My creativity was stagnating, my ideas seemed flat; I was being pleasantly lulled into the complacent domesticity of Osijek’s unhurried pace. I needed some kind of spark, a place tasting of contrasts: spicy and sweet, burkas and skinny jeans, East and West, mountains hovering over a valley—and so I headed to Sarajevo, Bosnia for the weekend.
Sarajevo appears the epitome of non-stop relaxed sociability—people lazily sipping Bosnian coffee in one of the numerous cafes, strolling around one of the one-too-many malls, or stopping for a bit of ćevapi in the Old Town. And yet, I always intuit some kind of restless energy that simmers just below the surface…and it is this energy that continues to entice me back.
Last month, the corruption, high unemployment rates, and the general poverty of the people finally drew this energy to the surface—and for a few days various cities in Bosnia erupted in protests and clashes against the government. Buildings were burned, people were injured when the protests became violent, many people called for corrupt politicians to resign, and Bosnia was again momentarily thrust into the international spotlight. For awhile, although those who lived through the horrific 1990s war were fearful that the violence would escalate, it quickly calmed to a peaceful demonstration of the people’s anger and frustration—and it seemed that this could be the beginning of something new. For example, forums were held in numerous cities where citizens could voice their concerns and ideas. However, there are still many different opinions about what will “fix” Bosnia, and how much the international community should be involved, if at all. Unfortunately, enthusiasm at the local level has been quickly waning as the same roadblocks (caused by a cumbersome political system) asserted themselves once more.
After seeing numerous pictures and videos over the last month, I was surprised to see how much the protests had dwindled. Altogether, it was a haphazard collection of around 40 people, some holding signs urging passing drivers to honk if they were against corruption, pensioners sitting in the back of a rickety table upon which perched the obligatory coffee station, and a few bored looking policemen. I stood for awhile, listening to the enthusiastic honking of the drivers as they passed the signs, before heading over to a tall man with an overtly charismatic presence whom I assumed to be one of the leaders.
“No, no,” he said to me. “We are all the same here.” He did not at all seem to be discouraged at the small numbers, but rather seemed to be thriving off the music, honking horns, and the general activity. “We will continue,” he said.
I walked away from the protest and sat on a park bench, watching from a distance. An elderly man sat next to me. “What do you think of all this?” I asked him. He shrugged and dismissively waved his hand. “Too many leaders in Bosnia…and this is nothing, it will do nothing.”
Later, as I ate some ćevapi with a Bosnian friend, he echoed the same cynicism. “Now people would rather drink coffee or sit at home and watch T.V., ” he said in reference to continued involvement in the protests. “When the protest comes on the T.V., they probably cheer, but they stay on the couch.”
Despite this pessimism, I hope and believe this particular story is not yet over. Strolling among the chatting crowds in the sunlit streets of Sarajevo, a city bursting into spring bloom, one would not readily know the hardship, challenge, and suffering that many face on a daily basis. When you start listening to people’s stories, however, you begin to glean both the resilience and pain, the somewhat dark humor, and the warmth and hospitality still freely offered. Bosnia—a country of rugged mountains, long rivers, and gleaming rock faces— is a hidden jewel. But the world may yet have to wait a while longer to discover all that Bosnia and its people have to offer.