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The Fisherman of Sarajevo Told Tales Past Wars and Wars to Come

Photo by Julian Nitzsche | CC BY 2.0

We spotted him at the end of a path beside the River Miljacka, bending over the rail with a fishing rod, staring at the fast-moving, shallow waters with a rare intensity, frowning – angry, I thought – the sort of guy you might avoid if you weren’t a journalist on a glowering, rain-spitting day, walking with a translator and ready to approach the down-and-outs of this gloomy city.

I’ve never found Sarajevo a cheerful place, not just because it endured the longest siege in modern history, but because its new tourist shops and tat, and its dodgy reputation as a restored symbol of ethnic unity, are undeserved. Besides, it sent my own father to the trenches of the First World War. It lives off that, too, turning political assassination – in this case, of course, that of the Austro-Hungarian Crown Prince and his wife in June 1914 – into a holiday haunt. Come and see where Gavrilo Princip fired the fatal shot. There’s a museum on the corner and a spanking new four star hotel on the same street and just round the block a Lebanese restaurant – I kid thee not – called “Beirut”.

The fisherman, when I found him, was standing just across the river, scarcely fifty metres from the spot where Princip shot Franz Ferdinand in the jugular and Sophie in the abdomen a hundred and four years ago. And the fisherman’s story, too – obliquely – was a tale of murder most foul. He talked in snatches and his face was congealed into a mask of fury and contempt. He was 57, he said, but he looked at least ten years older, nearer seventy. Was he here in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war, I asked?

He turned on me contemptuously. “I was in the war since 1991. I was with ‘Caco’, fighting the JNA. Caco was a good man. He was not what they’re saying he was. I could talk to you for days and days. He was killed by the ‘Seve’.”

In Bosnia, when you hear that a dead man was a good man, it can often mean something rather different. And like all Bosnian stories, this one needs a gloss. In 1991, Bosnian Muslims fought, for a while, alongside Croats against the Yugoslav National Army (the JNA) which was trying to preserve a Serb-dominated nation out of old Yugoslavia. But “Caco” – you pronounce it “Tsatso” in what we used to call the Serbo-Croatian language and which here we must now call Bosniak – was a vicious war criminal in the siege of Sarajevo until his violent death in 1993. And the fisherman says he fought with him.

In fact, Brigadier Musan “Caco” Topalovic, the “good man” of our fisherman’s story, was the head of the Bosnian Army’s 10th Mountain Brigade who turned his military career into a campaign of extortion, hostage-taking, large-scale rape and mass murder of both Serbs and Muslims in besieged Sarajevo, proving, alas, that Muslim could kill Muslim while fighting the Serbs. He was eventually put to death by an almost equally ruthless Bosnian paramilitary police force called “Seve” – it means “larks” in Bosniak, those nice friendly birds about which poets write – which was loyal to the Muslim President Alija Izetbegovic.

In a final battle, nine of the “Seve” cops were murdered – one had his eyes put out, another was disemboweled – and Caco surrendered after a total of 18 people, half of them civilian hostages, were killed. Caco himself was then “shot while trying to escape”; in reality, he was almost certainly executed by the father of the “lark” who was disemboweled. Caco was buried in an anonymous grave – but later still, he was exhumed to lie in a “veterans” cemetery among heroes who deserved better than to share their last resting place with a war criminal.

The fisherman of Sarajevo speaks to Robert Fisk beside the Miljacka river of wars past and future (Nelofer Pazira)

Our fisherman did not choose to elaborate his services for Caco, but when I asked him who won the Bosnian war, he spat out the reply: “They won! Look what they are doing to the veterans. Look, we were fighting Croats, Croats were fighting us, and we together were fighting Serbs – and the politicians are now just making deals. This is going to end up with us all fighting each other, Muslims versus Muslims, Croats against Croats, Serbs against Serbs. You see how things are developing?” – and here he pointed in the direction of the parliament building – “In the end we will have a real civil war, worse than the one we had.”

Veterans like our fisherman are angry because parliament is planning to pass an increase in benefit pensions to “veterans” of the war, without much proof of how many real veterans there are or what they did in the conflict. And some of those veterans fought each other. Who gets the most? Things are not made better for the fisherman by the fact that Bakir Izetbegovic, the son of the late Alija Izetbegovic – the former president whose “larks” did for Caco – is now in the revolving presidency of modern Bosnia-Herzegovina, as well as president of the Party of Democratic Action.

Bosnia itself is still so divided that when the federal police tried to move a thousand Syrian, Afghan and other refugees from Sarajevo to Mostar during Turkish President Erdogan’s visit, the Mostar police blocked the Sarajevo government police from bringing the refugee convoy south.

Well, the fisherman wanted to talk no more. He was staying, he said, up in the hills above Sarajevo, in the area where Serbs used to live until the end of the war, and he sleeps in the home of his brother and his brother’s wife and family. He was obviously a lonely man, and he scampered away from us along the old quay a few seconds later, holding his fishing rod in his arms.

Strange, though, that while there are some lakes elsewhere in the river, there are – as everyone here knows – no fish in the Miljacka as it flows through Sarajevo, past the spot where Princip shot the Archduke more than a century ago and where the fisherman was “fishing” on that rainy day this week.

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Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

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