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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.

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