Citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina have been taking to the streets this past week to voice their frustration and disatisfaction with government corruption and incompetence. Small protests on Wednesday and Thursday in Tuzla gave way to demonstrations in the major towns on Friday—Tuzla, Sarajevo, Zenica, and Mostar. Many of these were marked with violence against government buildings as well as injuries to protesters and police.
The following article appeared on Zenicablog the next day, as workers and citizens came out to survey the damage and help clean up. After reading about the events on other news portals, which reported from a safe distance and repeated official statements under sensational headlines, I was struck by this first-hand account and honest self-reflection. The author and the editors of Zenicablog have kindly given me permission to post my translation of the article here.
The demonstrations have continued without incident since Saturday, and have spread across Bosnia to smaller towns as well. A number of officials have resigned; but a main demand of the protesters is that the entire government step down. (See links below for more information.)
Sit gladnog ne razumije / The well-fed do not understand the starving
Published in Bosnian on Zenicablog, Saturday, 8 February 2014. Original article at http://www.zenicablog.com/zuta-minuta/item/23787-sit-gladnog-ne-razumije.html
At the very beginning of the protest, before the first rock has been thrown, I stand toward the front of the crowd and chat with nearby demonstrators. Next to me is a man in his mid-forties—a former soldier, he tells me—father of three children, unemployed, no income, starving. He climbs up onto the barrier in front of the government building and tries to see where the mass of arriving demonstrators ends. He is excited, like a little kid, hoping for change, any kind of change.
He wears a green short-sleeve shirt, and when I warn him that he’ll catch cold, he responds gruffly, “F*** health when I don’t have bread.” Then out of the blue, he adds, “Dollars to dollars; lice to paupers,” which elicits a ripple of laughter around us.
A group of young men behind us yell various slogans, shout obscenities. I turn and the first thing I see is a green bottle in the hands of one of them. A liquor bottle. “We need rocks,” says one. “It’s too early for an incident,” replies another, and they quickly disappear into the crowd.
The first stone flies, the first window shatters, and the crowd cheers joyfully in a sign of approval. There are a lot of young people here, I notice, but older people, too, as well as seniors who nod their heads in approval. I also see journalists who were too close to the building running to avoid the salvo of rocks. The police cordon moves closer to the demonstrators in order to avoid the ricocheting rocks and shards of glass. Rocks fly from the crowd across from the entrance doors, and the man in the green short-sleeve shirt, without a word or greeting to those around him, pushes closer to those doors.
A few projectiles even fly at the police, and I run, along with a few protesters, shouting not to throw things at them. Then I see him, the man with the green short-sleeve shirt, with a rock in his hand. The former soldier, father of three children, unemployed, no income, starving, with a rock in his hand. I see teary eyes and a face distorted with rage. His eyes are raised toward the building, but he doesn’t see the building. He doesn’t see the policemen, or the demonstrators, or the building. He sees only what that building represents. He sees a group of people who systematically, through their own avarice, destroyed the life of a decent man.
The well-fed do not understand the starving, so it follows that I don’t understand him. I don’t understand his behavior and I don’t condone what he does, but who am I to judge him? I am writing these lines on a laptop that costs as much as would enough food to feed him and his family for an entire month, and I send these lines over an Internet connection that costs me as much money per month as would allow him to buy 40 one-pound loaves of bread for his family. I am well-fed. He is starving. And that is not a figure of speech. This man with the rock in his hand is literally starving.
By saying this, I am not condoning hooligans, because I know that there were hooligans there. I don’t want to write about them at all. The media is writing about nothing but hooligans, I guess because that’s important. It is as if no one knows anymore why the demonstration was even organized, or what its purpose was. Is this a classic case of diverting our attention, or is hooliganism indeed more important than the demonstrators’ demands? I’m not able to say.
But I know that I cannot judge the starving former soldier with a rock in his hand. I don’t condone his behavior and I don’t understand him, but as I said before, the well-fed do not understand the starving.
Original text © 2014 by H.T. for Zenicablog
English Translation © 2014 by Paula Gordon
Photos of the Zenica protest of 07.02.2014 and the day after on 08.02.2014: https://www.facebook.com/Zenicablog/photos_albums
“Bosnia-Herzegovina Protest Files is an initiative by an open network of activists and academics collecting and translating texts being produced by BiH citizens during the ‘Bosnian Spring.’”: http://bhprotestfiles.wordpress.com/
A longer discussion and examination of the issues: http://fbieber.wordpress.com/2014/02/09/is-change-coming-finally-thoughts-on-the-bosnian-protests/
Shorter background and commentary in English: http://www.economist.com/blogs/easternapproaches/2014/02/bosnias-protests?fsrc=rss
Background and commentary by Jasmin Mujanović: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/02/it-spring-at-last-bosnia-herzegov-2014296537898443.html