Sunday, April 29, 2007

What is a memory?

Unlike what some right-wing politicians say, is Holland not full. Holland has about 16 million inhabitants, and has a land area of about 33,883 square kilometers. This means that the country has a population density of about 472 people per square kilometer.

Still, I never had the feeling the country is overcrowded. However, after having been abroad for a while, you start noticing things. I never did before I left, but now I do. Reason for this is that my new job is in Nijmegen, where I grew up and went to high school. Every day I commute from Amsterdam to Nijmegen - that is currently the only traveling I am doing. I do not know yet whether I will be going to the places my new company is doing business with. However, traveling was one of the reasons to take the job. And technically you can consider commuting traveling. But still, it ain't the same.....

The commute takes me along places I have not seen or been to in almost 8 years. In those 8 years the pond I used to swim in, and of which I have my fondest youth memories, has partially been replaced by a highway and a railroad. The railroad is never used, and is part of the Betuwelijn, a railroad -turned- farce, which is hardly in use and lead to the demolition of some of the places I fondly remember.

Going back in history, and tracing back memories is not always wise- for what are memories?
A close friend from Sarajevo sent me a poem by William Maxwell once, called "So long, see you tomorrow". The text of it is:

'What we, or at any rate, I, refer to confidently as a memory - meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion - is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the story teller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.'

I prefer not to say that I lied to myself when I was thinking of that pond, and the golden sunsets I saw there, and illegal fires we lit there, and the bbq's we had, the beers we drank. I still memorize those moments, and they make me smile. But every morning when I pass this pond now, I do think that I lied to myself when I relived those memories though- for it is so different-a-place now. But than again- what a comfortable lie this was, and who cares if it indeed is a lie?

A poisoned thought runs through my brain when I pass the pond by: this country is indeed too small and too full for our own wishes- we want everything, we want to be big, and we want it now. At the expense of the places we loved, and the memories we cherished. And is that worth it? I doubt it. But how do we stop this process? No idea- but for sure not in the way and fashion our right wing politicians say.....

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Home is...

...where your own bed is. And mine is in Sarajevo- or so it feels.

It is good to be back, and odd too. Odd because I am not going back to Sarajevo- a place I have started to call home, notwithstanding all the moaning about the place. Good because Amsterdam in spring is a nice place.

As one can imagine, it takes some time to get Sarajevo out of my system, and the best thing I could think of was being very busy from the beginning, so that I do not have time to miss it. Flip-side of it is that within 5 days I was so occupied, that I have not even unpacked yet. Lovely. Anyway, I met with my editor on Thursday, and set dates for my book. On Friday I went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, yesterday I started my regime of health (and failed- had drinks with My Brother, My Friend Fels and Fre and was feeling a bit messed up this morning. So I am going to try to restart this regime; from today onwards all is going to change- if one can not reach the goals set, change them, hehehe!)

From tomorrow onwards my blogs will no longer be about Sarajevo and war crimes. For those who read my stuff because of interest in that: sorry. From September onwards I will write about those topics again, I guess. From tomorrow onwards I will write for 5 months about private equity, micro credits and the likes. I am as curious about my new job as hopefully some of you are about the fact whether I will be able to write interesting stories about it!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The things I did- a retrospect

Almost three years ago I moved to Sarajevo, to work here. A little over three weeks ago I quit my job. In three days I am leaving Bosnia for good. Time to look back.

As a little boy I was obsessed with war. I think it is fair to say that I memorized all battles fought in Europe during the Second World War so thoroughly, that I can dream them- sometimes literally.
As a bigger boy I was still obsessed with war. However, the obsession for battles and fighting shifted to an obsession for battles, fighting, the political run-up to a war, and the social, economic and cultural results of a war. Let’s say that I grew an interest in war in all it’s forms, and that I wished I would live to see one, one day…..

Instead of going to the Royal Military Academy in Breda, the Dutch equivalent of Sandhurst, I went to study law in Groningen. I thought that one day I would be a ‘war-diplomat’ like Richard Holbrooke, who brokered the Dayton Peace Agreement, or like diplomats under President Carter, who made the Camp David Accords possible. Because after all, it are the peacemakers who are the real heroes of a war, not the fighters.

However, one can not have it all in life- for instance, I never became a diplomat. Instead of that, I became a jurist at a War Crimes Court that deals day-in, day-out with the most horrendous (war) crimes one can imagine. And I wrote about this, and about my life in Bosnia, the last three years.

But in all honesty: those stories and blogs are complete and utter manure. Because I write cool about a war that was not mine, and where I was not present at. And much to my shame, I must admit that I sometimes regret not being here during the war. This just shows that even with all my best intentions I can not imagine how bad and horrible a real war actually is- I still can’t after being here for such a long time.

A lot of young ‘internationals’ I have met here told me in secret that they would not mind going to a ‘hotter’ zone than Sarajevo currently is- naive, but true. Many want to got to Afghanistan, some want to go to Iraq. The idea exists that if you do not belong to one of the warring parties, you can life through a war without too much damage. Complete nonsense, and even insulting to people who do know what they are talking about, but some people want to go through or to a war to give meaning to their lives. Maybe I was one of them- although rationally I knew very well how senseless a war was. The main reason for me not to apply for a position in Iraq was because I did not want to worry my parents. Childish and foolish, indeed, but still: going to a war zone stayed an attractive idea. Obviously I did not have a clue what I was talking about. But what if you never go to a war- how could you ever understand one? And before you can solve a problem, you first have to understand it….

But what is my fascination with war, and its aftermath? My mother once told me that it seems as if I am trying to get back to the Nazis, sixty years after the Second World War. And maybe she is right. My childhood and youth were to a large extend influenced by the Second World War- a war I never lived through, and one I could not do anything about whatsoever. Something I have wished was different for a long time.

Because The Netherlands was liberated 32 years, 6 months and 10 days before I was born, the Second World War was history to me. Recent history, ok, but in my ‘childhood eyes’, 32 and a half year ago were ‘a long, long time ago’.
‘Childhood eyes’ can be wrong: on June first 1989 my childhood ended. That day, exactly 44 years and 27 days after liberation of Holland and the surrender of the German troops in the Netherlands, my dad’s liberation ended. Almost 45 years after the war Hitler succeeded in death in which he failed in life: he broke my father, who was a child, hidden without his parents during this war. And made the Second World War thereby very vivid for me and the rest of my family.

My childhood up until that moment was a very happy one. I was a spoiled kid- emotionally spoiled, with love, not materially spoiled. My parents treated us, my sister, brother and me as their equals, without ever forgetting how old we were. We were allowed to decide on important family related issues, like desserts and holidays, we were stimulated to do things that were doomed to fail from the beginning, like my clarinet lessons, and we were taken to ‘adult events’ like classical concerts. However, we were never treated like real adults- there were strict boundaries to what we were and were not allowed to do, and there was no haggling with that. All and all my family was a hammock and a safety net, in which I leisured or was comforted, depending on the needs of the moment.
Although I can not remember my father going to a parent teacher night once, he was an active father. We went skiing on the river dikes close to our house, were he taught us to ski parallel, he took us on skating trips, were he dragged us behind him on sticks when we were tired. He had a demanding job, and during weekdays he came home from work late. Dinner was the only meal we had together as a family, and as a result of his work it was always eaten late- I can not remember going to bed in time once as a kid.

In June 1989 all of this changed. As a result of different factors the war came back into my father’s life- he once more became the hidden kid he once was. Again his life was dictated by a struggle to survive, and by his feeling that he and his family were endangered by unknown evils. Daily life was a battle for him, and he had to protect us, and safe us from danger. We saw it happening- and there was nothing we could do about it.

When someone you worship so much, changes that much because of a long gone war, you want to understand war, if not live through one yourself- and solve one.

So when in June 1991, not long after the Gulf war was fought, the war in then- Yugoslavia broke out, I silently hoped that that war would become serious enough to reach Holland, too. Yugoslavia was in Europe, it was once an ally of the Soviets, or so I thought, and I was sure they had Scuds. According to my Atlas, given to me by my grandparents at my 10th birthday, Slovenia, where the fighting started, was only roughly 2000 kilometers away from the most southern Dutch borders, and I had learned during the Gulf war that the Scuds had a reach of about 2000 kilometers and were not very accurate, so I had good hopes for getting my war!

While the war continued, it became clear to me that it would stay a regional conflict; the only thing Holland got out of that war was a ‘Srebrenica trauma’.

I kept following the news about the war closely, and chose sides for the party that fought the Germans hardest during the Second World War. I turned a blind eye to the fact that this party in this conflict in the nineties behaved almost as bad as the Germans did in the forties. I disregarded it, and tried to reason it. And as a result I ‘committed’ ‘history relativism’ or even revisionism if you will. For someone who wants to solve something this is usually a bad start to things.

During my first weeks in Bosnia my sympathy laid clearly with the Serbs. Slowly, but surely this view changed. Being good or right was not the merit of a people, but of individual persons. Over time here the Second World War stopped being my measurer of good and bad for contemporary generations. That war became background noise to me; louder than preferable, but still- background noise. The war in Bosnia took over the role the previous war had in my life, but only for a short period of time. The Bosnian war was to remote for me to come under my skin. All it did sometimes was leaving some salt behind on my skin, the salt of dried night sweat – as a testimony of the bad dreams my work gave me sometimes. But still, this is different- the war here is not part of me.

For my dad, the Second World War is now a war from the passed century. He told me that when he re-reads his own book about his experiences during his period as a kid in hiding, he feels as if it is not his own story anymore- that war is over for him. He now again is the man he used to be 20 years ago, but 20 years older.

And now I have spent almost three years here, dealing with trying of war criminals. Did this give me satisfaction? Mmm, I do not know. I guess so. Do I understand war, this war, the previous ones? No, and I guess it won’t change- I never will. But going to BiH did make me realize that the Second World War is really over, that after this war many other horrible wars have been fought. That my dad’s war was not the only one, and that none was mine. Thank God. I have resigned from the Court, and BiH and it’s war criminals are from now on only a memory to me.
Silently I count my blessings. Because coming here was my liberation. A liberation of a stupid and childish, but strong desire. A desire for a war that would be mine, but that luckily never came.

My obsession has disappeared. I will always be interested in conflicts. Like I am interested in, let’s say: running, literature, boxing, writing, history and economics. But I had to go to Bosnia first, to find that out….

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Holy Trinity

Today I interviewed candidates for Humanity in Action. During the interview one of the candidates told us that she once participated in a conference about the Balkans, in which Macedonians, Slovenes and Croats from Croatia participated. What she said made sense- if it was about the Balkans, those were the people one would expect to participate. But there was something strange about what she said. And it took me a while to understand what.

But suddenly it struck me: she was talking about "Croats from Croatia", and I found it completely normal that she was saying it. However, is she would have been talking about Englishmen from England, Germans from Germany, Irish from Ireland or Norwegians from Norway, I would have looked at her strangely for the use of such a tautology- nobody talks about white snow either. However, here it made sense.

Because Croats on the Balkan may find themselves Croats, but that does not always mean that they are from Croatia. They can be from Bosnia as well, or even from Serbia. And there are slight differences between all those Croats. Differences that one as an outsider probably would not notice- it has mostly to do with political views (btw: for Croats you could read here 'Serbs' too).

In BiH Muslims, or Bosniacs, Croats and Serbs are the constituent people, and there are about 18 recognized minorities. However, all formal positions should be equally divided between the three constituent people. So even if a Croat is Bosnian, he or she is called Croat, for the sake of this so called 'ethnic key'. So here, in this part of the Balkans 'white snow' makes sense, and everybody understand you when you talk about Croats from Croatia, or Serbs from Serbia, or Albanians from Albania.....

Friday, April 06, 2007

on blogging

For those interested in facts more than in my opinions or whereabouts some trivia:
In March 2005 there were about 8 millions weblogs. In March 2007 there were about 72 million. This means one in every 83,3 people thinks his or her life is so interesting, that it is worth sharing it with the rest of the connected world. It is almost embarrassing to admit that I am one of those. However, there is a reason why not every one in 83 diaries (because that is what blogs basically are) is published- because our lives are not that interesting..... Makes me doubt my whole blogging adventure....

Anyway, the birthrate of weblogs is slowing down. So no worries, people are getting modest again. Except for me and 57,999 others, who according to the ANP at this specific moment are creating content for their blog- some content maybe even more boring than my uninspired input of today.......

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Jumping ships

It is funny, how easy it is to miss the news of a place while you are living there.
When i still worked, I received the Bosnia Daily every day (hence the name, I guess), but now I am depending on the internet for information on the place. And that is more effort then I thought it would be- most of the stuff about here that you find on the net in English are OHR press clippings, or opinions of others. For a good oversight of the news, the clippings and opinions alone are not very helpful. I am a news junkie, and this is a bit annoying..

I have been asked what my new job is. I have not received my terms of reference yet, but I am going to work for a private equity fund, that solely deals with micro credits to individuals in third world countries. The organization that I will work for, starting on the 23rd of April, will set up the 'credit giving institutions' in countries with low per capita income.

You can say I am jumping ships, temporarily- it is a big step from war crimes to micro credits. But on a more metaphysical level ("what is mans role or place in the world"), those jobs are quite the same: both are meant to relieve people- victims of war crimes are being helped in picking up their lives by seeing the perpetrators of the crimes being tried, and are thereby relieved of their pain. Victims of poverty are helped in their struggle against poverty by micro credits, and thereby relieved of some of there problems (agree, agree, I am oversimplifying things here...).

So on the metaphysical level- my role? Don't know. I help. But that sounds a bit presumptious. I prefer to say I facilitate. Sounds reasonable to me.....

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Capitalism won

After we visited Tito's grave, we went to McDonald's. It is fair to say that Capitalism won, even in Belgrade. The West won.

At the end of my stay here, it is time for some trips. Together with My Friend Elias and Ian the Monitor i went to Belgrade last weekend, leaving Thomas the Viking behind in Sarajevo.
My Friend Elias and I went to a conference, titled 'a Soul for Europe', about the role of culture in European identity building. Although an interesting topic, we felt a bit lost. After two-and-a-half years of dealing with war crimes, in which culture was used as the big divider instead of the big equalizer or even unifier, it was a bit hard to warm up to the topic. During a break we were talking to one of the organizers of the event, who laughed at us, and said we were cynics. I guess she is right.
Indeed the West won- using culture as an equalizer is something those intellectuals from the West are doing, for instance at this conference. Maybe equalizing by imposing it, ok, but looking for common ground is better than looking for differences when finding a soul for Europe.
Yes, maybe we are cynics. So therefore My Friend Elias has gone back to Holland for good last Sunday, and am I flying out of BiH for good on the 18th of this month.

The blog will keep on existing- from September onwards I am going to study in Geneva. In the meanwhile I have a job in Holland and abroad, and will keep on working on my stories, which will be published by a Dutch publishing house. Those were the cliffhangers I promised in blogs before. They materialized.