The Bridge Builders: Cultural Survival in Bosnia after Genocide

-- Download The Bridge Builders: Cultural Survival in Bosnia after Genocide as PDF --

This is as close to a eulogy and an ode as I can write for a place with which I struggle every day.

As I write this, a now yearly procession is making its way to the town of Srebrenica in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The remains of hundreds of men of all ages are making their way to the memorial site there, to join the bodies and remains of thousands of others already interred in the earth. They are Bosniaks, what some in the media still refer to as “Bosnian Muslims”, though presumably there were atheists, agnostics, and lapsed Muslims amongst them.

But such is the discourse in Bosnia. You see, the Muslims were late to “nationalize”, that is, to turn their religious identity into a secular, national one like the Serbs and Croats did before them. Hence, the “Muslims” of Bosnia were akin to the Jews in the rest of Europe: in practice, as much an ethnic group, as a religious collective.

Of course, the extremist variety of Serbian and Croatian nationalism remains hyper-religious (“clero-fascism”, as Michael Sells calls it), and national or “ethnic” identity remains deeply intertwined with religion in most of the Balkans—so “secularity” is problematic in the region as a whole. Even the term “Bosniak” is one which, historically, was used to refer to Bosnians of all faiths, of all ethnicities.

To the chauvinists, however, the simple virtue of existing as such is evidence of the historic “betrayal” of the Bosnian Muslims of their Christian heritage. In converting, they abandoned their Christian duty to resist the Muslim, Ottoman invaders and for five hundred years enjoyed the fruits of their despotism. Sells refers to these notions as “national myths.”

In contrast to these mythologies he offers a more historically grounded retort: he rejects the idea that “groups are or ever were stable entities that remain fixed down through the centuries…that Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, and Muslims of Bosnia are direct descendants through stable ethnoreligious communities of ancient Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim ancestors.” “The various loyalties in Bosnia were complex and shifting,” he continues “conversions followed many patterns. Orthodox Christians converted to Catholicism, Catholics converted to Orthodox Christianity, Orthodox Christians and Catholics converted to Islam. Some Muslims converted to different forms of Christianity.” As such, the fact that the Ottoman period, for instance, was no less glowing for the common Muslim Slav than the common Christian Slav is not merely irrelevant but, to the chauvinist, quite dangerous.

But that’s the strange thing about Bosnia: its history is sort of a stubborn thing, as stubborn as its accompanying mythologies, unfortunately. It is to history that we must turn in the face of militant mythology, if we are to have any hope for the future.

It is worth noting this much, as it pertains to the effects of this militant mythology: to speak of a “Srebrenica genocide” is a twisted sort of neologism. Genocide did indeed occur at Srebrenica, but not only there. This is the warped logic of contemporary international law, which has become a handmaiden to the continued apartheid-like and segregated peace in Bosnia. The tragic logic of a country organized along the preferences and mythologies of indicted and convicted war criminals—all of it now with the full support and endorsement of the international community. Bosnia’s continued segregation as critical to peace.

The peace of the chauvinist to live in “ethnic purity.” Such is the irony of the continued trials of Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic and similar war criminals: the world may prosecute them for their crimes, but their actual political project, the creation of an ethnically-pure Serbian faux-state, the so-called Republika Srpska, exists to this day with full international support as part of the Dayton Peace Accord. Worse still, its present-day leaders continue to deny the genocidal practices of their predecessors, were in many cases party to these efforts themselves, to traffic in chauvinism and nationalism, and actively work against re-integration and reconciliation.

Peace through genocide…

Building bridges…

Genocide, by its very nature, by its very legal definition, cannot only occur in one town. One cannot speak of the Serb nationalist crimes in Srebrenica as genocide, and then not consider identical or worse events in Sarajevo, Banja Luka, Visegrad, Bijeljina, Foca or a hundred other towns or cities in the country as part of the same process. Are we to ignore the documented, systematized, planed, bureaucratic nature of this campaign? To ignore the rape, forced expulsions and detention camps? To ignore the destruction of mosques, libraries and cultural centers—so that once you had destroyed the flesh, you could destroy the memory of the flesh? To speak of Srebrenica as genocide in isolation, as so much of the Western press does, is to ignore the totality of the Bosnian genocide.

But Bosnia’s history still hums, though quietly.

The perpetrators of the genocide in Bosnia sought as much to destroy the bodies of “opposing” nationalities (mostly Bosniaks, but also Croats, and non-nationalist Serbs) as to destroy the memories of their “own” people. As important as butchering the “enemy” was to destroy the very idea of Bosnia—a sense of commonality is antithetic to genocide, after all. The idea that a small, rugged, mountainous land could have a thousand year old history of diverse peoples, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Roma, tribes and nations of every sort, sharing a single place—sharing and borrowing each other’s customs, beliefs, practices, hopes and aspirations. Dangerous. That for every episode of inter-communal difficulty or even hostility, there had been a dozen examples of collective mobilization—usually against some foreign invader who, tellingly, sought to divide and conquer.

Such was the motivation behind the continuous shelling and eventual destruction by Serb nationalists of the old Sarajevo library that housed the physical chronicle of this idea and of this experience. Such also was the aim behind the destruction of the old bridge in Mostar by Croatian nationalists—to do away with the evidence of generations of bridge builders. In order to construct myths, you must destroy history.

In Serbia proper, the continued patriarch of Bosnia’s Serb nationalist establishment, they have continued this process through different means. They have issued indictments and arrest warrants for those good men and women of conscience who resisted the siren song of myth. Bosnian Serbs like Jovan Divjak or Bosnian Croats like Ilija Jurisic who refused to abandon the idea of Bosnia and did not hesitate to fight against the forces of chauvinism and hate.

“Those looking for the essence of culture and language” Sells writes, “in ethnic, racial or religious purity will find Bosnia incomprehensible. On the other hand, those who see culture as a creative process that by its very nature involves intermingling and creative tension among different elements will treasure Bosnia-Herzegovina.”

“Those who want a wall between Europe and an allegedly alien and inferior ‘Orient,’” he continues, “a wall between Christian and Islamic worlds, face one problem: the stubborn propensity of Bosnians to think in terms of bridges instead of walls and their courageous effort to save or rebuild their bridges. Cultures are hard to kill. Fire meant to destroy them may steel them instead.”

When the dead are brought to Srebrenica, when the dead are interred in any place where hatred has burnt the earth, they should not be commemorated with the epitaph that these are our dead and look what you have done to them. There are better, more important, more constructive words already in use in Bosnia, written a generation before this horror: “Because we do not merely live here to live / We do not die here merely to die / We die here / So that we may / Live.”

And in little, mountainous, rugged Bosnia they have lived for a thousand years by building bridges, not walls.  

The following two tabs change content below.

Jasmin Mujanović

Jasmin is a PhD candidate in Political Science from York University in Toronto. Originally from Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, he regularly blogs about the Balkans, international affairs and social movements in Canada and abroad. His commentary has appeared in the New York Times, Al Jazeera, openDemocracy, Balkanist Magazine, Balkan Insight and TransConflict among other platforms. You can contact him through Twitter or through his personal website.

11 thoughts on “The Bridge Builders: Cultural Survival in Bosnia after Genocide”

  1. Thanks. I once had the privilege of visiting Bosnia, although this was in the Tito days when it was a region of Yugoslavia and it was hard to see the simmering ethnic tensions under the veneer of happy repression under which citizens of that federation existed. For many, the greatest concern voiced at the time was the second German invasion, this time of boisterous tourists. It was only when I encountered Croat malcontents here on Vancouver Island a decade later that I began to have some appreciation for the extent to which Tito had clamped the lid, not only on political dissidents, but also on ethnic strife that hadn’t been terribly apparent to me in my teens. I felt hollowness as I watched the Serbian navy shell Dubrovnik and the destruction of the bridge at Mostar. What had been a vibrant Sarajevo was reduced to ruins, and the whole region seemed to turn into a festering sore, not at all helped by Western intervention. I can only hope that your vision of Bosnia will prevail there and in other conflict zones, including BC and Wisconsin, Palestine, the Phillipines and, well, I’m sure you get the picture.

    1. Thanks for reading, Dan.

      I’ve heard (lived?) your story. I think this is what I was trying to get at with the whole “history v. mythology” aspect, but I’m not sure if it was clear. The chauvinists appeal to episodes of violence to justify more violence: such a logic is not particular to Bosnia or the Balkans. All to do is to combat these accounts by simply pointing out that they are not reflective of the broader thrust of Bosnian history and Bosnian culture. There are no more “ancient hatreds” in Bosnia than there are in most other places, as difficult as that may seem to believe at times.

      The (re)emergence of nationalism after the death of Tito was, to my mind, more to product of the 1980s than it was of the 1940s. Yes, these new chauvinists appealed to the legacy of their predecessors (i.e. Chetniks, Ustashas etc). It was an attempt by certain hardliners within the Yugoslav state, such as Milosevic, to replace one crumbling ideological edifice with another: nationalism for Yugoslavism/socialism.

      Yugoslavia may have been destroyed by nationalism, but this was not a “natural” consequence of its history. Tito, for all his flaws (and there were many!) was a genuinely beloved figure. Though efforts were afoot to roll back his legacy from the moment he died, it wasn’t really until the mid-80s, and specifically the late 80s with the emergence of Milosevic, that a more orchestrated campaign began to take hold.

      I emphasis the roles of particular individuals and particular ideological projects because they are to blame–and not ethereal and racialized notions of “ancient ethnic hatreds”. Genocide is premeditated and it is planned. What happened in Bosnia was not “spontaneous” outbursts of violence, it was a orchestrated campaign by the forces of chauvinism to destroy a society that had developed an organic, inter-communal history. It was not idyllic nor without flaws, but neither was it a tinderbox.

      It took the concentrated aggression and propaganda of two states, with the help of the international community, to destroy Bosnia and Yugoslavia, as a whole. And even then, there were some who resisted these efforts, and resist them today. It’s simply by sincere hope that Sells is right: “Cultures are hard to kill. Fire meant to destroy them may steel them instead.”

      Thanks again for reading.

  2. Great article by Jasmin. He does a great job of reminding us of many aspects of the Bosnian war that often get ignored or downplayed in the media, particularly the war’s overall nature, a genocidal one not restricted to one town in the east of the country, and its complex pre-war history, which was NOT as replete with inter-ethnic tensions as often believed! Also, I’m glad that he acknowledges how the nationalists on certain sides promote something that I personally refer to as a “selective, one-sided view of history”, which I believe is overly-simplified for the masses and politically-convenient for its proponents, and in the name of which, during that war, they went to great lengths to destroy physical reminders of anything that contradicted their interpretations of distant and recent history.

    The commentator above, Dan Schubart, mentioned the “simmering ethnic tensions under the veneer of happy repression under which citizens of that federation existed”. Although it is true that many people in the former Yugoslavia did bear grievances towards other ethnic groups in their midst and to the Communist régime at the top, and that Tito did “[clamp] the lid … on political dissidents [and] on ethnic strife”, to refer constantly to “simmering ethnic tensions” as the main reason for the break-up of Yugoslavia not only prevents us from appreciating how engineered the conflicts were from the top down (with the support of many at the bottom, one mustn’t forget), but also from the fact that many people did quite readily identify themselves with Yugoslavia and felt quite proud to be Yugoslavs, and this loss of the common state and its common identity forms a huge part of the wider tragedy of the country’s break-up. Also, such criticisms of “brotherhood & unity” (the Communist country’s national motto that promoted inter-ethnic harmony) often play into the very hands of the hardline nationalists on all sides, who are intent on justifying the wars and/or the secession of the republics, and whose interests are to perpetuate those ethnic tensions and undermine any reconciliation effort.

    And unfortunately, victims of war are often fair game for propagandists of any war-torn nation. When one side says, as Jasmin puts it, “these are our dead and look what you have done to them”, the other is quick to respond with, “and what about our dead and what you did to them?” Therefore, the cycle of blame never ends; accusation is followed without fail by counter-accusation! The only way such a vicious verbal cycle can end is when people from all sides acknowledge each other’s war dead, denounce what caused this human loss and sincerely show compassion for the victims’ relatives. Fortunately, there are such people on all sides, who can’t stand the injustice committed by and the hypocrisy exercised by other sides and likewise their own. However, the ones on all sides that seek to maintain this post-war status quo, characterised by mutual animosity, inter-ethnic distrust and lack of genuine remorse, are very loud and feel absolutely justified to do so, and they have no qualms in promoting their dim and murky worldview, while denouncing others as “pure lies” and “propaganda”.

    Once again, kudos go to Jasmin for producing an enlightening and insightful article.

    1. Very well said, Alan. Especially for reminding us again “how engineered the conflicts were from the top down.”

      Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. Alan,
    Guilty as charged, with the excuse of a limited data set–I never lived in the former Yugoslavia, only a short, idyllic stay, and the followup consisted with a series of brushes with rabid hyper-nationalist Croats whose agressiveness I found troubling and whose rants I had no basis to gainsay. I may be old, but I’m still learning. Thanks for helping me along that path.

    1. It’s a tortured subject, Dan. All of us learning, even those of us who lived through aspects of it. Thanks for keeping an open mind.

  4. It may, or, may not be “tortured subject”!

    Many thing should/must be factored in when we are talking about the war(s) in former Yugoslavia, and wider.

    The other day the friend of mine mentioned the procession of murdered to Srebrenica. Than, I replied…I rather would go to places such as: the Sutjeska, and/or Neretva! The people should go to those places where the common history was being made, where true freedom was being taken in heavy fights, where the blood was spilled from all ethnic group of what is now ex-Yugoslavia.

    While this article is fine, but this is standard narrative of the media and on top of it – the ruling circle(s). It is dominant social theme in country where the rate of unemployment is 45&, where the industry/economy is non-existent. Bosnia and the rest of “independent” states are just bunch of vassals and principalities that are managed and governed by EU and US; their independence is just image and its system is known in politics and history as Indirect Rule. We must not talk abut looting of natural resources and wealth by EU, IMF, WB, foreign banks and insurance co., i.e. we must not talk about our future – which we do not have one… unless we rid of them. That is why the chapter of Srebrenica must not be closed. In other words, it speaks about consequence of inter-communal atrocities/war which was engineered by the West. Milosevic, and his regime, the nationalistic elite in each of the ethnic group did not come out of nowhere! Lesson from history haven’t been learned, and it appears never will be.

    Paradoxically, “we” might be together in imperial project called EU, and murderous NATO; but we couldn’t lived in common land of Yugoslavia!? Now, soldier from Slovenia is going to “fight for freedom” in Afganistan instead to fight for own country against Anglo-German capital, so will tomorrow the one from Croatia etc. For past two months or so, I am following the events in Libya, the scenario implemented in Libya is the same one which was implemented in Yugoslavia. In reality we are going back in time, we are witnessing resurgence of the colonialization from 18-19 century by, again, ex-colonial powers, this time as a alliance-NATO. I called this process Nazification. What has happened in Yugoslavia 1990. and 1992. had happened in year 1941. when Nazi occupied the Yugoslavia and divided the country, foment hate and pit to each other.This time we/they called them, euphemistically “Peacemeakers”, or in the case of Iraq “liberators”, or in the case of Libya “Protecting Civilians”. Strategy called, again euphemistically, “Right to Protect”, or “Humanitarian Intervention” in case of Bosnia.
    which in turn isn’t different from Hitler’s Drang Nach Osten.

    It should be said that academia and liberals, not to mention the media, are going along with ruling establishment and promoting these colonial wars and selling it as “scientific” work at workshops which are usually paid by NGOs such as Soros and the like.

    1. Pozdrav Neretva,

      Thanks for reading and thanks for your comments.

      Allow me to respond, at least partially. I’m not sure that “choosing” between places like Neretva or Sutjetska and Srebrenica is useful. Why does it have to be either or? My Grandparents were Partisans, and I am very proud of that fact, and I’d like to think, ideologically, I’m still committed to the same principles of “brotherhood & unity” as they were. However, history has moved forward since then–we cannot ignore Srebrenica, nor should we.

      If we are to have any hope of a substantive effort at re-uniting the Yugoslav peoples, it must be done through true and honest reconciliation. The genocide in Bosnia must be recognized, understood, discussed and similar projects must be prevented in future. We can see that in Serbia, for instance, while there has been some important changes, generally, Serbia still has a hard time coming to grips with its recent past. This must change if the “Yugoslav” project is to have any future.

      Moreover, I’d like to point out that I already have written a number of articles on anti-colonialism in the Balkans (and more generally):

      An Open Letter to Matthew Parish: Colonialist Clairvoyant?:

      Book Review: “Don’t Mourn, Balkanize!”:

      An Island in the Sea: Musings on the Cyprus Dispute

      As such if your implication is that my narrative somehow mimics those of the NGO establishment, or is “liberal” in nature–I think I’m on pretty solid footing disputing this claim. Though I certainly acknowledge that this narrative exists and is often quite dominant, indeed.

      As for Libya, I disagree with your assessment of the conflict, but I do agree that NATO and the West are playing a duplicitous, problematic and imperialistic role in that country. A policy, certainly, which was also applied in Yugoslavia.

      Thanks for reading.

  5. “…history has moved forward since then–we cannot ignore Srebrenica, nor should we.”

    Ibn Khaldun famous Arabian philosopher and politician from 14 century, it is hin established principles and methods of what is know as History, had said that history is moving in cycles. British historian Arnold Toynbee says the same thing. And, really we have moved back to 18 century, in the medieval age. Some call it: Post-normal.

    I would be out of mind if I ignore Srebrenica. After all I barely survived Sarajevo siege. However, I firmly believe the victims and their families, do not need for “spectacle” (Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle) in choreography of the ruling oligarchy. I do not need the Reis tells me what happened in Sarajevo!? If they really do care (as they are saying so) for its constituency they would commit themselves for that cause.

    The reality in the field tell us otherwise; the picture is bleak, very bleak if not hopeless. The premises which they authority is based on is nihilistic, as well as those of who support them: US and EU administration(s) and their military-police arms.

    Lastly, this isn’t pointed against you – per se, it might sound like that. This is against “experts” for the “Balkan studies”; who are coming from the Western, what they call, democracies.

    1. I am in complete agreement–especially on the points re: local oligarchs and Western experts, as I think I’ve touched on before. Well said.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.