I forgot (I’m old, I’ve lived in a lot of places), for a couple of months in 1996, I lived and worked in Banja Luka in Bosnia overseeing voter registration. I went expecting a war torn country and it was war torn but at the same time, the war was over and the tennis club was going as was the swimming pool (though I had a very unhappy incident in the pool toilets with an army of cockroaches), the spa (very authentic this, underground and managed by an old and rather grubby man) and many restaurants (heavy emphasis on meat – vegetarians are not well catered for in the Balkan menu).
I was in the Serb held part of Bosnia. I had a student interpreter who had lived elsewhere but been chucked out (it’s hard to see the people you are living among as the badies). Once, when I got the bus to Sarajevo, he asked me to look out for his town and tell me what it was like. I told him that all the lamp posts had been painted green.
Sometimes in the voter registration halls (school gymnasiums, community centres) there would be groups of Muslim women who had come in from the hills where they had stayed throughout the war. Often people came in ponies and traps and there were lots of long dresses and headscarves.
The countryside was very heavily mined and I was always horrified to see young children 9, 10, 11 coming down the mountains with jars of wild strawberries to sell to us rich foreigners; beaming at us hopefully through rows of rotten teeth (dental care really suffered in the war and cigarette sales went through the roof).
A few of us drove down to the Croatian coast one weekend. One of our Serb interpreters came with us a decision which she deeply regretted as she became (understandably in her case, one supposes) paranoid that her accent and the odd different word would out her to the Croats as a Serb. The main difference between Serbian, Bosnian and Croatian is political – it’s very easy to pick up three languages for the price of one.
Living in the Serb held part of Bosnia, one of the things you got a real feel for was that the Croats were the unsung villains of the war in Yugoslavia. At any rate, they did propaganda better than the Serbs. This is not a high standard.
Many of the voter registration people were really very expert on the Balkans and the situation there. It was there that I first met Nicholas who has based a career on being expert on the Balkans. There were many very committed and clever Americans. There was also this (very nice, very pleasant) post-grad student from Georgetown with whom I had the following conversation towards the end of her time in Bosnia.
Ms. G: You should know about this guy, you know, that people talk about.
Interpreter smiles wearily.
Ms. G: Oh I don’t know his name. He’s famous.
Interpreter rolls eyes.
Me: Er. Karadic?
Her: No, no, this guy is dead. (To interpreter) C’mon, you know.
This is the problem with international observers, I suppose.