Bosnia and Herzegovina “The people put up with a lot”

Sarajevo from above: “Here, almost everything centres on the past”
Sarajevo from above: “Here, almost everything centres on the past” | Photo: Ulrich Ladurner

Inspirational stories and people on the one hand, a country that is still torn on the other. Zeit reporter Ulrich Ladurner encountered these contrasts when he travelled through Bosnia and Herzegovina on the invitation of the Goethe-Institut. “It is high time that they find their way out of the suffering,” he believes.

What image did you have of Bosnia and Herzegovina when you journeyed to the country?

I had worked as a journalist in Sarajevo in 1993 and in 1995. So I still had the image of war in mind: the way the people hung to life by a thread, without water or electricity, and a city under siege being bombarded by shells. This city survived it, but the suffering also survived. For the people, the future is like a mirage. I return now with the image of a country that is tied up, but that also has many inspiring stories and people. Like the mayor of Tuzla who demonstrated what can be achieved under the most difficult of circumstances.

What is lacking most in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

Money and jobs. Many people are living off money sent to them by their families abroad. Young Bosnians, most of them well educated, are therefore leaving the country – last year alone 60,000 of them.

This year is the twentieth anniversary of the massacre of Srebrenica. Where are the consequences of the civil war still visible today?

Here, almost everything centres on the past, on history, although it is high time that they find their way out of the suffering. Also, the country is still torn between Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks, making political decisions complicated. The people put up with a lot because they’re afraid of new conflicts. For example, they tolerate corruption and mismanagement. Things can’t move forward as long as the people are forced into fear. Many times people asked me to not name their names or describe facts in articles so they wouldn’t lose their jobs.

You named one of your reports “In Europe’s Waiting Room”. Bosnia and Herzegovina aspires to join the EU. How far is the country from membership?

I think it will take another twenty to thirty years. It takes time during which the country has to prove itself. Bosnia and Herzegovina still hasn’t carried out the necessary reforms. For example, milk is one of Bosnia’s chief export goods. Before Croatia entered the EU in July 2013, they imported 80 million litres a year from Bosnia. From that point on, the milk had to fulfil EU standards, but the Bosnian authorities failed to push through the new regulations. They finally did in the meantime, but it came very late.

What moment, what image moved you the most during your stay?

The face of Emir Kusturica, the director who stands for great art and culture in the west and yet is seen in the Bosnian media surrounded by sinister Serbian politicians who have ties to ethnic cleansing. The image made a palpable mark: nationalism is merely asleep; it is still there.

You travelled the country as a guest of the Goethe-Institut, which also offers artist residencies. Do you think residency programmes are useful?

The conditions are ideal. You have time to investigate and get a precise picture of what’s happening. Unlike an artist or writer, a journalist reaches the public much faster. The response is immediate, for example in the comments on my blog.

What opportunities does a residency offer that your everyday routine does not?

Time and the leisure to follow up on things. Otherwise you are always working for a deadline, but without that you can work more freely, also when it comes to topics. If I has suggested the story about the mayor of Tuzla in my daily office routine, they would have said, “Ulli, they had a civil war, we don’t want to hear about the mayor.”

What was your working life in Bosnia and Herzegovina like? What did you experience there?

I spent a week in Sarajevo and then drove across the country by car. I had already made some preparations in Germany and arranged appointments beforehand. For instance, I knew that there are lots of Arab tourists and investors in Sarajevo and a German school in Banja Luka. I drove there and spoke with the people and listened to what they had to say. It helped that I understand a little Bosnian.

Is a journey to Bosnia and Herzegovina for pleasure also worthwhile?

Absolutely. It’s great for any type of outdoor activity like fishing, hiking, mountain biking or swimming in the rivers. But cities like Sarajevo with their unique combination of Christian and Muslim environments are also fascinating. That’s why I plan to stay a while longer myself.

Jessica Guaia conducted the interview.

The journalist and writer Ulrich Ladurner has worked as a foreign editor for the Hamburg weekly Die Zeit since 1999. He was a correspondent for Italy and Southeastern Europe for many years. He also writes about his travels, including his journey through Bosnia and Herzegovina, in his blog Post von unterwegs.