Safaritalk: Africa in a Beetle

Interview with

Tumbledown house in Bosnia and Herzegovina What pushed you to travel as a freelance journalist?

I have been living in Egypt with my family for a year back in 1979/80, so traveling was a part of my life from very early on. I was involved with some type of journalism ever since I was 12.

After doing my A-levels, I was offered a job at a regional radio station here in Switzerland. There, I also took care of the weekly travel show; so I also developped a professional interest for travels and destinations.
In between jobs and before starting to study international relations here at the Graduate

Institute of International Studies in Geneva  (Institut de Hautes Etudes Internationales), I decided to set off for longer periods of time, usually three month in one place or region.

Initially, I didn’t have the idea to actually combine travelling and journalism.
Then I inquired with some newspapers and magazines, and since I was already involved in journalism, they liked the idea to publish something about areas where they are never invited to. So gradually the idea became reality: Traveling to less-known regions with few travelers and travel journalists around, and actually paying for the trip afterwards with hopefully lively reports and (also hopefully) good pictures.

So that’s how I started to go to places like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cambodia, and Zambia.
But I have to emphasize that the main thing is not the report, but the trip. Even if I couldn’t publish anything, I would still travel. For me traveling to less developed or otherwise special places is a part of life that I would never give away. The fact that I can share it with others makes it even more worthwhile.

You seem particularly appealed by African, Asian and East European countries. Why those countries? Was it a personal choice or a random one?

Part of both. When I choose a destination, there are of course reasons of money and practicability that I have to take into account. But the main thing is that I would like to discover places less spoiled by tar roads and TV than others. My experience is that the worse the access, the more fresh and natural people (and nature) are.

To sit on a bamboo toilet in the tropical forest of Laos where the pigs are waiting to recycle your biological waste; to meet the Lozi people who clap their hands to great each other in Western Zambia; to talk to a fighter pilot of the former South Vietnamese Army; to be in a Buddhist monestary in Cambodia; or to sleep in a tent out in the wilderness of Botswana where you hear the Lions roaming at night…

Those are all wonderful, unique, undescribable experiences that are very different to have in places where Visa cards and air condition busses are already common.

So part of it is certainly a choice, a choice also, unfortunately, to go to these places before they are permanently destroyed by the arrival of the US $, the Euro, and the Yen.

Another part of it was “coincidence”, as they call it. I was never interested in the Mekong region (the former French Indochina) before my father started to work for the Swiss government as director of a develoipment program in Ho Chi Minh City. I quickly became fond of this fast-changing region, and I will always return to it to follow developments.

That may be another constant throughout the very different places I’ve been to: they are all changing.

I went through all of Eastern Europe just after it decided to use its new freedom to go for a market economy and a representative government. There was still enthousiasm in the air.

One year after the first democratic elections in South Africa, Sandra and me set foot on that wonderful country. Then, there was a lot of talk of the “New South Africa”, something we rarely heard two years later..


In Asia, Vietnam is on its way to become another Asian tiger with its 80 million inhabitants, Laos was almost completely closed to the outside world until 1989, and Cambodia went through a lot of troubles during my two visits there (1997, 1998) and is more stable now than at any time since 1970.

The people of Bosnia and Herzegovina have seen war and destruction in Europe, and now find it harder to reconciliate than most.

To see these changes at close hand, to talk directly to the people, is a memorable experience.
At the same time it makes me sad to see how materialism is reaching the last ends of this world.

 Scuba diving in Lake Malawi After such outstanding travelling experiences, what do you think you’ve learned?

The most important things are those that I have learned about myself.

If you talk to a crying elderly man who has lost everything except his life in the war in Bosnia, if you are in an empty pharmacy in Zambia, or in a poor village in Mozambique, you put your own little problems in perspective.

I have learned how I react under extreme circumstances such as gunfire, disease, and being confronted to poverty. I also learned to enjoy moments.

And this may sound strange to some readers,but I have also become much more spiritual.

“God created a wonderful paradise right here on Earth”, I wrote in my diary when I sat alone at a huge waterfall in Bou Sra, Cambodia, in the middle of the jungle.

The second thing that I’ve learned is about others. The two most important lessons are probably: We are all different; and we are all the same.
While singing Karaoke with a generator-powered juke box, a Cambodian boy showed me that he was much happier than me despite his 30$/month salary and his much increased likelyhood to die of malaria.

In Africa, there is never need for a special occasion (or one is invented fast) to sing and to dance, and even in poverty-striven Mozambique, people can give you a more natural smile than they do in France and Switzerland.
Other than the many discussions I have had with locals, I also enjoyed meeting other (strange/interesting) travelers at the (strange/interesting) places I went to.

The third thing that I have learned are just the “facts”, the “sightseeings” – which are nice, but become ever less important for me.
Where there is nothing to see and nothing to do, that’s where I have seen and experienced most.

Which one of the countries you have visited it’s been the most significant for you and why?

That’s the most frequent question I have to answer and also the most difficult. People normally push me for an answer, and the names of the countries vary according to my mood and what comes to my mind. Right now, I probably have to answer: Cambodia.

When I first went there in 1997, it was still very dangerous to travel outside Phnom Penh, Siem Reap/Angkor, and Kompong Som/Sihanoukville.

I witnessed the first pre-coup fighting before the coup in 1997
and felt that I had to return the year after. Then, I had the chance to work as an international election observer, which made my three-month stay (just in Cambodia) even more interesting.

Trekking through the cambodian forest

After the elections, I traveled to a lot of provinces where guide books were only in the making. Imagine taking an airplane to a place called Mondulkiri somewhere in the forest where not even the provincial capital has electricity and you just don’t know what to expect.

You step out of the plane onto the dirt road and wonder if there is a place to stay. You don’t order a specific type of food, you just order “food” there, because all depends what’s in the market today. You hire an elephant and treck through the forest. After the elephant has walked through two or three rivers, the guide asks you to give a sacrifice for the spirits of the jungle. Of course you also get this in Thailand, but here it’s real.

The special thing about my “90 Days in Cambodia” was probably that I went to many places which have only become accessible a very short time before I went there. That even includes the Khmer Rouge semi-autonomous province of Pailin, where you can play roulette with former Communist guerillas who have AK 47s on their backs.

Today, everything is already written down and more travelers are streaming into Cambodia. But for me, it had a bit of an exploration – both outside and inside me.

Who’s the most amazing person you have met ever since you’re travelling?

There were hundreds, including the personal secretary of Pol Pot and the Prime Minister of Barotseland (Western Zambia), but two people stand out:

One is a man I have met in the most distant corner of Cambodia. He was imprisoned by the Vietnamese-friendly regime that had toppled the Khmer Rouge. For eight years, he suffered from malnutrition and maltreatment on a daily basis. In general, there is a lot of xenophobia in Cambodia against the Vietnamese.

This man probably had even more reason to be xenophobic because of his prison experience. But after this humilation, he decided to dedicate his work to human rights.

He now works in a distant province – away from his family, which he sees very rarely – to educate people about their rights, independently of their nationalty. An American human rights organization pays his 150$/month salary.

Asked if he never thought of revenge against the Vietnamese, he said no, that is the past, we have to let it go. If it has something to do with him being Buddhist, I don’t know. And I don’t care.
Because this man is a hero for me no matter what his religion is. He inspired me and brought tears in my eyes when he described his sufferings.

With a bunch of friends in Vietnam

Another person I have met will stay in my mind because he drove the only other car up to the Livingstonia Mission in Malawi, at 2000 m altitude.
His Landrover was equipped like a car on an expedition.

Our VW Beetle from 1974 followed him on the dangerous curves up to the mission. In the evening, I asked the 50-year old British if he was a tourist. He was first reluctant to give an answer and reflected for a few seconds about the question. “I am definately not a tourist”, he said, “I would say, I live in this landrover”.

He has been traveling for the last five or six years all over Africa, without getting once malaria and without getting once killed in Algeria’s or Liberia’s civil wars. The money keeps flowing from the 50% of his company in Britain; his son owns the other 50%…

He wanted to get away from it all, and if you think that I have a lot of experience, think again, this guy has more true exciting stories to tell you than any other person I have met. At the same time, he didn’t get “backpackedized” but remained a “normal”, clean, friendly human being.

Children in Johannesburg
Which is your best and worst experience while travelling?

This shows why I wanted to become a journalist: It’s much easier to pose questions than to answer them 🙂
So here I go, with the same reservations that I’ve made above.

Best experience: Driving a VW Beetle through the potholes and sands of Africa.
Being observed by hundrets of children and adults everywhere you pass.
Digging the sand out and overtaking a Landrover stuck in the sand.
Listening to Kenny Rodgers “The Gambler” over and over again.

Talking to a car that you become to love because it takes you 11’598 km through Southern Africa.

Worst experience
: Talking to war veterans in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Almost every man who was not a refugee is one. I got very tired of these hero’s stories everyone likes to tell.
What is a hero’s story for one person is a horror story for another.
Guess what: Bosnia and Herzegovina is one of the few places in the Western world where women don’t like men with uniform.
What kind of advice would you give to anyone wishing to make his/her way to a rather politically unstable country?

First of all, if you would like to go for the thrill of danger, go somewhere else. The US has a lot of theme parks. A bullet in your head is extremely bad for your health.
I met a German traveler who went with his motorbike through Zaire in November 1996, when government and rebel troups were approaching from both sides. He already knew about the danger when he entered the country, and was only saved through an air evacuation – and with a lot of luck.

So my first advice is: Don’t try to be “cool” or a hero. An American tourist who had just arrived in Phnom Penh was stunned about all the military presence on the streets – he has not heard about the elections…

Second advice: Don’t go if you don’t know anything about it. Read a lot of historical, political, and cultural books about the place. Follow the news. Go through reliable internet sources and directly write to people inside the country to ask them about the current situation.

And my third advice is to keep your eyes open when you are there and follow the advice of other foreigners. Last, but not least: There are many misconceptions about security. First, relatively safe places are considered unsafe just because of their name, i.e. Mozambique; and vice-versa, i.e. parts of the United States of America. Secondly, both in “safe” and “unsafe” countries, the real dangers are often ignored.
The event leading to your death in a developing country is most likely a traffic accident or an HIV infection, not a landmine or bad food.

  At a shooting range in Cambodia
What are you planning to do next year once you get your degree on International Relations?

I am open for any offer 🙂
Responsible journalism is what I am trying to get ready for (and trying to do, as far as possible), for example as a foreign correspondent or a freelance writer for a major organization.

But I said at a certain point in my life that I would like to be a positive factor for other people’s lives.

Journalism has some limits when it comes to ethic considerations. I have been very fortunate in my life so far, even no I went through a lot of crisis.

The fact of the matter remains that I am part of the priviledged minority of this planet. So development programs or NGO work would be another option.
But I will see what destiny (God?) has in mind for me. So far, I was guided in my choices by my inner voice.

I am convinced that a person with good will will approach me at the right time.

What I hope is that whatever I will do has a real meaning for other people and me, and that I will be able to live out my creativity.

A little boy in Mostar
You have mentioned before the spiritual aspect of your travels. Do you have something like a motto, a conclusion?

Memento mori – it’s a latin expression difficult to translate. Consider death, see everything in the light of death.
For me it also means: See everything you do from the point of view of your last minute. Some things become more important, others less.

Weltreisen für 25 Franken pro Tag

© Anzeiger, 2. August 2000

28 Jahre jung, von Beruf gegenwärtig Journalist und Student, besucht
aussergewöhnliche, noch wenig bekannte Länder: Marcel Stoessel liebt und
lebt für Reisen und Schreiben.

Als Kind war sein Traumberuf
Tierarzt, im Alter von 11 oder 12 begann ihn alles zu faszinieren, was
mit Kommunikation zu tun hat. So ist er dann schon mit 12 Jahren zum
Journalismus gekommen: Damals hat er eine Schülerzeitung mit Auflage 100
herausgegeben. Während der Kantonsschulzeit schrieb er schon für das
damalige «St.Galler Tagblatt», Ausgabe Wil, und moderierte bei Radio
Wil. Heute, zehn Jahre später, bezeichnet Stoessel sich am liebsten als
«Reisejournalist». Ob der Journalist oder das Reisen ihm wichtiger und
lieber ist, kann und will er nicht sagen: Für ihn gehört es nun einmal
zusammen! Jetzt ist er neben der journalistischen Tätigkeit wieder am
Studieren und sieht sein Berufsziel darin, Auslandkorrespondent für eine
führende Tageszeitung, für Radio oder Fernsehen zu werden. In Frage
käme vielleicht auch noch die Arbeit für eine unabhängige internationale
Organisation – aber keine Regierungsorganisation, wie er betont.

gibt es viele, gute wie schlechte. Was ist denn das Besondere an diesem
Marcel Stoessel?
Verdient hat er bisher nicht viel an seiner
journalistischen Tätigkeit, gereist ist er jedoch wie wenige in seinem
Alter, und zwar am liebsten in ausgefallene, abgelegene Gegenden in
Asien und Afrika, weit ab vom Urlaubstourismus, wo die andern
Journalisten nicht zu finden sind. Warum? Er will seinen Mitmenschen die
Welt erklären, nicht mehr und nicht weniger. Wohin sein Weg führen
soll, das hat er nie so klar gewusst, weder sein Reiseweg noch sein
Lebensweg, und doch sagt er, alles hätte bisher noch immer recht
geendet. Reisen und Schreiben, das ist sein Leben, und er bringt es
fertig, für 25 Franken im Tag die Welt zu bereisen! Klar, dass er es auf
seinen Fahrten manchmal mit der Angst zu tun kriegt, weil er ja in
Gebiete reist, die wenig erschlossen sind! Da ist er einmal freiwilliger
Wahlbeobachter in Kambodscha, dann erlebt er schon auch gelegentlich
eine Schiesserei und erzählt uns, wie er in den Mekong gefallen ist: 

Laos reiste ich als eine Art Passagier auf einem Frachtboot durch den
Dschungel, setzte mich zur besseren Sicht auf das Dach des langen
Bootes, ein Sturm brach herein, und beim Versuch, vom Dach
herunterzuklettern, glitt ich aus und fiel in den Strom. Das Schiff fuhr
weiter, ich wusste nicht, ob mein Sturz von der Mannschaft beobachtet
worden war, es regnete, dass man die Hand nicht vor den Augen sah, und
das Wasser war eine dunkelgrüne Brühe. Sollte ich versuchen, an Land zu
schwimmen? – aber was dann? Ich wusste ja nicht, wo ich war, wie weit
von einer Siedlung, von andern Menschen und in welcher Richtung ich mich
durch den Dschungel schlagen müsste. Ich hoffte, dass einer von der
Mannschaft meinen Sturz bemerkt hatte » Und er hatte Glück: Das Schiff
kehrte nach einiger Zeit zurück, man reichte ihm eine lange Stange in
die Fluten, an der er sich festklammerte. Was er nicht wusste, war, dass
dies hierzulande ein normales Prozedere zur Rettung aus dem Wasser war
und dass man von ihm erwartete, dass er die Stange hinaufklettere – bis
man ihn schliesslich völlig erschöpft aus dem Fluss herauszog. Mancher
hätte nach einem solchen Erlebnis die Abenteuerreisen aufgegeben, doch
Stoessel liegen Abenteuer und Reisen tief im Blut.

Schon aus seiner
Kindheit kann er sich nicht erinnern, dass es ihm jemals langweilig
gewesen wäre. Als sein Vater damals einige Jahre in Ägypten arbeitete,
lebte auch er für ein Jahr dort. Leider ertrug er die mit Wüstensand
gesättigte Luft nicht und musste wegen Lungenproblemen wieder nach
Hause. Überhaupt scheint er das Fernweh von seinem Vater zu haben, der
heute für den Bund ein Entwicklungsprojekt in Vietnam leitet. Trotz der
grossen Distanz hat er mit seinem Vater häufigeren Kontakt als zu den
Zeiten, da der Vater noch in der Schweiz war – und zwar nur dank E-Mail,
das Vater und Sohn eifrigst benützen, um miteinander zu
korrespondieren. Diese enge Bindung zum Vater ist auch einer der Gründe,
weshalb er am liebsten Südostasien bereist. Das Verhältnis zu seinem
Vater beschreibt er denn auch als freundschaftlich und unersetzlich, und
der Mutter, die es mit zwei Kindern nicht leicht gehabt hätte, möchte
er eines Tages etwas von dem zurückgeben können, das sie ihm geschenkt
hat. Ob er auch einmal eine eigene Familie gründen wolle? Wenn es sich
mit seiner Tätigkeit vereinbaren liesse, ja, dann schon, aber solange er
gesund sei, möchte er doch in fremden Ländern leben, und wenn sich eben
– zum Beispiel wegen der Schule für die Kinder – kein solcher Ort
finden liesse, dann – ja, dann bleibe er eben unverheiratet. 

finanziert er denn seine Reisen? Zum Ersten reist er, so unglaublich es
dem Leser scheinen mag, für durchschnittlich 25 Franken pro Tag. In
Indien zum Beispiel könne man sogar für 15 Franken im Tag leben Mit dem
Ertrag seiner journalistischen Berichte von einer Reise finanziert er
dann gleich die nächste. Man sieht: Für ihn gibt es keinen Unterschied
zwischen Arbeit und Freizeit: «Wenn das je der Fall wäre, so würde ich
gleich den Beruf wechseln !» Kein Wunder, dass er zwischen «Ferien» und
«Reisen» einen ganz grundsätzlichen Unterschied macht ! Nach den zwei
wichtigsten Dingen in seinem Leben gefragt, nennt er denn auch als
Tätigkeit Reisen und als Tugend Ehrlichkeit. Auf die Frage, ob Geld ihm
wichtig sei, antwortet Stoessel konsequenterweise mit: « nur zum Reisen
!» Und wenn er nun unerwartet im Lotto eine Million gewänne? Da muss er
im Gegensatz zu den meisten, denen wir diese Frage gestellt haben,
keinen Augenblick nachdenken: «Da würde ich in Südostasien ein
Mikroprojekt für Erziehung oder Gesundheit unterstützen !» Als Beispiel
nennt er Dr. Richners Spital in Kambodscha, das er, tief beeindruckt,
selber besucht hat. «Und noch eins!», fügt er gleich bei, «ich würde mir
dazu noch ein kleines Häuschen in einem Entwicklungsland kaufen, das
muss nicht teuer sein, für dreissigtausend Franken wäre es schon zu
kriegen !»

Die modernen Kommunikationsmittel liebt er, sie
wären eine ganz extreme Bereicherung der Kommunikation. Als Beispiel
führt er an, dass seine Reiseberichte im Internet von bis zu 20 000
Menschen gelesen würden ( Die Zukunft der
Kommunikation liege eindeutig im Internet und im digitalen Mobilfunk.
Die Bedürfnisse wären natürlich nicht für jeden gleich, aber für ihn
persönlich liege das Internet mit grossem Vorsprung an der Spitze.
Allerdings liest er auch viel Zeitung, eine gute Stunde im Tag – er ist
ja schliesslich Journalist und will immer bestens orientiert sein. Von
der Sensationspresse hält er gar nichts, den «gehobenen Boulevard»
hingegen empfindet er als Bereicherung. Bücher hätte er in der Schule
gelesen – vielleicht käme das für ihn später wieder in Frage, momentan
hätte er einfach keine Zeit, zu seinem Vergnügen zu lesen. Fernsehen
interessiert ihn wenig, und Radio hört er, weil er selber dabei
mitarbeitet. Hingegen hofft er, dass Kino, Theater, Oper, Konzerte
weiterhin Bestand haben, denn er sieht sie als «kulturell-soziale

Mit seinen eigenen Leistungen ist er, der doch
sonst einen recht selbstbewussten Eindruck hinterlässt, nie zufrieden.
Er sei eben Perfektionist, erklärt er. Seine grösste Befriedigung liegt
darin, mit interessanten Menschen eine offene Diskussion zu führen; sein
grösster Wunsch für die Menschheit ist innerer und äusserer Frieden. Er
glaubt an das Gute im Menschen und erzählt uns, dass ihn der Buddhismus
im fernen Osten sehr fasziniert und tief beeindruckt habe, vor allem
die Mönche: «Man spürt geradezu ihren grossen inneren Frieden !» Und um
Missverständnissen vorzubeugen, fügt er gleich bei: « aber ich bin ein
gläubiger Christ !»

Hans Zollikofer

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.

Gorazde – symbol of resistance

Bosnia can’t be only bad news. Gorazde is a symbol of resistance – the only one of the Muslim enclaves in Eastern Bosnia that didn’t fall. That’s where Joop and me are heading the next day.

Just outside Sarajevo, we pass through Pale. The former capital of the “Republika Srpska” has not been destroyed at all. The ski-lifts and mine-free mountains would be ready for the Olympic games in 2’010. How great it would be if the IOC could give the Games again to Sarajevo!
Pale - that's all there is to it nowadays
A woman asks Jasmin if he’s a Muslim. She probably realized it from his behavior. No problems. The two start to talk. We let them talk. Later we ask what the discussion was about. About Sarajevo, how nice it was before the war. We had everything before the war, and what do we have now? Nothing. Both agree.
On the way to Gorazde, we pass again through Bosnian Serb territory and reach “Serbian Gorazde” first. Everything is divided in Bosnia. Edin and Jasmin refuse to eat in this part of town. A 60-year old factory worker tells us he doesn’t like the politicians (nobody does in Bosnia), but he admires general Mladic. In this part of Gorazde, very few people talk to us at all.
When we arrive in the Muslim part, our two friends are smiling again. Here they know everybody, including – of course – the girls. A man who is not smiling arrives with his car with a German number plate. He tells me about his houses in “Serbian Gorazde”, four houses that he had built with his own hands for his extended family. Now, one is destroyed, and Serbs live in the three others. His hope to be ever able to return there is dim. His car is full of consumer goods that he brought from Germany in a 16-hour drive. He pays the rent for two of his daughters who still live here. Paying a rent if you have three houses just 2 km away.
“I have lost everything, absolutely everything”, he tells me and cries. I almost cry myself. I look into the eyes of a strong man crying like a child because some nationalists wanted to turn back the clock to the 19th century. “Now, I have also lost my nerves”.
Two former war enemies - a Serb and a Muslim, Gorazde, 1999Next stop: a transitory refugee station. We unite a Serb and a Muslim – who have both fought in the war – around the same table. They both want to return to their respective part of Gorazde. As for now, they live in the same refugee centre and – what is rare – they believe in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We ask the same questions, and very often, the answers are similar. “This war was such a big mistake”, the 70-year old Serb says. “I will probably not experience the time when things are back to normal. But for the rest of my life, I will fight for it.” They even tell us who gets their votes in the next election: the multi-ethnic social-democratic party.
A woman interrupts us. She also has a story to tell – and no one wants to listen. OK, we want to listen.
Truth and fiction in BosniaHere goes the story: The man was in a Serb concentration camp, where he was beaten almost every day. He is now dependent of tranquilizers. Asylum was refused to them when they fled to Germany, and now they are in this refugee centre with their four children. We can see that the man is also an alcoholic and we feel that he probably beats the woman. She tells us the children sometimes have to look for food in the containers.
Here goes the truth, after some research with MSF: This is one of the numerous mixed marriages. The man is a Serb. He refused to go to the Bosnian Serb army during the war and was imprisoned for this. In Germany, however, he maintained that he was a Muslim. The family voluntarily left Germany after the war. They have been offered a newly built house in Gorazde – they refused because “it was too far away from the centrer”. The woman and the children were offered to go to a centre for women who are abused by their men. She refused.
So instead of a typical Bosnia war story, this is a typical family story like it happens all around the world. Joop and me have already made plans how we can help them. “Everybody wants to help them”, the French woman from MSF tells us, “but they simply refuse every help”.
Around these days, the New York Times claimed that up to 1 of the 5 billion US $ of international aid went into corrupt hands.

Next: Banja Luka
Books about the subject

Sarajevo – it still exists

“As long as Sarajevo exists, this newspaper will publish every day”, the editor-in-chief of Oslobodjenje is remembered to have said to his employees when the siege of Sarajevo began. The multi-ethnic paper did come out every day, and still exists – even no the two towers of newspaper are completely destroyed – and will remain like that, as a memorial of the war.

I remember watching the Swiss ski team on TV in 1984 at the Olympic games in Sarajevo. I also remember pronouncing “Sarajevo” dozens, hundreds of times on the radio, telling people that a new cease-fire had been agreed upon… Now I have arrived here myself, by train, and every minute of the day, the word “Sarajevo” is in my mind.
The front was where the trees startThe Olympic town has been thrown into the Middle Ages from one day to the other – during the 3-year siege, university professors became wood-collectors, and going out of your house was a deadly risk. Despite all the books, I never really emotionally understood the difference between attacking and defending in a war until I talked to the people in Sarajevo. The former front line is all around the city. You can still recognize it clearly: It’s where the trees start on the hills. Everything wooden has been cut to survive the winters. When you walk around town, there is almost no place where this tree-front-line can’t be seen.
Zihad was one of the defenders. The man in his 30ies tells me how he bought weapons in a town where even foreign head of states had troubles getting in. There were two ways, he explains: from the Croats – but they would take 50% for themselves (and possibly use them against Bosniaks elsewhere), or from the Serbs on the hills:
“We are both behind our respective frontlines. Then I would shout: ‘I want to buy a Kalashnikov. Can we make a truce?’ Then the Serb would respond: ‘OK, let’s make a truce from 4 p.m.’ At that time, both come out of their positions and negotiate. 500 DM for the gun, 1 DM per bullet. I give him 1000 DM, he gives me the gun. At 5 p.m. we go back behind our lines and start shooting at each other again”.
I ask him: “Do you know that you live in the craziest country in Europe?” – “Yes”, he shouts, laughs, and dances on the streets of Sarajevo.
The ruins of the former parliament building in the backgroundThe humor is universal with all ethnicities in Bosnia and Herzegovina (so is the driving style). A very popular souvenir – except for all kinds of used ammunition with pictures hammered in – is the Sarajevo Survival Map and the Sarajevo Survival Guide. The latter, which came out during the siege, can only be warmly recommended. The authors tell you how “to cook something out of nothing” and why driving fast over crossroads is the rule in Sarajevo (to escape snipers). In the introduction of the Michelin-style travel guide, you can read: “War so far hasn’t changed the climate”.
The place of the market square massacre - with a big Sarajevo roseBut it has changed a lot of other things, even if the Turkish old town (Bascarsija) is basically rebuilt (except for the National Library). So-called “Sarajevo red roses” – artillery craters filled with red gum – are a reminder of the places where three or more people have died. The outskirts of town still look horrible. It won’t be long before war tourism sets in. A Sarajevo Survival Shop has already opened, but I haven’t spotted any “I have survived Sarajevo” T-Shirt yet.  Foreigners govern Bosnia and Herzegovina. The “White House” is one of the nicknames people give to the seat of the “Office of the High Representative”. That’s where the real decisions are made. The High Representative has to agree with himself about everything the democratically elected nationalists can’t agree amongst themselves: common flag, common licence plate, common currency, common border police, new passport, return of refugees, … He can impose measures and depose politicians – and has done so.
All ethnic groups agree that this European protectorate is not what they want. If you are against it, you must be ready to accept the alternative: apartheid, brought about by “ethnic cleansing” and genocide.
The foreigners get a lot of money (“It’s the only reason we are in this shitty place”, says one). A lot of them have an alcohol problem. And like in comparable places, intelligent locals have made sure foreigners are catered for. In the “Internet Café” (a restaurant and a disco, it changes names frequently), foreigners and locals mix and try to dance and drink it all away. When the place closes, three young women ask if I want to go to another disco they know with them. OK. On the way there, I realize that one of them is a Serb, one a Croat, and one a Bosniak. Sarajevo was always like that. “I love you all”, I said to them. After the second disco closes around 5 a.m.), they asked where my car is or if I have money for a taxi. When I say that I am walking and that I am also not willing to pay their taxi, they were all – ethnically equal – pissed. No car, no money, no marriage.
Bosniaks, Serbs, Croats, Jews, SFOR-soldiers, employees of international organizations, and the few tourists, all have one in common in the afternoon: they are just terribly hot in the summer sun of Sarajevo.
Bascarsija - the old Turkish Bazar
Sarajevo will soon be a town ready again to accommodate tourists, and in the nearby Pale, you can already now do world-class  I interview many representatives of the so-called “international
community” in the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. These are probably
not of big interest to visitors to this page. I would like to point out,
however, one remarkable woman from an NGO called “Society for
Fadila Memisevic

This man has experienced three wars in his life - nothing can make him stop laughing.
rview many representatives of the so-called “international
community” in the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. These are probably
not of big interest to visitors to this page. I would like to point out,
however, one remarkable woman from an NGO called “Society for

Threatened Peoples” (Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker).
Fadila Memisevic is now the head of the Bosnian section of this human
rights organization. Even during the war, she went from
Germany through all of war-torn Bosnia to Zenica, risking her life for the people there. Today, she still believes in a multi-cultural Bosnia and Herzegovina. She repeats again and again: “One cannot destroy our multi-cultural Bosnia with weapons”. One might say that it already has been destroyed by weapons, but Bosnia needs people like her. Bosnia doesn’t need the young pessimists who leave the country as soon as they can for a better future abroad. Fadila is especially engaged for the women of Srebrenica: “They want truth” – a bitter truth it will probably be. She also often points out the destiny of the Roma, which many people only know as beggar children on the street. Fadila is not neutral and not impartial. But being impartial in this conflict meant being impartial between aggressors and victims. You can’t expect someone to just leave this psychological baggage behind.

In front of an SFOR base in SarajevoContrary to what I expected, everyone wants to talk about war. One elderly man insists on telling me every detail on how his son defended Sarajevo while his son’s friends watched the war on TV in Germany. After more than two hours, I find out that the man is a Serb, and that his son was in the Bosnian army. “It was not written on the heads of the people who is a Serb and who is a Muslim”, he says, which lets me think about “target discrimination” on the part of the attackers on the hills….
But despite all of this, Sarajevo still exists, and it’s worth a trip
Marcel in front of a Mosque, Sarajevo, 1999

Mostar: The City of Apartheid

The catholic Croats are proud of “their” Medjugorje, and they often go there. But as some humorists say: Now to something completely different.
Tourism sign at the front line, seen through an artillerie whole
To do it the other way around, going from Medjugorje to East Mostar (meaning east of the former front line, the Muslim part) is not all that easy. No consistent rumors about buses, I don’t want to hitchhike (like I did before) with all the baggage, so I splash out 30 DM for a taxi. “What is the name of the street again? But that is in East Mostar”, the Croat driver says. He absolutely refuses to cross what is commonly called “the invisible wall”, the completely destroyed former frontline.
50 m from that frontline- street, he stops.
82-year old Muslim in his 500-year old Turkish house There I go, in the hot sun (40 degrees centigrade in the shadow), walking over a former frontline, where hundreds of thousands of bullets have hit every single building, going into Mostar’s old city, trying to find the pension I have phoned. 2 liters of sweat later, the price of that pension has incredibly increased since yesterday. No way. Good-bye.
An 82-year-old Muslim man stops me. “I have a 500-year old Turkish house. Do you want to see it?” Yes, but first a bed and a shower. No, he wants to show me his old Turkish house. One liter of sweat later, we arrive there. Somewhere in the middle, he stops: “My heart!” Then I have to make the tour of that – indeed – wonderful house. It belonged to a wealthy Osman family, has survived World War I and World War II, but not the 90’s. I get to see the kitchen, the living room, and some books as old as 500 years. I recover somewhat over tea, where he tells me that he also has a house in Western Mostar, now occupied by the army of the Republic of “Herceg-Bosna”, a republic that is theoretically dead and buried. But Dayton is one thing, the facts on the ground are quite another. As much as I feel sorrow for the victims of this war, I almost become one from dehydration: I reluctantly bring up the subject of getting a place to stay. Oh yes, he knows someone, “very close”. Almost on the other end of Eastern Mostar, two liters of sweat later, I get to know another proud descendent of the Osmans, around 60 years old, married “three or four times, I don’t remember”. The guy has a lot of humor and knows four languages. Finally, I have arrived, six hours after I’ve left Medjugorje, 30 km away.
In front of the Karadzozbeg Mosque (1557)
After having slept under a Cross and after having had breakfast next to the picture of the Pope, I now wake up to the sound of Mosques. This is the multicultural Bosnia and Herzegovina – you can still see it, if you are a foreigner.
The very symbol of multiculturalism was the “old bridge” (Stari Most) – that the Croats destroyed in 1993. Now you can see how the Hungarians fish the pieces of one of Europe’s most remarkable bridges out of the Neretva River. Whenever possible, they will use the same stones. The running joke is that Stari Most will be older than before with the Hungarians re-building it. Of course, SFOR takes care of security, and the new bridge will need 24 hours of surveillance, that’s for sure.
Stari Most - can you recognize where it used to be?
Former front line between East and West MostarEvery day, I do what few locals do, at least three times: crossing the former front line, that 1.5 km stretch of a street that makes Mostar continental Europe’s city of apartheid. On the Eastern side of that street – which a sarcast named “Boulevard of European Union” – you are in Bosnia and Herzegovina. On the Western side, everyone feels and behaves like in Croatia. There is even a provocative sign: “Welcome to Croatia”. In a café in Western Mostar, the mood is easy until the waiter, who was an HVO soldier during the war, wants to start talking about the war. “This is f****** occupation”, he says, adding that later he earned only 1’500 DM as an interpreter and field officer for the ICRC (an incredible amount in Bosnia). Thanks to the ICRC job, his knowledge about Switzerland is very deep and differentiated. We hand out syringes and drugs for free to drug addicts (half-true, to avoid HIV, crime and prostitution), while he would kill his son if he was addicted. I also learn that the Swiss, living in a multicultural state, are “foreigners in your own country”. One day, the Croats will kick the international community out of their country, just like in Somalia. And as to the Muslims: “Can’t you choose your neighbors?”. No, we can’t.
Rebuilding a Serb house in Rastani, near MostarI am aware that Western Mostar is not Bosnia; it’s the worst of Bosnia. Only a few kilometers outside Mostar, in the village of Rastani, the other Bosnia can be seen. Here, Serbs and Muslims help each other re-build completely destroyed houses. The Serb coordinator for the return of the Serb refugees is overly optimistic: “This will be an eldorado”, while a pensioner, who has to live with less than 100 DM a month, says they will continue to rely on international aid – even for food. Only the Croats of Rastani try to do some last-minute obstruction to the return of the refugees, by cutting off the water to the Serb and Muslim part of town, for example. One Muslim historian present complains: “We are a protectorate. Why doesn’t Mr. Petritsch turn on the water?”.
In East Mostar, also everyone wants to tell war stories, emphasizing their roles as victims. “Once a grenade just went 2 meters past me when I was running to get water in the Mosque”, a woman tells me. Most Muslims seem to be quite secular: If you look at the dresses of the young women, you are convinced that the Sharia is not what they think about the whole day…
Mixed graveyard in Western MostarThe most pervert thing about Mostar are – again – the cemeteries. Like everywhere in the towns that were in the war zones, almost all green areas have been transformed into cemeteries. But in Western Mostar, you can learn history from these cemeteries. In some of them, Catholic and Muslim graves are next to each other – that was in the first phase of the war, when Croats and Bosniaks fought alongside against the Serb attack. In others, it’s Croat-only – ethnically divided, like everything in this country.
But things are moving towards the better, even in this horrible town. The youngsters sometimes go to the discos of the “other side”, fall in love with each other, but don’t say anything to their parents… The mafia cooperates. And at the front line, the first café is open again, and some renovation is being done.
250’000 deaths and 2 mio. refugees can’t be forgotten in a few years.
Old or new demons? Former front line.