What You Expect Is Not Always What You Get in Bosnia
Stereotypes can be a terrible thing, a great burden and anchor which weighs around one's neck and drags upon the ground as one woefully advances against this tide of ignorance and misconceptions. Most of the time, we focus on stereotypes as a limitation for the person who is stereotyped, but the ignored party there is hardly innocent of the harm which can result, with a limitation of their understandings and expectations. This isn't to say that all stereotypes are useless or uninteresting, for stereotypes exist for a reason, but that they are in of themselves poor judges and markers of expectation, and instead of serving as something for first-hand reference and for making decisions, they should be instead a tool, a mirror, to look at our own thoughts, prejudices, and beliefs: when we concoct them, we must ask not merely the question of "why the person we stereotype is like that", but also "why our stereotype of them is like that".
Which is a long-winded way of saying that my trip to Bosnia and Croatia surprised me. Perhaps it is odd for an American to be surprised by that, because for a man born in that now seemingly distant year of 1996, now more than two decades past and a world away, a year after the end of the terrible Siege of Sarajevo, a year of relative peace in the bloodiest war that rent Europe since 1945—well, frankly, most Americans care very little about that region, just another part on the map to look at dismissively and to see changing borders, countries one cannot name, a vague mass of lines which one glosses over. Yet the most deadly poison is not ignorance, but rather to be half-educated, and thus is where I once again return to the picture: myself, so proud at being able to name such a host of countries, who could relay the history of the region, its geography, the major languages and international relations, who has friends from there. But I had never really studied it, and thus I allowed myself to be taken in by what I expected.
What is it that I thought to find, as I went to these two countries, in the search of my friends in Croatia and Bosnia? I expected a fierce and animated people, peoples driven and rent by the memories of old hatreds and problems, by their petty jealousies and divisions. Perhaps it was doubly ironic, for I myself had argued against just such a very notion with another friend, about human nature and nationalism as demonstrated by the Yugoslav Wars. But it is all too easy to make one case intellectually, while another settles deep into the marrow of one's bones, the soul and the brain dissenting with their easy conviviality of banter. No, that deadly middling level of ignorance which is enough to reduce a people to a caricature, without enough to elevate them to characters. Instead of people as any others, they become cut outs and representations of the nightmare of the past which hangs upon the present.
What did I see instead, when I went there? To be sure, one could see the occasional old dispute voiced, a man talking about his new car, so proud to have a new Mercedes to replace his old, battered Renault, but that he would take it to any country in the world except Bosnia, that country with so many thieves and so much lawlessness. But even it, in retrospect, feels tired, shorn of the old fire to just an ember of the past. Instead, what strikes one is a sense of fatigue, a sense of weariness, a weariness that covers and suffocates the old grievances without really putting them out. Perhaps it is because these people, to resort to that game of the application of stereotypes by Americans who enjoy seeing their brief 30-second soundbite on CNN, have a perspective of history which is deeper and more organic than their American counterparts, and they look back on the millennia of fights and violence and war and bloodshed, from hill tribesmen fighting in the pay or against some distant empire, to the ghoulish bloodshed and horror of Srebrenica, and they pose the question looking at the present: what was it all for? What did I gain from this? What was it worth and what did it benefit me? Tiredness, tiredness from old countries, from that "old Europe" that the Americans spoke, of, but not the old, rich, powerful, Europe of France or Germany tired of war but despite its uncertainties still with a future and admiration, but a Europe grown old before its years, from an old Europe of poverty and uncertainty.
No, there were none of the feuds and violence that I expected. Perhaps a weary expectancy, talking to a tour guide who had lost his job and was bringing me around the city, talking about the problems and his ennui about the expectation of more conflict and struggle, of the never-ending problems which divided his country. The tale of woe he had told me I suspect was at least embellished or possibly fabricated, to make money from the foreign tourist—which he did, quite amply—but I'm a solitary person who straddles, and frequently crosses over in either unwilling powerlessness or unseeing incomprehension to that realm known as loneliness, so being accosted by a perhaps-not-quite-truthful-but-pleasant-tour-guide is a boon—but even if it wasn't the case that his mother had left his father, that his father had an injured leg from the war and no funding from a government that had been eager to send soldiers to fight and less eager to care for them once wounded, that he had lost his home and his girlfriend, that he had lost his job and desperately was hoping for a new one, even then he would still be a man reduced to peddling his tale to foreign tourists to make a living. What had it all gained him, all that violence and bloodshed?
For Bosnians are an intensely human people, and their woes are not about distant conflicts, even if they are still ones which do loom large, but rather about the problems which surround them—the politicians with their corruption, or at least their utter irrelevance and complex incompetence, the lack of jobs, the poor pay, the economy rigged against them and in favor of insiders in the know. This is what the average American would doubtless think for many countries, and while the picture is not ever so simple—there are tensions and problems which bubble below the surface which cannot be reduced to the precise mathematical formulas and indicators that economists and policy makers are so fond of in our quantitative era—simple realities like this are nevertheless masked by the simultaneous tendency to cover this with stereotypes, that deadly mixture of half-ignorance and half-understanding.
Perhaps this found itself expressed in both those most everyday and most unique of places: a war memorial. The war memorial I visited found itself perched on top of a hill next to Gorazde, visited by a winding road to reach the top, a road I walked past the occasional house under construction or the uncomprehending responses of people who spoke neither French nor English. There was all of the normal panoply of war: the tank, tank destroyer to be precise, the monument to the heroic soldier, enough anti-air guns to equip a small army, the detritus of conflict and the congealment of blood displayed in machine form. There were people there, if few, and some sat on the benches and looked at the monument, talking, probably about groceries or their friends. The children were more interested in playing with their soccer ball, losing it into the woods when they kicked it down the steep slope, into the thicket of bushes and trees. One could see the town far below, against a cloudy grey sky. This was the memory of war, but it felt as far from war as one could be.
Where one saw the war was on the buildings. Not those of Sarajevo, those elegant old Austro-Hungarian apartments (where I had the opportunity to stay at an Airbnb for the night with a very nice Bosnian family) or the tall expanses of blocks laid down with their vertical white-beige walls, around a central garden that was more dirt than grass as the days shortened in autumn, nor the chic tourist-marketed buildings of the Ottoman old town, layered with their rows of Bosnian coffee sets, which I have been assured have important differences from Turkish coffee sets. No, it was in the countryside, with the old buildings with their walls pockmarked with holes and chips, testifying to old explosions and bullet impacts. It wasn't up on the hill that the memory of the war lived on, it was down in the buildings. It was the physical manifestations of the scars of war, the allegory of the effects which it had on the people: visible, but something lived with, something in the background, something that might be dangerous (perhaps the old scars sabotage the strength of the present . . . ), but for now, something which does not command the eye of the local, which only draws the unaccustomed gaze of the stranger.
People are people the world over, and although this might read like a tale of woe, the problems with this little country, one forgotten so much by the world except for its moment of tragedy which commanded decades ago the attention of the planet, I liked the Bosnians, and I liked Bosnia. It is not a place I think I would enjoy living, but as a tourist, it is a fascinating place to pass through, beautiful in a way that reminds me of home, filled with people that were nothing but nice and genteel, honest and perhaps peaceful in a way that many others aren't. Their problems, and they have many, are ones which they guard to themselves, and which tourists, always so blind and so self-centered, can choose to ignore unless if they dig for them.
Perhaps this is an exercise in hubris, for I talked in earnest to a total of perhaps at most five Bosnians, even if one of them can count as a dear friend. But I can speak but to my own impressions, regardless of how poor and limited they are, and thus they are. Perhaps I write because it opens my eyes in being wrong about a country, wrong about its expectations, and that it drives home the impression that across the world people are people, and if the nightmare of the past weighs upon us all, it drives us not typically to rage and anger, but sometimes simply returns us to a glum and grey acceptance of our life. There is nothing worse than a half-baked scheme, a half-mixed palette, a half-formed representation, and what I had found in Bosnia wasn't the fierce and vengeful caricature that I had expected, but rather a country which seems aged beyond its years by the past, grown grey and shedding its hopes and dreams without having lived the passions of summer. The opposite of what I expected, and perhaps this too is nothing more than a caricature, something formed by the mind without experience in the soil—but it is to me, what I had felt, in this slow and timeless land, one that the tourists enjoy and the locals try to love but are driven away from, driven away by the hand of fate and the lash of necessity.
The most poignant thing that I heard was as simple as it was unexpected. A little pastry shop in the city of Gorazde, clinging to a river which neither flows languidly enough to classify it as peaceful nor fast enough to describe it as powerful, next to a little park without green and Bosnian and Turkish (apparently there was Turkish investment there) flags at the entrance. A smile, and a request in English for two pastries. The girl frowns in surprise and asks where you come from. California, a little town from Trinidad. And then there it comes, a look of disbelief, incomprehension, almost verging on anger.
"Then what are you doing here?"
© 2018 Ryan Thomas