My word: War, roses, peace and the press

From Jerusalem to Sarajevo: Personal impressions from a convention of European journalists in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The old Sephardi Synagogue and Jewish Museum in Sarajevo. (photo credit: LIAT COLLINS)
The old Sephardi Synagogue and Jewish Museum in Sarajevo.
(photo credit: LIAT COLLINS)
There’s something corny about one reporter interviewing another, but at the annual general meeting of the European Federation of Journalists in Sarajevo last week it was inevitable.
As with most conventions, the main chatting took place during coffee breaks and outside the conference hall and was informal – “off the record,” in journalistic terms.
Strangely, the main topic of conversation, at least on the first day of the two-day gathering, was the weather. Few of us were prepared for the sudden snowfall.
Traveling with just one other Israeli journalist, Israel Radio’s Shaike Komornik, I felt a long way from my friends complaining about the heat wave ruining their Passover vacation plans.
The unseasonably cold temperatures, however, were the only unpleasant surprise.
I had been dreading a chilly reception of a different kind – the kind all too familiar to Israelis abroad, let alone hanging out with the international press in a city with a Muslim majority.
My fears were unfounded.
The more than 130 journalists, representing countries as diverse in size and composition as Greenland and San Marino, had other things on their minds than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Russians and Ukrainians, for example, were definitely otherwise engaged, although they agreed to cooperate professionally to help colleagues endangered in the war.
It’s possible that had the Israeli authorities not detained a Palestinian journalist on his way to the conference, the topic would have barely been raised.
Both Komornik, on behalf of the Israel Federation of Journalists, and I, representing the Jerusalem Association of Journalists, noted that Omar Nazzal was, according to the Government Press Office, being held for security offenses, not his journalistic work.
We had no problem calling on the authorities to present the evidence against him in court or release him.
But neither of us belittled the dangers of hate speech and incitement. It was exactly a week since a No. 12 bus had been blown up in Jerusalem, not far from our homes, part of the wave of terror that has taken more than 30 lives in six months.
During the meeting, we persuaded the representatives of the Palestinian Syndicate of Journalists to agree to the JAJ’s long-standing proposal to establish a hotline between our respective associations to help journalists who encounter problems in the course of their work – a move warmly welcomed by the EFJ.
Sadly, as soon as the news was published in Arabic, the Palestinians backed off. The chief Palestinian representative, Nasser Abubaker, while denying a boycott policy, declined to have his photo taken together with Israelis.
The more Palestinian media preach against anything that could be interpreted as normalization, the more dangerous even chance contacts become for them.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was the complete lack of security at the Hotel Europa where the convention was held. Israelis, used to having their bags checked at the entrance to everywhere from supermarkets to cinemas, often forget that Europe hasn’t got to that stage yet. But, sadly, it will probably have no choice but to catch up.
The most obvious divide was not pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli camps (although it could be roughly said that the former enjoyed the backing of the British and Irish unions while the latter received support from the German delegates). The split most immediately evident was between Left and Right in countries such as Poland and Hungary, where delegates on one side were ignoring those on the other.
Another rift marked the well-off countries from those economically struggling (Hungary, again). We could all sympathize with Greek broadcasters who have lost their pensions.
Influenced perhaps by the location – Bosnia and Herzegovina is big on trying to prove how everyone can get along – for the most part, we found we had a lot in common.
The same topics affected us all: The future of public broadcasting; the rights and impact of freelancers; the distinction between bloggers and journalists; and the increasingly blurred lines between editorial and advertising content.
The keynote speech by Dunja Mijatovic, representative on freedom of the media at the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), was depressing but illuminating, addressing, among other things, the increasing gender-specific online threats and abuse of female journalists and bloggers; raids on editorial offices and homes; action against whistle-blowing journalists (even in countries such as Denmark and Luxembourg); arbitrary arrests (the Turkish examples come to mind); and in some cases physical assault and murder. (Is it ever a good time to be a journalist in Russia?)
RESIDENTS OF Sarajevo are quick to point out the city’s three main claims to fame: Being the site where Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914, an event considered to have sparked the First World War; hosting the Winter Olympics in 1984; and surviving nearly four years of siege in the 1992-95 Bosnian War.
An interesting mix of East and West (or Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian), Sarajevo is a small strip of city set in a river valley, between enchanting mountain ranges. Everywhere we go, residents describe it as Jerusalem of the Balkans and note with pride the proximity of Sunni mosques, Serbian Orthodox and Catholic churches, and synagogues.
But everywhere there are signs of the terrible war which took the lives of some 11,500 in the capital, including many children. Burned-out apartment blocks serve as silent reminders and nearly all the older buildings are pockmarked by rocket fire and sniping; the picturesque snow-capped mountains gave Serbian forces an extraordinary vantage point over the city below.
As we walk around the capital, we come across a “Sarajevo rose” – a splotch of red in the street where the marks left by a mortar shell that killed more than 10 people have been filled in with paint. It is moving, but I prefer the memorial plaques at the sites of major terror attacks in Jerusalem, listing the victims by name, never to be forgotten.
A large group of delegates makes a trip to the Tunnel of Hope, dug under the UN-held international airport, which became the only way to smuggle food, provisions and people in and out of the besieged capital.
(Judging by the amount of smoking in public, Sarajevans still think of cigarettes as a currency rather than a health hazard.) Unlike most participants, both Komornik and I know what it’s like to be under rocket fire and mortars are being fired from Gaza on the Negev while the IDF uncovers another terror tunnel as I write these lines. It is here that a delegate confesses: “Ten years ago in Europe there was a ‘keffiyeh generation.’ All the youth, including me, wrapped themselves in keffiyehs.
Now we’re looking to Israel to see how you handle terrorism.”
The guide tells us that he was wounded by shrapnel while he played soccer as a kid, but he says his childhood was a good one because the war brought ordinary people together.
I can relate to that. Solidarity is part of the answer to the terror threat, I conclude. That and the fact that for Israelis it is second nature to look out for anything suspicious, and most are trained to respond in some way, be it from a security point of view or administering first aid.
SINCE THE Israeli and Palestinian delegations were guests rather than participants, Komornik and I skipped a session and headed for the nearby Jewish museum housed in the impressive old, stone Sephardi synagogue.
Local residents might think their city is famous for the Winter Olympics, but for us a major claim to fame is the “Sarajevo Haggada.” A facsimile of the beautifully illustrated Haggada, originating in mid-14th-century Spain, is on display at the museum.
Exhibits tell the story of the community which dates back to 1541, created as a result of the 1492 expulsion from Spain, joined in the 17th century by Ashkenazi Jews.
Mario the caretaker enjoys telling us the community’s history and showing us around in the excellent Hebrew he acquired when he lived in Israel, seeking sanctuary like many other Jews during the Bosnian war.
The community, well known for its doctors, had its own humanitarian society, La Benevolencija, which assisted Jews and non-Jews during the Bosnian War; a Ladino choir called Lyra; Zionist youth and women’s organizations; and the first Ladino newspaper, La Alborada.
The structure is interesting, having a third floor which was the gallery where the women would sit.
One floor houses the chilling record of the Second World War period. Sarajevo was home to between 8,000 and 12,000 Jews before the war. The vast majority were killed, although the role of the Bosnian Righteous Gentiles – the Muslims and Christians who saved their Jewish neighbors – is not forgotten.
Today the Jewish community in Bosnia and Herzegovina numbers approximately 1,000, about 700 of whom live in the capital where Sephardim and Ashkenazim participate in the same synagogue services and communal life.
“When was the last bar mitzva?” I ask Mario.
“Probably 80 years ago,” he replies, before adding: “But there is a baby boom: 10 babies were born to the community last year, although many of them from mixed marriages.”
On our last morning in the city, Komornik and I take a leisurely private tour led by a guide called Muhammad, who has a Muslim father, Jewish mother (with relatives in Tel Aviv) and Serbian Orthodox relatives – a walking advertisement for the Sarajevo mixed style.
ALL THE locals we met welcomed us as Jews and Israelis. Some were particularly excited to meet Jerusalemites.
Nonetheless, we could not help noticing the proliferation of mosques and buildings paid for by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states that have a much less laid-back approach to Islam. Later I discovered that ISIS has been actively recruiting Bosnian youth, and local authorities are concerned that returnees could carry out Belgian-style attacks.
Traveling in European airports today is no fun.
At Zurich on our way back, our Swiss flight was combined with an El Al one. Security was extra tight.
As he welcomed us aboard, the captain announced: “In keeping with the Jewish tradition, during the Passover holiday all food served on this flight will be kosher for Passover.”
After three days and nights living mainly on apples and energy bars, I heaved a sigh of relief: I was on my way home.