bosnia report
New Series No. 3 March - May 1998
 
Banja Luka Marlboro
by Miljenko Jergovic

Everything you see or hear in the streets and caf‚s of Banja Luka induces you to forget the past. The radio blares out Oliver Dragojevic and Kemal Monteno, Indeksi and Riblja corba [prewar pop musicians]; people behave as if the war has been over for a long time and usually employ the third person when speaking of all that has happened over the past six years. It is always 'they' who orches- trated it all, 'they' who killed and deported and destroyed, whereas 'we' - which means all of us now conversing - 'we' were the victims of all that.

The story is sweet as honey, and it becomes even sweeter when, for example, at Hotel Bosna you encounter a man in an elegant suit, Djordje by name, who is all there except for half his head. It is early in the morning, you have not been able to sleep all night, you have gone to the hotel bar and there you meet this Djordje. When you tell him you are from Sarajevo and Zagreb his face lights up, doubtless because he can now ask you for news of those two cities - Zagreb, where he once studied law, and Sarajevo, where his wife comes from. He recalls a Sarajevo poet, a high-school friend, a Bosniak from Sanski Most, who in 1993 published an article entitled Yes, I do despise the Serbs. Djordje does not know that, but he has heard something and now anxiously enquires whether it is true that the fellow has become a nationalist. You tell him that he has, that he has written at least one terrible text, but that he did it only after his father had passed through the Manjaca concentration camp. The mention of Manjaca horrifies Djordje as much as the mention of nationalism, he orders us a fourth round of morning beer - the surprisingly good Banja Luka Nektar - and continues with his questions. It is impossible not to stare at the missing half of his head, so you ask where and when he got wounded. 'In '95, in Bihac. The bullet avoided me for three years and then hit me so hard that half my brain dropped out. I didn't know a man could manage with only half his brain.'

The reply, of course, was predictable, what is stupid is that you cannot find anything to say to it, even though all these years you have been quite determined to ask the first Djordje you met what the hell he was doing in Bihac anyway. We part after the fifth beer - without, of course, exchanging addresses or telephone numbers, but not quite like strangers either. 'We'll meet again in Banja Luka. You know how to drink. What have you got weighing on your soul, so that beer has no effect on you?'

Before the war Banja Luka had roughly the same number of Serbs as non-Serbs, and more Yugoslavs than any other place in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Today Serbs form over 90% of its population. The other nationalities were deported in several waves. The first was in 1992, when the Bosniaks werÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ e driven out, starting with the better off and followed by most of the rest. The next wave came a year later, when the Croats were offered an opportunity to exchange their apartments for those belonging to Croatian Serbs. The last bout of 'ethnic cleansing' happened after Oluja [Storm: the 1995 Croatian military offensive], when even the most obdurate were pushed across the Sava at Davor. No one in Banja Luka knows exactly how many Bosniaks and Croats are left, but they form two distinct groups: the lucky ones, who have remained in their apartments, and about eight hundred others who for all these years have been sleeping in sheds and cellars like classic down - and-outs. Their stories are all horrific, yet none can be recounted under their own names, since the people who drove them from their homes are still there, albeit now transformed as if according to some rule into well-behaved, conciliatory citizens ready for coexistence. The 'ethnic cleansing' done, they all behave like that Djordje.

A large number of Serbs too have left the city. For the most part ending up in countries across the sea, they are likely to remain there for good, so that the story of their departure will be recounted even less fully than that of the Bosniaks and Croats. The great majority of the present-day citizens of Banja Luka are Serbs from the Knin krajina and Kordun [in Croatia), or from parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina now belonging to the Federation. These people make Banja Luka a strange place: architecturally it may remind you of prewar Banja Luka, but almost nothing else - not even the accents in the streets - indicates that you have come to the same town. In other words, the structure of the city has been transformed. But the attempted Serbianization of its culture has produced a caricature. The majority of signs, of course, are in the Cyrillic script - indeed in its archaic Greek Orthodox font. Everything possible has long ago been changed into ekavica [mainly Serbian linguistic variant]. Yet the language keeps escaping official control. As in Croat areas of central Bosnia, the greatest contribution to ethno-linguistic purity has been made by burek and cevapi [popular hot snacks]. Thus, whereas in Vitez the unloved balija [disparaging epithet for Moslems] word cevabdÓinica has been replaced by a Croat cevapnica, in the centre of Banja Luka buregdÓinica has become pekoteka.

Banja Luka citizens are not very excited by the recent opening of a Croatian consulate - not even the few remaining Croats. One of the latter - formerly a worker at the Rudi Áajavec factory and now homeless and destitute - says: 'Those people are liars, I know them well. They say they're opening the consulate for the sake of us handful of Croats, but the truth is that they're doing it for the sake of trade and in the hope that they can still divide Bosnia. I saw them in 1993 - people like Smiljko Àagolj and Jadranko Prlic - walking along Gospodska Street and hugging the people who had expelled me first from my job, then from my house, then from life. Today they're opening a consulate, laddie, and tomorrow they'll bring Granic and Tudjman to spend a day or two caring for me. They can kiss me you know where - on what used to be the fattest part of me, before their fine buddies fucked up my life.'

During the war years a Bosniak or Croat could survive best by being, or pretend- ing to be, crazy. A certain Ale, the prewar town fool, is still alive and nobody ever bothered him, because everybody thought him mad. Once, during the war, some guy with a Chetnik beard shoved a Serb flag into his hands and asked: 'Where's your flag, Turk?' Ale pointed to the sky and answered: 'It's up there, but you can't see it because of the clouds. When the sky clears you'll see it. A new moon and ever so many stars, so many you can't count them.' Ale still attends all Moslem funerals and is word perfect in the prayers. He was at one such funeral not long ago, and when they were lowering the body into the grave he started throwing sweeÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ ts over it, followed by two packs of Marlboro. Despite the solemnity of the occasion, people were on the verge of laughing. 'That was Banja Luka Marlboro', a man who had been at the funeral told me.

In all the rooms in Hotel Bosna, pictures drawn long ago by Banja Luka schoolchildren hang over the beds. In Room 119 you can see Sunflowers, by a certain Vildana from Class 7b. God knows where Vildana is now. It is terrible even to think about Banja Luka. The TV is showing an interview with Ceca Velickovic [Arkan's wife]. She is saying: 'I like best films that have a sad happy-ending.' An ignorant person might say that such films do not exist.

Miljenko Jergovic's Sarajevo Marlboro was published by Penguin Books in 1995.
The present text was translated from Feral Tribune (Split), 30 February 1998

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