Sadly, long-standing friend of Bosnia and of The Bosnian Institute Bill Tribe died earlier this year. His moving documentary film Urbicide: a SarajevoDiary (1993 - director Dom Rotheroe) is highly recommended. The video is still available from First Run/Icarus Films - e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Two tributes to Bill Tribe (1934-2003)
spoken at his funeral at Wolvercote Church, Oxford
Remembering Bill - I
I was touched and honoured when I was asked by members of Bill’s family to say something about him. Through various coincidences our paths crossed several times and we also experienced a curious pairing of ‘opposing symmetries’.
Bill, Oxford-born, -bred and -educated, came to live in Sarajevo and loved it. During his time there he taught me English – not from scratch, but, significantly, it was the ‘real’ English of a native speaker, and he transmitted it in a manner much livelier and more memorable than any of his predecessors in the post of Lector at the University Department of English. I, Sarajevo-born, -bred and -educated, then came to Oxford, and, with the English Bill helped to form, embarked on a doctorate. I then followed a university career in England and ended up as a Fellow of Magdalen College, the very College which several centuries ago founded its own school, the Magdalen College School, at which Bill had been educated. By the time I settled in Oxford, Bill was back in Sarajevo after his Balkan and Levantine wanderings, teaching again at the University where he had started some years previously. We continued to meet whenever visiting our respective birthplaces.
Bill was an unusual man, and we, his students, recognized this, right from the beginning, as he arrived – fresh from Oxford – in the late 1950s. He was only slightly older than the rest of us and perhaps because of this we found him much more approachable than some of our other teachers. Early in January 1959, after a few days’ break for the New Year celebrations, we assembled for one of our regular morning conversation classes and the subject proposed by ‘Mr Tribe’ was, unsurprisingly, ‘The New Year Vacation’. In our halting English, one way and another we started telling the class what we had done. Then an articulate and self-confident member of the class asked him: ‘And what did you do?’ With a slightly absent expression, which we later found was an essential part of Bill, he replied in a matter-of-fact way: ‘I walked to Višegrad’. The silence which fell upon the class was, indeed, audible. A long pause, no one moving, no one saying anything for a few seconds. To Višegrad? In that part of the world no one walks such distances of their own free will! The distance between Sarajevo and Višegrad is 80-odd kilometres, some 50 miles, i.e. the distance between Oxford and London, but over difficult and mountainous terrain - and in January, in inclement Bosnian weather, it would tax the fittest of walkers. Eventually we came to know Bill better and discovered the strength of his passion for mountain walking.
He had taken lodgings in the house of Mrs Zečević, just down the road from me. Mrs Zečević’s sons and a daughter were friends of mine and we often mentioned Bill, to whom Mrs Zečević used to refer as her fourth child. He and I regularly passed each other in the street and either exchanged a wave or stopped for a chat.
He went off to Turkey and Cyprus, I to Oxford, and many years passed before I saw him again. He was vicariously pleased by my Fellowship at Magdalen, for since his time at Magdalen College School he had liked the atmosphere and the music at Magdalen Chapel; had he not won a scholarship to Wadham College, he might well have gone on to study at Magdalen. Recently he contributed to a Magdalen effort. Two of my colleagues undertook to write a book about old members of Magdalen who had died in active service during the Second World War. Several of them had died in the Balkans on various SOE missions, but the surviving accounts were often inaccurate regarding place-names and localities. Bill came to the rescue armed with ordnance survey maps and relying on his extraordinary knowledge of Macedonian mountains. Going with my colleagues through the garbled records he then helped them establish much more accurately where these people had been parachuted in, where they might have been moving, and where they had lost their lives. It is good to know that there will be a little bit of Bill built into a forthcoming Magdalen College publication.
Bill loved Sarajevo, we all know that, and for this reason it befits this occasion if the last word goes to him on that subject. Here I quote from his wonderful guide to Sarajevo: ‘Sarajevo is a walker’s city. Much of it is of absorbing interest and a delight to the eye; its people are a pleasure to encounter; while anyone intent on accumulating fitness cannot do better than train himself daily up and down its precipitous streets and foothill outskirts – the high skyline of mountains, and the contours of the city in its wonderful setting, rising and falling with him as he goes.*
*William Tribe, Sarajevo. A Walker’s Guide, Sarajevo, 1983, p. 9
Remembering Bill - II
Darren and I first got to know Bill ten years ago in a sort of baptism of fire. We had decided to go to Sarajevo to make our first documentary, when someone mentioned an Englishman who had made the city his home for nearly twenty years. So we gave him a ring in Oxford and in a matter of minutes we realized he’d be the perfect person to take with us. We popped the question to him and he immediately said yes. But when? In five days? Let’s go.
We didn’t actually meet him till three days before we set off to Sarajevo. Initially we saw him as a great presenter for our documentary. But it wasn’t long before we saw him as a great bloke. He worked hard to help us and our camera understand the complex tragedy of the place he’d made home. It wasn’t all wine and roses – mostly wine, really. He could be a cantankerous old bugger and we soon teased him with our new nickname for him - Dire Tribe – but we grew to love him for that as well.
As you can imagine we were more than a little nervous about making our first documentary and a lot more nervous about going to our first war zone. We felt distinctly un-brave. Yet here was Bill – who’d lived through four or five months of the siege – he was desperate to get back and prove to his fellow Sarajlije that he hadn’t deserted them, just hadn’t been able to get back. It wasn’t easy for him – he had people he wanted to help get out, Zdenka and Samir – but he was also afraid of shame and rejection because of his enforced absence. Now back in Sarajevo, the shells and bullets didn’t seem to bother him that much. As he told us: ‘Sarajevo has been my life, it has given me everything – I can’t desert it now.’
Of course, he was more welcome than ever in Sarajevo. In fact he was treated as nothing short of a celebrity. It was immediately clear that they loved him there and that he had such passion for the place and its life. An inspiring passion, driven in part by an anger and despair at what was being done to HIS city and HIS people. It was that passion that affected so many people in Britain when the documentary was shown and reaffirmed his place in the hearts of the people in Sarajevo when it was subsequently shown there.
Part of Bill’s charm was that, yes, he was a bit of a curmudgeon, yet you couldn’t fail to see the passionate depth of his feelings. And I think one of the reasons we related so well to each other was because he was very young in so many ways – in his frankness and honesty, his fitness, and his libido. Like all the best people, he was a great contrast.
Part of Bill died back then when Yugoslavia died. That country was in his blood and his heart and made him both so English and so very un-English at the same time. Around that time he knew he was amazingly lucky to find such a great companion in Helen, and turned his passion into working for the Hague war crimes tribunal, though he never stopped the activity for which we’ll always remember him – walking any hill he could find in denims.
We had many adventures with Bill – all memorable – as much for the company as for the shared experiences, which is why we stayed friends all our lives. But perhaps there’s one enduring image we’ll retain of Bill. In the first few days of being in Sarajevo, we were in the street when we heard the buzz of a shell going over our heads. Without a thought we all hit the floor, then looked up to see Bill, still standing, wondering what we were doing on the ground, with that puzzled Bill look we came to know so well. It wasn’t simply defiance that kept him there, but more a kind of imperviousness to the shells and bullets. It was Bill wrapped up in his own world, but that was a world in which he worried more about the spirit of the city and his friends there than about any danger to himself. It wasn’t exactly bravery, it was more unconscious than that – it was a kind of dogged Billness.
And that memory makes the suddenness of his death even more shocking – Bill was meant to be much more impervious, even to cancer. You stupid bastard, Bill, it wasn’t meant to be like this. It really wasn’t. But Darren and Dom will be drinking with and for you for a while yet, mate, while we imagine you and your denims trudging over another cloud.