Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

The Sarajevo protests: An eyewitness account

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Wednesday, 12 February 2014 Posted by | Balkans, Bosnia, Former Yugoslavia, Marko Attila Hoare | , , , | 7 Comments

Edina Becirevic and Marko Attila Hoare on the Bosnian Muslims in the Second World War

LaunchSpeeches

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.


Edina Becirevic

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

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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.

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Further on the launch by my friends Amila Jasarevic of Amila Bosnae and Jonathan Norton, via Facebook

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Photos by Sarah Correia, Anna von Buchenroder and Jonathan Norton

Tuesday, 28 January 2014 Posted by | Balkans, Bosnia, Former Yugoslavia, Genocide, Islam, Marko Attila Hoare | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Europe’s most wanted arrested

This is a guest post by Amila Jasarevic of Amila Bosnae

On the morning of 26 May 2011, the Serbian Security Intelligence Agency arrested General Ratko Mladić. When the news first broke, it said that a man believed to be Mladić had been arrested, and that the authorities were verifying his identity. Nobody really believed it, until the President of Serbia, Boris Tadić, confirmed in a press conference that the arrested man was indeed Mladić.

My news feed on Facebook literally exploded with the news. Articles from the world press were being passed around, the news spreading like a multilingual wildfire. Europe’s Most Wanted criminal finally arrested, after 16 years on the run.

But how much “on the run” was he, really? And why on that day ? What is so different today from the previous sixteen years?

Ratko Mladić was the Chief of Staff in the army of the self-proclaimed Republika Srpska on the territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina. He was first indicted with war crimes on 24 July 1995, roughly ten days after occupying the east Bosnian town of Srebrenica and giving orders for the worst massacre in Europe since the Second World War. More than 8,000 civilians, mostly men and boys, were executed under his orders. Before that, he had been in charge of the siege of Sarajevo, the longest siege in recorded history. The siege was merciless and inhumane, and more than 10,000 Sarajevans lost their lives.

Yet, up until 2001, Mladić was living and moving freely in Serbia. He was seen at football matches and dining in fashionable restaurants. He was even drawing an army pension from Belgrade until the end of 2005. More than once the media reported how “special forces” were on his track, but nothing ever happened. That’s why it was so hard to believe the news when it happened.

Shortly after the news of Mladić’s arrest went viral, I saw a status update on Facebook saying that just like Croatia paid for its EU candidature with Gotovina (which also happens to mean “cash”), Serbia is paying with Mladić. Ante Gotovina was a Lieutenant General in the Croatian army, who was extradited to the Hague in 2005. Last month he was sentenced by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia to 24 years in prison for war crimes.

The witty status update is not to be dismissed as merely a conspiracy theory. The notion that the move is motivated by political interests isn’t that far-fetched. Because what is exactly different now than in the previous sixteen years? Has the EU put a stop to any more concessions to Serbia? Is it a coincidence that the arrest came as EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton was in Belgrade to confer with top Serbian officials on their country’s road to the EU? Is it a coincidence it came just a couple of weeks before Chief Hague Prosecutor Serge Brammertz is to address the UN Security Council on Serbia’s cooperation with the court?

Member of the Bosnian collective Presidency, Željko Komšić, said to the news portal Sarajevo-X.com that today’s arrest is proof that the Serbian authorities have always known Mladić’s whereabouts, and that he is simply being traded in for a closer relationship with the EU.

I spoke with Hazim Rizvanović, 41, a survivor of Mladić’s attack on Srebrenica. At the time he was active in the defence of the city. He told me how Colonel Karremans, head of the UN force that was supposed to protect Srebrenica, on 10 July 1995 – the eve of the massacre – told the Bosnian defence not to advance on Mladić’s troops, because international forces were going to air bomb their tanks. The next day, he says, a few bombs were dropped on a little brook well off from any tanks, and Mladić simply marched into town.

When he heard about the arrest, Rizvanović didn’t know whether to believe the report or not, as there have been so many political games involving Mladić and his arrest. “My opinion as an ordinary man is that they’ve always known where he was, all the intelligence agencies. This was just a matter of waiting it out to exchange him for the best possible deal with the EU. Time will tell what they ended up getting for him,” he told me over the phone from Denmark, where he has been residing since 2000. “I don’t expect anything from the court in the Hague, certainly not any new details on who else had their hands in the genocide in Srebrenica or who stopped the defence of the enclave. I haven’t had any expectations since the courts kept records away from the public in the case Bosnia-Herzegovina vs. Serbia, resulting in Bosnia losing the case.”

Marko Attila Hoare, 38, author of three books about Bosnia and long-time observer and commentator on the situation in the Balkans, points out that we don’t know when the planing of today’s operation began and how long the Serbian authorities have known where Mladić was hiding. However, he too wonders why the arrest came when it did. “As I see it”, he wrote to me, “the Serbian establishment has long been divided between those who wanted to see him (Mladić) arrested – particularly among liberal politicians and intellectuals – because they want Serbia to join the EU, and those elements in the army and security services who have protected him, supported by the nationalists. So, the arrest suggests to me that there has been a subtle shift in the balance of forces, in favour of the liberal elements.”

When I asked him what he expected would happen in Serbia and Bosnia in the days that followed, he said “Nothing much… Most ordinary citizens don’t care about Mladić, and aren’t going to protest… There may be the usual protests by the minority of hard-liners, led by the Radicals and other such far-right elements, but this will have no effect on politics. As for Bosnia, nothing will change either; Dodik [President of Republika Srpska] will continue his long-term secessionist drive.”

It is a sad outlook that nothing will change, but probably a realistic one. Many years have passed since Mladić ordered massacres wherever he went, and those years have left a trail of disillusionment.

Sarah Correia, 36, a researcher in Political Science, is currently studying the memory of war in Bosnia and what it tells about the political situation in the country. On the morning of Mladić’s arrest, she went to a commemoration at the concentration camp Trnopolje in the north-west of Bosnia, set up for the non-Serb population. The region has been all but completely ethnically cleansed of non-Serbs. “There I could see in people’s faces the pain,” Correia writes. After returning to the near-by town of Kozarac, she heard the news. “Tears in everyone’s eyes, not so much of joy, but of surprise… a feeling of disbelief, that a moment in which nobody believed had come at last,” she says about that moment. But after the initial disbelief and joy, people just went back to going about their business, like nothing had happened. What could they expect? The very camp they visited this morning is now a school, just like it was before it was used to imprison and murder civilians. There is a monument in front of it, Sarah told me, but it’s not to the victims – it’s for some Serb soldiers who had fallen somewhere else. Memory of war is not just personal, it is a commodity fought over, manipulated and used on the political scene.

Not unlike war criminals, probably.

Sunday, 19 June 2011 Posted by | Balkans, Bosnia, Former Yugoslavia, Genocide | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments