Back in the USSR (Day 20)

18Jul08
Tuesday, July 15, 2008.

We begin this morning at the High Court of Bosnia and Hercegovina. When the ICTY expires at the end of 2009, the High Court will be entirely responsible for prosecuting war criminals. We got to watch a clip from an ongoing trial against 10 of the Srebrenica perpetrators. This is the first time the court has charged a defendant with genocide, and the closing arguments are due in two or three weeks.

The sentences they’ve already handed down seem almost laughably insufficient. One war criminal, convicted of crimes against humanity, was sentenced to 34 years in a prison where he once held and tortured prisoners. Needless to say, he was familiar with the layout of the building and the guards, and succeeding in escaping. Bosnia does not have a state prison and they need €50 million and 15 years to build one. Even if people like Mladic and Karadzic weren’t still at large, and if Milosevic had been found guilty before he died, there is no prison in which to hold them. And anyway what kind of a sentence id 34 years (or in some cases, 10 years) when you’re talking about things like genocide and crimes against humanity?

After the court, we made a stop to the Jewish community center for a quick meeting. Sarajevo only has about 700 practicing Jews now, which is unfortunate, considering the Jewish community was thriving in Sarajevo before World War II. (Sarajevo had been billed as the Jerusalem of Europe in the 1980s – because of the tolerance and peace between Christians, Muslims, and Jews in both cities. Obviously, the name no longer holds.) Sarajevo has no permanent rabbi, so all Jewish children are taught by their parents in the traditions of Judaism.

Emir, possibly the most wonderful bus driver on the planet, takes us to the south side of the city, through a tiny chunk of the RS and down to the area surrounding the airport. Here, in 1993, the only non-military exit from Sarajevo was dug in four months and four days. The Sarajevo tunnel was 800 meters long, running just below the airport tarmac, one meter wide, and 1.6 meters tall. The Bosnian army began digging from both sides of the siege line until they met in the middle.

Though few civilians were ever able to leave the city through the tunnel, it did serve as a source of hope: Yes, there is a way out! Very soon after its completion, food started coming in from the free side and an electric line was run through the tunnel. Miki’s mother tried to escape through the tunnel four times, each time creating a new identity that would have allowed her to cross. She never made it out, but she did survive the siege.

It’s quite amazing that the Serbs never became aware of the tunnel’s existence. It remained open during the entire siege, bringing in troops, food, and glimmers of hope. Today, only 25 meters remain open. The rest of the tunnel collapsed shortly after the war.

After watching a documentary on the fall of Milosevic – one that makes me really want to reread With Their Backs to the World: Portraits from Serbia – several of us sit around debating how to spend our next-to-last night in Sarajevo. Naturally, we choose two liter bottles of Sarajevsko and Never Have I Ever, eventually getting warmed up enough to go to the Pirates Pub.

We drink pints of Carlsburg and somehow wind up in a private lounge on the second flood with a group of Swedes. I talk to a medical student named, of all things, Eric, who has the most liquid accent I’ve ever heard and whose charm is enhanced by his white-blond hair and sapphire blue eyes. York, Sean, and I stick it out awhile and end up at another bar in the company of Lucas and Lucas, two kids from Prague on a month-long hiking trip.

The night is cut short by a surprise reappearance by Nic, who said he came back to let us know that one of the girls with us had been assaulted on the way home and that we would be better off making the climb to the hotel in a group.

If assault isn’t scary enough, York and I returned to the hotel to a massive outbreak of Bubonic Plague. First Sara went down, then Shannon, then Joe. Soon, there were only about five of us left standing. For reasons unknown, 11 of us came down with severe cases of vomiting. York and I stayed up until almost 4:00 trying to assess the situation, but admittedly, there was nothing much we could do. I went to sleep hoping whatever germ was crawling around didn’t come find me.

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