Teslic: Mr. Mayor, voice of the aggrieved
After two days Vid says he might be able to get us to the
Well, it may be jah, old man, but if experience
is any guide, it's gonna be a big fat nah. Serb, Croat,
Muslim--when it comes to journalists, especially journalists
taking pictures, the buggers are all paranoid in the extreme,
even unarmed soldiers in scenes of no conceivable military
significance. Anyhow, Vid goes to work on it, while Janko
and Jovo do the same. But nothing comes through. Meanwhile,
I'm slumped in the living room, watching the Perpetual TV,
that fountain of dreams, saying, "Look, we are a great
country in the center of world affairs. Look, we raise hogs
and saw wood. Behold the treasures of our ancient culture.
Yes, everyday things are getting better." And once they're
off the midday pep talk, they're back on the Maps--the
maps that Vid, too, is forever dragging out, to the point
that it's already a running joke, with me, and soon even Goran,
screaming, "No, please!! Not the maps again!!! "
Slowly-- microscopically slow-- the TV inches up
the territory that thousands died for, so slowly you can feel
the bumps of the cameraman's heart as the camera moves up
to the north, then slowly around to the east, then back south
again. But wait, did you miss that, here it is again .
And when at last the camera pulls back, what have the Serbs
won? It looks like a length of drooping intestine, logistically
ridiculous, strategically vulnerable and economically insupportable.
Then Vid returns. Great excitement! Okay, he can't get us
on the front, but guess what? He's got us an interview with
the mayor of Teslic! Tomorrow! 9 a.m.!
Our lesson in Holy War
The next morning we're fifteen minutes late, but Vid doesn't
seem particularly distressed, nor is the mayor's pretty secretary,
bundled in a sweater at her little desk in the freezing hallway,
outside the mayor's gre
at paneled door.
She buzzes the mayor, peeps through the door, then bustles
around while Vid spruces up his long, blue coat and nicely-cut
Italian suit. To my surprise, the mayor does not retaliate
by keeping us waiting. No, the tall doors open and here he
is, far younger than I'd have guessed, perhaps forty and robustly
good-looking. Wearing an open-collared shirt and plaid jacket,
the mayor seizes Vid's hand, then turns to me with a welcoming,
measuring bounce, rising on the toes of his black loafers,
"America, good, good." So saying, he ushers us into his high-ceilinged
chambers, to a long meeting table that connects in a "T" with
its own large desk, behind which presides the Serb double-headed
eagle and a color picture of the dark-haired leader of the
Bosnian Serbs, indicted war criminal, Dr. Radovan Karadzic.
This wakes me up. No, I realize, this is not just a humble,
civil meeting. And perhaps I've underestimated the affable
mayor. As he takes his chair, the mayor's body and his hands,
like his papers, are all perfectly centered, his small pink
fingers in a tight steeple that ends just below his smile.
Poor Goran is understandably nervous. For fifteen, the kid's
incredibly cool and self-assured and his English is improving
daily, yet even he knows he's out of his depth here. There
are issues that Goran doesn't need to be in the middle of,
especially with his parents, and we've had no luck finding
the old English professor of Zlatan's, the one who was supposed
to be expecting my call. Like his guidance on travel, much
has changed since Zlatan left Teslic three years ago.
But the mayor is gracious, ready to help us. He tells his
secretary to summon his own English translator, then waits
while she finishes with our coffee orders. We wait and we
smile. We watch the smoke curl, the mayor and I, and then
something stuns me. Right there, by the mayor's elbow, a magazine
with an ample brunette on the cover. In a sheer, fur-trimmed
Out in full view on his desk? Impossible. No, it's
too perfect, a Serb official conducting an interview with
Karadzic at his back and a smut-book at his side, lined up
with all his other sensitive official business. Why, it's
almost diabolical. If I say what I see, then I negate the
whole story, for who would believe such a thing? And how do
I know what I'm really seeing? I can't read Cyrillic, and
I don't dare look again, not when the mayor's smiling at me,
not two feet from my face. And how do I know it's not, say,
the Cyrillic edition of Cosmopolitan that just came
in the mail for his wife?
"I'm sorry I'm late."
It's the mayor's translator, Marta, and she, too, stops
me, though in a profoundly different way. Marta's a tiny,
willowy, plain-faced young woman, worn out but pretty in her
way, with eyes that stare out with a kind of melancholy that
I've never seen in actual life, and certainly not in anyone
so young. If anything, Marta's the kind of poor creature that
you expect to see everywhere, though in fact you never do,
owing as much to the resilience of the Balkan women, as to
their beauty and flair for make-up, as to the human miracle
of disguise and self-preservation.
She has soft, dark, transparent bags under her eyes, and
the most delicate hands, hands that tremble as she takes off
her soft, woolen tam-o-shanter glistening with drops of melted
snow. What happened to her? I wonder. It's not just a case
of nerves, it's the kind of melancholy that today seems extinct,
visible only in dark and staring pictures of long-dead girls--I
mean the kind of women whom Freud saw, women with titanic
philandering fathers and invisible mothers who gave live birth
to seven, then became mouthless invalids, dying for years
before they finally drowned under the covers . Also, there's
Marta's voice, the way she almost talks into her chest, with
the stifled quiet of very obscure old books.
It's a queer, disembodied voice to be grafted onto the mayor's,
and she's extremely nervous. Marta's hand trembles as she
phrases my first question--not that it much matters what I
ask. As I soon discover with the mayor, every question gets
a speech. Listening, Marta nods and nods, then she translates:
"The mayor says our national disappointment looks out at
the world in sheer disbelief. We look out at the lies that
have been said about us. The first lie is that Serbia starts
the war in the former Yugoslavia. The second is that we Serbs
are a warrior people with no education or culture. In fact,
we have many educated people here, and in Teslic especially.
Unfortunately, we didn't have much political experience. Or
much experience with the press. And what Americans absolutely
don't understand is the psychology of this war. Because this
is a Holy War brought on by the Turk."
"How can the world be mad at us?"
"But Mr. Mayor," I say, "the so-called Muslims that I've
met, well, they smoke, they drink, they eat pork. They've
never set foot in a mosque and even used to celebrate Christmas.
They seem like pretty unlikely candidates for a Holy War."
"Well, then you've met bad Muslims. Let's hope you never
meet the Mujahadeen."
Touche, he smiles, and Vid laughs heartily. More cigarettes
are lit. Martha's shaking. And, I see, it's pointless. But
just when I've decided to let the clock run out, the mayor
has a big question for me:
"Why do the Americans have such a problem with us?"
Well, I sit there dumbstruck. It's the question we hear
everywhere, and from far less calculating people than the
mayor. We hear it from people who are hurt, genuinely hurt,
that their allies in World War II, the Great Country that
stood up to Quadaffi and Saddam Hussein and the Global Islamic
Menace--that of all countries, America could be so gullible
as to swallow these lies about the Serbs as butchers and war
Well, I sit up. I blink. Here, while I'm loathing myself
for being stuck in this ridiculous situation, with no personal
history in this war--well, here, perhaps, is the one question
that I canrespond to with any authority. "Mr. Mayor, I ask,
do you really think it's just America who has problems with
the Serbs? I mean, for four years, you've had the English,
the French, the Canadian and Dutch U.N. peacekeepers, just
to name a few. You've had U.N. peacekeepers, and people from
humanitarian aid groups and news organizations from around
the world. And you know, sir, they all seem to have pretty
much the same problems with the Serbs in this war. Oh, sure,
there have been other outrages, especially from the Croats.
But I think the Serbs had better face one thing, Mr. Mayor.
It's not just America that has problems with the Serbs. America's
just reflecting what the world is saying. And when many, many
fairly impartial people are all saying the same thing, well,
how do you explain that?"
Marta's really shaken now, but she translates. The mayor
refolds his hands. Unflappable as ever, he smiles: "But please,
how can the world be mad at us? Personally, I don't think
the Serbs won or lost this war. In fact, we lost a great percentage
of our territory. And why? Because we respected the rules
too much. That's right. If we didn't respect the rules,
we would have won this war. Easily."
"But sir, what rules? I mean, I just came from Tuzla. And
just last May--what just seven or eight months ago?-- the
Serbs fired a shell on the marketplace. Seventy-some people
were killed and hundreds were wounded."
"Yes, of course, I know about that incident," replies the
mayor. "But you see, this again is a lie. That grenade did
not come from us. The Turks fired that grenade on themselves.
That's right, and it wasn't the first time, either. Why? To
gain sympathy, that's why. And it worked too. The Americans
"And what about Sarajevo? The massacre in the marketplace?"
"That was different. There they trucked in dead bodies."
It's amazing. It's as if the mayor has just blown an amazingly
loathsome smoke ring, and there it wobbles, pungently, in
the air. I just stare at him.
"Mr. Mayor, I've talked to journalists who were there minutes
after the shell hit. War correspondents. They know fresh kills
from blood poured on dead bodies."
Forget it. I thank the mayor for his time.
"Look," offers the mayor at last, "I'm not saying that we
were perfect. Of course there were extremists. And imagine
how you would feel if the Jews or the Greeks wanted their
own state in the U.S.? Because that's what happened to us.
The Turks want to take away our rights to live and work. Another
Iran, that's what they wanted. And why? To spread Islam throughout
You know, I always used to wonder how diplomats could shake
hands with the likes of Saddam Hussein. Or, more to the point,
how only last July, Dutch U.N. Commander Ton Karremans could
be stupid or pragmatic or simply gutless enough to have his
picture taken drinking a champagne toast with Serbian General
Ratko Mladic, an indicted war criminal, around the time that
Srebenica was falling. Well, now I know.
Yes, by God, I shook the mayor's hand. I thanked him for
his time, and I took his miserable picture. And the mayor
got nicer, too. Because who knows, maybe I am a complete idiot,
and if he's nice, well, then I'll write nice things, like
at the door when the mayor tells me that every day he's working
for peace! Because in Teslic everybody has a place, and the
Teslichers are glad IFOR is coming! Glad because Teslic is
actually well-known as a tourist town dedicated to health.
The Mayor looks at Vid, Did you show him our mineral baths?
Yes, I was slayed in the nice attack. Why, if I'd had to
three-kiss the little bastard, I'd have done that, too--anything
to get me out of there even a second faster.
How low will you go? Well first, you have to be there. And
now, unfortunately, I know.