Grbavica (Sarajevo), somewhere between the past and the future

GrbavicaNuccio Franco – Grbavica is a neighborhood in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is situated between the downtown and the periphery of the city. During the 1990s war Grbavica was the front line within the city. At that time it was held by the Serb forces that had torture camps there.

After the war, it came under the rule of Bosnian-Croat Federation which caused the majority of Serb population to leave the block.

There is also the infamous “sniper alley”, a Jewish cemetery, and a street named after Gabriel Moreno Locatelli, the Italian volunteer who was killed on 3 October 1993.. He and four of his pacifist friends tried to cross the Vrbanja Bridge which divided the confronting sides. It was supposed to be a symbolic action to send the message of peace to the soldiers involved in the conflict. They intended to put flowers on the place of death of the first war victims and offer bread to Bosnian and Serb soldiers on opposing sides. Both armies were informed about the initiative and agreed to let it happen.

The international community interpreted Locatelli’s murder as a cynical confirmation of the existence of the line of death dividing the city. This event inspired the director Giancarlo Bocchi to make a documentary in 1995 entitled “The Death of the Pacifist”.

Aside from these events, for us Grbavica is also a place where we have friends Eldina and Nebojša with their son Denis. That’s why we think of it as our second home. The first time we came to this neighborhood, we saw traces of the war, ruined homes, neglected gardens and people still shaken by recent events. The traces of snipers could still be seen on the grey facades. Despite the ambience, our hosts welcomed us in such a way that we soon began feeling as we were in our own home. Although it’s been so long since we first met, that pleasant feeling and friendship still lasts. It’s a known fact that true friendships resist time and space changes and do not depend on the frequency of visits. We carry our friends in the heart and mind.

Eldina gladly answered a few questions for us. We did this for the next Grbavica pastgeneration to remember what had happened here and to make our contribution to preventing it from happening ever again. Eldina is not an author or a journalist but she is so much more. She is our friend and, above all, she is the citizen of Sarajevo with all her memories and hopes.

D – Eldina, first of all let me thank you for taking the time to talk to us. Can you tell us something more about the siege of Sarajevo and your friends and family coping with it? How did those days of terror make you feel?

R – R – First of all I’d like to thank you for taking an interest. It’s no secret that talking about the city you and I love so much is very difficult. Emotions are very strong and overwhelming. Every word hurts. I’m not a writer of any kind but I’d like to tell you about my friends who love Sarajevo and who are still in our hearts. I was born 45 years ago and it seems like such a long time. Although the past is behind us I still feel like I’ve lived a very sad life. I remember my days of schooling, the kind people, friends and freedom. That was the time when we shared a good and happy life. I remember the first time I traveled abroad, coming to the border and feeling proud of the passport I was holding next to my chest and hearing my Yugoslav heart beat. I remember the friends who graduated from gymnasium and became receptionists.

The 1984 Winter Olympic Games were held in Sarajevo and we all felt so proud. The world was watching and applauding our city, and the sense of pride filled us all. That was my first experience in tourism.

The death of Tito changed everything. It was as if Yugoslavia had become divided with some invisible wall at his funeral that was attended by people from all the republics. There were shots fired from the surrounding mountains in 1991 and on 2 April 1992 the hell broke loose. There were barricades everywhere. The war was about to happen despite the peace rallies in front of the Parliament building. Shells were fired from the mountains constantly.

The highest cost was paid by those who were the most innocent: the children. Not even the hospitals, municipalities or the Parliament itself were spared. The number of torched and ruined houses in February amounted to 35,000. Luckily, no one in my family was hurt at the time. We were devastated to hear about the death of a friend and it made us realize the war had really started. That was something nobody expected. One day I came home and heard a bullet pass over my head. It was nothing unusual but I was surprised to see the building entrance demolished. There was a man with a gun and many people who could not leave the building just like us. The man pointed the gun at me and I started to panic. I think I died there and then. We managed to escape while hearing the yelling behind our backs: “murderers”. Sarajevo was burning out and so was its story. Despite all this we were not ready to accept the idea that we were at war. Only later I realized I had blood on my hands and I threw up.

We had to walk four kilometers to get water. I saw a woman falling down under the enemy fire, but I had to move on. Snipers don’t care about faces, they just shoot. You have to run and run, there’s no alternative. The situation kept getting worse and we were forced to spend our days hidden away in an underground shelter and eating whatever could be found in the black market. We used little wood we had for heating and sometimes we would use books too. Trenches were dug around us. The exhausted and starved people started digging a tunnel under the Butmir airport. That was the only way to cross over to the other part of the city. Whoever refused to join the Serb army was be shot on the spot. For days and days I listened to the Serb media trying to deny everything that was taking place right before our eyes. Many tried to escape, get out of the city and go abroad to stay with their friends or family but it was very difficult. Fortunately, we made it.

D – The city reconstruction began after the war. What was your perception of that time?

R – The situation became calmer in 1995 and the Dayton Accords were signed on 21 November. That was when my parents came to see us in Italy for the first time. To us, they seemed like ghosts, drained by the war none of us ever wanted. We can’t forget the 100,000 dead people, 50,000 wounded and 1,601 children who died as victims of the war. When we came back to Sarajevo, we got aid consisting of one pack of cheese, one bar of soap, 1 kg of flour, 1 litre of milk, 3 kg of pasta and 3 packs of beans and fish.

D – Sarajevo today. How is your life nowadays, what are your greatest problems, what is the relationship between Muslims and other ethnic groups? You are married to a man who is a Serb but your story is the story of true love.

R – There were 28 different ethnic groups in Yugoslavia. Since 1990 I’ve been married to a man of different ethnicity but there’s always something that reminds me that he and his family are Serbs. We don’t share the same ethnicity or religion. In such situations dialogue can be difficult, especially if there’s no good will to understand the others. To them I will always be a Muslim.

On one occasion I was driving my husband to Serbia and I felt like everyone was staring at me, like I came from Mars or something. How do you respond to something that one woman told me: “Are you married to a Serb? What nonsense.” What can you say to that? We’ve spent most of our lives in Sarajevo although my husband’s work often takes him to Serbia. Today the apartments in our building that used to be owned by Serbs who left Grbavica when the war frenzy started are being sold at low prices. It is nice to be able to go wherever you want and sleep outdoors if you feel like it. The crisis is present, we are free but the corruption is everywhere. Many foreign companies have their offices here.

NATO forces are here, including the Italians and other nationalities. That’s good because they guarantee order and safety. Despite everything, we are from the Balkans, people with a big heart and soul, able to sing even when faced with death. We are proud and pure hearted. Since 1996 Sarajevo has been coming out of the nightmare. I like the sad moments in a way, because they are also part of me.

D – How did you react to the arrest of the war criminal Radovan Karadžić?

R – What can I say; he’s not the only executioner that I don’t want to hear about. I’m speechless, He’s just a tip of the ice berg and there are 25,000 war criminals still free and walking across this country. Many mothers still don’t know where their son’s bones are buried. Women raped, ethnic cleansing…All we want is justice and what’s left of our dear ones. We’re not asking for anything else.

D – Finally, how do you envision the future of your city which we like to think of as a little bit ours too?

R- After all that’s happened each of us is looking for the best way to transform our homeland, not because we should forget what happened but because life has to go on and we should live it despite the bad things. We are proud to be born here, free, and with a pure heart. We have our dreams and believe in a better future and not asking for anything else. I grew up at the foot of the mountain Igman. In a dream I see a boy growing up happily and staying here. I have a son and want what’s best for him. All roads lead to Sarajevo, and we are waiting… with all the love. My wish is to make you brighter, Sarajevo, my love.

Nuccio and Eliana

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