SIEGE OF SARAJEVO, EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT
[HIGHLY RECOMMENDED READ] The Siege of Sarajevo was the longest siege of a capital city in the history of warfare. The siege lasted from April 5, 1992 to February 29, 1996. Approximately 12,000 people -- mostly Bosniaks, but also Serbs, Croats and others -- died due to Serbian terrorist shelling of the Bosnian capital. The following is an fascinating eyewitness account of Spanish journalist Juan Goytisolo who visited the besieged Sarajevo in early 1990s.
|Body of 7-year-old Bosniak boy NERMIN DIVOVIC. He was killed by Serb sniper in Sarajevo on 18 November 1994. He was one of more than 1,000 innocent Bosniak children and babies killed by Serbs during the siege of Sarajevo. Photographer: Enric Marti.|
EXCERPTS reprinted from “Landscapes of War: From Sarajevo to Chechnya,”Author: Juan Goytisolo, Translated from the Spanish by Peter R. Bush
The journey to Sarajevo has all the appearance of a game of blindman’s buff that ends in a mousetrap. The French military Hercules that daily fly loads of humanitarian aid from Split to the Bosnian capital usually set aside a dozen side-seats for the press and for officials from international agencies and organizations. I realize on the airstrip at the Dalmatian airport that I am the only journalist: Sadako Ogata, director of the UN High Commission for Aid to Refugees (UNHCR) and her team of advisers occupy the remaining empty places. A swarm of photographers and cameras surround them as soon as we set foot on the ground, and soldiers hurriedly guide us through a labyrinth of corridors protected by walls and sandbags to an improvised press conference. An UNPROFOR armored car is to take me across the territory controlled by Serbian radicals to the former post office that is the start of the urban center still in the hands of the Bosnian presidency. Before that, I must sign a document in which I absolve the UNPROFOR forces of all responsibility for “loss, injury, or death” that may befall me during the journey. After what happened to Bosnian vice president Hakija Turajlic, who was quietly murdered while in one of these bullet-proof vehicles by Karadzic’s militiamen, despite the presence of his escorts and their “violent protests” I can understand how the “blue berets” learned from their experience and now prefer to cover their own backs. The law of the survival of the fittest rules in Bosnia. The UN commanders’ impotence, their resignation before the crimes and abuses of Karadzic and his cronies suggest an advertising slogan in keeping with the chancy nature of their transport operations: “You bring the corpse. UNPROFOR will see to the rest.”
A Spanish NCO, forewarned by Alfonso Armada and Gervasio Sanchez, comes to meet me and helps me and my modest luggage into the armored car. The escort comprises Jordanian and Egyptian soldiers and, through a side peephole as we move forward I catch glimpses of a bleak, wasted landscape: houses with roofs blown off, blackened car chassis, truncated telephone posts, dead horses, roads plagued by potholes and leading nowhere.
In the post office car park, the game of blindman’s buff is repeated: questioning, frisking, a brief labyrinth of sandbags, and finally we reach the hectic frontier building where French soldiers are offering their colleagues and exquisite cold buffet of canapes, chicken, mean, cakes, wine, and campagne on the occasion of the 14 July, la fete nationale! My friends find me in the office devoted to recording and archiving the data of press correspondents and we drive off at once in the direction of the Holiday Inn.
The Vojvode Putnika that runs across the modern part of Sarajevo has been renamed “Sniper Alley” by the besieged. In an illustrated guide to the capital published only seven years ago one can read this kind of description: “The city lights, like fireflies, punctuate the darkness more brilliantly that the stars of the Bosnian sky: this is the vista offered the tourist who reaches the outskirts of Sarajevo by night. If he journeys by day, he will discover an oriental city of the type that only exists in fairy tales and will be amazed to see broad avenues and brand new or nineteenth-century Austrian style buildings.” But the city I now observe is but an area of devastation: wounded, mutilated, its guts hang out, its sores suppurate, its scars horrify. Entire streets and buildings have disappeared, no trams or buses circulate, the Vojvode Putnika is desperately empty, the trees have been felled, people crouch down in their hideouts. The facades of some ten – or twelve-story residential buildings present charred features or are covered in vacernous, yawning holes or disturbing eyelets. Reverberating glass skyscrapers rise up like hives of blind honey-combs: mirrors where the sun reflects and flashes alternate with empty eyesockets and wily one-eyed looks. Cars and buses reduced to ash prolong the horror of the conflagration in the middle of the roadway. Red and white trams, becalmed and bullet-ridden, gather rust by pavements invaded by weeds and wild shrubs. Trolley bush cables hang down dangerously between posts, curl around each other on the ground like snakes. There are buildings reduced to their metal frames, crushed and half-molten telephone booths and kiosks, useless, contorted wire fences, heap upon heap of scrap, vehicles disemboweled and black as coal. Almost no building has its windows intact: those that are still inhabited despite their exposure to the snipers have had their window space modestly covered with plastic patches supplied by UNPROFOR. Inthe midst of that geography of desolation a clock froze its hands at exactly eight o’clock (which day? which month? which year?). Without water, gas, electricity, public transport, or telephones, Saraajevo looks at first sight like a phantom city, a dislocated skeleton or lifeless corpse. But the intermittent crackle of machine-gun fire, the occasional blast of mortars, the whistle of the snipers’ bullets opportunely remind the visitor that its torture continues. In spite of the deluge of fire capriciously raining down and the cruel strangulation it is suffering, the Bosnian capital resists and miraculously remains on its feet.
As soon as a foreigner arrives in Sarajevo, he must familiarize himself with the laws and rules of an elementary code of survival. Accustomed to a free, untrammeled existence, his new space, the mousetrap shared with 380,000 human beings, forces a rapid apprenticeship on him: awareness of high-risk areas and of where one can move without excessive danger, of districts where the mortar bombs usually fall, of the snipers’ favorite corners and paths, of places where it is better to walk with a stoop or which you must abandon at a moment’s notice. Any distraction or miscalculation in the choice of a route may prove fatal: as the people of Sarajevo tell you, anyone foraying into the open — and everybody has to go out in search of water, wood, or food — engages in Russian roulette. And so, as I find out on my first day, prudence advises departure from the hotel at full pelt, avoidance of Sniper Alley outside the former entrance to the Holiday Inn, then a scarper up the slope to the Kranjcevica, doubling back to reach the safer areas of Marshal Tito Avenue and the pedestrian zone of vase Miskina. The cars that still circulate accelerate in a rush when they drive across an unprotected intersection, risking collision with another vehicle or one of the white UNPROFOR armored cars that tour the city throughout the day. To protect themselves from the “heroes” [the Serbs] who lie in wait on neighboring hillsides and prefer to shoot at women and children, Bosnian army soldiers have blocked off the most dangerous gaps with whatever was at hand: containers, buses, cars, publicity hoardings that act as a curtain or screen against the bloodthirsty crusaders of Greater Serbia.
On the “safe streets,” the people of Sarajevo stop to buy what they can or queue up at the foundations laden with water containers. But safety is an illusion and the ultranationalist Serbians are quick to dispel it the moment the population begins to drop its guard: the carnage opposite the bakery in Vase Miskina, on a young land’s sports ground, at the crowded fountains where water still spurts out, or on funeral corteges in cemeteries, demonstrates that nobody, absolutely nobody can feel secure in any part of the city. A family from the block of houses near the hotel who fled their unprotected, windowless home at the beginning of a hailstorm of shells to hide in the bomb shelter died when it was blown apart by a mortar blast. Everyone runs the risk of bad luck or, if a believer, of the delicate touch of the wings of Azrael, the angel of death in Islamic religious tradition. In this city where there is no wood to make coffins, you must get used to sleeping, moving, walking about fully aware of your defenseless, precarious existence. Nobody can guarantee that a crak marksman [Serbian sniper] hasn’t chanced to get your insignificant self in his sights or that a grenade or shell won’t explode inside your room.
The inhabitants of Sarajevo have withstood for more than a year this risk of extermination, their life as inmates of an open prison, with integrity, dignity, and sangfroid. But the combined effect of hunger, exhaustion, and a general feeling of betrayal and abandonment has finally overtaken them from the day the shameful Washington accord was signed, forcing their moral resistance to the limit of what is bearable. They suddenly understood that the chips are down, that they must not expect help from any quarter: whether from white UNPROFOR armored cars that are unable to defend themselves or from the American planes that fly over the city on their futile, derisory mission to keep the airspace clean. In Sarajevo, as in the rest of Bosnia, murder, destruction, massacre — the whole infamous ritual known as ethnic cleansing — is conducted on the ground with impunity.
HOSPITALS, CEMETERIES, OSLOBODJENJE
The monthly news bulletin from the Health Ministry of the Bosnian presidency, published just before my arrival, starkly reveals the magnitude of the genocide perpetrated against the Bosniak people since April 1992: 140,000 killed (9,040 in Sarajevo), 151,000 wounded (53,095 in Sarajevo), 1,835,000 “displaced” people, 156,000 detainees in Serbian-Montenegrin concentration camps, 12,100 paralysed and handicapped (1,280 children), and an approximate number of 38,000 women raped.
|Little Bosnian Muslim baby girl Nalena Skorupan was killed by Serbs during the siege of Sarajevo on 7 January 1994. Photographer: Gervasio Sánchez.|
I’ve hardly settled in my hotel when I decided to visit the Kosevo hospital, the most modern and extensive in the city. The journey via Kranjcevica and Djure Djakovica is a first indication as to the deprivations and shortages of the besieged: the majority of pedestrians are searching for water; they carry bundles of plastic containers or transport them in wheelbarrows, in trolleys of the kind you find in stations, airports and department stores, in prams, on bicycles, trucklebeds, skateboards, jugs carried aloft. The transport of woods also consumes the energies of several women and men who climb the hill in the district where the hospital stands.
The director of the orthopedic clinic, Dr. Faruk Kulenovic, draws a somber picture of the situation: they’ve been nine days without water, without electricity, and only ten liters are left in the fuel tank that feeds the surgery generator. They are forced to operate in the daytime in the corridors most exposed to enemy fire, to take advantage of the light who arrive at night.
“What would happen if today they threw thousands of grenades?”
“We would be forced to operate or amputate by candlelight or by oil lamp.”
Dr. Kulenovic takes me and my friends to a modern orthopedic unit sunk in the darkness. The control panels, cardiographs, and X-ray machine don’t work for lack of electricity; they urgently need anesthetics, bandages, antibiotics, and syringes. The oxygen supply store is almost empty; the operating block is closed for the moment as the result of a shell blast: as for the sterilizing unit in the rehabilitation center, it is powered by firewood.
We visit the wards. On the stairs we pass mutilated patients receiving therapy treatment: the one-armed, the lame with or without crutches, a man without arms. In the ward with three seriously wounded men, Dr. Kulenovic points at a hole opened by a shell that passed between two beds and fortunately did no explode. Unbearable images of three recently admitted women: two wounded by mortar bombs, the third hit in the neck by a sniper’s bullet when she was walking along laden with containers on a search for water. Each case is a story, each story an atrocity. Miroslav Bajic, forty-six years of age, a Craotian, walks on crutches and sits on the edge of his bed to talk. A grenade exploded right by him as he was walking down the street and he bled for a long time, but because of the bombing nobody could help him in the middle of the street. “The Chetniks [Serb soldiers, also a term for former World War II Serbian Nazi-collaborationists], he says, want to sow hatred in our hearts to prevent us from staying together. But look at this ward: the beds are occupied by me, by a Serbian, and by a Bosniak. The three of us live here like brothers.”
Three days later I return with my interpreter Alma to the children’s orthopedic unit in the same hospital. The person in charge explains how his team of eleven doctors has operated on 1,200 children since the start of the Serbian radicals’ aggression in conditions identical to those in the rest of the hospital. At present they receive only one barrel of water a day. In spite of the help from Medecins Sans Frontieres and other humanitarian organizations, they are without practically everything they need.
The post-op ward for children is a compendium and showcase of the suffering imposed on the city. A little girl with the stump of her leg in a bucket of water looks at me distantly. Impossible to stop by her and ask her questions. The procession of wounded is a litany of pain: Azra, hit in the neck by a sniper two days before; Nazira, victim on 7 July of an incendiary grenade; Adis, hit two weeks ago cherry picking with a friend; Almir, unable to keep up a smile, riddled by machine-gun fire nine days before near the airport and incommunicado with his family ever since; Elvedin, emaciated, skeletal, with the small eyes of a frightened animal. How can one explain such a high number of victims among the children? Is it possible that what the wounded Croat has just told me is true, that [Serbian] mercenaries and ultranationalists receive a double bonus for each woman, quintupled each time they score a hit on the diminutive target of a child?
The lack of an adequate diet is obvious from the thinness of patients. Where can they find the necessary milk, mean, and vitamin supplies if Karadzic’s soldiers intercept the convoys of humanitarian aid, submit them to humiliating bargaining, and, despite promises and agreements, block their entry into Sarajevo for days on end? In the games room where a dozen children are recovering, drawing, or chatting around a table, the nurse sarcastically points out a big cuddly bear, a present, he says, from General Morillon.
On the hot days and nights there is a lack of space in the hospitals, a lack of space in the morgues — the corpses have to be lined up on the pavement — a lack of space in the cemeteries. Given that funerals were a favorite sniper target, others have had to be improvised in less exposed places (the park on the hill in Kovaci) or twilight hours have to be used to bury victims furtively (in the vicinity of the Olympic stadium built for the 1984 Winter Games). Their gravestones are quite unique: while the birthday of those laid to rest ranges over several decades, the date of passage is fixed, 1992 or 1993. The cause of death is well known and some of the victims have died in the cemetery. At the foot of the statue of the Lion, the marble slabs in the small civilian cemetery from the Tito era are now surrounded by memorials and stelas with crescent moons and five-pointed stars mixed up with Orthodox and Catholic crosses, also pointing toward the qibla. Death has leveled and reunited the believers in the religions of the Book, victims of the same barbarism. One should add to this compacted harvest of funeral crosses and stelas another more monumental memorial, with the dates of the 1948 UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the 1966 UN Agreement on Civil and Political Rights, the 1990 Charter of the Paris Conference on European Cooperation and Security, the Founding Charter of the United Nations, and the renowned Geneva Convention with the inscription “Here lie the dignity of the European Community and the credibility of the United Nations Organization perished in Sarajevo. They died from the unrivalled cowardice and cynicism of their negotiators and leaders,” as a reminder to peoples throughout the world of the worth of the moral commitment of the great powers — dozen upon dozen of dishonored agreements and resolutions filed away — when their vital interests are not at stake.
Perhaps the best example of the hatred of the pan-Serbian fundamentalists and the courage of those who resist them is the daily paper, now famous throughout the world, Oslobodjenje. The oval tower that once lodged the editorial offices is now a mass disfigured by shellfire: a torture, Gaudian stalagmite structure or a begging, perhaps vengeful stump. The insistent pounding of shells reveals the besiegers’ obsession with silencing the voice of the victims. The day we go with Alma and Gervasio Sanchez, after driving swiftly along Sniper Alley, in the garden next to the front of the building, protected against rifle fire, several journalists and print workers wash and hang out their clothes in the sun or rest from their nocturnal labors in the shade of small fir trees.
We enter the building almost in darkness. The print room is in the basement and hasn’t suffered from the shelling like the rest of the building: beneath the two or three holes in the ceiling, barrels with botched-up funnels catch rainwater and stop it flooding the floor. The newspaper distribution room is on the ground floor, in the area of the building less exposed to ultranationalist bombs. As we go up to the first floor, the spectacle is alarming: rubbish-filled corridors, devastated offices, ceilings that have caved in, filing cabinets torn apart, revolving chairs with their stuffing hanging out, heap after heap of broken panes of glass. We catch a glimpse of the front, 200 meters away, through cracks in the wooden protection shutters. The flag of the self-proclaimed Serbian Republic of Bosnia flutters on a nearby building. The zone between here and the skeleton of Oslobodjenje is strewn with landmines. From May 1992, Karadzic’s snipers have been shooting away but have not attempted to cross it.
In the cafeteria I talk to two of the journalists who, on seven-day shifts, ensure with forty-odd colleagues and print workers that the paper is printed and reaches the street. For security reasons, the editorial offices have moved to a flat off Marshall Tito Avenue, where, three days earlier, Alfonso Armada and ourselves interviewed its director Kemal Kurspahic and Zlatko Dizdarevic, author of a “War Diary” published in France. The journalists tell me, “Oslobodjenje in 1990 had 2,800 workers and published apart from the daily, eighteen cinema, sports, fashion, political and other magazines, distributed throughout Yugoslavia. The daily circulation was 70,000 and the total output reached a million copies. Now, because of lack of paper, we only print 3,000. Our stocks allow us to maintain this level for a maximum of a week. The newspaper sells out as soon as it goes on sale.” According to the director, Oslobodjenje urgently needs thirty liters of petrol: without that, the printing press cannot function. 30 august is their fiftieth anniversary and they can only reach that date with international support.
I’ve spent five days in the Holiday Inn and I still haven’t seen the front facade. On the way back from our visit to the offices of Oslobodjenje, we stop 300 meters away on Sniper Alley and, protected from the danger of a bullet by the battered building of the defunct Museum of the Revolution, I photograph the ugly yellow building, as solid as a luxury bunker, its welcoming flagstaffs stripped of their flags, and the awning or kepi flap over the entrance beneath which uniformed porters once used to greet guests as they alighted from their cars. Some shells have made inroads into windows and floors and given its nouveau riche pride quite a knock.
A strange home where, during my stay in Sarajevo, after interludes of deceptive calm, night and day I hear the whistle of bullets, the crackle of machine-gun fire, and the bangs from the mortars! I go to bed with two balls of wax in my ears under the constant impression that I am in a village in Andalusia or Castilla the day it is celebrating its patron saint.
THE RECORD OF HORROR
If we leaf through the statistics of the State Commission for Gathering Facts on the War Crimes in the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the figures speak for themselves: 650 eyewitnesses, 21,000 names of people murdered, 5,039 of war criminals, 169 concentration camps, 172 villages razed to the ground, 559 mosques destroyed.
These and other unimpeachable testimonies demonstrate the obvious desire of pan-Serbian fundamentalists — besotted by bloody mythology and an age-old longing to avenge the fourteenth-century defeat in the battle of Blackbird Fields in Kosovo — to exterminate the Bosnian Muslims in the strictly physical sense of the term. I won’t reherse the most shocking of these reports, but I will just mention the one noted by David Rieff in his excellent account in the New Yorker from a conversation with Jose Maria Mendiluce, the former high-ranker in the UNHCR.
The episode took place in the small Bosnian city of Zvornik, at the time when it was being occupied by the notorious group of Serbian mercenaries known as the White Eagles. “I saw,” Mendiluce affirms, “children placed under the wheels of tanks by fine, upstanding men and then crushed by other men in full possession of their faculties. These people have a coherent strategy. Their aim is to inflict the maximum terror on the civilian population, destroy the maximum property, and exercise the maximum violence on women and children. As soon as the mercenaries have accomplished their mission, the established authorities — the police of Karadzic’s militia — arrive to restore order.”
The threats to create an international tribunal to try the crimes against humanity committed in the former Yugoslavia given shape in numerous resolutions and agreements — the latest being the resolution of the 4 + 1 drawn up in Washington by Javier Solana — are, as Milosevic, Karadzic, Mate Boban, and their ilk known too well, rhetorical exercises for the gallery, not worth the paper they’re printed on. These criminals, known to everyone, travel to New York, Paris, London, and Geneva, are welcomed with smiles and full honors by the same men who issue “strong protests” in “harsh, unequivocal language” at the overwhelming mass of evidence of genocide and ethnic purification. This comedy enacted by both sides fools nobody. Radovan Karadzic, enveloped in the romantic glow of a poet who admires Walt Whitman, even pretends not to know the expression ethnic cleansing, which he stumbles over in response to journalists’ questions, as if stunned by innocent surprise. Massacres, progroms, death camps? An invention of the mujaheddin, the Islamic fundamentalists trying to dominate Europe! The habit of lying while knowing one is lying that H. M. Enzensberger spoke about in reference to intellectuals and apparatchik in the East, has been perfected in Belgrade and Pale, thanks to the “creativity and inventive imagination” in deceit raised to the height of an art in one of his novels by Dobrica Cosic, the defenestrated president of the Serbian-Montenegrin Federation. The library in Sarajevo was burnt by the “Turks” of Alija Izetbegovic to draw attention to themselves and accuse us of barbarism! The mosques blown to smithereens is the work of the mujaheddin attempting to mobilize world opinion against the Serbs! The recent attack that occurred as I write these lines on the UN fleet of vehicles in the district of Zetra, “a simple-minded scenario set up by the Muslims to sabotage the peace talks in Geneva and provoke a military intervention!” The butchery in the cemetery in Sarajevo, “a media ploy by the Bosnian Presidency to cover up Islamic expansionism”; as if Goebbels had described how the Jews in Auschwitz rushed into the gas chambers to win sympathy and stoke the fires of anti-Nazi propaganda. The target of almost universal, but empty, hypocritical rebuffs, Milosevic, Karadzic, Seselj present themselves as scapegoats in some Vatican-Islamic-Germanic plot. Only Russian nationalists, their Greek brothers, and the infallible protection of St. Sava can help them resist and guarantee the final victory of God’s people of the ballads chanted in the midst of threatening intrigues.
Although the tactical agreement by the leaders of Serbia, Great and Pure, and Croatia, Great and Pure, to divide up the spoils of Bosnia-Herzegovina harasses the Bosnian Army and forces the Izetbegovic loyalists to have recourse to methods employed by their enemies, the harshness of the conflict and fear of cleansing throw on the roads and byways in the Muslim controlled areas a terrified, hungry mass impossible to quantify: raw images of misery and pain at the heart of a thick-skinned, stonily selfish Europe, for which the disappearance of a sovereign state and the agony of a community of 2 million or so souls are just one more piece of new from the universe of sound and fury that Bush so far-sightedly styled “the new world order.” Where will they go, these hundreds of thousands of refugees, harried on every side, the hapless object of abuse and violence? Ever since the joint Croat-Serb offensive, the territory of those faithful to the idea of a multiethnic State — now almost entirely Muslim — is reduced to less than 10 percent of their land and is still shrinking, without territorial continuity, like sharkskin. In spite of the tenacious resistance of its army, the map of Bosnia is being inexorably transformed into a set of human mousetraps, of beings packed into desperate conditions more precarious than those in Sarajevo.
On 17 July Alma drives me into the center of the city, to what in its day was the luxurious Europa Hotel, converted into a hostal for refugees after it was seriously damaged by bombing. In the desolate, bare lobby, without doors and windowless, several women sit chatting on the floor while young boys play football or hide and seek, running between the adjacent columns and ravaged terrace and park, where not a single tree survives. Sixy-five famlies, a total of 276 people, are living here, crammed in their rooms; refugees from the outskirts of Sarajevo, from Foca, Visegrad, and Gorazde. We go up two flights of a banisterless staircase and enter a one-family room with settees, a mirror, and plastic chairs; Muslim rosaries hang on the wall alongside the Bosnia-Herzegovina coat-of-arms. The married couple Jasminka Butmic and Isak Crnogorcevic give Alma a warm welcome and offer us all they have to offer: a bowl of rosewater. Both lived on the outskirts of Sarajevo up to the invasion of May 1992.
“The ultras [Serbian ultranationalists] act like programmed robots,” she says. “No human feelings at all. They murder, pillage, and burn. Many of them are mercenaries from Russia and the Ukraine or criminals Milosevic has released from Serbian prisons. They want to spread hatred among us, but they won’t succeed. One day we’ll live together again.”
“Even after all the barbarity and bloodletting?”
“We won’t forget, but we will forgive,” he says. “There are Serbian families living here on the other side of the corridor. We help each other, we go down to the shelter together. Sarajevo has always been like that.”
The general feeling of betrayal with regard to the UN and the European Union surfaces with bitterness.
“Of what use to use are security zones, American planes flying overhead, and the Blue Helmets in their armored cars if they keep [Serbs] keep on murdering us? We aren’t afraid of an attack on the city. If they try, we can defend ourselves. That’s how they want to starve us into surrender, by killing civilians with cowardly bullets.”
We wait for a woman friend of the couple who is also a refugee in the hotel. When she doesn’t appear, we decide to return to Jasminka and Ishak’s room the following day.
The account by Abzija Meduserjac, a fifty-one-year-old [Bosniak] widow, of what happened in Visegrad in May 1992, deserves to be reproduced in full.
“The White Eagles stuck a butcher’s hook down the throat of my neighbor, Ahmed Karisik. It was tied by rope to the back bumper of a car and they dragged him through the town so people could see him and hear his cries. Then they beheaded him and played football with his head. Finally they threw his remains into the river.”
“They hacked the arms off another acquaintance, Hasan Brko, and forced him to drink his own blood. He was also beheaded and thrown in the river.”
“The White Eagles came from Vukovar, but they recruited a lot of Serbs in the town. A neighbor brought them to our house. They asked after my eldest son, enlisted in the Bosnian army, then said they would be back. I was afraid for my daughter, and sent her to another part of the town where she could hide and save her life. At 10 p.m. the following night they came without the neighbor. They beat me and my younger son, forces us to lie on the floor by aiming their revolvers at us, and forced me to put the barrel of a loaded pistol in my son’s mouth while I was kicked and pummeled trying to get the gun to fire. Suddenly they tired of their game, and, for some reason, left us alone. I was speechless for eight days: I couldn’t make a single sound.”
“The Muslims who took refuge in Gorazde were promised they could return safely. The people who believed that perished. They forced more than 300 inside the Old Mosque, near the bus station, and set it on fire. I’ll never forget their cries of terror and the smell of burnt flesh.”
“There were girls who tried to commit suicide by throwing themselves out of the rooms where the White Eagles locked them up in order to rape them later. A neighbor and her seventeen-year-old daughter were raped, beheaded, and thrown in the river. One girl managed to escape from a house they doused in petrol and set alight, no skin, no hair, scorched, a living sore, like a ghost or skeleton. She was saved and is in a hospital in Ljubljana. ‘I live,’ she said, ‘in order to bear witness.’”
“Did the Serbs in the town collaborate in these brutalities?”
“A lot did. It seems incredible but it’s true. But a minority did stand aside and even tried to help us.”
“Do you think you could live with them again?”
Abzija’s face darkens, her eyes seem to stare into space.
“I don’t know. It would be very difficult for me to live alongside the man who gave us away.”
“You must walk this city patiently,” I read in a guide to Sarajevo published a few years ago, “if you want to discover it, find the main districts and understand how its heart always beats in old Carsija, the popular area of bazaars, traders, bystanders, and tourists. You must visit Bascarsija, the present name for this part of town, on foot. The few car parks on its periphery are difficult to locate.”
From the second day of my stay I have followed this advice and taken advantage of the gaps in my daily schedule, preferably at the time of day when the guns go quiet and a deceptive feeling of peace reigns over the besieged capital.
In photos, the main triangular-shaped plaza descending the slope from the start of Marshal Tito Avenue to the small mosque in Bascarsija seems brimming over with life and energy. Today it is a deserted space exposed to mortar blasts and shells from the pan-Serbian extremists stationed on the hills the other side of the river. Various rusty street stalls stand battered and empty, a miserable advertising column displays tattered posters for defunct cultural activities, a yellow lorry has been immobilized forever next to a beautiful Ottoma wooden kios with a striated dome that is topped by two balls and a tiny crescent. The bazaars are barred over or have been gutted by shellfire, their reddish roofs holed or scarred by direct hits, the useless traffic lights and markers of a tourist route are a derisory reminder of happier times gone by.
All the intersecting streets that lead to Vase Miskina contain similar lines of empty bazaars, pavements with deserted awnings, Spanish-style tiles advertising a barber’s, or an eye-catching Grill Dome. The Brusa covered market has been closed down, but around the equally shut main city mosque I spot faint signs of life: a few goldsmiths; a hairdresser; two bookshops selling Muslim religious works, one window with a translation of Europe and Islam by the excellent Tunisian historian Hichem Djait.
The beautiful mosque of Gazi Husref Bey built in 1531 — one of the masterpieces of Ottoman-Balkan architecture — has received a total of eighty-six mortar blasts, but both the body of the building and its delicate minaret still survive. The interior was badly damaged and is being restored. The marble stairs to the pulpit stand out alone and miraculously unscathed between the scaffolding and plasting sheeting over the mihrab and the maqsura.
The most desolate spectacle is the ancient Institute for Oriental Studies, the famous Library of Sarajevo. On 26 August 1992, Serbian ultranationalists rained down a host of incendiary rockets that reduced the entirety of its rich cultural heritage to ashes in a few hours. As the press office of the government of Bosnia-Herzegovina points out, this act “constitutes the most barbarous attack on European culture since the Second World War.” The fact is that the band of mediocre novelists, poets, and historians with a vocation as arsonists, whose report to the Belgrade Academy [Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts] was the seed of Milosevic’s rise to power and the subsequent breakup of Yugoslavia — the crime cannot be properly described except as memoricide. Since every trace of Islam must be removed from the territory of Greater Serbia, the Library, the collective memory of the Bosnian Muslim people, was condemned a priori to disappear in the avenging, purifying flames.
Almost five centuries after the burning of the Arab manuscripts by the Bibarrambla Gate to Granada decreed by Cardinal Cisneros, the episode has been repeated on a larger scale during the Fifth Centenary Commemorations. Determined to right the wrongs in the history of their country, the forgers of Serbian national mythology — so eloquently denounced by compatriots of the standing of Djuric and Bogdanovic — fulfilled their ancestral dreams of annihilation: thousands of Arab, Turkish, and Persian manuscripts disappeared forever. The treasure thus destroyed comprised works of history, geography, and travel; theology, philosophy, and Sufism; natural sciences, astrology, and mathematics; dictionaries, grammars, and anthologies of poetry; treatises on music and chess. Today all that remains of the library is the hollow frame of its four facades adorned by columns, horseshoe arches, rose windows, and turrets. The metal structure of the roof through which the rockets fell looks like an enormous spider’s web, the pillars of the inner courtyard preserve little of the delicate stucco work, the central area is a huge pile of rubbish, debris, beams, and charred paper. I pick a piece up, see it is a catalog card from the archive, and take it with me as a souvenir of this programmed barbarism, the purpose of which was to sweep away the historic substance of a land and mount in its place an edifice made of lies, legend, and willful amnesia.
If the Komites, Hayduks, and Chetniks were never punished for their assaults on Muslims in the last two centuries, why should they be punished now by a European Union that is falling apart, victim of the contradictions, small-mindedness, and egoism of its own architects? On the new map fo the Balkans, drawn in blood and fire by the defenders of the primacy of national, religious values, the mere name of Sarajevo symbolizes the existence of a cosmopolitanism that is hated and seen as an affront: a space for encounters and convergence, a point where differences rather than being a reason for exclusion mingle and cross-fertilize through osmosis and permeability. The Bosnian capital embodies — I find it difficult to write embodied — a distinct, stimulating, open concept of a European city. Blind, deaf, and dumb, we are allowing it to be destroyed.
Once only has to cross the trickle of the Miljacka River by the bridge near the library to be in the heart of the left bank coveted by the “Serbian Republic of Bosnia,” the small Jewish community gathered around the synagogue. There is a long queue of people in the street overlooked by its pink, ochre facade, large windows, rosaces, and domes capped by the six-pointed star: they are customers of the “Hebrew chemists,” the best stocked in the city. In the building next to the temple — where there have been no services for some time through lack of a rabbi — a charity organization whose name — La Benevolensia — has a clear Spanish ring, daily distributes hundreds of bowls of soup to the starving population. To reach the first floor you have to make your way through the mass of Sarajevans who come to fill their stomachs or communicate with their families who have fled to Croatia or are resident in areas loyal to the Bosnian presidency via a small radio station set up in one of the rooms.
David Kamhi, vice president of the Jewish Humanitarian, Cultural and Educational Society is a violinist and looks just like la member of a Spanish provincial casino: bald-headed, lively, bespectacled, like those sitting among the smoke and noise of their countrymen opposite a stack of cards or a domino board. His Spanish — “not ladino but Jewish-Spanish” — he points out — is amazingly rich and modern. David Kamhi is a descendant of the Jews expelled from the Peninsula in 1492 who spread through the lands of the Ottoman Empire and settled in Sarajevo in 1551.
“Before the Nazis arrived, there were 14,000 of us, 10,000 Sephardic Jews. Most died when deported. Of those who escaped some remained hidden in the city, others came back at the end of the war.”
“In April 1992, the community had 1,400 members, mainly Sephardic as I am. When religious restrictions to an end with the death of Tito, many people discovered their Jewish roots and moved close to us. There were 700 in the autumn of last year when the siege was established. Now there are about as many of us who have refused to leave.”
“Since Bosnia became independent,” he lamented, “not a single diplomat from your country has visited us. Why don’t you send a representative to Sarajevo? Perhaps we don’t exist? I am Bosnian, I am Jewish and I am Spanish. Many of my colleagues are called Pardo, Pinto, Alcalay, Alfandari, Mercado. My first language was Spanish. I’ve created an association of Bosnian-Spanish Friendship, I was in Madrid on the occasion of the Fifth Centenary and shook hands with King Juan Carlos.”
“It is shameful that Spain ignores us and doesn’t maintain relations with Bosnia. The only people who visit and help us are army officers and commanders. General Delimiro Prado was here chatting in this office. I heard that the king offered the Spanish passport to all Sephardim. But how can that work out, if you don’t open a consulate here?”
“In Bosnia there were very good relations between the religious communities. They used to call Sarajevo Little Jerusalem. Muslim lads worked and learned their trade in our workshops. Sarajevo is a mixture: multicultural, multiconfessional, and multinational. Int his neighborhood of Sarajevo, the synagogue is a few steps from the mosque, which is a few steps from the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Now we have been put in a ghetto, in a concentration camp of 380,000 people. It’s unbelievable that Europe should allow this after the Nazi genocide!”
“Humanitarian aid? That’s a joke! We don’t receive fifth of what we need: only humiliating alms. I’ll be blunt: they’re sending us stocks of food and clothes they couldn’t sell. The savages up there [the Serbs on the mountains] shoot at us indiscriminately: they kill us because we live together and want to go on living together. The idea of an Islamic threat is one of Milosevic’s lies. He and his gang are the real fanatics.”
Like all Sarajevans, David Kamhi prefers not to think about the future: the burden of the present is already too great and there is no possible way out.
“We Jews don’t even have anywhere to be buried” — is his parting comment — “our cemetery is on the front line. The Chetniks dug their trenches there and profaned it.”
AN ORTHODOX ARC FOR THE ISLAMIC SERPENT
Last June, Monsignor Seraphim, the primate of the Greek Orthodox Church, officiated at a special mass in Athens replete with political-religious homilies and sermons in support of Radovan Karadzic’s Serbian ultranationalists. All the parties of the right and the left and the Greek trades union organizations were on the platform. Inflammatory orators castigated “Muslim expansionism in the Balkans.” How can we stop it? “We must forget an arc of orthodoxy against the Islamic snake,” bellowed one prelate. In other words: imitate the Chetniks, the vanguard of Christianity.
Right from the start of their aggression against Bosnia, Serbian radicals have raised, both inside and outside their country the specter of the “fundamentalist” threat orchestrated in the shadows from Tehran. Their war thus took on a religious fervor aimed at coloring their homogenizing, irredentist plans with the hues of the secular struggle in Europe against the Muslims and their attempt to create a “Caliphate in the Balkans” with the support of the “Turkish fifth column” that has infiltrated Germany — the almost 2 million immigrant workers. These fantastic lucubrations, repeated day and night for years by Milosevic’s television, have sunk into the minds of many Serbs — and now Greeks — till they have been convinced they are legitimately defending themselves against the supposed genocide planned by mujaheddin.
“For five centuries, Serbs have suffered slavery glorifying the name of St. Sava. St. Sava loves Serbians and intercedes with God for them. Sing, Serbs. Now sing this song three times!”
Television propaganda from Belgrade and Pale, caught by satellite disk on the Dalmatian coast, carries images of an unforgettable lyrical candor: a blond, healthy girl, decked out in traditional Serbian costume and surprisingly similar to the young Valkyries on Hitler’s mass processions, bows graciously to kiss the mortar that disgorges its grenade on the “Turks” of Sarajevo. In a tryptich of warning to our European “friends,” the first figure shows the fluttering EU flag; the second, the same flag splashed with runny green lines; the third a totally green flag and a caption bleating: “This is the future.” Green, naturally, represents Islam and the message from Milosevic and Karadzic — reiterated by Franjo Tudjman, as clumsy and belated as ever — is more than transparent: their soldiers are fighting to defend Europeans against the flood tide of infidel invasion. Serbian nationalist mythology has resurrected the glorious epoch of the Crusades: the day of my departure General Ratko Mladic, leader of Karadzic’s ultras, had this comment to make as he launched the offensive against the last defenses of the Bosniak loyalists on Mounts Bjelasnica and Igman: “From now on my army controls the way of Allah.” The final victory of the paladins of racial purity, ratified as I write these lines by the breakup of Bosnia-Herzegovina and its replacement by a chimerical Federation of Bosnian Republics established along ethnic lines, must have overjoyed Jean-Marie Le Pen — whose acolytes, according to a key report by the National Geographic correspondent — maintain regular contact with Karadzic in Pale — strengthening him in his vision of a France without immigrants, a French France in line with the model of a Serbia Great and Pure.
“In the eyes of many Europeans, even the most open, liberal, lay Muslims are fundamentalists.” The man uttering these words in his office on the first floor of the Gazi Husref Islamic School is Mustafa Ceric, the rais or president of the imams of Bosnia. His black tunic, slightly greying beard, and immaculate white cap with its thin red border around his forehead confer on him an air of great nobility and dignity, like a figure in an Ottoman painting who has stepped out of the canvas and suddenly come to life. He’s been talking to me for more than half an hour without an interpreter in excellent English with a smattering of Arabic. He spontaneously sketches the broad lines of his biography: he studied theology and religious sciences in the Al Azhar university in Cairo, and was imam for the last decade in the main mosque in Chicago.
“I am the only member of the Muslim religious community in Bosnia educated both in the Near East and the West. Until last year I firmly believed in the humanist values of Europe: its democratic ideals, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the freedom of belief at the heart of its lay states, that is, in the noble precepts inscribed in their constitutions. The Bosnian people — Bosniaks and many Croats and Serbs — believed in them as well: they wanted to live within the framework of a multiethnic, multicultural state. Since May 1992 we have been sacrificing our lives for the principles of the United Nations Charter. And what has happened? Instead of helping us, European governments, led by England and France, have folded their arms: they are allowing us to be exterminated and deny us the right to defend ourselves by imposing an arms embargo that leaves us defenseless at the mercy of the enormous arsenal of the Yugoslavian army that Milosevic confiscated for his own personal use.”
“After this bitter cup, I can no longer believe in European humanism. The ideas worthy of respect in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights have died in Bosnia. Tens of thousands of men and women who also supported them are now stacked up on top of each other through lack of space in the cemeteries of Sarajevo or lie in common graves throughout the territory of Bosnia. Say it loud and clear: they died defending these ideas in the midst of the indifference or hypocritical compassion of European statesmen and diplomats.”
“The West will no longer be abl to give us moral lectures: it has allowed the architects of ethnic cleansing, an imitation of the Nazi model, to rape and systematically murder women and children, create concentration camps, and reduce our past to ashes with absolute impunity. You who are very proud that you defeated Fascism, don’t you realise how it has risen again and is burning down the inside of your own house? Have you become blind and deaf to the barbarism destroying Sarajevo?”
“On the one hand, you talk of punishing the guilty of crimes against humanity, and on the other you conduct friendly dialogues with them and endorse their conquests. We the victims are the ones who have been punished: left defenseless, bombed, starving, our medical aid blockaded. The initial responsibility for this tragedy falls on Milosevic, Karadzic and the fanatical supporters of Greater Serbia, but that of the European union is no less great. Its governments have refused to put their principles into practice, they have behaved cynically and scornfully toward the weak.”
“What about the humanitarian aid?”
“What use is drip-feeding if they allow them to cut our heads off?”
“Invoking the fundamentalist threat is not an exclusively Serbian practice. More than one Western politician has developed a strategy along these lines.”
“That’s the heart of the problem. Many Europeans are locked in the formula of the historic confrontation of Christianity with Islam. The specters from the past weigh like a nightmare on their subconscious. The Chetniks use that whip up atavistic frenzies, perpetuate the crusading spirit, and proclaim themselves as championing Europe against the ‘Turks.’ This would be laughable if it weren’t a question of life and death for us.”
“The West thinks it possesses the monopoly of truth, morality, and right behavior but in reality it wants to maintain its political and economic domination over Muslim peoples and, generally, those it calls Third World; it uses every means to stop us uniting; it tries to make us believe we are incapable of resolving our problems without its advice or help. It is perfectly aware of its technological, economic, and military superiority, but fears our spiritual strength because it knows that it has none.”
I ask him about the plan for ethnic partition, for a federation or confederation of states, discussed by the UN and EU negotiators.
“Lord Owen has no honor or shame. He has treated us to a string of lies and unkept promises followed by threats and bribes to make us yield to force and accept what he calls new realities. He has never considered Bosnia to be a sovereign state. He is the true figure of a man without principles, unable to disgtinguish criminal from victim who, in the end, becomes an active accomplice in the crime.”
The conversation drifts into more personal areas: teh psychological consequences of the terror and siege. Does he think himself personally capable of preserving the humanism that he invokes, of resisting the maelstrom of ethnic hatred?
“It’s a difficult situation,” Mustafa Ceric concedes. “The Chetniks are systematically propagating racial confrontation, want to extinguish any embers of merhimet (forgiveness and pity) in our hearts. They consider this feeling, our repugnance at following their methods, as proof of our meekness and inferiority. Consequently, though we must never give up on that attitude, we must become warlike and strong, stop them from annihilating or dispersing us like the Palestinians. They want to extirpate Islam from the Balkans. The time has come for us to abandon dead ideals and preserve the existence and faith of our community.”
In the late afternoon, as I transfer the notes of my interview to the pages of my notebook, the sniper fire intensifies. Susan Sontag arrived some hours ago and I dine with her, David Rieff, and the photographer Annie Leibovitz in the hotel dining room. Although it is Monday and we can’t avail ourselves of the modest self-service buffet, our “entertainer” for the evening is playing some sentimental, vaguely familiar tunes on the piano. The Holiday Inn is in darkness: we converse by candlelight. There is a loud background noise of shelling and machine-gun fire; the atmosphere is surreal. Someone hands me the bulletin from the Institute for Public Health: in the last thirty-six hours artillery fire and sniper bullets have killed eight and wounded thirty-five!
The soiree goes on longer than usual, and as I leave our table, holding my flashlight, I note that our “entertainer” has slipped off sale and sound,
Nobody shot the pianist!