Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?
NEARLY EVERY DAY DURING THE SUMMER OF 2018, at about 4:00 in the afternoon, when the sun was veering east and shooting a tangent ray of orange across Zenica, Alen Marijanović would take his car, pump up the volume to turn-of-the-century heavy metal, and snake his way up the hill. A small empty patch at a curve was wide enough for him to pull his car over and pause. The engine turned off and the music gone, the distant whirring from the steel- works would be audible. A vehicle horn would be rare.
He would walk up the hill called Hamida, pull out a thin paper and small strands of coarse brown tobacco from a pouch, roll it neatly, lick the paper’s edge, twist one end, light the other end, put it between his lips, and take a long drag. He’d cough instantly, breathe out heavily, and soak up what he’d see before his eyes: the sun touching the edges of the hills on the other side, the valley below with the tall, nearly identical buildings with boxed windows, and a rust stretch of metal and chimneys. Then, he would find a soft grassy patch, and sit down, soaking it all in. Because soon he will leave it all behind.
“It’s my way of saying goodbye to this town and its people,” Alen tells me.
He isn’t as chatty on the mountaintop as he is in the car on the way up, and even back into the town. He isn’t too sure exactly when he will board the train with a one- way ticket to Mannheim, Germany. But it’s been more than two years since he has convinced himself to take the road that leads away from this place where he grew up—where he spent his adolescence, became a youth activist, had a tryst with electoral politics. His home.
We veer towards the edge of the hill to take in the view of the layers of the distant mountains and the hills, the town, the Bosna river, and the steelworks.
Alen’s life is like that of any other youth in Zenica, including the short stint with electoral politics. That was the time when he drank a lot of coffee. But it’s been six years since he gave up the caffeine that fuels Bosnian mornings, afternoons, and evenings. It was 2012; he had run for office for the third time, and had lost by 40 votes. He had had enough, of both believing the system could be changed, and the caffeine needed to do it.
Zenica, a steel town, has a long history of human settlement in towering, identical apartment blocks. Curtains, shirts, and bedspreads are suspended from clothes lines running between the windows of these apartments, which were built rapidly after then-Yugoslavia emerged from WWII. Across this block on Marsala Tita street is a three- storey building covered with green glass that glistens in the afternoon sun. There’s a steady stream of people entering and leaving the building with large bags. Outside, a few men with white hair sit on short stools, selling tobacco, but without soliciting any of their customers.
“My grandmother lives there. I spent many years living there with her, when I was growing up,” Alen says, pointing out to one of the windows. His father worked in the paper factory in Zenica, which manufactured currency notes during the war. His mother stayed at home. When Bosnia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1992— triggering a secessionist movement by the country’s Serbs that ended in 1995, leaving 100,000 dead—Zenica became a safe haven for Bosniaks. By the time Alen was studying politics in high school, the war had become “normalized” to him in a way, as it had to practically all of his contemporaries.
After he graduated from college with a degree in Political Science, Alen found an internship with his regional government, which turned into a job. By then he had also joined the Social Democrat Party (SDP). It was, he believed, a party without nationalistic leanings. In 2008, Alen ran for office in the municipal elections, but lost.
By 2010, the SDP had emerged as the majority in the Bosnian Federation (the state is divided into the Federation of Bosnia and the Republic of Srpska). Alen ran again, this time at the cantonal level. He lost by 100 votes. Meanwhile, the SDP went on to form a coalition with the SDA, a conservative Bosniak party that has increasingly been trumpeting the country’s ethnic divide. The SDA line is part of the reason why Alen says the coalition turned out to be a mistake.
Straddling his job and his duties as a member of the SDP, Alen saw the party renege on multiple promises. He began to bring this up in meetings. He felt the party was disconnected from reality, while he, on the other hand, was out meeting people, talking to them, and trying to find ways to alter what he saw as a corrupt system.
“Bosnia-Herzegovina received more funds towards post-war [reconstruction] than Germany after WWII, but look at them and look at us! So many people just made those funds disappear!” Alen tells me. We are in his mother’s 10th floor apartment, which he moved back into, in May of this year. The coffee table by the couch has a bowl full of spare change—Bosnian Marks as well as Euros.
In 2012, he ran once more for municipal elections and lost by 40 votes. “I was seeking to connect with people. But it seemed like people wanted to be told: vote for me and I will make you a millionaire,” he says, puffing a cigarette by the window, which faces one of the many hills that circle the city.
His shy 16-year-old brother Denis stepped out of the house. Alen lit up another cigarette. When he was 20, Alen inked his love for his little brother onto his skin: the letter D within a star just above his left ankle. “I was young and dumb at 18 to think that I could change the system. I believed that I could change things locally. The person that I am today wouldn’t be sitting for coffee with that 18-year- old dumb kid,” he says. He turns to me, and then points to the door by lifting his chin. “But I worry about this fellow and the world he is facing.”
Alen’s cynicism is the air that the Bosnian youth breathe. The civil society sector in Bosnia-Herzegovina has been living off of international donors since the end of the war in 1995. Youth unemployment stands at roughly 45 percent. Nearly half the country’s population faces social exclusion in various forms. Bosnia-Herzegovina has among the highest corruption in Europe. It is struggling with E.U. integration; the process has stagnated at the stage of candidacy, even though the E.U. continues to invest an average of €3 million each year in the country. Out of a population of 3.5 million, more than 86,000 Bosnians have acquired a different nationality since 1996. The process has been rapid in recent years: between 2012 and mid 2018, 25,003 people renounced their citizenship. Religious division is simmering beneath the surface of the country’s diverse landscape.
Parents encourage their children to look for opportunities abroad. Others swim in Yugonostalgia—a time when, Alen says, almost everyone had similar lives, and thus a greater sense of community. “We Bosnians are stupid. We help each other only in crisis, when it flooded here in 2014 and every street was under water. But we don’t help each other otherwise,” he laments. The bitterness at losing the elections is less about defeat. He rues the loss of a dream, of youthful optimism, of possibility.
In Bosnia, most people grow up with the melancholic words of Ivo Andrić and Meša Selimović, two of its brightest historical literary lights. Alen refers to them to point out how little progress seems to have been made from their epoch to his own. “What they wrote, 50 years ago, seems so true even today. Has our society changed?” he asks, rhetorically. “Not one bit. I am scared for the children of today, who are being raised in an environment of hyper- nationalism.”
Back in Alen’s car, Linkin Park’s “In The End” comes across the radio, and Alen pumps up the volume and hits the accelerator in sync with the song’s chorus.
Two years after he lost the election, and dissociated himself from party politics (he retained his job at the PM’s office) Alen began to contemplate leaving the country.
Even though Germany has among the highest number of Bosnians, who went there after the war, Alen knows that moving there won’t be a cakewalk—neither for him, nor his wife, Dina.
“There is a greater need of her skills as a pharmacist than mine, as a graduate of Political Science,” he acknowledges. “And Dina would need German to be able to apply for a job.” But the move has been an idea they’ve thought about and planned for together. In 2016, both enrolled in German language lessons. Last year they got married.
“We would never have,” Alen says of the decision, ”But we felt it was necessary to ease the visa process.”
When Dina completed her B2 level in German, she approached an employment agency that specialises in jobs in Germany in the medical field. She received a call soon enough, went to Mannheim in February this year for an interview, and returned home to Zenica with a signed contract. She resigned from her job at a pharmacy in Maglaj, near Zenica, and in May, moved to Mannheim.
On the way back from Hamida, Alen takes a detour. Sarah, his cousin’s fiancée, and his German language teacher, gets in the driver’s seat and Alen guides her with the steering. After 30 minutes, Sarah seems more confident than when she first stepped in. Conversations are a mix of Bosnian, English and German. They mock the long, jaw-stretched jaa of German.
Alen passes his phone to me, in the backseat. He’s pulled up a video of a story of a rhubarb baker and the repeatedly conjugated German words that make it a delightful tongue-twister. Our chants of the long words from the story pierced the quiet whiz of the river Bosna in the outskirts of the city. He takes a selfie while we’re all laughing and sends it to Dina.
Alen applied for a dependent visa to Germany as soon as Dina had signed her contract. He was told that he would receive an email about eight weeks before the visa appointment date. It only came in at the end of August. And then, after a period of more silence, he was asked to bring in his documents to the German Consulate in Sarajevo. In the meantime, he went twice to see Dina in Mannheim.
The promise of a better life doesn’t come cheap. He spent €75 for a dependent visa; Dina spent €100. Alen has a back-of-the-envelope calculation ready in his head that he rattles off swiftly through more cigarettes.
“IN THE FIRST SIX MONTHS OF 2018 ALONE, 18,000 people have left the country. Multiply this by two, include at least one dependent. So that’s nearly €3 million leaving the country, and going into the coffers of Germany. Money, that could be put to use within the country—if people saw the returns in their own lifetime,” he laments.
More reliable figures on the outflow of people from Bosnia-Herzegovina come from the non-profit Union for Sustainable Return and Integration (UZOPI): 5,620 families left Bosnia in the first six months of 2018 alone. No wonder then that voter turnout in the most recent election was 53%— the lowest in the last four general elections.
“During the 2014 election, Bakir Izbetgović said that he would create 100,000 jobs. He won the Bosniak presidency. This year, Šefik Džaferović said he would create one million jobs, and he won. But where are the jobs? When so many people are leaving the country, of course it would seem like the number of the employed has gone up, relative to the population that’s stayed behind. So it’s all a numbers game,” Alen tells me as we walk towards a youth community center. Alen hangs out there with his long-time friend Ernad almost everyday after his job at the Prime Minister’s office.
For nearly a decade, Ernad has been relentlessly bringing together children from the city and outskirts to create a youth parliament. Together with the radio station, they want the youth to be more politically aware. Ernad’s motto: “Do what you can, with what you have and what you are.”
Alen went to a youth parliament meeting one Sunday. He confided in me that he dreaded the idea: he had, after all, given up on both politics and his country and was eyeing the exit door. But he spoke at great length to an audience of about 20, aged 12-18, which listened with rapt attention. As I walked around the colourful space— which included two recording studios—I could hear the chatter from where Alen was. He was taking questions from his audience, which was now engaged in a collective conversation.
“I was supposed to inspire them with my story, of joining politics. I told them that I wanted to change things, shake it all up, but that there was no scope amid the passive stress of the system. I also told them that I am now heading to
Germany, just like their cousins or own siblings may have. I asked them if they thought I was doing anything wrong,” Alen later told me.
How did they respond? “They somewhat unanimously told me that I was doing whatever I need to do for my life, and that it’s okay. I was surprised how mature and practical they are, even through their optimism.”
There are no concrete plans to be made, not until his visa comes through. But there are a few certainties that seem reassuring. In Mannheim, Dina spends €670 per month on rent and utilities. Alen says that the food there is cheap and she is able to put money into savings each month.
Though that’s a a more comfortable economic situation than either of them had before, Alen says the motivation to leave is more than just financial. “That’s at the bottom of the list of reasons for us to move,” he explains. “It is the system here that is forcing us out.”
The couple are conscious of not mingling too much with the diaspora. “When Bosnians abroad meet, they are either nostalgic about their homeland or complaining how bad it is, which is really frustrating. I just want a new life,” Alen says. “Four years ago when I began to think aloud about leaving, my friends said that it is alright here, it isn’t so bad. Now they tell me that they too have begun to take German lessons. It’s just a matter of time before everyone leaves.”
Alen has a chemical structure tattooed on his right arm—of an endorphin, for happiness. Another tattoo is of the infinity symbol, which he got together with Dina.
But for Alen, Bosnia seems to hold neither happiness, nor the possibility denoted by infinity. He references an old quote from the American president, John F. Kennedy, to sum up his state of mind. “You know that saying, Ask not what the country can do for you, but what you can do for your country? Well, I have done my time and can very well say, I did enough for my country, but got nothing in return.”
As we head to the door of the community space, the latest hip-hop blares from the studio and into the radio waves of Zenica. I hear Dua Lipa’s raspy voice:
I see the moon
I see the moon
I see the moon
Oh, when you’re looking at the sun I’m not a fool
I’m not a fool
I’m not a fool
No, you’re not fooling anyone
— This article appears in
Are We Europe #3: Uprooted