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Bosnia's war of memory

About the author
For two years, Alix Kroeger was the BBC’s correspondent in Sarajevo. She has also reported for the BBC from Serbia and Croatia. Before that, she was at BBC World television. She is now based in London.

The men are returning refugees, Bosniaks (the secular name for Bosnian Muslims), some of the survivors of the massacre of July 1995. More than 7,000 like them were killed in the days after Srebrenica fell to the besieging Bosnian Serb army on 11 July 1995. They’re living in one room of a partially rebuilt house while they work on the mosque; only when that is done will they turn their attention to rebuilding their own homes.

Below the mosque, another two men are working, clearing rubble from a house damaged in the siege of Srebrenica, which endured from 1993 until July 1995. They are Serbs: one is himself a refugee from central Bosnia, the other was born in Srebrenica. The latter knows the Bosniak woman who owns, and was expelled from, the house. She now wants to return. The men are being paid a pittance, 10 marks ($4.50) a day, but it’s better than nothing, which is what most people have.

Rock chinks against rock, as shovelfuls of rubble are piled up. Dusan Stojanovic, the one born in Srebrenica, tells a story of a friend of his, a Serb who regularly has coffee with his old neighbour, a Bosniak who has now returned. During the war, the Serb was on the mountain, part of the besieging army; the Bosniak was in the town below, as the artillery shells rained in.

Reshaping a shattered past

What did you do during the war? No need to ask – they know, but for now they’re content to co-exist; in this shattered backwater, what they have in common outweighs their divisions. If there were another war, it’s unlikely they’d hesitate before taking up arms to settle old scores. History, too, is a weapon; that’s why the mosque was dynamited to its foundations, and that’s why it’s among the first sites the returnees seek to rebuild.

Two competing versions of history are at stake in this area: one which says the Bosniaks, inhabitants of eastern Bosnia for generations, were the victims of genocide; the other which says a massacre never took place and, anyway, there were never that many Bosniaks here to begin with.

In Sarajevo, a new set of postcards has begun to appear at the newsagents’ kiosks – black and white photos, snapshots of a city in war. The caption: Sarajevo 1992–2002. The National Library, a burned out shell. Children playing in the Miljacka River, with the outline of a ruined bridge behind – life during wartime. Ten years on, the city asks itself, what was it all for, what does it mean, all this suffering, all this loss?

The anniversary itself was muted. No wonder – there is still too much to mourn, and too little to celebrate in the war’s aftermath. For most, the date simply marks ten years since the devastating realisation that their country was at war. Then, it was something they thought would never happen to them. True, the storm clouds had been visible for months, but weather patterns can change and sometimes storms move off. Not this time, in 1992. Instead, a hurricane of violence shook Sarajevo to its roots.

The war lasted three and a half long years. The seven years since it came to an end is not such a long time in which to heal the wounds of Europe’s bloodiest conflict since the Second World War. Many of the graveyards still have wooden markers, all it was possible to put up at the time, when funerals were routinely targeted by snipers, and no one had the money for elaborately engraved stones. Now, the wooden markers are gradually being replaced by stone: white columns for the Muslim graves, grey or black marble for the Croats and Serbs (the latter distinguished from each other by the use of Latin or Cyrillic script).

Divided in death as in life – and increasingly, in memory. After all, the war in Bosnia was, among other things, itself a struggle for the ownership of memory. That’s why the Bosnian Serb Army, in August 1992, shelled Sarajevo’s National Library, a beautiful building which synthesised Bosnia’s past, Ottoman and Habsburg. The National Library contained millions of books, papers and irreplaceable historical records. Almost all of them went up in flames. Witnesses said that fire was one of the brightest they’d ever seen – this from people who grew to be connoisseurs of fires.

What that library contained was what Bosnian Serb nationalists sought to destroy – the historical evidence of Bosnia’s Muslim heritage and its past as part of the Ottoman Empire. Those records would have refuted the nationalists who said that Islam was a latecomer to the Balkans, grafted on by a foreign occupying force, that Bosnia’s Muslims were all either Turks, Islamic fundamentalists from the Middle East, or renegade Serbs who had traduced their own Orthodox religion. Take your pick from the lexicon of lies.

Just behind the National Library lies the old bazaar district, Bascarsija. One entire street rings with the sound of metalworkers’ hammers – ting ting ting! – pounding out the coffee sets, the water jugs (ibriks) and copper plates sold here. Two sets of prices, of course, one for foreigners, one for Bosnians. Some of the shops sell what look like umbrella holders, knee-high cylinders in a dirty-yellow metal, usually with an engraving on the side showing the Sarajevo skyline. These are the casings of some of the hundreds of thousands of shells, which rained down on the city for nearly four years. The Bosniak bazaar merchants are having the last laugh, making a profit out of the instruments that once tortured them. Vengeance and thrift, rolled into one. Oh, and if an umbrella holder’s too big, you can also buy biros made out of bullets – just 5 marks (2.5 euros or £1.65).

The carpets, coffee sets and red Turkish-style fezzes are popular with the international community, especially the Stabilisation Force (SFOR) soldiers. On Sundays they mill around Bascarsija in groups, flag-patches on their sleeves distinguishing the different nationalities: the Americans, confident and laden with cameras; the French, striding purposefully in groups down the cobbled streets; and the Italians, who win, hands down, the prize for the silliest hats, khaki felt with a feather sticking jauntily out.

There are even Albanians and Slovenians in SFOR, Albania competing with Bosnia for the title of basket case of the Balkans, while Slovenia soars ever further away from its former fellow-Yugoslav republics. Both are members of NATO’s Partnership for Peace – a distinction that is likely to elude Bosnia for some time to come, until its three armies can merge into one. Talk of the latter sets nationalist alarm bells ringing, so it is usually toned down to a requirement for a unified command and control structure, with a ministry of defence under civilian control. Either way, the nationalities of Bosnia – Croat as well as Serb and Bosniak – are very far from their own partnership for peace.

Remembering or creating a past?

In Sarajevo, I lived next to a Muslim war cemetery. I used to see relatives bringing flowers for their dead, talking to them occasionally, even embracing the headstones. Once I saw a woman with a bucket of soapy water and a cloth, meticulously removing the grime that rain and pollution had left on white stone. Sometimes a passer-by, walking down the hill from the old Austrian fortress (still an army lookout), would stop by the roadside and pray, hands out-turned in the Muslim fashion. But only for a minute or two, before continuing into town, to go to the bakery or catch the bus to work. In the Bosnian capital, death is a constant companion.

Back in Srebrenica, one of the biggest war cemeteries still lies empty. When the bodies are eventually buried here (identified and retrieved from the morgue at Tuzla, where they’ve been lying in row upon serried row of bags), it will make it more difficult for Bosnian Serb nationalists to deny that a massacre ever took place. For the moment, though, the site remains a disused maize field. There is only one marker – a vast cube of white stone, standing under an oak tree. The inscription reads simply, Srebrenica, 11 July 1995. A local police officer, almost always a Serb, is assigned to guard it. Miraculously, in more than a year since the stone was unveiled, it has remained unvandalised.

A couple of houses stand at the back, gaunt brick shells, fully functional and inhabited by displaced Serbs. Inside, the walls are bare concrete; foam stuffing spills out of a dilapidated sofa. Pictures of teen idols from a glossy magazine are the only decoration. The houses have a commanding view of the epicentre of events at Srebrenica, the former UN compound from where more than 7,000 men were led away to their deaths.

The people living here keep their views to themselves when the international media call, asking to use their rooms as makeshift editing suites on the anniversary. It’s an arrangement that suits both sides: the journalists have somewhere to work; the family earn probably around three months’ wages for a day of disruption. Srebrenica is desperately poor, and many of the Serbs living there now are displaced persons themselves; after all that’s happened to them, they’re not inclined to be fussy about the source of some extra cash.

Until three years ago, it was too dangerous for the survivors of Srebrenica to return for the anniversary to mourn their dead. Now, the date has become a fixture in the political calendar. The international community is there; so, too, are the leading Bosniak politicians. Not all of them are above using the sufferings of the families to make political capital, drawing attention away from their own failings and pinning blame for them instead on nationalist Serbs.

This is one of the complications of Bosnia, as of historical accounting itself: the victims, too, can use memory as a weapon. In Sarajevo, the reconstruction of existing mosques is part of the effort to rebuild what the war destroyed. But what about the new mosques springing up in the suburbs? In particular, the Saudi-backed mosque on the edge of Dobrinja, where the clerics preach the fierce fundamentalism of Wahhabi Islam. And even in the old town, Muslim activists hand out copies of a rabble-rousing magazine, anti-Semitic, anti-American, anti-Serb. Before the war, there was little if any appetite for this kind of radicalism.

The ties that break, and bind

The definitive history of the Bosnian war has yet to be written. Perhaps it never will be. The nature of the conflict, and the indeterminate way in which it ended, make it difficult to agree on even the most basic facts. When, for example, did the war start? For most Serbs, and some Croats as well, it started on 1 March 1992, when a guest at a Serb wedding was shot and killed by Bosniak gangsters. That was when the first barricades went up, although they came down a few days later. For Bosniaks, and for people of all ethnicities living in Sarajevo, the war began on 6 April 1992, when Serb nationalist snipers opened fired on an anti-war demonstration in the centre of the capital. By that time, the ethnic cleansing had already begun in the north-east of the country; the paramilitary leader Arkan (Zeljko Raznatovic) and his Tigers had already expelled most of the Muslim population from Bijeljina, and would move on shortly to other areas.

The language used about the war is different, too. Bosnian Serbs say there was wrong on all sides – which there was, although not to the same degree. Bosniaks talk about the Serb/Yugoslav ‘aggression’, casting themselves as the innocent victims. But if the Bosniaks dwell on their own victimisation, many, if not most, Serbs are in denial about the role of their own side. They support the ends of the war – the creation of an ethnically-pure Serb mini-state – but avert their eyes from the means of achieving it.

Hence the denials that any massacre took place at Srebrenica. When Serb nationalist extremists disrupted the ceremony to lay the foundation stone for a new mosque in Banja Luka, in May 2001, injuring dozens of Muslim returnees and holding an international delegation hostage for several hours, one Serb politician said the Muslims had thrown stones at themselves, and the violence was their fault. I was there, and it wasn’t. (All sixteen mosques in Banja Luka, including the famous Ferhadija mosque built in 1583, were systematically destroyed in 1993 by Serb nationalists.)

This can be regarded as anti-Serb only on the dubious assumption that to be pro-Serb is to believe that the Serb nation can only flourish at the expense of Bosniaks, Croats and others. It is certainly anti-nationalist; two years in the former Yugoslavia have left me with a deep-rooted loathing of any kind of nationalism, however apparently benign.

Before the war, the Bosniaks were the least nationalistic of the three major communities, and the most likely to endorse a ‘civic’ identity, based on citizenship and affiliation to a state rather than an ethnic group. There is, of course, a dual agenda here, since the Bosniaks, as the most numerous group in the country, are bound to dominate any assembly or grouping based on majority voting alone. Perhaps it is impossible for anyone from outside the region to understand the ties of blood.

Or perhaps not. Pessimists often point to Ivo Andric’s novel, The Bridge over the Drina, which describes the ethnic rivalries simmering in the town of Visegrad down the centuries. But there is another way of looking at it. Yes, those rivalries existed, spilling over not infrequently into hatred – though never without cause, as those who washed their hands of the Bosnian war in the early 1990s would have it, as though ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’ were an immutable force of nature, immune to human agency. Yet the fact is those communities did co-exist for all those centuries. If the mutual hatred had really been so implacable, surely they would have wiped each other out, or displaced each other, long ago?

It is true that now the map really has been redrawn. Despite the progress in refugee returns, today there are only a handful of Bosniaks in Visegrad, as in Srebrenica. But if the present is being allowed to rewrite the past, it is timely to recall that even in Bosnia it was not uniformly bloody. Going back imaginatively beyond the war is, perhaps paradoxically, to find one source of hope that its horrors will never be repeated.


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