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: 
 

‘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.

When Ireland met Bosnia…

It’s not every day that starts with a text from a friend saying: ‘the minister wants to know if we can meet him’. Or words to that effect… I had to read the message a couple of times to believe it was indeed an invitation! So how, in the name of whoever-you-fancy, did three plebs end up in Government Buildings on Tuesday 28 January? Well, it transpired that the Irish Minister for European Affairs, Paschal Donohoe, had scheduled an official visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina for the Thursday of that week. Before his departure, he was seeking some perspectives on the current situation there – hence his contact with us.

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This in itself was a small victory for activism. Over the last year, my husband and I have been in frequent correspondence with Minister Donohoe and other Irish politicians on themes relating to Bosnia. While our friend, who sent the text, has done so much lobbying, awareness raising and protesting in the rain for Bosnia since 1992 she deserves to have a street called after her in Sarajevo. And that’s not even to mention the hands-on support and understanding ear she’s offered Bosnians in Ireland. Or the fact that she’s been equally active on issues pertaining to Kosovo. Or that she now devotes almost every waking hour to the Syrian crisis…

Anyhow, the three of us met on a mizzly Merrion Street, a bit nervous but not over-awed by the occasion. Not until we got inside the palatial hub of Ireland’s administration. Being unused to the corridors of power, I must confess there were murmurs such as: ‘wow, the stained glass window!’ ‘ooh… nice soft carpets!’ and, directed at our Bosnian aficionado of national artwork, ‘nemoj dirati slike!’ However, as we waited for the minister, we were struck by stark reminders of Bosnia’s multitude of problems. Glancing at our phones, our Twitter feeds filled with reports from earlier that morning about the joint appearance of Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The latter’s refusal to co-operate with what he called a ‘satanic court’ highlighted the resistance of those indicted for war crimes to any concept of atonement. It showed how far the victims of atrocities are from justice – how far Bosnia and the wider Balkan region has yet to travel on the road towards genuine reconciliation. Reading these headlines was all the more chilling on the day after the annual commemoration of the Holocaust.

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The legacy of war still throttles Bosnia. In our discussion with Minister Donohoe, we illustrated aspects of its impact. Ranging from the country’s constitution (Annex 4 of the Dayton Peace Agreement of 1995), to the political structures this has created, to the attempts of certain leaders to destabilise the state by consolidating power bases within its separate entities – Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. We talked about how the consequent lack of normal functioning affects ordinary life. About a society in which politicians won’t agree on basic measures to protect human rights, never mind tackle the economic difficulties which have led to widespread unemployment and poverty. Instead, they seem more interested in institutionalising division, for example, by segregation in the education system. Discrimination and skewed versions of history aren’t confined to schools, they percolate through public affairs. Genocide denial by prominent officials in Republika Srpska continues to cause serious offence. The fate of over 100,000 people who remain internally displaced due to ‘ethnic cleansing’ is unresolved. Past trauma lingers in a country with almost 8000 missing persons and thousands more still suffering from the physical and psychological wounds of war. Meanwhile, although flashy new buildings can be seen in Sarajevo and other cities, Bosnia’s present condition is best described as one of stasis.

Inertia seems the default mode of its governing elite. Stagnation serves to benefit a top tier of politicians who are well remunerated for constant bickering. But the role of the international community, which has supervised an uneasy peace for over eighteen years, must also be queried. Can these privileged players offer the Bosnian people any hope for the future? Or will they allow Bosnia and Herzegovina to backslide as surrounding countries progress? During the last decade, several Balkan nations have already become part of the European Union. Admittedly, EU membership won’t cure the region’s ills. Nevertheless, it’s the sort of club that when one’s neighbours start to join, it’s prudent to try to keep up with the Joneses. Following the accession of Slovenia in 2004 and Croatia in 2013, European integration has emerged as a key policy goal across the states that once formed Yugoslavia. However, some are making a lot more headway than others. While Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo edge forward, Macedonia and, above all, Bosnia lag behind. Our meeting with Minister Donohoe focused, therefore, on the question: how can Ireland support Bosnia’s EU aspirations?

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The EU has many reasons, legitimate but possibly also convenient, to regard Bosnia and Herzegovina’s prospects as bleak. The country is yet to fulfil the criteria necessary for its Stabilisation and Association Agreement (signed in 2008 as an initial step towards membership) to come into force. The chief condition is the implementation of a judgement handed down in 2009 by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). This concerns the case of Sejdić and Finci – representatives of Bosnia’s Roma and Jewish communities respectively – in which the ECHR vindicated the right of minorities to full participation in Bosnian politics. It requires the removal of restrictions which ensure that positions in Bosnia’s three-person presidency and one of its two chambers of parliament (the ‘House of Peoples’) are limited to those who belong to the state’s ‘constituent peoples’ – namely and exclusively Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats. Four years have since passed, but Bosnia hasn’t adopted the ECHR’s ruling despite countless rounds of EU-brokered negotiations. Stalemate on this issue has caused the country’s EU accession process to stall indefinitely. This means that, while a clique of high-ranking politicians and international stakeholders engage in what appears to be an interminable circus, citizens face further isolation. And this case is only one of numerous sources of disagreement among political parties in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

More than other EU members, Ireland can empathise with the frustration felt by the majority of the Bosnian population. The failure of the Haass talks to reach consensus on sensitive topics in Northern Ireland is analogous in ways to the ‘Sejdić-Finci’ saga. Intransigence tends to win out over any will to compromise in post-conflict ‘democracies’. As we in Ireland know, ethnically oriented voting patterns often prevail in divided societies where fear is a crucial factor in electoral choices. And if votes are cast essentially on the basis of ethnicity, there’s little onus on politicians to consider people’s needs. Campaigns can succeed simply by ramping up tension. Plus the social clout of political figures in Bosnia facilitates corruption and heightens the risk of voter manipulation. Bosnia and Herzegovina thus presents a more complex scenario than most of the other EU candidate states. It demands thinking outside the clichéd box.

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Or so we tried to tell Minister Donohoe. I’m not sure how well we explained things… none of us are politicians! We just spoke from experience, from the heart, as articulately as we could. However, we were encouraged by the minister’s interest in Bosnia and how he viewed his visit as not merely a bureaucratic obligation. This was also apparent two days later, both in the lecture he gave at the School of Economics and Business of the University of Sarajevo and in media coverage of his high-level political engagements. His repeated expression of Ireland’s support for Bosnia was certainly to be welcomed. Although the Irish government must prove this fresh commitment by advocating innovative approaches and working, along with its EU partners and Bosnia, to find sustainable solutions. Expecting Bosnian leaders to be cajoled into bridging differences by a smidgen of Irish charm is a tad optimistic. Granted, outstanding obstacles – like the Sejdić-Finci impasse – provide the EU with a plethora of excuses for inaction. But the international community can no longer sit on the side-lines and let Bosnia languish. And Ireland should be more than the country’s occasional cheerleader. Given how much the Irish people, whatever their gripes, have gained from EU membership – a point Minister Donohoe stressed in Sarajevo – Ireland has a responsibility to use its European voice on behalf of another peripheral state with a similarly fraught history.

It’s worth remembering too that Ireland can attribute its EU status to the laxer entry requirements of times past. In 1973, Ireland and Britain were accepted as members of the EEC when both nations were embroiled in bitter conflict – their applications were approved during the bloodiest period of the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’. We could also ask whether Ireland’s penchant for corruption would’ve deemed it ineligible for EU integration if it’d been assessed in line with modern standards. And did new ‘European’ credentials suddenly eradicate the Irish culture of ‘brown envelopes’? Furthermore, would the ECHR rate Ireland’s record as impeccable, when it has taken the court’s intervention to force this country to address many fundamental issues? These range from the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993 (five years after an ECHR decision in favour of gay rights activist, Senator David Norris) to last week’s ruling that the Irish state was liable in a case of child abuse which occurred in a primary school in the 1970s. It appears that existing EU members are better at preaching than practicing the ‘values’ they insist budding candidates should share.

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Yet the EU is what qualifies politically as ‘Europe’. Not the ragged-edged continent with an eastern boundary running from the Urals to the Bosphorus. Sometimes – when it suits –geography welds the arbitrary crack between countries of the ‘Union’ and their cousins on the wild side of the European family. In a centenary year, for instance, when former imperial powers want to rhapsodise or analyse their involvement in a war which engulfed the world. A war triggered by an assassination in Sarajevo. Undoubtedly, many dignitaries will descend upon the city in the months ahead. It may host premiers, presidents… perhaps even a pope. The Vienna Philharmonic has confirmed a concert in June and – here I’m rumour-mongering – might U2 make a comeback? Surely Bono knows that Sarajevo is much more fun than Davos!

With or without the Irish band, the anniversary of the beginning of World War I is already being billed as an unmissable event. It seems the mighty prefer to mourn the dead of 100 years ago than to stop the slaughter in Syria today or respond to the fallout of war in still-scarred countries like Bosnia. But returning to Franz Ferdinand, the Archduke whose demise had such tragic repercussions across Europe… Maybe one way of marking the significance of Sarajevo in 1914 would be to ask how the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina can be accorded their rightful place within an inclusive European Union. We hope that Ireland, which through the last century has felt the birth pangs then the growing pains of statehood and gone on to establish a unique EU niche, can lend them real support.

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This post was published in the Bosnian weekly Novo Vrijeme on 14 February 2014, available online at: 

http://novovrijeme.ba/when-ireland-met-bosnia/

Verses / War

‘Mad Ireland’, as W. H. Auden called it, has been mourning. It keens well at the death of oracles. As seen this week in the gush of obituary that marked the passing of Nobel laureate, Seamus Heaney. Social media flooding with banal tributes – legend! The commentariat striving to out-elegise one another, adding their spake to the national wake which followed a bard back to his country churchyard. To restful peace in an erstwhile troubled region… I wonder how the great man would’ve regarded it. Perhaps with wryness? But even in leaving, he was generous – the gift of his poetry tuning the airwaves and glistening through the columns. His presence on the time-lines and tongues of everyone who’d recited his verse at school. Thank you, Seamus.

Heaney

He reminded me of my father. He wasn’t much older, born into a Europe on the brink of self-destruction in the tense spring of 1939. My dad was a child of World War Two. His family moved from Belfast, away from a blitzed city whose shipyards were Luftwaffe targets. An hour or so down the road there was no war. The then ‘Free State’ of Ireland had only an ‘Emergency’. A gem of understatement, but anything stronger would’ve breached neutrality. Back across the border, my father grew up among the flax-dams and sheep-grazed drumlins of rural Ulster. He still speaks the dialect. A bog language native to Heaney, who alchemised it, imbued it with the wisdom of antiquity.  A true saoi, almost a seer, he may have ‘escaped from the massacre’ but he never evaded its burden.

One of those writers of witness. Some of them can’t help it. Days before Heaney died, I found a poem flurrying through the cybersphere. Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum est’. A curriculum classic, learned in quotable quotes, barely imagined because it’s unimaginable. The trenches of Flanders, the primitive masks, blood ‘gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs’ of a comrade. These are the sights and sounds Owen foists upon his readers. Divided by a century, history tinges it with the patina of aesthetic. But today, it’s far too palpable. The children of Syria afforded less chance than the soldiers of the ‘Great War’ to avoid killer gas. The images are clear, beyond unverifiable. So, instead, there’s hugger-mugger to verify whom to blame. Late August, given heavy shelling and sarin… to paraphrase the opening of Heaney’s ‘Blackberry-Picking’. Though even his bramble fruit, with its taste of innocent pleasure, rots to waste. The world these days seems steeped in ‘rat-grey fungus’. Not a poetic place.

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Yet, perhaps, a place for poets? Maybe the subtleties of verse offer more than political bombast. From the tortured cris de coeur to the onlooker’s unease. Can poets rake the no-man’s land that lies between the poles of intervention/isolation? Stubbornly, I still believe they can. Poetry led me to Bosnia, via the not-so-scenic route. Remembered lines niggled while my eyes absorbed newspaper photos, video footage. The ghosts of stanzas lingered as my ears heard the reports. It forced contemplation, provided a context for thought. A student of English, I was the type who always veered from the reading list. A literary nerd, I suppose. But the volumes I opened felt red-hot. They chided against apathy. From Martin Niemöller’s incantation ‘first they came for the Jews… the communists… the trade unionists’ to the Holocaust horrors in Elie Wiesel’s ‘Never shall I Forget’.

A collection which I read and re-read at that time was called Klaonica – an international anthology put together as an ‘immediate if inadequate response to the suffering in Bosnia’. Its title, appropriated from Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian, is translated as ‘slaughterhouse, abattoir, butchery, shambles’. I dusted it off yesterday. It’s easy to dismiss it now as well-meaning arty-fartiness which, apart from the contributions of a handful of bona fide former Yugoslavs, was just an outlet for wordsmiths to say their erudite penance. And get on with their intellectual, privileged lives… possibly reaping kudos for their ‘engagement’. Reading with an older, more cynical eye, I flick through the pages. A lot of the poems still move me. Some ring too true. They may not be the cleverest or best crafted, but their themes are as fresh as twenty years ago. Connie Bensley’s description of a restaurant discussion among the chattering classes:

‘the air-strike supporters

were at odds with the pacifists…

The humanitarian-aid-only

contingent banged the table.’

This stingingly humorous piece ends with the waiter asking ‘what are you fighting about?’ The question may as well be ‘what country are you talking about?’ And this poem brings a little light relief. Most of the entries in Klaonica are written from, or looking into, the darkest depths of terror. Many are by those who survived past wars and sieges, those who knew dissidence and exile. Their voice of experience seeps beneath their challenges to the reader. Like Czesław Miłosz’s ‘Sarajevo’:

‘Now that a revolution really is needed, those who once were fervent, are quite cool.

While a country, murdered and raped, calls for help from the Europe which it had trusted, they yawn.’

And Joseph Brodsky’s ‘Bosnia Tune’ – so impactful, it must be read in its entirety. I’ve added a web-link below to its audio-recording. Please listen to what could be a hymn for Syria.

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Yes, often the most powerful are the words of those who’ve endured. From my limited dabbling with Bosnian poetry – something I’d love to have more time to explore – I’ll mention just one of its voices. My sister-in-law once gave me a collection by Abdulah Sidran, a poet of Seamus Heaney’s generation. An established writer in Bosnia before the war, he lived through the conflict and inscribed it in his verse. His ‘Planet Sarajevo’, written in 1994, breathes an endless struggle between good and evil, asking with its whispers of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden:

‘How many times have we

uttered

in tears

our ardent prayers for peace?’

Sidran captures the world’s indifference – how we watch and allow ourselves ‘become poorer by a whole people’. Years later, his work tells of aftermath – searing words that touch the pain of the survivors of Srebrenica. Their search for ‘a crumb of justice and a grain of truth’ is expressed, to the reader, as an imperative.

There’s much exhumed by poems like these… and much response demanded. Perhaps their meditation is an alternative to the present barrage of media opinion – ‘debate’ in which we too readily participate. Though our input ‘makes nothing happen’… to rob from our old friend Auden, cited inappropriately, ad nauseum.

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But where are the poets now? What Syrian Akhmatova will emerge to pierce our hearts? Will she live to share her verse? What lines of ours will join hers in a tome that may never be written? For who would read them? Does poetry have any currency in an age defined, more than ever, by those who ‘fumble in a greasy till’ as Yeats lamented in ‘September 1913’. Will only the dead remember our silence and our words? And the dead, Tadeusz Różewicz warns, ‘will not rehabilitate us’.

This post is penned, with raw emotion, in a world starved of tranquillity. I’ll end with no sense of amen, more a plea for misericordia. With last words that have been repeated, reprinted and retweeted maybe a million times in recent days. But they haven’t lost any of their potency. Seamus Heaney here relates the poet’s return, as an ambassador, from the ‘republic of conscience’. One whose role is a life-long call

‘to consider myself a representative

and to speak on their behalf in my own tongue.’

Link to audio/text:

‘Bosnia Tune’ by Joseph Brodsky: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U4n7rDbwuYM