FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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.

More articles by:

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

December 11, 2018
Eric Draitser
AFRICOM: A Neocolonial Occupation Force?
Sheldon Richman
War Over Ukraine?
Louis Proyect
Why World War II, Not the New Deal, Ended the Great Depression
Howard Lisnoff
Police Violence and Mass Policing in the U.S.
Mark Ashwill
A “Patriotic” Education Study Abroad Program in Viet Nam: God Bless America, Right or Wrong!
Laura Flanders
HUD Official to Move into Public Housing?
Nino Pagliccia
Resistance is Not Terrorism
Matthew Johnson
See No Evil, See No Good: The Truth Is Not Black and White
Maria Paez Victor
How Reuters Slandered Venezuela’s Social Benefits Card
December 10, 2018
Jacques R. Pauwels
Foreign Interventions in Revolutionary Russia
Richard Klin
The Disasters of War
Katie Fite
Rebranding Bundy
Gary Olson
A Few Thoughts on Politics and Personal Identity
Patrick Cockburn
Brexit Britain’s Crisis of Self-Confidence Will Only End in Tears and Rising Nationalism
Andrew Moss
Undocumented Citizen
Dean Baker
Trump and China: Going With Patent Holders Against Workers
Lawrence Wittner
Reviving the Nuclear Disarmament Movement: a Practical Proposal
Dan Siegel
Thoughts on the 2018 Elections and Beyond
Thomas Knapp
Election 2020: I Can Smell the Dumpster Fires Already
Weekend Edition
December 07, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Steve Hendricks
What If We Just Buy Off Big Fossil Fuel? A Novel Plan to Mitigate the Climate Calamity
Jeffrey St. Clair
Cancer as Weapon: Poppy Bush’s Radioactive War on Iraq
Paul Street
The McCain and Bush Death Tours: Establishment Rituals in How to be a Proper Ruler
Jason Hirthler
Laws of the Jungle: The Free Market and the Continuity of Change
Ajamu Baraka
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70: Time to De-Colonize Human Rights!
Andrew Levine
Thoughts on Strategy for a Left Opposition
Jennifer Matsui
Dead of Night Redux: A Zombie Rises, A Spook Falls
Rob Urie
Degrowth: Toward a Green Revolution
Binoy Kampmark
The Bomb that Did Not Detonate: Julian Assange, Manafort and The Guardian
Robert Hunziker
The Deathly Insect Dilemma
Robert Fisk
Spare Me the American Tears for the Murder of Jamal Khashoggi
Joseph Natoli
Tribal Justice
Ron Jacobs
Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff
Macdonald Stainsby
Unist’ot’en Camp is Under Threat in Northern Canada
Senator Tom Harkin
Questions for Vice-President Bush on Posada Carriles
W. T. Whitney
Two Years and Colombia’s Peace Agreement is in Shreds
Ron Jacobs
Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff
Ramzy Baroud
The Conspiracy Against Refugees
David Rosen
The Swamp Stinks: Trump & Washington’s Rot
Raouf Halaby
Wall-to-Wall Whitewashing
Daniel Falcone
Noam Chomsky Turns 90
Dean Baker
An Inverted Bond Yield Curve: Is a Recession Coming?
Nick Pemberton
The Case For Chuck Mertz (Not Noam Chomsky) as America’s Leading Intellectual
Ralph Nader
New Book about Ethics and Whistleblowing for Engineers Affects Us All!
Dan Kovalik
The Return of the Nicaraguan Contras, and the Rise of the Pro-Contra Left
Jeremy Kuzmarov
Exposing the Crimes of the CIAs Fair-Haired Boy, Paul Kagame, and the Rwandan Patriotic Front
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail