Reflections – Sarajevo to Cavtat

I’m not much of a photographer. I lack the skill and patience to capture telling moments in an artful way. Phone-snapping is no substitute. I simply prefer to remember and, if time permits, scribble some notes afterwards. Most of the detail is lost. But the feelings sparked by these memories – whether written or unrecorded – retain their colour. And Bosnia and Croatia are very vivid places. A few fragments from the summer…

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Bajram
We arrived at the end of Ramadan. Despite the heatwave and the fasting, Sarajevo throbbed with joyous energy. After sundown, fairy lights twinkled across the main street. Folk dancers performed their kolo in Baščaršija. The bakeries sold fresh somun and the char-grilled air was balmy.

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Bajram, as Eid is known here, fell on a Friday. For the kids, in particular, it was a memorable experience. Apart from our eldest, who’d lived in Sarajevo when she was a baby, this was the first time they’d been in Bosnia for the festival. They were happy to get involved in the family celebrations. As far as they were concerned, the occasion meant dressing nicely, eating plenty and receiving gifts. Across the world, irrespective of cultural background, the protocol for feast-days seems pretty similar. Although, I have to admit, the gathering of clans they often entail freaks me out a bit. Even in Ireland I’ve always recoiled from what’s considered a ‘traditional Christmas’. Bajram with my in-laws is along those, rather hierarchical, lines.

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Or perhaps it’s just me – the vegetarian foreign feminist who’s been bringing strange ideas to Sarajevo since 1996. An outsider, she makes weird observations. Like noticing how the men do all the sitting while the women serve the food. Or questioning, albeit furtively, who ‘entertains’ the children. Listening to the differences between ‘male’ and ‘female’ topics of conversation… lamenting, under her breath, those poor calves whose destiny is teletina.

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Maybe she’s hyper-sensitive, maybe she over-interprets. This is purely a personal, filtered snapshot. Still, from talking to Bosnian women, it’s clear they face many challenges relating to gendered expectations. These issues are by no means exclusive to Bosnia. They’re globally relevant. Rigid concepts of culture and strict social institutions breed injustice. Women and men must, together, create fairer alternatives.

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Above the city
Temperatures are in the high thirties. The tinderbox motif is more than mere historical cliché. Wildfires have broken out in Herzegovina. Sarajevo is a hothouse. We hit the hills. Jahorina. Walking along the mountain track, there’s no shelter from the sun. Shadowy valleys simmer under a diaphanous veil of haze. Insect-buzz – bumble bees, wasps, hoverflies, green bottles. Flitting among a riot of flowers, butterflies… speckled, white, brimstone and meadow brown. Nervous grasshoppers spring from our tread as we step off the path. A stunted fir tree offers minimal shade. Beside it, a lonely rose.

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The woodland way is cooler. We go as far as the wishing well. Under the creaking cables of the ski-lift which – to the kids’ delight and my dismay – seems to be functioning.

‘Can we? Please!’

Overhead, pulleys strain.

‘Are you totally insane?’

The children don’t give up. Soon I’m outnumbered, four to one. Even their father, who usually claims he suffers from vertigo, joins their campaign. He wants to relive his youth.

‘There was loads of snow when you went on it. At least that’d break your fall…’

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The scree slope looks merciless. But no-one heeds my muttering. The ‘safety bar’ descends. The gondola rises. Swaying… The distribution of our weight is skewed. What genius came up with these seating arrangements? The younger two are screaming with excitement. The little one is skinny enough to slide out underneath the transparent hood. Cold feet swing in the breeze. Each time we pass the supporting poles the whole contraption rumbles.

‘This is a horror movie!’

Ovo je super!

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At the top, the scenery is phenomenal. But there’s only one thing scarier than going up. It’s the downward lurch. This where the allegedly ‘responsible’ parent resorts to expletives and prayer… So much for Zdravo Marijo – the last line is too ominous, ‘at hour of our death’ etc.. Not appropriate. Better to stick to daily bread and temptation – hoping that we might survive to get some.

‘OH SHIT!’

My offspring snigger at maternal meltdown as the gradient steepens. And this is the radio edit of our tale. To be honest, I’d enjoy the ride if I didn’t have to hang on to the youngest. By sheer miracle, we make it back alive.

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Mount Igman a few days later. Malo Polje – the venue for the ski jump competition in the Winter Olympics of 1984. The commentary box now looks upon an overgrown piste, rusting equipment, a small playground. The sports reporters have long gone. Sadly, they missed my gymnastic debut on a trampoline for kids. A picnic on the fringes of newly cut pasture. The fragrance of haystacks wafts into the forest. Birdsong blends with the rasping of grey-backed crows. The clearing echoes, it prompts reminiscences. The middle child decides that having two parents from troubled places is ‘so awesome’. Or so messed up. These are mountains of dry thunder and grim memories – warring peaks. Still beautiful… still scarred. The mind wanders through the uplands.

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Cavtat
I first swam in the Adriatic with kids displaced by the conflict in the Balkans. Coming from Ireland, it was a thrill to be submerged without the risk of hypothermia. Returning over the years to the Dalmatian coast, I mastered a frog-like version of the breaststroke. Neither athletic nor elegant, but it lets me glide with my head above the surface. A retired couple chat in deeper water, talking about how glorious it is here. How peaceful… ‘nema galame’. The sea absorbs thoughts. Its warmth soothes.

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The children become amphibious. The older two plunge to the seabed. The youngest learns to swim without armbands. Ecstatic, she splashes unaided, stays afloat. Swimming into the sunset until the burnished swell slowly turns to twilight. Climbing rocks into the stars, the trail of a blue moon tapers, shimmering, towards the shore. On the last day, the seascape is four-dimensional. The glittering panorama of the bay gives perspective. Cloudless heights flow into fluid depths. Two decades of hopes and promises are refracted. Tears drown in salty slap-kisses of waves.

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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/

 

On a twelfth birthday at Christmas

Christmas birthdays add extra sparkle to the annual festivities… and a lot more hassle. My second daughter is one of those blessed or cursed to have been born in this crazy season. Twelve years ago, on 12 December, she tumbled wiry and wailing into the world. A Thursday’s child, the line from the rhyme saying ‘far to go’ was inscribed in her cheeky look. A tad superstitious, I was relieved she’d been induced on her due date, rather than letting Nature prolong the torment of labour until Friday the thirteenth. Somehow, though, I don’t think she’d have waited. Full of energy from the start, she began to make an impression by exercising her lungs. Sleep was pretty low on her agenda. Aching and light-headed, having been awake over twenty-four hours, I could’ve done with a bit of rest. Instead, I spent the night after her arrival waltzing her around the post-natal ward. Five babies snoozed peacefully in between their feeds. One did not.

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And that’s been the story since… Maybe it’s the infamous ‘middle child syndrome’. With an older and, four years later, a younger sister, Number Two has learned to assert herself. Although that’s no problem to someone so adept at stealing the limelight! Her first Christmas set the tone. Youthful and idealistic, I was determined that everything would be calm and bright. In hindsight, I was way too high on adrenalin. Trying to write assignments for my Masters, decorating the tree, squeezing back into trim skirts (thanks the miracle of the Japanese Velcro corset) and even planning the perfect Christmas dinner! My colicky new-born did her utmost to sabotage the big day. The meal was over-cooked and a veritable disaster. The baby howled through it. Her elder sister, then aged two, fell asleep. Tough turkey was served with a sauce of tears and exhaustion. But we survived.

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Slowly that weary winter melted into spring. My diva cut teeth early and ran before she walked. Soon, she was crowned the queen of tantrums. A title she still holds! My husband claims it’s because she was ‘made in Sarajevo’. I was pregnant with her when we returned to Ireland. Perhaps the upheaval of moving had some effect… or the DNA of her volatile parents. Whatever influences might’ve shaped her personality, she’s quite a conundrum. Fearless yet deep-feeling, sociable but occasionally shy. A speed-devil on bikes and scooters, she picks herself up quickly when she ends up over the handlebars. Sensitive, enthusiastic, loving, madcap, artistic… And now the candles glow twelve on her birthday cake. Nearly a teenager!

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It’s scary, the too-fast passage of years, the future that lies ahead of her. She’s growing up into the maze of modern womanhood. One minute dancing to Taylor Swift, the next she’s curled beside me like my Christmas child of 2002. Then I realise how lucky I am to have her and her sisters. Even as a flawed, unorthodox kind of mother who freaks at the stereotypes still associated with that role. At least, though, dirty nappies and puke-stains are things of the past. These days, life’s more about slamming doors, jokes and neon nail-polish, rows and times of the month and, when needed, simply being a cry-on shoulder. As, one by one, each of my daughters discovers it ain’t always easy to be a girl.

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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.

A year of Bosnian-Irish coffee

A birthday post from my little niche in the blogosphere! It’s a year since the start of ‘Bosnian-Irish coffee’ and I’d just like to thank everyone who has visited this site and shared its content over the last twelve months. I really appreciate your thoughts and feedback and hope that, among my mixture of topics and styles, you’ve found something to your taste.

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Birthday coffee – Rođendanska kahva/kava/kafa!

After a few weeks in the Balkans, I’m milling new ideas and trying to squeeze in time to jot them down. It’s a gradual process – like making Bosnian coffee! But the inspiration, the nuances, the unsettling feelings and the wonder which always strike me when travelling to Sarajevo and beyond will hopefully seep into my future writing.

Through a summer rife with conflict, many of the lessons that Bosnia teaches are, sadly, all too relevant. Human rights, respect, peace – they seem such hollow concepts when children are murdered. Yet, on a personal level, being part of a Bosnian-Irish family is a reminder that intercultural understanding is still worth striving for in today’s torn world. And that’s one of the things I’ll do my best to express. Meanwhile, for the blog’s first anniversary, here are some images that say much more than I can…

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Welcome to Bosnia-Herzegovina! A ‘stećak’ – medieval tombstone – at the necropolis of Radimlja, near Mostar

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Vijećnica, the former city hall and national library, restored after destruction in the siege of Sarajevo

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The Latin Bridge where Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie – an act that led to WWI

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The memorial centre and cemetery for the victims of the Srebrenica genocide at Potočari

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Message of solidarity with those under attack in Gaza on a bridge in Sarajevo

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Many parts of Bosnia, like the town of Zavidovići, are still struggling after severe floods in May – heavy rain has brought further flooding to some areas

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Vječna Vatra – the Eternal Flame, Sarajevo… where the wild things are!

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My lovely horse – dreaming on in Vrelo Bosne…

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For peace comes dropping slow… sunset over the Adriatic Sea, Cavtat, Croatia

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And the sun also rises – early morning, Cavtat

Thank you for your interest in my blog and please drop in anytime for a read… for updates on new posts etc., follow @BiHIrishcoffee on Twitter!

Hvala za vaš interes za moj blog i molim vas posjetite ponovo ovu stranicu… za nove članke itd., pratite me na Twitteru @BiHIrishcoffee!

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

 

‘Where the earth was soft for flowers’

There was warmth in the air – one of those rare April days in Ireland. The primrose-sprinkled verges were crowned with golden whin blossom, alive with birdsong. It felt like spring had resurrected Nature. A perfect afternoon to take photos. I’ve never had much patience with a camera, but my fourteen-year-old daughter wanted a few snapshots for her school project. She and her classmates had been given a history assignment to occupy them over the Easter break. The students could choose their own topics on condition that these had some ‘local’ relevance. Being a bit footloose in our area, my daughter found herself stuck for inspiration. Her Bosnian dad’s idea of the First World War as a possible theme was initially met with interest… then teenage scorn. While she was aware of WWI’s significance from her summers in Sarajevo, wasn’t the link to our locality rather tenuous? Or was this due to Ireland’s selective amnesia?

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An online search and a visit to the town library suggested the latter. A local historian had documented recruits from our county who had fought, across Europe and beyond, between 1914 and 1918. Many were killed in action in France and Belgium. Lads from along the coast, who’d joined the navy or who’d served as mercantile marines, perished in German torpedo attacks. Others faced death at Gallipoli. Or they succumbed to disease – pneumonia and, in one case, ‘malaria in Greek Macedonia’. Most were in their twenties, some in their late teens. Those who made it back to Ireland returned to a different country. Irish Volunteers who’d enlisted in the British army, in pursuit of Home Rule or adventure or just to escape poverty, didn’t get much of a welcome in a nation that, by then, was striving for independence. As their stories show, the experiences of the demobilised were often hushed up – the trauma they’d endured became their own dark secret. In keeping, perhaps, with a culture in which men didn’t talk about psychological problems. But, in the Ireland of that time, it was also politically prudent. Remembrance was something of a taboo. Still, there were reminders – graves and plaques etched in memory of the fallen.

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In the village down the road from us, a stone cross stands at the junction of the short-cut to the motorway. At a glance, it looks last century but its Celtic style harks back to an illustrious era of Irish ‘saints and scholars’. Although I pass it regularly, I’d never known that this monument is inscribed with the names of locals who were slain in the circumspectly entitled ‘Great International War’. Guarded terms were typically used for conflicts involving Ireland’s nearest neighbour. Gaelicised sculpture was a means of repatriating home-grown warriors whose imperial service, at a time of insurrection, left them in history’s limbo. Irish tradition is more associated with commemorating rebels. But the complexity of any attempt at national recollection is emerging. It’s almost one hundred years since the ‘Easter Rising’ – an event which came to define modern Ireland. And already there’s debate as to how it’ll be portrayed, revised, and ultimately branded, in advance of the centennial shindig in 2016.

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This anniversary will, no doubt, provoke controversy. During our president’s recent state visit to Britain, it was confirmed that a ‘senior member’ of the English monarchy will be invited to attend celebrations in honour of those who proclaimed an Irish republic, from the GPO in Dublin, on Easter Monday, 1916. The queen’s forebears would’ve likely disapproved and some revolutionary ghosts mightn’t be too impressed, but things have changed. ‘Changed utterly’… to recycle Yeats’ oft-repeated words. Aside from the pomp and media hype, the deepening royal and presidential rapport marks another step towards Anglo-Irish reconciliation. But achieving peace has proven an arduous process. And there have been brutal decades in between.

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Not only in Ireland. The incident deemed to have started the First World War – the assassination of the Habsburg archduke, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Sophie – took place in Sarajevo. Through the subsequent century, that city has been dealt an unfair share of suffering. Although intrigue still surrounds the teenager, Gavrilo Princip, who secured an infamous spot in history on 28 June 1914. Was he a terrorist or a nationalist, an idealist or a just a hapless misfit? His posthumous labels have blurred. Like those ascribed to the Irish soldiers caught up in the ensuing carnage. Fusiliers such as Francis Ledwidge – the poet who, in Heaney’s tribute, struggled with a torn identity ‘from Boyne water to the Balkans’ before he was blown apart, in Ypres, in 1917. Traitors, heroes, suckers for propaganda… or were they mostly young guys who had few other chances? And those who’ve ‘died for Ireland’ – or anywhere else – in the years since then? Should they be viewed as freedom fighters or fiends? It always seems a question of perspective.

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Whatever the ‘cause’ of conflict, youth gets conned or is conscripted into it. Young people are ruined in the resulting violence. But their lives are seldom remembered in jingoistic tales. Syria’s children are the forgotten ones of this millennium. There are no cenotaphs to these unknown juveniles. Only the heartbreak of families plunged into a human-created hell. Senseless… Or does it follow some evil logic? History tells us that war’s puppeteers are those who tend to gain from it. And, irrespective of its outcome, they can be tenacious – clinging to power, even chuckling with their former enemies. Often that’s how truces are agreed and treaties signed. The past, though, teaches more than this. It urges us to listen to the survivors. To those who defied the hate-stirrers, those who resisted oppression. To support all who take risks for justice today – the unsung history-makers of the world.

The title of this piece is taken from ‘A Soldier’s Grave’ by Francis Ledwidge.

For more poems and information please see the website of the Francis Ledwidge Museum: http://www.francisledwidge.com/

See also: ‘In Memoriam Francis Ledwidge’ by Seamus Heaney: http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/in-memoriam-francis-ledwidge/

 ‘Easter, 1916’  by W. B. Yeats: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/learning/guide/247616#poem

‘The Unreturned Army: County Louth Dead in the Great War 1914-1918’ by Donal Hall, County Louth Archaeological and Historical Society, 2005.

Luck (?) o’ the Irish!

Green… It was everywhere. On coats and caps, on grannies’ headscarves, on kids dressed top to toe in it. Irish flags were aflutter in a stiff east wind. There were dancers jigging along to pipe bands and accordions playing the length of O’Connell Street. A troupe of Yankee majorettes in skimpy skirts raised goose pimples (and eyebrows, no doubt) among even the hardiest of anorak wearers. Sleet fell on these baton-twirlers of the diaspora, the parade’s barest nod to multiculturalism. But new faces were already visible in the Ireland of ‘95 and soon they’d be swept up in this homage to St. Patrick.

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Within a few years, 17 March would feel more like Mardi Gras. Papier-mâché giants would saunter into Dublin to a samba beat. Though back when the Celtic kitty was just a tiger-striped cub, things were still traditional. I can’t remember if there was a formal salute as the nation’s military hardware trundled past the GPO, reminiscent of Red Army surplus. Or if the reservists of the FCA primed their shovels, ready to save Ireland from Klingon attack. But then, I wasn’t paying too much notice. My unpatriotic aim was to circumnavigate the entire show. Instead of simply nipping over the bridge to Aston Quay, I had to go straight ahead until I’d bypassed the spectacle. Pushing through the throngs, I cursed the fifth-century bishop who’d forced this detour. Finally, I was able to cross at the junction of South Great George’s Street, jostle my way down College Green and make it to the Liffey… to the bus stop.

By this time, the crowd was beginning to disperse – drifting off to ‘drown the shamrock’ or heading home with herds of noisy children. The 78A to Ballyfermot was full of face-painted kids licking their tricolour lollipops and sticks of what the Americans call ‘candy cane’ – prosaically known as ‘rock’ on this side of the Atlantic. The stuff of dental ruin, but the boys and girls didn’t seem to care. Buzzing with sugar and the day’s excitement, they laughed and yelled and fought with smaller siblings. Tired mothers roared at them to sit down as the bus juddered to a halt. I swayed to the front, as giddy as the hyperactive lads who were swinging from the handrails. The doors inched open. I leapt out.

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Reason tried to tell me to ‘cop on’. Officially I was going for a lesson… in one of Europe’s newly defined languages. (Spoiler alert/warning: women thinking of embarking on obscure linguistic pursuits, please choose a female teacher if you can!) My mentor was disarming but I was determined to learn Bosnian. And I’d been a diligent student, doing all my homework. Although, unbeknownst to me, it transpired that the assignment I’d been set was designed to test much more than my command of the present tense.

Unaware of this breach of pedagogical ethics, I almost ran to the entrance of the reception centre. Then, innocently (OK… maybe enthusiastically), I let my native-speaking tutor lead me to his room. We started the session with me reading aloud a composition I’d written on the title he’d prescribed: ‘My ordinary day’. It wasn’t world-class literature and my vocabulary was rudimentary, but I felt I’d made a fair stab at the task. Whatever its grammatical mistakes, it impressed the listener. From trivial details about getting up in the morning and going to college to the lines referring to my group of friends, my self-appointed expert in semiotics was riveted by every word. Apparently, his approval stemmed less from my actual effort than from one telling omission. The outstanding feature of my account was the absence of any mention of a ‘meaningful’ other. And that signified…

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OK, let’s just call it a green light. There’s an awful lot of subtext između redova which guys from Sarajevo can easily detect. As I discovered… to my delight! The hypothesis which had freaked me, following our previous classes, was proving correct. It explained the mirth with which I’d skipped through the inner city at midnight, on the way back to my flat. Such risky behaviour couldn’t have been inspired by my out-dated textbook, ‘Colloquial Serbo-Croat’. Now, it seemed due to something other than insanity. My affliction was indeed a different sort of disorder. Though not one to which I thought I’d ever succumb.  Men were a waste of time… weren’t they? Yet why had I kept that photo of us – taken a few days after our first encounter at a protest for Bosnia – tucked inside the cover of my student diary?

Of course, he didn’t know that until… The narrow room illuminated. Sunshine struck through squalls, invaded what had been a sanatorium. It masked the urban decay across Cherry Orchard and, for an instant, the name of the area sounded less incongruous. Rainbows stretched between the showers of hail. And, while there was no sign of leprechaun-hidden crocks of gold at the ends of them, our fates decreed we’d find much dearer treasure.

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Nineteen years have passed and the spectrum of life since has been psychedelic. Our trajectory more roller coaster than arc-en-ciel, we’ve hurtled from exhilarating heights to darkest nadirs. Three ‘little people’ have joined the ride and grown, scarily fast, along the way. Though not yet fourteen, our eldest is already taller than me. Bless her Bosnian genes but, standing beside her, I’m craving stilettos. Just one of the twists on this journey from when Doc Martens were footwear du jour. Et de la nuit…

The evening we made our debut as couple, my style was steel-tipped boots and a woollen patchwork creation crocheted in a palette of shades… including emerald. A perfect garb for Ireland’s feast day. And where better to flaunt it than at a ‘cultural event’ organised to give uninitiated Bosnians an insight into Irish festive rituals – a night of line dancing in the Garda Boat Club. The turbo-country music would’ve driven the druids of yore to sheer despair! To salvage my reputation as a person of any taste, I’ll have to stress that neither I nor my escort partook in this ‘entertainment’. Both of us being left-footed and well… otherwise occupied. Luckily, the frogmen of the elite sub-aqua unit were off-duty so ‘crimes’ of passion went unpoliced. An unlikely setting for a first date but, corny shenanigans aside, Patrick triumphed as our patron of romance.

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Our only surviving picture from 17/3/95… clearly pre-Photoshop!

However, no saintly powers could help me with my bosanski. Once my instructor and I became ‘an item’, our lessons quickly slipped from his schedule… like they’d been nothing more than a ruse for seduction. The double entendre in jezik (language/tongue) was a joke translated with relish by his witty friends. Unfortunately, I’d soon realise that, despite his numerous skills, Don Juan has always lacked an essential quality for good teaching – namely, patience. As a result, my subsequent learning has been largely ad hoc. Still, there’s one phrase I know I acquired on 17 March 1995. Two simple words that have seen the pair of us through our many crises… They mean as much to me now as they did when I first heard them. Even if it sometimes hurts to admit their truth, even if we’re hopeless versions of those younger selves who told each other on a cold St. Patrick’s Day… ‘Volim te’.

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Sretan Dan Svetog Patrika!

To the place I love

It started on my birthday. I’d just turned eleven and, on 8 February 1984, I was probably more interested in presents and cake than in the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics. Within a few days though, Sarajevo was on the family map and we were glued to the bobsleigh, the slalom and, best of all, the ice dancing. Despite sporting prejudices ingrained at an early age along the recalcitrant border of Northern Ireland, we were captivated by two English skaters. Torvill and Dean were magical. Their rather risqué take on Ravel’s Boléro mesmerised audiences – live in Zetra Hall and across the planet. It even reached a houseful of kids watching in Technicolor (our geriatric black-and-white TV had finally been replaced) in the wilds of South Armagh.

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We hadn’t a clue about what might constitute artistic impression but, for one rare occasion, we hoped the Brits would win! Willing the purple-clad pair of them on, we awarded them 6.0 scores from the instant the rink swelled with music until the tumbling climax. The judges endorsed our opinion. The BBC commentators almost exploded with patriotic pride – grating to Irish ears but, in retrospect, understandable. Boléro wasn’t your average chart hit but it featured on Top of the Pops. While, like many’s the schoolgirl, I had a crush on Christopher Dean. It didn’t last too long though. And, ten years later, I’d realise he’d never been my type. But Sarajevo lingered in my memories. Yet little did I know that a teenager who was then helping out with the biathlon would become my partner through the lutzes and twizzles of life.

After only another two Olympiads, the spectators of the world gazed again at Sarajevo. Astounded… but this time not by skating expertise. Instead, viewers were shocked at the horror wreaked on the city by those determined to destroy it. For three and a half years, humanity’s suffering was synecdoche, Sarajevo. But, through the longest siege of modern military history, Bosnia’s capital didn’t surrender. Even when 68 of its citizens were killed in a brutal attack on its central marketplace on 5 February 1994. Despite the dithering of the international community, which added further fuel to the war. The deal that eventually halted this bloody conflict was hammered out in Dayton, Ohio, in November 1995. It was met, initially at least, with relief among Bosnian people. For my ex-Olympic-volunteer and I, it meant tears and kisses. The war was over, that was all that mattered.

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However, the structures created by this agreement were never uncontroversial and these have since hampered Bosnia’s peace-time progress. Tensions between the country’s two Dayton-drawn entities (the ‘Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina’ and ‘Republika Srpska’), lack of co-ordination among the cantons of the Federation, reams of bureaucracy and ubiqutious corruption have brewed dysfunction. Though this seems to be to politicians’ tastes… It ensures that the ‘ethnic card’ can be played to secure election and block essential parliamentary business. From the perspective of citizens, as oft reiterated by family and friends, politics in Bosnia is an expensive farce. Its chief posts rotate within an elite all-boys’ club, which likes to engage in well-paid games of (six or seven) musical chairs.

Meanwhile Bosnia is stuck in a political and economic quagmire. The government, irrespective of which parties are in power, is chronically unwilling to agree on legislation. Even when this relates to fundamental matters such as the issuing of identity numbers to new-borns. The impact of this quarrel on children’s health was a catalyst for demonstrations in Sarajevo and other Bosnian cities in June 2013. For a month, the peaceful and multi-ethnic protests of this ‘Babylution’ raised hopes. Though, within weeks, momentum dwindled. Was it because of politicisation, or that a souped-up version of the necessary law was drafted, or did those involved simply run out of steam? Analysts can ruminate over the reasons. But prolonged demonstrations are difficult to sustain and, considering the financial pressures and the risk of intimidation faced by people in Bosnia, it wasn’t surprising that this movement for change fizzled into coffee and ‘šta ćeš’… back to paralysis.

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Still, although last summer’s events wrought few ‘achievements’, they were a baby-step in a positive direction. Bringing thousands of people together for a common cause set an important precedent. Protests are nothing new to Bosnia – over recent years, groups of farmers, redundant employees, war invalids and others have held demonstrations and camped outside public institutions calling for their rights to be respected. They’ve never got much hearing from the powerful. The protests in June were, at least, more prominent. And, since then, dissatisfaction has only grown. On Wednesday, 5 February, it flared up again in the industrial city of Tuzla, when workers who’d lost their jobs due to the privatisation of state-run companies, took their grievances to the local authorities. A heavy-handed police response stoked citizens’ ire. By Thursday, larger protests had spread to Sarajevo and beyond. The next day there were demonstrations in most major cities – mainly in the Federation entity but a gathering in Banja Luka, the administrative centre of Republika Sprska sent a message of solidarity across the boundaries of ‘ethnicity’.

But now there were no cute babies with symbolic soothers smiling at the cameras. Instead the protests on Friday were charged with a Swiftian sense of ‘savage indignation’. Confronted by riot-ready police, some participants turned to violence. Government buildings and the premises of political parties were burned in Sarajevo, Tuzla and Mostar. Part of the National Archive was housed in a gutted section of the Presidency in Sarajevo and, though the damage to records is still being assessed, documents of historical value may have been reduced to ash. Stories of this apparent loss aroused the concern of the international media. Threats to cultural treasures, from Timbuktu to Damascus, tend to garner such laments while human strife is often less bemoaned. Nevertheless, scenes of Bosnia ablaze, broadcast on the main Irish news (all 20 seconds of coverage) revived old nightmares.

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Graffiti, government building, Tuzla: Stop nationalism, stop the national division of the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), united BiH

Naturally, political leaders in Bosnia seized on these acts of arson as a convenient means of undermining the protests – condemning those responsible as ‘hooligans’ and worse. But what outsider can judge the disenfranchised youth of a post-war generation whose future has been eroded by a self-serving ruling class? While last Friday’s rioting was regrettable, it can’t diminish the huge social injustice behind this latest, and predominantly non-violent, wave of discontent. Nor should it divert attention from the thuggery of politicians who crowds across Bosnia openly label ‘thieves’.

Subsequent daily demonstrations have been peaceful. Citizens in several cities have organised public meetings and compiled demands addressed to their political representatives. Some officials have resigned – although it remains to be seen whether this will lead to genuine reform. Nationalistic rumbles could splinter the fragile unity evident in these popular manifestations. Disillusionment and the practical strain of maintaining what might be a fruitless effort could stifle the protests. As a foreigner, it’s not for me to speculate. Yet the reports emanating from Bosnia, even the sketchy accounts in the Western press, can’t be ignored by anyone with a connection to that country.

Protest poster: We are hungry in three languages (Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian)

On the internet, I’ve been looking at people thronging through Sarajevo, reading placards which express what voices there have said for years. Views we heard and shared when we lived in the city over a decade ago, declared on streets I know well. Streets I walked down to the school where I worked as an English teacher or pushing my eldest daughter in her buggy to see her grandparents. She’s probably the only Bosnian-Irish kid who’s ever made a snow-dog in the grounds of the cantonal buildings… without a permit. Just as, now, I’ve got scarce licence to toss my tuppence worth into the blizzard of comment on current developments that’s been blowing in from afar. All I’ll say is the austerity we’re still struggling with in Ireland bears no comparison to the hardship endured by so many in Bosnia.

This is a short and bitter month. But, maybe because I was born in it, I find it a kind of watershed. A time when snowdrops and crocuses battle into bloom, the beginning of the ancient Celtic spring… A season of change – as a metaphor it’s being married by hashtag to ‘Bosnian’. History will decide if this link is premature. Its annals for Bosnia already attach significance to February: from Sarajevo’s agony of twenty years past, to Olympian moments which still rank among that city’s finest. Torvill and Dean returned there this week for an anniversary performance in a stadium rebuilt after its destruction in the war. World focus has done a strange figure of eight as Sarajevo reclaims a brief spot in the news. Now the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina deserve to emerge as winners. Though the ice they skate on is thin and the results are far from certain. Like on Valentine’s Day in 1984, I’m here in distant Ireland, watching Sarajevo. Half hopeful and yet anxious… Wishing something good may come out of what’s happening in Bosnia, the country of my beloved.

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The second of my three daughters decided to make her own poster – an eleven-year-old’s message!

This post was published in Balkanist magazine on 16 February 2014, please see: http://www.balkanist.net/to-the-place-i-love/

It also appeared in Bosnian weekly Novo Vrijeme on 28 February 2014