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New Europe

Day Seventeen: Sarajevo to Dubrovnik

Michael Palin - New EuropeI linger at the window of my hotel room one last time, trying to collect together my memories of this extraordinary place. More than in any other city I find it hard to take in Sarajevo without my imagination running the past and present in parallel. I can't look at the road without seeing people racing for dear life across it, I can't look to the broad green mountain slopes without seeing lines of gun barrels pointing back at me. I can't see the shell of the Parliament building opposite without thinking I can hear the whizz and thump of rockets and mortars.

I'm shocked at how the city suffered only a dozen years ago and inspired by how they've come out of it. I also know now that most Sarajevans I've talked to would feel uncomfortable at any suggestion of saintly suffering. They feel they shouldn't have got into the mess they did but they also feel irritated by the crocodile tears of foreigners whose governments let one of Europe's great cities be slowly strangled. Life goes on, is about all one can say as we pack our vehicles up, dodging the stream of taxis and minibuses delivering new guests. Life goes on. Cities heal quickly.

It's very different in the countryside. As the road winds south-east, the aftermath of war is much less easy to disguise. Blasted and blackened shells of buildings can be glimpsed between the trees.

A half-hour outside Sarajevo, signs by the roadside remind us of new enmities. Written now in Cyrillic as well as Roman script, they advise us that we are entering the Republika Srpska, a self-governing entity within the Republic of Bosnia & Herzegovina, which represents the country's 1.36 million Serbs (along with some two million Muslims and 750,000 Croats).

The comparative harmony that's been restored in Sarajevo seems markedly absent here. This is a hardline heartland. Ratko Mladic, leader of the army that squeezed the life out of Sarajevo for three years and hero of the Bosnian Serbs, is from this pretty valley. Local police, in ill-fitting uniforms, with caps pushed back on their heads, wave us down and check our driver's licence. Then, just as I'm beginning to simplify all this into a clear case of heroes and villains, we meet up with a Serbian group of actors and entertainers who believe so strongly in a multi-ethnic Bosnia that they spend their time touring schools in confrontational areas like this.

They call themselves Genesis and they come from Banja Luka, the capital of Republika Srpska, 200 miles away to the north-west. Dijana, the driving force behind the group, is a big, dynamic girl with spiky blond hair and tightly stretched pink pants. We follow her to a school in Trnovo (pronounced Turnovo) where today, helped and encouraged by UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, she and her team are to present their 45-minute puppet show, teaching the children co-existence, tolerance and how not to be killed by landmines.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Seventeen: Sarajevo to Dubrovnik
  • Country/sea: Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Place: Sarajevo
  • Book page no: 45

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