bosnia report
New Series No: 36 October - December 2003
A European Shame
by Branka Magas

The death on 19 October 2003 of Alija Izetbegović, wartime president of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, marks a symbolic watershed in the country’s tragic but also heroic path to independence. Rarely has a nation paid so dearly for the right to decide its future. In his last message to his countrymen, Izetbegović called not for justice rather than revenge; and for respect of differences but also love of the common homeland. The passing of this complex personality has provided the occasion for some unusually thoughtful reflection by Bosnian politicians and intellectuals, and by others whose lives were in different ways touched by Bosnia’s painful struggle to survive against great odds (a selection can be found on our website at and will be translated in the next issue of Bosnia Report).

Whatever criticisms may be made of Izetbegović’s historical role, three things are incontrovertible: he never fanned inter-ethnic or inter-confessional hate; he united his own Bosniak people, at a time when the apparent hopelessness of its prospects could have led to dangerous fragmentation; and he made the crucial decision to remain in Sarajevo throughout the war. As the last Yugoslav premier Ante Marković has recently testified, no one believed, given the circumstances, that the Bosnians would resist; yet they did, with great courage, creating out of nothing an army strong enough to prevent their country’s outright partition.

Of his old foes Milošević and Tuđman, the former is being tried for grave crimes before the UN-founded tribunal at The Hague, the latter died before he could be charged. The international community too is on trial, the merciless trial of history, for forcing Bosnia-Herzegovina to accept a settlement legitimizing what these two did, even sealed by their signatures. This paradox of simultaneous repudiation and acceptance on the part of Western democracies of the attempt to destroy an internationally recognized nation-state was something Izetbegović seemed to accept as Bosnia’s fate. But the same is not true of countless ordinary people, who are still prevented from returning to their homes or have relatives buried in identified and yet to be unearthed mass graves. No Dayton can ever make Republika Srpska - that monument to the cause of racial purity - acceptable and thus permanent.

What Western politicians and local social engineers never took into account was the love people can have for a country where they were born and raised, and which through their own hard work, generation after generation, they made into Bosnia-Herzegovina, remodelling its nature and naming its features. Thence the need on the part of the ethnic cleansers to destroy the cultural individuality of the land and rename its cities and villages. That old beauty of Bosnia’s unity in divergence may have gone for ever, but life’s own needs - the striving for economic, social and political reconstruction and advance - continue to bring up new forms. It is an affront, in the light of this, that this sovereign state should still have no unified army or police, no effective central government or common system of taxation, and be forced to exist as a protectorate. That wartime criminals, traitors and profiteers should continue to fill local, regional and ministerial posts. That educational institutions should run along racial lines, while history is rewritten as a story of permanent division and confrontation. ‘For Bosnia’s survival, the important thing is for the Serbs to remain Serbs, the Croats Croats and the Bosniaks Bosniaks - but also for them above all to be Bosnians’: Izetbegović’s valediction contains an important message for those who administer the country today.


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