Earlier this week I posted photos of how the buildings and streetscapes changed during the time I worked in Bosnia from 1998 to 2009. Over those years I also got to know and become friends with many people, Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks alike – Muslims and Catholics and Orthodox and agnostics.
I watched them recover slowly from the trauma of war.
I heard horrendous stories and visited places that made me weep.
I shared lots of smiles, laughs and good food Bosnian beer with the people I worked with, Bosnians and Canadians and other internationals.
But I also got to know some of the people in the neighborhood. There was a bakery at the base of the hill where we lived and every Saturday morning I looked forward to walking down the hill and buying a freshly baked apple (jabuka) turnover to eat with my coffee and the Globe and Mail crossword I could download onto my laptop. The young man who was behind the counter was always there. Always. He spoke little English and I knew only enough Bosnian to say good morning and ask for my bread. Over the years I watched him grow up, covered in flour and serving up bread at the bakery. We exchanged greetings in the store. He, no doubt, was watching me age as well.
There were also two little waifs who lived in a house just below ours. My understanding was that their family were refugees, squatting in a house that had been abandoned by people who fled during the war.
I am proud to say that kids generally like me. And these two little fellows were no exception. They would come together early in the morning and ring the buzzer at my door. I would take them to the market and sometimes buy them something small. Once I took them to a restaurant and bought them each a slice of pizza and a coke. I remember them sitting there like they were princes and thinking that they may never have eaten in a restaurant like this.
Once I was cooking on our barbecue and realized that I and no flipper for the burgers. The kids were hanging around and they saw that I had no utensil to turn the burgers. They disappeared and within about five minutes returned with a nice new barbecue spatula. I suspect that they swiped it from somewhere. They reminded me of the Artful Dodger.
One winter I loaned them my digital camera to take a few photos. I would see the neighborhood through their eyes. When I got the camera back I found they had taken it inside their house. There was their mother sitting under a blanket in bed beside an oven door open for heat, and smoking a cigarette with an ashtray of butts on the floor beside the bed. Out of respect for her privacy I have never printed that photo but I look at it and smile.
One year when I returned the family had moved away. Occasionally I would see the mother at a bus stop or the kids in the schoolyard. A few years later I chanced upon one of them, a teenager now, working in a local garden.
I wonder what became of those kids. I hope they are doing OK but they may be part of the large proportion of young Bosnians who are unemployed, disgruntled and fed up with their lot. There is growing unrest among the unemployed and disadvantaged in Bosnia and last week it boiled over into anti-government protests in several Bosnian cities.
People can survive enormous odds… the human spirit is resilient. But the “pock marks” on the soul are not as obvious as the bullet holes in buildings, and may take many more years to repair. Could Semir and Kiko be among the disillusioned young people in Bosnia today, demonstrating against their Gov’t? Were they more deeply affected by the war as children, than their innocent smiles suggest?