Christmas in the Balkans

Writer Bruce Sterling spent this winter holiday in the Serbian capital of Beograde.

With even the news in Iraq obscured by the tsunami catastrophe, it is hard to remember the news 10 years ago: The Soviet Union had dissolved; the Russian army pulled out of Eastern Europe; civil war rippled across the Balkans; and, the UN was bogged down by scandel and indecision watching an unfolding human tragedy.

In 1994, Christmas was a very bleak time in the Balkans. There was the slow-motion genocide of Bosnian Serbs, Croats, and Moslems grinding on. Sarajevo was smack in the middle of a 1477 seige (lasting from March 2, 1992 to March 19, 1996).

Susan Sontag, who died last week, was still coping with the effects of cancer treatment when she left for the Bosnian capital, surrounded by Serb artillery and snipers.

From The Guardian

"There is something about facing a mortal illness that means you never completely come back. Once you've had the death sentence, you have taken on board in a deeper way the knowledge of your own mortality. You don't stare at the sun and you don't stare at your own death either. You do gain something from these dramatic and painful experiences but you also are diminished. There's something in you that becomes permanently sad and a little bit posthumous. And there's something in you that's permanently strengthened or deepened. It's called having a life."

It was this mindset that took her to a besieged Sarajevo in the early 90s to direct Beckett's Waiting For Godot to the sound of bombing and sniper fire. Alan Little, who attended the opening night, described her presence there as being of "tremendous symbolic importance at a time when symbols really mattered. She didn't just swan in for three days and then leave. She stayed and worked." But she says few of her American friends understood her commitment.

Terry Gross brings us Sontag's story on NPR's Fresh Air.

A "Surviaval Map" depicting Sarajevo under attack.

Fortunately, the arts survived in Bosnia, and Sarajevo plays hosts to many festivals throughout the year. Nebojsa Seric-Soba is a 33-year-old Bosnian artist who stayed in Sarajevo through the war and formulated an artistic credo under the siege.

As a soldier he thought about war but dreamed about art.

During the day, when his imagination carried him away, he jokingly thought about the possibility that art and war might intersect on the battle field.

PHOTO:Bruce Sterling

More about art in Sarajevo at Q+A: A magazine of Art and Culture.

More maps and resources on Bosnia from the University of Texas, Austin here.