Perspectives | COVID-19

Under siege

By - 24.03.2020

Writer Faruk Šehić on life in the era of COVID-19 and the borders imposed on freedoms.

I am writing this from the city that has lived through the longest modern warfare siege. Now when the whole world is struck by the coronavirus pandemic and when it seems that this is only the beginning of the “siege” of ordinary life we have led until the dangerous virus emerged.

All travels, promotions and obligations I had have been postponed for better days. It seems that we are becoming captives of the newly arisen situation overnight, as it’s rapidly changing from day to day.

The city streets have been cleared out quickly. The authorities have issued orders and decrees that citizens obey, especially if we understand that it’s difficult to get our people in order after what happened during the war.

Sarajevo looks like a city that will soon face fierce artillery cannonade. That's how deep the silence appears to be.

Doing a small search on Twitter, I came to realize that there is still human solidarity and preparedness to help others in tough times.

A strange atmosphere crept in everywhere, and even into people’s souls. Sarajevo looks like a city that will soon face fierce artillery cannonade. That’s how deep the silence appears to be. An unnatural peace is disrupting reduced traffic on the main city streets and boulevards. This kind of silence will bring many citizens’ minds back to the time of war.

However, the silence in wars has always been short lived, while this one has been persisting for days. We know that the formal war ended a long time ago but it’s still ongoing in people’s heads, not as a conflict with a particular enemy but as a frustration that has come to be part of our lives.

Nobody here enjoys reverting their memories back to the time when the city was under siege. Now, we are besieged by an invisible enemy.

The shelves in shops and supermarkets are collateral damage. There are no greater shortages but the flour shelves are empty. We are a Balkan people and where difficult times are concerned, bread and other flour-based products will feed us. One is always on the lookout, when a large part of his or her life is marked by a bloody history.

The sugar shelves are also half empty. For now, we have abundant toilet paper.

I often think that, if we find ourselves on the verge of some global catastrophe, then the start of an apocalypse can be viewed through the lens of fighting to get a pack of toilet paper. The Toilet Paper Apocalypse. There are no zombies, no aliens, no comets or meteors for the perfect end of the world, only rolls of toilet paper.

Whenever the ambulance siren broke the unnatural silence, I had a desire to walk to the window from where I can see a large portion of the Centar and Stari Grad municipalities but I never did. I just allowed the siren to get lost in the maze of buildings and streets until it disappears.

We should remain our own selves, think with our heads, and not get bogged down by rumors and fake news.

If I were to observe how my fellow citizens here and in the rest of Bosnia and Herzegovina are watching over their own reality on social media, I would really have reason for distress. I feel lucky that the reality of social media is conditioned by the constraints imposed by virtual reality itself.

In this reality, the sole rulers are panic, fear, anxiety, and distrust. It’s enough to get out on the city streets and see how life didn’t evaporate overnight. Those who have self-isolated probably have their own reality but since I can’t get rid of the habit of riding my bike every day, then I see reality firsthand.

I don’t want my view of this crisis to be created by online media because the battle for clicks will never reach an endpoint. We should remain our own selves, think with our heads, and not get bogged down by rumors and fake news.

I wrote on Twitter that I won’t be promoting the #stayhome hashtag for the simple reason that I can’t and won’t be closed in a cage like a tiger. Perhaps this seems irresponsible on my behalf but I’m a journalist and writer, so I have to look at things as they are unraveling in front of my eyes. I won’t be able to do that through my apartment’s window. Incidentally, I am writing a post-apocalyptic novel and I have the sense how reality is threatening to use its “imagination” to overtake the events from my manuscript.

On one evening, social media was flooded by an alleged document introducing the extraordinary measures of prohibiting the work of coffee shops and public gatherings. Panic caught up with me as well, because I adamantly refused to fall into mass shopping hysteria. I wasn’t pilling up food, I like being against the masses, and I have trust in my senses that will reveal to me the moment when it will be necessary to stock supplies.

We should always resist the collective neurosis that can lead to pure psychosis. If I catch a piece of news from the neighboring country, I get the feeling that psychosis is already the norm there, bearing in mind that their state leader is apparently psychotic. In comparison to him, our top-level politicians seem pretty solid.

We found ourselves in self-isolation for almost four years within the area of the Bihać War District (known also as the Bihać Pocket because we were surrounded from all sides).

I mentioned the image of a tiger in a cage since this is my personal feeling towards isolation. I would go out on the streets even if grenades of the largest caliber were being dropped, as I did in the war.

My trauma was actually triggered by a rumor about the curfew, which is already taking place in the psychotic statelet, because I still have fresh memories of the curfew from Cazin, western Bosnia, where I spent the war. The police would arrest you because you were kissing your girl in a park, and we were only a minute past the time allowed for being outside. I remember the harassment in Sarajevo during the curfew. These are the things that have the power to shape a person and it’s difficult to get rid of them.

It would be enough to say that we found ourselves in self-isolation for almost four years within the area of the Bihać War District (known also as the Bihać Pocket because we were surrounded from all sides). This word alone awakens in me unpleasant memories, desperation and hopelessness that inhabited our minds and hearts during those endless years of war.

I’ll be thinking about probably leaving the city as soon as curfew is imposed. My personal freedom is the most important thing in my life; more critical than any idea, state, religion or nation. Nothing, including a dangerous virus pandemic, is more relevant than my freedom of movement and other human liberties.

This time is ideal for restricting personal freedom, which we are already seeing in Serbia, where the military came out onto the streets without any cause. All authoritative regimes will utilize this situation in a way to have it serve their interests.

The first three cases of people infected by the virus were recorded on the first day of spring in Sarajevo.

It’s sunny outside every day and I can hear the birds chirping, which I wasn’t able to hear during the endless years of war, besieged by the enemy armed to the teeth.

The unnatural silence persists.

Feature image: Velija Hasanbegović.