Bosnia 2013 – a tale of two pictures

by Rhodri C. Williams

As the ‘Arab uprising’ countries are now learning the hard way, building a better future is a process that can often be expected to last just as long as surviving one’s bad past did. It is a bitter pill for local populations to swallow, particularly in countries like Libya where the euphoria of having slipped the grasp of a seemingly immortal psychopath is being ground down by the dispiriting business of overcoming his legacy. Its a lesson that well-meaning international observers seem to have an even harder time digesting, let alone anticipating (despite the fact that we have all been down this road before and should know by now that there are no shortcuts).

So thats what made the taste of Bosnia’s recent qualification for the World Cup so sweet. After years of stagnant ethnic deadlock, this event seemed like something that in retrospect would be seen as an awakening from a prolonged coma. A pulse had been detected last summer when ordinary citizens finally revolted against a politics of not re-attaching your own nose to spite the other guy’s face, and then had fizzled out as disillusion and ordinary life set back in. Then suddenly, the first stirrings of something big as the Bosnian team crept closer to Brazil, beating Slovakia in September and being rewarded with its unprecedented adoption as ‘our’ team by the staunchly nationalist Glas Srpske.

bosnia_qualifies_for_brazil_world_cup4And then the breakthrough – and talk of a long-overdue ‘national success story‘ – as the ‘Dragons’ swept Lithuania before them and qualified last October. Suddenly, it seemed as if Bosnia would be redefined by pictures like this, an ordinary family celebrating the victory of a highly non-ordinary state. The new Bosnian flag that rumors attributed to an OHR intern with basic photoshop skills – and that wags said looked like the logo on a cereal box – was to flap off to Brazil with all its other more time-honored fellows. The turning of a page at last.

A number of other factors spoke for normalization in Bosnia and perhaps the entire region. Warts and all, the first Bosnian post-war census was completed at around the same time of the qualifying match. Off in Kosovo, a new EULEX head seemed to take a firmer approach to corruption, even as the territory lurched toward shambolic municipal elections that were nevertheless the first ever to be supported by both Pristina and Belgrade. However, it is hard to overstate the horrors that beset the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s, and the extent to which they will continue to compete with the fragile new normality in defining the country’s image.   

article-2483794-1921F9C700000578-469_964x667Accordingly, we have all had to digest another, far more horrifying picture this week, that of new rows of dessicated corpses crumpled forever into the postures they landed in when tossed into pits in 1992. By rights, it feels like the Bosnians should have been permitted to leave this behind by now. We have all seen it too many times before and been struck by the senseless horror of ordinary lives utterly shattered in a war that brought profit to no one but smugglers and charlatans.

And yet, Tomasica looks set to be the biggest mass grave yet, with nearly 400 bodies recovered, buried 10 meters deep in an area the size of a football field. Last night, the Swedish news replayed a 1993 reportage where a young and fairly daring reporter, Bengt Norborg, tracked down the location of the Tomasica mass grave and interviewed witnesses that claim it was only closed down and covered over once local residents began to complain about the smell. Later in the show, a more grizzled Norborg looks dumbfounded when asked how it could have taken twenty years to begin exhumations (in Swedish, see here from minute 32).

At moments like this, the quote from the beginning of Meša Selimović’s masterwork, Derviš i Smrt (The Dervish and Death), seems to say all that is worth saying:

On that day we’ll say to Hell: “Have you had enough?”
And Hell will answer: “Is there more?”

For the families of those so brutally interred at Tomasica two decades ago, the discovery of the mass grave can only be good news. But as long as more such families remain unaware of the fate of their loved ones, Hell will not yet have had enough for Bosnia to begin living the fully normal national life it deserves.

One response to “Bosnia 2013 – a tale of two pictures

  1. Update by Ed Vulliamy in the Guardian:

    “It’s hard to say what I felt. It was like someone who belongs to me coming back from 10 metres deep. He’s my family. And then another body comes out, and it’s not one of mine, and you feel so bad. I did that for three months, until the last body was found and either identified or not. Now we must wait for another grave to contain the women and children: two were found at Tomašica, but still 17 kids are missing, aged two to 16. You know, I can’t believe I’m saying this; it leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and in this lovely evening, for me to have to tell you that all this is true, that this is what people do to each other.”

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