Don's diary: Sarajevo summer school

October 25, 2002

It would be hard to imagine a more idyllic location: a garden in Montparnasse on a late summer's day. I am drinking coffee, reading Le Monde and waiting for a friend. I talk to two of the Columbia University students about to attend his class. What do they make of the anti-Americanism that has resurfaced in France? Do they see themselves as part of the cultural and economic globalisation that is denounced daily in the press?

First full day of a workshop on "Re-thinking the history of Europe". The organisers have assembled an impressive list of participants from across Europe and keep repeating (correctly) that our new history must not be Eurocentric. Returning to Reid Hall, I bump into the two students who attended my friend's lecture: it was impressive, they assure me, but he needs to improve his taste in socks.

Leave Paris for Zurich, there to meet my colleagues from Barcelona on the way to the university summer school they are organising in Sarajevo. Our destination is the Holiday Inn. My father recently sent me a press photo of it, taken during the siege: clearly visible is a sign reading "Run or RIP". Once Serb soldiers on the top floor fired on the crowd below. My apprehension is increased when, opposite the hotel, we see that the 20-floor parliament building has been wrecked by shell and gunfire.

At reception we find that the hotel is hosting the Miss Bosnia-Herzegovina beauty contest. Few sights could be more surreal.

We take the bus to Mostar. It rains fiercely, but the beauty of the mountains and countryside is still visible. In contrast, village after village has been destroyed; few houses have not suffered war damage.

But nothing can prepare us for the destruction in Mostar. Not just the famous bridge, but street upon street has been laid waste. Most shocking of all is the Muslim graveyard in the town centre: all the graves are dated 1993.

At the official opening of the summer university, we are addressed by a retired professor who speaks passionately of his city and its traditions of religious and ethnic tolerance. History shows that Bosnian people can live together, despite their differences. What happened recently, he tells us, was imported into Bosnia by fascists and nationalists. Is this misplaced nostalgia?

My first class is in the former Marshal Tito barracks, now converted into faculty buildings and shared with the Italian United Nations garrison. I enter via a circuitous route to avoid land mines.

A plaque in the entrance hall informs us that between 1992 and 1995 the building was attacked by "barbarians". How will my Bosnian students react to my lecture on British approaches to multiculturalism? Of what possible relevance is it to them? I feel uneasy in their presence and listen attentively as one of them tells me that multiculturalism does not work.

After my second lecture, two Bosnian students take me in their car up to the hills that surround Sarajevo. We stand before the old Jewish cemetery. The view is magnificent, just as the Serb artillery and snipers found. We talk of their past and of their hopes for the future. They are proud to see themselves as Muslims and as Bosnians, but most of all they want to be seen as Europeans. How, I wonder, will their experience figure in our rewriting of European history?

Later, we stand on the spot where the assassin fired his fateful bullet in June 1914.

After my final lecture, I return to Paris. Upon arrival, the taxi drivers are on strike: the airport is in chaos. Long protect France from the forces of globalisation! On the airport TV screens, I see that the war crimes trial of Slobodan Milosevic has recommenced in the Hague.

Jeremy Jennings is professor of political theory, University of Birmingham, and presently a scholar-in-residence at the Columbia University Institute for Scholars, Reid Hall, Paris.

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