Post-war Vacation – Zelenkovac (Bosnia Herzegovina, Summer 2006)


My friend Pérez tends to say that, in his opinion, coincidence is the most beautiful word in the dictionary. Well, due to such a coincidence, I ended up in Bosnia. The story is simple: I went to Barcelona to take journalism courses and I stayed in my always hospitable and great friend Zulaica´s apartment. He had several flat mates: an Argentine boy, a Dutch girl, and Miriam, a Slavic girl that worked for the NGO Internacional Civil Service. One day Miriam asked me, “Would you be interested in going to another country to do field work?” As you can imagine, my response was yes and out of the countries that she gave me to choose from, I chose Bosnia Herzegovina, a place that in the mid-nineties suffered a bloody civil war that brought conflict to the three main groups that coexisted in the region: Orthodox-Serbs, Catholic-Croatians and Muslims. The three million inhabitants that remain in the country are still trying to reestablish themselves after the atrocities that took place. 

Communist Architecture in Banja Luka /  Zelenkovac
Communist Architecture in Banja Luka / Zelenkovac

Before I explain the work that we did there, let me make a brief side note to explain the purpose of the NGO International Civil Service. After World War II, it was decided to create this organization to try to rebuild places that were destroyed by the war. The groups that would be in charge of doing this work would be formed by volunteers, but under one condition: that they would come from different nationalities so that through working together, they could get to know each other and therefore avoid the possibility of stereotypes, ignorance and prejudices once again bringing us to the use of weapons.

Volunteers: Jonathan, the Englishman at one end and Jelena, the Serbian at the other. Rest. / Didier
Volunteers: Jonathan, the Englishman at one end and Jelena, the Serbian at the other. Rest. / Didier

Although we formed an international group, this essential condition was not completely fulfilled. All together we were 14 volunteers: an Englishman, two Italians, a Slavic girl, two Belgians, a Serbian, seven Frenchs!!, and myself, the gallego.  Of course, the Group monitor was from Paris and the two Belgians were from the French-speaking zone. In other words, during the two weeks that the fieldwork lasted all you could hear was the whisper of unpronounceable R’s.

Zelenkovac / Barbara
Zelenkovac / Barbara
Zelenkovac / Barbara

    The place where we sat was idyllic. It was a natural park called Zelenkovac, situated in the northeast of the country, near Banja Luka. An immensely green place, with forests of giant spruce trees and bathed with the water from the different streams that sprung from the mountains. Our sleeping accommodations were a few wooden houses built by the man that governed it all; his name was Boro, a tall man with an overgrown black beard and a great ability to get along with people. At the epicenter of it all was the tavern. There, when night fell, we would meet to socialize with the volunteers and with many people from the surrounding villages.

  The first thing that Boro did when I arrived, as if it were part of some initiation ritual, was take me to the tavern and buy me a shot of rakija, a type of liquor that is typical in the Balkans. And it was not my last. Due to the precarious and salvage conditions in which we lived: horrible cold at night, freezing water to shower and bathe, scarce food that over all consisted in bland stews, necessities made in the fields, and leaks in the bedrooms; I converted the rakija into my medicine, into the assassin of viruses and bacteria, and into my ticket back home. And it worked. Nothing, not even the slightest cold attacked me.

The work consisted of, above all, carrying out community labor in the area. On three occasions for example, we cut and gathered wood from the forests to make fires and build fences. We were accompanied by Jruya, a man close to seventy, always dressed in athletic clothes and who had in Zelenkovac his only way of making a living after having lost his job in the city. He seemed like a prolongation of nature. It was a pleasure to see him among the trees, ascending steep inclines or choosing the best wood with just a simple tap on the trunk.

Jruya cooking / Zelenkovac
Jruya cooking / Zelenkovac

Occasionally, we would leave the natural park to work on neighbors’ houses: making ditches for pipes or pulling out the weeds in an apple tree plantation. In a poor society, where our work implied that people would not have to pay another person for the same labor, the people demonstrated enormous graciousness. They would constantly say, “Hvala” (thank you in Bosnian). And, due to these brief trips, we were able to discover a great number of orange tinted villages. Recently built houses, made of new brick that substituted the houses that were destroyed during the conflict. Homes that disappeared beneath the fire or in the cold winter as the water from the enemy filtered through the walls which would break down when the water froze. Through this measure they tried to avoid the return of driven out communities. The houses that survived were still splattered with bullets and shrapnel.

Bosnian countrywoman / Rosanna
Bosnian countrywoman / Rosanna

What impressed me the most about my stay in Bosnia were the stories about the war. Testimonies that were given to me inside the tavern when, after a few alcoholic drinks, people would become more sincere and loose the fear of recounting what had happened: “It’s strange, but now, when I think about the war, I only remember the good times that I had while it was going on. For example, the great solidarity that existed between the neighbors. I thought that when the war ended this would continue, but I was wrong.” This was how Narcisa, a young Bosnian architect, spoke to me in an envious Spanish that she had learned in Barcelona. Intelligent, open, and sensible; she recalled the nights she spent in the basement of her house next to the dim light of an oil lamp, while outside the bombshells played dominoes with the rest of the resident homes in the village. And as morning came it was always the same: the announcement, once again, of the death of ten to fifteen neighbors. However, far from intimidating her, these facts provoked within Narcisa the need to live each second as if it were her last: “I’ve never abandoned this philosophy of life and I continue trying to make the most of every moment”, she proudly told me as she retired to get some rest.

Boro / Anne

Boro didn’t go to fight on the battle front: “It seemed too boring to wait for hours in the same place until the enemy arrived”, he commented sarcastically in a moment of trust, “therefore, during the war, I became a television cameraman.” His biggest success as a journalist was selling five minutes of images to CNN. When the war ended he didn’t go back to working with the camera; he hated everything that he had filmed: deaths, destruction, and pain. “I filmed more than 200 decapitated bodies”, he said in a whisper, which was accompanied by a large silence. “And who was attacking?” I asked him. “The Croatians”, he responded. “And would it be possible to see the report?”  I begged him full of curiosity. “I don’t ever want to see those images again in my life”, he told me with a scratchy voice and with a slow step he walked away.

Remnants from the war / Zelenkovac

Something about all of that still lingers within today’s generations.  Alex, Boro´s youngest son, who was born at the beginning of the conflict, one day gave me the following riddle: “Three fat women are in front of a house. On the front of the house three letters: A M G and surrounding the house, a landmine. What do the women decide to do?” Landmines….What a sad childhood. And to think, we always choose a river full of piranhas and crocodiles as the obstacle.

The Italian Barbara with a war’s widow / Rosanna


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