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All we did in Tuzla was remain normal

During the bloody war in Bosnia one city kept its head: Tuzla. Luke Disney visited this ‘role model for postwar developments’ and discovered the will of a people who wish to get on with their lives and put the past behind them.

Luke Disney | March 2004 issue

A few days before my trip to Tuzla I had trouble sleeping. I was tense. Not about the assignment – I was going to cover the opening of the Dutch NGO Peaceflame’s new centre for post-war trauma healing activities, and all my needs had been looked after. My physical well-being wasn’t the problem either – the war in Bosnia had ended almost 10 years. No, it went deeper than that.
I knew Yugoslavia, on paper at least. I had studied the crumbling ‘union of the southern Slavs’ at university. I knew that Yugoslavia’s violent disintegration had taken roughly four years, starting with the federal army’s attempt to repress Slovenia’s succession from the union in 1991, and ending with NATO’s bombardment of Serbia in 1995. I knew that during that short period an estimated 200,000 people had been killed; often in manners too horrific to describe. Yet they were described. Stories such as that of a Bosnian refugee who witnessed her neighbour being forced to stick a gun down her own son’s throat. Or that of a mother who was forced to watch her daughter raped and then killed before being raped herself. In page after page of incomprehensible barbarity the tales of the survivors were told in agonising detail; witnesses to the death of a nation, and the general belief that the fall of the Berlin wall had somehow made the world a safer place.
When I first read these testimonies I felt sickened. When I re-read them ten years and two children later, I wanted to cry. And now as I prepared to head to Bosnia’s second city, I simply could not picture sitting down and asking someone to recount their experiences in hell. ‘Sorry, we couldn’t get our act together to stop your neighbours from slaughtering your family, but while we’re on the subject, would you mind describing just how they were killed and how you’re dealing with it now?’
As I got dressed in the early morning darkness and kissed my wife and kids good bye, I could already feel Bosnia’s ghosts swirling around me.

The first thing that hit me upon arriving in Tuzla was that it didn’t feel haunted at all. In fact, it seemed rather familiar. The surrounding countryside could have been southern Italy, and the clumsily placed vertical ice-cube-tray apartment blocks are a familiar feature of Eastern European urbanity. And at a first glimpse the locals appeared disarmingly normal as well. People were busy prowling the Saturday markets looking for bargains, cleaning up the front yard or waiting excitedly for the start of an impending cycling event. So far, all was quiet on the Eastern front.
After checking into the somewhat lazily named, but well fortified (I doubt the White House has that many security guards) Hotel Tuzla, we headed off on a tour of the city. Tuzla has a population of around 250,000. It has three religions, one for each ethnic group: the Muslims – Bosnians (roughly 55% of the population), the Catholics – Croats (20%) and the Orthodox – Serbs (25%). But as we were shown around the town by Jasna Alispahiæ, an assistant to the mayor, I got the impression that the Western fixation on the ethnic/religious tensions that had supposedly torn the country apart was not the first or even the 101st thing on the Bosnians minds. I ask Alispahiæ about her background. ‘Muslim,’ she answers. ‘But my family is like most here: we’ve got a bit of everything, Orthodox too.’ I ask her how they could tell whose side people were on in the war. She shrugs in response: ‘You tell me.’
In fact, the people in Tuzla didn’t split along ethnic lines and turn on each other as had happened in many Bosnian villages, or in Mostar and Sarajevo, during the war. The greatest tragedy that befell the city during the war was visited upon it by outsiders. On May 25, 1993, the centre of Tuzla was crowded with young people criss-crossing between cafes celebrating the official birthday of Yugoslavia’s old dictator, Josef Tito, and the end of the school year. Then a mortar shell, thought to have been fired from Serbian irregulars – Chetniks – from a village 10 kilometres away, put an end to the celebration. Seventy-nine young people were killed. Many more were injured. The target selection looked deliberate, designed to inflict maximum casualties and pain.
Despite the devastation and loss caused by this and other incidents, the ethnic fault lines didn’t part and cast Tuzla into the abyss. I was curious to know how this unremarkable city had evaded the flames of sectarian violence that engulfed the rest of Bosnia. I put the question to the city’s young new mayor, Jasmin Imamovic. A poet and music lover, Imamovic, thoughtfully puffed on his cigarette before answering. ‘It’s not the first time, you know,’ he says. ‘Throughout history Tuzla has always been the last of Bosnia’s cities to be occupied and the first to be liberated.’ Was it something in the water? ‘No, we’ve just been lucky, and we’ve been blessed with good leaders.’
One such leader was Selim Beslagic, Imamovic’s predecessor and mayor of Tuzla during the war years. Beslagic is generally accredited with steering his city clear of the insanity that swept the Balkans in the 90s. I ask him what makes Tuzla so special. Initially, he too dives into the history books looking for answers: ‘Under Tito, Tuzla became a centre of industry. We had a lot of factories and a lot of factory workers. Proletarianism was strong here and the churches didn’t have much hold on people. So when people in the rest of Bosnia started rallying around the Muslim and Orthodox faiths people around here had trouble identifying.’ But then he seems to loose interest in his own explanation, and with a tone tilting somewhere between exasperation and contempt he says: ‘If I came to Holland and asked you why the Catholics weren’t killing the Muslims, you’d look at me like I was crazy. Normal people just don’t go about killing each other. Why don’t you go to Sarajevo and the rest of the country and ask them why they did start killing each other. All we did in Tuzla was remain normal.’
But remaining normal when the world around you has gone mad is no small feat and the mayor’s role in it is no secret. In 1992, he made a public announcement stating that he was ‘counting on the support of every citizen, regardless of his ethnic, religious or social affiliation’ to resist the madness that was spreading throughout the country. During the war the mayor remained in constant dialogue with leaders of the various ethnic communities. Incidences of ethnic disorder or signs of disunity in the city were quickly cracked down on. When an Orthodox church was burnt down it was immediately rebuilt using city funds.
Tuzlans know just how important his efforts were and he has become something of a living legend in the city. International observers also took note of his actions and he joined former US President Jimmy Carter and former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright as a recipient of the W. Avarell Harriman Award from the US National Democratic Institute. He was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997.
Despite the accolades, Beslagic remains insistent: ‘I was a voice of the people. They are the ones that deserve the credit.’

The city may have got off relatively lightly, but the war still shook its population to the core. Almost everyone lost friends and family. Outside the city refugee camps still house thousands unable to return to their homes. I asked Alispahiæ about her family. ‘Nobody died,’ she says. Then her voice hardens: ‘But we lost some of my cousins who were Orthodox – Serbian to you. They just upped and left. I guess they didn’t feel comfortable here anymore. We never heard from them again.’
At the refugee camp there are horror stories aplenty. One woman talks of her husband and two sons, both killed during the fighting. Another tells of her brother killed while trying to hide in the woods. And the killing didn’t stop with the formal end of hostilities either. Lejela Paragausija and her husband returned to their farm to pick up their life after time in a refugee camp. On the first day back her husband was killed by a landmine while trying to clear some brush.
The weight of all that pain and misery hangs over Tuzla like a cloud. And it will continue to hang over future generations as well. The children may not know all the details and reasons, but they are well aware of the horrors that happened. ‘We had to leave our home or they would kill us,’ says 12-year old Maida Gutiæ. ‘Sometimes I’m afraid that the war will come back and that it will all happen again,’ adds her friend Selua Atiæ.
And the war is not the only source of post-traumatic stress in Tuzla. With more than half the population unemployed, the economic challenges facing the city are staggering, and things are about to get even worse. Imamovic: ‘The situation we’re facing now is much more difficult than that immediately after the war. As soon as the fighting stopped the NGO’s moved in. There’s an organisation from every country imaginable here, building this, fixing that. But now their work is done here and they’re starting to pull out. What now?’ He goes on to explain that the NGO’s are by far the greatest employers in the city. Once they leave, the jobs go too. ‘We’re not only post war here,’ he says, ‘we’re also post communist, and that is perhaps the most difficult obstacle we need to overcome. Under communism we worked our jobs and when the boss wasn’t around we took it easy. After the war the NGO’s became the bosses, and now that they’re starting to disappear people are falling back into their old habits of sitting around, waiting for someone else to come along and tell them what to do.’

The major foreign NGOs maybe packing their gear and getting ready to move out, but the international community has not given up on Tuzla. Through the construction of the Peace House, the Peaceflame foundation has made a long-term commitment to helping the city rebuild. However, unlike more traditional forms of international aid, the Dutch foundation is counting on the locals to do the building. Peaceflame director Franz Lutz: ‘The Peace House will serve as a centre for local NGO’s, whose activities are aimed at helping Tuzlans work through their traumatic experiences.’ Initially, international NGOs such as Homeopaths Without Borders and Mercy Corps, will be using the facilities. But the idea is that the centre will eventually become a focal point for local initiatives to help Tuzla get back on its feet. The initiative is based on the belief that there is a source of hope and energy that lies buried deep within us all, and that as outsiders our job is to tap into that source and nourish it, not replace it with our own visions of the future. ‘The people here are the only ones who can guarantee a successful future for themselves,’ says Peaceflame founder, Dutch philanthropist Fred Matser, ‘We can give them the materials they need to get started, but only they know where the end of the rehabilitation process lies.’
And, despite the brutality of the recent past, and the economic uncertainties of the near future, one cannot escape the impression that Tuzlans are indeed ready to move forward. In fact, one senses that underneath the dreary post-conflict and post-communist outer-shell the city is positively bursting with energy. The children solemnly relate their traumatic stories to the visiting journalists, but they are keen to get on with playing. ‘I’m becoming happy again,’ says Maida. Elderly partisans talk mournfully of their country’s tragic history, but seem more interested in talking about future challenges. Houses are being repaired and new ones built. ‘In fact, some people thought that we should be giving them materials to repair their roofs instead of building a rehabilitation centre,’ says Bosnian architect and Peaceflame country director Kenan Haradic.
Mayor Imamovic has also been busy. He had a former cesspool in the middle of the city drained and turned into a lake complete with a beach. A museum of mankind, which will highlight Tuzla’s pre-historic cultural heritage, is also in the works. One of the new mayor’s more radical ideas calls for turning the city into a centre of hard rock in Europe. ‘We’re developing quickly,’ he says. ‘Tuzla has experienced more economic growth in the last 12 months than in the preceding 20 years,’ he adds. ‘The Council of Europe has said that Tuzla is a role model for post-war development.’
For outsiders the industrious attitude of the Tuzlans can come as a surprise. ‘We come here from the West thinking “Oh, these poor people, how can I help them get over their traumas?” but actually most people are more interested in learning new management techniques or other skills that will help them get on with making a living,’ says Peaceflame worker Mark De Klerk. De Klerk’s observation is put into perspective by Jelicic Mladen, a Bosnian actor, who is running acting workshops for children at the Peace House: ‘Sure we have been through terrible things, things we will never forget. But show me one person in the world, who has not been traumatised at one point or another in his life?’

As I climbed back onboard the plane to head for home my head was filled with an eclectic mix of impressions from my short visit. I had heard many a sad tale. I had seen war memorials, children’s graves and bullet-riddled building facades. I had seen a city rife with unemployment, and a mounting drugs and alcohol problem. But instead of feeling sad or afraid, I felt inspired.
I used to see Yugoslavia as my generation’s Vietnam: a defining moment of failure for our post-Cold War society and the international mechanisms it had created. The West’s inability to deal effectively with Yugoslavia was, in my opinion, a dire omen for the future of international relations. But now I realise that those impressions were based on a superficial perception of the world. A perception formed by reading the newspapers and listening to the words of experts and analysts talking about nations and cultures as if they were living beings with an own will. But nations and cultures consist of people. And no expert or analyst can look from a distance into people’s hearts and determine how they will react to a given situation. Our true nature lies buried deep within us. So deep that most of us aren’t even aware of it. And while it keeps us ignorant, that depth also protects us. It helps us pull ourselves together after horrific events have penetrated our lives, filling our outer self with anger and despair. Events like war and poverty. Our inner self, our true being, remains safely locked away, until someone or something frees it. Someone like a courageous mayor or a visionary philanthropist. And that is the true lesson of Tuzla.

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