bosnia report
New Series No: 37-38 January - March 2004
Izetbegovic interviewed in 1998
by Senad HadĹžifejzovic

Izetbegović interviewed by Senad Hadžifejzović, eve of elections 1998.


I had the luck, if one can put it like that, to be placed in a room with murderers. In prison it was worst to be with petty thieves, who are men without character; but murderers are not like that. This is why I say I was lucky when I was in prison to share the room with them. It was the so-called Apartment 90, consisting of a large central room, four dormitories and a latrine. There were between ninety and one hundred of us, and we had a leader who was a prison official. The complex housed some political prisoners and a few counterfeiters, but mostly murderers, a special sort of people whom I came to know in prison. Among them was one Junuz Kečo, a very unhappy man. He was of rough appearance, silent and withdrawn. He was a man of strong character. I heard later, though I never managed to establish the fact, that he died as a soldier in the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina - it was said that he died with his stepdaughter. Insofar as he thought of anyone as his friend, I think he trusted me.

Reading books

At times I read like mad, then would stop, then it would grip me again and I would read until three in the morning, then I would stop again. I had no steady pattern. With me it was like toothache. I read almost all the works of philosophy, but I didn’t like Heidegger, for example, he was too complicated for me. I read 30 or 40 pages of his Being and Time and had to stop. As for the books I read now [1998], to tell you the truth I read nothing but reports and occasional papers. The other day, while tidying up my books, I came across one which will probably remain the last book I read in my life. It is Hawking's A Short History of Time - he is the famous physicist who is considered today as the best since Einstein. I had read the first half of the book and [now] found it, but I don’t believe I shall have time to read it to the end.

The book that most influenced him when young

I’m not sure. Apart from the holy books, The Quran and The Bible, which I always found very exciting, I’d say it was Spengler's The Decline of the West. It took me a long time to rid my mind of his schemas. The book is a wonderful panorama of thought, a great philosophical history of culture, full of facts and idea that impose themselves in such a manner that it is very difficult to set oneself free. For a long time I felt unable to resist it, and if there is one book that influenced me for good or bad, it was The Decline of the West.

On foreign politicians he had met

These people are usually surrounded with pomp, police guards, and everything else that creates in the masses the impression that they are exceptional individuals. They are quite ordinary people, however, some very average in fact. We politicians are like that. With few exceptions there’s no one I can say I admire in particular. There are those, of course, that I like. I like Clinton because of his easy manner and appearance, some general attitude of his. I’m not sure I can explain, but I think he is a good man and, if I lived in America, I would vote for him. [The world of politics] is a world of play-acting: after all, President Reagan was an actor. [...] We have a large number of officials here who work for UNHCR, say, or in OHR, who pretend to be important and who sometimes try to tell us what to think, but most of whom are simply incompetent. They come from wealthy countries, have money, rights and so on, but I think most of them are below our Bosnian average.

On 'Islam is best, but we are not', as applied to Europe

Such a declaration would not be received in Europe in the same way [as it was in Teheran], as fraternal criticism, even though I too am a European. But I think someone from Paris or Rome ought to say something of the kind to Europe, since European declarations are very good, but Europe is not. To say that Europe is good as an idea, but reality is different. We must remember that Europe - not Asia or Africa - invented Nazism and Communism, and the camps that went with them. Moreover, how did Europe behave towards us? Its behaviour was on the verge of being dishonourable. All these reasons could induce a true European to say: Europe is good, but we are not. [...] When we say that we want to join Europe, we do not have in mind the geographical Europe, but the totality of values that are contained in some declarations, a democratic tradition, respect for some fundamental values. This sum of values is not a faith, but a system of beliefs that says there is a radical discordance in European declarations - since they are all European values, all that culture is European, and even American culture is European - and therefore we can say: Europe is good but we are not, since whence comes Nazism, whence Communism, nationalism? After all, Europe taught us all this, since all of Europe is nationalist.

His single greatest wartime act

I think my greatest contribution was to refuse the removal of the presidency and government from Sarajevo in 1992. Suggestions were made, even buildings allocated, on the grounds that the presidency could not work in those conditions, that it was cut off. I was against this and, aided by friends who thought like me, succeeded; but there was strong pressure to leave Sarajevo and move to Kakanj, Zenica or Visoko, where we would be safe and, it was said, more flexible. If I had done that... In my view Bosnia had to be defended first of all in this city. If Sarajevo had fallen...

On the media

I criticize the media not because they tell an ugly truth, but because they do not tell the whole truth. In the case of Kazani, for example, the truth is that we removed those people when it was very difficult for us. They say nothing about this. The foreigners who come here, and I have already commented on their calibre, read these papers and report back to all sorts of places in America and Germany. This is very damaging to Bosnia. They say we cannot achieve anything by suppressing the truth. I agree. I only insist on the whole truth. We have repaired all schools, all hospitals, 70% of broken window panes [but] no one talks of that. When I said this the other day to an ambassador, he said: ‘No, Mr Izetbegović, it was not you, it was us.’ I ask: ‘How?’ He says: ‘We gave the money.’ Sure, they have given a large amount of money, but I ask him: ‘Would you have given the money if we had blown up the Sarajevo cathedral, killed people here?’ ‘No, of course, we wouldn’t.’ ‘So, you see, we deserved it: if this had not been our policy, if we had behaved in a totally unacceptable manner, you would not have come to Sarajevo to help us. Had we blown up the cathedral like they blew up the Ferhadija. In other words, it was our policy that forced the international community to help us.’ [...] The Serbs [of Sarajevo] at first had reason to feel insecure, to believe that there would be revenge. It could have happened. We prevented that. One day we apprehended a group of people who were arresting Serbs in Sarajevo. We knew that this was possible, and that if we made one slip... After all, in 1993 I said that it was hard to be a Serb in Sarajevo. It was true.

Translated from a longer interview by B-H’s best known TV news presenter published in Dani (Sarajevo), October 2003


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