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Sachnovshchyna 1
Photo: Christian Diemer
Idyll with an egg-yellow Lada, on the shores of the Dnipro-Donbass canal.

 

In the final part of his exclusive series for E&M, Christian Diemer travels to Sakhnovshchyna in eastern Ukraine, where celebrations are also taking place to mark the anniversary of the village’s liberation during the Second World War. The atmosphere proves, however, to be very different from that of nearby Lozova, and just 150 kilometres to the east, war is again darkening Ukrainian skies.

At seven in the morning, Anna knocks on my door. I am supposed to be taking the elektrychka [regional train] from Lozova to Sakhnovshchyna at 8:46 a.m. Sakhnovshchyna, a small town with around 9,000 inhabitants in the Kharkiv region, is 50 kilometres from Lozova. The Red Army took a day to get there. Consequently, Sakhnovshchyna celebrates its city holiday one day later than Lozova.

But my friends have thought things over during the night. "It is written in your face that you are a foreigner", says Anna. "Times have changed. The war has attracted bad people to our region. It is dangerous for you to go by elektrychka. I will drive you to Sakhnovshchyna."

"Are you afraid to drive with me? I can drive. Only my car is very old." Actually I am quite OK with having company. Anna has a cheerful, vivid voice and laugh. And I immediately fall in love with her car. An egg-yellow Lada, ordered back in the 70s by some relative with good party connections. I can adjust the angle of my seat with a screw. When Anna brakes, my seat slides forward. However fast she drives, the speedometer stubbornly points to 0. And Anna goes fast, hammering over the potholes and crevices, slowing a little or pulling around hard only for the meanest traps. And I understand why this car is made for those roads. It swallows it all, uncomplainingly. "We don’t need a speedometer or a safety belt. These streets are our safety belt, our built-in speed limit. No one can go too fast on them anyway."

Published in Under Eastern Eyes
Monday, 23 February 2015 00:00

Good Reads – Conflicted about conflicts

In this Good Reads issue, E&M’s Diána Vonnák shares with you some articles that got her thinking about our continent. Follow her to discover the multiple ways descendants of victims and perpetrators deal with genocide as well as inside some bits of Bosnian literature about the human facets of the war. And make sure you read it till the end, because there you can find an interesting article analysing Maidan and its revolutionary potential, all framed in a personal way.

 

 

1dianav

Diána Vonnák, managing editor

 

When Bosnia was at war: self-appointed humanitarians in Sarajevo

 

Recently I had a chance to visit Sarajevo, this incredible city still somewhat scarred by the horrors of an inhumane siege and yet full of the mundane signs of moving on: the smell of coffee, strolling tourists and lazy stray dogs. Those bloody years in the ´90s were my only childhood exposure to the fact that war could happen so close, and ever since it proved to be a returning theme, as I would assume it has for many of my generation. It came as a coincidence, then, that in the recent issue of Asymptote Magazine I came across a letter exchange between Miljenko Jergović and Semezdin Mehmedinović

Both of them being in the forefront of Bosnian literature they try to get closer to one of the iconic interactions the Anglophone world knows about the war: Susan Sontag's visits and her solidarity with Bosnian people. Jergović recalls Sontag’s visit to his mother, in search for an ‘ordinary resident’ who could give an honest angle to her understanding of the war. Throwing away and thus wasting barely lit up cigarettes by the dozen in the middle of a war-torn city, Sontag acted as an emblem of failed self-appointed humanitarians: she was incapable of turning the war, the object of her amusement and horror, back to what it was - a challenge of empathy where stepping in requires real silence on your side and a readiness to let others’ lives creep into the place of yours.

Published in Good Reads
Tuesday, 16 September 2014 00:00

On the Brink: An Introduction

ukraine04
Photo: Christian Diemer
Morning in Goshiv, near Ovruch, Zhytomyrs’ka region, Central Ukraine, back in 2010

 

Ready to get to grips with the real situation in Ukraine? E&M is launching a special series of on-the-ground reports that go far beyond the geo-political struggles that have been grabbing the headlines in Europe.

"Isn't it dangerous there?" "Mustn't it be very unpleasant at the moment?" "Why on earth Ukraine?!"

E&M author Christian Diemer regularly hears such questions when asked about his current whereabouts. And it is certainly true that Ukraine is unlikely to be topping many people's holiday destination lists any time soon. But while the conflict in Ukraine has been dominating the daily news for more than half a year and has long become a war of propaganda, the actual atmosphere and goings-on in the country remain vague and largely undifferentiated to much of the western European audience. Though not for any longer, thanks to Christian's on-the-ground reports from Ukraine, written especially for E&M’s Sixth Sense.

Christian has been working on his PhD about traditional music and national identity in Ukraine since 2012. He started travelling through the country when it was still unimaginable that the spectre of war would be seen again so close to Europe. Back then, Yanukovych was was firmly in the saddle and, despite some people’s frustration, the prospect of another revolution seemed remote.

Published in Under Eastern Eyes

Part 3: More dead than alive – Srebrenica, Republika Srpska

I apologise in advance, because there are some facts I have been holding back: the political situation in Bosnia is far more complicated than described so far. I have already written about the three constituent peoples in Bosnia and Herzegovina and how they mostly live in a kind of interethnic apartheid. But the segregation isn't only done by invisible lines like in Mostar. The whole state is divided into two entities which hold most of the legislative and administrative powers. The two federal states are The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina where mostly Croats and Bosniaks live, and the Republika Srpska (the RS, meaning "Serbian Republic") where mostly Serbs live. Additionally, there is the Brčko District - a small neutral area, too mixed to assign to any of the federal states. Federation and Republic - sounds like Star Wars? Well, this is real and unfortunately it is also less easy to distinguish good and evil.

GRAVEYARDS AND FUGITIVES

After having spent three days in the Federation I now wanted to see the "other" side. I reach Srebrenica at noon two days before the anniversary of the massacre that took place here on 11th July 1995. About six kilometres before the town sign, the bus passes the Potočari Memorial with the graveyard for the massacre's victims. More than 5600 bodies from the mass graves have been identified and buried here so far. When the bus reaches Srebrenica the first thing I see are graves again - this time not the white Muslim but the black Orthodox tombstones. The town itself is nearly empty due to the great heat. There seem to be more dead than alive here.

Srebrenica massacre

On the 11th July 1995 Bosnian Serbian forces under Ratko Mladić took over the UN safe area without the UN soldiers firing a single shot. More than 8000 unarmed Bosniak men and boys were systematically killed. Women and children were raped and tortured and eventually deported to areas that weren't under Serbian control. It is considered one of the worst crimes in Europe since the Second World War.

I meet Nedim at the motel in the middle of the town. He is here for the summer, as a volunteer to help former inhabitants who fled the town during the war and need to come back now for registration. The Council of Europe is coming to town today to monitor this registration process. Allegedly, human rights violations take took place that they want to investigate, but it seems questionable whether the Serbian police will let them in.

Nedim is a tall, dark haired young man with a three-day beard who orders Gulash soup and frequently has to interrupt our conversation because one of his two mobile phones rings. He is project coordinator at "Youth Initiative for Human Rights" (YIHR), a regional NGO-network with independent offices in Sarajevo, Belgrade, Zagreb, Potgorica and Priština that aims to promote laws and legal mechanisms to improve the protection of human rights and democracy in the ex-Yugoslavian states. The transnational approach sounded too good to be true and I am excited to find out more about what to me seems like a truly 'European project' and its approach to reconciliation.

Published in Imagine Europe
Wednesday, 05 September 2012 08:02

Bosnian summer – A European travel journal Pt. 1

"Travelling Europe" is what many students name as their favourite summer activity. But where is Europe? Geographically a broad approach still seems possible; politically and as a question of identity, borders are reached far quicker. This summer I tried to find Europe outside the EU setting. I travelled to Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country that has always been a passage for European nations, that has seen some of the most brutal crimes of the 20th century only twenty years ago and that is still struggling to reconnect the former warring parties. I wanted to see the process of reconciliation and the rapprochement towards the rest of "Europe" as it is carried out by our generation. Here is my quest for a European identity in a country that hardly knows its own:

Part 1: Beautiful and Damned – Mostar and the Herzegovina

The very first thing I notice about Bosnia and Herzegovina is that it is strikingly beautiful. Crossing the south western border from Croatia by bus, I am half expecting to see the same grey and slightly shabby buildings you still find in some Ex-Soviet countries. But the houses here are newly built, and with the rocky, richly green mountains behind them, you could picture being somewhere in Austria or Slovenia. Between the cliffs runs the bluish-dark green Neretva river; here rather shallow with sandbanks of white gravel. Behind the houses, vineyards climb up the hillsides. Open market stands offer fresh fruit at the sides of the streets.

But the image changes dramatically when the bus reaches the first town, Čapljina. The old multiple dwellings still show holes from shell fire. Colours are completely missing, the houses scream for renovation. Later I find out that the concentration camp Dretelj was in this area. The war has left its scars.

WAR TOURISM

From here on, the war won't let go of me anymore. I made a resolution not to write about it and only investigate the future of this region. But I have to give it up before even unpacking my suitcase. Reaching Mostar, my landlady picks me up at the station and immediately starts talking about the fighting in the area, pointing out ruins and front lines on our way to the hostel. A war tour with her son is scheduled for the next morning. War tourism is what everybody expects me to do.

Bosnia and Herzegovina's economy never actually recovered from the war: today the unemployment rate is higher than 40 percent and the economy suffers from a lack of investment and too much bureaucracy and corruption. I try to order Mostarsko beer from a restaurant's menu - the waiter shakes his head with a sad smile because the brewery went bankrupt a few months ago.

"Mostar had five factories before the war, now there are none left," tells me Nino, our tour guide, who was six when the war started. Everybody here is an expert on the war, everybody has a personal story to tell and thus, with more and more tourists coming, they live off the war. But when I ask Nino why the war happened in the first place he shrugs and says with his slight stutter: "I don't know. Before the war we had everything: jobs, health care, free education. I guess the Serbs attacked."

Published in Imagine Europe
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