This is a guest post by Sarah Correia
When I returned to Sarajevo three weeks ago, after two years away, very little seemed to have changed, and I was struck by a dominant feeling of disenchantment, which became more clear when I asked people about the Bebolucija. Nobody wasted much time on their replies, merely expressing their disappointment. Thus, when, last Wednesday, 5 February, a friend in Tuzla posted on Facebook a few pictures she took of a protest, it looked just like another protest, as so many that have been staged over the years, of workers who lost their jobs or haven’t received their salaries, or farmers, pensioners, veterans… But this turned out not to be yet another protest, but that one moment when too much becomes too much. The police charged at the protesters, who were throwing eggs and stones against the building of the government of Tuzla Canton. My friend’s status on Facebook was “ja i moj narod vicemo…. Kijev u TZ” (“I and my people are shouting… Kiev in Tuzla”), translated very well the mood there, and people joined the protests the following days in growing numbers, defiant despite the use of force by the police; arrests; tear gas. The protests had turned violent, culminating on Friday 7 February in a local government building being set on fire, and prompting the resignation of the Prime-minister of Tuzla Canton.
The situation is Tuzla immediately gave rise to protests in other Bosnian towns. I will now present my own eyewitness account of the protests in Sarajevo, which have been the focus of much anxiety, speculation, and manipulation.
On Thursday 6 February, I found myself in a small protest in Skenderija, in front of the building of the government of Sarajevo Canton. I had been visiting the Ars Aevi collection depot, which had re-opened to the public that same day, and when I left and crossed the bridge towards the right bank of the Miljacka river, there they were, the protesters. The street (Obala Kulina Bana) was blocked, and riot police were standing in front of the government building, as well as the Dom Sindikata. Someone had used a banner saying ‘Niko ne sme da vas bije’ (‘No one is allowed to beat you’ -the phrase proffered by Slobodan Milosevic in 1987 in a meeting in Kosovo that marked the beginning of his ascent to power). The protesters were mostly youngsters as well as pensioners, and there were very few women, one of whom was standing on the road in front of the police cordon. It was objectively speaking a very small protest, maybe 200 people or slightly more, held in solidarity with Tuzla, as a protester informed me, but another protest was scheduled for the following day.
When I left my home on Friday, 7 February to see the protest, I expected it to be more of the same as the day before – a few hundred people, kids and pensioners. And despite the example set by a much bigger mobilisation in Tuzla, when I got to Skenderija around 12 noon, I counted no more than a hundred people. There were a lot of police in riot gear, though, and there were obviously a number of them in civilian clothes as well. I went for a walk, and noticed that in the surrounding streets there were vans with more riot policemen, and quite a number outside the MUP (Ministry of the Interior) of Sarajevo Canton, including also vans typically used to arrest people.
When I returned a few minutes past 1pm there were a lot more people, and within half an hour many more arrived, but still it was very far from a massive demonstration. The protest spread through the square in front on the building of Sarajevo Canton and the riverbank ahead, between the two bridges, with some people also watching on the two nearby bridges and from a safe distance on the other side of the river in Skenderija, and something like 50-100 people more spread through no more than 100 metres on the Obala Kulina Bana towards the centre. I cannot say how many people were there in total, but it was not a dense crowd, and there were lots of empty spaces, the crowd compact only in front of the building.
The building was not protected by metal barriers as is usually seen elsewhere in Europe when protests occur, but merely by yellow tape with ‘Stop Police ‘ written on it. The police barrier was not compact either, merely a row of men, although there were more on the side streets. Traffic was diverted from that area, with the police blocking traffic in Marijin dvor towards the riverbank and in front of the Alipasina mosque.
As for the protesters, there was an almost complete absence of flags and banners – only one older man with a big Bosnian flag and a few women with small banners, who soon left the protest. There were no chants either. Only ever now and then a few would should Tuzla Tuzla or lopovi (thieves). A man had a megaphone but the quality of the sound was so poor that 10 metres away as I was I could not hear any distinct words. Suddenly around 1.30-1.40pm a core of young protesters wearing hoods started throwing objects against the building, over the police, including stones and bricks. Cameramen and photographers ran for a safer position, but it took some minutes for the police to react, by advancing the barrier towards Kulina Bana (the riverside street). A middle-aged man started chanting the Internationale, but nobody followed him.
At that moment I moved from the centre of the protest to the river bank (Obala Kulina Bana). That was when I could take a closer look at the hooded youths, who had also withdrawn from the garden to this area after the first wave of stone-throwing and the initial police reaction of advancing the cord some 10 metres. I could see how some of them communicated with small gestures, mere looks. One had a Molotov cocktail in his hand but after exchanging looks with another he hid it away. At that moment I made an assessment of the situation bearing in mind that I had previously seen a lot of police stationed in vans in surrounding streets. I was at that time next to the riverbank’s wall, between the stanica and the kiosk. Oddly, both kiosks were open for business. I realised that I would be trapped if the police charged (which I honestly assumed they would), so I decided to cross the river, expecting an escalation. Meanwhile the police threw some tear gas, but not in such a quantity to force the dispersal of the crowd. Already on the other side of the river, two kids aged about 16-18 were affected by the tear gas, and someone got bottles of water at the nearby kiosk to wash them.
I didn’t stay long on the other side, and after crossing back I went to the balcony of the Dom sindikata, a building on this square, where people were watching. I was still on the Dom sindikata when, around 2pm, the police tried to disperse the crowd in two fronts, one on the riverbank next to the Dom, the second one by pushing the crowd towards the big bridge. An ambulance came as at least one policeman was injured. The watchers on the Dom sindikata showed some enthusiasm, but among journalists standing there there were more signs of concern. After initially being pushed back towards Kulina Bana and the bridge, the crowd charged back, and to everybody’s surprise, broke the police barrier, a barrier consisting of a single line with no rear back up. Then, instead of reassembling, the police withdrew towards the streets around the Presidential building, and left the Canton building totally unprotected.
For a while I expected the police to come back, but they didn’t. Meanwhile the rioters seemed confused with such an easy victory. A few had to openly invite the crowd to attack the building. Eventually a small stand was set on fire, the window glasses were broken, and finally the building’s entrance was set on fire. All of this while the more passive protesters watched. There were also people standing on the street that goes from the bridge to the Alipasina mosque, but these were mostly just ordinary passers-by looking incredulous over what was going on.
By 3pm I was still expecting a come-back from the police and did not believe at that moment that the destruction would spread to other buildings so easily as it did. I walked towards the building for a few shots, and that was when it became obvious that the rioters were becoming more aggressive. Two of them approached me and told me not to take photos of faces. They did so politely, and I did not feel in immediate danger, but other people with cameras were less fortunate and were punched or somewhat assaulted. It was 3.10pm when I took my last photo and decided to get back home. By then I had a headache which, I was told later, may have been the result of exposure to tear gas and fumes – I did feel very sick later that day.
This was the protest, as I saw it. There were no banners, no demands, just a hundred young men or even less than that, who were given a chance to engage in destruction, maybe a hundred pensioners, and a few hundred people watching. I’ve been in many protests in different settings, and there was nothing of the typical protest vibe present in this one. There wasn’t even much anger, there was instead a rather odd, pervasive feeling that is hard to describe, as if it was some kind of parallel reality, and it was as if we were all feeling paralysed, merely waiting for something to happen – except the ones who were busy breaking glasses, spraying catchphrases and penises on the building’s walls and setting fire to the building. They didn’t show much emotion either, and certainly not rage. At that moment, they seemed guided only by a nihilistic sense of possibility.
As I walked towards Marijin dvor, the absurdity of the whole situation dawned on me. Cafés, shops – including electronic goods shops – supermarkets and shopping centres were all open for business, as if nothing was going on, just a few dozen metres away. Except for the disruption in traffic, it was just another day in Sarajevo.
Around 5pm things had significantly escalated and by then people had woken up to the seriousness of the situation. Rioters also attacked the Presidency building, setting it on fire, which damaged one of the deposits of the Arhiv BiH – the Bosnian state archive – located on the basement. The following is based on the eyewitness accountt of a friend, who lives in the centre, and was at the time of the events working in a building in front of the Alipasina mosque. When I called her around 6pm to know if she was safe, she told me, before the media reported it, that she could now see the building of the Opstina Centar – i.e. the municipal office – on fire. When we met on Saturday and went through the events again, she showed much more concern for the archives of the municipality than for anything else, as people’s practical issues are very affected: birth certificates, residency certificates, etc. She could understand attacking the Canton Sarajevo building and the Presidency, but not the municipality. She also told me that at 10pm, when he streets became secure again, and she walked home, there were many people in the streets, including people who took the tram to the centre with the specific purpose of taking a look at the destruction. People were walking up and down and there was a general feeling of sadness. I could see, and a number of people confirmed this to me, that this event brought back the memories of the first days of the war in Sarajevo, and the same emotions were felt all over again, like a tragic version of the episode of Proust’s madeleines.
On Saturday I went to the centre in the afternoon. I strolled around, and it was very different than the normal Saturday afternoon. There was much less people out, I’d say a quarter of the usual number. There was no buzz, although all business were working as usual. I stayed until 8pm, and as there were no trams in the centre, I walked to Marijin dvor with my friend. In front of the presidency building was still standing a small group of people, maybe 20 – the remaining participants of a peaceful protest that has since taken place every day. On Sunday anther peaceful protest took place, in which I didn’t participate. The main demand was the release of the persons who had been arrested on Friday, and friends who joined described how they spontaneously joined, and how loosely organised it was, but it was clearly effective, as all the protesters were released between that evening and the following morning.
I joined the protests again on Monday, 10 February, along with a friend. The atmosphere had radically changed. The Prime-Minister of Sarajevo Canton had meanwhile resigned his post, and there was a sense of possibility in the air, that positive change might be possible, although people I spoke to sounded very prudent, perhaps too modest in their ambitions, or perhaps realistically aware of the obstacles towards success.
Trying now to analyse what I’ve witnessed, the big question for me (and for many others) was the police’s behaviour. It seemed clear from very early on that a decision had previously been made not to use violence, possibly in light of events in Tuzla. The police official reporting today (Wednesday 12 February) to the assembly of Sarajevo Canton confirmed that, saying that the lives of the citizens were more important than the integrity of the buildings. But this was not merely the case of police restraint. The police completely withdrew, leaving public and private property, including crucially the Presidency building, at the rioters’ mercy for a number of hours. My initial feeling was that power was crumbling like a house of cards, under the pressure of a few hundred protesters, but that was an illusory impression. The stakes are high for those in power, and they are not as detached as to let go so easily. There has since been much speculation about this, many rumours and conspiracy theories, some openly vented by politicians, such as was the case of Bakir Izetbegovic, the Bosniak member of the collective Presidency of Bosnia, who suggested the rioters came from Eastern Sarajevo, and SDA’s Ahmet Sadikovic, former Security Minister, who declared having information that the hooligans belonged to Slavija football club from Eastern Sarajevo, both trying to tap the ethnic key. Most importantly, there has been great anxiety over the possible role of the current state Security Minister, Fahrudin Radoncic, a populist politician who immediately tried to score points on the situation, and whom many are aware may, once elections are held, ultimately benefit the most from a situation of political unrest. But we can also question how willing would the policemen, even the special forces, be to use violence. This is a crucial question.
Regarding speculation about who were the protesters and how well-organised they were: on Friday there was a certain level of coordination among the younger elements, and a core of people who were clearly organised. Some of them had an appearance consistent with the hooligan subculture, and I wouldn’t be surprised that they were fans of the local clubs, and homophobic graffiti sprayed on the Sarajevo Canton building makes one wonder whether some of them were the same people who attacked the cinema Kriterion where an LGBT festival was taking place. But these individuals were not the majority, and there were also many boys who seemed to have joined spontaneously, in small groups of friends. There weren’t many girls, but there were some, and there were a few people of all ages, but mostly people around 15-23, and older people, and very few people in their 30s. Disturbed as I may have been by their actions, in hindsight they seem to me rather mild. Private property was largely untouched and, bearing in mind they were let loose for a few hours, it could have been much worse. For instance, the GRAS kiosk adjacent to the tram stop in front of the Sarajevo Canton building was set on fire, and I suppose also pillaged. But the other kiosk, standing 3 metres away, was left untouched. In fact it remained working all the time I was there.
As for whether these demonstrators were hooligans or not, that is a matter of qualification, and great efforts were made to seize upon the initial shock of the population to portray them in the darkest way possible. They were called ‘huligani’ (hooligans) and portrayed as drug addicts, and false news was published that the police seized 12 kilograms of speed in tablets. The media spin tapped into the socially dominant codes of behaviour, which divide people into ‘kulturni’ (cultured), ‘primitivci’ (primitives), ‘seljaci’ (peasants), etc., and this may have alienated a great number of people from the protesters. But the reaction to this spin was itself a form of manipulation, which denied the obvious. Of course there were hooligans in the protests, and they brought stones and Molotov cocktails. But over the years so many protests have taken place in Sarajevo, larger in number, with absolutely no results, and a few dozen ‘huligani’ with a few Molotov cocktails have set something in motion. At that moment, they seemed guided only by a nihilistic sense of possibility, but the fact remains that they did not merely break glass and burn government buildings and GRAS kiosks , but also broke the inertia that had previously seemed so overwhelming.
Some people want to believe a revolution is taking place, but then again, only after everything changes can we say there was a revolution, and despite the resignation of four Canton governments (Tuzla, Sarajevo, Zenica and Bihac), power structures are still standing, largely untouched in fact, and a conservative reaction will very likely be supported by the international players, EU countries, neighbours Serbia and Croatia, and Turkey, which have their own unsolved domestic problems very similar to Bosnia’s, and which sanctify ‘stability’ more than anything else. They have anyway assigned Bosnia a low priority.
On 4 December of last year, the Bosnian Embassy in London did me the honour of hosting the launch of my book, The Bosnian Muslims in the Second World War: A History (Hurst and Co, London, 2013). Very special thanks for organising the event go to His Excellency Mustafa Mujezinovic, the Bosnian ambassador to London, who also gave the opening speech; to Ms Jasmina Turajlic, Second Secretary; to all Bosnian Embassy staff; and to Jon de Peyer of Hurst Publishers. Very special thanks go also to my friend and colleague Dr Edina Becirevic, for coming to London to speak at the event. The following articles are based on the texts of our respective speeches.
Since the aggression and genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina took place two decades ago, so many books have been written on the subject. Yet, very few people have understood Bosnia as well as Marko Attila Hoare does. The first of Hoare’s books that I read was, How Bosnia Armed, and I remember many of my colleagues commenting that, finally, there had been a new approach taken to examining the war against Bosnia. Hoare’s handling of the topic was different because it followed the dynamics of the rise of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and attempted to determine why initial intentions to create a truly multinational Army of Bosnian people – of all nationalities – instead manifested as a predominantly Muslim, i.e. Bosniak, military force.
When war began in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992, the international community stood aside and watched as Serbia unleashed an aggression against the country’s non-Serb population. Hoare belonged to the world of academics, civil society members and journalists who understood what is going on and openly campaigned for the defense of Bosnia. He lived in the small universe of people who saw the genocide and aggression for what it was. And this is also why Hoare’s book How Bosnia Armed carried so much weight: his inquiry into past events did not deter him from lobbying for the defense of Bosnia, even when his analysis of the responsibility of Bosniak leadership led him to conclude that they had given up on the ideal of a multicultural Bosnia and Herzegovina in exchange for the pursuit of exclusively Bosniak interests, and had thus played into the hands of Serb and Croat nationalists. The pattern that Hoare recognized, and was one of the first to analyze – on the loss of the multicultural character of the Bosnian Army – became a central theme as he tried to answer the question of why Bosnian leadership settled for the Dayton Accord; which essentially legitimized the division of Bosnia. And this pattern can be steadily traced through the post-Dayton period in Bosnia, too, in many political compromises that Bosniak political elites made at the expense of Bosnian statehood.
I am not sure where the saying originates, but I have heard it many times from many people, that “Serbs and Croats cannot destroy Bosnia and Herzegovina unless Bosniaks agree to it.” And Hoare’s work is therefore even more important; because it has offered researchers in Bosnia and Herzegovina a model of how to tackle this issue without falling into the stereotypical traps of dispersing responsibility for the war and genocide equally to all sides and of viewing it as a war in which there were no clear victims and no clear aggressors. Hoare’s methodological framework can be the example to researchers who identify as victims of the war and who want to address that pattern of de-multiculturization of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This can allow them to step back from a sense of victimhood that disabled many of them to fully understand the dynamics of the war and aggression.
History is important not only for the sake of understanding the past, of course. Historical lessons matter in both the present and the future. Today in Bosnia, Bosniak political forces continue to be inconsistent in defending Bosnian statehood and preserving its multiculturality. The battle for what many still consider to be the core multicultural values of Bosnia and Herzegovina is now left to a group popularly called “the others” – representatives from ethnic groups who were not accommodated in the Dayton Accord – who stand behind the “Sejdić-Finci” ruling and demand political rights equal to those of the three dominant ethnic groups in the country.
Marko Attila Hoare has published four books. Besides How Bosnia Armed, he is also the author of Genocide and Resistance in Hitler’s Bosnia: The Partisans and the Chetniks, 1941-1943, which looks at the conflict between Yugoslav Partisans and Chetniks in Bosnia during World War II. In The History of Bosnia: From the Middle Ages to the Present Day, he focuses on the history of national identity in Bosnia. All three of these books are essential reading for understanding the history of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the present day political chaos facing the country.
But the book The Bosnian Muslims in the Second World War: A History, which examines the role of Bosnian Muslims in World War II, not only comes full circle in his corpus, but carries a special significance in relating how events that took place in WWII still affect Bosnia and Herzegovinia presently and by deconstructing the Serbian propaganda of the 90’s, which put forth that all wars waged by the Serbian state were fought to prevent genocide against Serbs. For, it is unquestionable that the various collective myths and memories of the past, of different ethnic groups in Bosnia, played a role in the 1992-1995 conflict, and that they continue to shape – and sometimes strangle – Bosnian society today.
The genocide of Serbs in World War Two is indeed a part of the history of Yugoslavia and the history of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and no one seeking truth could deny that. However, growing up in Yugoslavia, the genocide and suffering of other people in Bosnia and Herzegovina was never mentioned at all. In school, history books told a one-sided story about both World Wars, giving us the impression that it was only Serbs who had been victims of genocide. And it was the continuity of this narrative that convinced many of my Serb friends to go into the hills to join the forces which turned their heavy artillery against Sarajevo.
In a way it is understandable that there were few books on the history of Bosnia and Herzegovina that went against the official narrative, for there were just as few brave historians willing to detail the complex alliances of the Second World War, and to tell the story that it was not only Serbs, Jews, and Roma who suffered losses. But World War Two meant suffering for Muslims and Croats as well; and while genocide against Serbs is an undisputed historical fact, the changing coalitions and patterns of crimes committed during the war were extraordinarily complex and convoluted. This latest book by Marko Attila Hoare plays a crucial role in setting the record straight, and not only for historians in the region. It also successfuly deconstructs stereotypes about World War Two that many Western historians, regardless of their ideological perspective, have blatantly promoted without reservation.
The residual effects of alliances and aggressions that played out during World War Two revisited Yugoslav society around the time of Tito’s death and began a discussion that is still ongoing; bringing with it an impact on all the societies of former Yugoslav states. But most of the narratives that have emerged are influenced by official dicourse of some kind or another. Some are apologetic toward the Ustasha, others toward Chetniks, some glorify the Partisan movement, and others, as Hoare writes, tell the tale “through the prism of Allied policy.”
Yet, Hoare, in this as in his previous books, does not depend on official narratives or safe stereotypes. He illustrates the complicated game Communists had to play in “leading predominantly Serb and peasant armed resistance to the Ustasha regime in the countryside,” while at the same time conquering the hearts and mind of a predominantly Muslim and Croat urban population. And both of those strategies were, as Hoare says, “ulimately necessary for the Communists to become masters of Bosnia; and both were achieved.”
The Bosnian Muslims in the Second World War is the first book that views the history of World War Two in Bosnia from the perspective of the Bosnian Muslims – and not only that of political elites, but also of ordinary people, who formed different political and military alliances. Hoare concludes that, “Political divisions among the Muslim elite were not essentially ideological, but were between conflicting strategies of how best to safeguard its position, and the Muslim population as a whole, in the face of two threats: the assimilationalism and hegemonism of the Croat Ustashas and the genocide of the Serb Chetniks.” And Hoare refers to those threats as two sides of the same coin.
Future generations in Bosnia and Herzegovina will be thanking Marko Attila Hoare not only for this last book, but for all of his books, including those that I hope are yet to come. I say “future generations” because I am not confident that this generation of Bosnian historians and intellectuals fully grasps the importance of Hoare’s work. But I am hoping that there will come a day when real accounts of Bosnian and Herzegovinian history by rare historians like Hoare will serve as the essential content for history textbooks. For, books like this one do not only present fair accouts of Bosnian history of benefit to academics, but can also serve as the basis for a process of reconciliation among Bosnian people, who must understand their history in order to move forward into the future.
What Hoare always brings to his reader is the invaluable insight that time and the events of an era cannot be seen in isolated compartments; that we miss seeing key parts of the picture of today if we are blind to the realities of the past. And his work beyond the pages of this and his other books, to identify and address genocide denial, is a natural extension of this insight. The value of his commitment to bringing awareness to the dangers of genocide denial cannot be understated.
The issue of genocide denial is an understandably contentious one. There is always an accused “side,” for which denial of their crimes is desirable; and since genocide is rarely achievable without the backing of state-level apparatuses, accused perpetrators usually have the backing of both political power and historical rhetoric. But, as the list of genocides in the world sadly continues to grow year after year, the issue of genocide denial becomes one of greater and greater importance. And what motivates Hoare and activists like him, is the knowledge that it is precisely this denial that invites further genocides.
What sets Hoare apart in debates about the topic – and believe me, it is a topic rife with debates, usually fueled as much by emotion as by concrete evidence – is his firsthand knowledge of Bosnia and his exhaustive research on and in the region. He has developed a relationship with the Balkans that few Westerners who deny genocide occurred there, or who tend toward revisionist views of the recent conflict, can lay claim to. This has predictably made him a target of those who do wish to deny genocide, and yet Hoare has remained a consistent “thorn in their side.”
As academic discourse invites ever more questioning about what “truth” and “denial” and “narrative” actually mean; as denial itself is viewed increasingly as a valuable coping mechanism in the face of a world full of trauma; and as we are bombarded more and more by images that Stanley Cohen rightfully points out are bound to overload and overwhelm our senses of reality, it is so important that activists like Hoare continue to demand that we see. For, as Cohen pointed out in his famous treatise on denial, “there is nothing positive about a society denying that it has an AIDS problem or the failure of the international community to recognize early warning signs of genocide…” While my guess is that most people would quickly jump to agree with his first statement; until genocide is seen as something as dangerous and pernicious as AIDS, the world needs activists like Marko Attila Hoare fighting to remove people’s blinders.
Edina Becirevic’s book Genocide on the Drina River will be published this year by Yale University Press
Marko Attila Hoare
Thank you all for coming. I would like to begin by thanking His Excellency Ambassador Mustafa Mujezinovic, Second Secretary Ms Jasmina Turajlic and Jon de Peyer of Hurst Publishers for hosting and organising this event.
I started researching the subject matter of this book seventeen years ago, in 1997. The war in Bosnia-Hercegovina had just ended. As a graduate student in history, it was impossible for me not to be gripped by the need to understand why it had happened. Of course, I have my political views about the rights and wrongs of the conflict, which I have never tried to conceal. But history should not be researched and written with political objectives in mind; rather, it should be guided by the need to answer intellectual questions.
The genocide in Bosnia-Hercegovina of 1992-1995 involved the destruction of the Bosnian state; the Republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina. Consequently, the questions I wanted to answer were: why had the state been created in the first place, and how had it been possible to build a common, multinational state encompassing Serbs, Muslims, Croats and others ? I believed it was necessary to understand how and why the Bosnian state had been created, in order to understand how and why it was destroyed a half century later.
I have used the name ‘Muslim’ to refer to the Bosnian Muslim or Bosniak people in my book. Although this nation is properly called ‘Bosniak’ today, in the 1940s, when the events described in the book take place, the Bosniak name applied to Bosnian Orthodox and Catholics as well, whereas Muslim Bosniaks were referred to as ‘Muslims’ in most of the documents. It was only in the 1990s that the Bosniak name came to be synonymous with Muslim as opposed to Orthodox, Catholic or other Bosnians. I do not, however, wish in any way to question the legitimacy of the Bosniak national name today.
The revolution in Yugoslavia in the 1940s, led by Josip Broz Tito and the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, had been the object of a great deal of myth-making, both by its supporters and sympathisers and its by its anti-Communist critics. Yet it has been greatly under-researched in the West when compared to other great European revolutions, such as the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution. One of the purposes of my research has been to demystify the Yugoslav Revolution; to explain what really happened and what it really looked like. Set against the depressing outcome of the 1990s Bosnian war, the outcome of the 1940s revolution appears more positive, for it involved the establishment of a Bosnian state in which Croats, Muslims, Serbs and others were able to coexist for nearly half a century. But history is not about happy endings, and my work has sought to understand the flaws in this original state-building project, in a manner that might help explain the catastrophe of the 1990s.
My first book on Bosnia-Hercegovina in World War II - Genocide and Resistance in Hitler’s Bosnia: The Partisans and the Chetniks, 1941-1943 (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006) focused on the Bosnian Serbs. It sought to explain how they had been led to support, in large numbers, the establishment of a unified Bosnian state instead of a Great Serbia – something that seems paradoxical in light of the apparently overwhelming and violent Serb rejection of this same state in the 1990s. In fact, as I showed, for many ordinary Bosnian Serbs, there was a fine line between supporting a unified Bosnia, as demanded by the Communist-led Partisans, and supporting a Great Serbia, as demanded by the anti-Communist Chetniks. Both options were open to the Bosnian Serbs; both reflected aspects of their national heritage; and many of them switched from supporting one to supporting the other at least once during the course of World War II.
In this, my second book on Bosnia in World War II, I focus on the Bosnian Muslims, and to a lesser extent on the Croats and smaller Bosnian minorities. The Croats were very much smaller and weaker in Bosnia-Hercegovina in the 1940s than the Serbs or the Muslims, and it was these two latter groups that were and remain ultimately most important for the outcome of the Bosnian question. My book stresses the diversity of forms assumed by the Muslim resistance to the new order established by the Nazis and Fascists in 1941, whereby occupied Bosnia-Hercegovina was forcibly incorporated into the Great Croat puppet state named the ‘Independent State of Croatia’, under the rule of the Ustashas, or Croat fascists. Members of the Muslim elite resisted this incorporation in a number of ways: some turned to an alliance with the Serb nationalists (Chetniks); others appealed directly to Hitler and the Germans; others built their own autonomous Muslim forces within the framework of the Croatian puppet state. But all of them shared the goal of ensuring the national survival of the Muslim people in Bosnia-Hercegovina. The Communists realised that in order to win the war in Bosnia, they would have to co-opt at least part of this Muslim autonomist movement.
For in the 1940s, the Bosnian Muslims were the key to victory in Bosnia-Hercegovina. This was apparent also in the 1990s; the Serb nationalists rebels under Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, who attempted to conquer Bosnia on the basis of a total rejection of the Muslim population, found themselves unable to break the latter’s resistance; they were brought to the very of total defeat by the autumn of 1995, something they escaped only thanks to Western – above all US – diplomatic intervention. As the eminent Bosnian Muslim notable Muhamed Sudzuka had recognised already before World War II, the Muslims were the key to Bosnia and Bosnia was the key to Yugoslavia. So the Bosnian Muslim story was crucial for the outcome of the Yugoslav Revolution. The mass influx into their ranks of Muslims and others, including Croats and members of smaller minorities such as ethnic Poles and Ukrainians, was decisive for the Partisans’ victory in Bosnia. Above all, the mass defection of quisling troops to the Partisans – members of the Home Guard, Muslim legions, Handzar SS Division and even some Ustashas – enabled the Partisans to capture Bosnian towns and cities without destroying them or destroying their own forces in bitter street-fighting of the kind that broke the back of the Serb forces at Vukovar in Croatia in 1991.
In order to win Muslim support, the Communists championed the goal of a unified, sovereign state of Bosnia-Hercegovina within the Yugoslav framework, and treated the Muslims in practice, if not formally, as the sixth Yugoslav nation – alongside the Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians and Montenegrins. Considerable freedom was accorded to the Islamic religion. The Partisan triumph consequently resulted in a brief flowering of Muslim national life and freedom. Yet following this triumph, as the Communists began to consolidate their dictatorship, many of these freedoms were taken away. Muslim religious and cultural institutions were suppressed or neutered. Less respect was shown to the dietary needs of Muslim soldiers in the Yugoslav army. Official statements stopped using the large letter ‘M’, denoting a nation, in relation to the Muslims, and reverted to using the small ‘m’, denoting a mere religious community.
This curtailment of Muslim rights and freedoms set the stage for the next movement of Muslim resistance, involving members of the ‘Young Muslim’ organisation, including a youthful Alija Izetbegovic. But this movement was ruthlessly suppressed, and the Bosnian state that took shape in the 1940s did so on the basis of the hegemony of the Bosnian Serbs – as the group that had numerically dominated the Bosnian Partisan movement. It was when the Bosnian Serb hegemony began to crumble from the 1960s, as the Communists in Bosnia-Hercegovina moved to emancipate fully the Muslims and Croats, by recognising finally the Muslims as a nation and by removing the Ustasha stigma from the Bosnian Croats, that the Serb disenchantment with Bosnian statehood truly began; a disenchantment that would gather pace as the Muslims overtook the Serbs as the most numerous Bosnian nationality during the 1960s and 70s, and that would reach a head when Izetbegovic’s presidency sought to establish Bosnia-Hercegovina as a fully independent state, wholly separate from Serbia, in the 1990s.
The state of Bosnia-Hercegovina was therefore at all times a fragile project, based as it was upon a compromise between the national aspirations of its constituent peoples; a compromise that was unstable as the balance of power between them shifted. Nevertheless, the lesson of the 1940s is that in order for Bosnian Serbs, Muslims and Croats to be reconciled and live in harmony, there has to be a strong, functioning Bosnian state. And this cannot happen again so long as the constitutional order established by the Dayton Peace Accords, which cripples Bosnia-Hercegovina as a state, persists.
Photos by Sarah Correia, Anna von Buchenroder and Jonathan Norton
My review article ‘Slobodan Milosevic’s place in Serbian History’ was published in a special edition of European History Quarterly guest edited by Dejan Djokic, vol. 36, no. 3, July 2006, pp. 445-462. What follows is an extract from it.
The widespread portrayal of Milošević as promoter of Great Serb nationalism and instigator of the break-up of Yugoslavia has not gone unchallenged. In Yugoslavia – the state that withered away: The rise, crisis and fall of Kardelj’s Yugoslavia (1974-1990) [Jugoslavija - država koja je odumrla: Uspon, kriza i pad Kardeljeve Jugoslavije (1974-1990)], Dejan Jović attempts perhaps the most ambitious revisionist treatment of Milošević, arguing: “In his first phase, Milošević was probably a Yugoslav nationalist, but he never became a Serb nationalist, as many label him today” (p. 65n, emphasis in original). For Jović, the real villain who destroyed Yugoslavia was Edvard Kardelj (1910-1974), Tito’s right-hand man who successfully pushed for an increasingly decentralised Yugoslav state from the late 1960s on; Jović argues that from1966 and particularly from 1974, Yugoslavia was ‘the fourth (Kardelj’s) Yugoslavia’ (p. 16), which ‘withered away’ as the result of the deliberate intention of its creator, inspired by the socialist principle that the state should do just that. By contrast, Milošević sought to restore Yugoslavia to its former strength and unity, and therefore comes across as an initially relatively benign figure in Jović’s account, only turning to Serb nationalism reluctantly, under the pressure of events outside his control.
Taken simply as a study of the Serbian Communist elite in Titoist Yugoslavia, Jović’s study is illuminating and provides valuable new insights into key events up until 1990. But in attempting to reinterpret the history of the break-up of Yugoslavia, Jović ties himself in knots. By virtually ignoring the Yugoslav republics other than Serbia, except for Slovenia in the 1980s, and by abruptly ending his story in mid-1990 – a full year before the final collapse of Yugoslavia – Jović has adopted too narrow a focus for such an ambitious undertaking. Since, as Jović himself notes (pp. 145-146), Kardelj promoted the withering away of the republican as well as the Federal states, and since it was only the Federal state that eventually disappeared, it is difficult to see how this can be blamed on Kardelj’s constitutional model. Yet elsewhere, Kardelj is portrayed as promoting the statehood of the republics (p. 179), in which case Kardelj’s constitutional model cannot be ascribed to a socialist belief in the ‘withering away’ of the state.
Since Jović describes Kardelj as supporting the Serbian Communist aim of reducing the autonomy of Kosovo and Vojvodina, and Tito as preventing this (pp. 177, 261-262), it is difficult to accept Jović’s claim that the ‘fourth’ Yugoslavia was indeed Kardelj’s and not Tito’s; or that “in destroying the fourth Yugoslavia, Milošević rejected Kardelj but not Tito” (p. 156). Jović appears to want it both ways, arguing that Yugoslavia had ‘withered away’ by 1990, but also that Yugoslavia was destroyed by politicians in the late 1980s. But Milošević could not be guilty of “destroying the fourth Yugoslavia” if it had, according to Jović, already destroyed itself. Nor can Jović fairly accuse Tudjman’s Croatia of “separatism” (p. 63), since he also argues that, by the time Tudjman was elected in the spring of 1990, there was no Yugoslavia left to practise separatism from.
In portraying Serb and other nationalisms as the consequence, not the cause, of Yugoslavia’s break-up (pp. 57-58), Jović gets into further difficulties. For if Milošević was indeed a “Yugoslav nationalist”, and if, as Jović argues, the Yugoslav population was more supportive of the Yugoslav idea than were the Yugoslav elites (p. 42), it is unclear what the impetus was that shifted Milošević toward Serbian nationalism, as Jović describes (pp. 471-473). Jović’s theoretical model appears to be in constant rebellion against his facts: he quotes Borisav Jović’s diary to show that Milošević planned the expulsion of Slovenia and Croatia from Yugoslavia (pp. 482-483), saying that this decision “formally destroyed Yugoslavia” (pp. 482-483), yet subsequently concludes that “[t]he sources which were at the disposal of the author of this book do not give sufficient reason to support the conclusion that the members of the Yugoslav political elite in this period (including, thus, Slobodan Milošević and Milan Kučan), intended to destroy Yugoslavia” (p. 491). He goes on to say that many of these figures were “genuinely surprised by the collapse, and still more by the war that occurred after it” – he does not except Milošević (pp. 491-492).
This comes dangerously close to whitewashing the warmongers. Jović describes the JNA’s intervention in Croatia as motivated by the goal, “perhaps in good faith, of preventing direct ethnic conflict in Croatia” (p. 485), and the war as “the expression of a weak, ineffective state that was not in a condition to restrain the private armies, private revenge, private ‘laws’ and private force” (pp. 492-493). Yet it was not “private armies” but the JNA, under the direct and formal leadership of Milošević’s Serbia (and Montenegro), that destroyed the Croatian city of Vukovar and assaulted Bosnia in 1991-92. Jović’s thesis shows that attempting to shift the blame for the destruction of Yugoslavia away from Milošević and Serb nationalism creates far more theoretical problems than it solves.
Appendix: Key passages from Jovic’s book
Comparing Slobodan Milosevic and Vaclav Havel:
p. 56: ‘The direction of the protests against the regime, for example in Czechoslovakia and in Serbia, was totally different, so Havel and Milošević became antipodes in everything. While one led a liberal-democratic revolution against the state, the other led an anti-bureaucratic revolution against an anti-state ideology and anarchy, for the establishment of a state. ‘
Lamenting the JNA’s inability to halt Croatia’s rearmament:
p. 64: ‘The British reaction to separatism in Northern Ireland is a typical example of a liberal (minimal) state, which did not refrain from introducing a state of war and employing tanks in order to halt a civil war before it had begun. In contrast to this, in the state that was withering away, Socialist Yugoslavia, the Yugoslav People’s Army turned itself into a filmmaker recording the illegal import of weapons at the border (with Hungary) whose duty it was to protect from that sort of illegal activity.’
On Milosevic as a ‘Yugoslav nationalist’:
p. 65n: ‘In his first phase, Milosevic was probably a Yugoslav nationalist, but he never became a Serb nationalist, as many call him today. Never, indeed, did he want to form a Serb national state. His attachment to Yugoslavia, even to the point when Yugoslavia had become just a name and nothing more, was the main reason why he in the end lost popularity and the elections (2000).’
On the Chetniks as a ‘strong-pro-Yugoslav resistance movement’:
p. 141: ‘He who claims that Yugoslavia had to collapse in 1941 because of ethnic tension, should have to explain how it was possible that there arose, immediately following the occupation, two strong pro-Yugoslav resistance movements (Mihailovic’s and Tito’s).’
On Milosevic’s loyalty to Tito’s legacy
p. 156: ‘In destroying the fourth Yugoslavia, Milosevic rejected Kardelj but not Tito.’
On Milosevic’s desire to bring about the ‘unity of Yugoslavia’:
p. 400: ‘His program now [in 1987], for the first time, seemed clear even to those at the lowest level of the social hierarchy, and he carried it out decisively: first the unity of the Serb Party, then unity of Serbia, then of the Yugoslav Party, then of Yugoslavia. That programme had four phases – Milosevic had now accomplished the first; at the third he would be halted, and at the fourth defeated.’
On Milosevic’s desire to restrain Serb nationalism:
p. 471: ‘Treating Milosevic and Kucan with a bit of benevolence, one could say that at least part of their motive could be explained by an attempt to retain power in order to prevent the “real nationalists” (those gathered around the New Review or people such as Vuk Draskovic was at the time) from coming to power in Slovenia and Serbia. As David Owen later said of Milosevic, they had to “ride the tiger of nationalism if they did not want the tiger to swallow them” (1995: 129). They appeared powerful, omnipotent, but in reality they were both afraid that the exit of the League of Communists from the political scene could bring about only worse nationalism. They accepted nationalism in order to prevent it.’
On the JNA’s ‘good intention’ to prevent ethnic conflict in Croatia:
p. 485: ‘When the Croatian government attempted to prevent the [Serb rebel] takeover, the Yugoslav People’s Army imposed itself between it and the Serbs, perhaps with the good intention of preventing direct ethnic conflict in Croatia.’
On Milosevic as ‘genuinely surprised’ by break up of Yugoslavia and war:
pp. 491-492: ‘The sources that were at the disposal of the author of this book do not give sufficient reason to support the conclusion that the members of the Yugoslav political elite in this period (including, thus, Slobodan Milosevic and Milan Kucan as well) intended to destroy Yugoslavia. Many of them, like most Yugoslavs, most analysts at home and abroad and the international political community as a whole, were genuinely surprised by the break-up, and still more by the war that broke out after that.’
On the war in Yugoslavia as the expression of a ‘weak, ineffective state’ and ‘private violence’:
pp. 492-493: ‘‘The violence that, in the ruins of Yugoslavia, in a stateless terrain, erupted in the ‘90s of last century had, indeed, the same cause as the collapse itself: it was the expression of a weak, ineffective state that was not in a position to suppress the private armies, private revenge, private “laws” and private violence. The wars that were waged in those ruins were to a large extent private revenge in which neighbours repaid some imaginary quid pro quo to their neighbours.’
This interview appeared in Bosnian translation in Dnevni Avaz on 12 January 2014.*
How real, if there is any basis for it at all, is the fear that Bosnia and the Bosniaks could be left outside of the EU due to the growing resentment in the EU towards Muslims in general ?
I believe the principal obstacles to Bosnia entering the EU are, firstly, the unresolved constitutional status of the country, its dysfunctional political order and the Sejdic-Finci question, and secondly enlargement fatigue among European policy-makers. Anti-Muslim prejudice may be an aggravating factor, however. EU membership for Bosnia and Serbia might actually accelerate the disintegration of Bosnia, as the West would lose leverage against the leaders of Serbia and the RS.
Bosnia-Hercegovina, in other words, must on no account enter the EU and must employ all means to prevent the entry of Serbia ?
I believe Bosnia’s future lies in the EU, and that the country and its citizens need the opportunities that membership offers. Bosnia has no future outside the EU if Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro are in. But Bosnians need to enter in full awareness of possible consequences. This should serve as an additional motive for preparing a resistance strategy to save the country from partition.
It looks as if the West has, regardless of that, already given up on Bosnia-Hercegovina.
The West gave up on Bosnia during the war of 1992-95, when it effectively engineered the partition of the country, and rescued the RS from defeat and destruction in the autumn of 1995. However, in the late 1990s and first half of the 2000s, there was a partial reversal of policy as the international community, via the OHR, particularly under Paddy Ashdown, took major steps toward the reintegration of the country. Unfortunately, that momentum was lost as Western leaders wrongly believed that the progress achieved could permit them to reduce their presence in, and supervision of the country. Now the EU and US have lost the will to push for the reintegration of Bosnia and are once again appeasing the separatism of the RS leadership.
That means that the fear of the collapse of Bosnia-Hercegovina is justified ? Will the West, nevertheless, react if it comes to that ? Should Bosnia count on such action ?
The experiences of 1992-95 should have taught Bosnians that they can never count on the West. A scenario can be envisaged whereby Bosnia and Serbia eventually join the EU; the RS then declares independence, and its independence is recognised by Serbia, Russia and maybe some other countries. Sanctions would be difficult to enforce against those within the EU. Right-wing Islamophobic opinion across Europe would support the RS. In such circumstances, why should we expect the West to take action, when it has failed to act to reverse the partitions of Cyprus or Georgia ? No: if Bosnians want to save their country, they will have to rely on their own strength.
But are the Bosnian Serbs really intending to declare secession ? That is still a risky move.
I believe the RS leaders will not go for secession in the short term, as the status quo suits them: they enjoy most of the benefits of independence, without having to take the risks involved with formal secession. So long as Bosnia and Serbia remain outside the EU, then the RS and Serbia will always be vulnerable to sanctions and isolation. But in the long run, when the right moment comes, I believe the RS will attempt secession. So Bosnians need to start preparing themselves right now to confront that threat.
You worked for the ICTY. How does that institution now look to you ?
The tribunal’s achievements have been poor overall, but they should not be dismissed completely. The recent convictions of Zdravko Tolimir and the Herceg-Bosna six were significant successes, and the reversal of Radovan Karadzic’s acquittal on one count of genocide was also positive. The acquittals of Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic represented a terrible failure of justice, but it is possible that the appeal against them will be successful. The ICTY’s failure to prosecute or convict the principal military and political officials of the JNA, Serbia and Montenegro for war-crimes in Bosnia remains its biggest disgrace. Nevertheless, the eventual conviction of Karadzic and Mladic will count for something, particularly if they are convicted on one, or ideally two counts of genocide. So there is a lot left to hope for from the ICTY. Anger at the acquittals of Momcilo Perisic, Stanisic and Simatovic has understandably led some Bosnians and friends of Bosnia to dismiss the ICTY’s verdicts as ‘political’, but this is a mistake as it undermines the legitimacy of the tribunal, and of any future convictions.
The UK is preparing to have elections. Could they bring about a change in the foreign policy of that state when it’s a question of Bosnia?
No; I believe that British policy toward Bosnia will remain the same regardless of which party wins the next election. Britain’s role in the Bosnian war is almost universally recognised as a disgrace, so neither Labour nor the Conservatives are likely to want to revert to the anti-Bosnian policy of the 1990s. But this has not stopped the Labour leadership from sabotaging effective British intervention over Syria, similar to the way that the Conservative government in the 1990s obstructed effective international action over Bosnia !
How, in your opinion, are Bosnia-Hercegovina’s neighbours behaving ? What are the real policies of Serbia and Croatia when Bosnia-Hercegovina is in question ?
Serbia’s policy toward Bosnia remains what it has been since the late Milosevic era – with variations in intensity – which is to preserve the country in its dismembered, dysfunctional state, and preserve the RS. However, I am deeply concerned that Croatia, which under Stipe Mesic pursued a positive policy toward Bosnia, is indeed now reverting to Tudjman’s policy of collaboration with Belgrade and the RS on an anti-Bosnian basis. In Croatia, as was the case with other countries in the region such as Hungary and Bulgaria, entry into the EU has removed restraints on bad behaviour, and the Croatian right-wing is on the warpath: as witnessed in the campaign against gay marriage and against the Cyrillic alphabet.
On the other hand, another cause for concern is the role being played by Dejan Jovic, who is Chief Analyst and Special Coordinator at the Office of the President of the Republic of Croatia. Jovic recently wrote a book review in the Croatian journal ‘Politicka Misao’, in which he praised a book by David Gibbs, ‘First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia’, as ‘excellent, original and convincing’. This book is a propaganda tract that denies the genocide in Srebrenica and accuses the Bosniaks of provoking the massacre, and also accuses the Bosnian armed forces and government of having shelled their own civilians in Sarajevo, and of having deliberately increased their suffering during the siege, in order to blame it on the Serbs. Gibbs’s book regurgitates the Serb-nationalist interpretation, whereby Yugoslavia was destroyed, and Serbia victimised, by hostile Western powers. When the Croatian president’s chief analyst and special coordinator praises a book containing such views, Bosnia has to be afraid.
What is it about the anniversary of World War One that so arouses Serb feeling ?
According to the traditional Serbian patriotic interpretation, World War I was for Serbia a heroic national struggle against Austro-Hungarian and German imperialism, and straightforward war for self-defence and for the liberation and unification of the South Slavs. However, the reality is somewhat more complicated. It is true that Serbia by 1914 had experienced decades of bullying by Austria-Hungary, which sought at all times to subordinate it to Habsburg imperial interests. On the other hand, Serbia had its own expansionist goals directed toward Austro-Hungarian territory, particularly toward Bosnia-Hercegovina. The extreme-nationalist, terrorist organisation ‘Unification or Death’ (the ‘Black Hand’) was deeply embedded within the Serbian Army and exercised a great deal of influence over Serbian politics, and it was responsible for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914. Serbia was not to blame for the fact that World War I happened, as it was ultimately caused by the competing imperial interests of the great powers – Britain, France, Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary, all of which were guilty. But an objective analysis of the reasons why the war broke out must necessarily challenge the traditional Serbian patriotic view of the conflict.
* The meaning of certain passages was altered slightly in translation and editing in the version published in Dnevni Avaz. These passages have been highlighted here.
The Daily Mail’s leaking of Mehdi Hasan’s letter to Paul Dacre did not reveal Mehdi’s hypocrisy, merely an uncomfortable truth: these days, if you want to write for any outlet, you will probably have to disregard profound political differences with it while capitalising on the ground you share. That a left-wing journalist like Mehdi should admire some of the Mail’s values while loathing others is almost inevitable. For though the model of a simple binary political division between the Left and the Right may have appeared plausible during the 1980s, today it no longer does, and boundaries are increasingly blurred.
We live in small-minded, mean-spirited times. More than two years into the Syrian civil war, with 100,000 dead and Iran, Russia and Hezbollah openly supporting Assad’s murderous campaign, Britain’s parliament has narrowly voted to reject Cameron’s watered-down parliamentary motion for intervention. This motion would not have authorized military action; merely noted that a ‘strong humanitarian response is required from the international community and that this may, if necessary, require military action that is legal, proportionate and focused on saving lives by preventing and deterring further use of Syria’s chemical weapons.’ Cameron would still have needed a second parliamentary vote before he could have authorised the use of force. Parliament’s rejection of even this feeble step sends a clear message to Assad that he can go on killing without fear of British reaction.
The strength of isolationist, Little Englander feeling in Britain has been demonstrated. Cameron was defeated by the same uncontrollable ‘swivel-eyed loons’ of the Tory backbenches and grassroots who tried to sabotage gay marriage and want to drag Britain out the EU. It was perhaps too much to expect a parliament that is so savagely assaulting the livelihoods of poorer and more vulnerable Britons to care much about foreigners, particularly Muslim foreigners.
My name is Beba Alagich and I live in Sydney, Australia. A few days ago I finished reading your book “The History of Bosnia from the Middle Ages to the Present Day” and I wanted to take the time to thank you for having written this book. It was a book, that was extremely harrowing and truly inspirational reading both at the same time.
Your book had a lot of personal meaning for me as my father and mother were both born (1939 and 1942 respectively) in Bosna in a selo near Velika Kladusa. I first came across your book some 5 years ago when I had borrowed it from my local library. I had only managed to read a small portion of it before I decided I wasn’t quite ready to read it all so I returned it to the library thinking I could borrow it again later. Only a few weeks ago, I saw the exact copy from the library (which had now, been withdrawn) in a Second hand shop in my suburb and I thought it is time now for me to find out about my own Bosnian Cultural background so I purchased the book.
My mother’s memory is deteriorating due to Dementia and my father passed away 4 ½ years ago so finding out about my Bosnian Ancestry in one sense would have been very difficult. I was a year old when my family immigrated to Australia from Austria where they had lived for six years. I grew up very Westernised and disconnected from my Bosnian Ancestry and understanding of it. Bosna was always this alien place to me – somewhere I didn’t relate to at all. My parents never spoke to us about their country of birth in any real depth and I never asked (it wasn’t of much interest to me growing up). I grew up with this real disconnection to my parent’s birthplace and given that, I was 18 years old when I first set foot in that land, that is no surprise I suppose.
Your book has allowed me to draw so much personal understanding about who my parents are, especially in relation to the chapters that discuss the social climate in which my parents were born into. I truly feel it is a miracle that my parents and their families actually survived, even to this day. I can’t explain the depth to which your book has moved me. It was as though something was resonating deeply within my DNA. I cried a lot while reading your book, some reasons were personal and others were just for being human. I have now developed a deep sense of awe and respect about the history of Bosna and some of my own Ancestry there in a broad sense. The richness, tenacity and resilience of the Bosnian people in my view regardless of whether they are Muslim, Croat, Serb or other comes from them being emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually connected to that land called Bosna. This reminds me somewhat of how the Aboriginal people of Australia view their own connection to their country: Australia. In their time of Dreaming, which is where everything was created, Aborigines say that they came from the land (this is meant quite literally out of the land – like the earth gave birth to them so to speak).
My father’s love for Bosna was unwavering. My father loved Bosna right up to the end of his life, it was a place that was deep within his heart – this was something I just didn’t understand. I now understand where that came from, thanks to your book and your work. Your book has also given me a new sense of acceptance and admiration for my Bosnian Ancestry that I would never have had otherwise. I can even see how some of my own personality traits are actually quite Bosnian. I always hated growing up in Australia knowing we had no extended family here, mainly because I never had the opportunity to fully understand where some of the traits that run through my family actually came from. It was only a few years ago that I found out that my mother’s father was a Partisan and he fought as a freedom fighter to liberate his homeland. I didn’t really know what that term Partisan actually meant until I read your book. I know genetically I carry his fighting spirit (I always wondered where I got that from). I have always had a strong sense of when something is socially unjust that it needs to be righted for all to benefit from and it is one reason I think why I trained as a Social Worker; so that I could help people in their time of need.
I was very impressed with your capacity to be truly unbiased and objective with how you wrote this book. You presented the facts and the facts alone and acknowledged when not enough evidence was available to say outright that such and such occurred. It was evident to me that the 10 years you spent doing research for this book you made sure it was thorough. I’ve never had much interest in Modern History; however, I was totally fascinated by it all because of your book. I was also taken back by the sheer complexity and volume of Bosnian history and especially the Politics of this region (I was quite ignorant to it all, to some degree).
Your passion on this topic is obvious. I understand why you passionately defend your work when it is criticised by others (which I noticed while endeavouring to find an email address for you off the internet). You are obviously a person with a very strong sense of integrity about your work.
I have spent some time myself contemplating what it means to be Bosnian since I read your book. There will never be a neat way of defining what that is but there are definitely many layers to it. For me, in a broad way, what it may mean in its purist sense encompasses a people regardless of nationality, ethnicity or religion (that identify with that land) and who possess a deep soulful quality which is reflected in their capacity to have such open hearts, being unconditional, having altruistic natures and a generosity of spirit that embodies a true sense of humanity. Let something like this be the higher truth for what it means to be Bosnian given Bosna and its people have endured so much pain, suffering and tragedy and for so long.
Humans are capable of much greatness and they are capable of real evil as seen in the atrocities that occurred towards the end of last Century within and around Bosna. These are stark examples of the rawness of what it means to live with being human; it can be bloody ugly and insane at times. I am so grateful that my parents through the way we were raised instilled in us by their example that there is good and bad everywhere in people regardless of where they came from originally. What really matters is being able to be tolerant, kind hearted and compassionate to others.
Before I finish I wanted to share with you a personal experience of mine about growing up in Australia which highlights the type of bigotry that has and most probably stills exists within the former Yugoslavia (as the country my parents grew up in). Bigotry is something that people carry with them when they move to other countries; their cultural baggage goes with them, as I’m sure you are aware.
I had an Elderly neighbour who was a Croat from Croatia (to use your phrasing) living near my family. I have known this neighbour since I was 12 years old. My neighbour was widowed in 1972, never remarried and raised 2 sons alone. My neighbour was a very proud person and was born in 1922 (and will be 91 this year). About 9 months ago, my neighbour had ¾’s of their right leg amputated due to complications from being a Diabetic. My neighbour now lives in a Croatian Nursing Home named after Cardinal Stepinac in Western Sydney (now that I know who he is, this name makes sense to me thanks to your book). Up until 5 years ago, my neighbour was living in their own home with their eldest son (until he got married and moved 2 hours away). With my neighbour’s declining health and pretty much next to no help from the 2 sons, my family and I took upon ourselves out of compassion and our deep sense of feeling towards our neighbour (to help and provide daily care – as much as we could). Sometimes this meant attending on a daily basis even twice a day to see if my neighbour needed help/assistance or medical attention. In February 2012, one evening while I was at my neighbour’s home she turned to me totally out of the blue and said that I would have never believed that your family being Muslim would have ever helped me as much as we had. I could see my neighbour was truly grateful, she then looked at me more intently and her eyes welling up with tears and then said to me that it didn’t matter what faith or religion a person had, what mattered the most is what is in their heart. This really surprised me because my neighbour was not one to talk about their feelings in such an open way. My neighbour was a very reserved person. I’m not sure whether their strong Catholicism contributed to that or not.
In those few sentences my neighbour spoke to me, it hit me like a ton of bricks when it dawned on me something that I had wondered about them for 32 years. Whenever I saw my neighbour especially on my way past their house from school, I would always ask if there was anything that I could help her with? Each time my neighbour said no thank you to me. Regardless I asked again and again and again and each time I got exactly the same response. I knew instinctively that there was something more there than just pride, but I couldn’t put my finger on it so to speak. So that night last year in February, I realised my neighbour’s behaviour over all those years was due to their own Religious and Cultural bigotry. I don’t begrudge my neighbour one bit at all; she is a product of her time, generation and upbringing. Having studied Sociology and Anthropology in my second degree I found my neighbour’s behaviour quite fascinating actually. God bless her, if someone of my neighbour’s age is capable of such a profound internal shift in their consciousness than there is real hope for not only Bosna and its people (and the Former Yugoslavia) but for all of humanity. If only people understood that we are all connected, what happens to one, affects us all as a whole. That is why wars are so absurd, (except for those people who profit from war).
Marko I would like you to know that your Historical research is not only important in an Academic sense, it is invaluable to people like myself. I have gained so much personal insight into my Bosnian Ancestry in a broad way that I would not have been able to obtain in such detail from any other source/s, not even from my own relatives. There are 10s of thousands of people that make up part of the Global Bosnian Diaspora; I think your work should be read by everyone with a cultural connection to the former Yugoslavia – just from an educational perspective. I look at the various Ethnic groups from the former Yugoslavia here in Sydney, especially the younger generations who on the most part have never even been to the former Yugoslav Republic and its states. These young people especially with Croatian and Serbian Ancestry (I notice in particular) have a really intense and rigid Nationalistic mind set, which I don’t understand at all. It can get really violent between these 2 groups, especially when they come together and play soccer and their overly zealous fans – it is not about sport in some cases it is about Nationalistic pride. I don’t know what it is like in the UK? However, this makes no sense to me especially when they are like 3rd and 4th or 5th generation Australians – I can only assume that these individuals have been unable to integrate successfully in to the broader Australian culture and hold onto to some fantasy/ ideal that is in some way a distortion of their own parent’s upbringing. I have always regarded myself as an Australian who happens to have Bosnian Ancestry. Australia is the only country I grew up in, I was socialised here and I identify with that more strongly than with being Bosnian per se.
I’ve opened a new chapter in understanding my own family and Bosnian cultural background. Some of my family members are very keen to read your work as well. I look forward to hearing from them about their thoughts and opinions on your book, especially from the next generation.
Thank you again for having written this book, bless you and good luck for what will obviously be your life’s work studying the Balkans in one form or another.
6TH May 2013
(Published with the permission of the author)
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has had a bumpy journey since its foundation in 1993. It has long been condemned by Serb and to a lesser extent Croat nationalists, as well as by left-wing and right-wing hardliners in the West, as a political court set up to serve the interests of the Great Powers. But until recently, it has been supported by liberals in the former Yugoslavia and in the West and beyond, as a positive and necessary exercise in international justice – albeit one that has not produced very satisfactory results. In recent months, however, a realignment has taken place: former supporters of the ICTY have begun to condemn it in the same ‘anti-imperialist’ terms used by the nationalists, and to present its judgements as the work of Great Power intrigue. Their anger has focused above all on the figure of Judge Theodor Meron, President of the ICTY. Meron is a Polish Jew by birth and a Holocaust survivor, who emigrated to Israel, was educated at the University of Jerusalem, and served as legal advisor to the Israeli Foreign Ministry and as Israel’s ambassador to Canada and to the UN, before emigrating to the US. Meron is no Zionist hawk; in 1967, he wrote a memo for Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol advising against the building of settlements in the newly occupied West Bank and Golan Heights. Yet with a sad inevitability, his Jewish and Israeli background have taken on a sinister prominence in the current campaign against him.
Continue reading at Engage – the anti-racist campaign against antisemitism
Abortion is something so horrible it has to be described with euphemisms: ‘a woman’s right to control her own body’; ‘a woman’s right to control her reproductive choices’. But the most common is ‘a woman’s right to choose’. The sentence is left incomplete: it is short for ‘a woman’s right to choose between a pregnancy she fears may destroy her financially or professionally, possibly even physically, and the killing of the baby in her womb.’
In other words, many if not most women who have abortions feel they have no choice. Overworked women with low incomes, unsupportive families, unsympathetic employers, no partners and/or existing children to care for may simply be unable to cope with a baby; nursery care in the UK is prohibitively expensive – on average around £50 per child under two per day in London. Women may find their careers or education derailed by pregnancy. Not to mention the stigma attached to unplanned pregnancy, particularly for teenagers; this may literally be fatal for those whose relatives are of the ‘honour killing’ variety.
Continue reading at Left Foot Forward
“I’d prefer Assad to win.” Not his actual words, but that is the only conclusion to be derived from the suggestion of Boris Johnson, the London mayor, that arming the Syrian opposition would lead to British weapons in the hands of “al-Qaida-affiliated thugs”. With 93,000 of Syria’s citizens dead, a kill rate in the country higher than in post-invasion Iraq, and one of the world’s most murderous and tyrannical regimes poised to win a historic victory thanks to western inaction, Johnson can only fret about hypothetical dangers.
In fact, it is the west’s failure militarily to support the Syrian National Coalition and its principal military counterpart, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), that is strengthening the hand of al-Qaida in Syria.
Continue reading at The Guardian, where this article was published on 18 June.
- Basque Country
- Central Europe
- East Timor
- European Union
- Faroe Islands
- Former Soviet Union
- Former Yugoslavia
- Marko Attila Hoare
- Middle East
- Political correctness
- Red-Brown Alliance
- South Ossetia
- The Left