Monday, Sept. 9, 1996
SARAJEVO, BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA: This diary should be datelined "time capsule," because that is how it feels where I am. Consider, for instance, my recent efforts to read SLATE.
I received an e-mail proposal asking me to write a diary on the Bosnian elections shortly after I returned from Algeria to Bosnia. Now, I have served as a foreign correspondent for the NewRepublic since 1989, reporting on wars and elections from shit holes around the world, so it was not a particularly unusual thing for me to think of doing. Continuing to live out of the carry-on suitcase that I took with me to Kashmir last April was not so unusual either. What was unusual about this proposition was SLATE.
First, in order to read it, I had to have it e-mailed to me personally by the editors because my primitive communications software did not allow me to access it online. But by the time I succeeded in downloading the attached file they sent--with a brief digression to read the wires on Bosnia--I had run out of battery power.
Here in Bosnia, especially in Banja Luka where I was at the time, electricity is not an obvious commodity, and we had just had an off-power day. I grabbed my laptop and walked across town from my temporary headquarters to plug it in at the cafeteria of the hotel, which has a generator. Why did I walk instead of drive a car? Because my car had been taken from me at gunpoint by two masked men two nights earlier (also during a blackout). Many foreigners have their cars stolen around here, so it was not so unusual, but it was a most humiliating experience. I was stupid enough to whistle with my fingers at full volume. I could have paid for this performance with my life or my front teeth had the two men been just a bit more interested in hurting me than in stealing my car.
I made it to the hotel but figured that it would be better in the future to read SLATE online, so that I could see the entire magazine. And this is when I realized how very time-capsuled I was down here. In none of the parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina are the phone lines sufficiently functional for you to be able to upgrade your software in one uninterrupted session. You always get cut off. Personally, I suspect that the lines are so bad because the telephone companies on all sides are dedicated to preventing any contact with other ethnic groups. This is not the sort of service phone companies generally provide, but many things here are sui generis, to say the least. As it stands now, all former citizens of Yugoslavia are bound together by the "38" international prefix, but the third digit is a watershed, a kind of electronic barbed wire: "7" is for Bosnians and Croats, "1" is for Bosnian Serbs, and the only way to communicate between a "7" and a "1" is by going through an American call-back system from Seattle.
The only solution was to go abroad, so I took my laptop and hopped on the military plane. IFOR, the NATO implementation force here, has daily flights to many places with good phone lines, and journalists are allowed to fly on them. I landed in the American base in Naples, got online, and downloaded my communications software upgrade. It gave me an illusion of getting out of my time capsule for a while.
It didn't last long. When I got back to Sarajevo it was a no-water day there, then I drove to Banja Luka (on the Serb side) where it was a no-electricity day, and then I went to visit Doboj, which had a no-water-no-electricity day. Dirty, thirsty and in darkness, I finally got online and managed to call up SLATE's Table of Contents. Whereupon I was promptly bumped offline. Oh well.