Sunday, August 12, 2012

A Journalist’s War Stories

Everyone in Sarajevo has war stories or memories, at least comparisons to make about before and after the brutal 1990s siege, but none brings the time back so vividly as Aida Cherkez. A mutual friend describes her as Bosnia’s post-war Nora Ephron. She puts it this way. “I’ve erased everything,” she said, “and those years have become a Monty Python Show in my head.”
It’s true, I’ve heard her retell some of the same stories more than once, rehearsing, playing with the timing of them. Friends request certain tales, as they would a certain song if she were a musician. We all urge her to write a book.
Cherkez is the bureau chief in Bosnia for the Associated Press where she’s worked since during the war, a serious journalist. But her war stories glint with mischief and a love of  her hometown that comes from knowing it before it became a synonym for battleground.
“I can’t tell you,” she will say talking about those innocent pre-war days when Sarajevo was an Olympic city, “how unimportant it was who we were. When I married my first husband, I didn’t know that he was Serb.”
She is Muslim.
Aida Cherkez in Sarajevo
School kids grew up with friends who were also Muslim, or Croat or Serbian. “As kids we’d skip school, math especially.  And one day we were out of school and thinking ‘What do we do?’ We started smoking and when you are kids, smoking means you have a pack and you smoke it all, right?
“And this boy said he will go into the Hadz Mosque. It’s still there, the one near Inat Kuca (a restaurant on the city’s western edge).
“Late afternoon he sneaked into a room of the mosque – there was a little record player. They didn’t actually sing from the minaret. They broadcast the music. He was gonna change that record and we would see what happened.
“We sat around smoking in the graveyard next door and waiting for the call to prayer . Then suddenly Mick Jagger was singing,  and “Angie” is ringing out across the city.
“If that happened now,” Aida adds with a laugh. “ Can you imagine? The High Representative would be there. They’d call an international conference.”
She had worked in a bank and in a casino, got married and had a son, and was in her late 20s when war came in 1992. Bosnian Serbs set up a firing line around the mountains down into the city. So Aida signed up. She was, she says, “embarrassed to sit in cellar  listening to the shelling and let someone else save me.”
“But the army didn’t really know what to do with women in the beginning,” of hostilities that would go on for more than three years.  Her first assignment was grating green chalk and mixing it with Nivea face cream to make camouflage.
But she’d studied German and picked up English so before long she was an assistant to Gen. Mustafa Talijan, in charge of the defense of Sarajevo and head of what she calls the Bosnian Army’s International Press Center. It was, she says, “basically a room that had me in it and a power supply. You’d plug in your sat (satellite) phone and put in whatever I would tell you.” She talked until the general kicked the pocket door that separated the press center from his cubicle three times. That meant he wanted coffee.
Cherkez shipped her infant son with her mother to Germany to get away from a war that went on and on. The two women, both stressed about killings and money and separation, fought ferociously over everything on the phone including how to raise the boy. Then one day her mother told her angrily, “Look, I am in Germany because I’m taking take of your child. But I left my child there!
“After that, I never argued with her,” Cherkez said.
Cherkez went eventually from working with reporters to working as one. She became part of an Associated Press team housed in the Belvedere Hotel covering the vicious war.  And this is her story of the Tripod Cow.
“The hotel owner had signed a contract with the AP that required him to supply so much food including meat” to the news team. That got harder and harder to live up to as the siege around Sarajevo tightened, but “somehow one August he got a cow,” Cherkez says. “I don’t know where. He probably bought it from a Serb. He thought he could feed us off of that for a while. But there was no refrigeration, no ice.
“So his idea was to get a surgeon from Kosovo Hospital and have him amputate one leg. Then he could keep the cow until he needed more meat. I had a friend who was a surgeon and the two of them had a major moral and philosophical discussion over this. He said, ‘You do it all the time to people.’ ‘Yes,’ she said, to save their lives. This would just prolong the cow’s misery. Utlimately this will cause his death.’” To which the hotelier responded “Look, this cow will die with or without you.”
“My friend telling us this, Cherkez adds, “said that she had been waiting for months, wondering, ‘Will I notice the moment when we collectively go insane?’ This was that moment in the war.”
Eventually the cow was slaughtered without surgical assist and the AP staff had a feas, calling in every friend and relative they could.
After all, Cherkez rationalizes the favoritism,  “All is fair in love and war.”
(To learn more about Cherkez see: first at

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Alternative form of climbing

In some places around Sarajevo the hills are so steep that stairs have been installed (Actually, there's a funicular on one hill). These stairs are, of course, not shoveled in winter and badly maintained the rest of the year. Sink holes and broken stones make for exciting climbing if breathing up 80-some steps is not challenging enough. For years I've had nightmares about falling down stairs and couldn't figure out why because I'm not really afraid of stairs. I read books about dream interpretations, even asked a shrink.  "Duh," I told myself as I took this photo.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Climbing Sarajevo

It takes about two weeks each time I return to Sarajevo to get used to them.

The hills, The same geological feature that makes this such a breath-taking city also takes my breath away literally,. This is particularly  so after a stint in the states, where I rarely walk much less tackle hills like these.

Sarajevans of all ages, in contrast, take their hills in stride. Indeed, rock climbing up sheer cliffs is a popular pastime in this city. There is nothing as demoralizing as huffing and puffing up a hill being lapped by a 72-year-old in a kerchief carrying a plastic bag of groceries in each hand.

Young men – many chain-smoking  which you think might slow them down – sprint up the verticals and I am amazed by the fashionably dressed young women who seem to easily mince up hills in stiletto heels I could not manage on flat ground.

I always seem to be the only one on the verge of heart failure.

The hills are a particular challenge in winter. Instead of regular plowing and shoveling, mostly people here rely on walking in the  wobbly paths tramped down by earlier walkers. The only thing worse than hills are icy, snowy hills.  The sidewalks are lined with iron bannisters you grip to keep from slipping.

I have used those bars to haul myself up a few hills lately.  Steep climbs when the temps are in the 90s also stink.

I am so daunted by these daily upward trudges that I plot out my day to make sure I am not climbing more than once a day.  I forgot my laptop charger at home the other day and wanted to cry. I have worked extra hours more than once because it just seemed easier to keep working than to mountain climb.  At one point when I had a pet in the city and guests would ask what they could bring for dinner, I'd always tell them "cat litter."  Let them lug up those 5-pound bags.

I write this today to mark the happy occasion yesterday afternoon of my first effortless climb of this visit.  I appear to be acclimated.

 This is Logovina Street where we lived for years. I have a stronger heart and legs because of this ass-kicking  hill. I still shudder when I walk by it today.

 I still think Sarajevo looks like lands from fairy tale books I read my kids. But living on the side of a mountain except for goats has poses physical challenges.

 And this is my vote for the steepest and most daunting climb in the city, from the popular Inat Kuca restaurant by the river straight up to the cemetery and residential areas where views are stunning but oxygen is short.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Tunnel Vision

You tend to see corruption everywhere in Bosnia and I am never sure if it’s because we specialize at the Center for Investigative Reporting in Sarajevo on organized crime and corrupt leadership or just because Bosnia actually is really, by all possible measures, one of the most corrupt places in Europe.

One in every three Bosnians has come face to face with it, according to an EU-funded study by the Center for the Study of Democracy in Bulgaria -- a country qualified to recognize corruption.

That tends to skew your perception. When you see the street and sidewalks ripped up for repaving, you figure the new stones were illegally quarried. You deal with the mean, rude cabbies who park near the Cathedral in the center of Old Town and know that these guys don’t worry about making customers happy because they have friends in high enough places to operate out of the best stand in the city. You see big houses in posh and hilly neighborhoods and you guess “Mafioso.” Job promotions, high grades, awards, a nice apartment, a quick appointment to see a cardiologist. Each of those is a signal here of favoritism, nepotism or cronyism.

The cynicism is deep, earned and debilitating. It’s hard for journalists or activists to rouse people to take umbrage – much less action. Naturally enough, they think why bother? Things never change. They never have.

But even against that setting it has been depressing to learn this summer about the . A recent Slobodna Bosna magazine article labeled it “The Biggest Fraud in Sarajevo.”

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Back to Africa

Dec. 29 -Jan. 19, 2010

The itinerary covered Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda.

African skies

Nakuru, Kenya

Sunset in Kigali, Rwanda, to right. Parc National de Volcans in Rwanda in the middle and Lake Nakuru below

Pictures from a Uganda Rain Forest

Uganda's beloved Mabira rain forest


Hawley took this terrific shot of three boys in Musanze near the jumping off point for gorilla treks. As tourists with cameras approach they dropped their work tools and broke into this impromptu and irresistible dance.That's Moses in the middle. He asked for a picture of him and friends and gave us an email for his school so we could send the shot back, which we did. The boys also wanted dictionaries and new science books.
Boys run after an SUV filled with safari tourists in Kenya hoping for a candy handout.

A red-robed, beaded Masai dancer in Kenya

Saturday, February 13, 2010

School boy and flower in Musanze above and wood carver with unfinished gorilla mask below

Drum maker and family pose outside their shop after Hawley and I bought eight drums.

Isn't this the worst ad you ever saw???

Coke could not get away with this in the states. We couldn't believe this ad --blown up to gigantic billboard size -- when we drove past it on the road from Kampala to Jinja. Notice the explosive eruption of soda at the bottom in addition to the oral sex imagery in the main art. Subtle.

A new skyline in Kampala since my last visit in 2005

The skyline over Uganda's city is now dominated by the Kadafi Mosque, giving it a new Moslem feel.

The traffic jams have not cleared up over the past five years.

Masai shields are big sellers as Kenyan souvenirs

African artwork

A roadside art gallery outside Kampala, Uganda, caught the eye of at least these Americas. We jumped out of our car to snap photos of the poster until the painter's wife asked up grumpily if we were gonna buy it? We paid her for letting us take a picture of the art.

The bottom two shots are eye-catching works in the National Museum in Nairobi, Kenya

Giraffe closeups

Lions rule at Masai Mara

Gorilla Trek in Rwanda

Not that everything in Nature is beautiful

A dead flamingo on the beach at Lake Nakuru, Kenya

We had been snapping pictures of baboon mothers toting about their babies for an hour when we ran into this lovely scene at Lake Nakuru, Kenya: a male is digging into the entrails of a baby Grant's gazelle. Just out of camera range a female awaits her turn at the dinner table.

In the bottom shot taken at Masai Mara National Park in Kenya, vultures and a caribou stork pick at the carcass of a water buffalo.

Grown in Africa

I ended up with all these shots of tree trunks which I love. I don't know the name of the top tree, but the middle one is a thorn tree and the bottom is from a papaya tree.

Jennifer didn't know the name of these pretty purple flowers but told us that Ugandan kids sucked the white part of the flowers because they are filled with a sweet sap. We sucked up a bunch. Hawley loves shooting flower pictures and she spent a lot of this vacation with her nose and camera lens stuck in leaves. At one point some French travelers pointed to her camera signaling something wrong. She found it was covered in yellow pollen from getting too close. Her shots are amazing -- but even my mundane ones are filled with the bright colors, prickly textures and odd shapes of plants in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda.

Blooms and Fungus

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