Goodbye to all that: At the end of five years in the former Yugoslavia reporting for the 'Independent', for which he was appointed MBE last year, Marcus Tanner recalls a country that disappeared

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I WILL always remember Sarajevo in July, our heads bowed over computer screens flashing blue and green in the BBC room of the Holiday Inn and tapping away amid the distant crump of exploding shells.

The lights were always off except for a candle flickering on a table covered in overflowing ashtrays, coffee cups and half-empty glasses of whisky. The curtains were drawn so as not to attract the Serbian snipers lurking 80 yards away in a dirty white block of flats on the far side of the Miljacka river. That was the front line. The mood of the journalists in our half-ruined hotel that month was apocalyptic. The Serbs were getting closer by the day and one by one the Bosnian-held mountains around the city were falling like dominoes.

'The Serbs are now within reach of the rooftops of the northern suburbs of Sarajevo,' warned Alan Little of the BBC in a chilling broadcast. The talk on those hot evenings was of evacuation. We drank a lot of whisky and read out aloud Auden's poem 'September 1 1939', especially the last verse.

Defenceless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

We felt we were at the centre of the universe. To us it was not a struggle for turf between Balkan warring factions but our generation's Spanish Civil War, our Czechoslovakia, 1938. It was about democracy and freedom and a civil society and saying no to the ethnic- based fascism of the Serbs and the holocaust they were carrying out against the Muslims. We knew our side would lose.

Five years earlier I had arrived in Belgrade. I rented a room in a huge run-down flat owned by an upper-class Serbian family with Bohemian tastes. They had no money. The rooms were ill-lit and shrouded in moth-eaten maroon velvet drapes. Portraits of their ancestors, bosomy 19th-century Serbian ladies and stern politicians in monocles, hung on the walls. The living-room was dominated by a full-length portrait of my landlady's great-grandmother, resplendent in court dress in the reign of King Peter I of Serbia. It was the House of Usher.

The flat was a Yugoslav zoo. Two Bosnians from Sarajevo camped in one room, one Muslim, one Serb. They grew marijuana on their balcony and squabbled over a book they were writing called The Dictionary of Decadence. In another room lived a nine-year-old boy and his mother, a half-Hungarian girl who wrote television screenplays and told fortunes from tea leaves.

A very fat Serbian sculptress occupied the third room. She was swigging most of the time from bottles of bad local brandy called Vinjak and entertained a lot of teenage male callers. 'I got married when I was 16 and was very religious,' she explained. 'When I got to 27 I went crazy and now I am like this.' The landlady was partly deaf, which suited her son just fine. He was an exhibitionist who made love to his wife in the afternoon with the bedroom door open to the living-room. Just when the landlady was serving her lodgers tea and pouring from a splendid 18th-century silver pot, her son and daughter-in-law would let up a terrific groan from the next room.

The game for us was to keep a straight face while she continued her monologue about Tito and King Peter and the Russian soldiers in 1945 and the Albanian birthrate. The half-Hungarian girl told me: 'She is just an actress and this is a game. She can hear everything.'

I took up an official invitation to Sarajevo on the Bosnia express in autumn 1988. The drinks were free all night on the train, a red-and-white Pullman, which swayed and shuddered across the plains of northern Serbia and eastern Croatia before plunging south to Sarajevo. The next day - destroyed by drink - I toured the new tower-block of the state-owned Unis company and Tito's villa before finishing off at a big dinner hosted by the Bosnian Communist Party bosses in the Hotel Europa in Sarajevo's old town. When we left, the authorities closed the railway station to the public while the journalists boarded the Bosnia express. Waiters stood like sentinels on the platform serving glasses of plum brandy from silver trays.

In Belgrade I bumped into an obscure Serbian writer in the cocktail bar of the Hotel Moscow. He was called Vuk Draskovic and said he was planning a new political party in Serbia to challenge the half-century-long rule of the Communists. He scribbled lines all over my car-rental map of Yugoslavia and said: 'This will one day be Greater Serbia.' The lines covered half of Croatia, most of Bosnia and all of Macedonia. He said Serbia would become the centre of an Orthodox empire. I laughed. 'I met a lunatic in the Hotel Moscow,' I told my friends. Most of what he said came true. I still have the map.

Yugoslavia fell apart three years later, in June 1991. The Slovenes hauled down the Yugoslav flag, hoisted a new one of their own and asked the Yugoslav customs officials on the frontiers with Austria and Italy to go home.

The Serbian-run Yugoslav army mobilised and the fighting started which continues today. But Yugoslavia had already dissolved in our mouldy flat. In the summer of 1990, after the nationalists won the first multi-party elections in Croatia, my landlady invited her old Croatian friend Boba to stay. They had been friends for 50 years. On the day Boba arrived my landlady polished up a photograph of the two of them taken in 1946. I saw two Yugoslav girls, fresh-faced and revolutionary.

To me, Boba and my landlady symbolised the fortunes of their respective countries. My landlady had a lot of space, old portraits and 18th-century silver. But she was out of cash, her teeth had fallen out and most evenings she sat in our living-room underneath the portrait of her great-grandmother, her cigarette glowing in the dark, railing against the world for her misfortunes.

Boba was pushing 70 but wore fur coats and thigh-high plastic high-heeled boots, dyed her hair the colour of carrots and chattered about a holiday in Austria while she adjusted her lip-stick in the cracked mirror of our dismal home. The two old chums fell out in hours. My landlady went crazy when Boba said she supported Croatian independence and blamed the Serbs for ruining Yugoslavia. 'It's so disgusting the way you Serbs insult the memory of our late President Tito,' Boba said haughtily. The two old women shouted all night and the next morning Boba packed her bags and left.

In the summer of 1991 an obscure conflict between the Croatian police and some Serbs in a dusty town called Knin fanned out over the Croatian countryside, with a little help from the Yugoslav army.

I reasoned: 'Wars do not happen in Europe any more.' So I was shocked when the Belgrade-Zagreb express train stopped running and stunned when the phone line to Zagreb went dead.

When I went to Zagreb in the autumn, the bus took a long detour through northern Bosnia to avoid the fighting on the frontier between Croatia and Serbia. In Zagreb, air-raid sirens were wailing, sandbags lined the streets and posters on the walls urged able-bodied men to report to local defence committees.

One night I was standing at an intersection on the outskirts of Zagreb when I heard people shouting that a town called Kostajnica had fallen to the Serbs.

As I stood there, thousands of refugees from Kostajnica streamed past in a long caravan of beat-up old cars and trucks and I wept. 'There really will be a war,' I thought.

In a cafe the next day, I read out the names of people killed in Kostajnica from the newspaper in a horrified voice to a Croatian friend. 'Soon they will stop publishing the names of the dead,' she said. 'Once it rises to several hundred a day.'

Her prophecy was borne out in Bosnia. From the beginning of the conflict in April 1992, the number of people killed dwarfed anything that happened in Croatia, as towns fell by the dozen and far more bloodily than Kostajnica.

No one even knows what happened to hundreds of thousands of Muslims in eastern and northern Bosnia, from towns which were overwhelmed by the Serbs in a few weeks. To me it is a blurred fast-moving film featuring columns of Muslim refugees, detention camps, Serbian victory parades, wrecked hospitals, razed churches and plumes of smoke rising from burnt houses.

And when the fighting in Bosnia lulled and I went back full-time to Belgrade, I hardly recognised the city.

The streets were overflowing with money-changers and refugees - among them a close friend, a PT teacher from Vukovar in eastern Croatia, a Serb.

His school and his house were pulverised in the long Serbian siege of the city and now his entire possessions fitted into one plastic bag. He begged me to buy him a bus ticket to Cologne and to take his father's gold tie-pin as payment. I bought him the ticket and told him to keep the pin.

The people in my old flat had dispersed to the four winds. My old landlady had emigrated to America along with her son. As the fighting worsened and inflation soared in Serbia, her savings had shrunk to nothing.

It made me sad to think of her leaving those ancestral paintings and the 18th-century silver but the half-Hungarian girl told me that she had sold most of the stuff before she left. 'It's not my country any more,' my landlady told me on the telephone when I tracked her down to her new address in San Francisco.

She said that it was hard starting out in a new country in your mid-seventies but she never wanted to go back to Serbia.

The fat Serbian sculptress with her bottles of Vinjak disappeared without trace but I met the two Bosnians from our flat in the street before they emigrated to Amsterdam. The Muslim was nervous and said he did not feel safe in Belgrade since the war spread to Bosnia. At least his parents were rich and got out of Sarajevo in time. The Bosnian Serb's mother was trapped in the city, maybe dead. Apparently she was hit by a Serbian shell while queuing for water.

The Sarajevo I saw on that first tour on the red-and-white Bosnia express exists only in my memory.

The gleaming twin towers of the Unis company are a grisly spectacle for visiting war journalists - two black and burnt-out metal stumps. Last summer I walked through the railway station, stumbling through knee-high grass growing up through the cracks in the platforms and across tangled rusty piles of fallen overhead cables.

I wondered what happened to the waiters who stood on the platform of Sarajevo railway station serving us plum brandy from silver trays.

I tried to remember their faces but could recall only their crisp white uniforms.

Are they fighting, and on which side? It never occurred to me then to ask if someone was Muslim or Croat or Serb.

The Hotel Europa in the old town was a barracks for the Bosnian army in the first months of the war. I walked past it in July.

The main part of the hotel was full of refugees. The dining room where we ate our sumptuous dinner with the Bosnian party bosses had taken a direct hit. The room was a soot-lined shell, open to the sky. Ragged-looking kids played hide-and-seek in the rubble.

(Photographs omitted)