History Lessons in Banja Luka

„Tudjman wanted to realize Greater Croatia, which has its Eastern borders close to Belgrade. Milosevic wanted to realize Greater Serbia, which has its Western borders close to Zagreb” – this is not a history lesson given by a University professor at 2 p.m. in Geneva. It is a history lesson given to me by a Bosnian Serb, who studied forestry (and – of course – fought in the war), at 4 a.m. on a public place in Banja Luka.

Yes, there is one!Today’s capital of the “Republika Srpska” is my last station on this very interesting trip, but I there are two things I got tired of in two months: war stories, and history lessons.
Everything in Bosnia is still divided according to ethnic lines, and that includes the historical truth.
Teenagers too young to have killed anyone in warSo at this particular night, after a nice evening in the bars and discos of Banja Luka, where I have danced with teenagers too young to have killed someone in the war, I don’t want to hear his story, but I have to. The beers do their part to loose my Swiss neutrality. “What about the Muslims?” I ask. “Oh, they want everything” the forestry-history expert in his 20ies says. “They will come to destroy our culture, you will see”. Where they will come from? “From Turkey, from everywhere!”
That snapshot was not received well by the people standing around me
Insisting that he only defended his country, he points out the Serb graveyards that no one sees and finally wants to know my own opinion. At 4.30 a.m., I want to go to sleep: “We [the West] have absolutely no reason to be a priori on the side of the Muslims. Our culture is much closer to the Catholic or the Orthodox Christians. But the fact of the matter is … ” We argue for a while, then I ask: “Can you go to an Orthodox Church in Sarajevo?” – “Yes, I can” – “Can a Muslim go to a Mosque in Banja Luka?”. He remains silent. All 16 Mosques, including the beautiful Ferhadija from 1580, were blown up by local Serbs during the war. “It was a mistake to destroy the Mosques”, he whispers as if he was telling me a secret. The Bosniaks didn’t blow up the Orthodox Church in Sarajevo just because they are masters of propaganda with the international media, he says. We go our own ways as friends.
Roma woman in Banja LukaThis part of the “Republika Srpska” is more moderate than the Eastern part. Serbs were also victims of the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Banja Luka and its surroundings are overcrowded with refugees from the Croatian Kraijna. I get to feel the precarious housing situation myself when I arrive at the bus station. The shitty hotels are as expensive as the international community is ready to pay expenses for their officials, private accommodation is scarce and impossible to find on a Sunday. When finally someone recommends me to go to the UNHCR (I am not a refugee!), I go for the cheapest hotel: 70 DM for a Stalinist-style room in a Stalinist-style building, with the noise of a major construction site just next to it, and the worst breakfast you’ve ever had. What makes you feel even nicer is that the price for a Serb is half of that. But later, a good friend (yes, a Bosnian Serb) gets me very good private accommodation.
Banja Luka is largely intact. My translator Rebecca points out some destroyed buildings: “That was a Muslim’s house”. The few remaining Croats have a hard life here. One of them is an old woman, a good friend of Rebecca’s, refused to leave when the ethnic cleansing went on elsewhere in Bosnia: “I just wanted to stay. This has always been my home”. The woman was forced out at gunpoint and had to go to a smaller flat, constantly feeling threatened.
This woman has to live with less than 100 DM pension a month
At the same time, another woman, about the same age, but Serb, felt threatened in Bihac (predominantly Muslim) on the border with Croatia. “I left my hometown only with a plastic bag full of my belongings” she says. That was the reasoning of ethnic cleansing: Everyone moves to “his” part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was very mixed before the war. Ethnic cleansing was the whole point of the war. Creating Greater Serbia and Greater Croatia.
I interviewed maybe 25 people in all parts of Bosnia, and talked with many more. Everyone, I asked one question in the end: “If you could go back to the time before the war – which included living together with other ethnic groups – would you want to go back?”
Everyone, even the most extreme of nationalists, said they would go back, also the Serb woman from Bihac. I want to know who is guilty then. “The nationalists”, she says, also expressing a view that I have heard all over this crazy country. “So the nationalists can’t count on your vote in the next election?” I ask. “I will have to consider it very thoroughly”. In fact, she meant the nationalists from the other ethnic groups.

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