The Bosnian War: A Human Conflict

My research project created for HI175: Making History, in the academic year 2016/17, at the University of Warwick.

Introduction

When the most brutal conflict since World War II broke out in the Balkans in the 1990s, their European neighbours struggled to understand how such a bloody conflict could possibly be taking place so close to home. The reaction in Britain demonstrates the tendency to respond to this confusion by distancing the area from the rest of Europe and creating an image of less civilised Balkan societies, who were ‘governed more by their emotions than their intellects’, partaking in a ‘primitive tribal conflict’ based on ‘ancient hatreds’, incomprehensible outside of the area itself[1]. In this project, I would like to present a counterargument to this oversimplification of the conflict, by giving a voice to the people who lived through and endured the Bosnian War, in order to show that- as with any conflict- the events are not inexplicable and took place between rational, relatable and ordinary human beings. This requires an exploration of two juxtaposed faces of war, by looking at both the humane acts of compassion that took place during the war and also through attempting to understand how nationalism and war were able to drive people towards horrific acts which are less easy for us to identify with and understand. As a means to do this, I will use oral testimonies recorded in the book Good People in an Evil Time and contemporary newspaper reports from within Bosnia by British journalist Maggie O’Kane.

Barriers of Nationalism: A Question of Identity

Yugoslavia under the communist rule of Tito prided itself on tolerance and peaceful cohabitation of numerous cultures. Cathie Carmichael, in her history of Bosnia, says that ‘nowhere else in Yugoslavia did the Communist experiment in ‘brotherhood and unity’ reach as deeply as it did in Bosnia’[1] and, although it is difficult to believe in light of the war that followed, it appears that Bosnian people were genuinely well integrated, with many mixed-marriages and cross-cultural neighbourly bonds. Yet, when the war broke out, barriers arose along nationalist and ethnic lines, creating a situation where people became defined by their cultural identity. Mark Mazower argues that nationalism emerged due to a power struggle as to who would follow Tito, suggesting that leaders such as Milošević were primarily responsible for the divide. However, he also notes that ‘Milošević's success indicates the persistence of nationalist sentiment among the electorate’[2], showing how exploiting cultural differences only worked because the general public were on board.

In his testimony in Good People in an Evil Time, Jusuf Halilović recalls how a speaker at the burial of Điđa, a Serbian friend, spoke of how Điđa had died for Serbia and how his death needed to be avenged. Yet the artifice of this nationalistic identity can be exposed by Điđa himself, before he died, as the man had actually made a pact with Croat and Muslim friends not to fight on any side during the war, and had told Jusuf, ‘Nationalism is everyone’s excuse to steal and murder’[3]. While this is likely to hold some truth, the divide also penetrates deeper and seems to have arisen due to effective propaganda, with ‘grandiose public spectacles’ and ‘state-controlled media’[4]. This is substantiated by the rhetoric seen from a Serb commandment who told O’Kane about horrific alleged crimes perpetrated by Muslims[5], and also by a wounded ‘Chetnik’ who was astounded when Muslim soldiers came to his aid, since it contradicted the ‘horrible stories [he] had heard about Muslim bestiality’[6].

 

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Invisible Barriers: Humanity in War

In order to offset the view of the Balkan people as ‘primitive’ and ‘tribal’, it is important to look at the many humane acts undertaken during the war. Every war is littered with acts of humanity, but in this war, the fact that the divide between enemies split right through previously amicable communities means that the hatred felt for the respective sides was not necessarily universal. Svetlana Broz, the granddaughter of Yugoslavia’s Marshal Tito, saw a need to identify this humanity and tell the stories of the ‘good’ people in war. Her book, Good People in an Evil Time, is a key source of oral testimonies from the Bosnian War. The collection was published under the theme of recording the acts of ‘good’ people, yet, according to Broz’s introduction, this is a theme that arose organically from listening to people’s testimonies, meaning that the interviews were not manipulated to fit this theme[1]. In a contribution to a collection of essays on the war, Broz stresses the importance of these testimonies to help understand what motivates people to act contrary to the violence and hatred around them. Broz recalls the reply of a Muslim man, when questioned on why he agreed to help a Serb: ‘atrocities are individual. A whole nation can’t be criminal’[2]. Indeed, as Broz went to some effort to prove, there was no ‘nation’ during the Bosnian War which was wholly criminal.

The siege of Sarajevo was one of the focal points of the conflict, as Serb forces held the city and its residents under siege in an attempt to capture it. The Dayton Agreement signed at the end of the war saw the Serbs finally concede Sarajevo, as Milošević said they deserved to keep the capital because they had fought for it[3]. This resistance from within Sarajevo is because the city’s residents had previously experienced more intermingling of ethnicities than anywhere else in the country, as demonstrated by people such as ‘D.V.’, the anonymous narrator of one of Broz’s accounts[4], who claimed that Sarajevo ‘was a special city, and its people were special people’. D.V. is an example of what made Sarajevo special, as he describes the companies he ran which employed Serbs, Muslims and Croats alike, noting that ‘The topic of ethnicity served only as fodder for jokes’. This account shows the perfect example of how the war tore apart his neighbourhood, but did so without inciting hatred between neighbours. D.V. and his wife, Serbs themselves, find themselves with little choice but to leave, while a Croat friend qualified in engineering ended up as a fisherman over 300 miles away from Sarajevo. But, despite the ethnic divide, they exhibited no hatred for each other and remained in contact. Stories of neighbours turning on each other are far more rare than those of neighbours helping one another, because the people who experienced the war were aware of the obvious fact that ‘a whole nation can’t be a criminal’ or, as Zdenka Perković- victim of rape- said: ‘I don’t hold it against them all; there are always rotten apples’[5].

Since the sentiment which I am arguing against stems from the opinion of the international community about the conflict, it is worth using the British articles of Maggie O’Kane to ascertain whether there was some form of contemporary dissonance to the idea of the war as ‘tribal’. Indeed, O’Kane’s articles demonstrate a far more informed opinion of the situation, and manage to inject humanity into the people involved. She gives life to the victims who could have merely been reduced to names, telling us of ‘a flautist’, ‘an engineer’ and ‘a teacher’ in order to show that these people were living in a society just a civilised as that of her readers[6]. In her article a few days later, she creates a similarly personal feel, inciting emotion for the ‘deep deep silent tears’, as families are split up, and bookending the article with a portrait of a Muslim woman, Rozalija Hrustic[7]. These articles corroborate the ideas of Broz and remind us today, as they reminded O’Kane’s contemporary readers, that humanity existed in this ‘evil time’.

 

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Fatal Barriers: Hatred in War

However, hatred and neighbours turning on each other were certainly features of the war alongside the humanity, as one woman remembers the neighbour who showed up at her house with a machine gun, recalling that: ‘we had coffee with him the day before’[1]. Exactly how the previously harmonious Yugoslav territories descended into such extreme violence has perplexed scholars and witnesses alike. Carmichael notes that ‘changing outward appearance seems to have been a highly significant part of the transition’[2], and this is supported by the account of O’Kane when she hears of ‘Serb irregulars in masks and black fingerless gloves’[3], who fearlessly shout obscene threats under the safety of their disguise. A similar idea can be seen in the account of a child interviewed by Lynne Jones for her book Then They Started Shooting[4]. The child, Amela, overhears a conversation between her parents and her neighbour, Dragan, who warns them ‘I am not going to hurt you or your children but I don’t know about others’[5]. In this case, Dragan does not physically disguise his identity, but still distances himself from any violence he might commit by making sure that he doesn’t hurt those who knew him before. This attitude highlights a contradiction at the heart of the violence, whereby violence against unknown ‘others’ could be justified where violence against friends was avoided.

In order to further understand how acts of violence were justified, we can look at the words of those who practiced it. The grandfather of Dusan, one of the children interviewed by Jones, justified his opinion that Muslims ‘should be destroyed’ by saying, ‘the Muslims had betrayed the trust of the Serbs too many times in the last two or three hundred years’[6], revealing how memories of previous Balkan wars impacted perceptions in the 1990s. However, an article by Dusko Sekulic thoroughly discredits the whole ‘myth of ancient hatred’ by analysing feelings of ethnic intolerance before, during and after the war[7]. Indeed, Dusan’s father challenges his own father saying, ‘But you were always telling me about “Brotherhood and Unity”’, demonstrating how, as Sekulic concludes, the war did not arise from ethnic intolerance, but rather, ethnic intolerance arose from the war. The account of Zdenka Perković gives an example of one of the most sickening crimes of all, as Zdenka is raped by a Serb man who justifies his action simply by saying ‘I am no neighbour of yours. I am from over in Serbia’[8]. Such a poorly developed justification for so horrific an act is evidence for the theory of Điđa, that some people simply used nationalism and the war as an excuse to commit horrors that would be unthinkable in peacetime.

Whilst I concluded that O’Kane’s articles successfully showed humanity within war, they are not so balanced in their depiction of hatred. In fact, it could be argued that her writing almost adds to the rhetoric that hatred in the Balkans was incomprehensible, due to the failure of O’Kane to give a sympathetic voice to any Serbs. By contrast, she simply gives us a Serb prison guard who presents her with a ‘macabre pantomime’ of joviality underneath deeply oppressive conditions[9], and she even goes so far as to end one of her articles on the idea that ‘Hitler was an amateur’ in comparison to the villains of the Bosnian War[10]. Of course, the evil which O’Kane is exposing is important for the world to see, and there is rarely an easier way to identify with a Western audience than including a comparison to the Nazis, but the one-sided nature of her work implies that all Serbs are enemies, with no reference at all to the interethnic alliances rife in most other accounts of the war.

 

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Conclusion

On the whole, the basis for the dismissal of the Bosnian War as a ‘primitive tribal conflict’ is identifiable but ill-informed. Since the hatreds that manifested themselves with such brutality appeared to stem from the propaganda of Milošević and others in high up positions, it is difficult to come to terms with what motivated ordinary people to partake in such a violent war. Whilst there does appear to have been an underlying irrationality to the hatred, the most important thing lost on Western spectators was the fact that so many Bosnians, of all ethnicities, were rational enough to be equally as confused about how this was happening to their country. Perhaps, instead of rabid attempts to distance themselves from what happened in the Balkans, the rest of Europe should view it as a warning as to what an apparently civilised society has the potential to descend to.

Footnotes

INTRODUCTION

[1] All three of these quotes can be found in Brendan Simms, Unfinest Hour: Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia (London, 2002) and are the words, respectively, of politician Douglas Hurd, journalist John Keegan and military lecturer Charles Dick. In his book, Simms delivers a strong critique of British foreign policy in the Bosnian War and draws attention to the prevailing attitude across Britain towards the conflict, as primitive and incomprehensible

 

BARRIERS OF NATIONALISM: A QUESTION OF IDENTITY

[1] Cathie Carmichael, A Concise History of Bosnia (Cambridge, 2015), p.107. Carmichael also gives a plethora of evidence in support of this comment on pp.99-108

[2] Mark Mazower, Ethnicity and War in the Balkans, May 1997. http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/publications/hongkong/mazower.htm (May 2017)

[3] From the account of Jusuf Halilović ‘Forgive My People For What They Do’ in Svetlana Broz, Good People in an Evil Time (New York, 2004), pp.212-8 [INCLUDED]

[4] Mazower, Ethnicity and War

[5] Maggie O’Kane, ‘Cake, milk and captivity for Muslims of the new Bosnia’, The Guardian, (24 Jul 1992), p.7 [INCLUDED]

[6] From the account of Dragan Simić ‘Help for a Wounded “Chetnik”’ in Broz, Good People, pp.332-3

 

INVISIBLE BARRIERS: HUMANITY IN WAR

[1] Broz, Good People, pp.lix-lxii

[2] Svetlana Broz, ‘When Nobody Stood Up and Everbody is Guilty: A Puzzle of Individual Responsibility and Collective Guilt’ in Dario Spini; Guy Elcheroth; Dinka Corkalo Biruski, War, Community and Social Change: Collective Experiences in the Former Yugoslavia (New York, 2014), p.158

[3] The sentiment of Milošević’s words is taken from Carmichael, A Concise History of Bosnia, p.169

[4] From the account of D.V., ‘A Life with Dignity’ in Broz, Good People, pp.300-3 [INCLUDED]

[5] From the account of Zdenka Perković, ‘Rape in Grbavica’ in Broz, Good People, p.178 [INCLUDED]

[6] O’Kane, ‘Cake, milk and captivity’ [INCLUDED]

[7] Maggie O’Kane, ‘Nightmare under the long hot Yugoslav sun’, The Guardian, (26 Jul 1992), p.1/p.20 [INCLUDED]

 

FATAL BARRIERS: HATRED IN WAR

[1] From Ben Lieberman, ‘Nationalist narratives, violence between neighbours and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Hercegovina: a case of cognitive dissonance?’, Journal of Genocide Research, 8 (2006), p.296

[2] Carmichael, A Concise History of Bosnia, p.143

[3] O’Kane, ‘Nightmare under the long hot Yugoslav sun’ [INCLUDED]

[4] Lynne Jones, Then They Started Shooting (London, 2004). This book is a unique source of oral testimonies for the war due to its focus on the perspective of children in wartime.

[5] Jones, Then They Started Shooting, p.27

[6] Ibid., p.48

[7] Dusko Sekulic, ‘Ethnic Intolerance as a Product Rather than a Cause of War’ in Dario Spini; Guy Elcheroth; Dinka Corkalo Biruski, War, Community and Social Change: Collective Experiences in the Former Yugoslavia (New York, 2014), p.45-62

[8] From the account of Zdenka Perković, ‘Rape in Grbavica’ in Broz, Good People, p.178 [INCLUDED]

[9] O’Kane, ‘Cake, milk and captivity’ [INCLUDED]

[10] O’Kane, ‘Nightmare under the long hot Yugoslav sun’ [INCLUDED]

Bibliography

Main Primary Sources

Svetlana Broz, Good People in an Evil Time (New York, 2004)

Maggie O’Kane, ‘Cake, milk and captivity for Muslims of the new Bosnia’, The Guardian, (24 Jul 1992), p.7

Maggie O’Kane, ‘Nightmare under the long hot Yugoslav sun’, The Guardian, (26 Jul 1992), p.1/p.20

Secondary Material

Svetlana Broz, ‘When Nobody Stood Up and Everbody is Guilty: A Puzzle of Individual Responsibility and Collective Guilt’ in Dario Spini; Guy Elcheroth; Dinka Corkalo Biruski, War, Community and Social Change: Collective Experiences in the Former Yugoslavia (New York, 2014), p.155-62

Cathie Carmichael, A Concise History of Bosnia (Cambridge, 2015)

Lynne Jones, Then They Started Shooting (London, 2004)

Ben Lieberman, ‘Nationalist narratives, violence between neighbours and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Hercegovina: a case of cognitive dissonance?’, Journal of Genocide Research, 8 (2006), p.295-309

Mark Mazower, Ethnicity and War in the Balkans, May 1997. http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/publications/hongkong/mazower.htm (May 2017)

Dusko Sekulic, ‘Ethnic Intolerance as a Product Rather than a Cause of War’ in Dario Spini; Guy Elcheroth; Dinka Corkalo Biruski, War, Community and Social Change: Collective Experiences in the Former Yugoslavia (New York, 2014), p.45-62

Brendan Simms, Unfinest Hour: Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia (London, 2002)

Center for Investigative Reporting, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 'Oral History in Bosnia and Herzegovina: Unveiling Personal Memories on War and Detention', 2013. http://www.bosnianmemories.org/ (April 2017) [NOTE: As of May 2017, the videos on the website cannot be accessed]

Images courtesy of https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2012/04/20-years-since-the-bosnian-war/100278/

Critical Reflection

With the tantalising prospect of choosing any period from history as the focus for this project, I considered a number of widely ranging topics from medieval knights to 1960s popular culture before eventually settling on the Bosnian War. Coming to this decision proved to raise a number of difficulties. One of the things that drew me to this episode in modern history was the prospect of learning about something which I was hitherto unfamiliar with, which meant that I had to do extensive reading before I could get going. My starting point was to gain an overview by reading the pertinent chapters of Carmichael’s Concise History of Bosnia, which allowed me to learn the basic narrative and also proved instrumental in the extensive references which brought to my attention a wealth of other useful texts.

I decided quite early on that I wanted to use oral testimonies as the main primary sources for the project, but was daunted by the prospect of finding such sources, mainly due to the language barrier. But, after initial searches gave little back, I soon began to find enough material to work with, using recommendations from within my secondary sources. The first source of oral testimonies was from a website called ‘Bosnian Memories’ which included video testimonies with English subtitles. I later found two books containing interviews, translated into English, by Svetlana Broz and Lynne Jones. Both the website and the books contained enough methodological information on where the testimonies had come from in order for me to decide to use them. Jones’ book raised the most concern due to her psychiatric focus and the exclusive use of interviews with children.

Once I began to gather these testimonies and incorporate them into my reading around the subject, I began to form a question: to provide a more complex look at the war, in order to counter the contemporary oversimplifications put forward by the international community. However, I ran into problems during the planning stage of my project when the videos on the ‘Bosnian Memories’ website suddenly became inaccessible. After an email dialogue with those behind the website, I was eventually left with little choice but to abandon the use of these videos, as I would not be able to access them again soon enough. At this point, I decided to make use of a pair of British newspaper articles by Maggie O’Kane as key a primary source within the project. These were an alternative, but equally valuable, source as the oral testimonies, as they enhanced my decision to discuss the international perspective on the conflict.

The first section of my project attempted to shed light on the nationalist divide and the key role of identity in the war. This was followed by two sections looking at both humanity and hatred in war, in order to give a full picture of these contrasting aspects of the conflict. Finding myself with an abundance of material to cover, I eventually decided to reduce the role of Jones’ book, using it more as secondary evidence than as another primary source. Broz’s book proved to be a more concrete source of testimonies, which included uninterrupted direct transcripts, unlike the more problematic composition of Jones’ book, which included a little too much interpretation from the author to serve as one of my key primary sources.

Abstract

This project aims to provide a counterpoint to the contemporary international perspective that the Bosnian War of the 1990s was merely a ‘primitive tribal conflict’, distant and incomprehensible to the rest of Europe. To counteract this viewpoint, the project provides an analysis of the war using primary sources that give a voice to those who experienced the war first-hand, in an attempt to understand why one of the bloodiest wars of the twentieth century took place in a previously civilised society. Prior to the collapse of the communist state of Yugoslavia, the distinct ethnic and religious groups across Bosnia lived as neighbours in relative harmony. When the war broke out, questions of identity and nationalism very quickly became crucial in a way that they had not been before, as leaders- primarily the leader of the Serb nationalists, Milošević- incited the spread of hatred to fill a vacuum left by the end of the state which had once encouraged ‘Brotherhood and Unity’. However, pre-war relationships did not just fade away, and a great degree of humanity was continually present throughout the war. Svetlana Broz collected a series of testimonies in her book Good People in an Evil Time which provide a core understanding of the persistence of humane acts of compassion that transcended the barriers of identity. Broz’s interviews, backed up by a number of other sources, paint a picture of a people who were rational, rather than tribal, and who were equally as confused as the rest of Europe about what was happening to their country. Conversely, these barriers did lead to an uglier side of war, as hatred and violence spread across the region. The origins of this hatred are difficult to pinpoint, but factors such as propaganda, through reawakening the memory of older conflicts, and disguising one’s identity appeared to play a key role. Articles by the British journalist Maggie O’Kane also present a different first-hand experience of the war, and much can be garnered from the way in which the conflict is presented to the British public. Whilst O’Kane goes to some effort to show the humanity of the victims of war, she fails to capture any of the interethnic breakdown of barriers, simplifying the conflict for her readers by not giving redemption to a single Serb.