‘I made peace with my war’: a Bosnian journalist shares her story of resilience during the Sarajevo siege

‘I made peace with my war’: a Bosnian journalist shares her story of resilience during the Sarajevo siege
Image: Still from What's This Country Called Now? (2021)

16 December 2021

“I lived with the illusion that, if honest people knew what was happening, they would stop the war,” journalist Aida Cerkez tells me over a couple of beers one Sarajevo night, remembering her reporting from the besieged Bosnian capital.

The breakup of Yugoslavia in the early ‘90s had turned into a grinding ethnic conflict. In Bosnia, the most multiethnic of the newly independent republics, Serbian forces took up positions in the hills around the capital. For nearly four years, they cut off all access to the city and blanketed its residential neighborhoods with shells and sniper fire.

Like many Bosnians, the young reporter initially thought that their fellow Europeans would come to their rescue as soon as they realised what was happening. “By 1994, I realised that they knew,” Cerkez tells me. “They just didn’t give a shit. Whether we lived or died, it didn’t matter.”

Aida Cerkez as a war correspondent in 1992. Image: Personal archive

Aida Cerkez as a war correspondent in 1992. Image: Personal archive

Her disillusionment would strike a chord with many reporters today. What is journalism for, if it has made no difference in Syria, Gaza, or Xinjiang? Or, for that matter, in Bosnia, which some experts fear is once again on the brink of disaster?

Now, nearly 30 years after the Bosnian war, Cerkez has written a short film that offers an answer. Produced and directed by Joseph Pierson, What’s This Country Called Now? recently won Best Featurette at the Golden Movie Awards in London. For journalists who wonder what it’s all for, it’s a 37-minute declaration of faith. For everyone else, it’s a reminder that knowledge carries moral responsibility.

The film stars the award-winning Croatian actress Zrinka Cvitesic in an uncanny performance as a younger Cerkez, who worked as an Associated Press correspondent during Sarajevo’s four-year-long nightmare.

“You, my Aida, have to write about it. And publish it, immediately! So that nobody, after this, can ever say ‘I didn’t know.’”

A harrowing opening montage, interspersed with actual wartime footage, shows her dodging sniper fire as she races through the city’s streets in a Land Rover. In another gut-wrenching scene, she hands her baby to a stranger through a bus window — the only way to secure his evacuation to Germany.

But the central incident of the film is quieter and more reflective, leaving the vagaries of war in the background. In a series of intimate scenes, lit by candlelight and punctured by the sound of exploding shells, Cerkez conducts an unusual interview that ends up changing her life.

Her subject, an irritable 92-year-old named Ismet Tabakovic, is a living witness to a Sarajevan tragedy from another era. As a boy, he had been among the joyous crowds greeting Franz Ferdinand, a visiting Austrian archduke, when the visitor was gunned down by a Serbian nationalist. The assassination, just outside the city’s graceful Turkish quarter, set off the First World War. On the 80th anniversary of the killing, the Associated Press asked Cerkez to write a story to mark the occasion. For two days, in a sequence the film recreates from her reporter’s notebooks, Cerkez interviewed the life-long Sarajevan, now bed-bound and almost deaf.

Image: Still from What's This Country Called Now? (2021)

Image: Still from What's This Country Called Now? (2021)

As a subject, Tabakovic was an irresistible hook: a man who could look back on the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Nazi occupation, and the entire lifespan of socialist Yugoslavia. Living out his last years in the rubble of ’90s Sarajevo, he didn’t even know what was happening. “Who’s shooting?” he asks Cerkez in the film. “What’s this country called now?”

“He lived his entire life there, and probably died in that bed where I interviewed him,” she remembers today. “He lived in one house, but five different countries.”

This interview was the genesis of the film. In 2015 — this time on the 100th anniversary of the assassination — Cerkez told some visitors from the Rockefeller Foundation about her encounter with Tabakovic. Fascinated, and no doubt charmed by her skills as a storyteller, they invited her to write a script. Cerkez agreed — but for her, the story needed to resonate today. “They wanted to show how terrible the history of the city is. Okay, any tourist guide can tell you that,” she says. “When people watch that, they’re not going to be smarter. I want to tell them something else.”

That’s why, at her insistence, the key scene of the film recreates her last conversation with Tabakovic — the moment she realised that her journalism had value, and what it was.

Bribed by the offer of a rare chocolate bar, the initially reluctant old man had warmed to the young reporter. Prompted by his questions, she found herself telling him about her own life, confessing that she no longer saw the point of staying in Sarajevo. “This has been going on for two years, and I don’t know if it’s ever going to stop,” she says in the film. “I think I’ll leave soon. I’m fed up. I’m writing and nothing is happening.”

That’s when the retired railway worker tells her something that would change her life. After the Second World War, Tabakovic recalls, he spoke with a Croatian man about the wartime disappearances. “I asked him,” he says, “how did you feel when they were taking away your dearest neighbours and friends to kill them in those camps? ‘We didn’t know,’ the man had said.”

“Maybe they didn’t,” Tabakovic tells Cerkez. “Because nobody was writing about it.” That, he tells her as she eases him back into bed, is why she must keep covering the Bosnian war. “You, my Aida, have to write about it. And publish it, immediately! So that nobody, after this, can ever say ‘I didn’t know.’”

“I was speechless when he said that,” she remembers. “I walked out knowing that I’m going to stay.” It wasn’t exactly a call for journalism that can remake the world. Instead, it was an affirmation of a more subtle and modest truth: when you inform your audience, you’re also making a moral demand.

“If someone is there to bear witness, then ignorance is no longer an alibi,” Cerkez’s character narrates, typing on a primitive Associated Press laptop — the samе one the real-life Cerkez used during the siege. “So I reported every day. I embraced my job. I made peace with my war.”

Tabakovic’s message stayed with the real-life Cerkez long afterwards. She’s still in Sarajevo today, working as news editor for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), an international network of investigative journalists.

“Thanks to Ismet, I have the patience for journalism. I’m not expecting a direct impact.”

“These younger people are impatient like I was,” she says, referring to her colleagues. “They want to change the world. They have no idea they already have. They’ve turned an excuse into a choice.”

“I think that’s enough.”

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