Wednesday, 1 October 2008
Queer Sarajevo Festival, a highly personal account
Photo by Rašid Krupalija.
If you had come to Sarajevo last week you would have seen large billboards across the city in connection with the forthcoming municipal elections. Quite a few of them state in massive letters – Sarajevo na evropskom putu or Sarajevo on Road to Europe. Yeah, sure – what about a fast track? Municipal elections have rarely got anything to do with pan-European issues but in this case the billboards’ authors might just have struck the chord with what’s at stake in their city and country, unknowingly.
Queer Sarajevo Festival was opened on Wednesday, 24 September in the premises of the Academy of Fine Arts. The occasion was also used for the opening of several exhibitions – a photo exhibition by Irfan Redžović, a sculpture exhibition by Alma Selimović (both from Bosnia) and a number of queer art works from different parts of former Yugoslavia. The hall with the art exhibitions where the opening took place was bursting with people – the organisers clearly weren´t counting on so many people showing up. In fact, it was almost impossible to see the art works for all the people. At one point, a representative of the Dutch embassy, being one of the main funders of the festival, gave a speech in English concluding it with „Long live the Queers!” followed by a speech in Bosnian made by Boba, one of the local organisers from Organisation Q. The crowds cheered and the whole atmosphere was lively but rather relaxed – the weeks of hate speech from parts of the Bosnian media and most political parties seemed rather distant.
In the meantime, the opposing crowd outside was growing bigger – the daily Ramadan meal at 7 pm was over. As the opening was coming to a close, I and three Bosnian friends of mine decided to move further and went outside. The crowd didn’t look particularly friendly but on the other side, at least at that moment they weren’t shouting or chanting anything and looked relatively calm, no doubt largely due to the presence of the police in front of the building. When we decided to start walking, a guy standing next to me silently tried to block my passage and pushed me. I asked him what his problem was but he didn’t reply. We started walking and I noticed that a group of those people also started walking in the same direction. One of the two girls in our group decided that we´d better get into her car which was parked on the other side of the Academy, not far away, so we turned right and walked through a line of policemen who were standing outside. The other side was badly lit and deserted – no civilians, no police. I kept watching our backs but nobody seemed to follow us at that point. But that was only a moment of calm before the storm. As we had reached the parking lot, I suddenly saw with the back of my eye that a group of people were running at us and a second later we were attacked from behind. I tried to turn around to defend myself and get away from them but fell and found myself surrounded by what seemed to be four young guys who started kicking the living daylights out of me from all sides. Somehow, I managed to get back on my feet and get out of the circle, so I started running all I could without looking back. As I was running, I noticed I was basically blind on my left eye and my hands were covered in blood. I also couldn’t help noticing how badly lit and deserted the streets were at that point. Absolutely no police presence 50 meters from the Academy. I eventually reached a place where I felt I was safe and my friends collected me from there. Most of that night was spent in a local hospital where they kept sending me from one clinic to another and eventually stitched me up. At the emergency room we also saw some other victims of the attacks that night. Two guys who had left the venue in a taxi were followed for four kilometers, then brutally dragged out of the car, threatened with guns and then beaten with them.
Towards dawn we were all taken to a police station where we gave our statements. This process took an incredible amount of time and the police officers in charge found it important to ask questions like what the maiden name of my mother was. Eventually, I and a friend of mine were driven to my hotel room with some police escort and we could finally get some sleep.
On the following day I was taken back to the hospital for some further checks but otherwise stayed in my hotel room all day watching TV including an episode of JAG with one of the main characters hospitalised after he stepped on a landmine in Afghanistan. It seemed somehow appropriate. In the evening I was visited by some of the organisers who told me that the Festival as a public event wouldn´t continue since the police claimed that they couldn´t provide any protection for the participants or the organisers but that they would try to stage some of the planned events in secret locations for specifically invited guests. I was supposed to take part in a panel debate after the screening of John Greyson’s Lilies together with the director himself on Friday and although in a poor physical condition I still wanted to go through with it.
The day after, on Friday, I had to go back to the clinic of „facial reconstruction”. The organisers suggested that I go to their office after that as they were planning to take me and the other guests of the festival to „the only safe restaurant” in town for a dinner later that day. What I couldn´t quite foresee was that I was to stay inside that office for about 24 hours. Plans kept changing as the phones never went silent around me. The organisers even used my phone at times (I had my own Bosnian pay as you go SIM card) as they weren´t sure if their phones weren’t bugged. „Bugged by the police?” – „Yes, you never know who they are really working for”. At one point some of the organisers left for the airport to collect an artist who was coming to the festival to stage a performance. A car had followed them. Boba, the girl who remained in the office with me, switched off the lights, I sat down on the floor – just in case. After a number of calls back and forth we learned that they were now safe – they drove back from the airport with a police escort which they finally managed to get. Although offered, I decided not to leave. If they followed after me, they would learn where I´m staying and that place was definitely not safe. Not knowing who was lurking outside and what those people could come up with during the night, I decided to seek protection from a different source. Being a Danish national, I phoned the emergency number of the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. About twenty minutes later I got a phone call from the Danish embassy. It turned out to be the ambassador himself. After some negotiations the embassy managed to persuade the Bosnian police to dispatch a police car to the area which was to keep an eye on us all night long. I guess it did, I never saw the actual car but that night will probably go down in my personal history as the longest night I had ever experienced, full of sounds of stopping cars and slammed car doors. At some point toward the morning I finally fell asleep.
When I woke up the next morning, I knew I didn’t want to spend another night in that city. The organisers put me on a plane to Zagreb on Saturday afternoon after a rather remarkable drive through the city, first to my hotel room and then to the airport, which seemed rather surreal and, if anything, a bad reprise of some crap Hollywood film with Svetlana in the front seat trying to hide her face under a hood and me at the back seat constantly looking back. The day had come that I felt I had to be airlifted out of Sarajevo, just like those people in the early spring of 1992 as the Bosnian war was becoming a reality. The only difference being that there now wasn’t a war or any shelling or shooting and the other people at the airport didn’t seem to be in distress. This was pure terrorism and not many ordinary people in Sarajevo seemed to care. I left but the local organisers stayed and so did thousands of Bosnian queers, many of them too afraid to leave their houses after what had happened.
One of the parties contesting at the municipal elections in Sarajevo on 5 October, Stranka za BiH or Party for Bosnia and Herzegovina which is led by Haris Silajdžić, one of the three rotating presidents in that country, has the whole city plastered with another set of billboards – these ones read 100% Europe. It is also the same party that has been the most ferocious opponent of Queer Sarajevo Festival publicly. What can I say to this? They probably mean 100% Europe as of 1933 when Hitler was democratically elected as Germany´s chancellor. There is, of course, no connection between people governing Sarajevo and Bosnia, people like Haris Silajdžić, and Europe as of 2008. Whichever road to Europe these people believe they are travelling, it hasn´t existed for decades and at the moment it certainly resembles the Old Bridge in Mostar after it was blown up in 1993. I sincerely hope the events from last week will serve as an eye-opener to the larger public.
Queer Sarajevo Festival was opened on 24 September but it was never closed. All the performances, film screenings and other events never took place and are still waiting for their audience. An audience which is there and which will not disappear, no matter how much certain parts of the Bosnian society may wish them away. It is therefore up to the Bosnian public, but also the international community, to make sure that these events DO take place and a significant part of this EU candidate member state's population can feel free from both the state and private terrorism which characterises the country at the moment.
Here is some footage made by Croatian TV on the opening night