Homage to Bosnia

Bosnia: A Short History

by Noel Malcolm
Macmillan, 340 pp., £9.99 (paper)

Sarajevo: Survival Guide

by the FAMA Collective, Sarajevo, 1993
distributed by Workman, 95 pp., $10.00 (paper)

Why Bosnia? Writings on the Balkan War

edited by Rabia Ali, edited by Lawrence Lifschultz
Pamphleteer’s Press, 353 pp., $19.95 (paper)

Sarajevo: A War Journal

by Zlatko Dizdarević, translated by Anselm Hollo, edited by Ammiel Alcalay
Fromm, 193 pp., $19.95

Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo

by Zlata Filipović
Viking, 200 pp., $16.95


Roadblocks are being bulldozed away in Sarajevo’s Sniper Alley; the first streetcars since April 1992 are running in the city’s streets. Schools may soon re-open; Western engineers will be deployed to restore water, gas, and electricity. On the hilltops, the Serb artillery redoubts are deserted; the snipers have left behind the lawn chairs where they used to sit, drinking plum brandy and drawing beads on the frantic blurs in the streets below.

In the West, we’ve become adept at taking credit for whatever good news ever emerges from Bosnia, while avoiding blame for the bad. The recent meager portents are being heralded as a triumph of “our” resolve. Yet we have been deceived by our own self-congratulation before, and we may well be again. For this may not be peace at all, merely a lull while the warlords regroup. The briefest look at the position of each side makes this clear. On the surface, the Bosnian Serbs are nearest to achieving their basic war aims. Seventy percent of Bosnia is theirs. They have succeeded in hacking out their ethnically cleansed state, linked to Serbia proper and to their enclaves in Croatia. Yet General Mladic, the Bosnian Serb commander, still has his eye on the Muslim enclaves in Bihac and Maglaj. The Bihac pocket in the northeast threatens knin, Mladic’s home base, and Maglaj stands between him and his long-term aim of splitting Muslim territory in central Bosnia in two. While the Serbs have lifted the siege of Maglaj, they will not be content until they have squeezed the Muslims out of their territory.

The Bosnian Muslims may have lost northern and eastern Bosnia to the Serbs, but they have fought the Croats to a draw in the center and, in so doing, they have saved themselves from becoming the Palestinians of Europe, a fate which seemed inevitable six months ago. Having achieved this much by holding out against Western pressure to settle, they might decide to fight on, if they think they have a chance of breaking the Serb siege of some of their encircled enclaves.

The Croatians may appear, for the moment, to be the war-weariest of all. Yet a vital Croatian war aim remains unachieved. While they have gained territory in the hinterland of Herzegovina, thus strengthening their grip on the Dalmatian coast, Serb conquests in northern Bosnia have immeasurably strengthened the Serb enclaves in Croatia. These are now contiguous with Serb holdings in northern Bosnia and can be re-armed and re-supplied directly through Serbia. The enclave at Knin severs Croatia proper from the Dalmatian coast, while the enclave round Nova Gradiska cuts Croatia proper in two. As long as these two enclaves exist, Croatia is scarcely viable as a state and unless the outside world can impose on the Serbs their partial restitution to Croatia, the Croatian state will remain unworkable. Thus, as far as Croatia is concerned, there remains a casus belli, which if unsolved may set off another Serb-Croat war in Croatia.

At the moment, Croatia is especially vulnerable to international pressure. By actively joining the Serbs in the dismemberment of Bosnia, they have forfeited the international credibility they enjoyed in 1991 as innocent victims of Serb aggression. Further territorial scavenging in Bosnia will render them liable to international sanctions. Military stalemate in central Bosnia has also forced them to accept the American proposal to enter into a confederation in central Bosnia with the Muslims, though the long-term prospects for a confederation must be dim indeed.

All three sides, therefore, have some reason to fight on, if not now, then later. They can be stopped, but only if there is combined and sustained pressure from the Americans and Russians on all three sides. Beyond that, sustaining a peace will require a large Western presence, including Americans in the air and on the ground. In Sarajevo, the UN will have to patrol an ethnically partitioned city surrounded on all sides by the Serbs. In central Bosnia, it will probably have to keep the peace, not for years but for decades, along the frontiers of maddened, exhausted, ethnically cleansed micro-states. This is all the “success” our “resolve” can be said to have achieved.


For liberal internationalists Bosnia has become the Spanish Civil War of our era. In both instances, a legitimately elected government was challenged by an authoritarian insurrection abetted by foreign powers. When that government appealed for international intervention, its plight became a cause célébre. In both instances, that cause was pleaded in vain. True, there has been a show of resolve, but it has come two years too late to save the multi-ethnic republic of Bosnia.

There is no fatality in good causes that dooms them to defeat. In many ways, the 1990s were a more propitious time for liberal internationalism than the 1930s. In 1936, intervention might have led to a general European war. No such excuse could be offered in 1992. In 1936, the League of Nations was dead; in 1992, the UN was alive and, more importantly, the center of a network of nongovernmental agencies, private charities, and government agencies—from Amnesty to Medecins sans Frontières—which were in business to promote liberal internationalism. No such network existed in 1936. Behind these organizations stands a constituency of moral activists united in revulsion at what has been happening in Bosnia. Yet this consensus never developed sufficient momentum to force Western presidents and prime ministers to act. As a cause, Sarajevo remained encircled in the ghetto of the chattering classes.

All forms of moral engagement rely on narratives which turn history into a story of rights and wrongs. The cause of liberal interventionism failed in Bosnia not because intervention was too risky or too likely to fail, but because the cause itself could not make its moral narratives prevail. What is remarkable is that the true story of Bosnia—an independent country destroyed by an armed insurrection aided by a foreign power—should have been so continuously undermined by false narratives, whose effect was to diffuse and dissipate the build-up of Western outrage. Hence the story that this was a civil war, in which it was foolish to intervene. Hence the story that this was the resurfacing of ancient hatreds, which outsiders could never understand. Both story lines, assiduously propagated by the Serbs as well as by those who opposed intervention on any grounds, successfully sealed Bosnia off into the symbolic exclusion zone of a family quarrel. Then there was the idea that no strategic interests were involved, none of the geopolitical order would shift if the Balkans went one way or the other. Hence there was no narrative of neo-imperial interest to add pragmatic weight to moral concern.

All of these counternarratives had some plausibility and they had the immeasurable attraction of letting the West off the hook. Yet they were false. This was not essentially a civil war, because while the combatants were all members of the same state, the fighting could never have begun in the first place without the arms and the Greater Serbian ideology provided by Serbia proper. It is certainly true that what doomed Bosnia was the inability of all sides to trust each other sufficiently to allow the emergence of parties organized on non-ethnic, non-confessional lines. It was not that such trust was lacking “on the ground”: all three communities were deeply interwoven by intermarriage and a shared common life. Malcolm’s book—a thoughtful, lucid, and deeply informed study of Bosnia’s past, going back to the earliest times—devotes special attention to the traditions of syncretism which had developed, over the centuries, between the religious traditions in Bosnia. Even in the twentieth century Christian peasants often went to the local mosque, and Muslims took to wearing Christian amulets. Muslims kissed venerated Christian icons and Christians sometimes convoked Muslim dervishes to read the Koran over them to cure them of illness. As Malcolm says, “the shift from folk Christianity to folk Islam was not very great.”

Far from being a fatal frontier between the two antithetical civilizations—Christendom and Islam—Bosnia was the place where the two had learned, over five centuries, to understand each other and to coexist. The sources of long-term historical instability in Bosnia were not internal confessional difference per se but imperial conflict in Bosnia between the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman powers and, from the 1870s onward, the expansionist nationalist ambitions of neighboring states, especially Serbia. First the imperial powers, then the Serbs, and to a lesser degree the Croats began competing for the allegiance of the indigenous Bosnians, and in so doing began to divide them from each other.

As Malcolm shows, the history of Bosnia is a tragic case study of the paradoxical relation between religion and nationalism, paradoxical because confessional adherence seems to have wanted in Bosnia as the nationalist significance of confessional demarcations grew. By the 1990s, only 17 percent of Bosnia’s populations defined themselves as religious believers. Being a Muslim was very nearly emptied of religious content. It meant choosing a Muslim name, having your son circumcised, celebrating Bajram, the feast that marks the end of Ramadan, getting a godparent to cut a child’s hair, a preference for tiny coffee cups without handles, and a sympathy for spiders. The same reduction of confessional difference to cultural preference was occurring among the Catholics and Orthodox of Bosnia. Yet it was at this very moment that nationalist ideology went to work on these cultural differences, redefining them as essential, pure, and indissoluble signs of national identity.

Since Bosnia was full of secularized and educated people in all three communities who could fully understand and anticipate the fatal consequences of any attempt to impose exclusivist “nationalist” labels on fluid confessional differences, the question is how exactly this tragedy took place.

Malcolm rightly insists that Bosnia was torn apart, not from the inside, but from the outside. The Bosnian war of 1992 was triggered by external agitation, this time from Milosevic’s Serbia proper, which seized on the fears of Bosnian Serbs of their fate in a Muslim-dominated Bosnia to realize his own designs for a Greater Serbia. Malcolm’s book is by far the best available guide to the fatal steps to catastrophe, but he is so understandably eager to convict Milosevic that he reduces the Bosnian Serbs to puppets of Greater Serb ambitions. One wishes that Malcolm had devoted more space to Bosnian Serb traditions—to their epic poetry, their passion for the quale or zither, their self-idealization, despite urbanization, as rough and pure mountain warriors, immemorial defenders of Orthodoxy against Islam. In part, their war against Sarajevo was the war of the country against the city, the hinterland against the metropolis, rural mountain folk against the sophisticated cosmopolitans. Their fear was a compound of paranoia, fueled by propaganda and hysteria from Serbia proper, and rational anxiety at the fate that awaited them in a Muslim-dominated republic.

These fears were “rational” in the sense that by the time Bosnia had declared its independence, the political system had already fractured along ethnic lines. The chief responsibility for this lies in the Serb refusal to engage in bipartisan, multi-ethnic political accommodation with the Muslim majority. The Muslim leadership must also take some blame for ethnic polarization. Malcolm admits, for example, that there was a “real tension” between the “religious element” in the Muslim parties’ gut appeal, and the “pluralist,” non-ethnic elements of their program. The Muslims were too weak to get away with any ambiguity in their message. Like the Serbs and Croats, they began to think of themselves in national and “nationalist” terms, but unlike the other two groups, they had no tutelary states to protect and arm them. The Serbs took one look at the green banners and crescents of the Muslim parties and believed that independence, under Muslim rule, delivered them up to ethnic majority tyranny. This was where the West could have intervened to back up Muslim promises of a fair and just state for all, with international guarantees of Serbian minority rights coupled with an ultimatum to Milosevic to stay out. Needless to say, we did nothing, leaving the way open to Milosevic’s propaganda to turn a state of rational anxiety into rabid paranoia.

The genesis of the Bosnian war is complicated: since few people in the West understood the history, it became especially easy for a much simpler narrative—a civil war re-igniting ancient ethnic loathings—to insinuate itself and to justify inaction.

Even more important in creating a climate of moral disengagement was the belief that nothing ultimate was at stake for the West in Bosnia. Nothing at stake? In fact, Europe itself was at stake in Bosnia. No other event since 1915 has so disillusioned Europe with itself as its failure to stop ethnic cleansing in the Balkans; just as no other peace-keeping operation has done such damage to the credibility of the UN. The failure of both the UN and Europe may excite precious little remorse in American hearts, but it is no less true that the credibility of American power has also been seriously damaged. This surely is the most chastening lesson of Bosnia: not merely that we betrayed the Bosnians, but that we so signally betrayed ourselves.


The Bosnian war has called forth many acts of moral witness in the West—some brave war reporting, a steady flow of humanitarian convoys as well as a stream of honorable and intrepid visitors who came to share the deprivations of the besieged city. Yet acts of witness, however honorably intended, were deformed by their ultimate ineffectiveness. Witness that had no result came to seem indistinguishable from voyeurism. The result was deep disillusion in Sarajevo. After David Rieff—certainly no voyeur—returned to the city, having reported on conditions for The New Yorker, he wrote that one Sarajevo friend asked him, “Another safari?… What do you hope to see this time, more corpses, more destruction? We should charge you admission.”

Sarajevans have become bitterly acquainted with the inconstant and inconsequential character of Western involvement with their city. Indeed the FAMA collective, a group of artists, writers, and people who work for the press and television in Sarajevo, actually produced a Michelinstyle travel guide for the city, aimed at visiting moral tourists. In a surreal, deadpan inversion of the travel guide genre, the chapter devoted to the shopping delights of Sarajevo lists the daily bread ration—233 grams per person—and the bakeries where one is least likely to be killed when standing in the queue. As for recreation in besieged Sarajevo, the guide recommends soccer, but warns “the game is hard, masculine, with lots of injuries. Foreigners lose here, as they always did.”

The FAMA guide both plays up to and tries to subvert Western fascination with the city as a film set for Mad Max 5, a hideous prefiguration of the damnation which will overwhelm our own cities if their tense multicultural orders break down any further. Yet this fascination with Sarajevo as metaphor went along with ever more complete disengagement with its actual fate. Indeed, as the siege entered its second year, Sarajevo became just another banal source of what the picture editors call “strong” or “interesting” images. In using precisely these images, the FAMA collective hopes—desperately—to subvert the Western “travel morality” that turned Sarajevo into the most chic of all possible fin de siècle destinations.

Like the FAMA collective, Zlatko Dizdarevic, editor of Oslobodenje, the heroic Sarajevo newspaper which kept publishing throughout the siege, was also grimly fascinated by the West’s strange relation to the city. Dizdarevic’s “war journal,” covering the period from April 1992 to August 1993, angrily chronicles the West’s rhetoric of solidarity with the city. In November 1992, he notes, a group of Parisian intellectuals sent the Sarajevans a video. While watching it on Sarajevan TV, Dizdarevic kept his eyes fixed on something the Parisians would not even have noticed: that they were “drinking tea in pretty china cups poured from an even prettier rustic teapot,” while offering their homage to their heroic Sarajevo colleagues. One of the Parisians, the film maker Costa Gavras, said he would like to hold the premiere of his next film in Sarajevo. When the Sarajevans managed to send a video of their own back to Paris, there was no tea, no china, not even a table. The participants sat in the charred remains of the municipal library. One of them thanked Costa Gavras for offering the film but pointed out that he would need to provide them with a theater in which to show it.

When Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel appeared in Sarajevo in December 1992, according to Dizdarevic, he “did the city in half an hour,” like so many other Western visitors before and after him. Before departing to pay a visit to the Bosnian Serb commander, Wiesel “reprimanded [the Muslims] gently for doing things ‘comparable to what they are doing over there.” And this was not Western “intervention” at its worst. The UN troops in the city would distribute relief packages one day and stand by the next while snipers picked off civilians within sight of the UN bunkers.

Sarajevans had no choice but to reconcile themselves to these often obscene ironies, and to do their best to manipulate the Western conscience as best they could. They knew that without the world’s promiscuous and shallow attention, even such humanitarian aid as there was might dry up, leaving them to starve. But since Western humanitarian gestures did nothing to stop the bombardment, Sarajevans like Dizdarevic often felt we were simply colluding in their slow obliteration.

The failure, for two years, to lift the Sarajevo siege is an object lesson in the very real weakness of the narratives of moral empathy which supposedly tie us all together in the so-called “global village.” One such narrative, which was repeated like a mantra—Sarajevo is a European city, Sarajevo is us—had stunningly little effect. Apparently, unseen lines of moral demarcation still divide Western Europe (“us”) from Eastern Europe (“them”). Indeed, the idea of Europe, far from making empathy and engagement easier, actually made it harder. For what precisely was the status of the Muslims of Bosnia? They looked like Europeans, acted like Europeans, yet nominally adhered to the creed against which Europe has defined itself ever since the Crusades. Serb propaganda, which cast the Bosnian Muslims as the shock troops of an Islamic fundamentalist threat to European civilization, may have been too crude to be believed. Yet at the beginning of the war, such propaganda helped to create a crucial moment of hesitation about whether the Muslims counted as good Europeans or not and whether they should be saved. By the time the West had confronted and put aside its deeply embedded legacy of anti-Islamic prejudice, Sarajevo was already under siege.

Intellectuals who called for solidarity with Sarajevo in the name of Europe did not understand that the concept of Europe divides as much as it unites, especially in the Balkans. As Slavoj Zizek, a Slovenian social scientist, remarks in a brilliant essay in the superbly edited collection of writings on the Balkan War, Why Bosnia?, “Every actor in the blood play of [Yugoslavia’s] disintegration endeavors to legitimate its place ‘inside’ by presenting itself as the last bastion of European civilization…in the face of oriental barbarism.” Thus Slovenes believe the edge of Europe begins at their border with the Croats. Croatian nationalists will tell you that, as the heirs of the Catholic, Habsburg domains in Yugoslavia, they are the defenders of European values against the primitive Balkan Serbs. Needless to say, the Bosnian Serbs insist they are fighting for Christian Europe against the fundamentalist Islamic hordes; while the so-called Islamic hordes, with much justice, believe they are defending the essential European civic ideal of the nonconfessional, multi-ethnic state against fascist barbarians.

The outside world’s shocked exclamation: “How could this be happening in Europe?” had the opposite of its intended effect. Instead of rousing people to demand intervention, it redescribed all of the combatants as non-European savages, and in so doing absolved Western Europeans of their own past. Our horror about Bosnia had an amnesiac quality, as if we wished to believe that ethnic cleansing was alien to European traditions. The contrary is the case. When there has been cleansing in the past, it has always been in the name of Europe. All of which leads one to say that solidarity with Sarajevo might have been more successful if the invocation of “European values” had been more humble, more attentive to the divisive ambiguities of “Europe” as a moral term in the Balkans, if in sum it had been understood that “Europe” is all too often the last refuge of a scoundrel.


It seems symbolic of the often inconsequential character of Western grasp of the Bosnian story that the book on Sarajevo which has already outsold any other should be Zlata’s Story, by Zlata Filipovic. It is a warm-hearted and wide-eyed view of gathering horror written by a precociously mature teenager of mixed Croatian-Muslim parentage. Of the two diaries written in Sarajevo during the siege, Zlata’s and Dizdarevic’s, the child’s has already vastly outsold the adult’s. One reason may be that while Zlata rarely points an accusing finger at her Western audience, Dizdarevic does so constantly. Zlata’s diary is moving, in a sentimental sort of way, but it asks few awkward questions. From it, for example, you would never know what anyone is fighting for or about, or why there are people who do not want the republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina to die.

In the diary, the war is like a natural catastrophe, a pure instance of motiveless malignity directed at a defenseless child. This, of course, is exactly what the war is, from a child’s eye view, and Zlata can hardly be reproached for only seeing it this way. What is more serious perhaps is that this is the only view of the war in Bosnia that large numbers of people in the West are willing to accept. This is why the success of the book, certainly no fault of Zlata’s, makes one uneasy, and why unease remains even when one learns that some portion of the royalties is now being spent on aid to the beleaguered city.

The French publishers—Laffont—displayed a shrewd grasp of the essentially sentimental character of Western concern about Sarajevo when they snapped up world rights to Zlata’s book. For they realized, instantly, that Zlata was perfect: not merely young, innocent, articulate, and intelligent, but so obviously a child of modern global media culture. Here was a Bosnian who watched MTV, pinned posters of Cindy Crawford and Linda Evangelista on her walls, and listened to Madonna and Michael Jackson. For the publishers, she was the girl next door, though in this case next door was Hell.

All moral engagement personalizes: if it doesn’t get personal, it doesn’t last. But it is also true that if it only personalizes, it quickly dissipates. This is the paradox of empathy with innocence. Empathy untouched by analysis, by some deeper understanding of what is at stake in a place like Bosnia, quickly evaporates when the emotions get distracted, when the press and television throw up some other winsome and appealing child who seems to incarnate some other crime or cause.

This is to suggest that while the diary seems an innocent and rather admirable thing in itself, its success is not. It may even be the case that Zlata herself is rather admirably grown-up, while those who are promoting her are less so. This comes through in the rather revealing passages about the analogy between herself and Anne Frank. Since Anne called her diary Kitty, Zlata decides to call hers Mimmy. Yet as Zlata herself came to realize, there the analogies end. By the time the Western journalists start coming to interview her in Sarajevo in August 1993, Zlata herself has become aware that there is something obviously wrong about their comparison of her with Anne Frank.

Some people compare me with Anne Frank. That frightens me, Mimmy. I don’t want to suffer her fate.

It almost seems beside the point to add that Anne was already, at sixteen, a writer of extraordinary depth and maturity, while Zlata’s prose strikes the reader as no more than honest and sincere. What seems interesting is how assiduously publishers, reviewers, and Newsweek editors should have cultivated an analogy which even Zlata herself found inapposite. In manufacturing a commercially valuable form of sentimental identification between the consuming public of the West and the besieged of Sarajevo, apparently any Holocaust analogy, however stretched, however fraudulent, would do.

In a recent review, David Rieff takes the diary to task for being full of tendentious political propaganda. In some passages, “she is not Anne Frank, she is a recruiting poster in prose.” He has also alleged that the initial version of the diary, first published by UNICEF, was free of such tendentiousness. He alleges that the version in English has been tampered with, by the addition of inappropriate political commentary. The French publishers indignantly deny this and point out that such politics as there are in the diary are emphatically Zlata’s own. There are in fact very few occasions when Zlata sounds like a “recruiting poster.” The dominant note is that “the political situation is stupidity in motion. Great BIG stupidity.” Surely it is this note of baffled cynicism which strikes such a chord with Western readers, which allows them the pleasant illusion that there is nothing about the politics—either of Western inaction, Serb machination, or Muslim machiavellianism—that is worth the bother of understanding.

It is very much to Zlata’s credit that she herself noticed the voracious, yet curiously impersonal sentimentality which the Western media so suddenly began to turn upon her. After UNICEF published extracts of her diary in the city itself, in the summer of 1993, the world’s broadcasters—CNN, ABC, BBC—beat a path to her door. Flattered at first, she began to muse on how odd it is to be a global celebrity while imprisoned in a town under siege and curfew:

Tonight the world will be looking at me (and that, you know, is because of you, Mimmy). Meanwhile I’m looking at the candle, and all around me is darkness. I’m looking in the dark.

Can that outside world see the darkness I see? Just as I can’t see myself on TV tonight, so the rest of the world probably can’t see the darkness I’m looking at. We’re at two ends of the world. Our lives are so different. Theirs is a bright light. Ours is darkness.

The bright lights of television purport to illuminate that darkness, and the illusions of sentimental empathy make many of us suppose we have crossed the vast distance which separates us from the besieged. But, as Zlata seems to realize, it is the darkness and the distance that endure. The siege may indeed be lifted. Zlata may indeed return, if this is the right word, to her city. But a betrayal did occur. A cause was deserted. A city was abandoned in its hour of need. In the West, these things may well be forgotten, as we persuade ourselves that things are getting back to “normal.” But they will not be forgotten in Sarajevo.

March 24, 1994