Tony Harrison

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How does Harrison present the lives of people in Sarajevo in “The Bright Lights of Sarajevo”?

Initially, Tony Harrison presents the lives of the Sarajevo residents as imperiled and impoverished. However, as the poem pivots to the young people of Sarajevo, Harrison adopts a presentation that doesn’t deviate all that much from conventional young people activities in non-war zones.

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At first, Tony Harrison presents the lives of the Sarajevo citizens as greatly impacted by war. Although Harrison doesn’t name the war specifically, he is writing about the Bosnian war of the 1990s. The war has brought destruction and danger to the people of Sarajevo. They must wait in line for basics, including gas and bread. As they return home, they’re “dodging snipers.” The initial imagery does not present the residents of Sarajevo as possessing fulfilling, safe, and stable lives. Rather, their daily life is marked by risk and uncertainty.

Harrison then pivots to the “young” people of Sarajevo. As Harrison takes up his presentation of the “young,” things take a different turn. While Harrison continues to place horrific war imagery around the “young,” the “young” themselves seem to be getting along with their lives as normally as they can. The war is not interfering in their romantic lives. Harris portrays a boy and a girl meeting at night, bumping into another, and having a cigarette.

In the context of the “young," Harrison presents the lives of the Sarajevo people as relatively common. They’re doing many of the things that young people across the globe are doing. Despite the curfews, the empty sacks of flours, and the startling signs of death and destruction, when it comes to the “young” people of Sarajevo, Harrison presents them as readily capable of typical romance and intriguing relationships.

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Those who followed the violent and irreparable disintegration of the once cosmopolitan state of Yugoslavia understood that the country’s demise had a certain amount of inevitability. Observers had long assumed that the eventual death of long-time dictator Josep Broz Tito, the Croatian communist who had the credibility and strength needed to keep the highly disparate nations of Yugoslavia united under one flag, would spell the country’s death. Tito’s death in 1980 did, in fact, result in Yugoslavia breaking apart, with ancient ethnic, religious, and nationalistic tensions now allowed to resurface and manifest themselves in violent insurrections, the first of which involved the region of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a majority Muslim region in the heart of the Christian-dominated country. Serbia and Croatia, the two most powerful states within Yugoslavia, both sought to gain territory at the expense of the Bosnians, with the Serbs emerging as the most powerful and, hence, most threatening to Bosnian independence and territorial integrity. The war that occurred, from 1992 to 1995, was a model of international ineptitude on the part of the outside world in terms of international diplomatic efforts aimed at ending the violence.

In the midst of the carnage, most of which was carried out by militias comprised of ethnic Serbs who resided within the frontiers of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the nation of Serbia’s army, a British poet covering the conflict for The Guardian newspaper of London authored a series of poems published by the paper as news. Such was the descriptive power of Tony Harrison’s poems that The Guardian treated them as conventional reportage.

One of Harrison’s poems written in and during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina was “The Bright Lights of Sarajevo.” Harrison’s prose speaks very vividly of the situation in that country’s capital during what was justifiably labeled a genocidal war against the Muslim population. One does not have to search the text of the poem for indications of the living conditions; the environment in which citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina existed occupies the entirety of Harrison’s poem. Note, for instance, the poem’s opening lines:

“After the hours that Sarajevans pass

Queuing with empty canisters of gas

to get the refills they wheel home in prams,

or queuing for the precious meagre grams

of bread they’re rationed to each day,

and often dodging snipers on the way,

or struggling up sometimes eleven flights

of stairs with water, then you’d think the nights

of Sarajevo would be totally devoid

of people walking streets Serb shells destroyed”

A modern metropolis suddenly thrust into the homicidal conflagration that was the Serbian siege of Sarajevo saw its sense of normalcy radically and violently altered, with living conditions reduced to a daily effort of survival. Food and fuel rationing, the omnipresent threat of Serbian snipers, and darkness courtesy of destruction of power grids, all depict a society on the threshold of Hell. Into this horrific scene, however, is the embodiment of survival and hope that Harrison witnessed, a symbol of a past and a future that could resist its final destruction:

“The young go walking at a strollers pace,

black shapes impossible to mark

as Muslim, Serb or Croat in such dark,

in unlit streets you can’t distinguish who

calls bread hjleb or hleb or calls it kruh,

All takes the evening air with a strollers stride,

no torches guide them, but they don’t collide

except as one of the flirtatious ploys

when a girl’s dark shape is fancied by a boy’s.

Then the tender radar of the tone of voice

shows by its signals she approves his choice.”

Even in the midst of the carnage enveloping their city, the young of Sarajevo continue to conduct themselves with a sense of natural rejuvenation. Lust and love have not been eradicated; they have simply been forced into the dark and continue to exist across the ethnic and religious divides at the center of the conflict. The destruction of the city from Serb mortar shells and the aforementioned threat of snipers have cut across ethnic lines to equalize the risk to life and limb, an environment to which Harrison applies a metaphor from Greek mythology (the reference to rain-filled craters left following Serb mortar attacks on people lining up for bread rations reflecting images of a “star-filled sky,” specifically, the star cluster known as Pleiades).

A sense of impotency pervaded the atmosphere in many cities in Western Europe during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, as few governments mustered the will to advocate for more forceful responses to the crimes against humanity that became a daily feature of life in Sarajevo and the rest of the region. Harrison’s poem captured the environment in the capital as well as any journalist covering the conflict. Against a backdrop of genocidal mayhem, basic human needs continued to characterize life in Sarajevo, including the ritual of courtship and the demands of survival.

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