Archive for April, 2010

Czesław Miłosz on Sarajevo

Living in Poland, it certainly  is hard to ignore Czesław Miłosz, the great Polish poet and prose writer of Lithuanian origin who won the Nobel Prize in 1980.  I took a class on Central European literature last semester with the leading scholar on Miłosz and attempted to analyze his methods of representation of the visual arts in poetry in an essay for the class.  Even though I spent a great deal of time looking through his volumes of poetry for the essay, I just noticed his poem on Sarajevo today.  The poem introduces the book The Black Book of Bosnia: The Consequences of Appeasement and it  was included in his volume New and Collected Poems: 1931-2001, which was published in 2001 only a few years before his death.  When this poem was printed on the front page of a Polish newspaper, it was criticized for being anachronistic.  Still, I think Miłosz passionately and beautifully expresses the international abandonment of Bosnia in his poem.  Miłosz understands from firsthand experience about countries that cease to exist.  In his poem about the siege of Sarajevo he warns that inactivity – here in the case of Western Europe – will be punished by fate.

Czeslaw Milosz


-Perhaps this is not a poem but at least I say what I feel.

Now that a revolution really is needed, those who were fervent are quite cool.

While a country murdered and raped calls for help from the Europe which it had trusted, they yawn.

While statesmen choose villainy and no voice is raised to call it by name.

The rebellion of the young who called for a new earth was a sham, and that generation has written the verdict on itself.

Listening with indifference to the cries of those who perish because they are after all just barbarians killing each other.

And the lives of the well-fed are worth more than the lives of the starving.

It is revealed now that their Europe since the beginning has been a deception, for its faith and its foundation is nothingness.

And nothingness, as the prophets keep saying, brings forth only nothingness, and they will be led once again like cattle to slaughter.

Let them tremble and at the last moment comprehend that the word Sarajevo will from now on mean the destruction of their sons and the debasement of their daughters.

They prepare it by repeating: “We at least are safe,” unaware that what will strike them ripens in themselves.


Discrimination Against a Hero

Jakob Finci, a hero during the recent wars in Bosnia

In 1991, Jakob Finci was one of the founding members of the organization La Benevolencija Sarajevo.  He served as the organization’s first vice-president and later as the president in 1993.   Finci was born immediately after his parents were liberated from an Italian concentration camp in 1943 to an old Jewish Sephardic family. Of the community of Sephardi Jews who had first settled in Sarajevo in the mid-16th century after they were expelled from Spain, most did not survive World War II. Through the organization La Benevolencija Sarajevo, the remaining Jewish people of the city played a unique humanitarian role during the Bosnian War (1992-1995). Founded by the Jewish population, which remained neutral throughout the conflicts, La Benevolencija’s members acted as mediators between the three warring parties: Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs. The Jewish community learned to use their unique status to help civilians in the city under siege. As war broke out in Slovenia and Croatia, the organization managed to supply medicine to the elderly Jewish people trapped in Dubrovnik. In Sarajevo, they began to stock food and medicine anticipating the war to spread.

Once the war broke out in Bosnia in 1992, La Benevolencija organized the first evacuation of the elderly and children. Most of the Jewish population had evacuated the city already, and so the group began to offer their services and supplies to all. They opened a free pharmacy in Sarajevo during the siege, which supplied 40% of the city’s medicine. Finci proudly states “People used to say, ‘If you can’t find it in the Jewish pharmacy, it isn’t in Sarajevo.'” The organization also opened a soup kitchen, which served 300 hot meals a day, 7 days a week to anyone in need. Also, La Benevolencija opened a school for children, which eventually became ethnically mixed. As I work on my master’s thesis dealing with education reform policies in Bosnia, I am surprised to learn about this early form of inclusive education- the school, comprised of students from the different ethnicities of Bosnia, learned about living together in peace. Finci, as Jewish and therefore a neutral person, was also able to negotiate with the various warring sides and eventually they smuggled approximately 3,000 refugees of all backgrounds out of the city as “Jews.” Eventually, the organization became an ethnic mix and was regarded as a symbol for empathy.

The 1995 Dayton Peace Agreements that acted as a ceasefire agreement, created a constitution for an independent Bosnia, and partitioned the state (into the Federation of Bosnia and Hercegovina, Republika Srpska as well as the Brcko district) were mostly a United States sponsored solution. Richard Holbrooke, the chief negotiator on the project, tried to appease the three sides of the conflicts. When the leaders of the three main communities couldn’t agree who would control a particular institution, Holbrooke’s solution was to give them one each. Today, Bosnia’s political system is a mess as a result of this method of “pleasing” the three sides- Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs are represented at each level of government and an internationally appointed High Representative oversees the whole system. Thus, the political system in Bosnia contains a huge amount of waste and is completely dependent on the international community.

But what about the other people in Bosnia, namely the Jewish and Roma people? These groups are extremely marginalized, lost in the aftermath of the war. The Bosnian constitution distinguishes between two categories of citizen: “constituent peoples” — Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs — and “others”: Jews, Roma and other minorities. Therefore, Jewish and Roma people are unable to run for high office, as the parliament is divided into equal seats for Serbs, Bosniaks, and Croats. In December, the European Court of Human Rights slammed Bosnia for barring Jews and Roma from running for high elected office, ruling that Bosnia had violated provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights prohibiting discrimination and upholding the right to free elections. Bosnia is supposed to amend their constitution before the general elections that will take place in October this year.

Jakob Finci is a hero in Bosnia and fought for the rights of all people in the country. He risked his life to supply medicine, food, education, and the means for evacuation to civilians at risk from all sides. During those difficult years, he envisioned a peaceful and inclusive country- not one that would ban him from political office 15 years later. He has decades of legal and humanitarian experience, but he is not allowed to run for high political office in Bosnia solely on account of his religion. With the support of Minority Rights Group International and along with Dervo Sejdic, another prominent political figure who is of Roma origin, he brought the case to Strasbourg for a breach of human rights. The lawsuit resulted in the demands last December that Bosnia revise its constitution.

Constantly I am thinking about the international intervention in Bosnia and Hercegovina in the last couple of decades. How could the international community let people die in Sarajevo for years before they intervened? The situation was so desperate that Muslim representatives went to Washington, DC and begged the United States to bomb their own country and people so that the situation would end. Finally, the Dayton Peace Agreements were signed, leaving people like Slobodan Milosevic very pleased and Bosniak Muslims destroyed. The international community, namely the United States, did not create a long-term solution for the future of the country; rather, they solidified ethnic divisions and perpetuated ethnic hatred and discrimination, as seen in the constitution of Bosnia today. The state of Bosnia and Hercegovina cannot continue to function as it does currently. Just yesterday, Bosnia was admitted to the Membership Action Program for NATO, which puts it on a fast-track to membership, and the country aims for a future in the European Union. The international community claims to support Bosnia’s full integration into the European community, but would never accept any responsibility for the disorganized state of the country. The European Court of Human Rights will speak out in outrage against the constitution of Bosnia, but where should the country begin its reforms? In Dayton in 1995, the document signed ensured that the war would never be over. My hope for the future of Bosnia is that soon, people like Jakob Finci can participate in high levels of government.

Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War By Peter Maass

This past month was a whirlwind of a few trips and a visit from my family, hence the lull in writing. During my downtime on trains and buses, I delved into Peter Maass’ Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War. I am truly impressed with this firsthand account of the war in Bosnia and Hercegovina, seen through the eyes of an American journalist. Peter Maass reported on the war for the Washington Post from 1992-1993. He lived in the infamous Holiday Inn, the hotel situated right on Sniper’s Alley that housed many journalists during the war. The building was under constant shelling from Serb forces perched in the mountains surrounding the city, and cars drove at break-neck speed down the boulevard past civilians risking their lives running for water. This book is much more than a typical report on the war; Maass provides a passionate account of participants and bystanders from all sides and he critically interprets the events that caused the bloody destruction of a nation.

The most valuable aspect of this book is that Peter Maass did not know what he was getting into when he started his assignment covering the war in Bosnia. He fell into the position, and admittedly knew very little about the region when he first arrived. Interviewing refugees in camps in Croatia before stepping foot in Bosnia, he could hardly believe the horrific accounts of torture and death from people who lost their homes and family members. Once he finally made it to Bosnia, readers witness a naïve reporter evolve into an informed critic of people and events involved in the conflict. He interviewed everyone from those who appropriated homes in ethnically cleansed villages, constantly nervous about the real owners returning, to the drunk soldiers on the front lines. He managed tours through concentration camps, nursing homes, and churches. Maass met with snipers that were shooting at the Holiday Inn, perplexed UN Officials, and nervous politicians. He sat in front of Radovan Karadzic in Pale until late in the night as he told bold faced lies to reporters. Maass sat with Slobodan Milosevic for a private interview in his office, and the leader in Belgrade asked him why he wrote lies about Serbia. He attends family funerals of the deceased and even a wartime fashion show. Finding himself in the middle of an attack one day, he speaks about “Bosnian Mind Fuck” as he witnesses an old man on an orange bicycle casually riding through the direct fire. He is witty, sarcastic, and insightful but the reader can also sense the moments when he was afraid and sick over the tragedies taking place.

The book is much more than a collection of interviews and experiences of a war correspondent. The memoirs also provide an interesting insight into the way the journalists interacted during the war, and the personal conflicts some felt while writing about terrible events brushed aside by the outside world. Many times, Maass almost lost his ability to remain neutral during interviews. It was not easy for him to speak to war criminals justifying their actions, or to listen to ordinary people repeating political propaganda to explain why they hate their neighbors. The more Peter Maass witnessed in Bosnia, the more he became critical of the (lack of) international response. He criticizes the roles of UN officials, the US State Department, President Bill Clinton, and the world in general. Peter Maass’ Love Thy Neighbor provides a truly exceptional, passionate account of the war in Bosnia and is a must-read for anyone interested in Yugoslavia.

Here is the book on Amazon.  Here is the author’s website.

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