The kindness of strangers

SARA 4 BLOG

I VISITED YUGOSLAVIA frequently during the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. Often, I travelled between towns on public transport, often using the efficient networks, each of them operated independent bus companies, of inter-city buses. I travelled routes all over the country from Subotica in the north to Ohrid and Skopje in the south, and from Zadar in the west to Zaječar in the east. It was on these vehicles that my love of the varied forms of Balkan folk music was born. Every bus was fitted with loudspeakers and a radio. For hours on end the bus passengers were treated to an endless, and in my view delightful, stream of folk songs and folk music. On one of these bus trips, my first to Sarajevo, I met someone who was to become a good friend.

Dubrovnik was the point of departure for my first visit to Sarajevo. I bought a ticket at the bus station just outside the walls of the old city, entered the bus, and headed for the seat, whose number was printed on my ticket. In those days, and maybe this is still the case today, passengers were assigned specific numbered seats on long-distance buses. Whenever I knew that I would be travelling a day or two ahead, I used to buy my ticket in advance in order to get one of the seats numbered 1 or 2, which were at the front of the bus, and therefore with the best view, and, incidentally, also with the highest risk of injury in a head-on collision.

On this particular occasion in the bus station at Dubrovnik, I found a young French tourist was sitting next to his girlfriend in my seat. I started explaining, in my poor French, that he was occupying my reserved seat. As I was doing so, a middle-aged woman, sitting near the rear of the bus, explained the situation in fluent French. The French couple vacated the incorrect seats and settled into their assigned places. These happened to be close to the woman and her friend. I could hear them conversing in French as we wound our way up along the valley of the Neretva River and away from the Adriatic coast. I felt a little miffed that they had found someone to converse with, but I had not.

After a few hours we stopped in a village perched high on a hillside. The young French couple said goodbye to their new friends, and left the coach. Our bus, which should have arrived in Sarajevo well before nightfall, remained parked on a steep slope in the small mountain village for hours. The few passengers who were continuing on to Sarajevo sat on a bench under a tree in the sultry afternoon sun. Eventually, I asked the lady, who could speak French, what was happening. She explained that one of the tires of our bus had been punctured, and that it was taking a long while to repair it. She revealed that she was an inhabitant of Sarajevo and that her travelling companion, an old friend of hers, was a schoolteacher from France.

Finally, our bus was ready to depart. As it was now almost empty, I sat near to the two women and chatted to them. The sun was setting, and we were still only halfway to our destination. Soon after we began moving, the heavens opened. The mountainous region through which we were slowly making our way was filled with crashes of thunder and flashes of lightning. Torrents of rain made driving slow and difficult. I began despairing of ever reaching the city where the Hapsburg Archduke was shot in 1914. And, I was becoming concerned. I was heading for a city, which I did not know and where I had no accommodation arranged, and it was beginning to look as if would be almost midnight by the time we reached it.

I asked Marija, the French-speaking lady from Sarajevo, whether she could recommend a hotel for me. She shrugged her shoulders and said that as she lived there, she did not know about hotels. At this point, her companion said to her in French:

“Whenever I meet foreign students in my hometown in France, I invite them to stay in my home.”

Marija said nothing. It was my impression that she had not needed to hear this bit of information.

It was late at night when we eventually arrived in Sarajevo’s bus station. It was located far from the town centre on the main road that led to the spa at Ilidža. Miodrag was waiting for Marija, his mother-in law, and her French friend. I was told to get into his tiny car with them and all of our baggage, and we drove along ill-lit rain soaked streets through the darkness of the night until we reached the end of a short, steeply inclined cul-de-sac in central Sarajevo. We entered Marija’s second floor flat, and Liljana, Marija’s daughter, served us a huge, tasty supper. At the end of the meal, I still had no idea where I would be spending the night. Before I could ask where I would be staying, Liljana showed me her mother’s spare bedroom, and told me (in good English) that I should sleep there.

After breakfast the next morning, I set off to find a hotel in which I could stay for the rest of my visit. It did not take long to find one and to reserve a room. Next, I bought a bunch of flowers – they were stems of gladioli – for my kind hostess and returned to her flat. I entered, gave my bouquet to Marija, thanked her for looking after me, and told her that I had found accommodation. She told me not to be ridiculous; I was to cancel the hotel and to stay with her and her family.

Marija and her family lived in two flats in the small houses that lined a short street that led off one of the city’s main thoroughfares, Marshal Tito Street. It was within a few metres of the Baščaršija, the old bazaar area of the city. From my centrally located base, I was able to explore Sarajevo with ease. Set on both sides of the River Miljacka, the city stretches along a long narrow valley and spreads steeply up the hillsides flanking it.

The Baščaršija district looked just like a typical Turkish bazaar. When I showed pictures of it to Mehmet and Saadet, some Turkish friends in London, they said that it looked just like Bursa, their hometown in Turkish Anatolia. Like most oriental bazaars the one in Sarajevo was divided up into areas specialising in different trades. For example, there was a cluster of copper-beaters, another of silversmiths, and yet another of leatherworkers. I fell in love with the city.

I visited Sarajevo several times, always staying with my new friends. On several occasions, they visited me in London and once they stayed in our then family home in north London.

In the late 1980s, Miodrag and Liljana expressed their concerns about political changes that were happening in Bosnia. This was before the city became entangled in a fearful struggle for life during the complex and bloody civil war that occurred during the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. They decided that they needed to leave Yugoslavia and start a new life elsewhere, which they did. Miodrag and Liljana and their daughter migrated to an island in the Indian Ocean, where life was calmer and prospects better than in Bosnia. Although we met them on one of their visits to London from their new home in the Indian Ocean, I have lost touch with them unfortunately. As for Marija, who remained in Sarajevo, I hope that she did not suffer during the attacks on her city.

For more of my experiences in the former Yugoslavia, please read my “Scrabble with Slivovitz”, available on Amazon, Bookdepository.com, Kindle, and lulu.com.

Eye wash in Sarajevo

In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, I used to visit the former Yugoslavia, where I had and still have many friends. Often, I stayed in Sarajevo (now in the Republic of Bosnia and Hercegovina), with Marija and her family. Here is something that happened on one of my visits. The account comes from my book about Yugoslavia, “SCRABBLE WITH SLIVOVITZ”.

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Marija, my host in Sarajevo, lived alone in her flat. Her husband, although an ardent communist, had fallen foul of Tito’s regime. Since the late 1940s, he had spent most of his life in prison. Many years after my last visit to Sarajevo, Liljana told me that her father used to be released from jail occasionally for short periods only to be re-arrested and re-incarcerated soon after. I was not clear about what he had done to deserve this. He must have been the ‘wrong kind’ of communist. Maybe, he had been a Stalinist and/or a supporter of Cominform. This organisation’s headquarters were in Belgrade from 1947 until 1948, the year when Yugoslavia’s relationship with Stalin’s Soviet Union began to go sour and the country was expelled from Cominform. It is possible that it was Stalin’s militant antagonism to Yugoslavia in the late 1940s that helped Tito to unify his ethnically diverse population.

During one of my visits Sarajevo, I noticed that the white part of one of my eyes had become completely red. It was a little uncomfortable as well. I hoped that no one would notice it; I wanted to avoid any fuss. So, I set off one morning to find a pharmacy, hoping to buy an eyewash, something like the British product ‘Optrex’.

As there was no way that I could possibly have explained what I wanted using my rudimentary knowledge of Serbo-Croatian, I decided that I would have to try to act out what I wanted. I wandered along the chilly snow covered streets, puzzling over how to do this. In the end, I felt too shy to try to attempt the necessary charade. I hoped that with the passage of time my eye would heal.

When I returned to Marija’s flat that evening, she immediately noticed my eye. In French, and sounding worried, she said that I might have caught something that sounded to me like ‘retinit’, a disorder about which I knew nothing. She succeeded in alarming me greatly by saying that there was an epidemic of whatever this was in Sarajevo, and that many people were being blinded by it. Next morning, she told me, she would take me to see a friend of hers, an ophthalmic specialist, at the university hospital. This also worried me. I remembered the depressing looking hospital that I had seen many years earlier when I was visiting Peć in Kosovo. My enduring image of that place was of its pyjama-clad inmates leaning out of upper-floor windows and hauling baskets of food up on ropes from their relatives, who were waiting outside the building on the ground below. The hospital in Sarajevo was nothinglike that.

I was introduced to the lady ophthalmologist, who then seated me in a special high-backed chair. A white-coated nurse approached me, carrying a syringe fitted with a long, broad-gauge needle. I must have winced in anticipation because Marija said,
Ne t’inquiétes pas. C’est seulement une piqûre.” (Don’t worry. It’s only an injection)
An injection … in my eye: I did not like the thought of that. She
laughed again, and said,
Regardez, le dentiste a peur d’avoir une piqûre!” (See, the dentist is afraid of having an injection)

Eventually, the nurse managed to squirt some liquid onto the surface of my eye, rather than into its interior, as I had feared was going to happen. The ophthalmologist examined it with her special equipment. It turned out, to my great relief, that I had an attack of conjunctivitis, which could be easily cured with the eye-drops that she gave me. After the clinical examination, we retired into her office. She rang for an assistant, who returned with cups of Turkish coffee and a dish filled with little cubes of lokum (Turkish delight).

 

I have lost touch with Marija and her family. All I know is that her daughter and son-in-law along with their child emigrated to the Seychelles shortly before Yugoslavia erupted into a self-destructing civil war.

Fools Crusade: war in the Balkans

REVIEW OF “FOOLS CRUSADE” 

by

DIANA JOHNSTONE

 

When the Berlin Wall was destroyed in 1989 and the USSR ceased to be a world power opposing the West and the USA, Yugoslavia, which had been considered a bulwark between the West and the Soviet Empire, ceased to be of importance to the West (by which I mean the USA and its NATO allies). Furthermore, the ending of the Soviet Empire removed the chief obstacle to the expansion of the USA’s global imperial ambitions.

 

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This excellent book by Diane Johnstone describes how the West was both misled by irredentist nationalistic groups in the former Yugoslavia, and how it allowed itself to deliberately misinterpret facts which did not suit its own aims. The aim of the West was to demonise Serbia for a multitude of reasons, some of which were self-serving. Western military and financial aid was given to anti-Serbian factions for ‘humanitarian’ reasons, to counter the atrocities allegedly perpetrated by the Serbs against, for example, the Catholic Croats, the Bosnian Moslems and the Kosovar Albanians. In each of these examples, there were undoubtedly atrocities perpetrated by both sides: Serbs killing Albanians or Bosnians AND vice-versa. However, much of the Western media only chose to recognise killings carried out by the Serbs, or those that might have been carried out by them but were never proven.

 

Sad to relate, but the Serbs have long had a poor reputation regarding what would now be called ‘genocide’.  In 1912 the renowned future colleague of VI Lenin, Leon Trotsky, who was then reporting as a journalist for Kievskaya Mysl, a paper published in Kiev, wrote (excerpts chosen by me):

During the war, I had an opportunity – whether it was a good one or a bad one is hard to say – to visit Skopje (Üsküb) a few days after the Battle of Kumanovo. In view of the nervousness caused in Belgrade by my request for a laissez-passer and the artificial obstacles put in my way at the War Ministry, I began to suspect that those in charge of military events did not have a clear conscience and that things were probably happening down there that were hardly in keeping with the official truths released in government communiqués…

…The atrocities began as soon as we crossed the old Serbian border. We were approaching Kumanovo at about five PM…

…Whole Albanian villages had been transformed into columns of flames – in the distance, nearby, and even right along the railway line. This was my first, real, authentic view of war, of the merciless mutual slaughter of human beings. Homes were burning. People’s possessions handed down to them by their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers were going up in smoke. The bonfires repeated themselves monotonously all the way to Skopje…

…Four soldiers held their bayonets in readiness and in their midst stood two young Albanians with their white felt caps on their heads. A drunken sergeant – a komitadji – was holding a kama (a Macedonian dagger) in one hand and a bottle of cognac in the other. The sergeant ordered: ‘On your knees!’ (The petrified Albanians fell to their knees. ‘To your feet!’ They stood up. This was repeated several times. Then the sergeant, threatening and cursing, put the dagger to the necks and chests of his victims and forced them to drink some cognac, and then… he kissed them. Drunk with power, cognac and blood, he was having fun, playing with them as a cat would with mice. The same gestures and the same psychology behind them. The other three soldiers, who were not drunk, stood by and took care that the Albanians did not escape or try to resist, so that the sergeant could enjoy his moment of rapture. ‘They’re Albanians,’ said one of the soldiers to me dispassionately. ‘Hell soon put them out of their misery.’ ” [from: http://www.albanianhistory.net/1912_Trotsky/index.html,%5D

And so it went on back in 1912. In those days, the Serbs were not the only people involved in atrocities such as Trotsky described; the Turks, Bulgarians, and Macedonians, and others were far from innocent.

Before, international ‘humanitarian’ assistance in the form of NATO troops could be provided to the so-called oppressed minorities in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, it was necessary to encourage the break-up of the federation into smaller nation states such as Bosnia, Croatia, and Slovenia. This way, conflicts that should have correctly have been considered as civil wars within Yugoslavia suddenly became international disputes in which it was deemed suitable to provide international military aid.

The break up of Yugoslavia was aided and abetted by the West, for example by Germany. Germany during WW2 championed the formation of an independent Croatia and an enlarged Albania that included large parts of Kosovo. In the 1980s and 1990s, Germany, no longer led by the Nazis but instead by social minded liberals including the Green Party, encouraged the re-formation of what had been achieved in the early 1940s. The (mainly Roman Catholic) Croats and Slovenians were considered by the Germans and others in the West as being ‘civilised’ Europeans, whereas the (mainly Orthodox) Serbs were considered as uncivilised barbarians. Even worse, the Serbs, thanks to their poor public relations compared to those of the Bosnians, Croats, and Albanians, became considered as the new ‘Nazis’ of Europe – purveyors of ‘genocide’ and a new ‘holocaust’. Undoubtedly, the Serbs were responsible for some inexcusable murderous activities in Kosovo during the late 1990s

Johnstone goes to great pains to demonstrate that not only has the word ‘humanitarian’ become corrupted in its usage, but also the far more emotive words ‘genocide’ and ‘holocaust’. In the famous and horrible Serbian ‘massacre’ at Srebrenica, not only were the Bosnian women and children spared by the Serbs, but also wounded men. This does not happen in true genocide. Furthermore, in the case of this particular unfortunate incident, it seems, she wrote, that the Serbian massacre of the Bosnians might well have been engineered by the leader of the Bosnian Moslems in order to gain further ‘humanitarian’ (i.e military and financial) aid from the West.

What was in it for the West? Why was the bombing of Serbia so important or even necessary? Had Yugoslavia been allowed to continue as an independent multi-cultural country as it had been prior to the downfall of the USSR, it might not have been amenable to the expansionist, power hungry designs of the West, for which you should read ‘USA’. One of these designs was the construction of an oil pipe-line from the Black Sea to the Albanian port of Vlora on the Adriatic coast. This would allow oil from the Caspian to avoid travelling along the already congested Bosphorus, and also to use the larger tankers which the port of Vlora would easily accommodate. It is therefore not surprising the the USA have built Camp Bondsteel near to Uroševac in Kosovo, conveniently located to guard the proposed pipe-line.

Even if only 5% of what Johnstone claims in her meticulously annotated text is true, then what she writes should send shivers down the spine of anyone who values the true, old-fashioned meanings of words such as ‘freedom’, ‘independence’, ‘humanitarian’, and that favourite American word ‘liberty’ as well as ‘genocide’ and ‘holocaust’. Johnstone successfully demonstrates how the citizens of the West were duped into believing a simplistic version of events in the Balkan peninsular, and were then bamboozled into thinking that aiding forces hostile to the West (eg Croatian fascists and Islamic mujahidin in Bosnia) and bombing Serbia would somehow resolve the problem. Instead of resulting in a humanitarian victory, the West wittingly and unwittingly magnified the suffering of the ordinary person, Serb and otherwise, in the former Yugoslav territories.

This is a book that is a must-read if you are interested in Balkan matters and/or the growing malevolent influence of the USA on world affairs. The author writes well, and apart from achieving her main aims, gives a remarkably lucid view of the complex history of the country that was once known as ‘Yugoslavia’.

Adam Yamey is the author of SCRABBLE WITH SLIVOVITZ, a nostalgic look at life in Yugoslavia before its break-up began in 1991. His book is available (paperback and Kindle) on Amazon and bookdepository.com, and also directly from the publisher by clicking HERE

Gifts of the grateful

In the 1980s, I visited my friends in the former Yugoslavia frequently. Also, I visited Albania and what is now independent Kosovo. During my trips, I picked up a large vocabulary of Serbo-Croat, including quite a selection of outrageous swear words. Grammar has always been beyond me in foreign languages, and often in my own. My interest in Albania and my brief visits to Albanian-speaking parts of the Balkans resulted in me acquiring some vocabulary in Albanian, but far less than in Serbo-Croat. Until the 1990s, I believed that my fragmentary knowledge of these languages would be useless outside the Balkans.

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Prizren in Kosovo, pre-1990

During one trip to Belgrade, a friend arranged for me to be an observer in a clinic of a leading oral surgeon. I turned up at a large hospital and spent a couple of hours watching the surgeon reviewing a series of his patients. Although I was grateful to be allowed to watch the great man, I learned little that was relevant to practising dentistry. However, one aspect of this clinic interested me greatly. As each patient entered the consulting room, he or she presented the surgeon with a gift: a bottle, a large piece of cheese, a ham, etc.

The last patient to enter, a man in a somewhat shabby suit, entered and sat in the dental chair without having presented a gift. After his mouth had been examined, the surgeon took the patient and me out into a corridor. We walked through the hospital to a room with locked doors. My host unlocked it, we entered, and he locked the doors behind us. After a brief conversation, the patient handed the surgeon a small brown envelope, which he thrust into his jacket pocket. Then, after the doors were unlocked, the patient went one way, and we went another way. As we walked along the corridor, my host patted the pocket containing the envelope, and before bidding me farewell, said: “Pornographic photographs.”

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Poster of Marshal Tito in Sarajevo, Bosnia in the 1980s

My last visit to Yugoslavia was in May 1990.  Soon after that, wars broke out in the Balkans, and the former Yugoslavia disintegrated painfully to form smaller independent states. In the early to mid-1990s, there was terrible strife in Bosnia. Many people fled as refugees to places including the UK. In the late 1990s, Kosovo suffered badly from warfare between the Serbs and the ethnic Albanians. Many of the latter fled to the UK.

I moved from one dental practice outside London to another in London, an inner-city practice, in 2001. A significant number of my patients there had come from the former Yugoslavia as refugees. I was the only person in the practice who could greet them in Serbo-Croat or Albanian. Maybe, I was only one of a few dentists in London at that time who had this ability.

To the Albanian speakers my vocabulary was restricted to words such as ‘hello’ and ‘good-bye’, which brought smiles to their faces. Following a trip to Communist Albania in 1984, I recalled the Albanian words of political slogans such as “Long live Enver Hoxha”, “Enver’s party”, and “Long live the Peoples’ Party of Albania.” As many of my Albanian patients had come from Kosovo rather than Albania, these slogans meant little to most of them.

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Travnik, Bosnia, 1975

My limited Serbo-Croat was more extensive than my Albanian. I could entertain some of my Bosnian and Serbian patients with polite small-talk. Many of the ex-Yugoslav patients, like those I had seen long before in Belgrade, brought me gifts. Even those, with whom I felt I was not getting along with well, brought me, usually, bottles of home-made alcohol (e.g. rakia, slivovitz, and loza) that had been distilled by relatives who had stayed behind in the former Yugoslavia. These strong alcoholic drinks were delicious, smooth, and delicately flavoured. One fellow plied me with DVDs of the latest Hollywood and other films that he had ‘pirated’. One lovely lady from Bosnia presented me with a pair of earrings, which her uncle had made, to give to my wife. She wears these often, and she is very grateful.

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Many Middle-Eastern patients also felt that it was appropriate to bring me gifts. Thus, a lot of delicious baklava and other similar confections came my way. Delicious as these were, they were neither good for my teeth nor for my general health. A Hungarian family kept me supplied with large gifts of paprika powder, and there was a Romanian gentleman who brought me nice bottles of wine. Incidentally, the only words of Romanian I know are “thank you” and “railway timetable”. Once, we employed a Romanian dental nurse and I told her my Romanian party-piece “Mersul trenurilor.” She pondered for a moment and then replied “Ah, the programme of the trains.”

Once, my dental nurse, a friendly West Indian lady, and I were standing near a window facing the main road when a delivery van stopped nearby. A man was delivering trays of baklava to a nearby shop. I said to my nurse: “Why don’t you see if he’ll give us some to try?” She returned with a tray of baklava. Carelessly, because I was in a hurry to see my next patient, I put a large lump of baklava into my mouth, and then bit hard on it. As I was doing this, I heard a deafening bang in my head. The baklava was not too fresh. I had split a molar tooth into two parts, the smaller of which was loose in my gum.

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Baklava

Unlike this disastrous piece of confectionary, the gifts kindly given to me by my patients did no harm. Furthermore, what I believed to be a useless tiny vocabulary of Balkan languages proved to be quite useful.  

Finally, you might still be wondering whether anybody ever took me aside to present me with an envelope containing pornographic photographs. To satisfy your curiosity, I can tell you that nobody did.