“The Balkans produce more history than they can consume.” — Winston Churchill
“Sarajevans will not be counting the dead. They will be counting the living.” — Radovan Karadzic, Bosnian Serb leader, war criminal, fugitive
Sarajevo can be startling for first-time visitors. Shattered buildings, walls riddled with bullet holes, and mass graveyards are shocking things to see in a European capital in the 21st Century. The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina was more violent than the others in the former Yugoslavia, and it shows. If I believed in ghosts I’d say Sarajevo must be one haunted place. At the same time, the reconstruction and cleanup work is impressive. The destruction gave me a jolt, but at the same time I was slightly surprised I didn’t see more of it.
Bosnia is a troubled country with a dark recent past, but it is no longer the war-torn disaster it was. Sarajevo was under siege for almost four years by Bosnian Serb forces on the surrounding hilltops who fired mortar and artillery shells and sniper rounds at civilians, but it’s over and it has been over for more than a decade. Most damaged buildings have been repaired, and many neighborhoods look almost as though nothing bad ever happened to them.
I was on my way to Kosovo to investigate the world’s newest country after its declaration of independence from Serbia on February 17, 2008. It made little sense to visit only Kosovo without taking at least a brief look at some of the other countries in the former Yugoslavia to get a little on-the-ground regional perspective.
My long-time friend “Sean LaFreniere”:http://seanlafreniere.blogspot.com/ joined me on the road-trip portion of the trip from Serbia’s capital Belgrade to Kosovo’s capital Prishtina. It is of course impossible to acquire anything like a masterful understanding of the contemporary Balkans on a whirlwind trip in a rented car, but that wasn’t the point. Both Sean and I have wanted to visit the region for personal reasons for more than ten years. And I knew I could see Kosovo, the focal point of my trip, with clearer eyes if I first had some context and could compare and contrast the brand-new country with some of its neighbors.
Sarajevo, though, is a bewildering place for a first-time visitor trying to get a handle on things, much as Lebanon was the first time I traveled there during the twilight of the Syrian occupation. Out-of-date books and simplified media reports for distant foreign consumption can only help so much in these kinds of places, I’m afraid. There is a great deal of local detail rarely covered by foreign correspondents that can only be absorbed through immersion. Acquaintances of mine who live or have lived in Syria say the same is true there, and I believe them. It’s probably true almost everywhere.
“Maybe in twenty years Bosnia will be nice again,” said a Bosnian I know who lives now in Oregon.
“I love Sarajevo,” an Albanian woman in Kosovo later told me, “but I was there recently and saw on their faces that they are unhappy, more than they were a few years ago. You could see it and feel it.”
On the other hand, Sean and I met a man named Avdo in the Turkish Quarter of the old city who says the situation is bad but getting better. His biggest complaint wasn’t about politics, but the exorbitant price of real estate in the city.
Whether it’s getting better or worse, I can’t say. Serbian writer Filip David’s basic diagnosis seems to be right, though. “In Sarajevo it is not a good situation,” he said to me and Sean in Belgrade the day before we left Serbia for Bosnia. “My friends who are Croatians and Muslims, they are not satisfied. It doesn’t function. Serbs, Croatians, and Muslims in the [government] that must decide, they can’t decide anything. Everybody must say yes.”
Bosnia-Herzegovina is ethnically divided between Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, and Muslim Bosniaks. No group commands a numeric majority. Muslims makes up a plurality of the population at just under one half, but everyone is a minority. The country is also politically divided between the Serb-controlled Republica Srpska and the rest of the country. Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Republica Srpska aren’t three separate regions, however. Republica Srpska itself divides both Bosnia and Herzegovina. The map is a mess, and so is the country.
It doesn’t feel like a mess on a brief visit, though, the way Baghdad does, for example. The Bosnian war was ferocious — worse than Iraq’s — and seeing Sarajevo in reasonably good shape was a welcome reminder that terrible wars end. I could not have imagined Sarajevo looking the way it does now in the middle of the 1990s.
Some of my friends and family thought I was a bit strange for wanting to see Bosnia, even though the war has been over for more than ten years. The truth is that Sarajevo is great for cultural and historical tourism. Belgrade is sometimes described to would-be travelers as an undiscovered jewel of the Balkans, and it’s true that the place is a bit underrated for what it has to offer, but that goes at least double for Sarajevo. Serbia is still known for extreme politics, but that won’t affect visitors. Bosnia’s former reputation as being go-there-and-die dangerous is a much harder one to live down no matter how out of date.
It’s a beautiful place, actually. Not only is it worth seeing, it is worth going to see. Sarajevo’s old city center is unique. One part looks and feels like Turkey, another like the defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire. There aren’t many cities in the world where in less than five minutes you can walk from an Eastern urban environment to another that is unmistakably Western. Sarajevo reminded me of Beirut in both good ways and bad. Bad because, like Beirut, parts of it are still shot full of holes despite the massive and impressive reconstruction since the war ended. Good because, also like Beirut, there are sizable numbers of mosques and churches in a city that has been a civilizational crossroads for centuries.
Orthodox Church, Sarajevo
Inside a Catholic church, Sarajevo
A mosque minaret and a clock tower, Sarajevo
Before the war, the percentages of Muslim and Christian inhabitants of the city were more or less even, with Christian Serbs and Croats together just barely eking out a majority. The war changed the demographics, though. Sarajevo is mostly Muslim Bosniak now. That’s fine as far as it goes, but the city sadly no longer is the same kind of living example of inter-religious tolerance and co-existence that it once was. Nationalists like Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic, and their ilk made sure of that.
Sarajevo war cemetery, photo copyright New York Times
Aside from some of the architecture, however, Sarajevo doesn’t necessarily look or feel like a Muslim-majority city. In this way it resembles Istanbul, only from outward appearances it is even more secular. Most Bosnians aren’t demonstrative about religion.
I saw very few women wearing Islamic headscarves. Alcohol is no less available than it is anywhere else in Europe — or in Turkey for that matter — for those who want it. It is hardly an Islamist environment. Sarajevo is a city of both the East and the West, but it is wholly European at the end of the day.
Sean and I stayed at the Holiday Inn, a hotel made famous by war correspondents in the mid-1990s. It looks like a modernist cube from the 1970s, though it was built in the 1980s. It fits in rather well in a part of the city near the center that is dominated by other modern buildings. Some are generically international while others look explicitly communist.
Holiday Inn and nearby towers, Sarajevo
View from inside the Holiday Inn during the siege of Sarajevo. Photo from the Bosnian Institute
The war never left my mind while Sean and I were in Sarajevo. Something that struck both of us at once upon arrival in the city is how narrow it is in the old part of town. Serb snipers took up position in houses on the tops of the hills and fired at anyone they saw moving, including, of course, fellow Serbs who decided to stay. The infamous “Sniper Alley” was right outside our hotel. The narrowness of the city — you can walk from one edge at the bottom of one hill to the other side in just a few minutes — means the snipers always were close. If you can see the hills, the hills can see you, and the hills loom beautifully but ominously over everything.
That night I dreamed I was trapped there during the siege, scrambling to find a place where I couldn’t see hills.
“[Serbs] say Republica Srpska has the right to separate from Bosnia,” Filip David said to me and Sean, “but they stopped because the United Nations asked them to stop. If Serbs speak in that way, they have no right to protest Kosovo.”
“So now they’ve realized the contradiction and quieted down?” Sean said.
“Yes,” David said. “They stopped in this moment, but in the future nobody knows. The Croatians in Bosnia are not satisfied. They [also] ask for their own territory and government.”
“So it may yet split into three,” Sean said.
I have no idea if Bosnia will ever actually split into three. Dividing it up peacefully, equitably, and in a way that would satisfy everyone wouldn’t be possible. Partitioning unevenly mixed countries, especially those with so many mixed families like Bosnia and Iraq, is a nasty business. Kosovo’s break with Serbia was a lot cleaner than what could be done in Bosnia or what could be done anywhere in Iraq south of the three Kurdish autonomous provinces. James Longley captured the gruesomeness of the idea well in his documentary film Iraq in Fragments. “The future of Iraq will be in three pieces,” says an old man. A young child, perhaps the man’s grandchild, answers him this way: “Iraq is not something you can cut into pieces. Iraq is a country. How do you cut a country into pieces? With a saw?”
A steep hill in Sarajevo leads to a war cemetery in a residential neighborhood
It’s on the minds of some in Bosnia, though, and Kosovo’s declaration of independence makes the question more complex than it already was.
Sean and I met with Samir Beglerovic from the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Sarajevo and asked him what he thought about it.
“What does the Muslim community of Bosnia think about the independence of Kosovo?” I said.
“I think everyone can support this independence,” he said. “Everyone who knows the situation in ex-Yugoslavia knows that Kosovo had maybe the worst position in ex-Yugoslavia before the 1990’s. So there is support for them. In the beginning all Kosovo wanted was to be a republic within Yugoslavia. They didn’t allow that, so then the problem began and they wanted independence, and finally they got it. People from Bosnia — Muslims and Croatian people — they are supporting this.”
“Does anyone here who isn’t a Serb support the Serbian side?” I said.
“There was some talk,” he said, “[about whether or not] it was good for Bosnians for Kosovo to seek independence now. Some thought it would be better if they waited three, four, or five years because we don’t have a clear situation [in Bosnia]. They say that now, by giving Kosovo independence, Serbia is sending a clear sign to the Republica Srpska that they can do the same thing to Bosnia. And now Bosnian politicians think from this perspective it would be better for us if they didn’t do it now.”
While it may seem reasonable to let the Serbs in Republica Srpska leave Bosnia if they want to, as many think it is reasonable to accept Kosovo’s independence from Serbia, there are grounds for rejecting the idea, and not just because it would be messy. There are also issues of justice.
“49 percent of Bosnia is Republica Srpska,” Beglerovic said. “But from 80 percent of it, people were killed and expelled from their lands. This is territory they won by war, nothing more.”
Ethnic map, Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1991
Post-ethnic cleansing map, Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1998
As you can see from the maps, Serbs made up an ethnic majority only in parts of what is now Republica Srpska. Kosovo never expanded its borders through war inside Serbia proper before the declaration of independence, but the Bosnian Serb Army and affiliated paramilitary units used mass murder and ethnic-cleansing to bring as many Serbs as possible inside Bosnia within geographically contiguous territory purged of Croats and Bosniaks.
An ethnic map of Yugoslavia in 1994. Notice the relative homogeneity of Kosovo compared with Bosnia
National Library of Bosnia-Herzegovina, shelled, burned, and gutted by Bosnian Serb forces during the seige of Sarajevo in 1992
Sean and I met Predrag Delibasic, a half-Serbian and half-Bosnian writer and film maker, in Belgrade the day before we arrived in Sarajevo. He told us about his childhood in Bosnia where his group of closest friends were from different ethnic backgrounds. They were the subjects of a documentary film he made called Maturity Exam.
His friends then and now were from different backgrounds. Filip David introduced me and Sean to Delibasic and the rest of his crowd who meet every day at the same cafe downtown. Members of their group hail from Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Kosovo.
“Everyone here is of the same opinion,” David said. “We are all in favor of good relations with Kosovo and each other. We have only one Serb, and he is an anti-nationalist.”
“We are all friends,” Delibasic said. “We don’t care about ethnicity. But others, people around here…it’s hard. The radish is too deep. It cannot be uprooted.”
Many at the cafe didn’t speak English, so Sean and I spent most of our time talking to David and Delibasic, who did.
“My best friend now is a Serb who married a Bosnian woman,” Delibasic said. “Jovan Divjak, the Serb defender of the city of Sarajevo.”
General Jovan Divjak was the highest ranking Serb officer in the multi-ethnic Bosnian Army during the war. His very existence shows that even then the liberal idea of a cosmopolitan and ethnically-mixed Bosnia was still alive in the hearts and minds of some of its people. Not every Serb agreed with Slobodan Milosevic’s and Radovan Karadzic’s genocidal ethnic nationalist campaign, and some fought and died to put a stop to it. Many were singled out and publicly executed by nationalist Serb forces for resisting and for refusing to fight Bosniaks and Croats.
Sarajevo’s Eternal Flame, a memorial to the military and civilian dead in Bosnia-Herzegovina during World War II
“Do you know who that man is?” Delibasic said and gestured behind him. “The man at that table there with the white hair?”
I looked to my right and saw who I thought he was talking about four tables down.
“The man sitting with the young woman?” I said.
“He was Tito’s general,” he said.
Yugoslavia’s communist dictator Josip Broz (Marshall) Tito must have had more than one general. “Which general?” I said. “What’s his name?”
“He is General Jovo Kapicic,” he said. “His son owns this cafe. We are good friends.”
General Jovo Kapicic
One of the small pleasures of traveling to the small capital cities of small countries is how easy it can be to meet important people even by chance. Sean and I didn’t want to talk about Tito’s general, however. We wanted to talk about Bosnia, where Delibasic grew up.
“When I was a kid in Sarajevo,” Delibasic said, “some visiting Montenegrin nationalists asked me, who are you? I had no idea, and I didn’t care. So I made up an answer. I am Jewish! I said. My mother said no, no no. But I didn’t know or care. My friends were Jews, Muslims, and Catholics. After I was told I wasn’t Jewish, I said I was a Muslim. But that wasn’t right either. So after that I’ve always just said I am a Yugoslav. If I could, I would take citizenship in Slovenia, Croatia, and Montenegro, as well as in Bosnia and Serbia. But I can’t. I still call myself a Yugoslav, but the census-takers won’t accept that as an answer.”
Explaining the crackup of Yugoslavia as a natural resurgence of “ancient hatreds” in a post-communist ideological vacuum is tempting for many observers, but it’s “wide of the mark”:http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3647/is_199910/ai_n8868169/pg_1. It’s true that Tito kept a lid on nationalist sentiments in its varied republics during the communist era, and it’s also true that the Balkans in general have a long bloody history. But nationalism, in particular Serbian nationalism, was deliberately crafted as a replacement ideology by Slobodan Milosevic and like-minded political leaders desperate to cling to power and grab onto whatever they could as the country came apart.
Milosevic’s, though, wasn’t the only violent nationalist movement in Yugoslavia’s history that Predrag Delibasic personally had to contend with. He is old enough to remember World War II vividly, and he told Sean and me about his experience with the Ustasha — the armed Croatian fascist movement aligned with the Nazis.
“Armed and drunk Ustasha men came to our house when I was thirteen years old,” he said. “They demanded our papers and couldn’t find them. My mother was very brave. She screamed at them and told them it was their fault because they messed up the house. The commander put a gun in her mouth. I grabbed the man’s gun and said Kill me, not my mommy!”
He and his mother were then taken to prison in Visegrad, just inside Bosnia near Serbia. They managed to escape and were smuggled across the border with the help of a train conductor. His family reunited in Uzice where his father waited for him and his mother.
Later he joined Tito’s Partisans. “I was a member of the Communist Party,” he said. “But I was ideologically quiet.”
He didn’t fare any better with the communists than he did with the Ustasha.
“I was falsely accused of being a Stalinist,” he said, “after Tito broke with Stalin in 1948. Only recently, almost sixty years later, did I finally receive a document explaining exactly why I was arrested.”
As it turned out, according to the document, Delibasic was accused of being a Stalinist because he met with a visiting film student from Moscow.
“They sent me to Goli Otok,” he said. “Tito’s concentration camp.”
Goli Otok was a prison on an island in the Adriatic, now part of Croatia. It’s name means Naked Island. The island is mostly bare, as were its prisoners. “They made us march naked,” he said, “and do forced labor.”
Communist architecture from a hilltop in Sarajevo
“That must have made you re-think communism,” Sean said.
“Yes,” Delibasic said and nodded as he widened his eyes. “The camp was run by Tito’s general.”
“Which general?” I said. “Him?” Was he talking about the man he had just pointed out less than a half hour before? The man I had taken a picture of who was still sitting just a few tables down? Whose son owned the cafe?
“Yes,” Delibasic said and gestured by nodding his head in the direction of General Kapicic. The old gulag chief nursed his coffee only a dozen or so meters away. “It was the hardest time of my life. I could not believe that my beloved Partisans would build such an infernal place.”
I could hardly believe he was friends with the general who ran it, who made him work and march naked for meeting a film student.
Just a few minutes later, General Kapicic got up to leave and stopped by our table on his way out. Delibasic introduced me and Sean to him.
“He is a good friend to me,” Kapicic said to us in English, “and now to you. He is a very smart professor, and you should listen to him.”
After the general left, I had to ask. “How can you be friends with him? After what he did?”
“You heard what he said,” Delibasic said. “I accept it, and I don’t hate anybody.”
Around a thousand Arab veterans of the insurgency against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan volunteered to fight a “jihad” against Serbs in Bosnia. The Bosnian Army was desperate for help at the time. European countries imposed an arms embargo on Yugoslavia which severely degraded the Bosnians’ ability to defend themselves. The Serb forces had most of the weapons, and the embargo preserved the imbalance of power. As it turned out, though, the Arabic mujahideen from the Middle East had no more effect on the war in Bosnia than they had when they ran off to Afghanistan. In each place they were basically tourists with guns who made little or no impact on the outcome of the war, or even the outcome of major battles. Some of these characters stayed in Bosnia where they still live today.
Bosnia has a bit of an Islamist problem, but they aren’t its biggest cause. Saudis and others from the extremist Wahhabi school of Islam swooped in after the war ended to rebuild damaged mosques in their own severe style and to impose their rigid interpretation of religion, as much as they can, on culturally liberal Europeans.
An Ottoman-style fountain in the courtyard of a mosque, Sarajevo.
“Stephen Schwartz”:http://www.islamicpluralism.org/ — journalist, author, and Executive Director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism — has done a much more thorough job documenting the phenomenon that I could even attempt here, but I wanted to ask Samir Beglerovic about it since he lives there. He’s a Sufi and therefore detested by Wahhabis as much as Christians, Jews, and other so-called “infidels” are.
“How much of a problem is this?” I said.
“We have a problem and I think it is obvious,” he said. “In the beginning, during the war, mostly people didn’t realize what was going on. They had their priorities to deal with — how to survive, how to do this, how to do that. And after the war I think the majority somehow didn’t recognize what was going on. We have seen some changes, we have seen some things we didn’t know about before, different approaches, different attitudes. There is something we didn’t have before in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Mostly they were targeting the common people, not intellectuals as much. They were students that had gone to study in other countries in the East, and when they had received their MA or PhD they came here to Bosnia.”
“Do you think it is a big problem,” I said, “or a small problem?”
“It depends,” he said. “As far as individuals are concerned, we have to accept everyone, but regarding organizations, movements, we have to be very careful. As far as an individual is concerned, it is his choice, but if he wants to work within society, with students, you have to stop it, or you have to direct it through our traditional institutions.”
“What is it exactly that the Wahhabis are trying to do here?” I said. “Are they trying to make Bosnian Muslims more conservative, or do they have a bigger agenda?”
“They say We have to Islamize you,” he said. “That’s the notion they are using, to Islamize. They think that even the practicing Muslims — that means going to mosque, praying — they think they are not good enough, they have to be better. And also that our perception of Islam is wrong.”
“What is your perception of Islam according to them?” I said.
“I don’t know what they think,” he said. “They say it is full of innovations, things you cannot find in Islam. We made it up or got it from the interactions with the non-Muslims living traditionally here in Bosnia-Herzegovina, here in this part, especially from Europe. So it is a religious position, the Islamization. You are not Islamic enough, we have to Islamize you more.”
“What is it about your version of Islam that they don’t like specifically?” I said.
“Every segment of it,” he said. “Meaning our clothes, we are dressing like Europeans, the way we look, we don’t say you have to wear a beard, or that it doesn’t have to be long. It’s also the literature we are using because mostly we are leaning on the traditional scholars of Islam while they are leaning on the so-called reformers. There are lots of things. The logical aspects of Islam, the interior and exterior of the mosques, everything. Almost everything we do is wrong. It’s very hard to recognize why and from where they get this kind of attitude.”
Post-modern mosque, Sarajevo
“How popular are they here?” I said.
“We don’t have statistics,” he said. “That’s our major problem. We don’t do statistics. 1997 and 1998 were very hard years here in Bosnia, after the war. In 1996 it was still a kind of war. Sarajevo hadn’t been integrated yet in the first half of 1996, so 1997 was the year, you could say, you could begin to live a normal life. Or try to live a normal life. And then the first shocks came to you — you do not have a job. If you want to repair your house, repair your apartment, send your kids to school, go to school yourself, you need money. Therefore you need a job, and they were hard to find. So in the beginning people were mainly disappointed with the new aspects of life in Bosnia, post-war life, when everyone was expecting that the government would support people somehow, and we wouldn’t be having trouble with food and schools. And then there was this group that came in and started criticizing anyone who had any important position in the community, the government, or the political parties. The best way to recognize their strength may be from the newcomers on the Web sites, because in the print media they don’t have much space. We now have very strict regulations.”
“Today?” Sean said.
“Yes,” Beglerovic said. “In Bosnia-Herzegovina the Regulatory Newspaper Agency, the RAK. Radio stations and TV stations have to get a license from them.”
“After that are they monitored?” Sean said.
“Yes,” Beglerovic said. “They are monitored. And in the beginning if you do something wrong, first you pay, then you can be banished. There are a lot of inter-religious and nationalist…let’s call it bad words.”
“So if you incite amongst the public,” Sean said, “the government will be upset with you.”
“Yes,” Beglerovic said. “There are some standards we didn’t have before.”
“This is a problem for the Wahhabis?” I said.
“For everyone,” he said, “but also for the Wahhabis because you are asking about them. The only space they can get is on Web sites.”
“What do Bosnian Muslims think of NATO and the US?” I said. “I know most Serbs don’t like us, but what about your community?”
Albanians in Kosovo love the United States for saving them from the mass murder and ethnic cleansing campaign waged against them by the Milosevic government. Bosnians, though, were left to twist in the wind and face Serbian guns alone for years with very little assistance. I would not expect Bosnian Muslims to feel the same way about Americans that Kosovar Albanians do, but some help is better than nothing, and it has not gone unnoticed.
“We consider NATO the only way for feeling secure in our land,” Beglerovic said. “And it’s said that the only friend we have is the United States. So that’s why each time when someone like Richard Holbrooke says that Bosnia could be a place for Al Qaeda, it scares us. It can mean that we lose our only friend.”
“It won’t happen,” Sean said.
“Historically,” Beglerovic said, “we had our friends in Austria and in Germany. But the only practical support we get is from the United States. I mean, okay, Germany accepted a lot of Bosnian refugees, and everyone helped in a way, but the most practical help is coming from the United States.”
I have no idea where all this is going, if Bosnia will be okay or if it won’t. Will the country split into pieces? Will there be more fighting? Will the Islamists become dangerous to those who live inside and outside the country? I can’t say, and I won’t even guess. I’ve learned to be wary about predicting events in the Middle East — a part of the world I’m much more familiar with — so I know better than to guess what will happen in always-complicated and hard-to-read Bosnia. There are too many unresolved problems and too many variables. But the fact that it resembles, in some ways, a Yugoslavia writ small did not leave me feeling as optimistic as I would have liked. History there isn’t over, that much is certain.
Post-script: If these dispatches are worth something to you, please consider a contribution and help make truly independent journalism economically viable.
You can make a one-time donation through Pay Pal:
Alternately, you can now make recurring monthly payments through Pal Pal. Please consider choosing this option and help me stabilize my expense account.
If you would like to donate for travel and equipment expenses and you don’t want to send money over the Internet, please consider sending a check or money order to:
P.O. Box 312
Portland, OR 97207-0312
Many thanks in advance.