No Bosnians in Bosnia

I met a woman once who had survived the concentration camps. I was in awe of her. She was old and frail, but feisty. It was hard for me to imagine such atrocities, just as it is hard for me to imagine what it was like living in Belgrade during the NATO bombings or in Sarajevo during the siege. And yet I now know people who did live in these places and they’re my age, give or take a few years.They talk of playing basketball while the bombs fell. They talk of making sure their families we safe in the shelters and then going to sit with friends in a café, determined not to give in. They talk of doing their damnedest to continue to live life as usual.

And while all this was going on, I was in Ireland, or America, living in blissful ignorance. TEM went to Bosnia with the UN so the war touched me briefly. He is remarkably reticent about his time there yet I know the friendships he formed are deeper than most. A shared experience will do that for you. He tells a story about the Irish lads being particular about how their meat was cut. One of them, the son of a butcher, showed one of the locals how to cut steaks to satisfy the Irish and their peculiarities. A friendship of sorts ensued and some time later, when their barracks was blown up, the Irish boys had been forewarned.

I didn’t know what to expect in Sarajevo and yet somehow all those unspoken expectations were met. The road into town from the airport, known to many back in the day as Sniper Alley, is bordered by tall block towers showing the scars of war. It was sobering. I don’t for one minute pretend to understand what went on or why it all had to happen. Much as I love the Balkans and enjoy the people, they remain unfathomable and all the more wonderful for that. I was in Sarajevo for a workshop where the concept of all-inclusiveness is something yet to be realised. The Balkans might be a region, but the players in the region still find it hard to sit at the same table. Growing up in Ireland, in a predominantly white, Catholic environment, I can’t begin to understand it all. Somehow, the IRA and the troubles in Northern Ireland seem quite different.

In the centre of the city, there are visible sides of the efforts being made to put the past behind. Buildings are being renovated. Bullet holes are filled in and plastered over, waiting for a new coat of paint. If only it were as easy to renovate people and their attitudes. There are large numbers of Muslim Turks studying at the three universities, opting to live in a country where as women they can openly wear signs of their religion. There is a Serbian quarter, too, complete with cyrillic signs. But there are no Bosnians.  ‘Under the post-war Constitution, constituent people citizens are identified as Bosniaks (known during the war as Bosnian Muslims), Croats, and Serbs. There is no space for Bosnia’s minorities’, or so says a Refworld report published in April this year.

On another forage through the web in a vain attempt to sort out the mess that Sarajevo has left in my mind, I came across this quote by an American painter LG Hornby (Balkan Sketches: An Artist’s Wanderings in the Kingdom of the Serbs (Boston, 1927), p. 153) who arrived in Sarajevo in 1925.

Tolerance marks the respect with which these peoples of varying faiths mingle their common lot. Here one sees the Bosnian peasant of orthodox faith drop his contribution into the cup of a blind Mussulman who squats, playing his goussle, at the entrance of a mosque. Glancing at the peaceful little stalls where Christians, Mussulmans, and Jews mingle in business, while each goes his own way to cathedral, mosque or synagogue, I wondered if tolerance is not one of the greatest of virtues.

And again I wonder at the price of progress.

There is a beauty to Sarajevo that is found in the mix of the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian empires. Despite its scars, it is has an innate beauty  that speaks of tenacity and perseverance. In just two days, it burrowed its way into my heart and left a lasting impression on my soul. I’ll be going back – this time for longer.

6 replies
  1. peter finnigan
    peter finnigan says:

    It is very easy to catch up on what went on in Sarajevo and that whole region during that dark period – the Serbians were inhuman toward the Bosnians, It is very hard to believe that the general Serbian populace didn’t know what was going on……………. I remember speaking to an old German lady who had lived all her life in the shadow of the Belsen concentration camp – she had no idea what went on there through the war years either. Like the Serbians you have met she was a lovely person (the granny of a friend). The German people who lived in the area around her welcomed me and were very friendly – their needs, wants and aspirations were similar to mine. We will all have met people from countries where at some time or other the people of that country (usually for nationalistic reasons) have carried out the most appalling atrocities…… these I number Africans, Arabs, Russians, British and ……..Irish. Yet in all of those places I have met genuinely friendly, pleasant and welcoming people…………I hope that I came over the same way to them. What is it that makes us regulary break through this thin human crust and turn into monsters. I don’t think that it is any use us pretending that those things are always carried out by them over there, they are carried out (or certainly condoned) by people like us. Whilst I would like to think I would act differently, I am glad that I haven’t been put to the test.

    Ps of course Sarajevo was where an assasination by Serbian Nationalists started off the First World War!

    • Mary
      Mary says:

      Having been to Baku and seen how Azerbaijan treats Armenia and not understanding that either, I don’t think it’s as easy as you make out to understand what when on in Sarajevo. That there were atrocities cannot be denied. Yet the root cause of why this all kicked off in the first place isn’t as clear cut. Paper will take any print and everyone has their own version of reality – of history – of the side they were on. The ones I feel for are those who were in mixed marriages and refused to take either side… that no-man’s land must have been horrific. While I was in Sarajevo I heard of a Serb killed by his own for standing up for his mate, a Bosnian-Muslim. That’s where the lines blur.

  2. jj
    jj says:

    Canadian soldiers, who were one of the main ones stationed in Sarajevo during the war, eye-witnessed Bosnian Muslims staging and provoking attacks. They were there when the Bosnian Muslims shelled their own children – just below a building where the Canadians were. Get the book “Sharp End: A Canadian Soldier’s Story” by James R. Davis.
    He says they did it for PR purposes. The media was very much used as a driving force to push this war and demonize the Serbs. Other UN personnel (non-Canadian) who were there witnessed similar stunts by the Bosnian Muslim forces, which, by the way, vastly outnumbered Serb forces within Bosnia. The Bosnian Muslim forces were 200,000 and the Bosnian Serb forces have been listed as low as 30,000 – they had a man-power shortage.
    In addition Croatia stationed 40,000 soldiers in Bosnia throughout the war. Croatia was not sanctioned for this. The Croat soldiers went after the Bosnian Serbs at the beginning – either independently or jointly with the Bosnian Muslims. Then later the so-called Muslim-Croat war broke out – from around October 1992 through the end of February 1994. It was only western pressure which forced them together, as the west wanted them to jointly work against the Serbs again.
    Sarajevo was actually a divided city, with the front lines near to the infamous Holiday Inn. Most all the damage was along the front lines where the two forces met – and that’s testimony of a UN officer at the ICTY.
    Nebojsa Malic, contributor to, was a Serb boy trapped in the Muslim section, and he says the Serb held parts of Sarajevo ended the war more damaged than the Muslim-controlled ones. And he should know if he lived there the entire war.
    Also a UN officer did state that the Muslim/government forces did use buildings along “Sniper’s Alley” – they knew Serbs would automatically be blamed for these attacks. It was their M.O.; it was done for PR, as James R. Davis, the Canadian soldier, writes in his book about the Muslim units. He called them “animals” after the attack on the children. They weren’t innocent in the least and they kept Serb civilians in concentration camps, including a grain silo in Tarcin.

    • Mary
      Mary says:

      The media was very much used as a driving force to push this war and demonize the Serbs: I have heard this before and unfortunately it’s a phenomenon not restricted to the Balkan wars. It’s so hard to know what to believe nowadays. When I was in Auschwitz, I wanted to buy two books – one by a female survivor, the other by a male. The woman in the bookshop insisted that I also buy the memoirs of the SS officer who ran the camp. That there are at least two sides to every story cannot be denied. But all too often only one side is heard. Thanks for your comment, JJ. I will be buying that book.


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  1. […] Serbia has its fans and its detractors. I can’t ever hope to understand its history or even come close to anything approaching empathy for the past that has shaped its present. I can only speak from my experience. It may well have been four years since I was there, four years since I worked directly rather than virtually with the Diplo team, but it felt like yesterday. From that first welcome dinner at Patlidžan with its excellent piadina sa biftekom (steak wrapped in flatbread) and my re-acquaintance with Tamjanika wine, I felt at home. Conversation flitted between the serious and the banal. International development policy, cybersecurity, Trump, Brexit, the recent Serbian elections, village life, modern education; everyone at the table had something to contribute. That evening, on our way back to the fab Crystal Hotel, we stopped into Le Petit Bistro, lured inside by the strains of live music. Stubovi Pop Kulture are now on my list of bands to check out, next time in town. […]

  2. […] very little about what happened during that time and my paltry effort to understand it all while I visited Sarajevo a couple of year ago was drowned in the realisation that greater minds than mine have yet to make […]

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