Visiting the land of ethnic cleansing

The news this week that the Bosnian Serb leader Ratko Mladic — wanted, most famously, for his role in the Srebrenica massacre though guilty of much else — was caught living in Serbia is a reminder that it was always the absence of political will, rather than intelligence, that has delayed bringing to justice so many of the perpetrators of the Yugoslav war in the 1990s.  I traveled through Bosnia and Hercegovina, Croatia, and Montenegro (then part of Serbia) for nearly a month in 2006 on assignment for Travel + Leisure and discovered not so much that everything I knew about the war was wrong but that the forces driving the war went far beyond the things that I knew.  Like most foreigners I suspect, I understood it as an ethnic war fought between Serbs, Croats, and Muslims (or Bosniaks, as the Muslims are called).  But in Sarajevo, it was described as a war of the countryside against the city that often cut across ethnic lines, in which rural Bosnian Serbs with their conservative, nativist vision of a homogeneous society fought Sarajevan Serbs (along with everyone else) who believed in the mixed up, tolerant, cosmopolitan city they’d known before the war.  The same dynamic was at work in Mostar, but there the aggressors were the Bosnian Croats who were trying to create an ethnically pure Bosnian Croat state called Herceg Bosna.

As I wrote in the article for Travel + Leisure:

“I am Muslim,” Mustafa tells me, his brilliant blue eyes set off by silver hair, as we stand near the small stone Latin Bridge crossing the Miljacka River, where the Austro-Hungarian heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot in 1914, triggering the start of World War I. “But even now, those of us who were born and bred in Sarajevo don’t want to live in an Islamic city. This used to be called the European Jerusalem, and it was a better city then. My friends were Orthodox, Jewish, Catholic. This is what gives richness to life. Now…” His voice trails off as he looks out at a city changed by the population shifts of the war. Because so many Serb residents left when the last cease-fire took effect—and so many Bosniaks, as the Muslims are more commonly called, moved in from villages that were attacked—Sarajevo is probably more Muslim than it has ever been in its history. But to describe the changes this way is to accept the language of the war, which made the differences between the groups sound bigger than they are. Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks are all Slavs: they speak essentially the same language and, up to the war, lived peacefully in the same towns or villages—in Sarajevo, often in the same buildings, occasionally even married into the same families. The primary differences are religious (Bosnian Serbs, generally, are Orthodox Christians, and Croats are Catholic), and any grievances that welled up from divergent myths and memories were held in check by the government under President Tito’s long rule. In the power vacuum created by the collapse of Communism in the early 1990’s, extremist politicians in Bosnia—egged on by their co-religionists in the neighboring republics of Serbia and Croatia—used virulent propaganda, massacres, and fear of reprisals to turn these slight differences into something palpable. This tactic produced the brutal war that I’d watched on television, the war that gave us the phrase ethnic cleansing. But in some ways ethnic hatred was also a cover, a kind of high canopy under which other forces were at work, unnoticed by the outside world: class prejudice, rural villagers’ resentment of the cosmopolitans in the cities, and competition for a place at the trough as the state-run economy was being shifted to private hands.

Still, Mustafa’s refusal to accept the logic of the extremists—who insisted that he had more kinship with a Bosniak from a village than with the Serb or Croat neighbor he’d grown up with—struck me as quietly heroic. It was a sentiment I would hear time and time again in Sarajevo, and at first I disbelieved it: How could there not be anger toward the Serbs after all that had happened? But almost every Sarajevan I met had a story about Serbs who remained in the city through the war or risked their lives to help them, and I realized that they remembered what I had forgotten: only the extremists believed all Serbs should be on one side. As Nadim, a young Bosniak who lived in the frontline neighborhood of Grbavica during the war, put it, “The Serbs who attacked us were, for the most part, not from Sarajevo. They were from the villages, and they had a different mentality. My friends who were Serbs, they stayed here with us during the war. They were Sarajevan first, you could say, and then they were Serb.”

The Bosniaks were the principal victims in both cases and before arriving in Bosnia I had expected them to display the sort of aggressively defiant nationalism of a place like Israel, where they’d faced extermination, survived, and won’t let anyone forget it.  But I witnessed nothing like that.  That, to me, was their true triumph: despite all the polarizing atrocities committed during the war, a great many people — mainly Bosniaks, but not only them — never succumbed to the clannish ethnic thinking of the extremists.  Not only did Sarajevo survive but, just as important, the idea of Sarajevo survived.

Click here to read full article I wrote about the Balkans for Travel + Leisure


In my opinion, the most powerful of the many books written about the Bosnian war is My War Gone By, I Miss it So by the photojournalist Anthony Loyd.  He is unsparing of everyone in the conflict, including himself.

A note on the photograph above: it is an image of old men playing chess in one of Sarajevo’s main squares using waist-high pieces on a board painted on the ground, a popular image of the city made less familiar and, somehow, more poignant by the fact that my camera had broken and was unable to focus.


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