The Books Interview: Barbara Demick

View of Sarajevo on 2 April, 2012. Credit: Getty Images

 

You’re publishing a new edition of your book about the siege of Sarajevo 20 years after the war in Bosnia began. Why go back now?
It sounds a little strange, since it was a terrible war, but I think a lot of us who covered the war in Sarajevo have, I wouldn’t say nostalgia, but a great fondness for the place.
 
We all ended up stuck there, besieged like the rest of Sarajevo. So I think there was a solidarity that you don’t always see during a war. Certainly in subsequent conflicts, like Afghanistan and Iraq, we were often targeted by the people living there. But in Sarajevo we were treated very well and 
felt part of the place. 
 
You went to Bosnia as a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. How much did you know about the country when you arrived?
I probably knew less than most Europeans because at that time I’d never travelled there before, whereas it was a common holiday destination for Europeans.
 
I think my naivety and freshness as a foreign correspondent is conveyed in the book and the things that I saw – maybe they wouldn’t surprise me much now, because I’ve seen a lot but then I’d never seen anything like it.
 
Are you trying to rescue the story of the Bosnian war from the memory hole?
Yes. It’s amazing because it was such a cause in the 1990s. I say this in the book: Sarajevo was a name that summed up a multitude of horrors. And then it just fell off the map.
 
The outbreak of war in the former Yugoslavia rudely interrupted the post-cold war euphoria, didn’t it?
There was this tremendous optimism after 1989 – everybody was talking about the “peace dividend” and the end of history. And suddenly there’s this really nasty war. I think it just caught everybody by surprise. 
 
A lot of terrible things have happened in the 20 years since – Rwanda and the wars in Africa, obviously Iraq and Afghanistan, Sudan – but this was the first modern ethnic war in Europe and that was horrifying. It was one of the first wars in which all these horrors were unfolding before the eyes of UN peacekeepers, as well as journalists.
 
In the new edition you write that the war didn’t destroy Sarajevo’s distinctive “magic”. How would you describe that?
Everybody talks about the ethnic divisions as being terribly burdensome but the differences are what makes the culture very rich. This is a European city where there are deep Ottoman traditions, with a lot of the magic of Istanbul. There’s also a strong Christian element – the cathedral is in the centre of town and it’s a big gathering place.
 
How do you assess the state of ethnic relations today? One gets the impression that tensions have been managed rather than resolved.
That’s a good way to put it. Unfortunately, I think the heart of the problem is economics. Most of the jobs are assigned by the political parties, which are mostly ethnic, and that keeps alive the sense of division.
 
How seriously do you take fears of “Islamisation” in Bosnia?
It may not be a Muslim city but it’s a city mostly populated by Muslims. But it’s a very moderate brand of Turkish Islam. I think there are now fewer headscarves than there were during the war, when there was a religious resurgence.
 
Do people in Sarajevo fear that war might return?
Peace feels fragile enough that people are afraid to change the Dayton agreement. Everybody says the same thing: we just don’t want the war back, anything is better than that. So they’ve learned to live with the legacy of Dayton.
 
How closely will Sarajevans be following the trial of the Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic in The Hague, which starts in May?
Very. I think there’s still a sense that justice needs to be done.
 
How optimistic are you about the future of Bosnia?
I don’t see anything like what happened before happening again – mainly because neither side has weapons.
 
Interview by Jonathan Derbyshire
Barbara Demick’s “Besieged: Life Under Fire on a Sarajevo Street” is published by Granta (£8.99)