Returning To the City That Made Us Refugees

On a visit to Banja Luka, the city her family fled during the Bosnian War, Ana Barić encounters old wounds and alternate realities.

Ana Barić | Longreads | October 2018 | 12 minutes (3,214 words)


I want to feel an affinity, or even just a positive connection, to the city of my birth. My parents were raised in its outskirts, and began a family on its leafy green streets. I took some of my first teetering steps near the Vrbas (river) in Mejdan, and engaged with its kafić (cafe) culture from the age of two, when I would sit down for a tall glass of whipped cream while my dad sipped his espresso. My friends from the States and Sarajevo sing the city’s praises. Strangers I’ve met from other countries comment on its beautiful women. Clearly people appreciate Banja Luka.

Instead, every time I visit the city, I almost immediately feel alienated and uncomfortable, suffocated by a heavy blanket of political revisionism and economic bleakness. A sense of despair and trauma from the war still seems to hang over every conversation my family and I have with its residents. Life is measured before and after the war.

Day two of my trip only reaffirms these sentiments. I am at the police station in Banja Luka, waiting for my younger sister to file her lost phone report. The first thing I see in the station is a memorial to the members of the police force who gave their lives for Republika Srpska (the RS), the majority Serb, secessionist proto-state in Bosnia and Herzegovina that Banja Luka sits in.

Pali su časno za odbranu otadžbine,” the memorial proclaims in the Cyrillic script. They fell honorably while defending the fatherland.

More than a hundred faces and names stare at me from a gold-plated plaque that is several feet tall and stretches across a full wall. I understand that the RS is proud of what it is today, but I can’t fully separate the state today from its bloody roots. The memorial is dated 1992-1995, meaning that these men fell fighting for a regime that committed crimes against humanity. They were part of Mladić and Karadžić’s project of partition and ethnic cleansing.

With a wide grin, the officer then calls Trump ‘simpatičan,’ meaning nice, or likable.

I struggle to understand how this memorial can exist. A five-minute walk away is a mosque with tombstone after tombstone of Bosnian Muslims who were murdered because of these aspirations. If you didn’t know the historical context, you would think a plague fell upon the men of Banja Luka in 1992, suddenly wiping out scores of young Muslims. In many ways, I suppose there was a disease that struck everyone down.

This memorial is part of a deeper revisionism. Just last year, the Bosnian Serb leader, Milorad Dodik, banned school from teaching about the genocide in Srebrenica or the siege of Sarajevo. Banja Luka is writing a different history, one where Bosnian Serb forces were not shooting at, bombing, and displacing hundreds of thousands of people. Instead they were — and continue to be, according to those in power — on the defense, held back by a dangerous Sarajevo and colonizing West.

The flags and political advertisements underscore this point.

Having been raised in the United States, I am used to the spectacle of flags that mark homes, offices, and streets. But I still find the bouquets of RS flags bursting out of every public square bizarre. Practically every lamppost, government building, billboard, and street is marked with the same red, blue, and white horizontal bands that make up the Serbian flag. Billboards proclaim: “Under a Serbian flag. For a united Serbia!” The RS leadership vehemently rejects anything to do with Bosnia and Herzegovina, and regularly threatens to secede from it, presenting Sarajevo as a Muslim-led threat and danger. The message is clear. This is a place for Serbs, and all others will have a harder time finding a voice or place. I can’t even imagine trying to.

My mother is Bosnian Serb and my father is Bosnian Croat. If I grew up in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I would have been part of the ostali (the others) group because of my “mixed” heritage. The ostali are effectively disenfranchised for not belonging to one of three possible ethnic categories: Serb, Croat, or Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim).

My identity and belonging in Banja Luka feels even more fraught, however, because I have been raised in America. A few years ago, my Bosnian-Serb cousin wouldn’t let me put down his address on an official registration document in the RS. “I don’t want the CIA knowing where I live!” he exclaimed.

This trip, my family and I decide to throw the international spies after us by renting an Airbnb apartment in the heart of the city, near Hotel Bosna. We ride in to the city after a lovely week on Croatia’s Adriatic coast. As always, the bus ride views are engrossing. In the span of a few hours, Zagreb’s Austro-Hungarian boulevards slowly fall away into green landscapes with unfinished brick homes tucked into them. Titoist tenement apartments are replaced by distant, slate-blue mountains and hills. As the bus approaches Banja Luka, warehouses and factories suddenly spring up next to small flower shops, pawn stores, and cafes advertising Serbian and Banja Luka brewed beers (Nektar and Jelen) on their awnings. The Croatian ones (Ožujsko and Karlovačko) are long gone.

Our apartment is modern in a tacky sort of way, with metallic silver pillows, imitation-leather plastic white couches, and dramatic three-dimensional paintings of seaside vistas. There is even a top-of-the line shelf for papuče (slippers) which elegantly folds into a wall — my favorite part of the apartment.

Our balconies present us with the most quintessential Banja Luka scenes, the Eastern Orthodox church on one side, and a strip of rowdy cafes that litter the streets of Banja Luka, on the other. In a country with a staggering 18% unemployment rate, and a GDP per capita of $5,180, it seems like only the café bars can prosper. They are buzzing with residents gossiping, partying, and people-watching.

The apartment is a ten-minute walk from the dusty-pink tenement building where my parents and I lived two decades ago. That neighborhood is greener than the center, leaving behind chain stores and a concrete shopping mall for small streets lined with linden and spruce trees. Optimistically painted sherbet orange, cotton-candy pink, and pistachio homes break up the green space. Baby socks, adult shirts, and wooly sweaters bloom from lovely balconies that double as laundry lines.

It is a quaint scene until you notice the “Welcome to hell!” and stomach-turning “Ratko Mladić – Hero” graffiti. Two streets away from our old apartment, after all, is a mosque that was blown up during the war by the RS government, which wanted to make it clear that this was no place for Muslims.

Whenever the mosque is mentioned, my parents comment on how loud and destructive the bombing was, how it shattered our apartment windows and the glass fell into my crib. “You slept right through it!” they exclaim every time, as if it’s a fresh surprise.

But that is in the past. It is our second day in the city, and we are heading to the police station to file a missing phone report. I am not particularly confident that it will be found by a police apparatus that residents bemoan is dizzyingly corrupt, bureaucratic, and dysfunctional.

On the way to the station, I am struck by how many officers there are on the streets. I imagine it is because the city is anticipating a visit from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov ahead of the general elections in early October. Larger-than-life political heads are plastered on billboards throughout the city. Men and women look confidently and longingly into the distance, with the Serbian tricolor in all of their backdrops. Aesthetically, they are difficult to tell apart.

It is apparent that something has gone terribly wrong.

On our walk, my family and I head down Kralja Petra I Karađorđevića, one of Banja Luka’s main tree-lined streets. After a mandatory bitter coffee at a smoky local cafe — today’s is called Debela Berta (Fat Berta) — we pass Hotel Bosna.

“Look! This where they decided who died!” my father exclaims, referencing the Bosnian Serb leadership who would stay there during the war when they weren’t in Pale. He then asserts he will never go inside.

Mladić and Karadžić surely walked all over the city, I think to myself. Maybe we should avoid the entire city then. “You only take us to the nicest places,” I quip sarcastically.

Next on the walk is a depressing casino, a liquidation sale, and of course café after café.

My mother points out where she and my father got married, a humble municipal building in the town square. It is overshadowed by the grand Eastern Orthodox church in the city, Hram Hrista Spasitelja (the Cathedral of Christ the Savior). The church is hard to miss, with its salmon-colored striped façade, shimmering gold onion domes, and towering steeple piercing the sky.

The church was placed at the heart of Banja Luka after the war, sandwiched between the city’s main government building and cultural center. It replaced a monument to anti-fascist fighters in World War II. In a region of the world where ethnicity and religion are regularly conflated, this sends a poignant message about ethno-nationalist priorities.

My mother is not impressed on several levels. She complains that she wasn’t able to sleep at all the night before because of the church’s bells.

“At two in the morning, the bells rings two times. Then nothing, and then it rings twice again. Half-an-hour later there is one bell. At three in the morning, they go three times, and then pause. Then three bells again. Half an hour-later, one bell…”

She has had too much time to count and contemplate, I think.

“…At six o’clock, when people are supposed to go to service. It’s very long ringing. But everyone says no one actually goes except tourists.” When she mentions the bells to her sister the next day, my aunt raises her eyebrows and shoulders in bemusement. “Really? No one has told me that before. It’s not that loud to me.”

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Our morning sightseeing ends at the police station, where I am left with the memorial to the fallen. My mother and sister go upstairs to file a report that will, for some inexplicable reason, take two hours to complete. My dad begins speaking with the police officer who is at the front desk tasked with directing visitors.

My father spends most of our time in Banja Luka chatting to people he recognizes from his past, sometimes purposefully seeking them out, but generally just running into them on the street. In America, he doesn’t have nearly as many friends, and his dry sense of humor and satirical jests are often lost on overly-friendly and sincere American disposition. But here his language skills and familiarity with the city are empowering, and he adopts an outgoing demeanor and confident swagger. Occasionally, after a chance encounter with a familiar face on the street, my father will tell me, in a low tone, “He did very bad things during the war.”

His words come with a bizarre sense of pride, because he thinks they are a sign that he can rise above the war’s damage, and still speak to these men. It is a testament to his ability to transcend the trauma and hate he was subjected to two decades ago.

“It doesn’t bother me. I feel nothing,” he proclaims.

But everyone can see and feel the scars from the war. It’s evident not only in the lost and displaced lives, but also in the current faltering economy, corrupt politics, and lack of opportunity. My father’s numbness is not unique or commendable, I think. It’s a means of survival.

I begin eavesdropping on the conversation my father is having with the police officer at the station. The officer asks my father where he is living, and then heaps praise on Arizona for some reason (we live in Philadelphia). Unsurprisingly, he segues into praise for Donald Trump.

“Those from the former Yugoslavia, when the elections began, they said, ‘What do you mean? He’s crazy!’” the officer remarks. “But for me, he’s the only one that makes the grade.” With a wide grin, the officer then calls Trump simpatičan, meaning nice, or likable. This is my first clue that the police officer lives in an alternative reality.

The Trump supporters I have spoken to tend to recast Trump’s obstinate and bigoted character as no-nonsense strength. They act as if it is refreshing candor rather than brutishness. But no one has ever associated him with the pleasantness that simpatičan denotes. I wonder what this officer would classify as wrong or immoral.

It doesn’t take long for me to find out.

“It’s against the law of nature,” he opines a few minutes later. He is now discussing gay pride parades.

“If I was born sick, and don’t want a wife, and I want a male partner, fine. But why do I need a parade for that? If I was born without hands, that doesn’t mean others need to cut their hands off!”

This is the third time he is re-directing the conversation back to his homophobia.

“And what do you expect if they adopt kids? We’ve seen what has happened with priests and pedophilia. Those with money think they have a right to everything. That’s what being liberal means.”

My father, to his credit, does counter these rants with attempts to explain what the LGBTQ community is seeking. He speaks of normalization, and a human desire to escape the dark corners of society. Mainly, however, he speaks of generational differences.

From there, the conversation becomes more scatty and conspiratorial, with the police officer decrying how Western money has ruined everything, my father discussing the problematic nature of the Bush and Clinton political dynasties, and both acknowledging the importance of young people playing sports and respecting their elders. At one point, they even discuss Hegel and Kant.

They are often interrupted by visitors and police officers. When one offers the presiding officer a juice from the store, he seems almost insulted.

“No. I don’t want anything. There is water here, man. Why do you need juice?” It is as if the juice is yet another imagined affront to his masculinity.

Everyone who tells me they love the city also lacks roots in it. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

I want to call the officer out, to push him on his bigotry. But my language skills are not sufficient to discuss homophobia, patriarchy, and hate speech. Even if I could articulate these sentiments in Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian (here, definitely Serbian), I doubt he would care. How could he when there is a crisis right outside the door that he seems utterly oblivious to?

Outside the station, protestors are decrying policy brutality, corruption, and the unsolved death of a young man named David Dragičević. They have been doing so for six months, with hundreds of people in Banja Luka turning out for daily protests. They carry “Justice for David” and “Stop Unpunished Killings in Banja Luka” banners. A memorial is permanently displayed near the city’s iconic concrete shopping mall, with teddy bears, candles, and photographs memorializing the young man.

David’s body was found in a river in Banja Luka in late March. Police said the 21-year-old got into a fight on the night of his disappearance, robbed a house, and then, somehow, fell into a river and drowned on this way home.

His parents, and many people in Banja Luka, reject this explanation. They believe the police held and tortured David for six days, and then murdered him. The crowd claims to have the perpetrators’ names and numbers. David’s mother says that she received a text message from him the night he disappeared, saying that if anything happened to him, “F.Ć.”  would be the perpetrator. According to the local media, this is the nephew of a high-ranking official in the RS Ministry of Interior. The government denies these claims.

It is apparent that something has gone terribly wrong. Additional officers have been sent to the protests and two black berets walk around the police station. The police are prepared to take action — as long as it doesn’t involve re-opening the investigation, it appears.

After the missing phone report is finally filed, my family and I pass the protestors on our way out of the station. David’s dad is there, with a loudspeaker, pointing to the police station and calling them criminals.

‘Six days he suffered! Look at this child, only twenty-one years old…”

My mother’s eyes well up with tears as she hears the protestors shout that the boy was violated by the authorities. It is a hard scene to watch, and we somberly make our way to the city center.

It doesn’t take long for an older woman to come up to us. She says she saw us stop and listen to the protestors, and thanks us for paying attention. She then goes on to say that David discovered some wrongdoing that the police had done, and was therefore silenced by them. The details she is unfamiliar with, but it involves substantial amounts of illegally acquired money, she says.

Ovo je nešto prestrašno,” she exclaims. “Ove je baš prestrašno.” (This is something horrific. This is really horrific).

“We are a heartbroken people,” she goes on to say.

The woman says her hope lies in David’s family and friends, and in the youth in general, who will protest the police brutality. She adds that she will continue her fight for justice as well. After the death of her child a few years back, she explains, she doesn’t have anything left to fear.

I am struck by how surrounded we are by billboards and flags peddling false promises. Politicians justify a bid for secession by fomenting fear and distrust of other ethnic groups and nations. History is airbrushed and distorted so certain war crimes can be forgotten.

Yet, in the conversations I have with family members, my parents’ friends and acquaintances, and particularly friendly strangers, the politics are almost dismissed. They are denounced as inevitably corrupt and dirty. One taxi driver tells me the upcoming elections will merely determine who will grow richer through nepotism and exploitation.

In general, those I speak to care much more about the lack of opportunity and fairness in Banja Luka than they do which party will come into power, or where the RS’ position on secession stands. They speak of the David protests, the state corruption, and the lack of job prospects.

The disconnect between the establishment’s priorities and the people’s needs is jarring, and the city suffers for it.

“It is so depressing,” my parents comment over and over.

In the few days we have in Banja Luka, I see my parents try to re-connect with Banja Luka. They do this by seeking out familiar people, cafes, and ćevapi restaurants. Almost invariably the people they search for have either left or are too busy to meet them. The cafe names and owners have changed. Even the accents of those in town are now different, they complain. As for their favorite ćevapi place? Closed last year. The city unfolds as a shell of what it was, and leaves them with a fresh sense of loss.

Perhaps it is easier living here without knowledge of what existed before. After all, everyone who tells me they love the city also lacks roots in it. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

* * *

Ana Barić is a London based writer, and former reporter for Reuters and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. She has roots in the Balkans and the United States. 

Editor: Dana Snitzky