# BOSNIA /// Chronicles of the Siege on Sarajevo (1992-95)

Bridge supplemented by sand bags to protect its users against snipers in Sarajevo. Photograph by Abbas (Magnum)

The book Sarajevo Za Pocetnike (Sarajevo for beginners) written by Bosnian author Ozren Kebo has been translated into French (Bienvenue en Enfer: Sarajevo Mode d’Emploi) but not into English. I thought that it would be a good idea to translate some short excerpts here however bad my translating skills might be.

This book is a description of the daily life in Sarajevo during its siege (1992-1995) by the Serbian army. The form is often humorous while the content is always tragic, thus illustrating an important mean to resist the horror of the war: the derision of the situation. O. Kebo describes a city whose entire infrastructure has been revealed by war, yet this infrastructure is obsolete only acts as the memory of the functioning city:

unofficial English translation: In Sarajevo there is chaos. If you look up, you won’t see the sky but rather wires, millions of wires. Everybody did some cheap wiring. The entire city is a gigantic electrical network and yet, nobody has electricity. If you look down, no more asphalt, just pipes. All the streets are ripped open, and yet, nobody has gas. All transport jerry cans. Millions of jerry cans on millions of wood carts and yet, nobody owns more than twenty liters at home.

official French translation: A Sarajevo, c’est le foutoir. Si on lève les yeux, on ne voit pas le ciel, mais des câbles, des millions de câbles. Tout le monde a fait des branchements de fortune. La ville entière n’est qu’un immense réseau électrique et, pourtant, personne n’a de courant. Si l’on regarde par terre, plus d’asphalte, rien que des canalisations. Toutes les rues sont éventrées et, pourtant, personne n’a de gaz. Tous transportent des jerricanes. Des millions de jerricanes sur des millions de chariots, et pourtant personne ne possèdent plus de vingt litres d’eau chez soi.

Along the book Ozren Kebo insists on the fact that war showed him what was necessary to his life, and what was only dispensable. His only remaining caprice are his books. He knows however that he could only carry so much in case of emergency: “Let’s make it clear, the ideal library is the one that can be carried in two bags. The ideal bags are those with which you can run down the stairs of a burning building.”
Water is of course a crucial resource whether it is used to drink, cook or wash (it is extremely important for the Sarajevians to remain clean):

unofficial English translation: Only the mental short-circuits allow us to continue to live. They are saving us from madness. The latter having been knocking insistently for a long time at our door, we should invest in it, the totality of our intellectual capital. They are the only things that can save us. Here is one that always works. What is Sarajevo? Nothing, a pure abstraction, a black stain on the planet’s resume.
Everywhere else, everybody lives normally, drink his coffee. Here, time stopped. To operate this short-circuit, we need to invert the roles. If you ask for our opinion, we would tell you that elsewhere people are crazy, that normal life is only in Sarajevo. Our reality is the only one, the rest is simply a life simulacrum. Elsewhere, people are rotting in their comfort. There, beyond the seven hills and the seven trenches, they just have to bring the tap water to their lips to drink. We drink our water directly from the jerry can that we have been dragging for three kilometers. Which one of these two ways to do is the most natural one?
Did we deserve our water?
Which sip provides the biggest satisfaction?
The one that has been deserved.
Jerry can water is therefore better.

official French translation: Seuls-les courts circuits mentaux nous permettent de continuer à vivre. Ils nous sauvent de la folie. Etant donné qu’elle frappe avec insistance depuis longtemps à notre porte, nous devrions y investir tout notre capital intellectuel. Eux seuls peuvent nous apporter le salut. En voici un qui marche à coup sûr. Qu’est-ce que Sarajevo ? Rien, une pure abstraction, une tâche noire sur le curriculum vitae de la planète. Ailleurs, tout le monde vit normalement, sirote son café. Ici, le temps s’est arrêté. Pour opérer ce court-circuit, il convient d’inverser les rôles. Si vous nous demandez notre avis, nous vous dirons qu’ailleurs les gens sont fous, que la vie n’est normale qu’à Sarajevo. Notre réalité est la seule, le reste n’est que simulacre de vie. Ailleurs, les gens sont pourris par le confort. Là-bas, au-delà des sept collines et des sept tranchées, ils n’ont qu’à porter leur verre du robinet à leurs lèvres pour boire. Nous buvons notre eau directement au jerricane, que nous avons traîné sur trois kilomètres. Laquelle de ces deux manières de faire est la plus conforme à la nature ?
Avons-nous mérité notre eau ?
Quelle gorgée procure le plus de satisfaction ?
Celle qui a été méritée.
L’eau des jerricanes est donc la meilleure.

In addition of the bombs, the main danger in Sarajevo comes from the numerous Serbian snipers spread in the city. Those are often civilians who received guns from the Serbian Democratic Party before the war and who now targets anybody who appear in their telescopic sight.

unofficial English translation: I am no longer a human being, I am a sniper’s target.
Whoever gets into a bus does not know if he will be able to get off it. Two hundred people get in, and only one hundred ninety nine get off.  And we carry out the two hundredth. The important thing is to sit the deepest as possible on the left. On the right there is Grbavica, and in Grbavica, there is a shopping mall, and near the shopping mall, there is a twenty-floor building, and on the twentieth floor of this building, there is a snipers nest, and in this nest, right in front of the sniper, a riffle, a riffle with a telescopic sight and a trigger, and on this trigger, a finger. If the finger presses the trigger someone in the bus would die thanks to the Great Serbia.

official French translation: Je ne suis plus un homme mais la cible d’un tireur embusqué.
Quiconque monte dans un autobus ignore s’il en redescendra. Deux cents personnes y pénètrent, seules cent quatre-vingt-dix-neuf en sortent. Et on emporte la deux centième. L’important est de se faufiler le plus profondément possible à gauche. A droite, il y a Grbavica, et dans Grbavica le centre commercial, et près du centre commercial, un immeuble de vingt étages, et au vingtième étage de cet immeuble, un nid de snipers, et dans ce nid, devant le tireur embusqué, un fusil, un fusil muni d’une lunette et d’une détente, et sur cette détente un doigt. Si le doigt appuie, quelqu’un dans l’autobus décanillera pour la Grande Serbie.

The experience of the city is tremendously affected by this fearful uncertainty anytime one gets in the streets. People don’t walk, they run in zigzag. They try not to appear for what they often are, Bosniaks (i.e. Muslims) in the point of view of a potential sniper. Trenches are dig, and sand bags walls are built to protect people from the snipers’ bullets. The whole practice of the city is oriented towards survival from a danger its people cannot see.

unofficial English translation: One day it became completely impossible to use the bridge. Since April 1992, it was considered as the black spot of the city. It was always mentioned in the daily reports about the amount of death. It was always in the snipers’ target and only the bravest people were finding the courage to cross it while running.

official French translation: Et un jour, il fut complètement impossible d’emprunter le pont. Depuis avril 1992, il était considéré comme le point noir de la ville. On le mentionnait constamment dans les comptes rendus quotidiens faisant état du nombre de tués. Il était sans cesse dans la mire des snipers et seuls les plus courageux s’enhardissaient a le traverser au pas de course.

Ozren Kebo’s narrative surprises us for its poesy. He sublimes the war without making it less horrible. At some point of the book, he describes how the Serbian bombs materialize violently the desire of the army to enter into Sarajevo:

unofficial English translation: People from Sarajevo would give their blood to have people from Pale and Sokolac stopping to bomb them. That is where we can see how much Sarajeviens are naïve. How can people, for who shells constitute their desire’s sublimation, could possibly stop to bomb the city? If we are not able to enter the city they think, at least our bombs can.

official French translation: Les gens de Sarajevo donneraient leur sang pour que ceux de Pale et Sokolac cessent de les bombarder. Et l’on voit là combien les Sarajeviens sont naïfs. Comment des êtres pour qui les obus sont la sublimation de leur désir pourraient-ils arrêter de pilonner la ville ? S’il ne nous est pas possible d’entrer dans Sarajevo, se disent-ils, nos projectiles au moins le peuvent.

All excerpts are from Ozren Kebo, Bienvenue en Enfer: Sarajevo Mode d’Emploi, Strasbourg: La Nuee Bleue, 1997.


2 Comments on “# BOSNIA /// Chronicles of the Siege on Sarajevo (1992-95)

  1. Cool translations. Years later I can say with certainty that mental shortcircuits Kebo writes about are the most precious ‘lesson’. Plus, they helped immensely in understanding Baudrillard. It’s always good to be reminded, thank you.

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