happy just to be where they are. Sarajevo is a small city, crowded in between mountains, and its location allows it no way out. The Serbian warmongering artillerists knew that very well, and hence fired at the city slowly, deliberately, relentlessly. A town on flat land can escape in all directions, it can spill out, if nothing else at least the inhabitants can get out. But where could Sarajevo go from this kettle drum where it was founded so long ago as a nightly refuge, an accommodation institution, a serail?

For years I've heard people who managed to escape during the four-year siege tell of how terrible it was then. Like a cauldron of hell, or the biblical pit where Joseph was thrown by his heartless brothers. The citizens of Sarajevo were also thrown into this pitl by their brothers, not by strangers. Now I am there, at the bottom of this pit where, luckily, the clear water of friendship has once more, at least temporarily, appeared. I constantly come back to the idea that Sarajevo is supposed to be a sort of passing point, a half-way mark, but between where and where? Between East and West, of course, but also between so many different things in this world. Sarajevo is like the inner measure, the inner weigh-scale the Bosnians have developed with time.

Possibly the rage of the enemies that swooped down on them a decade ago was also directed at this measuredness which comes very close to refinement, this pleasant way of getting along with people. Because the violent cannot stand those modest, frugal manners which show up rash decisions and harsh intentions for what they are. The existence of this Sarajevo, this shelter where thoughts can spend the night and then move on, this place of peace and balance, that must have enraged the cannoneers on the surrounding heights to no end.

Before us lies a new leg of the journey, as if we were taking part in the former bike race through Yugoslavia. I was eight or nine years old when the whole Kingdom of Yugoslavia followed the convoy of cyclists, who connected the various landscapes with their wheels. The race was led by the Slovenian Janez Peternel. Today this country is disunited, dismembered by many special interests. Our little convoy, our family convoy, has got nothing to bind it to one location. We shift from place to place, town to town, not part of a competition, with no one waiting for us at the finish line. For one does not travel to get somewhere, as Goethe said long ago, but for the sake of travelling itself. Such is our intention, a kind of movement workshop, a geometry of the tracks we leave behind. And the path leads to Serbia.

This part of the highway is not entirely ideal, the way is more rugged than in Croatia. I don't know why there aren't any sprinklers in Serbia to help the plants grow, why the fields look more unkempt, as if the systematic nature of the Slavonian peasants breaks down the farther East you go. Slowly we get used to the careless mentality I have known for so long, a casual, easy-going laziness. At the border crossing set up in the middle of the road which looks more like some kind of game than an international crossing, a chubby policewoman stands on the Serbian side and complains about the mosquitoes. As if they didn't exist anywhere else, as if they were a special plague attacking this land, especially this border-point on the Bosut River, something like an insect conspiracy against her country.

So we approach Belgrade, the former capital of the socialist realm, a huge village, bigger than ever. I spent half a century here, most of it within the confines of a small radius. Now Belgrade is a fierce, noisy, chaotic, hot, rather poorly lit city. In the staircase of the building where we are staying there is no light at all. Luckily the elevator is working. A neighbour explains she has grown accustomed to the darkness in the stairway, although she doesn't know why there's no light. Sometimes the building superintendent switches it on, and sometimes he forgets. Nobody gets on his case, nobody raises their voice because they have to stumble up and down the stairs in the dark.

This elegant woman doesn't complain either, everyone here has got used to all sorts of deficiencies, and everyone thinks they will pass sooner or later. But they won't. Because until someone stands up to this careless caretaker, until someone slams his fist down on the table of communal life, the dark and slovenly forces will hold us imprisoned in unlit space for who knows how long, and who knows why. We must never give in. We must never allow ourselves to be bullied, or to be forced to climb the stairs of an apartment building in the dark. This is our first contact with my former home town, this old woman who doesn't mind climbing the stairs in a darkness she can't explain. Our first night passes in the roomy flat, which we reached as if through a tunnel. We have until tomorrow to figure out where we are and how things will go on from here.


A German translation of the article appeared in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on September 3, 2005.

Bora Cosic is one of Serbia's foremost authors. He has written more than thirty books, including
My Family's Role in the World Revolution, which have been translated into many European language. Since 1992 he has been living in Berlin. The above article is the first stage of a planned book on his recent trip to the former Yugoslavia.

Translated from the Serbian by Konstantin Krnjaic.

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