Satellite image of Bosanski Šamac

I have just put these satellite images together to get the perspective of the flood devastation in my hometown Bosanski Šamac and the rest of the region. Click image for larger view.

Bosanski Šamac, before and after the flood.
Bosanski Šamac, before and after the flood.

Here is a little animation of the same images. Click image for larger view.

Bosanski Šamac, before and after the flood.
Bosanski Šamac, before and after the flood.

Floods in the Balkans

I will keep this post short. Last week an extraordinary floods hit the western Balkans, especially Bosnia and Serbia.

In just three days three months’ worth of rain has fallen on Bosnia, which is the worst floods since rainfall measurements began 120 years ago. The chaotic situation affected more than a quarter of Bosnia’s 4 million people. The destruction of  cities, towns and villages is easily comparable to the country’s 1992-95 war.

Topcic polje near Zenica, 120 kms north of Sarajevo, Bosnia, on May 15, 2014. (AP Photo/Amel Emric)
Topcic polje near Zenica, 120 kms north of Sarajevo, Bosnia, on May 15, 2014. (AP Photo/Amel Emric)

At least 40 people have died in western Balkans and tens of thousands of others have fled their homes. Tens of thousands of dead livestock pose serious health risk to the people in the region.

Bosnian worker prepares to take away dead cows from a farm near the Bosnian town of Bosanski Samac along river Sava, 200 kms north of Bosnian capital of Sarajevo on May 20. A new calamity emerged Tuesday in the flood-hit Balkans even as emergency workers battled overflowing rivers and evacuated thousands tons of drowned livestock were posing a health hazard. With the rainfall stopping and temperatures rising, the withdrawing floodwaters revealed a harrowing sight: thousands of dead cows, pigs, sheep, dogs and other animals that were left behind after their panicked owners fled rapidly advancing torrents.(Amel Emric/Associated Press)
Bosnian worker prepares to take away dead cows from a farm near the Bosnian town of Bosanski Samac along river Sava, 200 kms north of Bosnian capital of Sarajevo on May 20. A new calamity emerged Tuesday in the flood-hit Balkans even as emergency workers battled overflowing rivers and evacuated thousands tons of drowned livestock were posing a health hazard. With the rainfall stopping and temperatures rising, the withdrawing floodwaters revealed a harrowing sight: thousands of dead cows, pigs, sheep, dogs and other animals that were left behind after their panicked owners fled rapidly advancing torrents.(Amel Emric/Associated Press)

On top of everything, there is an additional hazard: leftover land mines. Floods have disturbed known mine fields and erased many of markers that had been placed to warn people away.

Bosnian soldiers repair mine warning signs in fields near the banks of a river that flooded near the town of Visoko, 30 km north of Sarajevo, on Tuesday May 20, 2014. The flooding has unearthed landmines left over from Bosnia's 1992-95 war and washed away the signs that marked them. (AP Photo/Sulejman Omerbasic)
Bosnian soldiers repair mine warning signs in fields near the banks of a river that flooded near the town of Visoko, 30 km north of Sarajevo, on Tuesday May 20, 2014. The flooding has unearthed landmines left over from Bosnia’s 1992-95 war and washed away the signs that marked them. (AP Photo/Sulejman Omerbasic)

My hometown Bosanski Šamac (Šamac) is in the middle of the flooding catastrophe. It is placed at the shores of the largest rivers in Bosnia: Sava and Bosna. The town’s streets look more like Venice, and water has reached roofs of many houses.

Town of Bosanski Samac, the northern Bosnia.
Town of Bosanski Samac, the northern Bosnia.

Thousands of people were hastily evacuated to neighboring towns, including members of my family.

A Slovenian army helicopter team rescues a small baby on May 17 in the village of Tisina, near Bosanski Samac, northern Bosnia-Herzegovina. The rest of the baby's family was evacuated later on, the rescue team said. (Rok Einhauer/Slovenian Army via Associated Press) #
A Slovenian army helicopter team rescues a small baby on May 17 in the village of Tisina, near Bosanski Samac, northern Bosnia-Herzegovina. The rest of the baby’s family was evacuated later on, the rescue team said. (Rok Einhauer/Slovenian Army via Associated Press) #

People in the region need especially water, hygienic articles, food, cleaning equipment and everything else needed to ease the suffering of people in the region.

Bosnian people evacuated from their flooded homes take shelter at a sports center in the northern Bosnian town of Odzak on May 19, 2014. (AP Photo/Amel Emric)
Bosnian people evacuated from their flooded homes take shelter at a sports center in the northern Bosnian town of Odzak on May 19, 2014. (AP Photo/Amel Emric)

Just to put into perspective the range of the flooding in the Balkans, take a look at this map.

The flooding in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia
The flooding in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia

If you will you can help Bosnia’s population by donating this project (click on the banner bellow or go to the website: Help Bosnia and Herzegovina). I know people behind it, I vouch for their credibility and I know that every cent donated will get into right hands. Thank you.

 

See more pictures from the Balkans: The Atlantic,  Boston.com.

In the Land of Nonexistent Objectivity and Empathy

Most people know Angelina Jolie as an attractive actress who has built a career on a number of action films in which she often appears with the biggest Hollywood stars. However, parallel with that work she has been a good will ambassador for UNHCR. For more than ten years now she has travelled the world with the organization trying to help benighted refugees, hoping to draw attention of the world media to some of these causes. One of the countries she has taken an interest in is Bosnia-Herzegovina, which went through a horrific war and brutal crimes between 1992 and 1995.

Jolie, moved by the tragic fate of women in the Bosnian war, decided to direct the movie In the Land of Blood and Honey which presents rather well the brutality of war, as well as the particular cruelty of Serbian strategy during that war, but focusing mainly on the subject of the “Bosnian woman”, i.e. the 20,000-50,000 [1] mainly Bosniak women who were raped during the war. This mass rape of women was used by the Serbian side as one of the instruments of implementation of terror against the non-Serb population. The Human Rights Quarterly report [2] argues that “the desire for the Serbs to degrade the Bosnian Muslim woman, to humiliate and fertilize her with the ‘little Chetniks” is of paramount importance. “This issue, among others, was earlier recognized and dealt with by the Bosnian director Jasmila Žbanić in her film Grbavica which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival 2006.

This is by no means a review of Jolie’s directorial debut, so this column will not contain a detailed analysis of the plot, nor will it assess the quality of the dialogue or the acting. But it is necessary to briefly describe the subject of the film. It is about a relationship between a Serb police officer Danijel and Ajla, a Bosniak painter, a relationship abruptly interrupted by the beginning of the war in Bosnia. Ajla is arrested by Serb soldiers and ends up at the camp where Danijel places her under his protection in order to prevent her from getting raped by other soldiers. He was in love with Ajla before the war, and during the war continues to have warm feelings towards her, but at the same time he is able to take advantage of her unequal position since she is in a way his private property. Meanwhile, Daniel’s father is a senior officer and a hardline Serbian nationalist and obviously cannot see anything good in the fact that Danijel is in love with a Muslim and is determined to end the relationship.

No film about the war in Bosnia has raised such a rumpus as Jolie’s directorial debut. At the very outset, the project encountered dispute and obstacles. The authorities of Sarajevo, under pressure from the Srebrenica women’s association and other organizations, refused to give a filming license because they thought that the reported (at this early stage, also misreported) premise of the film (raped Bosnian woman falls in love with her rapist) offends all Bosnian women who were abused during the war. Thus the producers were forced to switch to shooting the film in central Bosnia, and Hungary.

Much more furious reactions came after the premiere of the film and particularly from much of the Serbian media and many Internet forums, which almost unanimously characterized the movie as one-sided, anti-Serbian, a project aiming to denigrate the Serbian people and once again show the stereotypical Serbs as the “bad guys” in an American film. Serbian criticism of the film culminated when thousands of people, clearly orchestrated and recruited on Facebook, and various forums and web sites, went on the pre-eminent movie database IMDB.com giving the film lowest marks, plunging it’s average rating to 4.1 (out of 10), as of 6 April 2012. Many negative comments left on the website were written by disgruntled Serbian visitors, most of whom had not seen the film.

It should be noted that at the Sarajevo premiere 5000 moviegoers attended, while in Belgrade, there were only 12 (three of whom left the hall before the end), and that the Bosnian Serb dominated entity Republika Srpska completely boycotted and refused to screen the film. The Bosnian and Serbian media cannot look at this movie objectively because they cannot look Bosnian war objectively. In the media, and the societies at large, there is an obvious lack of maturity in the thinking about the war and its atrocities. It is clear that there is still no willingness from any party to truly confront all the crimes that were committed in its name, and objectively look at all the crimes that were committed during the 1990s. The main culprit for this is still a pronounced nationalism that keeps most citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina in its deadly embrace. For me, it’s sad when you see thousands of people unable to face the past and recognize unequivocally the historical facts.
Of course, every crime is a crime that should and must be prosecuted, but it is unacceptable to demand that every conflict is relativized until it bears no semblance to actual events, nor to demand that every work of art, newspaper article or a documentary film seek to uncritically present the other side of the conflict, because referring to one victim only in relation to another victim, diminishes both. Imagine if the Germans objected that in, say, Spielberg Schindler’s List (a film about the Nazi atrocities against Jews during World War II) does not show the murder of German civilians and numerous rapes of German women by Russian soldiers (all true, and horrible). Of course, there is nothing wrong about mentioning these as a historical fact, but when it requires a counterbalancing of any crime, then you are deliberately trying to relativize and thus minimize the individual losses. Every war has attackers and defenders, victims and executioners, ‘bad guys’ and ‘good guys’; even though it is also true these can appear on both sides. There were Serbian acts of heroism and humanity in that war, as there were Bosniaks who committed war crimes. These things happened. But this does not explain, nor excuse, nor diminish the brute facts of the beginning and the evolution of that war. Serbian forces largely carried out the brutal plan of their political leadership (mainly Slobodan Milošević and Radovan Karadžić), including the Hague-recognized genocide against Bosniaks in eastern Bosnia, ethnic cleansing in areas inhabited by Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks, and the systematic destruction of cultural and religious monuments, buildings and institutions that did not wear the prefix “Serbian”.
But, to return to Jolie’s film. Is it some kind of masterpiece that will be remembered for its brilliant screenplay, extraordinary photography, or acting? Probably not. But Angelina wanted to make a film that would throw light on all the raped women of the unfortunate war in Bosnia through the story of one woman. This is why this film cannot be seen and evaluated only as a work of art, but should be viewed in the light of the weigh of history and the message it carries.

In the Land of Blood and Honey has given, if not a great contribution to film art, then certainly a contribution to our collective memory of the past. We should all remember the evil that happened during the Balkan wars in order to prevent them from happening again. Tragic is the level of discussion every time you raise the issue of war crimes in Bosnia. And if we take the film In the Land of Blood and Honey, it is obvious that very few of the articles and texts which were written attacking it were an attempt to understand what it was like to be a woman (of any ethnicity) in various camps during the war. They usually simply expressed grievances caused by the film to whatever side the writer represented. It is precisely this devastating image that shows the way the war is always perceived only in the light of “our” victims. Rarely is there a bit of objectivity or desire to understand the suffering on the other side.

The masses should sooner identify with all the unfortunate victims and all the raped woman than to side with war criminals just because these may belong to their people. This should be done not only for moral and humanitarian reasons (though humanity comes before nationality surely), but for the future of its people, so that something similar would not happen again, because only truth, repentance and forgiveness can lead to a true reconciliation, which would eventually bring real peace to Bosnia and Herzegovina and the rest of Southeast Europe.

 

[1] “Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in Conflict: A Framework for Prevention and Response”. United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. 2008.

[2] Weitsman P.A. (2008). “The Politics of Identity and Sexual Violence: A Review of Bosnia and Rwanda”. Human Rights Quarterly 30: 561–578.

The Journey Never Ends, part II

Several days ago the UNHCR published my column “The Journey Never Ends, part 1“. Here’s the second part.

THE JOURNEY NEVER ENDS, PART II
From time to time I get asked what I knew about Denmark before coming here. Since I was always very interested in geography I knew that Copenhagen was the nation’s capital and I knew that the peninsula of Jutland links Denmark to the rest of Europe. I knew that the country produced and exported a lot of meat and dairy products and that it did not have many natural resources.

So, what is my story in Denmark? In 1994 I started at Skive Gymnasium. I think it was here I first began to learn about the Danish language, society and culture. Later I started working and I learned even more about Danish values and society. In 2003 I graduated from Nordic Multimedia Academy as a multimedia designer, and since then I have worked as a graphic designer in various companies.

Unlike the natives I do not have a particularly good relationship with Danish food. I think it was in 1998 I got acquainted with Danish roasted potatoes. I was at the company’s Christmas party and I saw these delicious brown potatoes. I ignored almost all the other food and filled my plate with the potatoes. When I tasted it all my senses got a shock and I almost literally ended up on the floor, and it was not because of the beer or the schnapps! It was because I just could not dream potatoes could (or should) be sugary, sweet!

Another Danish food I could not eat for a really long time is rye bread. It was hard, dry and did not taste very good. It may well be that the bread is healthier than ciabatta style bread, but I always felt it tasted like wood. However, one thing I think Danes excel at is pastry, fruit tarts, and marzipan: Othello cake, apple cake (everything with apples) and berry tarts.

Although I now have lived in Denmark for 18 years I have still not got used to the Danish weather. We Danish Bosnians say that “even dogs do not bark in Denmark”, but if something is untamed in this country then it must be the weather. I still have a hard time getting used to rain, wind and sunshine all on the same day. The first two I could easily do without but in a way there is a certain charm (do I really mean this?) about the changing and unpredictable weather.

In Denmark I have lived in refugee centres, in a so-called satellite (a house attached to an asylum centre), a townhouse, a house and a number of flats. I think the process of establishing myself in a new country went rather well. It was not easy, I was a stranger and unfamiliar with the surroundings, but quietly my family and I found our place. It was not always easy to get in contact with the natives. This is especially true in the western Jutland where locals are often very reserved towards people they do not know. My experience is that they open up after they have known you some time. In the beginning I had a hard time understanding their reservation towards foreigners, but I got used to it and eventually I realized that’s a part of their way of life.

Today I have my own family; a wife and two beautiful daughters. I tell them stories about my home country and teach them about Bosnian cultural values, but I also raise them so that they tomorrow can be good and valuable members of the Danish society. I am very proud of my family and I know as long I have them with me everything is going to be fine – that is why I will always fight for democracy and individual freedom in Denmark so that my daughters do not experience what I was forced to in those dark, final years of the twentieth century.

The Journey Never Ends, part 1.

The UNHCR has published my column “The Journey Never Ends, part 1″ a couple days ago”. The link is here.

THE JOURNEY NEVER ENDS, PART 1.

I was a refugee once. From today’s perspective, as the father of two daughters, I am grateful that I was only a seventeen-year-old boy in that time of turmoil, uncertainty and doubts. What I learned back then was that nobody understands a refugee and his situation unless they, too, are one. You can have a deep sympathy and compassion for a person who had to leave his country, but if you have not experienced what it is like to leave your home, your family and dear friends, you can never truly understand what it means to be a refugee, homeless in a foreign land, completely cut off from the rest of the society, at least in those first months of living in exile. And if that person also has children and a wife by their side, you can only imagine but never completely understand what is going on in that person’s mind, what fears for his children’s future a parent is carrying.

When I was asked to write this column and tell my refugee story I was filled with mixed emotions. On the one hand, I was mildly reluctant to the idea of writing about my past experience because I knew I had to dig deep into my memory and consciousness. I believe that is a normal human reaction – usually we tend to ignore and avoid remembering unpleasant events from the past. On the other hand, I wanted to give my refugee story as a tonic to all current refugees who might find in it a crumb of peace of mind, or even be inspired to look more positively upon their situation.

So let us start from the beginning.

I was born into a turbulent world, politically destructive between East and West, the sympathetic freedom-loving psychedelia was on its last legs. The Vietnam War had just entered the dark annals of the twentieth century, American spacecraft Viking 1 landed on Mars, and Czechoslovakia won 5-3 against West Germany in the finals of EURO ‘76. I was born in the small town of Bosanski Šamac in northern Bosnia, which was then part of Yugoslavia. I had a happy childhood, went to kindergarten and primary school, and I had a lot of friends I played with around the apartment complex. The town lies at the point where two great rivers, the Sava and the Bosna (which gave the country its name) meet. In the summer I used to spend a lot of time there with my family and friends. Once a year my parents would take my brother and I to the Adriatic Sea, and we would stay in some of the picturesque small towns of the Makarska Riviera. Yes, life was beautiful.

I almost finished first year of high school when the war scene moved from Croatia and entered my country and hometown in April 1992. One night Serbian forces swiftly occupied Bosanski Šamac and soon I had to flee the town with my parents and brother because the new authorities began imprisoning and mistreating the town’s Croats and Muslims (Bosniaks). Non-Serbs became second class citizens, many of whom were either sent to a nearby labor camp in Zasavica or sent to dig trenches. The only thing missing was a yellow band around their arms; just like the one Jews had to wear in Nazi Germany. And so we fled to the neighboring free town of Gradačac, where we had some relatives who gave us shelter.

Although my hometown was occupied by Serbian forces it was possible to enter and leave the town for a few days at the beginning of the occupation. Since my mother was a store manager she believed naively that she should hand over the keys of the store. The same day that she went to our hometown the new authorities closed down all the roads to and from the town. Therefore my mother could not get out and return to us: her husband and two children – and we were not going to see her or know anything about her situation for the next 7 months.

A few weeks later, Serbian forces began attacking and shelling Gradačac. Those days were probably some of the worst of my life. The small town was bombed to pieces from all possible directions, from earth and air. It was the middle of September when my father was fed up worrying about the lack of security for his boys, that he decided we should try to leave Bosnia. We had to travel south down the entire Bosnia-Herzegovina on an improvised route to Dalmatia and then to Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, where my father’s aunt lived. We traveled through war-torn cities and towns, through forests and mountains and improvised roads and even places where it seemed the war had taken place just minutes ago. I remember at one point driving through a small town where there were many houses on fire, a few crying people in the streets. It felt as if there had been a fight only a few hours before we arrived. We traveled some 1,400 km through the whole country of Bosnia and a large part of Croatia. To illustrate how difficult and dangerous the trip was it usually takes only 230 kilometers to go from Bosanski Šamac to Zagreb!

In December 1992 my father, brother and I were finally reunited with my mother – at the Prague train station. Her journey from our war-stricken hometown to Serbia and on to the Czech Republic deserves a book of its own. A friendly Serb working at the hospital engineered her exit. She had to pretend to be a Serb nurse in her passage from Bosnia and, as she waited for clearance to cross the Drina river, she was given board for a couple of days at the house of an elderly nationalist Serbian woman who was led to believe my mother was a Serb. I can only imagine how it was for my mom to be there during those days listening to hateful speeches from her host, unconscious of the real identity of her guest.

We left the Czech Republic and arrived in Denmark in late April 1993. The first three days we were stationed in the Gentofte asylum center. We then spent one month on the southern island of Langeland. Our language quickly gained a new word, “muving” (eng. moving). People were constantly being relocated to other centers. Where the Danish Red Cross would send you was a big deal. In late May my family got a “muving” to Hagebro in the middle of the Jutland peninsula. It was a former hotel and its long, yellow-brick structure now accommodated around 110 Bosnian refugees. We called our new home Opticon, after the former hotel’s name. The little Bosnian colony had good times together and with the Danish staff from the Red Cross. There were a number of activities for children and adolescents, perhaps to keep our minds from wandering home. I know that many fellow refugee residents look back at those days with a certain nostalgia, because, despite living in small rooms and the adults being tormented of their war-torn home country, there were good things to look back on; people were kind to each other and children played together. One recalls a sense of solidarity: we were all in the same boat. I cannot forget the tremendous efforts of the staff to offer us various activities, taking us on all sorts of trips. I know now that all they wanted was to give us a little break from worrying about families and friends who still were in Bosnia.

To be continued…

Follow Fahrudin Dino Avdibegović and his journey to Denmark in part II, which will be published 17.2.2012.