Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Letter from a Bosnian reader in Australia


To Marko,

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 Only a few weeks ago, I saw the exact copy from the library (which had now, been withdrawn) in a Second hand shop in my suburb and I thought it is time now for me to find out about my own Bosnian Cultural background so I purchased the book.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.

Sincerely yours,

Beba Alagich

6TH May 2013

(Published with the permission of the author)


Tuesday, 30 July 2013 Posted by | Australia, Bosnia, Former Yugoslavia, Marko Attila Hoare | , , | Leave a comment

John Pilger and the Tasmanian Genocide

On Tuesday, the door of my institution, Kingston University, was darkened by John Pilger, a virulent denier of the crimes of Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbian regime against the Kosovo Albanians, who had been invited to speak. Pilger is someone who claims that no mass graves of Albanian victims of Milosevic’s regime have ever been found; he puts the term ‘mass graves’ in quote marks when referring to Kosovo. He even cites Milosevic supporter Neil Clark in support of his position. Pilger’s claim that no mass graves have ever been found in Kosovo is, of course, false. Untrue. In conflict with the factsContradicted by the evidence. A lie refuted by Amnesty International, among others.

I challenged Pilger on his denial, in front of the audience of academics, students and others that he was addressing. I told him that I taught a course on the history and politics of mass murder here at Kingston University; that I had been studying the former Yugoslavia for many years; and that those, such as himself, who denied that Serb forces had been guilty of mass murder and genocide had been proven wrong. So as not to appear rude and lower the tone of the discussion, I did not accuse him of anything worse than having been wrong.

Rather than attempt to defend his record, Pilger tried to play the numbers game with me (people like Pilger are under the impression that if the total number of victims in a campaign of mass murder turns out to be lower than some of the earlier estimates, it vindicates the deniers and the apologists). He asked me what I thought the death-toll in the Kosovo conflict was. I replied that it was about ten thousand (1). He then countered that no, the number of bodies found, including both civilians and combatants and members of all ethnic groups was ‘only’ four thousand, according to members of forensic teams working in Kosovo. This, it should be pointed out, is something of an upward revision for Pilger, who as recently as a year and a half ago was claiming that the total death-toll in Kosovo was ‘only’ 2,788, and that therefore the justification for the NATO operation against Serbia was an ‘invention’.

I reminded Pilger that the Milosevic regime had systematically concealed and destroyed the bodies of its Kosovo Albanian victims; that more mass graves were being discovered as time went by; and that the body count was therefore likely to rise. He did not appear to have a counter-argument; his only response was to tell me ‘you clearly have an agenda’ and ‘you shouldn’t be teaching here’. Which, given that I was teaching at the invitation of, and in conjunction with, senior members of the same faculty and university as those who had invited him to speak, was something of an insult to his hosts. He then tried to shift the discussion away from the topic of the body-count (that he had himself introduced) and to claim that ‘the NATO war was to destroy the state called Yugoslavia’. I told him that was ‘nonsense’, and he decided that this was the time to move on to the next question. After the meeting and in the following days, several Kingston students and staff members approached me to tell me how shocked they had been at his reaction to my question and his inability to address it.

Unknown to either myself or Pilger, a forensic expert who had worked on-site in Kosovo examining the bodies was also present in the audience. After the meeting, she approached him, told him who she was, challenged his version of events and asked him to tell her who the alleged forensic experts he had cited were, because they were probably people she knew personally. Pilger’s response was ‘I have to go now’. Although when I passed him in the entrance to the auditorium, he was talking to someone else and did not appear in any great hurry to leave.

As I noted above, deniers such as Pilger are under the impression that if they can ‘win’ the numbers game – if the death-toll in Kosovo turns out ‘only’ to have been four thousand rather than ten thousand, for example – then they believe it will prove their case that genocide did not occur, the assumption presumably being that four thousand deaths are ‘too small’ to count as genocide.

Pilger is an Australian, and it is interesting to note what the implications of his line of reasoning are for our understanding of one of the most prominent cases of total genocide in human history: the genocide of the native Tasmanians in his homeland, Australia. The native population of Tasmania was perhaps 5,000 at the start of the nineteenth century, possibly fewer (2). This population was totally eradicated over the course of several decades, largely through diseases and the destruction of its society by the European settlers, with a smaller number directly murdered and only some mixed-race individuals surviving.

If one were to accept Pilger’s figures of 4,000 dead in the Kosovo conflict, this puts Milosevic’s killing of Kosovo Albanians on a scale very similar to that of the British and Australian destruction of the native Tasmanians, with a roughly equivalent death-toll, though accomplished in a matter of months rather than decades (NB the attempt by Pilger and others to claim that some of the Albanian dead in Kosovo were ‘combatants’ and therefore not proper victims of genocide could equally be made in relation to some of the native Tasmanians killed by the British and Australians, though it is questionable how much meaning the civilian/combatant distinction has in cases of genocide – one need only think of the Jewish fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, for example – or indeed what ‘combat’ really means when groups with vastly superior technology, fire-power and resources, such as the Serb forces in Kosovo or the British and Australians in Tasmania, wage campaigns of destruction against civilian populations defended by poorly armed guerrillas). And, of course, Milosevic’s campaign of mass murder in Kosovo, unlike the British-Australian destruction of the native Tasmanians, was halted by outside intervention and was therefore unable to fulfil the intentions of its perpetrators.

Australian deniers of the Tasmanian Genocide use many of the same techniques that Pilger does in relation to Kosovo, above all attempting to revise downward the death-toll of massacres, or to claim that they were ‘fabricated’ altogether. Pilger’s position on Kosovo mirrors and reinforces that of the deniers of the Tasmanian Genocide.

In reality, genocide is not a matter of numbers.

For more on Pilger’s denial, see Martin Shaw.

1) a scientific study by Paul B. Spiegel and Peter Salama of the Centre for Disease Control, ‘War and mortality in Kosovo, 1998-99’, published in the Lancet on 14 July 2000, estimated 18,800 total deaths in Kosovo in this period, of which 12,000 from war-related trauma; a second scientific study by a team of experts led by Patrick Ball, dated 2 January 2002 and submitted by the prosecutor to the trial chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal of the former Yugoslavia on 15 February 2002 estimates that 10,356 Kosovo Albanians were killed. See also here.

2) Mark Levene in ‘The rise of the West and the coming of genocide’ (I.B. Taurus, 2005, p. 38), gives a figure of 3-4,000 for the population of native Tasmanians at the time of the arrival of the first British settlers, based on Lyndall Ryan’s work, ‘The aboriginal Tasmanians’ (Allen and Unwin, 2nd ed., 1996, p. 14)

Friday, 14 December 2007 Posted by | Australia, Balkans, Former Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Serbia, The Left | , , | 1 Comment