There are good news to be told from a journey to the heart of the Balkans. And some not so good news on this trip to Bosnia. That may seem absurd to people from the privileged West. Dire circumstances the people of Bosnia have to put up with every day.
“Muzej je otvoren” – “The Museum Is Open”. For people in Bosnia it doesn’t take any additional explanation to understand what museum it is the headline of the daily Oslobodjene refers to. Busloads of schoolchildren are taken to the newly opened National Museum in Sarajevo.
A museum that had once been a symbol of pride and extraordinary scholarship. A museum that has become a symbol of national shame to all those who believe in Bosnia as one country and in culture as a unifying bond in this part of the world still shaken by the bloody eruption of ethnic conflicts in the 90’s.
“This is so great”, says a visitor from Germany. She’s been living in Sarajevo for several years and is proudly showing her father around the place, even discovering new items on exhibition herself. “One can learn so much about this country. And it used to be such a great place to spend time in. I really missed it when it was closed”.
“It is one of the best museums of its kind”, Tomas tells me during a conversation in the botanical garden of the museum. The former employee in a bookshop had had to flee Bosnia during the war and spent a decade or so in Prague. Like so many of his countrymen he couldn’t really get back on his feet when he returned.
Tomas, wo refuses to give his last name, says he now lives on 6 Marks per day. That would be 3 Euros. He certainly looks it. 6 Marks is also the regular entrance fee for the “Zemaljski Muzej”, as the museum is called in Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian.
The 50-ish man looks malnourished and appears to barely have a tooth left in his mouth. In the botanical garden full of historical stone objects such as stećci, medieval tombstones only found in Bosnia and along the border regions, he asks visitors in the museum for change.
Alma, who also would prefer not give her last name, now has her job back. She’s one of the museum’s employees. “While the museum was closed for the past three years, I was unemployed”, she tells me. “Now this is a day of joy”.
The museum had closed following a dispute over the budget for it and several other national cultural institutions in Bosnia in 2012. The government of Republika Srpska, one of the two entities that officially make up the Republic of Bosnia and Hercegovina, had refused to pay its share, saying that the Museum was not within its territory.
Many Bosnians regarded this as an act of national shame, regardless of their ethnicity.
So many see the re-opening also as a symbol of national unity. In spite of the fact that this time again the government of Republika Srpska refused to contribute as much as a cent to the museum’s budget.
A Train Station Without Trains
The only real connection to the world to be had in the train station of Sarajevo is the WiFi the cafes in the station’s hall offer.
From the outside it is a great example of classic modern and functional architecture and looks surprisingly well kept. One has to take a very close look to see any signs of decay one so often encounters on buildings in this country. Even the windows sparkle in the warm light of the afternoon sun on this hot late summer day.
Inside on wonders if indeed this train station is still operative. There aren’t any boards signaling the arrival or departure of trains. No train schedule of any kind is to be seen when one enters the spacious hall.
The travel agencies seem to be closed. The roštilj, the obligatory Balkan barbecue restaurant, seems to have given up a long time ago. Its display windows are almost blind from dust and decay.
The ticket counters are well hidden on the outer left wall of the hall. Out of nine only three are still in operation. The other booths aren’t even equipped with computers. One still has a telephone whose plugs hang in the air.
It is in this corner of the train station that one finds the train schedule. Or should one rather say THE train schedule. Being valid through December 2015 it originally showed twelve daily connections from the Bosnian capital to the outside. Three have been crossed out with a pen.
“Yes, there are nine trains per day”, the employee in one of the working counters tells me and puts a cigarette in his mouth, inhaling the smoke with a sense of joy. Neither he nor any of his two colleagues wear the uniform of Željeznica Federacije Bosne I Hercegovine, the Railways of the Federation of Bosnia and Hercegovina.
The company only services the tracks in the territory of the Bosnjak-Croat Federation, the other entity Bosnia is made up of. Republika Srpska has its own company, Željeznice Republike Srpske. Which doesn’t make the train system, or what’s left of it, any easier to manage. Not to mention customer orientated.
The furthest place one can directly reach from Sarajevo is Zagreb. It’s a nine and a half hour trip. An hour and a half longer than the bus ride starting from the bus terminal just a hundred meters or so away.
The stairs to the platform are wide enough to climb them easily. With heavy luggage or walking impairment of any kind they may prove to be an unsurmountable task without help. The elevator shafts look like they’ve been shot up during the four year long siege of the city in the 1990s and never repaired.
There is no train in sight and the only people one sees from afar are those crossing the tracks as a shortcut. A habit one encounters all over the country. And if there’s a soccer field somewhere along the tracks, as in the town of Zenica, people just get up on the dam in order to watch a Sunday afternoon youth league match, even sitting on the rails.
The danger of a train showing up anytime soon is negligible.
Tito, Soccer Fan
A few times a day a locomotive and two cars that look like they’re being held together by rust and a thick coat of paint do use the tracks between Sarajevo and Zenica, just 64 kms north of the Bosnian capital. “The train ride takes two and a half hours”, a friend tells me. He’s just gone home and didn’t want to ride the bus which would have taken only an hour or so.
“The train is much cheaper”, he says. Not this time, though. “Apparently there were supervisors on the train so the conductor had to charge us full price and issue tickets. That was 8 Marks (4 Euros). Usually, we throw him whatever we think we have to, around three or four Marks.”
Whatever happens to the money is a question the answer to which is beyond my capabilities. Given the condition of the cars it seems at any rate remarkable that ŽFBH charges for tickets rather than paying people brave enough to use them.
One of the remarkable things in Zenica, a town of 115.000 inhabitants in the very heart of Bosnia, is not just the many and remarkably clean parks and the lovely riverside along the Bosna but its soccer team NK Čelik Zenica and its many active fans.
Many a house wall are sprayed in the team’s colors, red and black. Most of the graffitis are elaborate works of arts, using the portraits of Bosnian and other celebrities. One of them sports a well-known portrait of Josip Tito from the War. “Zenico volimo te. Tito” “Zenica we love you. Tito”. It’s located right next to another friend’s place at the outskirts of the town.
An inhabitant of the Yugoslav era apartment building the graffiti is sprayed on happily poses for the camera. “Tito was a great man”, he proudly says. “I paid for this graffiti”. He raises both his hands, forming Victory signs.
For many Bosnians Tito still embodies memories of better times. A passport that took you everywhere, and financially most Bosnian’s were better off, too.
Given the traumatic experience the breakup of Yugoslavia provided for this country, violent ethnic tensions spilling over from other former YU-republics and breaking up from within as well, with its mass rapes, massacres and genocide, often somewhat euphemistically referred to as ethnic cleansing, it may come as no surprise that the relatively stable and peaceful era under Tito is idealized and triggers nostalgia.
There is little left from that era. The steel plant, long privatized, has fired most of its workers. Unemployment is said to be higher here than anywhere else in the country. One should keep in mind that the average unemployment rate in Bosnia is well over 40 per Cent.
I spend the night at a friend’s house near the bus station, in a quiet neighborhood of many other small houses with gardens. In the morning I find two puppies in our street, maybe two months old. Cute and fluffy, in principle, flea ridden, dirty beyond believe in practice, and they stink of rotten, fermenting apple, in incredibly bad shape even for stray dogs. Their mother is nowhere in sight.
Maybe she’s been out looking for food for days. Maybe she got hit by a car. Not unlikely in Zenica, given that many dog packs here have formed the habit of chasing cars, especially around the bus station. Or maybe someone just put the puppies out on the street.
“We have no animal shelter here, if that’s what you want to know”, my friend tells me when I ask her if there’s anyone she could call to help the puppies. They need to be disinfected, vaccinated and fed. “There are programs to reduce the stray dog population by sterilization. Vets will do that on occasion but there’s not enough money to pay for it.”
People do get bitten by stray dogs. As the city doesn’t seem to be able to take care of the problem, there are rumors of people taking matters into their own hands. “Some say that they were driving around at night, shooting dogs”, my friend tells me.
A Miniature Greece
One thing even other Bosnians have to get used to in Sarajevo is the peculiarities regarding water supply. “I completely forgot they turn off the water here at night” Dijana Muminović tells me. The photographer from Zenica just spent a night at a friend’s place at the capital.
Starting 11 PM, forget showers or even toilet flushes in most of the city til early in the morning. The shut offs can last til 7 AM.
„They haven’t really repaired the war damages in the water supply system yet”, Selma Asotić, writer and translator from Sarajevo, tells me over a beer at Café Tito, right at the back of the crumbling Historical Museum and just a hundred meters away or so from the newly opened National Museum.
A large part of the mountain water flowing in the capital’s pipe systems are just lost through cracks and rusting pipes. This may make the nightly shut downs necessary but doesn’t offer an explanation why the system hasn’t been fixed yet.
There is talks of the city government wanting to privatize the water supply system, Selma says. The shut downs and the state of the supply system could be used as a convenient excuse to do that: “We’re a miniature Greece in the making”.
While the miniature part may be arguable, the part about being in the making seems a bit euphemistic. Repeatedly the EU and other international organizations such as the IMF have made the country adopt reforms primarily foreign investors profit from – in exchange for financial help or, as recently, the hope of Bosnia becoming a candidate for EU membership.
In August a new Labor Law was passed that curbs workers’ and unions’ rights to collective bargaining and reduces job security for those lucky enough to have a job alongside with weakening the position of trade unions. There are slight improvements such as two days more vacation time per year but they hardly seem to outweigh the cuts the law brings for Bosnian workers.
Business representatives are welcoming the reform. Unions call it a violation of workers’ rights.
The new law is part of a “reform agenda” the EU and other international institutions have set for Bosnia – in exchange for financial assistance as well as a Treaty of Association with the EU. According to the Austrian daily “Der Standard” it was specifically the German government that pushed for the new Labor Law.
Alongside with reducing workers’ rights Bosnia has pledged to drastically cut taxes on labor, particularly those that go into the country’s welfare system. Spendings on welfare will almost certainly have to be cut in the process.
Additionally, no new employees will be hired in the public sector. The reforms also allow government to fire public servants.
The reform package was accompanied by PR fireworks and extensive lobbying by think tanks such as the U.S. based Atlas Network and its local partner Multi.
„In the past month Multi led an extraordinary campaign for adoption of new (liberal) Labour Law that would reduce the impact of collective agreements and unions in the country,” Multi’s founder and director, Admir Čavalić, is quoted on Atlas Network’s website in an article dated August 11. “The unions, the public and opposition politicians were against the adoption of these amendments, while government and international organizations supported the changes.”
The reforms may not be as far reaching as in Greece where together with strong austerity measures they effectively crippled the economy and have doubled unemployment – but they pretty much go in the same direction.
When Citizens Organize
Not all foreign aid to Bosnia is pegged to cuts in spending or reforms euphemistically called “business friendly”. Occasionally they are intended to advance civil society, science and culture.
Such was a donation worth a million Marks (500.000 Euros) by the U.S. government agency US Aid to the National Museum. It was key financing that enabled the re-opening after three years of closing.
This wasn’t entirely a gesture of goodwill by the American government. The donation is at least partly due to pressure exerted by the citizens’ initiative “Ja sam muzej” (“I am the museum”) that eventually made the closing of the museum and the necessity of a new budget for the institution an issue.
It was started by the NGO Akcija (Action). Its members visited the closed institution at the beginning of the year and found that its workers were still there. Guarding and maintaining the place, without any pay.
„That is why Aida Kalender, the creator of the project, decided to tell the story of the closed Museum through its workers and in January the famous photographer Ziyah Gafić started portraying the workers”, Ines Bulajić from Akcija says. Akcija assembled the photos into an exhibition called “Guardians of the Museum” that opened July 27. “More than 300 people attended the opening”, says Bulajić.
This gave “Ja sam muzej” traction. A week later it called upon people to support the workers at the museums on their shifts. Again, dozens of people showed, helping out for weeks.
Akcija provided the background support, providing videos, photos and soundbites for Bosnian media and launched a social media campaign to round it up.
„We must admit that the timing was good. It was a combination of citizens‘ pressure and political will and the fact that the majority of citizens recognized the campaign as sincere and promoting real values. Oslobodjenje was one of our media partners but we must emphasize that we had great support from all the media in our country, both entities included. We communicated proactively, including the social media and traditional media, as well as direct communication with the media representatives“, says Bulajić.
„Another important thing is that the campaign engaged many people from different spheres and with different backgrounds, including ideological ones, which gave “Ja sam muzej” the credibility that was needed for success.“
A success one may well call a surprise were it not owed to the professionalism and dedication of Akcija. According to Bulajić, the main activities of the entire campaign were organized and carried by a team of just ten people.
As of now, the funding for the museum is secured til 2018. Until then its legal status is scheduled to be clarified, allowing for a permanent funding arrangement to be put in place. Akcija will “act as a watchdog in the future and keep and eye on its functioning and resolving its legal status”, Bulajić promises.
A watchdog that can hardly be ignored, as the campaign has shown.
This is also one of the first successes for Bosnia’s young civil society that has seen ist shares of disappointments. Last year’s social protests have had no effect. Other than leaving burn marks on the seat of the Presidency that have not been removed to date.
The success of “Ja sam muzej” may just provide the encouragement this civil society so badly needs.