Why Bosnia matters

Christopher Hitchens

The daily round in Sarajevo is one of dodging snipers, scrounging for food and water, collecting rumours, visiting morgues and blood-banks and joking heavily about near-misses. The shared experience of being, along with the city’s inhabitants, a sort of dead man on leave makes for levelling of the more joyous and democratic sort, even if foreign writers are marked off from the rest by their flak-jackets and their ability to leave, through the murderous corridor of the Airport road, more or less at will. The friendship and solidarity of Sarajevo’s people will stay with all of us for the rest of our lives and indeed, at the present rate of attrition, it may be something that will only survive in the memory. The combined effect of incessant bombardment with the onset of a Balkan winter may snuff out everything I saw.

On a paved street in the centre of town, near the Eternal Flame (already snuffed out by the lack of fuel) that commemorates the Partisan resistance, is a bakery shop. Eighteen people were killed by a shell that hit a breadline a few weeks ago, and mounds of flowers mark the spot. Shortly after I paid my own visit, another shell fell in exactly the same place, randomly distributing five amputations among a dozen or so children. One of the children had just been released from hospital after suffering injuries in the first ‘incident’. A few hundred yards further on, as I was gingerly approaching the imposing building that houses the National Library of Bosnia, a mortar exploded against its side and persuaded me to put off my researches. All of this became more shocking to me when I went with some Bosnian militiamen to the top of Hum, the only high ground still in the defenders’ grasp. It was amazing, having spent so much time confined in the saucer of land below, to see the city splayed beneath like a rape victim. This view was soon supplanted by an access of outrage. From this perspective, it was so blindingly clear that the Serbian gunners can see exactly what they are doing.

Entering the handsome old Austro-Hungarian edifice that houses the Presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and which absorbed several hits that day, i was panting with relief as I gained the shelter of the vestibule when I saw a poster facing me. Executed in yellow and black, it was a combined logo featuring the Star of David, the Islamic star and crescent, the Roman Catholic cross and the more elaborate cruciform of the Serbian and Bosnian Orthodox. Gens una summus,read the superscription. ‘We are one people’. Here, rendered in iconographic terms, was the defiant remnant of ‘the Yugoslav idea’ (pictures of Tito are still common, in both public and private settings, in Sarajevo). And here, also, was all that was left of internationalism. The display was striking, and not just because it rebuked the primitive mayhem in the immediate vicinity. All across former Yugoslavia, a kind of mass surrender to unreason is taking place, hoisting emblems very different from the Sarajevan.

Across the street from the Zagreb café where I am writing, there is a display of adoring memorabilia, all of it brashly recalling the rule in Croatia of Ante Pavelic and his bestial Ustashe, constituted as a Nazi and Vatican protectorate between 1941 and 1945. Young men in black shirts, and warped older men nostalgic for Fascism, need no longer repress the urge to fling the right arm skyward, or to hear some clerical goon bless their crusade by the guttering of a torch. Their ‘militia’, long used to harass Croatian Serbs, is now heavily engaged in the ‘cleansing’ of Western Herzegovina, in obvious collusion with the Serbian Chetniks to the east and south. Miraculous virgins make their scheduled appearance. Lurid posters show shafts of light touching the pommels of mysterious swords, or blazon the talons of absurd but vicious two-headed eagles. More than a million Serbs attend a frenzied rally, on a battle site at Kosovo where their forebears were humiliated in 1389, and hear former Communists rave in the accents of wounded tribalism. Ancient insignia, totems, feudal coats of arms, talismans, oaths, rituals, icons and regalia jostle to take the field. A society long sunk in political stagnation, but a society nevertheless well across the threshold of modernity, is convulsed: puking up great rancid chunks of undigested barbarism. In this Thirties atmosphere of coloured shirts, weird salutes and licensed sadism, one is driven back to that period’s clearest voice, which spoke of

The Enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Bosnia, and Sarajevo especially, is not so much the most intense and bitter version of the wider conflict, as the heroic exception to it. During respites from the fighting, I was able to speak with detachments of Bosnian volunteers. At every stop, they would point with pride and cheerfulness to their own chests and to those of others, saying: ‘I am Muslim, he is Serb, he is Croat.’ It was the form their propaganda took, but it was also the truth. I met one local commander, Alia Ismet, defending a shattered old people’s home seventy metres from the Serbian front line, who, as well as being a defector from the Yugoslav National Army (YNA), was also an Albanian from Kosovo. There was a Jew among the entrenchment-diggers on Hum Hill, Colonel Jovan Divjak, deputy commander of the Bosnian Army, is a Serb. I shook his hand as he walked, with a Serbo-Croat aide-de-camp named Srdjan Obradovic (‘Obradovic is a multinational name’), through the nervous pedestrians on the edge of the Old City, under intermittent fire at noon. He was unarmed, and popular.

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