From the Konjic fallout shelter, turned into a contemporary art gallery, to the streets in the center of Sarajevo. Who waged war? Why? A trip in the heart of Bosnia in search of answers

01/11/2011 -  Azra Nuhefendić

Before it closes, I rush to see one of the cultural events in 2011 Europe, the Konjic contemporary art exhibition. After about an hour on the bus from Sarajevo, I get to the city of Konjic. The exhibition has been set up in Tito’s fallout shelter, remained secret for 60 years. While I am waiting for the guided tour to begin, I sit outside building, the Kulturni Dom (the House of Culture). Built in the 1960s, simple and elegant, rising on the right bank of the river, well integrated with its surroundings. Today, however, it is neglected, un-kept, half empty. What a shame, I think. On the other side of the street, they are building a monster in cement, steel and glass. It is cumbersome, for this place, it has no beauty. Yet another shopping center. BiH does not produce anymore, it just trades.  

Two women

After a while, an elderly lady sits next to me. A moment later, another one sits down next to her. They are town women, from the countryside: they are both wearing a head scarf, one of them black, the other one multicolored, which means one is a Muslim, the other one is Catholic. We chat. They are from two small towns close by and are waiting for the bus to go home. They both live alone, their children are somewhere else, emigrated or disappeared, or killed during the war.

The sighs of the two Grandmas sound alike, when I ask them about the war. In their towns, the Croats carried out massacres, followed by the Muslims in revenge. They speak about solitude with a melancholic tone. One of them lights up when speaking about a goat: ‘She was not like the others, she used to look me straight in the eye, she understood everything’. Then she tells us that her son came back from Norway and talked her into giving the goat away. ‘But I will get another one’, she says unconvinced, as if she were trying to encourage or convince herself. I look at the two women, a Catholic and a Muslim: they talk to each other, they understand each other, they both eat burek, and have similar destinies, share the same solitude, the same abandonment.


I arrive in front of the entrance of the fallout shelter: it is the door to a house just like any other around here. This place is idyllic, nothing tells that that is the entrance to an armored refuge, 5.000 square meters dug 300 meters deep into the mountain. The secret of the bunker was revealed at the beginning of the 90s war, as those who had sworn to silence no longer felt bound to a crumbling Country, Yugoslavia.

A group is made up of about 20 Germans who belong to the international forces in BiH. Tito had never personally been in the bunker and now, here are soldiers from a Country that, in theory, Yugoslavia feared and against whom it safeguarded itself by building fortresses like this bunker. Another group is made up of Montenegrins, 6 Slovenians, an Italian-German student and 2 from Banja Luka. A somewhat bored officer from the Bosnian army explains to us what we are about to see. He is tall and well-built. I notice that his uniform, compared to the officers from the former Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA), is not perfectly tidy. Hmmmmm, possibly because it was those who were always neat and tidy in their uniforms, who blindly followed orders, even when they were about attacking their own people.

It is a fairy-tale place: furnished and well kept. Everything works: the halls, the bedrooms, the bathrooms, the offices, the rooms with the various equipment and systems that would allow to survive in this place for six months with no need for the external world. Some of the German soldiers lay on Tito’s bed, one looks himself in the mirror in the First Lady’s room, others touch the old printing machines. In a small room there is a machine that allows you to record and listen to your own voice at once. We joke around and, hugging some Boris from Banja Luka, I find myself singing “Druže Tito mi ti se kunemo” (Comrade Tito, we swear to you that we shall not deviate from your path).

The officer guiding us is precise when speaking of the details of the bunker, while he does not dwell on the contemporary art exhibition, only stating: ‘Yes, that’s by that guy….’. He is not interested, does not understand and does not even try to get us involved.

At the end of the tour, after two and a half hours, I get ready to go back to Sarajevo. The Slovenians offer me a ride on their bus: they are going to Sarajevo for a short visit as they are planning to do some rafting on the Neretva river, tomorrow. We joke and I offer them some torotan cheese that I bought at the local market. It is a delicious Herzegovian specialty, fresh goat cheese. We take it directly from the bag with our hands, something that should not be done but which makes us all feel like accomplices. We laugh. They invite me to go rafting with them the next day, though I warn them that the water level of the Neretva is at its all-time low. ‘It doesn’t matter, it’s nice anyway. What counts is the people you go with, and then there’s good food’, they underline. I do not have the proper equipment or clothes. I make a phone call and, on the other side, a friendly voice, one of the many rafting organizers, ensures me to ‘just come’, everything is provided for by the organizers.


In Sarajevo everyone is out (of it), literally and symbolically. The weather is nice, the streets are crowded with smiling people, light-hearted as if everything were going well in a Country which, according to international politicians, is on the verge of crumbling.

I am on Ferhadija street, where people can hardly walk because of the so many open-air bar tables. ‘If you want to see or meet someone, lurk there’, they told me. As soon as I sit, bingo!, here comes Gordana Knežević, a friend and colleague. She is the great editor of the daily Oslobodjenje, declared a heroine of journalism in 1992. I had not seen her in 8 years. She emigrated to Canada and is now in Prague, where she is the director of Radio Free Europe. She has only been in Sarajevo for two hours. Screams of joy, hugs. Some curious people look at us. Then a man sitting at the next table tells me how these scenes are often seen in July and August. “Diaspora”, he concludes with a rather unpleasant and displeased tone. In Bosnia, the most hated after the Serb nationalists (Chetniks) are the Bosnians emigrated somewhere else, people like me. I hear the same words/accusations from my sister, even though she herself was a refugee in Germany for two years.

Then comes Mladen Jelačić, whom everybody knows as Troka. There has not been a single child in Sarajevo in the past 40 years not to have taken a picture with Troka: he is our Santa Claus. It is his job, and he was personally affected when the authorities from the Muslim Party (SDA) banned “Santa Claus” on the grounds that it was a custom foreign to Bosnians. Troka and I had last met about 20 years ago, on the Dubrovnik nudist beach. I was laying on my belly, when I turned around and saw him. ‘Hey, I’m sorry, I didn’t recognize you from your behind’. All these years, I laughed at this joke every time I thought about him. Troka’s daughter, who has serious health problems, is being treated in Italy. Italians hurried in helping her, something which inspired the colleague Zlatko Dizdarević to write that ‘each of us is to have at least two Countries, their country of origin and Italy as their second’.

Then, surprise!, comes Selma. She had been living “since forever” in Belgrade and here she is, a citizen of Sarajevo. She is desperate. ‘I will never get used to this city, it’s so tight, there are only two main streets, but I could no longer live among those (the Serbs) who waged war on us’, she says.

Enjo Hadžiomerspahić’s protest

The noise in the street is so loud that I have to get closer to hear what I am being told. However, a slight but penetrating sound can be heard from somewhere not afar. Troka tells me that right in front of the Eternal Flame, Enjo Hadžiomerspahić, Ars Aevi’s director general, is playing the flute. Enjo has organized an artistic happening to protest: he is symbolically begging, as for 20 years Bosnian authorities have been promising they would provide a space for the modern art gallery. Enjo is known to the international public for being the author of the Ars Aevi project, which encouraged some of the most important contemporary painters to donate their works to Sarajevo. Established during the war as cultural resistance, the collection is made up of over 120 works by renowned artists from all over the world, among whom are Michelangelo Pistoletto, Jannis Kounellis, Joseph Beuys, Braco Dimitrijević and Joseph Kosuth. The genesis of this visionary work is two decades long. It all started during the Sarajevo siege. While bombs rained on the city, a group of intellectuals imagined a utopia: ‘It seemed crazy to talk about a future museum in those days, when none of us knew whether they were going to be alive a minute or an hour later’, Enjo explains. Today, the value of the collection is priceless. There is not enough room, however, to guard it and to exhibit the works.

The same evening, on a terrace with a wonderful view on the city, we have a barbecue with a group of friends. The wine does its own: after a while we start arguing over which is most important for Sarajevo: the contemporary art gallery, which does not even exist, or the national museum, shut down after 60 years because of lack of funds. ‘It’s a national tragedy’, states Momo, a veteran in the last war. For three and a half years he fought, in his own words, ‘for Bosnia’. ‘But is this the world I held my life on the line for….?’, he asks himself and us. Then he starts crying, and the evening comes to an end.

Everything but the rakija

It has not rained much in BiH, this year. The summer was long and hot and, consequently, plums are small, but very tasty. Some complain that there are not enough to export, but many are happy. There will be more for the rakija, the home-made alcohol. Every year in this period, much to the dismay of local mullahs, the whole of Bosnia smells like rakija. With superb irony, the famous journalist Boris Dežulović writes how ‘with the re-discovery of Islam, Bosnians are ready to go back to mosques, pray five times a day, pilgrimage, give up on ham and pork, ban Santa Claus, stop listening to rock’n’roll, let their beards grow, wrap women in sheets… willing to give up on everything but the rakija’.

At the fruit and vegetable market, the counters creak under the weight of the plums. Fifty cents for a kilo. The market sellers often look different from the farmers from the outskirts of Sarajevo. They stand out because they are taller, sturdier and many of them have blue eyes. I talk to them and discover that many of them come from Eastern Bosnia, from the gorgeous and fertile places along the river Drina. They are the Muslims “cleansed” from Višegrad, Foča, Goražde, Srebrenica, Cerska. Their homes were destroyed, but many of those I meet still have vast pieces of land and woods. ‘They [the Serbs] are pushing me to sell them, but as long as I live I am not selling my ancestors’ land’, says a lady who used to be an elementary-school teacher before the war; now she sells the fruit she picks in her own orchard 200 kilometers away from the capital. Her children were raised in Sarajevo, have no intentions of going back to where they were born, but that is the only place she feels at home.

Who waged war?

Ferida Duraković, a poet friend back from Belgrade, tells me how she was given a warm welcome, how the attendants at the Pen Club world convention (the worldwide writers’ association), Serbs included, greeted with a long applause the proposal to appoint Sarajevo cultural capital of Europe in 2014. The taxi driver, to whom she hesitated telling where she was coming from, told her, resigned: ‘We have all been deceived’. Another friend of mine, a retired Judge, has just come back enthusiastic from the Friends of the Mountain gathering held in Split, Croatia. He says ‘they came from all over former Yugoslavia, and we had so much fun! I made a new friend, love is on the way’, planning future encounters.

I think of the two elderly ladies, a Catholic and a Muslim, who understand each other and share the same fate. I think of Boris, the Serb who sang with me. I think of the applauses in the center of Belgrade for Sarajevo. I think of the new-born friendship in Split. I wonder: ‘Who waged war? And Why?’

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