My friend Alija
by Stjepan Mesic
People said he was: ‘a controversial figure’, ‘a good man’, ‘an incompetent politician’, ‘a man who didn’t understand Balkan Realpolitik’, ‘a person who told Croatia that wasn’t his war’, ‘someone who had done great harm to the Bosniaks’. I have heard all this over the past thirteen years. I am not the right person to judge how true most of it was, since I had a very special sense of respect for and appreciation of Alija - I liked him regardless of our differences, which is why I cannot be an objective judge. But I must set the record straight about his alleged remark that the war against Croatia was not his war. It was at a time when the JNA had removed the lists of conscripts from local municipal offices and was starting to call them up directly. Alija then told the young men [of B-H] not to respond to the JNA's call, since they would be sent to war against Croatia - and the JNA's war was 'not our war'. It was, in fact, exactly the opposite of what was being deliberately put about.
There was something warm and human about Alija. He knew how to be calm even in circumstances when grinding of teeth would have been the right response. At moments when one expected him to apply his energy, however, Alija would submit to fate. It seemed to me at times that he had spent a large part of his life entrusting himself to the guidance of fate. We had two things in common: we were both lawyers and jailbirds. His prison sentence, however, shows that he was also a man of action, a man propelled by a need for active social and political engagement. As president of his party and a leading member of the presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina, he played a decisive role in the life of his country in both peace and war. The last decade of the 20th century was marked also by Alija Izetbegović.
We first met after the introduction of the multi-party system in 1990; but it was during the bloody year of 1991 that I saw more of him, beginning in The Hague when various lords and ministers started to assemble us at peace conferences. Alija used mildly to irritate us with his indecision. Some ascribed this to his political inexperience, his excessive caution or his religious belief. The true reason lay elsewhere: Alija had neither army nor police: he could not respond to force by force. When he appeared, to our disquiet, to be indifferent, he did so in a manner that was full of warmth and gentleness. He showed firm decisiveness and determination, however, in his insistence that Bosnia-Herzegovina should remain united and independent. Peace conferences, meetings and occasional encounters with Alija continued, and I came to value greatly his Sarajevo-Bosniak humour, which from time to time relaxed the melancholic expression on his face.
After my conflict with Tuđman, I no longer had the opportunity to talk to Izetbegović. He continued to be a leader, passing through the Scylla and Charybdis of the dreadful, hard and bloody war madness that ravaged his country. I visited him twice in besieged Sarajevo. He kept telling me with stubborn insistence: 'We shall win, Bosnia-Herzegovina will remain whole.' We promised to each other then that, regardless of our future functions, we would always meet when in Sarajevo or Zagreb. When I became president of Croatia, there was no doubt in my mind which countries I should visit first: our neighbours Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Because we are close, because of what we have in common, because of our history of suffering, and for the sake of a new and better future. To build bridges despite those who had destroyed them.
I met Alija last year when I was in Sarajevo. I was with him and watched him. Over the past years we have all changed our appearances, of course, and grown older. Alija, however, remained unchanged within himself, as if he had concentrated the entire span of his seventy and more years. He told me sadly that, while our agreement about mutual visits remained in force, he was unlikely to leave Sarajevo again. He was ill and had to go to hospital. I called him on the phone to encourage him and wish him well. I have followed his last battle, hoping he would once again win against all odds, but his time was coming to an end. My feeling on hearing about his death is in keeping with the memory of my friend Alija - a sense of the blue sadness I would detect lurking in his eyes. I share this sadness of his now and the warm melancholy that emanated from him. Farewell, my friend, on your journey to ahiret!
Stjepan Mesić is president of Croatia