The Damned Balkans — a personal story about Bosnian war

When I first met John Farebrother, in the early autumn of 1994, I was 20 and had just transferred from the Bosnian army to the civilian authorities after two and a half years of war service. The war in Bosnia was at its peak, and its course could easily turn to any outcome. Needless to say, at 20 you are usually not in the best psychological shape anyway, and the war didn’t make things any better. I, myself, was looking for a way out — not so much physically (I didn’t mind staying in Bosnia throughout the war, which is what I mostly did) as emotionally. Just a few months after my best friend has fallen, I — and not only I — was showing all the signs of the survivor syndrome and apathy. The ideals with which you go into war usually disappear quickly (war is a dirty business), and all that remains is a bunch of questions. At 20, and without a historical perspective, there are pretty much no answers.

Me in 1993

My luck was that I was a ‘computer boffin’ (what John called me) and that I could speak decent English, so I managed to get a transfer first to the civilian authorities, and then, some months later, I started working with a German protestant humanitarian organisation. There I was, 20 and crazy enough — or not caring enough, which is probably the same thing — to be travelling through the front lines in war-torn Bosnia and Croatia. Twenty-something years later, as I see it now, those two years from autumn 1994 to autumn 1996 were probably two of the most meaningful years of my life. And I’ve had some pretty good times since — so it must mean something.

Back to John. One day, this crazy Englishman who speaks seven foreign languages and plays damn good piano and decent guitar just popped into our office in Croatia saying he wanted to help. I soon discovered that John sincerely and honestly wanted to help. He didn’t know the difference between Biograd (a small town on the Croatian coast) and Beograd (the capital of Serbia). Back then, that was crazy, lovable and bat-shit dangerous at the same time. But that didn’t stop us — him and me — from sitting in the car and travelling across half of the country, talking to multiple armies on the way. Make no mistake, we were no heroes: from today’s perspective, we were just stupid. Back then, it was my emotional way out — my tactic to get back some meaning in my life. I always knew that I could rely on John, that I could literally trust him with my life (which I did more than once) — because he was John. Twenty-three years later, I learnt, through John’s book, that he admired my talent for getting us through hostile checkpoints and barricades. Those were the moments when I got really scared. What if we’d failed only once? And we had guns pointing at our heads often.

Me in our Jeep. Pretty sure John was on the driver's seat.

Our ways parted some time in 1995 when John moved on to work for a British organisation called Feed the Children, and we saw each other only sporadically. Some time in 1996 or 1997 we lost touch with each other, to my great regret — that is, until 2009, when he found me on Facebook and tried to provoke me by saying how England had demolished Croatia 4:0 at football (well, they got their asses kicked during the 2018 World Cup for that), and how he was actually the official stadium announcer at Wembley that day, talking to the Croatian fans. We had made contact again! Very soon, John started chasing me with questions about events, historical facts about Bosnia, and our common experiences in the old days. Yes: sure as hell, he was writing a book. Writing about war is neither unusual nor wrong: while war does not determine my life today (or at least I don’t let it), it for sure has determined, to a great degree, what I am today and my political convictions. Although I don’t think of the war intensively and purposefully, I do think of it probably every day, for example when an anecdote comes to my mind or a smell reminds me of something. I am pretty sure that John feels the same. And we are in our mid-40s, that age when you start to reflect on life.

The book, it’s a good one for the most part. For me, it was scary how little I knew about inter-Bosniak conflict in north-west Bosnia — one ‘small, forgotten war’, which John focuses on in his book. While the book is full of facts and very well researched, at the same time it’s personal and autobiographical. This is no surprise: during his two years in the north west, John made a lot of friends — and he met his wife. The inter-Bosniak war in north-west Bosnia was a strange war: brother shooting brother, best friend shooting best friend. It wasn’t an inter-ethnical or inter-religious war, it wasn’t aggression from Serbia (well, at least not during the so-called ‘first autonomy’) — it was a civil war, by the book, caused solely by political reasons. And while all three major sides in the Bosnian war (Bosniaks, Serbs, Croats) have been made to feel like winners with the peace agreement (everyone has achieved some of their goals, which is one of the main reasons why the political situation in Bosnia is still not stable, since for a real healing catharsis you actually need to lose a war), people in north-west Bosnia got nothing. While in the Bosnian war literally everybody was a loser, only the people from that region were actually, painfully, made to feel that way.

John and me, playing guitar and singing with the refugees in the “Cementara’ camp in Kakanj, Bosnia. Sometime in 1994.

While such a situation was destined to generate epic and tragic stories, the hard fact is that Fikret Abdić, the warlord in north-west Bosnia, was precisely the same type of bastard as those on the other ‘sides’ in the Bosnian war — maybe even more so. Abdić’s partnering with the most monstrous parts of the Serbian paramilitary units — which were, to a great degree, responsible for the genocyde in Srebrenica and the murder of Serbian prime minister Đinđić in 2002 — denied Abdić’s forces any sympathy from literally everybody else. Abdić himself was tried and convicted for war crimes by the court in Croatia and sentenced to 15 years. While there is no conflict today, the grudge between Bosniaks in that region — between Abdić’s supporters and Bosnian loyalists — is alive to this day. And this is my main point of disagreement with John’s book: in large portions of the book, he sympathises with and even sides with Abdić’s paramilitaries. It is very human, and I understand it from John: he was living with these people and helping them during the most difficult times, while they were refugees in the closed camp in Croatia. His siding with the people of north west Bosnia is right and honest, and shows again that John’s heart is in the right place. John was actively helping them when nobody else was going to (Abdić himself could not care lesss, and was just sending “letters of support” from his cosy villa in the Croatian town of Rijeka). John should have just left politics out of that part of the book.

Another of my problems with the book is its extensive use of acronyms. Even I had to dig deep into my memory in order to remember some of them. While John explains most of the acronyms in the book or in the footnotes, someone who didn’t live through those times would struggle. If John ever publishes a second edition — and I hope he will — it would be great to clean up the acronym forest and make the book slightly more readable for people who want to learn about the Bosnian war.

And last but not least is the preface from Dragan Karajić. Why the hell did John leave it in Bosnian? It might easily be the best part of the book. As a minimum it puts John’s text into context and makes it more understandable for readers. I met Dragan (through John) in 1995 and got to know him as a good and straightforward guy. In any second edition of the book, Dragan’s preface should certainly be translated to English.

All said, if you are interested in the Bosnian war — its history, causes and actual events — should you buy this book? Hell, yes, you should. True, it has its flaws, but which book doesn’t? John sometimes jumps from one front line in the Bosnian war to another, or even to other war zones he went to later; he doesn’t always respect and follow the time line, but this was not his primary goal. He wanted to depict the craziness, grotesqueness and weirdness of the war, and he certainly achieved that.

And this book should especially be read by the people who consider war to be something noble, heroic and fairytale like.

The Damned Balkans by John Farebrother

The booked cam be purchased from Amazon.

https://www.amazon.com/Damned-Balkans-refugee-humanitarne-mu%C4%87ke/dp/1527210456/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1531985108&sr=8-1&keywords=the+damned+balkans

Lives besides the oldest vineyard in the Rhine valley. Prefers collecting stories to collecting possessions. Can make his wife and kids laugh anytime.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store