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Bosnian voice, Yugoslavian memory

The sense of justice and consistency of principle of the Bosnian activist Mladen Grahovac should be a reference-point for those attempting to repair a fragmented country, says Peter Lippman.

Most of the news coming from Bosnia-Herzegovina in the last decade has been dark and foreboding, full of tales of corruption and nationalist manipulation on all sides. However, those who are familiar with Bosnia know that the country is also the home of many good people who understand the situation in which they find themselves, and who are struggling to save their country. 

One of the best of those people died on 29 November 2009, at the young age of 59. His name was Mladen Grahovac, of Prijedor in northwest Bosnia.

Mladen was an engineer, a political activist, and a lifelong anti-fascist. A Bosnian Serb, he was married to a Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) woman. If Mladen heard the phrase "mixed marriage", I believe that he would say, "Yes, I am in one of those - between a man and a woman."  

Mladen and his wife, together with their two children, remained in Prijedor throughout the war of 1992-95. This was no easy thing to do under the wartime regime of the extreme nationalist Serbs who controlled the region. Mladen refused to remain silent about the destruction and the expulsions that the extremists carried out, and he and his family were subjected to pressure and physical threats both during and after the war. In 1996 he was fired from his job. In the post-war period he was the only prominent Serb to attend memorial observances at Omarska, site of the notorious Serb-run concentration- camp.

I met Mladen a few years after the war and was struck by his energy and wit. To be in his company was to feel privileged; Mladen offered a deep sense of history and an inside understanding about the workings of contemporary Bosnian society. He always welcomed me with a torrent of enthusiastic talk that picked up where it had left off before, even if that “before” had been two years earlier. A conversation could start at 5pm and the clock speed to midnight without me noticing.

Mladen’s keen sense of justice led him to highlight corruption wherever he saw it. He once asked the mayor of Prijedor how she thought she was going to get away with using municipal funds to furnish her house. He related to me an anecdote about a former prime minister of the Republika Srpska who bragged to his counterparts in Serbia: "With my bank deposits and real-estate investments, I earn 5,000 KM [$3,500] a day just in interest." The politician's friends pondered this and with a professional eye on the main chance asked: "Does that include weekends, too?"

Mladen was an equal-opportunity critic of ethnic separatism on all three sides - Serb, Croat, Bosniak. With a great sense of loss he said to me: "There were three cities in Bosnia & Herzegovina that were the biggest victims: Mostar, Prijedor, and Zenica, all of which had a mixed population. In Zenica, the mujahideen destroyed inter-ethnic relations. In Prijedor, there was a collaboration between the SDA [Party of Democratic Action] and the SDS [Serbian Democratic Party] at the beginning that prevented effective anti-nationalist resistance. And Mostar was bombed to dust." 

After the war Mladen was active in the Social Democratic Party (SDP) of Bosnia, serving as vice-president and running for office in 2002. But he was too good for Bosnian politics, at least for the autocrat-dominated SDP. 

By way of illustration, here is part of a campaign speech delivered by Mladen where he draws on his sense of the local and regional history that had brought his fellow citizens together as Bosnians rather than separating them as mere members of one ethnicity:

"Last night I dreamed of King Tvrtko (a Bosnian monarch of the 15th century) who fought for the independence of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Bosnian church. From Rome, the Pope threatened that if Tvrtko did not accept his crown and Catholicism, the Hungarian king would attack him. Tvrtko accepted the crown. From the east, Orthodoxy made similar threats. He went to the monastery at Milesevo in Kosovo and was crowned with the Orthodox crown. When he returned to Bosnia he melted the two crowns into one at Kresevo, and at Milac Polje he was crowned King of Bosnia.... 

"Last night I dreamed of Dr Mladen Stojanovic, a Serb from Prijedor who in 1941 mounted an uprising at Mount Kozara. He called on Josip Mazar, a Croat from Banja Luka, and Osman Karabegovic, a Muslim from Banja Luka, and in 1942 established the strongest Partisan detachment and the largest liberated territory in all of Europe...They proved that these peoples can win only if they are all in the same army. If they divide on an ethnic basis and form separate armies, then the result is a fratricidal war and war crimes.

"Because there are no 'good' or 'bad' peoples, only good or bad national elites who lead their people in a good or bad direction. In 1941, these peoples went in a good direction. But in 1990 the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina went in the wrong direction...The result was war, murder, rape, camps, genocide, and the general destruction of the country. 

"Let us return to anti-fascism, because Bosnia-Herzegovina may survive only if we are together."

The last breath

Mladen Grahovac was not a political careerist, but someone who had practical ideas about how to restore Bosnia. He said: "There should not be ethnic-based entities, but regions, such as the Krajina, based on geography, communications, and economic integration." But he was not optimistic: "There won't be any change in Bosnia-Herzegovina for ten years. There will be no change here except with civil unrest, because poverty is preventing people from organising." 

The SDP did not truly value the decency and brilliance of the man who worked hard to promote reconciliation in Bosnia, and Mladen's relationship with the party frayed. As the separation loomed, Mladen’s revelation that he was in debt - with a lifestyle far from the material excess of many politicians - was clear evidence of his integrity. In an interview with Dani magazine in February 2007, he pledged that inasmuch as his health allowed he would "fight to the last breath for a social-democratic and citizens' future for Bosnia-Herzegovina", and that he would give his "full contribution to the anti-fascist tradition" of his country. By 2008 Mladen had switched allegiance to the fledgling and more grassroots-based Nasa Stranka (Our Party).

Mladen's last breath came too soon. In a poignant coincidence, he died on the anniversary of the day in 1943 that multicultural Yugoslavia was born, the "day of the republic" - now an almost forgotten moment in the history of a disintegrated federation. May the memory and legacy of Mladen Grahovac be remembered.

About the author

Peter Lippman is a life-long human rights activist based in Seattle, Washington. He has spent much of the past two decades in Bosnia-Herzegovina, living there before the war and two years afterwards. Since that stay he has returned to Bosnia fifteen times and is writing a book on postwar human rights activism in the country, first visiting Kozarac in 1998. You can see some of his writings here.

Read On

Also in openDemocracy on Bosnia and the region:

TK Vogel, "Kosovo: a break in the ice" (2 February 2007)

Alix Kroeger, "Bosnia's war of memory" (21 August 2002)

Dusan Velickovic, "Belgrade: war crimes in daily life" (28 June 2005)

Ed Vulliamy, "Srebrenica: ten years on" (6 July 2005)

Tom Gallagher, "Understanding Slobodan Milosevic: between the cold war and Iraq" (13 March 2006)

Julie A Mertus, "Slobodan Milosevic: myth and responsibility" (16 March 2006)

Eric Gordy, "The Milosevic account" (17 March 2006)

Nicholas Walton, "A house divided: Bosnia after the elections" (3 October 2006)

Marko Attila Hoare, "Kosovo: the Balkans' last independent state" (12 February 2007)

Vicken Cheterian, "Serbia after Kosovo" (18 April 2007)

Ginanne Brownell, “Bosnia's civil society: paths from Srebrenica” (5 July 2007)

Eric Gordy, "Serbia's Kosovo claim: much ado about..." (2 October 2007)

Paul Hockenos, "Kosovo's contested future" (16 November 2007)

Ginanne Brownell, "Kosovo's Serbs in suspension" (10 December 2007)

John O'Brennan, "Kosovo: the hour of Europe" (14 January 2008)

Dejan Djokic, “Radovan Karadzic’s capture: a moment for history” (22 July 2008)

Florian Bieber, "Kosovo: one year on" (17 February 2009)

Eric Gordy, "Kosovo and Serbia: a quiet compromise?" (18 February 2009)

More On

Peter Lippman is a writer and human-rights activist from the United States who has worked extensively in Bosnia and much of ex-Yugoslavia since the early 1980s


Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN)


Bosnian Institute

Noel Malcolm, Bosnia: A Short History (NYU Press, 1996)

Xavier Bougarel, Elissa Helms & Ger Duijzings, eds., The New Bosnian Mosaic: Identities, Memories and Moral Claims in a Post-War Society (Ashgate, 2007)

Human Rights Watch - Bosnia

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