Bless all the dear children…

Speed-writing amid the madness of Christmas Eve – so this may be a stream of semi-consciousness! December has been hectic and the last few days were simply too short. Meeting deadlines and getting things sorted for the festive season… This year, though, it’s a different type of Christmas. Perhaps 2015 has forced us, across Europe, to wake up to the reality of our unjust world. To make us respond to those seeking safety and shelter. How have we reacted? Have we said ‘welcome’ or ‘there’s no room’? It’s a Christmassy kind of question.

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At a lovely ‘Santa Lucia’ feast-day event organised by a dear friend in aid of my appeal.

Anyhow, to answer it in a personal way, I’m heading to Croatia on Monday (28th December) to volunteer for two weeks with the ‘Dobrodošli’/‘Welcome’ Initiative, which has been offering tremendous support to refugees there. And, thanks to incredible help from many people in Ireland and beyond, I’m delighted to say that I’ve far surpassed my fundraising target of €2,000! This money will go to Croatia ADRA, which is bringing essential aid to refugees in the main camp in Slavonski Brod. Please check out this link for details of my appeal: https://www.gofundme.com/BalkansRefugees

Yesterday, I read about a Syrian woman who had just given birth to a baby in Slavonski Brod, shortly after she and her family arrived in the camp. Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, her story has huge human resonance. But she’s not the only mother to have made this trek, not the only pregnant woman to have braved this difficult journey. Her children are lucky to have survived the merciless seas which claimed more young lives this week. The least I can do is spend a little time lending a hand of solidarity with people like her.

In the meantime, I want to make tomorrow special for my kids. I’d also like to wish you all ‘Sretan Božić i Sretna Nova Godina!’ with an image that my eldest daughter created…

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Sarajevo for academic purposes

Nineteen years of travelling to Sarajevo and the city never ceases to enchant me. My first solo trip was no exception. Not the typical expedition en famille – this time it was just me and a sample of my research. I was off to the fifth Foreign Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics Conference (FLTAL’15) held at International Burch University. I’d heard about this event, by chance, last May. Tweets from Bosnia posted by the renowned Harvard professor, Steven Pinker, had aroused my curiosity. I discovered he’d been one of the FLTAL guest speakers in 2014. Well that was sufficient impetus to submit an abstract for this year.

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What a joy to receive an invitation to FLTAL’15! Plus it meant another visit to Sarajevo. The conference ran from Thursday to Saturday, 7 to 9 May, but fortuitous scheduling of flights via Istanbul and accommodation with my in-laws allowed me to stay a little longer. On the Wednesday I had the freedom of Sarajevo – welcome headspace before my presentation. Though it took me a while to remember how to relax… to wander around and reminisce, appreciate.

It was warm for spring but the heat was lilac-scented. Neither tourist nor native, I enjoyed retracing the centuries of history embedded in the cobbles of Baščaršija. Coffee and rahat lokum refreshed my way to Vijećnica. I’d watched this city hall and former national library as it slowly rose from ruins to magnificence. It drew me in again and, empty for a few minutes on a quiet afternoon, I was treated to a private exhibition of its splendour. Perfect calm before a busy conference!

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FLTAL’15 indeed proved lively. Global experts from a spectrum of fields in linguistics and language education delivered excellent keynote speeches. Names I knew as citations from reading their work and recommending it to my students. I never imagined I’d have the opportunity to meet them and listen to their insights in Sarajevo. It was also wonderful to make new contacts among the conference participants. They were a diverse bunch – from Brazil to the USA, to China and Japan, to all over Europe, many nations were represented. I found it very interesting to hear presenters from across the Balkan region speaking about their studies on issues of relevance to this area. In particular, the involvement of institutions from various parts of Bosnia was important. From the outset, the focus was on language as a means of communication which can foster greater understanding between people(s).

It was a pleasure to present my research into second language acquisition by immigrant children in Ireland and to talk about the need for plurilingual and intercultural approaches to education. Strangely, I felt more nervous than usual, even though I’ve co-authored a book on this topic and spoken about it at a Council of Europe intergovernmental seminar and other events in Cambridge and Dublin. I think it was due to a certain emotional investment in bringing my work to Sarajevo. Having taught English in one of its language schools, being a regular visitor and eternal learner of Bosnian (which happens to be ‘father tongue’ of my kids), I’ve got a deep connection to this city. But, above all, I was excited. The thrill of being in Bosnia, exchanging ideas with colleagues from such a range of places and situations, made this prodigal’s return seem worthwhile.

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I also managed to become an unofficial tour guide. Many of the foreign participants had never been to Sarajevo before, so I offered tips on what to see during their short stay. An Irish vegetarian’s suggestion of Željo as the best ćevapi restaurant went down well! Back on campus, the staff and students of International Burch University did an impressive job not only organising in a stimulating conference but in promoting the potential of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The closing ceremony was followed by a concert in which young musicians provided a taste of the country’s cultural heritage, showing how this remains a source of mixing and innovation.

The next day, for those who didn’t have to leave immediately, a trip to Mostar was arranged. It included a brief stop at Počitelj – a town rich in both mediaeval and Ottoman influence – and lunch at the picturesque site of a dervish monastery on the River Buna. Visiting these places in new company was uplifting. Standing on Mostar’s famous bridge, I gazed below me into the emerald Neretva. Swollen with seasonal rain and snow-melt, it was flowing with fresh energy.

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Then the bus back to Sarajevo. By this stage, I was tired. Worried too. I’d heard, when I phoned home the previous night, that my eight-year-old daughter had lost a piece of her permanent front tooth in a minor accident. Throughout the journey to and from Mostar, I was trying to keep up with her search for emergency dental treatment – difficult to come by in Ireland on a Sunday. Verdant slopes turned to stone as they stretched towards reproachful peaks. I felt guilty that I wasn’t there to hug my unfortunate youngest. Illogically but inevitably, I blamed myself for being away. Asking ‘why?’ Realising the damage could’ve been more serious, yet it was lasting. I was caught between two worlds, amid the jagged mountains of Herzegovina aware of the fragility of my child.

A few days concentrating solely on work-related matters, rather than multitasking, had been delightful. But now I wished my that Bosnian-Irish darlings were with me. Hopefully, we’ll all be back in the summer. For the kids, it’s vital to maintain their sense of belonging. Also, from my own perspective, I’m eager to develop further professional liaisons with Bosnia.

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In the meantime, it’s lovely to feel familiar in Sarajevo. When the assistant in the Svjetlost bookstore recalls you as a loyal customer, when you know exactly where to find a special present for a brave little girl… This is a city whose streets forever hold significance – troves of idiosyncrasy which can frustrate but make you smile, often at yourself. It’s somewhere of stories galore. And of unfinished chapters.

Congratulations to the organisers of FLTAL’15 – for information about the conference see: http://fltal.ibu.edu.ba/

Link to my research, published as Volume 3 of the Cambridge English Profile Studies series: http://www.cambridge.org/gb/cambridgeenglish/professional-development/immigrant-pupils-learn-english/immigrant-pupils-learn-english-a-cefr-related-empirical-study-l2-development-paperback

Red apple rock

The first I heard of Crvena Jabuka was from a Bosnian girl in a refugee camp in Croatia. ‘Red Apple?’ The teenager explained that music groups from former Yugoslavia often had strange names. As they do all over the world… She wrote out the words of one of the band’s songs, Zovu nas ulice – the streets are calling us. I tried to learn them. The tune was a catchy little earworm.

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An uspomena… it was among the tracks on the Crvena Jabuka album she taped for me. I took the cassette back to Ireland. Played it, treasured it. When I should’ve been concentrating on my studies, I was decoding those handwritten verses and chorus. Their meaning wasn’t too deep, a typical laddish response to spurned love: ‘idemo na-napolje’ – ‘we’re going out’. Sugary eighties pop with a Balkan twist. Yet they taunted me with questions. Why had I returned to Dublin after that summer volunteering with kids who’d fled a war that still raged through their country? Maybe it was just guilt, but I knew I couldn’t forget. In college, I raised funds and awareness for Bosnia, roping my friends into a range of madcap schemes. They thought I was crazy.

Probably they were right. Without doubt, I fell beyond redemption when I met another fan of Crvena Jabuka. It was a pity he was tone-deaf but he ‘sang’ their hits in his own sonorous way. And, while far from perfect pitch, the lines were full of emotion. ‘Kad sat zazovni…’ Just over a year later, I found myself under that bell-tower by Begova džamija – the mosque at the heart of Baščaršija, Sarajevo’s Ottoman bazaar. The war had finally ended. The city gleamed in July sun, harrowed yet glorious. Or so it seemed to a dazzled visitor. I couldn’t comprehend it. Perhaps I was too much in awe, in love, blinded by someone who’d led me to the water that, myth says, draws you eternally back to this enigmatic place. The temperature was close to forty degrees Celsius. I was thirsty.

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Whispers… sensuous, bewitching. They get drowned in our mundane interactions. Acrimonious yells stifle them. Sometimes we need reminders. My crooner’s birthday. The clock has chimed through times good and bad, twenty years have disappeared since I was serenaded with an off-key rendition of Crvena Jabuka. By chance, on Twitter, we hear they’re coming to Dublin. Hmm… two tickets to the gig might be a better present than the annual sweatshirt. It turns out to be the Best. Gift. Ever. Even if I’m not sure that he deserves it. Plus there’s a new movie about Kurt Cobain that I’d prefer to see on one of our rare nights out.

I’m still threatening to ‘go to Nirvana’ – more my genre and generation – on the evening of 14 April. The cinema isn’t far from the concert venue. Should we diverge? ‘Oh well, whatever, never mind’… the smell of youthful spirit wafts through the air. It’s decadent bliss to swan round Temple Bar at 7p.m. on a Tuesday. Usual routine at this hour would be making dinner and checking the kids’ homework. This is a welcome escape! And it’s supposed to be a double celebration – our wedding anniversary is less than a week away.

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Nostalgia guides us to an Italian restaurant called ‘La Gondola’. Venice in the springtime… our honeymoon. Before we took the ‘smugglers’ ship’ from Ancona to Split on our way back to Sarajevo. After the meal, a charming Polish waitress asks us where we we’re from and tells us she recently wrote an essay about Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia in the 1990s. It was part of her course in International Studies at an Irish university. Wars slip into history, become assignment topics. This accomplished young woman is about the age I was when I first went to the Balkans.

Yikes! Now I’m wondering about the wisdom of my mini-dress. Wondering why I’m heading to an ex-Yugo rock revival. No, I’m off to Nirvana again! Let him have his mid-life bromance with his diaspora buddies. Dilemmas on the Ha’penny Bridge. Still, I end up at The Academy and my arguments prove purely academic. Idemo… into this den of iniquity! We spot some people we know, Bosnian friends from years ago. Though there’s not much time to catch up for, once the gig begins, it’s too loud to talk. To be honest, I’m more in the mood for music than for banter. So a medley of 1980s gold, from a country that no longer exists, sounds oddly appealing. Especially when it’s belted out with such gusto by a band whose average age must be twice that of One Direction.

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The audience – which appears to be 99.99% Balkan – sings along. The birthday boy knows all the lyrics verbatim. Quite a feat! I’ll forgive his lack of melody. Anyhow, this is no place for cultural snobbery… it’s for getting up and dancing.  Even the two of us, with our four left feet, shed our inhibitions. The atmosphere gives us rhythm, hides our clumsiness. As Crvena Jabuka energise the crowd, jazzing up old favourites. They certainly have a flair for live performance.

Then they play our special song. From the opening twang, it holds something beyond words which, so often of late, have failed us. Memories, significance… the feelings we feared we’d lost are re-released. The critics may label it cheesy, dated, Eastern European. Translation robs it of context, it doesn’t make much sense. But it flows, like that legendary water in Sarajevo. It brings us back to who, if not where, we used to be. Until the streets are calling us… the long road home, perhaps the tentative steps of a new start. Yes, music can fill the gashes that scar our maps and hearts. It can’t heal every wound, but its notes might be a balm. The sound of what we share, our common chords. ‘Sa tvojih usana…’ i mojih.

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Many thanks/hvala puno Vox PROmotions for organising the Crvena Jabuka concert: https://t.co/ksvktgjBoj

And ‘that song’ from yesteryear – Sa tvojih usana/From your lips: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PrzG6FaIHdQ

This post was published in the Bosnian weekly, Novo Vrijeme, on 30/4/15: http://novovrijeme.ba/bosnian-music-red-apple-rock/

 

In the bleak midwinter

So this is Christmas… and my penultimate offering of 2014. The ‘elves’ in my house are planning to hijack this blog for a final yuletide message. Though, already, the making of their surprise post has sparked rebellions in elfdom. As the saying goes, ‘girls wreck your head’.

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Sometimes, so do places. Like my old ljubav, Bosnia. It’s been an eventful year there. The country has featured in international news for a range of reasons. Protests in February. Devastating floods in May. The commemoration of the assassination in Sarajevo which triggered World War I. Euphoria as the Bosnian football team played in its first World Cup. The hopes and hype of Rio gleamed… but soon faded. Reality gushed in again.

Elections in October saw the constellations of power in Bosnia and Herzegovina shift slightly, although nationalist parties remain dominant. Just another case of plus ça change? Or could 2015 auger progress for a country hamstrung by the legacy of conflict? An initiative seeking to kick-start Bosnia’s flagging EU accession process has recently been proposed by Britain and Germany. Understandably, after years of fruitless negotiations, scepticism prevails as to whether this scheme can prompt the reforms required for EU membership. However, any renewal of interest which might lead to a more effective European approach towards Bosnia is welcome.

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Bosnia’s present stagnation benefits no-one but its ruling elites. Instead of trying to build a functional state, they thrive on generating insecurity. Two decades since the end of the war, many of the divisions it caused are as raw today as they were in 1995. But despite undeniable differences, there’s much scope for unity. Demonstrations and plenums in the spring highlighted how most people in Bosnia face the same socio-economic problems – unemployment, poverty, limited prospects. The massive voluntary response which brought relief to those affected by flooding further proved that citizens from all ‘ethnic’ backgrounds can co-operate.

From a personal perspective, I’m glad my family and I were able to fundraise in our local area for the Irish Red Cross Balkans Floods Appeal. In Bosnia during the summer, we witnessed some of the damage left in the wake of the deluge and spoke to people involved in dealing with its aftermath. It was clear that the country needs ongoing support to recover from this disaster. We also went to Srebrenica and were struck not only by the scale of the atrocity that occurred there but by the questions it still poses… How? Why? Is it possible that healing can follow genocide? Such queries hovered in the sultry air above a cemetery which is now lodged in our human conscience.

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No matter how many times you visit Bosnia, it’s somewhere that always astounds… and disturbs. This year more than ever, it’s plagued me with a yearning to forge connections that extend beyond family trips – a desire to do something constructive. I’ve been investigating a few potential avenues in this regard. So far without success… lack of finances being a major drawback. But I’ll continue to explore these ideas. Perhaps I should ask Santa to send me a wealthy philanthropist! Along with a helping of luck, a marriage counsellor and a good night’s sleep. Though, if these demands defy even the magic of Mr. Claus, a book token will do fine.

Well, now, I ought to get my Meryl Streep skates on and rustle up an Oscar-winning Christmas!  Writing often seems pointless, yet I’m not sorry to have ‘wasted’ time, amid the commercial frenzy of December, on this series of short pieces (see links below). They’re chronologically arranged, based on the events to which they relate, but their topics also reflect the symbolism of the Advent wreath.

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Entwined in pine, the first two purple candles signify hope and peace. Hopefully, 2015 will bring both to Syria. And, although we can’t stop the war, we can still show solidarity with the Syrian people by donating to humanitarian organisations which work with them and by raising awareness of their plight. Meanwhile, here in Ireland, it feels like we’re on the cusp of a rising thought wave. We’ve got a rare chance to challenge established currents. Are we ready to take risks to create an equal, harmonious society? Or will we just go with the flow and put up with the status quo?

Globally, 2014 was grim. Fighting in Ukraine, attacks on Gaza, institutional racism in the USA, floods in the Balkans, worrying predictions about climate change – there was little cause for rejoicing. Even on an individual level, I must admit, it was a year I’d rather forget. But when all seems dark, brief instants of respite become more meaningful. A pink birthday candle. Or this, the last of the purple ones… The candle that stands for love.

Please check out previous posts in this series at:

An Advent miscellany: http://wp.me/p3NO7M-ma

Happy Xmas (war isn’t over): http://wp.me/p3NO7M-md

We’re dreaming of a better Ireland: http://wp.me/p3NO7M-mf

On a twelfth birthday at Christmas: http://wp.me/p3NO7M-mh

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From the Latin Bridge

Heads turn here. No longer for a glimpse of visiting royals… Not at the shock of shots. One hundred years since the wearer of a feathered hat slumped against his dying wife in their open-topped car, this is history’s junction. The silt-heavy Miljacka flows past, too shallow to drown an assassin and his bungling accomplices. The disturbance as the culprits were apprehended, choking on non-lethal doses of cyanide, has dissipated among the city’s ghosts.

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Now there are just pedestrians, checking the traffic. The impatient gauging their distance from the oncoming tram before they dash across the road. Those prepared to wait glance to make sure the boy racer roaring along the quay in a turbo diesel hits the brakes at the red light. You never know. He could be the son of a politician. Festina lente, as it says on the new bridge downstream – požuri polako in Bosnian tempo. At least dodgy drivers are ordinary hazards. Unlike the sniper-fire that hailed on Sarajevo in the nineties. Or the bullets that heralded the Great War.

They stand at ‘the street corner that started the twentieth century’. So the poster wrapped around the museum proclaims.

‘But it started in 1900.’

Their eldest child questions the logic of the notice. Yet she grasps its metaphor. She’s five years younger than Gavrilo Princip was when he raised his weapon. And took aim. He glowers – a hollow-cheeked teenager – above the entrance. Franz Ferdinand’s whiskers curl on the other side of the building. His stare inspects the river as it gurgles through the capital of his empire’s annexation.

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A thunderstorm threatens. The air has grown oppressive. The vibe between the couple on Latinska ćuprija is tempestuous. That’s become their norm – a dynamic of power and revolt. It wasn’t always like this. But difficult years have led them to their July crisis. She feels she’s borne the brunt of it… as a woman, as the mother of his children. The balance that was vital to their marriage has been shaken.

‘You’re as smug as he was.’

‘Who?’

She casts a rueful eye at the archduke. ‘His highness.’

‘Tito dragi!’

Exasperated, he invokes a dead dictator – now icon whose omniscience may extend to secessionist wives. As if that’ll stop her launching into another of her tirades… She blames him, by default, for much of what’s gone wrong. These days he hasn’t a clue what she wants. Nor does she.

Freedom? Or maybe just to be free to be lovers again. Like the first time they came together to Sarajevo. It was 1996. He was returning to his war-wrecked hometown. She was enthralled by the indestructible beauty beneath the ruins. The city was rooted in him and they were joined by its trauma. But, full of joy, they were reckless. At the crenellated husk of the national library, he’d pulled her away from the dust of incinerated words. Even today, you must be wary of the unexploded. Especially in more isolated areas.

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‘Don’t pee on a landmine.’

She’d instructed their youngest daughter a few days earlier. Half joke, half advice for the inevitable emergency as they reached an ancient fort atop a peak in Herzegovina. The thrills of travelling with kids! From flying back like swallows every summer, their children are familiar with the drill. The chances of detonation by urination may be slim. Particularly for girls. If you’ve got to the point of squatting, you’re probably OK. As a rule, though, it’s safer not to walk on the grass. Unless you’re with someone who knows the territory.

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Bosnia remains a wounded country. Under the arched doorway of Vijećnica, a plaque testifies to an attack at the end of August 1992. The text is short but rancorous. It states that over two million books, periodicals and documents were consumed by flames. Irreplaceable thought and learning lost. But the edifice has finally been restored. The former city hall, which later became a repository of literature, gleams anew. An architectural jewel – connoisseurs remark on how its Austro-Hungarian grandeur adopts a ‘Moorish’ style. That meeting of East and West, a taste of the Orient in Europe… It’s been lavished with such stereotypical praise. The bricks are striped in shades of Bajadera nougat – hints of almond, hazelnut. Inside, the foyer rises to a hexagon of sky. She looks up, into its stained glass floral patterns. Dizzy, she sniffs back tears.

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This was where Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were received. In between two attempts to slay them – the second of which was successful. Some say that carelessness was their graces’ downfall. Flouncing around, they seemed blasé about security. You’d wonder why they headed to this peripheral province. It’s fanciful, but did the Habsburg heir and the humbler Duchess of Hohenberg think of their trip as a romantic break? A myth, yet it wouldn’t have been a bad way to escape Viennese snobbery and Emperor’s disdain for his niece-in-law. Poor old Soph… She always felt sorry for the forgotten collateral spouse. The role of snaha – female relative by marriage – isn’t easy.

Maybe she should’ve rebelled. Although often struggles only cause more pain, even if this was never their intention. Take Princip. His motives might be debatable, but he didn’t set out to spark a worldwide bloodbath. Hapless lad or terrorist, he died one-armed and tubercular – a prisoner in Theresienstadt – before the end of the war his actions had ignited. While millions of young men like him were gunned down, shelled and gassed.

‘Can we go to see the statue?’

‘What statue?’

‘The one they put up this year.’

She saw it on the news in Ireland. The British channels covered the story at the kick-off of their World War I commemoration fest. Most cameras focused on the assassination site on the Latin Bridge. But some lenses zoomed out further, to a monument erected in East Sarajevo. Aka Lukavica. Across entity lines, après la guerre, this erstwhile suburb appropriated the city name in a manner sounding rather Berlinesque. It’s not too hard to bypass. After a scattering of buildings, the road melts back among farms and thicketed countryside. This is the chunk of Bosnia defined as ‘Republika Srpska’ by the Dayton Peace Agreement. Detached red-roofed houses accommodate generations, floor upon floor.

Quiet, she gazes out the passenger window. Thinking of the unsaid between the pair of them… Cornflowers and bindweed mingle with garden gladioli. Errant petals brighten fences that can’t enclose roaming hens. In pastures beside some farmhouses a few cows graze. At one driveway a guard dog lies chained. Lazing in the heat, he shows no interest in his charge – an incarcerated beast.

‘Oh my God, a bear!’

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The children jump at her shout, straining to see if she’s right. But they missed it. They’re clamouring to go back. Their father isn’t pleased about having to do a U-turn on a dangerous bend. He doesn’t believe her. Now she’s hoping that the creature really is ursine. Otherwise he’ll devour her. Though who could imagine something so bizarre? They pull in tight along the verge outside the residence of – yes – a captive bear. It seems crazed, pacing up and down an iron cage. He gets out for a closer look. The animal lumbers into the hut at the top of its rusted confines. As if it’s scared of humans.

‘And wolves! Vukovi!’

The kids yell at two wildish dogs slinking across the overgrown lawn into wooden kennels. They’re leaner than the German shepherd sprawled on sentry duty. Grey-backed, buff at the chest, their legs are longer than those of domestic mutts. Their snouts are pointier too. Čuvaj se psa – ‘beware of the dog’ – reads the sign at the gate. An understatement, considering the menagerie, but they’re more nervous about the pet collector. One of those ‘bear-like’ Balkanites who populate foreign commentary on this region? Luckily it appears that nobody’s at home. So they won’t have to explain their borderline trespass. This mini-zoo isn’t open to the public.

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Then they resume their search for Princip. Though there’s no way it can compete with the attraction of neighbourhood fauna. But first, a stop for coffee… In a café called ‘Dublin’. It’s got the Irish flag printed on its sugar sachets and a window adorned with a scene from O’Connell Street. The waiter has no idea what inspired its Hibernian theme but he gives them clear directions to the statue. They find Gavrilo lording over a park across from rows of apartment blocks. He’s been upgraded from the sullen waif with a pistol stuck in his pants or drawn from the worn lining of his jacket. Here he poses, broad-shouldered, above his Cyrillic name. A wilting yellow bloom in one hand and ribbons in Serbian colours in the other, he seems a bit too burly, too mature.

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A pensioner in a blue singlet addresses her as ‘young lady’ – a welcome compliment for a mother of three kids. The old guy wants a photo with his hero. It’s a quaint request in the selfie era. She takes a couple of snapshots. He’ll bring them back to America, where he’s lived for fifteen years. Questions about why he left his homeland float unuttered. She guesses he’s more ex-communist than war criminal. She could be misjudging him. He might be neither. Or both. They talk about Ireland. She tells him the First World War was virtually deleted from Irish history. Until it got a retro-trendy revamp. Mostly for the sake of diplomacy, so that heads of state can honour… what? Heinous waste. The futility of fighting is tangible in the damage still visible throughout Bosnia. And lodged in innumerable hidden scars.

Any hope of ‘Stoljeće mira nakon stoljeća ratova’? ‘A Century of Peace after the Century of Wars’ – the title of a multimedia spectacle performed on 28 June. Back in the city centre its promotional banner hangs across the main street. Almost one month later it’s beginning to sag, eclipsed by an advert for the Film Festival and a Bajram greeting from the Islamic Community. A few more days until the end of Ramadan… At sunset each evening, cannon-shot rings out from a mosque in the old town. There’s an intake of breath before the muezzin’s call confirms it was fired in worship, not in warfare. Or maybe that’s just her over-reaction. Based on what she remembers – the blast of homemade explosives, the numbing thud of mortars. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that a girl from ‘bandit country’ got involved with a guy from Sarajevo.

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Their birthplaces are, officially, at peace. Armed conflict has shifted from Bosnia and Northern Ireland, back to the Middle East. Gaza under bombardment, Iraq riven apart… After over three years of carnage, Syria’s cries are ignored. So are those of other neglected ‘civil’ wars. The ‘fortunate’ get a fast-fading media spot, a flurry of hashtags – #PrayFor all in the plane that was blown to scraps of fuselage over Ukraine. They die as images ogled in cyberspace. But does the world give a toss about these viral martyrs, any more than it does about those who are mourned off-line? And even when outrage goes beyond a ‘share’ or a ‘retweet’ it seems so ineffective. The cronies of today’s great powers protect their interests regardless. As people are slaughtered.

‘Like in Srebrenica.’ He stubs out his cigarette.

‘Yeah, it’s happening again.’

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The headstones in the cemetery at Potočari date lives cut short in July 1995. White marble, except for the green wood stumps which mark where remains were buried on the recent anniversary – the earth is still fresh around them. The youngest of this year’s 175 identified victims was only fourteen, the age of their first-born. Over 6,000 others have already been laid to rest. Of the 8,372 known to have been massacred. The men and boys of entire families wiped out in a ‘safe haven’… under the watch of the United Nations.

They’re recorded in lengthy columns bearing the same surnames. Even if they can be seen and heard no more, their existence is inscribed on a crescent of giant slabs. Graves stretch into the hills and the horror can’t be counted. But there’s a presence. And its weight is what visitors carry with them. Forever. A reminder. In front of the rose-rimmed gathering space, a fountain gently weeps. He holds out his hands in Muslim prayer. She blesses herself. Useless gestures… Yet this place demands them. Humanity has failed here. So has God, many would argue, though men did the killing.

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Confronting the reality of genocide stifles personal strife. They leave in silence. Their children are no strangers to Bosnian graveyards, but the little one whispers at the exit:

‘Mama, are there any wars in Ireland?’

‘No, lovie. Not now.’ She hugs the worried child. ‘There used to be… A long time ago.’

The twentieth century is aeons away for kids of the twenty-first. Though, with her Arabic name and big, dark eyes, their youngest could pass for Palestinian or Syrian. And all three of them look Bosnian – post-war by the serendipity of the decade of their birth. A peaceful childhood, it’s the least that they deserve. Everyday disputes seem so petty in Srebrenica.

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A land of tough love – the spectre of war gives a sharp sense of perspective. In Bosnia, you don’t quarrel about what can still be mended. They want to fix things but, when passion sours to bitter accusation, it’s impossible. Enemies are often those who had the most in common. Rebuilding any relationship, whether intimate or international, needs trust… and commitment.

‘You must be strong.’

She’s been told. She resents the implication that stoical strength is a female obligation. Along the lines of ‘stay alive for our children’… or whatever Franz said to Sophie when she was fatally injured. But, by then, he was also doomed. Perhaps, for all their aristocratic flaws, there’s truth to the legend of their closeness.

‘This might be my last time in Sarajevo.’

He doesn’t listen, doesn’t want to hear. It shatters her to admit this about a city that’s seduced her, somewhere so ingrained in their children. A place that’s been their link for twenty years, since the siege… They could surrender to the friction that’s escalated between them. Break up. Balkanise. Be done with each other for good. She’s barricaded her heart in self-defence. Yet she wishes she could grab his sun-steeped hand and waltz away with him. To rediscover their kiss, to try to reconcile.

Food, fun and faith for funds

Climbing hills, dressing up as Celts, weaving trendy accessories… Over recent weeks, my family and I have learned a few new skills – all for the sake of the Irish Red Cross ‘Balkans Floods Appeal’. Internationally, the extreme flooding witnessed in May in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia is no longer deemed ‘newsworthy’. But for the many thousands of people now struggling with its aftermath, the consequences of the disaster are very real.

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The world’s cameras have zoomed out. They’ve taken their shots of the torrents and their aerial pictures of settlements submerged in muddy water. There are horrors breaking elsewhere or popular distractions like sports and show-biz to be filmed. As reports wane, assistance often follows a similar pattern – any immediate surge of interest tends to fall off fast. In our case, though, we simply couldn’t forget. My husband’s uncle and aunt live in Bijeljina and they were personally affected by the floods. This brought the crisis home to us. We had to try to help in whatever way we could… hence our series of events for the Balkans Floods Appeal.

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Our efforts were small-scale. They began with our daughters’ bracelet-making scheme around our neighbourhood and our trek over a windswept Irish mountain (see previous post). The success of these early endeavours, which raised almost €600, inspired us to do more. Phone calls and email enquiries ensued. Plans were hatched in between late night World Cup matches. Football became addictive viewing but, far from being a diversion, it strengthened our commitment to our fundraising campaign. Supporting Bosnia can’t just be about yelling at a screen beaming 90 minutes of excitement from South America. Nevertheless, like millions in the worldwide Bosnian fan club, we celebrated the team and lamented their premature exit from the tournament.

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Bosnia’s sojourn in Brazil may have been brief but, in our house, it was memorable. The children took huge pride in their father’s country, especially as their mother’s hadn’t qualified.  And they loved the pre-match parties featuring blue and yellow ice-cream sodas, Irish attempts at ćevapi, and Fox’s biscuits on which I’d inscribed best wishes to the ‘Dragons’. Few of the neighbours could’ve missed the giant flag fluttering from one of our upstairs windows as we put Bosnia and Herzegovina on the local radar. Through football banter, we also talked about current issues in the Balkans and let people know about our fundraising.

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We continued on 26 June – the day after Bosnia’s victory against Iran – with a coffee morning at my husband’s workplace in Dublin. His employer, the Irish Medicines Board (IMB), has a welcoming attitude towards charities and many of his colleagues offered to bake for us. This was just as well because domestic science lies beyond my comfort zone. As a person who only willingly cooks for ‘cultural occasions’, such as the World Cup and major feast days, I must admit that the prospect of producing fare fit for public consumption was pretty daunting.

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I opted for my tried and tested ‘hurmašice light’ – a reduced-sugar version of the traditional Bosnian recipe. Luckily, my limited repertoire also extends to shortbread cookies. So I rustled up three dozen of these and decorated them with the flags of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia. (Chef’s tip: ready-to-roll icing, dyed with tinted food gel, works a dream.) My ‘Balkan’ treats looked cute but the staff of the IMB proved true culinary geniuses. Their scrumptious chocolate cakes, lemon drizzle slices, profiteroles, caramel squares and other delicious goodies formed a mouth-watering array. In addition, they were unbelievably generous – donations received at the coffee morning amounted to €820.

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Two days later, we were fundraising again. Though, this time, it was much closer to home. I’d spoken to one of the priests of the small, rural parish in which we live – Blackrock and Haggardstown, Co. Louth – about our ideas to help flood victims in the Balkans. He gave us great encouragement and suggested we hold a church-gate collection in aid of the Irish Red Cross appeal. Having obtained the required Garda permit, we were able to proceed with this on the last weekend in June. We started at the evening mass on Saturday 28 – a date of particular historical significance, exactly one hundred years after the heir to the Habsburg throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was killed in Sarajevo. Due to this anniversary, Bosnia got a quick mention in the media (including a few moments of TV news in Ireland) as the centennial commemorations of World War I began. But while academics and journalists debated the region’s past, our focus was on its present problems.

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By coincidence, June 28 was also the first day of Ramadan. My husband – probably the only Bosnian Muslim to have manned a charity bucket outside an Irish Catholic church – was hungry as sunset approached. Both of us were heartened, though, by the response to our collection… and ever-so-slightly nervous about its next stage. Prayers were said that the fine weather we’d been blessed with would last. Fortunately, it appeared that someone ‘up above’ was listening because Sunday dawned with divine radiance. This was a relief since we had four services to cover in the two churches of the parish. At each, people showed incredible goodwill and altogether we collected €610. The inter-faith dimension of the event was also important. It touched on what should be at the core of all religions – concern for humankind and generosity of spirit. These are values rarely emphasised in a world that seems to thrive on division.

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Our final event took place in the Marshes Shopping Centre in the nearby town of Dundalk on Saturday 5 July. The administrator of the centre kindly provided us with this opportunity to collect on the premises. And I became ‘well-known to the Gardaí’ – not for involvement in serious crime but for seeking police permission for a second collection in rapid succession. We made an attractive display with information about the floods and their impact on the Balkans. But to really grab the attention of passing shoppers our daughters wove more ‘loom’ bracelets. This kept them occupied (and out of trouble) through the first week of their summer holidays. Industrial quantities of tiny bright hoops were turned into awesome wrist-bands. Glitter, glow-in-the-dark and metallic designs were available. Colour combinations to represent Ireland, countries of the Balkans and surviving World Cup nations, catered to the tastes of both boys and girls.

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The shopping centre was rather quiet on Saturday morning and, yes, that freaked me out a bit. However, I needn’t have worried as it got much busier in the afternoon and our stall, which was in a prime location, drew many visitors. Children coaxed their parents to stop by and were thrilled at our range of bracelets. We gave these as ‘thank you’ gifts for donations. Teenagers made their own contributions and adults took considerable interest too – from our local senator, Mary Moran, who was very supportive, to a young couple from Croatia who’d recently come to live in Dundalk. It was lovely to talk to people, not just about the Balkans but about their experience of fundraising for various causes. By the end of the day we’d collected another €340 for the Irish Red Cross. Our daughters were especially pleased that they, and their handiwork, had played a crucial role in this achievement.

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This collection brought the total raised from our action for the Balkans Floods Appeal to €2,360. It multiplied by almost forty times the €60 we’d already donated online. In five weeks, with a little effort and a lot of enjoyment, we’d increased far beyond our expectations the help we could offer as a family. We’re extremely grateful to all who contributed. They’ve demonstrated that Ireland’s capacity for altruism hasn’t been crushed, that humanity remains a powerful force. From a practical standpoint, we’ve also seen that by organising simple, replicable activities it’s possible to maximise the response to any appeal.

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Regarding the floods in the Balkans, we can only hope that external aid will flow to the affected areas and that this will target those who are most vulnerable. Meanwhile, we’re preparing to go to Bosnia next week. We’re not sure if we’ll be able to travel to the flood-hit regions – logistics, children and time constraints will determine this – but we’ll try. Even if we can’t, we’ll bring with us a positive message from Ireland. We’re glad to say that some people here are aware of current challenges in Bosnia. Better still, they’ve shown that they care.

Please continue to support the Irish Red Cross Balkans Floods Appeal: http://www.redcross.ie/news/appeals/balkan-floods-appeal/

Here’s a summary of our fundraising:

31 May – children’s sale of bracelets, Blackrock, Co. Louth: €125

7-8 June – Táin March, Dundalk and Carlingford, Co. Louth: €465

26 June – coffee morning in the Irish Medicines Board, Dublin: €820

28-29 June – church-gate collection in Blackrock and Haggardstown, Co. Louth: €610

5 July – display stand in the Marshes Shopping Centre, Dundalk: €340

TOTAL  raised for Irish Red Cross Balkans Floods Appeal: €2,360

Thank you/hvala to everyone who helped!

Read more about our fundraising in my previous post: 
 

Ain’t no mountain high enough… for the Balkans

The rivers are receding. Their overflow is slowly seeping away. The extent of the damage caused by last month’s floods in the Balkans is now emerging. And the repair bill is expected to run to billions of euro. Homes and communities have been ruined. Large areas must be decontaminated, infrastructure requires reconstruction. The devastated regions of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia will need support for many years to come. The solidarity shown by people throughout the Balkans in helping those affected by this catastrophe has been inspiring. But, given the scale of the crisis, international aid is also essential.

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In Ireland, we watched news of the flooding and heard about it from my husband’s elderly relatives who live in one of the worst-hit parts of Bosnia. Our first reaction was horror. Our second was a question – what could we do? As a start, we made an online donation to the ‘Balkans Floods Appeal’ launched by the Irish Red Cross. Then we wondered how we could fundraise for this appeal in our locality. We contacted the Irish Red Cross and, with their approval, began a ‘wee’ campaign in County Louth.

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Our two older daughters led the way. The eleven-year-old, who’s nifty in the art and craft department and has a keen eye for all the latest crazes, made several dozen ‘loom’ bracelets. Apparently these rubber band creations, woven in a range of neon-bright shades, are this summer’s coolest fashion accessory. Along with her big sister, she sold her produce around our housing estate on Saturday 31 May. After four hours, they returned without any bracelets. Instead, they had €125 for the Balkans Floods Appeal!

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Meanwhile, a few days earlier, we’d read an article with a Bosnian connection in the Irish Times. It focused on a newly published biography, The Trigger, which looks at the life and legacy of Gavrilo Princip. The book’s author, Tim Butcher, discussed aspects of Balkan history from 1914 to the present. He also spoke about the war in Bosnia in the 1990s and its consequences. In response to the issues he’d mentioned, we wrote a letter which appeared in the Irish Times on Monday 2 June. It was another opportunity to highlight the floods in the Balkans, which already seemed forgotten by the global media. We pointed out how people in Ireland can help, hoping that our short epistle might reach readers with much fuller purses than ours.

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Writing and talking are certainly useful means of spreading the word. But ‘walking the walk’ can be even more effective. The following weekend we got a chance to literally take a hike for the Balkans Floods Appeal. We joined two stages of the Táin March – an annual event retracing the epic journey of Queen Maeve of Connacht across Louth in Celtic times. Dressed in our Iron Age best, we took part in a parade to the town square in Dundalk on Saturday 7 June. Under sunny skies, it was very pleasant… though this was just a prologue to the next day’s trek through the Cooley Mountains.

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On Sunday we set out – my ‘Bosnian Braveheart’ (OK, mixing eras and ethnicities but the poor guy almost believed he was Mel Gibson) and I, together with our older kids and a loyal comrade who’d come all the way from Dublin. Apart from us novices, the rest of the group comprised seasoned climbers and members of the Irish army. Gallantly, we advanced into the mist and what meteorologists had dismissed as an ‘occasional shower’. The rain became torrential. Battling against the wind tested our endurance.

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Despite the weather, the trail revealed its raw beauty. Crossing moors of heather interspersed with alpine flowers, we tramped over rugged stone and mossy grass. Further on, we squelched into bogland and splashed through trickling streams. Whenever the clouds lifted slightly, the view was stunning. Finally, for extra drama as we made our descent towards the coast, the heavens roared with a deafening clap of thunder. Maybe that was Nature’s way of reminding us why we were walking. Being absolutely soaked seemed appropriate when we thought of those caught up in the Balkan floods.

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Wet and weary, we arrived at our destination – the village of Carlingford. There, wholesome Irish stew was provided for the marchers and this quickly revived the spirits of the carnivores. While the fresh air and our sense of physical ‘achievement’ left all of us feeling exhilarated. We raised some more money by doing children’s face painting… until it started to pour again. From this activity and the generous support of friends and family for our outdoor pursuits, we collected €465 for the Irish Red Cross. This brings the total from our efforts so far for the Balkans Floods Appeal to nearly €600. And we’re still counting!

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We’re planning a few more events over the weeks ahead. So watch this space – and why not get involved? Join us… or take action wherever you may be. Fundraising isn’t easy, especially under current economic conditions. From our own experience, we know most people have very little to spare. But if many individuals donate a small amount, this adds up to really substantial aid. Every tiny drop of assistance matters.

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With World Cup 2014 underway, Balkan nations are back in the news. Though, this time, it’s for sporting reasons. Croatia opened the tournament – playing the hosts, Brazil. And Bosnia won hearts with its valiant debut against the formidable Argentina. We’re proud to be shouting for the Zmajevi! We’re also asking Irish fans to get behind Bosnia and Herzegovina, both on and off the pitch. When Džeko and the lads ‘give it a lash’ perhaps we could remember what’s happened to their country. Then think about all the people in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia who are trying to recover from the floods. Please support them!

Organisations helping the Balkans from Ireland:

The Irish Red Cross ‘Balkans Flood Appeal’ – donate online at:

http://www.redcross.ie/news/appeals/balkan-floods-appeal/

Human Appeal Ireland – donate online at:

http://humanappeal.ie/blog/bosnia-floods-appeal/#.U4bwh_nMRCg

Whitewater Foundation  – donate online at:

http://www.whitewaterireland.ie/whitewaterfoundation/floods-in-serbia-and-bosnia/

Also read our letter ‘Crisis in the Balkans’, Irish Times (2/6/14):

http://www.irishtimes.com/debate/letters/crisis-in-the-balkans-1.1815660

And see the article ‘Made in the Balkans’, Irish Times (28/5/14):

http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/made-in-the-balkans-the-man-blamed-for-starting-the-first-world-war-1.1811393

This post was published in the Bosnian weekly Novo Vrijeme on 20 June 2014

Balkan floods – let support reign!

Rain. We have a lot of it in Ireland. And this year we’ve had it to excess. Through the winter months, a series of violent storms wreaked destruction. Reaching maximum ‘red’ alert on Met Éireann’s new colour-coding scale, their unprecedented force had dangerous consequences. Winds whipped up waves of huge magnitude as rivers, swollen by downpours, gushed into the sea. Flooding was extensive along the Atlantic coast. The cities of Limerick and Galway were inundated. The ocean swallowed chunks of land and hacked into the promenades and piers of picturesque towns. Homes were swamped. Businesses were ruined.

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While the west bore the brunt of this havoc, coastal areas on the Irish Sea didn’t escape. In January, the village in which I live was badly affected. Set at the edge of an estuary, it was lashed by seas laden with detritus from overflowing rivers. Floods ensued – serious enough to make the nine o’clock news. Fame… but not in a good way. The main street, looking onto the beach, was like a canal. A local attraction for weekend strolls and socialising, with its string of pubs, restaurants and small shops, it had suddenly become a giant rock pool.

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As the tide receded the damage was apparent. Sandbags which had been prepared as a defence weren’t sufficient against such a volume of water. The waves had crashed over the shore-side wall, splitting pavement slabs and leaving behind a residue of sludge. Debris lay strewn across the road. The mopping-up started, but further encroachments would occur in subsequent days until river levels slowly fell back to normal. Even when the storm passed, it was terrifying to watch the sea surge and threaten with intermittent splashes onto the street. Fortunately, the housing estates of the village are slightly inland which meant that most homes were sheltered from the tempest. Spring eventually brought us calmer conditions. But other parts of Europe haven’t been so lucky…

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In recent days, as Ireland basked in a few brief snatches of sun, extreme rainfall led to flooding across the Balkans. Through Bosnia, Serbia and eastern Croatia vast areas have been stricken as numerous rivers burst their banks. Bosnia is now in a state of crisis, following the worst floods the country has endured since records began 120 years ago. Towns have been submerged and thousands evacuated. The death toll in Bosnia alone is close to 30. Electricity supplies have been cut. People are in desperate need of essentials: food, drinking water, baby products, medicines. The elderly, the young and the disabled are most vulnerable. Many residents of the affected regions have lost nearly everything they own. Houses have collapsed due to landslides. It’s also feared that this earth movement may have dislodged buried landmines – adding another hazard to the existing peril.

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The inhabitants of both of Bosnia’s political entities have suffered. As commentators have observed, Nature doesn’t discriminate. Raging rivers can’t be halted by ethnic barriers. Though neither can human kindness. One of the few hopeful signs emerging from this tragedy has been the outpouring of cross-community support for its victims. Volunteers and donations of much-needed aid have come from throughout Bosnia and beyond its borders. But the full extent of the devastation will only be revealed when the floodwaters subside. Undoubtedly, in the aftermath of this deluge, people who were already struggling will face even more hardship. They’ll require massive assistance to repair their homes, to restore their towns and villages. As was the case in Ireland, many questions will be asked. These may include: were adequate steps taken to protect those living in at-risk areas? What can be done to safeguard these populations from further flooding? Did this come as a result of global warming and, if so, isn’t it likely to happen again?

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Climatologists say it can take several decades before patterns of weather-related events are considered trends. Yet they note the increasing incidence of meteorological catastrophes over the last few years. In Ireland, these seem in accordance with the theory that north-west Europe will get warmer and wetter, heightening the chances of severe Atlantic storms. Elsewhere, fluctuations in average winter temperatures or prolonged droughts may serve as evidence of climate change. While melting polar ice caps prompt fears of rising sea levels – a particular concern for an island nation like Ireland.

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To deal with disasters which are seldom entirely ‘natural’, effective schemes that can prevent their recurrence must be devised. In relation to the Balkan floods this calls for co-operation – both within states and among neighbouring countries – Bosnia’s geography illustrates how rivers are often transnational. It should also be accompanied by a global commitment to preserving our environment. The impact of human activity on our weather, especially through the emission of ‘greenhouse gases’ into the atmosphere, needs to be carefully monitored and controlled. The survival of the planet can’t be squandered for the sake of short-term economic gain or to appease lobbyists for the unrestricted use of fossil fuels. The Bosnian writer, Aleksandar Hemon, highlighted these broader issues in his article, Poslije Potopa, for Radio Sarajevo. His overall assessment was grim – he expressed little faith in the ability or resolve of Bosnia’s politicians to respond appropriately to this emergency. Sadly, he’s probably right.

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Yet the gravity of the situation demands sustained and substantial action. At the moment, the priority is to provide relief to those in the worst hit regions. And, in this, the world can show its solidarity. Everyone with a connection or interest in Bosnia should play a part. Even the smallest donation is significant. Members of the Bosnian diaspora have already raised considerable funds through appeals in support of the Red Cross and other NGOs. International friends can contribute too – people who’ve visited the country and enjoyed the hospitality of its citizens, anybody who’s fascinated by its topical history. Events in Sarajevo a century ago have recently featured in Irish newspapers and are receiving plenty of worldwide analysis. Though, while remembering WWI, we can’t ignore Bosnia’s plight in 2014. It’s a cry that echoes – it can’t be drowned. The rain is beating down again in Ireland as I write. An overcast sky… another reminder of all whose lives have been thrown into chaos and despair by the floods in the Balkans. But together we can help them! Hajmo, zajedno!

Please see links below to donate to flood relief efforts in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia:

Help from Ireland:

The Irish Red Cross have launched their Balkans Flood Appeal – donate online at: 

http://www.redcross.ie/news/appeals/balkan-floods-appeal/

Also, Human Appeal Ireland and Whitewater Foundation have delivered aid from Ireland directly to Bosnia and Serbia. Support their continuing work through online donations, see:

Human Appeal Ireland: 

http://humanappeal.ie/blog/bosnia-floods-appeal/#.U4bwh_nMRCg

Whitewater Foundation: 

http://www.whitewaterireland.ie/whitewaterfoundation/floods-in-serbia-and-bosnia/

Or donate to Red Cross and NGOs at national/regional level in the Balkans:

Bosnia:

Donate online to Red Cross appeal via: 

http://www.gofundme.com/98iwck

Or by bank transfer to Red Cross in Bosnia (National Society):

http://rcsbh.org/novosti/207-urgent-appeal-for-help

Or to (regional) Red Cross Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina: 

http://www.ckfbih.ba/index.php/aktivnosti/656-pokrenuta-humanitarna-akcija-za-pomo-ugroenom-stanovnitvu-poplavljenih-podruja

Or to (regional) Red Cross Republika Srpska: 

http://www.crvenikrstrs.org/crvenikrst/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=303&Itemid=1

Donate online to Center for Peacebuilding / Centar za Izgradnju Mira, grassroots NGO based in Sanski Most, flood relief appeal: 

http://www.gofundme.com/9br4og

Serbia:

List of organisations, including Red Cross Serbia, via Novak Djokovic Foundation:

http://novakdjokovicfoundation.org/news/news/2014.734.html

Bosnia and Serbia:

Donate online to Save the Children (North-West Balkans) via:

http://www.razoo.com/story/Bosnia-Serbia-Flood

Croatia:

Donate to Croatian Red Cross – with link for online donations:

http://www.hck.hr/hr/stranica/apel-za-pomoc-poplavljenim-podrucjima-u-republici-hrvatskoj-415

Article by Aleksandar Hemon – Poslije potopa, Radio Sarajevo 18/5/14: 

http://radiosarajevo.ba/novost/151716/%E2%80%A6

This post was published in the Bosnian weekly Novo Vrijeme on 23 May 2014

 

Guess who’s meeting the parents…

It started in a Dublin pub. Two odd bods, not your typical punters, huddled over a table. One spoke with a Slavic accent – unusual for Ireland in 1995. The other dressed in a flamboyant ensemble, hot off the Oxfam rails.

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We must’ve looked nervous. Sipping pineapple juice and Coca Cola, our drinks gave no Dutch courage for the task ahead. But, at least, the place was quiet. It was early enough in the evening – May or June, so barely dusk. And the phone was tucked away in a snug corner. We shoved a few coins into it. I grabbed the receiver, waited… until my mother answered. Here’s the gist of the conversation that followed:

‘I’m coming up at the weekend.’

At that announcement, Mum expressed surprise. During my college years, my visits home were infrequent. Female students – unlike their male peers – generally do their own laundry. And I enjoyed my independence, beyond the radar of ever-anxious parents. Still, there comes a point when generations must merge in a new way. But dealing with this, for the first time, wasn’t easy.

‘And eh… is it OK if I take someone with me?’

‘Who?’ I sensed apprehension at the other end.

‘Eh… like… a fella?’

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Maternal palpitations pulsed down the line, along with implorations to divine powers. This was unchartered territory for my mother – hearing from her eldest about what, she’d immediately guess, was a serious relationship. Never before had a boyfriend been brought home… No ‘passing interest’ would’ve been worth the effort and, in truth, I’d steered clear of amorous attachments. There’d been offers, but I’d tended to fob them off – the last thing I needed to impede my youthful dreams was a man. Or so I believed, until I met a certain Bosnian… and discovered I might be the world’s only ‘romantic feminist’. Naturally, Mum was curious about my obviously ‘special’ companion. Interrogations began. And I remember saying:

‘Well, he’s not exactly Irish.’

A second or two of silence… my mother paused for deduction. At moments like these, I think she’s possessed of an uncannily strong sixth sense. Although sussing out the secret lives of daughters is a skill I’m trying to cultivate myself. Anyhow, she suspected a Balkan connection. She hadn’t approved of me spending the previous two summers in refugee camps in that conflict-torn region. Apparently I was ‘mad in the head’ for going there. Yet she knew the experience had left its imprint, even if I hadn’t filled her in on my subsequent involvement with newly-arrived Bosnians in Ireland. As far she was concerned, I was supposed to have buckled back down to my studies. Nevertheless, presuming an old beau from my travels, she asked:

‘What, is he from Croatia?’

‘No, but close… Bosnia.’

Mum’s response was muted – a whispered litany pleading for heavenly intercession. I blithely told her the name of my beloved and, no doubt, sang his praises. Then the pips… I’d run out of ten pence pieces. A blessing, really. My mother could digest the facts, before we resumed with Part II of ‘telling the parents’. Meanwhile, we sauntered across inner-city Dublin. After stopping at a shop for some spare change, we finally found a phone-box that hadn’t been wrecked by vandals.

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‘Hi, it’s me again…’ On the far side, Mum still sounded out breath, so I breezed on: ‘There’s just one thing I forgot to tell you. Don’t cook ham – or any kind of pork – for dinner.’

‘Why?’

‘’Cause he’s a Muslim…’

My mother might’ve already worked this out. The mid-nineties were pre-Google days but, from years of war reports, the ethnicities of Bosnia and Herzegovina were infamous. Whether or not she’d figured, panic crept into her tone. Jesus, Mary and Joseph were invoked, as I recall. It wasn’t prejudice, just the shock of confronting the unforeseen. And information overload… I’d thrown a lot of stuff at her in less than an hour. Getting over the concept of ‘boyfriend’ was the greatest hurdle. Now, with three girls of my own, I can understand her turmoil. When the first of my daughters tells me about her ‘Chosen One’, how will I react? It must be a seismic jolt to the parent-child dynamic. The differences of nationality and religion were further tremors. Significant, though, on the worry scale of a woman who’d always lived in rural Ireland. I reassured her that everything would be fine. Then, I asked if she’d break the news to my father…

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Our visit to my homestead ‘passed off peacefully’, as they say of tension-charged events in the north of Ireland. There were some isolated faux pas… My dearest had to learn that taking photos of British army helicopters was not a good idea, while my Dad’s questions about life in the ‘former Czechoslovakia’ had me cringing with embarrassment. Reading Aleksandar Hemon’s wonderful ‘The Book of My Lives’, in which he traces his displacement from Sarajevo to Chicago, I laughed at similar queries he received from clueless Americans. Nowadays, though, my parents often get on better with their Bosnian son-in-law than with his wayward wife. To claim that they’ve embraced interculturalism is, perhaps, an exaggeration. But they’ve had their eyes opened to ‘otherness’ over the years.

Likewise, in Sarajevo, it took time to get used to the ‘blow-in’ addition to the family. Ironically, compared to Ireland, I found less fuss was made about religion, despite how it’d been exploited to stoke hatred during the war. Although Bosnian society was becoming segregated, people still had friends of different faiths. Occasionally, while living there, I said, ‘it’d be easier to be a Protestant’ – a ‘neutral’ denomination in the ex-Yugoslav states. But overall, I was accepted, especially by those who cherished Bosnia’s multi-ethnic heritage.

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For my other half, being a Muslim in Ireland was somewhat ‘exotic’ back in the 1990s. In certain parts of the country, where religion and politics fuse, our relationship was preferable to one between a Catholic and a post-Reformation Christian. Foreigners also escaped some of the internecine censure which native ‘mixed’ couples often faced. However, after 9/11, it’s become a bit tougher… Thankfully, Islamophobic incidents are relatively rare here. But public attitudes towards Islam sometimes appear more negative, particularly as Ireland’s Muslim population increases.

Intolerance stems from preconceptions based on narrow stereotypes. And these are best overcome by meeting people. In our case, for both families, getting to know us as individuals tempered assumptions derived from raw indicators of identity. Of course, there’ll be instances of contention – integration demands negotiation. But it’s a worthwhile process, for the commonality among humankind, whatever our diverse backgrounds or beliefs, is so extensive.

Don’t ever have children!

That’s my advice to my daughters. I look forward to the day when they can tell me I was wrong. I hope they’ll be able to say that being a female parent doesn’t leave them at a disadvantage. But between now and then, I fear they’ll face a struggle.

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I wish I could sound more optimistic. As a born feminist, I’ve always believed women could rule the world. In primary school, the principal dubbed me a ‘right wee women’s libber’. I took it as a compliment, years before I fully understood what it meant. But Mary Wollstonecraft, the grande dame of feminism, would’ve been proud of me. I used to turn the dullest classroom tasks into chances for vindication. My spelling-practice sentences forever started with ‘the woman…’ instead of the default ‘man’. And this Amazon drove bulldozers and scaled the highest peaks. For, although I knew things weren’t exactly equal, growing up in the ‘80s I didn’t see any obstacles. Girls were achieving academically, there were laws against discrimination. Yet, through the twenty-first century, I’ve gone sceptical…

What happened in those intervening years? Did feminism get hijacked by the capitalist myth of ‘meritocracy’ sometime during the reign of Maggie Thatcher? Or was it the cosmetics industry conjuring, with its mascara wand, a new paragon of femininity – one who’s ‘worth it’? In all likelihood, it was a combination of these highly compatible forces. We girls apparently fell for it. Sexism was dead. Women could be prominent. If they used their brains wisely, never questioning the tilted playing field of male-oriented workplaces. It also helped, of course, if they had perfect figures and flawless faces.

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Feminism became a dirty word, reserved for bitchy losers. Apart from when it was sanitised and deconstructed in university courses. By the noughties, it’d already gained the prefix ‘post’. And, though women knew their trials were far from over, calling yourself a feminist seemed a bit passé in that era of bling and booty. Women’s concerns were more material, judging by the media space accorded to ‘It Bags’ and Botox. TV schedules bulged with celebrity chefs and programmes devoted to lavish home improvement. Not that I ever watched them. I was occupied with babies, studying and trying to hold onto whatever work I could get. Without the designer buggies and infant monitors suddenly deemed essential items in the business of modern motherhood. Somehow I never joined the cult of ‘yummy mummy’. Mental note to my less-than-dutiful daughters… don’t be duped by Gwyneth Paltrow’s gooped-up version of maternity!

Times, though, are a-changin’ and feminism is enjoying quite a comeback. During an economic melt-down. Well, perhaps that’s more than mere coincidence. Women are realising that there is such thing as society and that it’s rife with injustice and inequality. But is this latest wave of feminism as radical or as significant as its predecessors? Can it bring real reform, like the Suffragettes or the women’s movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s? Or is it just successful, still mostly ‘Western’, women striving to out-perform their male counterparts? To have as much stuff, dosh, sex, prestige… as the guys of the upper echelons. What has it got to offer the wider sisterhood? Those of us who may not be in a position to ‘lean in’ as Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, recommends.

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And dare I say the c-word? Yes, let’s talk about children. Do feminists skirt too lightly around the delivery suite? After three painful visits, I’ll admit it’s not the prettiest of places. But childbirth is an experience that, at some point in our lives, most women share. It has a massive impact on our identities. Shaping new roles we assume… and boxes into which we’re often shoved. Motherhood is a very complex construct. And it’s one with which feminism must constantly engage. The challenges faced, for instance, by the frazzled mum who’s juggling job and child-rearing or the pregnant teenager trying to cope on social welfare are familiar. But does that mean they’ve ever been addressed? Even the aspiring graduate is likely to find her options slashed if a ‘Clearblue’ pee-stick turns positive before she’s established her career path. Qualifications quickly devalue when the stork arrives in your biological prime. Instead, childcare serves as the litmus test of a mother’s employability. Whenever it’s too expensive or difficult to schedule around working hours, kids become a distinct liability. This Catch-22 scenario is typical of recessionary Ireland. Personally, I’m au fait with its bitter reality.

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So where’s the feminist clamour for a pro-women work-life balance? Beyond occasional voices that tend to fade too fast. In Ireland’s recent abortion debate, a question rarely heard was ‘why do women not want children?’ It’s no longer about the risk of stigma within a quasi-theocracy. Frequently, it’s that another ‘hungry mouth’ could push a family into poverty or that, in the work-sphere, an unplanned baby-bump equates to professional suicide. Such reasons call for reflection on the social structures behind them. How much ‘choice’ do women really have in a chauvinistic world? How woman-friendly are even the most ‘developed’ of nations?

And what about the larger part of the planet, countries in which women’s role in society is critically defined by reproduction? Where this can be a death sentence – every day, according to the WHO, 800 women die of preventable causes during pregnancy and childbirth, with 99% of these fatalities in developing countries. Places where women labour under harsh conditions simply to feed their children… sometimes at the expense of their own lives. The majority of the victims of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh were female. What does feminism have to say about women slaving in dangerous sweat-shops to make clothes for their Western sisters? About girls deprived of schooling, married off at an early age? The tragedy of the child-bride who died last week in Yemen, highlighted the horrors of a practice often associated with dowry customs and their consequences for poor families. Young Malala Yousafzai, who defied the bullets of misogynistic extremists and who continues her fight for girls’ right to education, sets us an extraordinary example. We feminists from affluent states have a lot to learn.

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Surely these are issues more important than the ‘politics’ of body hair – a popular theme in current feminist argument. Or women’s need for porn, despite Germaine Greer’s description of it as a ‘huge wart’ that’s inherently anti-feminist. I’m not denying there are different pressures on girls growing up in Ireland to those felt by their peers in Pakistan. And on the subject of pornography, its internet ubiquity is something that scares me stiff – especially as my daughters reach adolescence. It’s a frightening thought that teenagers now have a cyber-skewed concept of what constitutes a relationship. Feminists rightly condemn this sinister influence which exposes girls to new forms of abuse. Yet they’re more ambivalent about ‘erotic’ novels, featuring female characters in archaic roles of submission, when these are written and gobbled up by middle-aged, middle-class women. Double standards?

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I recently read a collection of essays called ‘Fifty Shades of Feminism’, its title subverting that of the bestselling ‘raunchy’ trilogy. The volume compiled the views of fifty women – many with a background in either the arts or journalism. Its purpose was to look at ‘what being a woman means to them and to those around them today’. I found some of its entries rather self-pleasuring. Orgasmic paeans to feminism, albeit slightly more nuanced than Caitlin Moran’s riff on how to be a person with a vagina.

Other contributions were, however, powerful. Sayantani DasGupta probed how Western narratives on gender oppression can often ‘reinforce racist/imperialist assumptions’ by portraying it as being ‘worse’ in non-Western countries. International coverage of gang-rape and murder in India can indeed mask attention from grim statistics much closer to home. In the UK and Ireland rape convictions are in the abysmal region of 6 to 7% and British figures indicate that 90% of cases go unreported. At the same time, rape as a weapon of war – now widespread in Syria – attracts little media interest. So who decides which woman’s story needs to be told… and why? As feminists, we have to ask ourselves if we’re guilty of issue selectivity. Do we just jump on certain bandwagons?

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Even in relation to less serious matters, does feminism represent all the shades along its spectrum? Where, for example, is the Irish campaign for greater parental equality? When surveys on the topic repeatedly confirm that mothers in Ireland do the lion’s share of housework and raising children. From the outset of our marriage, my husband and I have divided domestic chores. Initially this came as shock to a guy from the Balkans, but he managed to get the hang of it. After our kids were born, though, I had to adjust my life to function as ‘always-on’ parent while he continued with his, relatively unaffected. This paradigm – reliant on the multi-tasking superwoman – is perpetuated by the state’s lip service to paternity. Ireland lacks an equitable system which grants adequate leave to both mothers and fathers, as is the norm in Scandinavian countries. And, socially, we’re still a long way from ‘fifty-fifty’ parenting.

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So my message to my girls is… hold off on the children! Freeze your eggs and wait until there’s genuine liberation. Or you’re earning a salary sufficient to pay other women to look after your offspring – such are the (male-devised) principles of supply and demand. Don’t be deceived into thinking the world’s your oyster. It can shut on you clam-tight with the burgeoning pearl of an embryo. For feminists, this mother of all battles is yet to be won. Be careful then, my dears. Don’t fall in love too soon. And never, when you’re twenty-one, let your heart be charmed by a Bosnian!

My daughters just roll their eyes. They’ve heard this kind of spiel a trillion times. Headstrong like their father and as rebellious as their mother, it’s most unlikely they’ll listen. Though, at least, I’m sure of one thing – they’ll belong to the next generation of feminists.

Read more…

Fifty Shades of Feminism – Edited by Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach, Virago 2013