En route to the 1st Sarajevo-Irish Festival, where I was invited to present my documentary “Journey to YU (in the footsteps of Rebecca West)” – I did feel like a bit of a nerd pulling out my 1181 page doorstopper “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon” on the three flights. There is no direct flight from Dublin to Sarajevo, an intriguing city of about 400,000 on the other side of Europe. So, from Dublin to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Vienna, and Vienna to Sarajevo I decided to brush up on West’s account of my destination.
Inspired by West’s epic 1941 travelogue of former Yugoslavia (her father was a tumble down aristocrat from County Kerry), and Dublin-based photographer Dragana Jurisic’s 2013 exhibition “YU – The Lost Country”, the photo-documentary I was about to present in Sarajevo is about the effect of war on ordinary people.
Finally landing in Sarajevo International Airport near midnight, I was delighted to be greeted by a cheerful young Irish Commandant, Fergal Joyce, who drove me into town in his UNO [Protection Force] jeep. But first I had to sign a release form in case anything happened on the way in, which set an interesting tone for my short sojourn.
When we arrived at Sarajevo’s Irish owned “Central Hotel” an alcohol and smoking free zone which is the site of a former mosque, I was reassured to spot the familiar insignia of my Dublin gym “Westwood Clubs” on the side of the building. I suddenly recalled seeing pictures of this Balkan spa in Sandymount Dublin’s Westwood, but I never imagined I would find myself here! Apparently Bosnians did such a good job on the building of Dublin’s luxurious health clubs that the Mayor of Sarajevo invited the owner to start a business in Sarajevo. A little bit of home away from home – the next day I would discover that the pool, sauna, steam room and caldarium ceramics were almost the exact same as at home. Nice.
Known as the “Jerusalem of the Balkans”, Sarajevo is nestled in a picturesque valley which rises into picture postcard hillsides, becoming the Dinaric Alps, on either side of the unassuming River Mijlavacka. For a long time Sarajevo was the only major European city to have a mosque, Catholic church, Orthodox church and synagogue in the same neighborhood. They are still there today, but that harmonious vibe is changed utterly since the Siege of Sarajevo, the longest siege on a city in history, which lasted from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996, with a death toll of over 11,500. It’s hard to put that out of my mind when I go out for a stroll through Sarajevo’s charming old town, but I try.
The first thing I see out the hotel window at breakfast are the baby blue berets of soldiers filing past. Not your average tourist vista. On my doorstep, just outside the Catholic Cathedral, I spot is a billboard for a Srebenica exhibition (last year was the 20th anniversary of that horrific massacre), and screenings of Bill Carter’s moving wartime documentary Miss Sarajevo (which inspired the 1995 U2 song of the same name, with Pavarotti). Bono, incidentally, was a regular visitor here around the time of U2’s legendary September 1997 Sarajevo concert.
I am half way through Richard Galloway’s book The Cellist of Sarajevo which relates how snipers notoriously improved their aim taking potshots at civilians during the Siege from these charming hillsides. Despite this chilling recent history, Bascarsija, Sarajevo old town is disarmingly charming, and the people of Sarajevo are warm and welcoming. But as I wind my way through the old town, where polished bullets and fighter jets made of same are proudly on offer as souvenirs, I can’t help wondering what these people have endured and lost, and shudder a bit at the thought. The jewellery shops are called “Zlatar”, which reminds me of lovely Sarajevo-born Dubliner Zlata Filipovic, film producer and author of international best seller, compared to Anne Frank’s Diary, A Child’s Diary of Wartime Sarajevo. I am really fortunate to have Zlata as a contributor to my documentary. The fashions on sale in the markets here are increasingly Turkish, not Bosnian, I’m told, and Sarajevo’s streets are dotted with burkas and veils as never before.
A short distance from the Central Hotel on the river is the spot we all know about from our school history books, where Franz Ferdinand’s assassination sparked World War One. There’s a museum on the corner outlining the sequence of events that led to 19 year old Gavril Prinzip’s flukey opportunity to get a good shot at the Archduke of Austria and his pregnant wife Sophie when the royal carriage stalled and reversed right here, along the banks of the river. Photo opportunity number one.
I wandered up through Pigeon square (Sebilj), which is indeed full of pigeons, tried to photograph the old electric tram, one of the first in Europe, as it crawled through, full of contemporary Sarajevans going about their daily business. I peered into synagogues, cheek by jowl with mosques, and under foot spotted the point which boasts that this is where East meets West. On the advice of a new local friend, I took a drink of water from the tap which ensures I will be back again. I would like to get back here again.
The 1st Irish Festival, organised by Garret Tankosic Kelly who has been in Sarajevo over twenty years since he arrived with the UN, subsequently having a family here and starting his own green energy company, is in a trendy spot behind Sarajevo’s magnificent Academy of Art called “Kino Meeting Point”. It’s a bar/ café and cinema. The festival kicks off on March 16th with a fascinating moderated discussion on the 1916 Centenary and British-Irish Relations between HE Sean O’Regan, Irish Ambassador to Bosnia and Slovenia, and HE Edward Ferguson, British Ambassador to Bosnia (from a border town in Northern Ireland). It’s an esteemed audience of UN delegates, Irish Military and ex-pats and locals from which a Bosnian asks, poignantly, from the floor for advice on how to put the past behind.
It’s an honour to have the highly esteemed Erwan Fouere, former EU Ambassador to Macedonia (also EU Ambassador to South Africa in the immediate aftermath of apartheid; and the first EU Ambassador to Cuba, among other postings), here on behalf of his sister actress Olwen Fouere who plays Rebecca West in my documentary. They grew up in Cleggan, Connemara. Like a diplomatic rock star, Fouere draws an adoring crowd. I can’t believe I am in a photograph sandwiched between him and a young Macedonian diplomat, flanked by Niall Sweeney, co-creator of Alternative Miss Ireland (who was also presenting at the festival, along with his longtime friend, Rory O’Neill aka Panti) and native Sarajevan designer and artist Nerma Sofic (who designed the wonderful poster for Journey to YU).
It is surreal indeed, how a virtual “Journey to YU…” which started by contemplating Dubliner Dragana Jurisic’s photographic odyssey through her former homeland, Rebecca West’s 1941 travel tome which led Dragana through that emotional labyrinth, and a crowd-funding campaign has transformed into my actual presence here.
St. Patrick’s Day, and “Journey to YU (in the footsteps of Rebecca West)” is screened. I admit afterwards in the Q & A that this is my first time setting foot in Sarajevo – a dream come true I never knew I had. And to re-reading Rebecca West’s 1941 tome on the plane. There is indeed something Tardis-like about Sarajevo. “How is it now that you are here?”, Nerma asks, “What do you think?”. Well I have drunk from that Sarajevo water fountain and I hope it brings me back for longer than just two days next time. As I was leaving at dawn by minibus on a 6 hour road trip north across mountainous terrain and lakesides to present a talk on the Women of 1916 and Waking the Feminists at the Belgrade-Irish Festival, which was already in full swing, Panti, no less, arrived for his Sarajevo debut. Excellent programming from Garret Tankosic Kelly.
I was sorry to miss that, but my heart lept as we arrived to the outskirts of Belgrade that afternoon, a buzzing metropolis of about 1.5 million, where we had premiered “Journey to YU…” exactly a year previously. I caught up with the BIF gang who had turned buildings green on Paddy’s day, and were thrilled when, in the presence of HE Noel Kilkenny, Irish Ambassador to Greece and Serbia, there had been a shout-out for Belgrade from Dublin\s National Concert Hall during the St. Patrick’s Day simulcast of “Rebellion”.
I was just on time for the double bill of “Journey to Mostar”, about 90s Irish charity “Cradle”, and Johnny Gogan’s fascinating film on Kilkenny man Hubert Butler, his involvement in, and writings on 1930s Yugoslavia, presented by Chris Agee. Born out of the festival, the seed for this documentary was planted when Gogan attended a talk by Agee during the 1st Belgrade-Irish Festival 4 years ago.
The next day, at trendy venue KC Grad, reminiscent of Berlin, down by the River Sava, people were fascinated to hear of the airbrushing of Elizabeth O’Farrell and her 1916 comrades, and the heartening Waking the Feminists movement. Here, festival director, (and Dubliner) Jas Kaminski had mixed it up with a jewellery exhibition, photography, talks, and had even introduced Irish Food week with chef Garth McColgan serving up Dublin coddle and its ilk to an appreciative Belgrade audience. These nuanced inter-cultural relations culminated in “The Whistling Girl”, an edgy Dorothy Parker-inspired cabaret by Honor Heffernan, Trevor Knight, and their impressive 3-piece band.
Late nights and early mornings were spent chewing the fat with Belgrade’s cool intelligentsia, as is the norm here. It was great to catch up with my old friends from the year before, some of whom are in Brasilian/ Belgrade band Il Bato.
I flew home via Paris on the day of the Brussels attacks. It was chilling to see Butcher of Bosnia Radovan Karadjc’s ugly face all over the media the next day on the occasion of his sentencing. Unfortunately this barbaric recent past is never far away. Coincidentally, in the late 90s, when visiting the family of a friend called Vlado, my brother randomly ran into this monster in a Belgrade Crystal Shop in his guise as Belgrade Healer Doctor Dragan Debic. There, a chill just ran up my spine. My brother didn’t realise who he had crossed paths with until I sent him a youtube link to the documentary “The Belgrade Healer”, while I was researching my “Journey to YU…”, a decade later.
How do we leave the past behind? With festivals like the Sarajevo-Irish Festival and the Belgrade-Irish Festival which are helping us to inhabit and create a brighter future with our Balkan friends (both Serbia and Bosnia are EU Accession countries), shaking off the dross of that ugly and terrifying past. Long may they continue.
- Both Sarajevo-Irish Festival and Belgrade-Irish Festival are supported by Culture Ireland.
The Irish Times Saturday Magazine published a travel feature on Sarajevo, where I was invited by the 1st Sarajevo-Irish Festival to present my documentary “Journey to YU (in the footsteps of Rebecca West)”, by yours truly, last Saturday – here’s a scan of it: