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From the borderlands - View of Bosnia from Princip's Bridge
by Krzysztof Czyzewski

"Objectivity, in Bosnia, could not be neutrality, and the head, in Bosnia, meant nothing without the heart." (Cohen)

1. I'm reading Robert Cohen's book, Hearts Grown Brutal: Sagas of Sarajevo, in Graz, Austria, in an old Uhrturm, the view from which stretches as far as the borders with Hungary and Slovenia. Below at 18 Sackstrasse stands a building that used to be called Conrad's House, and in which, on March 13, 1863, the heir to the Habsburg throne, Franz Ferdinand, came into the world. Today it houses a museum which exhibits photographs from the Archduke's life. June 28, 1914-murder in Sarajevo. The crowd takes away the captured Serb, Gavrilo Princip. The next day, the bodies of Franz Ferdinand and his wife are laid out in open coffins in a Sarajevo funeral chapel. Then begins their trek through Central Europe. They float down the Neretva River through Mostar to the Adriatic; they sail up to Trieste, then travel along the Dunaj, to the castle in Artstetten and Vienna. Crowds of mourners are everywhere. An aged and impotent Emperor Franz Joseph is captured in a britchka making for the funeral. Meanwhile turmoil in Sarajevo. The Muslims are the most visible in the anti-Serb demonstration. Photographs from the trial of "Young Bosnia", the organization to which Princip and Nedeljko Cabranovic, the fellow who planted the bomb, belonged-in their eyes, a mission, obstinate faces, a legible readiness to fight and die. The inscription carved on Kosova Field seems to show through the faces of these youths: "Whoever is a Serb or of Serbian origin and does not come to fight at Kosovo, may he never have children, son or daughter. May everything he grows turn barren. May he have neither wine nor wheat. May all turn to dust until he dies."

Throughout the years that Yugoslavia existed, a plaque hung by the Gavrilo Princip Bridge commemorating his act, considered heroic here. Today, the young Serbian nationalist is no longer a hero of Sarajevo, and in place of the plaque is an empty gap. "History here will not be left in peace," writes Cohen. The day the Archduke was murdered, the day the embers were lit under the First World War, is the day the anniversary of the battle at Kosova Field is upheld.

June 28, 1989-to the throng of a million gathered in the place of defeat which had become a place of glory, the nation's leader, Milosevic, spoke about the nation, "one of the few that in defeat stayed undefeated". It was already obvious then that these people, who "in suicide found redemption", as Cohen defines them, "were ready to bury themselves in the rubble of Yugoslavia in order to liberate themselves from some yoke, real or illusory, it hardly mattered".

Amongst the letters and commentaries commemorating the murder in Sarajevo, something authored by another young nationalist, Mussolini (published in Popolo d'Italia on July 10, 1915), catches my eye: "Heil dem Revolver des Princip und der Bombe des Cabranovic!"

History has sped up. From my tower in Graz, several unusual events could be observed. I find an old postcard capturing the flight of a Zeppelin overhead in 1931. It seems completely unreal, like the visitors from another planet imagined by a child. Soon, however, awe-struck eyes turn to an undeniably real figure. Preserved documentary films record the triumphal march of Hitler into Graz to the deafening applause of the town's inhabitants. A postcard from 1938 depicts flags with swastikas hanging from my tower, and people running down after the leader. Who lived in this tower before I did?

It's nearing lunch. There's a smell that I remember so well from Bosnia: the aroma of roasting vegetables and meat. It's probably my neighbour, Mrs. Saric, cooking Bosnian dagara. She and her husband have nowhere to return to. Graz has given them shelter for the time being. My friend from Sarajevo, Dzevad Karahazan, also lives here with his wife. He is going back there. I asked if he would take me with him. "You know," he answered. "At one time, during the war, I wanted to take different people there; stuff was going on there; they were needed there; there was life and fighting. Now, I don't want to take anyone to Sarajevo. It is worse there now than it was during the war." I thought about the synagogue which had been torched during Kristallnacht. It is to be rebuilt shortly: in peaceful Graz, what was left devastated in blind hatred, must wait over sixty years to be revived. It's growing dark. Through the window, I watch Mr. Saric on his walk. What does this perpetually silent, concentration camp prisoner from Bosnia think about? It is February 1999. I start to read Hearts Grown Brutal.

2. Is it worthwhile returning to Bosnia years after a peace accord was signed in Dayton in December of 1995? After all that we have watched on the television and after all that we have read in the papers-can anything new be said about Bosnia? We've put Bosnia behind us, we've already dealt with the matter, enough. Life goes on, there are other, more important matters. Why does Robert Cohen return to Bosnia? The book is thick. It seems to say: let's tell this story once more from the beginning. The chronology in the preface begins with 395-with the division of the Roman Empire into East and West along the Drina River. Facts and dates start to crowd in 1918: the creation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes which, in 1929, becomes the Kingdom of Yugoslavia when Serbian King Alexander assumed dictatorial powers. It is here, in Cohen's opinion, that the root of the drama can be found-not in centuries-old, bloody conflicts, as Western politicians like American Secretary of State Warren Christopher have tried to impute. Christopher declared in 1993: "The hatred between all three groups-the Bosnians and the Serbs and the Croats-is almost unbelievable. It's almost terrifying, and it's centuries old. That really is a problem from hell." No. The problem lies in Yugoslavia itself, in its seventy-three-year-old distorted history that, from the outset, evoked national and religious tensions which had to be crushed by force, either by the royal dictatorship or by the Communist regime.

So "to tell history from the beginning" for Cohen means to tell it from the moment the first Yugoslavia came into existence. From the moment the war broke out in Croatia in 1991, and then in Bosnia in 1992, the dates in the chronology start to congest. Almost every month is marked separately. We must pass once more through all the stages of war to reach the places whose names we prefer to forget: Jasenovac, Omarska, Srebrenica... The book's subtitle, "Sagas of Sarajevo", is symbolic, since events take place also in Belgrade, Kosovo, Tuzla, Bihac, Knin, Zagreb...

Cohen, however, does not want to take us back to the Bosnia of the war years in order to make us relive history once more. This book puts us face-to-face with today's Bosnia. The wound continues to fester, and not only because Dayton didn't achieve a final solution for Bosnia. That was not just a war, but also a mirror held up to the Western world, reflecting the reflex of truth at the end of the twentieth century. "I wanted to reach beyond the war itself," writes Cohen in his preface, "for I felt that the enduring pain of Bosnia lay deeper than the blood that was shed. In those faces that kept flashing across my mind, faces bruised and unseeing, there was a wound that seemed to reach down into the gut of our age."

Cohen puts us face-to-face with today's Bosnia, stopping us in our attempt to escape. After reading this book, Bosnia becomes ours again-until it hurts.

3. Before the war, the sea was barely a stone's throw away from Sarajevo-three hours by car. During the war it took much longer: blown-up bridges, bypasses conditional upon the current front line, check-points.

There is an exceptional lack of room on the road. Some drive tractors to till the soil, others armoured vehicles to keep peace in a place where there hasn't been any for a very long time, still others to stock supplies of weapons and ammunition. Trucks with humanitarian aid, buses with darkened windows transporting the next round of international negotiators, Mercedes with the local Mafioso, and Red Cross ambulances... Here you meet people whom bartering keeps alive; those searching for their families and those searching for a new home; those who live off war and those who die as a result of war; beggars, cripples, the wounded, and political tourists toting cameras; those manifesting their nationality and those who would like to forget about it. You pass by the ruins of Muslim, Catholic, and early Slavic shrines, burnt-down homes, smashed windows, balconies packed with wood gathered for the winter, national flags: Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian (you would never see two flying from the same balcony). And graves, graves everywhere, fresh, glaring white. A kind of stupefying silence hangs in the dust and clamour, weighing on the soul and clouding the eyes.

The Bosnian-Croatian border crossing in Metkovic-and suddenly, literally, a few hundred metres further on, another world: a careless debauchery of lights from the Adriatic port of Split; water, for which you lost your life over there, here gushes from the fountains; the quiet harmonious beauty of Diocletian's palace washed by the waves of the sea, indestructible through the ages; lovers, lovers everywhere; well-stocked stores; and the unconcern on faces.

Anyone who has spent some time in Bosnia during the war and then later made it to Split, does not forget that clash of hell and paradise, heaviness and lightness, dusk and light, complexity and obvious simplicity, the temptation to die and the temptation to live. Above all, it is a sensuous impression, which remains with you for the rest of your life: you smell freedom, yes, freedom smells, freedom is the sea for which everyone in Sarajevo, Tuzla, Banja Luka, Mostar yearns.

However-and this is the impression which begins to intrude some time later, which endeavours and manages to oust the first-it is difficult to rejoice for long in this rebirth when it is accompanied by the feeling of schizophrenia and a strange disquiet. So what is real? With each passing moment, the Bosnia in which you were immersed begins to distance itself, to become unreal. Did all that really happen? The overpowering, almost physical temptation to be seduced by the lure of another world behind which lie concealed a simple interpretation of facts in the media, life interests, consensus, and other "objective circumstances". What can dissuade you from this temptation and turn you toward what is dark, painful, and difficult?

At such a moment, the faces of the people encountered in Bosnia may turn to you, and you realize just how alone those who have been left behind are. There is no one to bear witness to their truth, their tragedy, their unspoken complaint. Being with them you sometimes had the impression that what troubles them most is not hunger, degradation or ill-treatment, but the complete lack of understanding on the part of others. How is it possible to reconcile yourself to the fact that this complicated, polyvocal drama could lead to tribal slaughter? To leave these people or to fight for justice on their behalf? It is not a question of justice for one side in the conflict, for one state, as a certain Austrian writer has made of this, but of justice for people, the inhabitants of the former Yugoslavia.

4. "My understanding of the wars came from families." Robert Cohen has written the saga of Yugoslavian families whose break-up and suffering express most deeply the drama of war. For Yugoslavia was not only an artificial construct manufactured in the salons of politicians. The community of people of different nationalities was a reality in life, in culture, in language, and most of all, in families who did not recognize national divisions. "There is no Croat that can say he is a pure Croat, no Serb that can say he is a pure Serb, no Muslim a pure Muslim... We are mixed," says Vojna Adamovic, whose husband is Slovenian, whose grandfather was a Serb, and grandmother Austrian. This was the basis of the long-held conviction that armed conflict could not break out. Laying siege to and attacking any town in Bosnia would have meant the murder of "one's own people". And yet cities were laid siege to, shots were fired, and "one's own people" perished at the hands of "one's own people". Radovan Karadzic's theory that Serbs could not live together with Croats and Muslims, just as water cannot mix with oil, proved stronger than life. The international community accepted this comprehensible logic of the Bosnian Serbs and proceeded to draw precise partition lines on the bloody organism of shared cities and families. What was drawn on the map began to penetrate life until, as Vojna says, "in the end people made frontiers in their minds". The Muslim government in Sarajevo started up a campaign against mixed marriages, considering them "mostly ruined marriages". The war in Bosnia became "a war of intimate betrayals", as Cohen called it in one part of his book.

The family stories described in Hearts Grown Brutal with such literary mastery become metaphors for phenomena on a scale broader than that of an individual's fate. The story of Sead Mehmedovic's search for his father, which leads him to learning the circumstances surrounding the creation of Yugoslavia, and the tragic events of the Second World War-that journey of the son toward his own father symbolizes the desire to regain one's own identity, to locate a roof for one's head in a world whose nature is uprootedness. A striking symbol of European morality and the presence of international powers in Bosnia becomes, under Cohen's pen, the fate of Bisera Zacevic, whose Muslim-Serbian family lived in Sarajevo and Belgrade. After losing her son who was fighting in the Bosnian army, Bisera decided to leave the besieged Sarajevo. In the summer of 1993, the only escape route passed through the free airport. The fifty-seven-year-old woman ran across the runway at night, accompanied by her son's friend who agreed to assist her. Then from the end of the airport under the control of the United Nations army, a powerful beam of light was shone on the running pair, while from the side controlled by Karadzic's army, shots rang out hitting their mark. Everything took place according to the established rules: the United Nations soldiers, in accord with their status of "neutrality", fulfilled a ritual duty, since any other act-as their leaders explained-would have signified a breach of neutrality and the understanding with Karadzic; the Serbian soldiers, for their part, fulfilled their sacred duty to defend their own country, which was being threatened by Islamic fundamentalism. "When Bisera Zacevic fell, a victim now desperately in need of humanitarian assistance, the UN came to her aid." An armoured transport vehicle came for her and took her to the hospital. The next day, her husband, Asim, could find her no longer in the hospital. "Bundled in a plastic bag, she arrived at the mortuary stripped of her clothes, her rings and other jewellery, none of which was ever recovered. On the bag a single word was written: UNKNOWN."

Robert Cohen views the bloody drama underway in the heart of Europe through the prism of individuals and their families. This does not mean, however, that his book is an intimate family saga, a saga of the small dramas being played out against a barely sketched background of history. Cohen does not want to distance the world of politics from us at all, for then it would become incomprehensible and be obliterated, almost inhuman. Just the opposite. He wants to lay it bare, to reveal the entire mechanism of the Yugoslavian tragedy. The named presidents of the Western powers, leaders of world organizations, heads of armies, negotiators, politicians, ringleaders of the quarrelling sides-these are the live dramatis personae of this book.

Because Cohen always has before him the victims' faces, he is ruthless about inquiring into the truth and insensitive to any "objective rationale". As Bosnians say, "Drvo ne raste s neba" ("A tree does not grow from the sky"). Each decision or indecision weighing the fate of people has a name in this book, each event has its cause. How much betrayal, cowardice, hypocrisy, deceit... Bosnia opens our eyes to what Europe and America are today. There was no necessity, no blind power independent of people's efforts, in what happened. Cohen shows how much could have been changed by courage, human honour, and the determination of individual officers or negotiators, like General Phillippe Morillon or Richard Holbrooke. But they either were recalled from duty or arrived on the scene too late.

5. It is difficult to find a book about Bosnia or the former Yugoslavia in the bookstores in Graz, though it is easy to find Peter Handke's book. This album with photos by Lisl Ponger and text by Handke, entitled Ein Wortland. Eine Reise durch Kartnen [Carinthia], Slovenien, Friaul, Istrien und Dalmatien, was published last year. Quiet reflections on daily life, comforting nature, the ordinary, if not the boredom. As though nothing had happened. And truly, to convey precisely the mood of this book: "Nothing happened. Quietly, my dears. Live normally and don't listen to those who speak of a tragedy of history." Handke had become renowned for saying that, for him, Central Europe "has a strictly meteorological significance". He thereby distanced himself from the tragic stamp on that part of Europe. That was 1987. Drago Jancar, a Slovenian writer, in a cautious polemic with him, drew attention to the fact that "it is fine to look up at the clouds drifting in the sky, but it is good as well to look beneath the feet, at least as long as there are minefields, barbed wire, and the Berlin Wall in this Central Europe". After this preface, the time came to test the words blackening the paper against the historical reality, against Bosnia. Jancar writes a famous essay, entitled "Augsburg". "The radio takes great pains to convince foreign tourists that Slovenia is a quiet county. The war is elsewhere. The war is in the television box standing in the corner. In that hole in the world through which new corpses keep falling into your living room." He too went to Sarajevo, after which he wrote his shocking "A Short Report from a City Long Under Siege". So Handke decides to travel as well, only the war in Bosnia is over. At the beginning of 1996, he publishes his report, his A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia. Handke becomes a hero. Milorad Pavic, a Serbian nationalist who accompanied him on the journey to Kosova, writes: "...it's good to have Peter Handke. But only great nations can have Peter Handke". Let's bypass this nationalistic thread. What Handke is concerned about above all is casting doubt on the reality of the Bosnian tragedy that we have observed, read about, and experienced. It is all unreal, an effect of the international conspiracy of media. Does an alternative reality exist? The writer does not respond, the writer rubs out the picture, says that it is not clear who attacked whom, he asks how it really was in Dubrovnik, and can the Muslims who descended from the Serbs really be considered a nation? The response is not important; what is important is the obliteration, the derealization. This is the European cure for those who might feel pangs of conscience because of indifference to the tragedy happening so close by that it was impossible to shut your ears to it. "Quietly, my dears", our "meteorologist" seems to repeat. "Since everything is so unclear and doubtful, why bother getting involved here? Don't let the journalists insinuate themselves into your consciences. They are part of a world conspiracy."

One in this "horde of journalists", as Handke calls them, is Robert Cohen, a correspondent for The New York Times. Over fifty of his colleagues were killed during the war in the former Yugoslavia. Cohen doesn't leave our consciences in peace, he doesn't efface the picture, he provides an answer. Justice for Serbia endeavours to go further than facts, "to reach deep inside", and to attack the barbarism of "political literature". Hearts Grown Brutal is realistic, engaged literature based on facts. It suffices to read the titles of both books to realize the differences.

Perhaps Robert Cohen does not delve deeply into the spiritual essence of things as Handke has called for; however, he certainly reaches into "the very gut of our age". It's time to take a look at the images of the Western world tainted by the experience of Bosnia. "It was not just the war; it was the hypocrisy and moral failure surrounding it."

6. In the summer of 1995, after the three-year siege of Sarajevo, a certain woman pulled Robert Cohen aside and looked him deep in the eyes: "Here things are black and white," she said. "They are. There is evil and there is good. The evil is up on the hills. So when you say you are a journalist and so you must be objective and some of what you write may not be good for us but good for those evil people, then I understand you but I still hate you. Yes, I hate you. Everybody is asking what this place is really like. They ask us, What is it like to be without electricity, or without gas, or without pay, or without a life? What is it like to stand in line for water? What is it like to be a specimen in a laboratory? They ask us and ask us and ask us. But to understand perhaps you should go to the other side. Then they will give you a gun and you can look out from a building and you will look through the sight and you will see a man. Then you will know what it is to be a hunter. And you will pull the trigger and you will see that man fall and you will have the knowledge that you have killed him. That is a fact. A fact. And then perhaps you will not need to know so much about us, you will not need to know from whom we are descended, or why we became Muslims, or whether Muslims are a nation, or whether Bosnia exists, or anything else at all."

The obliteration of the difference between black and white, the identification of objectivity with neutrality, the lack of responsibility and indifference to tragedy-these are only a few symptoms of our spiritual condition which Robert Cohen extracts from "the very gut of the age". Bosnia has shown itself to be a ruthless test of humanitarianism as well, perhaps the Western world's last spiritual illusion at the end of the twentieth century. The practice of humanitarianism gained meaning in Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet empire, the creation of new national states-all of this carried with it the threat of new conflicts which in many cases had only been frozen by the Communist dictatorship. The answer to these threats was to be humanitarianism, which was attractive for a couple of reasons. Cohen: "... there is no question that the delivery of an average of almost one thousand metric tons of food aid a day to 2.7 million beneficiaries in Bosnia saved lives. It gives the impression that something is being done while circumventing the risk of military intervention. It is well suited to `multilateralism', that other splendid mechanism for the dilution of risk... Victimhood attracts emotion and dulls intelligence. Like the weather, that unfailing source of modern drama it has a facile appeal to the television viewer."

So "meteorology" rears its head again, this time not in a publication by a writer contesting facts, but in the doctrines of the international community. And so, as then, when gazing at the clouds drifting about the sky was to divert attention away from the painful reality, now we have "feeding victims as a substitute for stopping the butchery".

What happened in Bosnia in the eyes of the world's decision-makers was not a war but a "humanitarian disaster", and even a "natural disaster", while its roots were in tribal enmity and were "the offspring of hell". These theories led to the creation of "safe areas" and to an embargo on the supply of arms, in a situation where one side was in possession of exceptional weaponry, and the other possessed almost none. Margaret Thatcher called the European Union "accomplices to a massacre". Humanitarianism also has its own "doublespeak", recalling the rhetoric of Kosova Field where defeat becomes victory and attack defence. For example, they spoke at the same time about the defenders of barbarian Bosnia and about the unengaged agents of humanitarianism; the siege of Sarajevo was not a real siege but a "militarily advantageous encirclement" for the Serbs and a "tactical disadvantage" for the Bosnians; the officers of UNPROFOR looking at Sarajevo under heavy artillery fire, usually said, "We can't control the situation, but we do monitor it"; the recommendation to "deter attack" in the example of the "protected zone" was interpreted first as a "defence against attack", and then as "humanitarian assistance" the moment the army of General Mladic took Srebrenice without a single shot being fired by the United Nations troops. Not much has changed since the former Secretary General U Thant commented that the United Nations "is an umbrella that comes down when it rains".

Robert Cohen, among the many voices of people shocked by the moral decline of the Western elite which Bosnia exposed, cites the opinion of American diplomat Charles Thomas: "Foreign policy is like the old kiss formula: Keep it simple, stupid. We should have told them when the war broke out, You reach an accommodation, you stop the shelling of Sarajevo, or we'll kill you." This statement at the beginning of the war in the former Yugoslavia could not come from the mouth of any diplomat, politician or leader. It would have been a glaring breach of the rhetoric of humanitarianism, its barbarism would have irritated civilized hearing used to statements about human rights and the preservation of human life. In 1995, after a massive air attack on the armies of Karadzic and Mladic, it became clear that only by force can one stop the criminals and establish peace. In the meantime, 200,000 people died. The question of why it took three years to intervene in Bosnia hangs over us like a black cloud.

The peace accord was signed in Dayton on December 14, 1995. When Robert Cohen asked Asim, the husband of the woman who was shot at the airport, what he feels, his answer sounded something like this: Nothing. There was no joy in Sarajevo that winter. The strange ending of the war: the enemy was not defeated, evil was not victorious. I went to Sarajevo the next winter when Pope John Paul II was there. The pope, in the open stadium under the falling snow, was almost blown away by a gale. Did anyone hear his words: "Niste sami. Bog je sa vama"? ("You are not alone. God is with you.") It is winter again. Here they are looking for workers to clean bricks from the Gestapo building that was blasted a long time ago. The bricks originate from a burned-down synagogue. In the spot where the synagogue once stood, the earth has already been dug up and the foundation laid. Dzevad left town. I remained in Graz with Bosnia. 

Krzysztof Czyzewski is a writer, the editor of a Central European cultural quarterly, Krasnogruda, and the Director of the Borderlands of Arts, Cultures, & Nations Centre in northeast Poland. His cultural activities have taken him all over Central Europe.


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