Wednesday, May 12, 2021

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Joe's Neighborhood

A Sarajevo bullet




“Honestly, officers, I just forgot it was there.” Words I have heard many a guilty criminal utter as they are hauled away to jail.

The 5-inch, copper-cased bullet was wrapped in soft tissue paper and buried among the copper coffee grinders, the copper pan, the copper plate and miscellaneous other souvenirs of our travels, which were all carefully placed inside shirts and sweaters and socks and underwear, deep in my backpack.

The bullet was retrieved from the foothills of the war, the copper maker had told us, and then converted into a pen.joes1 5.26 No kidding. Into our bag of copper items he placed it when I asked what it was. No charge, a gift from him to us. Which I promptly forgot.

Prep Iowa

A bullet from Sarajevo.

Unfortunately, the Austrian guard scanning my backpack at the airport in Vienna was not impressed with the copper maker’s kindness. Soon other officers were swabbing the linings of my belongings for gunshot residue and asking me to raise my arms and spread my legs for a much more thorough search.

How did this happen?

Surrounded by mountains, Sarajevo is the picture of a cosmopolitan city tucked away from the outside world, safe and secure. High fashion, art, the winter Olympics, a world-renowned film festival, all were here. To this day, a place where within a couple of blocks are a Croatian Catholic church, a Serbian Orthodox church, a Bosnian Muslim mosque and a Jewish synagogue. And everybody accepted everybody. And everybody married everybody. And everybody got along. At least as well as people get along most places.

But then war. Under siege from 1992 to 1995 (officially ended in February of 1996), Sarajevo faced daily sniper fire, modified air bombs, mortar attacks, you name it. It is reported that on some days, up to 10,000 shells fell on the city. Market places were blown up. Bread lines were bombed. Rescue workers were shot. Fathers died. Mothers died. Children died. No food, no water, no heat. It was the longest siege in the history of modern warfare. It was horrific in every way imaginable.

My wife, working for the prosecution in the cases against several of those accused of crimes in this war, brought me to a high overlook of the city. It appeared that someone had spilled white paint down our end of the valley.joes2 5.26 A spill that ran meanderingly into the city in a lazy flow. A white spill of Muslim graves. Most killed in 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995. Born somewhere in the late 1960s and the early 1970s. Grave after grave. A generation gone.

And there were other Muslim graves in many empty spots around the city. Graves springing up around corners, down streets, across from a new shopping mall, past the burek stall, on the other side of the copper artists. No ground seemed untouched from the consequences of the bomb and the mortar and the Bosnian Serb sniper firing from the hills.

Ironically, given today’s politics of hatred against Muslims, it was Orthodox Christian Bosnian Serbs who were killing innocent Bosnian Muslim civilians riding the tram, or going to the market, or crossing the street. Yup, Christians killing Muslims.

The sniping in Sarajevo was particularly horrible. Judge Robinson, with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, talked in one opinion about the sniping in Sarajevo:

“John Jordan [a Rhode Island fireman who on his own volunteered to fight fires in Sarajevo while it was under siege — really???] responded to a number of incidents over the years in Sarajevo where one member, often the youngest member of a family, was shot. It was his view that, here I quote, ‘When you’re targeting civilians like this, particularly families, who may or may not be Muslim, shooting the child has the effect of literally disemboweling the whole family.’”

The taxi driver told us in a tour-guide voice, “And here is Sniper Alley.” An open spot of beauty that ran down the picturesque river that cuts the valley. And over there, gorgeous old buildings reflecting on their walls the war years of shrapnel and gunfire. Thirty-five thousand buildings were completely destroyed during the siege. Most buildings carry some scar.

“And here is the bridge where Admira Ismić and Boško Brkić were shot by sniper fire in 1993, which resulted in the documentary, “Romeo and Juliet in Sarajevo.” One a Bosnian Serb and one a Bosnian Muslim. They had been assured a safe exit from the city. He was killed immediately. She, also shot, crawled to his body, wrapped her arms around him and died. Their bodies lay for four days on the bridge.”

Then my wife pointed out the faded, red spots on the concrete. The Sarajevo Roses. Red resin filled cracked concrete and asphalt where mortars had landed, bringing death and injury to all around. Reminders of man’s inhumanity. God doesn’t rain down hell fire, we do. I wanted to throw up.

But then I noticed other Sarajevo Roses. They’re there. Behind the church corner. In front of that building down the block. Next to the market. You’ll see them. But they are fading. The red is gradually disappearing. The trams and cars and trucks and people are slowly wearing down the violence of the past. The city is rebuilding. New construction is happening. joes3 5.26The great smells of Bosnian food cooked over wood fires and the buzz of the people is everywhere in the market. Young men and women speak of dreams and plans and a future. Things are on the move.

“So, why would you sell a pen made out of a bullet from the war?” I ask the copper maker. “Isn’t it horribly tragic? Isn’t it just a reminder?”

He doesn’t pause to argue the economy of the marketplace. Instead, he smiles and states, “It is better to write love letters than killing people.” And he slips it into our purchases.

I do not offer this explanation to the Austrian airport police, who, already shaking their heads at my stupidity, sternly return my belongings and send me on my way.

And I board my plane with my backpack lightened, of course, by one of the last vestiges of a horrible war — a bullet from Sarajevo. CV


Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, his wife is once again assisting in the prosecution of war criminals in the Netherlands. He’s along for the ride and writes about being an Iowan in Europe on his blog at


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