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by William Sommers

A frequent contributor to this journal recalls his last overseas posting and the most memorable event of that memorable service in the Balkans. –Ed.

Though my overseas entanglements came to an end via assignment to the independent district of Brcko in Bosnia-Herzegovina, I have great memories and still maintain ties with a number of Brcko’s residents with whom I worked. But the best of those is when we created a remarkable art show that I fell into and found myself inundated, then determined, and definitely surprised at the outcome. This tale needs a little background.

What and where is Brcko? Brcko (“Birchko” in its Americanized pronunciation) is currently an independent government district on the Sava River, within the boundaries of the Dayton directed reconstituted Bosnia- Herzegovina. Brcko was once a small town and historically part of Bosnia-Herzegovina. In 1939, however, it was attached to Croatia. During the Nazi occupation, the Croatian Ustashi killed many Serbians and Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) who lived in and around Brcko. During the 1991-1995 wars it was a very dangerous place which was taken early by the Serbs and became a kind of corridor that linked two other pieces of Serb-held territory.

Because of its location and mix of Serb, Croats and Bosniaks, Brcko’s disposition became a sticking point in the Dayton war-ending negotiations. As Richard Holbrook wrote in To End a War, Brcko was one the four “big issues” important to a complete peace agreement on the structure of a new government and its jurisdictional mapping, namely, “Sarajevo, Brcko, the Posavina Corridor and the Posavina pocket…” However, Holbrook via his fierce and dedicated pursuance of agreement was able to convince Milosovic to mitigate the Brcko situation when the Dayton Agreement was in serious jeopardy. As push came to shove Milosovic, on November 21, 1995 agreed “to arbitration for Brcko one year from now.” Thus its jurisdiction was excluded from the details of the Dayton Treaty and held in abeyance for one year. In the interim an arbitrator, chosen by the United States and its collaborating partners in the Dayton Agreement, would determine Brcko’s final status.

However, the one-year deadline stretched into three and in March 1999, Robert Owens, the arbitrator, made, as Holbrook notes, “the long-awaited ruling on the “town” of Brcko awarding it neither to the Federation nor to the Serbs. Rather he established a special zone: The “Brcko District.” Its original area was expanded by adding the adjacent areas of Brcko Ravne (Croatian) and Federation Brka (Bosniak), thus achieving a mixed population of the once warring peoples. The expanded District now covered about 80 square kilometers with an estimated population of some 90,000. The population breakdown in the late 90s was 50% Bosnian Muslims, 30% Croats and 20% Serbs. However, current data shows some interesting changes: 45% Serbs, 40% Bosnian Muslims and 15% Croats.

The district would be administered under the direction of the central government. In actual practice, however, Brcko District was put under the wing of The Office of the High Representative (OHR), the major authoritative representative of the peace-making countries via the Dayton Agreement, residing in Sarajevo. Brcko was, in turn, to be “overseen” by the Deputy High Representative, whose office and staff was housed in Brcko and who was designated as the “Supervisor of Brcko.”

The United States, heavily involved in these negotiations, committed considerable funding and technical personnel to the enhancement of the Dayton Agreement, not to mention the supporting US troops – and those of other countries – that were available should serious defections in the implementation of the agreements raise their uncooperative heads. For Brcko, the U. S. via the USAID office in Sarajevo contributed advisory personnel and technical support to hasten the organization and effective implementation of its short and long-term survival. One of the most “hands-on” programs for this kind of implementation was the establishment of a District Management Team (DMT), comprised of experienced technicians who, in turn, operated within the administrative offices of the Brcko District Government Building, thus available for direct assistance in the rebuilding of this different and nearly fully devolved local government entity.

And this is where I entered the picture. The then current local government expert -who set up the initial assistance organization – had come to the end of his term and decided to return to the United States, vacating the key position of DMT manager. I accepted the offer to succeed the vacating project manager from the United States contractor implementing this remarkable project.

By June 11, 2001, sans wife and family, I was in Brcko. My predecessor had done an excellent job of orienting the DMT staff in their advisory role; he had also recruited a group of local professionals who served as translators and managers of the “hands-on” activities which, in turn, made possible significant improvements in budgeting, tax collection, public works, administrative operation and public openness, contributing thusly an important advisory structure that showed its value in the daily operation of a singular decentralized local government.

My initial lesson in background came at the beginning although I did not realize its full results until a year latter. Moving into my office I thought the grey walls a bit dreary, that I should have something a bit more encouraging than a sequence of budgetary process and financial back-up charts – necessary, of course, but still a drag!

The young woman who was both my secretary and translator, Tanja Mihajolivic, very proud of her Serbian background, but who worked untiringly to see that the Brcko DMT succeeded, told me that if I wanted to have paintings in my office, the person to see was the curator of the Brcko District Art Museum, Petar Knezevic, a Bosniak, who was a long time participant in the local art scene, surviving both himself and his art collections during the worst of the fighting.

He worked in a nearby building that was in partial deterioration but had once been the very beautiful government center when the Brcko area was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Time and the most recent war, coupled with very little maintenance, had reduced its splendor and curtailed its usage. The art museum office, the public gallery and a bulging art storage room were on the first floor while the district library, holding on through dust, broken windows and very little space, was on the second floor.

We met Petar in his office and through Tanja I asked if it were possible to take – on loan – a few pictures for my office in the District Government Building. He was most cooperative and took me into the large storage room where the bulk of over 200 of the Brcko Art Museum’s paintings were stored. He encouraged me to wander about, look and pick – along with two or three cups of coffee as the sorting and the choosing began in earnest.

After two hours of looking and looking and looking I had separated out nearly 50 paintings! Both Tanja and Petar came to watch for a bit and then left me to my tastes. It was a “wow” experience that I had never had before and doubt if I will ever have again, particularly as the totality of this “art experience” unfolded. Another half hour went by as I picked out six paintings for my office – a most difficult choice for each picture seemed as inviting as the last one. Then looking over the whole array once again, I was struck by the life-saving incongruence of all these paintings intact against four or five years of life killing war right in their backyard!

I took my choices back to Petar’s office and signed a promise to be responsible for the paintings and to return them when I left Brcko. As Tanja and I thanked him for his hospitality and help, he asked us to stay for a few more minutes to discuss an idea that he had developed while I was selected my paintings.

Our conversation went – via Tanja’s translation – something like this.

“Mr. Sommers, I liked the pictures you picked out. They represent some of our most respected painters. I wonder where you got your knowledge of art.”

It was easy to answer his question.

“My wife is a painter and art has been – and still is – a large part of her life –including a traveling husband and six children. She has taught us all about art and how to appreciate it.”

“Well, I hope I can meet her sometime. But right now I would like you to think about working with you to develop an exhibition of the paintings you chose in our gallery. What about that?”

“That’s fine with me but right now I am overwhelmed with my job and will not have a lot of time to work with you…at least for the present.

“The timing is good since I have a number of individual exhibitions coming up. We could try and schedule it for sometime next year, maybe around July.”

So we agreed, shook hands and took our leave.

Petar and Bill

The paintings looked great on my office wall. Three stunning landscapes which Tanja identified as being from the area: one near Belgrade and two from the southern part of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Two others were colorful abstracts and the last one was a portrait of a very old man who nevertheless had a glint in his eye that was a little sarcastic yet re-assuring that his life was not yet over.

I turned to my work trying to learn what was going on and what was not going on. There were lots of meetings, focusing on budget issues and a new effort to establish a five-year capital budget system. Our budget group was immersed in identifying short and long term needs while trying, as well, to respond to USAID’s many Brcko concerns, particularly in the training of the District’s professional staff in things like personnel management and setting of action goals for various programs. We also spent considerable time in keeping Brcko’s OHR office abreast of our work while cooperating with their staff in a number of critical operations that needed inputs from both of us to succeed. All this against a background of the recent war, especially around Brcko where burials were still a problem along with the location, marking and demolition of extensive mine fields. Every day was full, every evening a walk in the dark.

Yet a lot came together. One thing I learned was that when the Dayton peacemakers pushed the Brcko solution into arbitration, the result, even if they hadn’t planned it as such, was the creation of a nearly complete decentralized unit of government. I remember courses in college and in graduate work that washed back and forth on the issue of whether or not local government – in the United States for example – should have expanded authority to make more decisions on its own without the intervention of state or federal government agencies. When I worked as a municipal administrator the issue was never resolved but it was always available for a new go-around. In overseas work there was an undertow of project proposals focused on giving more authority to local administrative units but which could never quite get complete backing from central governments that were unsure of both the need and workability of such drastic changes.

Yet here I was – after a life time of working in local government – home and abroad – in the most decentralized chunk of local government I had ever hoped to see anywhere in the world I knew. While the Brcko District worked closely with the Deputy High Representative also subtitled as the “Supervisor of Brcko” on a number of policy issues relating to the resolution of problems left by the war, the District government, by and large, had surprisingly great leeway and freedom in policy formulation, budgeting and direct administration.

The district was created as a kind of model local government An elected Mayor headed the District’s administration while an elected District Council had a legislative say in the budget, in passage of applicable laws and in the examination, when deemed necessary, of the District’s administration. Brcko was also singularly blessed by having its own customs operation to control imports coming across the Sava River from Serbia and Croatia and to collect excise taxes on various imports which were then deposited into the District’s coffers with a very modest amount ticketed for the national government. Brcko’s decentralized position was helped considerably by the fact that the newly reformed government of Bosnia-Herzegovina was relatively weak and had not made much progress in coalescing the sometimes-bitter politics between the Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats living within its borders.

Yet all this was, in its own way, no more remarkable than my being able to participate in Petar Knezevic’s surprising idea of opening a full blown exhibition of pictures that a very new newcomer had chosen from the Museum’s stored art collection! Although this first year of activity had pushed the art show back in my swirling Brcko-focused brain, I quickly returned to the matter at hand when Tanja received a call one morning from – yes – Petar Knezevic who asked if I had forgotten about our planned show?

This query led to a quick meeting at the Museum Office where we reviewed the details. After some discussion, largely directed by Petar, we agreed on the date of the show – July 9 to August 13. Petar had made a list of all the paintings I had originally set aside: 55, not including the half dozen I had kept in my office. It seemed to me too many to put in the gallery’s limited space. But if Petar and his staff wanted it, then for me the matter was settled. I was beginning to relax, having the problems now under the wing of Petar and his cohorts, and stood up, ready to take my leave when Petar dropped a nicely enunciated bomb in the ensuing conversation that went something like this.

“There is one more item.”


“We would like you to write a short statement for each picture so that you can tells us what you saw and why you chose it. We think that it would help make the show more interesting.”

“You mean you want me to write something for each of the 55 paintings?”

“Yes, and perhaps your staff would translate your statement into both Serbian and Croatian which are, as you know, the two languages we use.”

“O, lord…do you really think I can do that? Even if I were able to do it, who would want to spend all that time to translate these statements into two languages –or even have the time – to do it?”

This, of course, was all by way of Tanja’s translation…who with a nice smile…intervened to tell me in English and Peter in Croatian…that she would glad to help since she liked the paintings and was very excited about the show. She also volunteered a part-time translator who worked in our planning section, her good friend, Branka, to help as well.

The marvelous translators

After much trepidation on my part yet being slowly drawn into this nest of “great expectations” and intrigued by the idea of the Art Show, I fell in line. We set a date for the translations to be ready so that Petar could have them in time to print out a small catalogue for the show.

But not so wonderful! Not in the least. Back in my office I realized I had agreed to an almost impossible arrangement. How could I sit down and probe each and every painting when the painter’s name, title and the artist’s medium would have to be translated before I could start to write. Not to mention immediate job demands like writing the summary and the Mayor’s message for up upcoming budget presentation that cried out for instant attention.

Tanja to the rescue! She reminded me that our friend, Osman Osmanovic, the District Auditor, had an older daughter who had returned from a year’s living as an exchange student in Phoenix, Arizona. Her English was very good. At Tanja’s urging we talked to Osman who agreed, providing his daughter, whom we called Mary for short, wanted to do it. She agreed but noted that since she was doing part time work at the local high school, I would have to schedule the session to fit her schedule. Not to mention my own!

And so we began what became an exhausting, sometimes grueling, but eventually exciting adventure. Mary and I would come to the Art Museum at lunchtime, sometimes in the morning before work but mostly on weekends. She would hold up the painting, read off the painter’s name, the title of the painting, the date and the type: oil on canvas, silk screen, mixed media, linoleum, etc. in English. I would look at her typed translation on my computer and then type in a rough assessment of the piece in question. Tanja and Branka often came to help out and Osma dropped by frequently to watch – with a large smile – this strange working arrangement.

The program cover

When we finished reviewing the 55 paintings, I spent some long nights re-writing the English so it could be properly translated. And just in time and with great joy, turned the fourteen-page manuscript to Tanja and Branka who translated my writings into both Serbian and Croatian. Petar received the translations on time and with his staff turned all the commentary into a foldout catalogue with 55 descriptions in Serbian on one side and 55 descriptions in Croatian on the other. We also ran off a set of English copies in English for our friends from Office of the High Representative and the extended assistance community.

The show opened on time with a gala program introduced by the Mayor. To my surprise, a large crowd attended and was pleased at what had accomplished under Petar’s unerring direction. The catalogue was a marvel with the cover showing my favorite – and most apropos -painting: a runner jumping a host of hurdles!

Petar wrote a wondrous introduction. The English version began with these two sentences: “Last fall an older gentleman came into the Museum to choose some paintings for his office. He said his name was William Sommers and that he worked in the district building….”

And that “older gentlemen” enjoyed one of greatest evenings of his life!End.

William Sommers
William Sommers

William Sommers worked as a municipal administrator for many years in the United States and worked overseas advising on various local government assistance programs. He and his wife, Joan lived and worked in Poland, Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Egypt and Hungary. Sommers’ last overseas assignment was in Bosnia. They now live in North Carolina where Joan has continued her painting and William has continued writing and working on improvements in aspects of local government.


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