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Charlotte Eagar

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Tasting the Memories of the Land of Blood and Honey

Posted: 25/01/2012 00:00

I've just watched the trailer for In the Land of Blood and Honey, the Golden Globe nominated film set during the 1992 Bosnian War, both written and directed by Angelina Jolie. It's a heart-rending story of strangled love between a Bosnian Muslim girl and a Serb man, who end up, inevitably, on different sides in the war. I can't wait to see the film, but wait I will, unless I go to Paris or Holland, as so far there seems to be no release date in Britain.

The voices, the dark beauty of the people, the fear in the woods, took me back to my twenties. I could smell the wood smoke from Sarajevo's thousands of UNHCR-issue metal stoves, that replaced the dead electricity. I could taste the slivovic on the back of my throat, the tang of urine in the air of a city where the plumbing had failed back when the seige began in 1992, when the water mains had been turned off, like the gas and power, by the Serbs. Sarajevo in those days was a twentieth century city, living with all the inconvenience and terror of a medieval siege.

I was the Observer's Balkans correspondent, based in Sarajevo for three and half years during the height of the siege. I went back, 10 years later, to spend six months living in Sarajevo writing my novel about the war, the Girl in the Film, a love story set during the siege of Sarajevo and its aftermath.

Sarajevo was still a sad place in 2003. The war was everywhere, including inside people's heads - the buildings still bullet-riddled, the fabulous Austro-Ottoman library still a blackened wreck, the people still in mourning for their dead, and for the life they had lost forever to the war. For, as long as you didn't disagree with it, Tito's Yugoslavia was a very nice place to live: between the mountains and the Mediterranean, the guaranteed jobs of socialism's jobs, with Armani suits, ski-ing holidays and visas to the west. Tito's brilliance was his non-alignment policy, playing off the West against the Communist bloc, largely bankrolled by the paranoid capitalist world, desperate for any bulwark against the Red Peril. Unfortunately when Tito died, the carefully stitched patchwork of Yugoslavia ripped apart, partly under the strain of having to pay it all back all the money the West had leant.

In 2003 I wanted to find the family I'd looked after during the war - we journalists all adopted families, giving them food, helping them out, in return for writing about their lives for our newspapers. Mine were Observer-friendly academics, living in an Austro-Hungarian apartment, stuffed with inherited pictures and furniture, a dust-drenched grand piano next to a huge mortar hole in the wall. The flat was dangerously close to the Presidency building, a raspberry custard blancmange palace, built under Bosnia's years of Austrian rule, from 1878 to the Habsburg Empire collapsed in 1918.

I'd been charmed by the family's resilience and humour, as they made lead pellets from old roof tiles to shoot pigeons to eat, and distilled alcohol, which they sold in the market, from fruit the father, the Professor, picked while doing his front line shift, and made in a still, he'd rescued from the rubble when his university laboratory had been shelled. When the war was over, the architect mother, her two sons joked, would be overworked with all the rebuilding she'd have to do.

Ten years on, their story was rather sad. The Professor was dead, of cancer, after the war; one son had fled the draught during the war and was working in a roller skate factory in Milan, the other was still at home but one of the many thousands of unemployed. The once bulging flat was a shrine to minimalism - furniture all sold - and the architect mother could not get work because she was, despite having stayed throughout the siege, an ethnic Serb. Instead, she seemed to be drinking rather a lot.

"During the war," said one Sarajevan friend, "we had hope." Said another, "All you needed to be happy was a teaspoon of sugar. Now you need a new car and a foreign holiday." A journalist friend said: "They were the best days of our lives, and that's the guilty secret we'll carry to our graves."

Many Sarajevans would agree with him. I wrote a film script of my book and took it to the Rotterdam Film Festival. I discussed a possible feature with one of Sarajevo's best young directors, but when I suggested we shot the film with the war flashbacks in black and white, he said: "Why not shoot the war in colour? Sarajevo is black and white now."

The world, of course, had long forgotten Bosnia by 2003 - gratefully pushing aside the deaths of over quarter a million people, as soon as was decently possible. Bosnia was the embarrassment, Europe's war Europe could not stop. Like poor relations we felt too guilty to face, the world sent $6 billion of aid to Bosnia, but didn't really want to engage.

My film was not made. Strange that in an industry so hungry for stories, it's taken someone of Angelina Jolie's stature to get a film about Bosnia off the ground. It doesn't matter how much real human drama and tragedy stalked its mountains, there's a perception in Hollywood that films about Bosnia don't make money. Too complicated, they say, three sides. Who were the good guys? Weren't they all just as bad? Showing that 20 years on the propaganda that allowed genocide to ravage Europe once more, still flourishes. But really it's just a collective feeling of guilt. I faced all those criticisms trying to get my book published, yet it did very well in the end. The best way to make people remember the Bosnian war is to lure them in with a well-made ripping yarn.

But I am as bad as the rest of the world. There are things I can't face. I went back to Bosnia last summer for a few days to cover the anniversary of the fall of Srebrenica. Nineteen years after the war began, Sarajevo seemed much happier now - the library being rebuilt, more jobs around, but more importantly, there was hope in Sarajevo again: a whole generation young people grown up to whom the war is just a tiny toddler's memory. But however happy the sound on the streets, somehow I just wasn't able, as I rushed round Bosnia, from interview to interview, to make time to see my pigeon family.

The Girl in the Film is available on Amazon Kindle.

 

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