Over winter break, I read an article about two Bosnian leftist newspapers, “Slobodna Bosna” and “Dani.” Slobodna Bosna was becoming an exclusively online publication; Dani had long ago abandoned its original political project. The author criticized the state of journalism in Bosnia and Herzegovina: content is mostly controlled by party affiliates, newspapers publish what they get paid to, not what they morally feel obliged to, and sensationalism is the main generator of headlines, as bombastic as they are unfounded.
I am familiar with all of this. Reluctant to read newspapers when I was younger for the fear causing myself permanent trauma by reading the “crna hronika,” (literally, “black chronicle”); frustrated with my inability to comprehend the country’s political complexities; and disinterested in content about celebrities, their vacation photos and soul-revealing interviews, I skipped the news altogether, only occasionally picking up bits of recent events from the televised evening news.
I knew my city and my country through my own experiences, and my refusal to engage with names of the politicians and their extended families, only newsworthy because they were powerful, was my way of denying them the importance they were given by the media outlets. I refuse to know about them; therefore they don’t exist.
I left Sarajevo at the beginning of the period of life when young people can no longer afford to be disengaged from the society in which they live, if they are to become its intellectually contributing members.
I left before I was able to gather any personal experience with the nightmares of the university bureaucratic system, which is so often the first of many battles with the country’s bureaucratic systems. These are often the main prompts for frustrated conversations that become public Facebook statuses, sometimes protests and, occasionally, an opinion column, for those who still believe in the power of the written word.
I probably won’t know the daunting feeling of a hopeless job search; hopeless despite the hard proof of qualification, stamped by a rude, middle-aged secretary in a smoke-filled office you could only ever peek into through a small cut-out hole in the glass, out of which she would yell at you to come back at 2, when her lunch break is over. I will see my professors more than twice a semester, the first time at the beginning when they show up to class just to tell you their book is required for it, and the second time when they mispronounce your name and give you a slimy look for wearing a skirt to the oral exam. They’ll fail you anyway, because God’s knowledge is for a 10, theirs for a 9, and students, only if extremely lucky, can maybe get up to a 7.
What, then, of my city, and of the society I still belong to by my passport and my citizenship documents, do I know? I know the classrooms in which I sat and yawned for four years. I know the cafes whose clientele aged along with us, and those we would only be comfortable in for a few months at a time, until we outgrew them and moved to other ones with older, cooler crowds. I know the packed trams and the constant fear of a fight breaking out, or someone pulling a knife on you when all you have in your bag is 3KM you meant to buy yogurt with on the way home. I know the dilapidating, socialist neighborhoods, the residents of which have lost as much hope as the political system that inspired the construction of their housing. I know the local loonies, and former intellectuals, driven crazy by the war trauma, who now endlessly wander the downtown streets unshaved and unshowered, and when they walk past, people whisper about how intelligent and accomplished they used to be before the war. I knew the antique bookstore a block from my school — it closed two years ago to make room for a betting shop.
And yet, I don’t know the current of that society. I can’t comment on it, because I don’t actively participate it in it anymore, and all my observations are not only from the outside, but also from above. Since I left, I moved to a place in which life can run fairly smoothly, and not everyone lives in a state of perpetual anxiety from not being able to predict anything with certainty: whether your bus to work tomorrow will be on time, or whether or not you will get fired because the boss’s uncle’s wife’s cousin’s son needs a job. When I think of Sarajevo, it is a succession of scenes, some outdated, some hopelessly optimistic, some painfully piercing. But all are slightly tinted; with nostalgia for how I used to know it, with envy for missing out on its growth, whatever direction it’s taking, with sadness for knowing what direction that is, and with a sense of regret, for knowing I will probably never feel that I am a part of it again.
When I read about death of journalism in Sarajevo, it stings more than reading about the fallout of the coalition for the third time and their inability to finalize the government a year after the elections. I still don’t care about politics; I never could, not after realizing the irony of the fact that the constitution of my country — which has existed on more or less the same piece of land since the 10th century — was written as a settlement of the dispute in 1995, making it one year younger than me. But writers and journalists were always the front fighters of the dissenting side, criticizing the transient governments, initiating change even when it had to be undercover, even when their newspapers and books had to be distributed with false covers and read only in the privacy of apartments. The few intellectuals that came out of Bosnia came to be known for their writing; even Ivo Andric, our only Nobel Prize winner, was a writer. So, reading about the poor state of journalism from my remote yet yearning position makes me feel guilty for growing intellectually in areas that could contribute to stopping this decaying process but in a place that is actively distancing me from the possibility of participating in the reversal. I am writing this essay in English, at the end of the day. And if I can’t even write in my own language about life in my own country, what agency do I have in its future, beyond just observing from the sidelines?
Contact Amra Saric at firstname.lastname@example.org .