Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

‘Don’t cry for Sarajevo’ – the story of a Serb nationalist in besieged Sarajevo

Не плачи за Сарајевом by Вишња Крстајић Стојановић

Review of Visnja Krstajic-Stojanovic, Ne placi za Sarajevom (Don’t cry for Sarajevo), 2nd edition, Trebnik, Belgrade, 1997 (fourth edition published in 2014 by Zavod za udžbenike i nastavna sredstva, Istočno Sarajevo)

This is a book review I’ve been meaning to write for over twenty years, ever since I picked up a copy in a Belgrade bookshop. It provides the shocking testimony of a supporter of the Serb-rebel assault on Bosnia-Hercegovina who actually lived in Sarajevo during the siege and was entirely open about her sympathies – shocking because of the extent to which the author identifies with those who were shelling and besieging the city where she lived, rapidly comes to hate both the city and her own neighbours (including non-nationalist Serbs), and actively works to undermine the country’s resistance. It is sobering reading for anyone whose image of multiethnic coexistence in pre-war Sarajevo is too rose-tinted. My copy of the book is from the second, 1997 edition, though its fourth edition was published in 2014, and the book was the start of the author’s apparently successful career as a novelist.

Visnja Krstajic-Stojanovic was a speech therapist who was born in Zabljak in Montenegro, received her university education in Belgrade and Zagreb then settled in Sarajevo, living there for over thirty years. So she was not an indigenous Bosnian Serb, but an ethnic Serb from outside Bosnia who had nevertheless lived in Sarajevo most of her adult life (Serbian Wikipedia gives her date of birth as 19/12/1938). Her story throws light on the ambiguous effects of decades of Communist-led urbanisation on the character of Sarajevo; the city’s population expanded to several times its original size between 1945 and 1992 due largely to internal immigration, but the consciousness of many of the immigrants was neither Bosnian nor civic. Rather than rapid urbanisation straightforwardly increasing the size of the urban multiethnic constituency that had historically identified with the country of Bosnia-Hercegovina as a multiethnic whole, it also meant the colonisation of the cities and towns by people who did not. Visnja (she will be referred to here by her first name, because this is very much about the intimate feelings of a private individual) claims she identified as a ‘Yugoslav’, yet she is clear that from the start she considered Sarajevo to be a Serb city, her own neighbourhood of Hrasno and Pero Kosoric Square (today Trg Heroja) to be Serb land, and that ‘Bosnia-Hercegovina is, principally, a Serb land’.

Visnja is an educated professional, but not an intellectual nor member of any political organisation, and her reaction to the build-up to the war and its outbreak is entirely instinctive; she does not engage in any protracted analysis or soul-searching to decide about the conflict’s rights or wrongs, or whose side she would be on. The book opens with her watching on TV, along with her husband, brother and sister-in-law, a discussion between Radovan Karadzic, Alija Izetbegovic, Adil Zulfikarpasic and Muhamed Filipovic about a possible Serb-Muslim agreement to keep Bosnia in a rump Yugoslavia along with Serbia and Montenegro, as an alternative to independence. When Izetbegovic does not in the end sign this agreement, Visnja recalls ‘I no longer see Alija as president. I see a monster’. She repeatedly stresses that this incident alone determined her loyalties throughout the months and years that follow; there are virtually no references in the book to any other political events. She opts to remain in Sarajevo after the war began, while many other Serbs were leaving, because of her belief that ‘Sarajevo is ours – Serb. That is why we are staying’.

Visnja is from the start entirely frank with everyone around her about her sympathies. She has absolutely no empathy for her neighbours and colleagues who feel differently about the rights and wrongs of the war, and apart from recording her experiences, the book is above all an account of her constantly increasing sense of betrayal and disillusionment over the fact that her fellow Sarajevans did not share her sympathies. A plane breaks the sound barrier, causing her apartment building to shake and glass to break, and neighbours think they have been shelled; they gather in the corridor and Visnja’s Muslim next-door-neighbour says ‘I fuck their Chetnik mothers… they should all be killed’, which Visnja takes as a personal betrayal. A joyful Croat colleague comes into her office to use her telephone to share the news of Croatian independence, and Visnja furiously tells her to get out, leading to an angry exchange in which the colleague calls Visnja a Chetnik and Visnja subsequently describes her as an Ustasha. Following the ‘bread-queue massacre’ of civilians in Sarajevo by a Serb-rebel (VRS – Army of Republika Srpska) shell on 27 May 1992, Visnja tells her assembled colleagues that ‘That massacre was staged. Alija killed his own people to spread the lie to the world, that the Serbs had done it.’ Visnja’s own Serb director was shocked by this outburst. She meets a stranger in the street who turns out to come from Montenegro like her, and tells him she is proud that a mutual acquaintance is fighting on the Serb-rebel side, and that Bosnia-Hercegovina is a ‘Serb land’, shocking the man. So it continues throughout the book; even after months of war, Visnja further alienates her neighbours when she tells them she does not think it matters if Bosnia is broken up.

Visnja not only expresses her views frankly, but actively agitates for her cause. On two occasions, she turns her television or radio on to the Serb-rebel media channel SRNA and invites her Muslim neighbours for coffee, so that they will see or hear the programmes; she records with satisfaction how one of these neighbours listened to an alleged account on SRNA radio of a Serb being tortured, how with Visnja’s encouragement she assumed the perpetrators were Serb, and how discomfited she was when Visnja revealed that it was a Serb being tortured by ‘Muslims’. Visnja visits VRS-held Grbavica to buy food, and tells Serb soldiers in which buildings Bosnian army staffs are located, and the positions of Bosnian army night patrols, and tells one Serb soldier that ‘We are waiting there for you, the Serb army, to liberate [our] square. To liberate the Serb land’. Visnja’s activism is entirely spontaneous, arising from her convictions, not from membership of any organisation. She describes the evolution of her identity: ‘I was a Yugoslav. Always. Not as a pose but from my heart. My Serbdom within me was not awakened by Radovan Karadzic nor Ratko Mladic. But by Alija Izetbegovic. By various Ganices and Silajdzices. By my Muslim neighbours. And my remaining in Sarajevo when the war began.’

Visnja is frequently disillusioned by her Serb acquaintances. When a group of her Serb neighbours congratulate her for telling a Muslim neighbour that ‘the Serbs are not aggressors’ and ‘are not guilty of anything’, she angrily asks why they did not speak out themselves. An elderly Serb neighbour pays her a visit, bringing the customary packet of coffee as a gift, and tells her his son has joined the Bosnian Territorial Defence; she throws him out of her flat, telling him ‘I no longer ever want to see you again’, and to take his coffee with him. Her Serb director lets her stay at her place, after she is arrested by the police and made to walk back alone at night, but she bitterly recalls that her director later gave radio broadcasts in support of the Bosnian side. She sits with her Serb friend Mirjana in her flat, drinking coffee, when the neighbourhood is shelled by the VRS. Mirjana cheers the shelling, ’Strike, friends, smash, break everything, show them !’, even though she is herself married to a Muslim. Yet when Mirjana unexpectedly becomes pregnant for the first time, Visnja is disappointed that her Serb-nationalist rage steadily cools as she accustoms herself, with increasing happiness, to her role as mother to a Muslim man’s child. Visnja comments sadly that Mirjana ‘defeated the Serb in herself’. On the other hand, when Visnja’s Serb neighbour is decapitated by a VRS shell, she expresses horror, but no anger at the VRS. Indeed, she rationalises the killing of Serb civilians by VRS shelling or snipers by assuming they were actually murdered surreptitiously by the Bosnian forces.


Given Visnja’s behaviour, it is surprising just how long she is tolerated by her neighbours and able to remain in her neighbourhood (although the absence of any dates in the text makes it impossible to determine just how long this was). A Muslim neighbour eventually challenges her to agree that the Serb-rebel forces shelling them are ‘aggressors’ and ‘trash’, and she replies that ‘those up on the hill are not Serb aggressors, nor Serb trash. Up on the hills is the Serb army’. He then slaps her and reports her to the police, who interrogate her again but take no action against her, and no other neighbour assaults her at any time. Only later, when she attempts to contact UNPROFOR surreptitiously to arrange the evacuation of her Serb neighbours, do the police arrest her and her Serb co-conspirators and, according to her disturbing account, severely beat them up, after which she realises she cannot safely remain in the city, and she manages to escape to VRS-held Ilidza, where her husband, who escaped earlier, is waiting for her.

Nevertheless, Visnja’s disillusionment extends also to the Republika Srpska soldiers and authorities; she recalls the VRS soldiers having fun by firing their guns to make her and Mirjana run when they crossed the frontlines to shop in Grbavica, and her own entitled sense of betrayal and contempt when an expected VRS ‘liberation’ of Hrasno did not happen. When she reaches Ilidza, she and her husband are unable to remain there, because when they are assigned a flat by the council, they find it is inhabited by a squatter from the VRS who threatens to kill her husband if he has him evicted, prompting her husband, who is a journalist, to publish a ‘humorous’ article about how real or fake soldiers should break into and appropriate abandoned local homes.

So they move to Belgrade, where Visnja again complains of her treatment: ‘Those in Bosnia have left us without possessions, and the Belgrade bosses leave us without a single dinar to earn’. She also complains about having to live again alongside Croats and Muslims: ‘We in Bosnia had our Muslims and our Croats, and they told us: flee from them, and now they are forcing us to live with their, Serbian and Montenegrin, Muslims and Croats.’ At the end, her feeling is not that she has betrayed Sarajevo, but that it has betrayed her and the Serbs generally: ‘Serb Sarajevo is no more… A traitor-city. Sarajevo has betrayed all of us who loved it and belonged to it. Particularly us Serbs, for we were completely careless specifically because of the love that we felt for our city.’ She concludes with the title of her book, ‘Don’t cry for Sarajevo’ because, in her words, ‘Sarajevo has sold itself like a prostitute. And it has not given just its body – which is still worse and more terrible – it has sold its soul to the devil. Well, let the devil take it for all time.’

Visnja is not a sympathetic narrator. Her identification with the ones who were shelling and besieging the city where she had lived for over thirty years and which she claimed to love, and her absence of empathy or understanding for her neighbours, colleagues and other acquaintances who identified with their own Bosnian side in the war – rather than with those who were besieging and shelling them – are visceral, unquestioning and absolute. Her account is, however, extremely valuable as testimony of the attitude and feelings of Serbs in Bosnia who supported the nationalist side. Although she is not a native-born Bosnian Serb, she recalls also other local Serbs who apparently shared her views. Her testimony is particularly valuable, since it was written for a Serbian rather than a foreign audience, and was not calculated to appeal to Western liberal sensibilities. This is a story of a failure of integration; a valuable historical source for anyone trying to understand the destruction of Bosnia-Hercegovina and the extreme violence of the assault on Sarajevo. If Visnja’s account is anything to go by, Serbs did love Sarajevo, but for some of them, the line between love and hate was a thin one.

Monday, 12 April 2021 Posted by | Balkans, Bosnia, Former Yugoslavia, Genocide | , , , | Leave a comment