BiH, Falling Awake

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‘Looking at him swaying on the lichen-covered roof edge, I am starting to understand how horrible it must be, waiting all your life for someone, or something, and how one is predetermined to wait only to a certain point, beyond which chasms an indefinite abyss of wasted years, unfulfilled desires, false hopes and promises. He has reached that abyss, and a free fall from a skyscraper looks, in his eyes, as easy as jumping over a puddle left after a July shower. I can detect neither fear nor despair on his face, for he has long since chewed them over and spat in the face of his wicked fate. The last thing I can see before the screen is turned dark is a mild, almost unnoticeable schizophrenic grin. That curved line of his lips is telling only one thing to the tens, possibly hundreds of thousands watching him impatiently – I have no more time to wait, you wait now!’

(To the one who waited, Berislav Blagojevic)

High-rise apartment blocks litter the landscape, former utopia turned dystopia, walking along the drain in Tuzla back to town. Neither Arthur J. Evans, in the 1870s, nor Rebecca West, in the 1930s, ventured to this part of Bosnia and Herzegovina on their travels. It is the old industrial backbone of the former Yugoslavia. Much like the northeast of England, the communities here thrived from the natural resources the land provided. Agriculture especially which uses up half of the available territory. Tuzla, the main city, in the centre of the northeast, is, or was, the beating heart of Bosnian industry. Indeed, Tuzla, is named after the extensive salt reserves found underneath the city. Tuzla – an important Ottoman garrison – derives from the Turkish for salt mine. Large coal deposits, thermo-electric plants, socialist smokestacks, clouds rolling across concrete cooling towers, endless pipelines, vast grey boxes, produce energy for the rest of the country – the coal mines, dotted around the city, power the Tuzla Power Station, the largest in Bosnia and Herzegovina: the region is an industrial machine. In the past decade, four former state-owned companies – including an industrial detergent factory called DITA – were sold to private owners, who sold assets, stopped paying workers, and filed for bankruptcy.

DITA is an industrial detergent factory on the edge of Tuzla. Lorries stand empty in the forecourt. Not a soul is about. Trees whisper in the wind above the silent machinery. No gravel being crunched by feet, or engines whirring into action. A taxi rank has zero cabs. Cavernous peaked hangers contain stopped conveyors. Giant domes lay dormant. Offices echo without the sound of humans. Lampposts provide light for stray dogs only. Pointless roads and pavements lead to nowhere of use. Padlocked barred gates prevent entry to people. Pylons crackle, powering not. Overgrown graffitied signs adorn. Nature reclaiming, sordid and delicate. Idly foaming streams trundle by. There is nothing romantic about this ruin. The plant has been left to the elements. Copper has been stripped. Assembly has ceased. Pipes, valves, metres, scales, destroyed, costing huge amounts to fix. Just jumbles of stuff now. Matter, without purpose. Corrugated metal art forms. Industrial inversion, corrupt conversion. Nothing is happening here. Absolutely nothing. The workers are at home, Emina Busuladzic explains, in the film: The Voice of DITA. Ministers said production would begin in the new year; 2013. It did not begin.

The industrial powerhouse, hollowed out, through privatization. Closures left hundreds without work, adding to the intolerably high unemployment rate, and BiH fell awake. One, two, three, four, five symbolic factories shutting, sparked violent protests in the city, which spread quickly across Bosnia. Although half a lifetime, and a myriad reasons caused the events to take place. The final paragraph of a short story, by Berislav Blagojevic, entitled To the one who waited exemplifies the frustration many people feel living in Bosnia at present. As if the country is in a state of permanent repetitive stillness, where the government is unable to think even a day ahead, and the country is on the edge, perhaps about to topple. The world, watching on, again. The protest, an interruption of the now, existence. BiH, falling awake.

Industry is the soul of the region, its heritage, its identity beyond ethnicity. The working class. Former, working class. Everything is former – Tuzla has been inhabited continuously for more than six thousand years: people marked the land, ingrained themselves in landscape, mined in mountains, re-routed rivers, milled monuments, protested on pavements, occupied for occupation.

James Riding

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