bosnia report
New Series No: 37-38 January - March 2004
Alija Izetbegovic - in memoriam
by Sonja Biserko

The esteem and respect for Alija Izetbegović voiced by international leaders, many of whom took part in the Bosnian drama, upon his death should be treated also as the expression of a guilty conscience. This confirms him as a tragic hero, who during those years fought for an integral Bosnia, but whom they forced to accept in the end its internal ethnic division. This fact explains why his departure was not marked by a day of mourning in the whole country to whose survival he contributed so much [i.e. RS refused to take part].

He was constantly under pressure to agree to an ethnic division of Bosnia-Herzegovina from the international community , which equated his responsibility for the war with that of Slobodan Milošević and Franjo Tuđman. Looking back one can say that Izetbegović's wisdom and patience nevertheless succeeded in persuading the world that there is a difference between aggressor and victim, and in preserving Bosnia's multi-ethnic character by his policy that rejected revenge.

Alija Izetbegović, a devout Muslim since early youth, became deeply engaged with the Muslim issue, for which he was imprisoned on several occasions. In the 1970s he was sentenced to fourteen years in prison on account of his book The Islamic Declaration, which was subsequently often cited especially in Serbia as proof of his fundamentalism. The sentence stating that 'Islam is the only idea in the Muslim world which can move the masses and bring about true change' was used as the supreme argument for this. His opponents, however, were never able to accuse him of stimulating hatred.

Izetbegović began his political career as leader of the SDA, a Bosniak national party, at a time when national parties were being formed all over the former Yugoslavia. The first multi-party elections in Bosnia were won by the national parties SDS, HDZ and SDA, the triad which is still in power. While Karadžić proclaimed in the new parliament that 'one people' would disappear, Izetbegović did all he could to ensure that the Muslims would survive. In early 1992, when the international community decided to recognize Bosnia-Herzegovina following a referendum in which over 60% of its citizens opted for independence, Izetbegović responded to Karadžić's threats by declaring that the Muslims would not take up arms, that there would be no war in Bosnia, and that the JNA would not occupy Bosnia-Herzegovina or stage a coup d'etat.

When the best man at a wedding was killed in Baščaršija [in Sarajevo], Izetbegović promptly declared that this was an attack on Bosnia. Despite all the signs that the Serbs were preparing to seize Bosnia, Izetbegović was stubbornly persuading the Bosnians that, although some forces were seeking to create chaos and panic, the situation was under control. He and the Macedonian president Kiro Gligorov came up with a plan for a so-called ‘asymmetric federation’, with which they hoped to save Yugoslavia. When it became clear that Croatia and Slovenia were moving towards independence, however, Macedonia and Bosnia followed suit. Izetbegović continued to insist that it takes two to make war; but when Bosnia declared independence on 6 April 1992, JNA tanks had already surrounded Sarajevo. At the same time Bijeljina, Zvornik and the whole of eastern Bosnia came under occupation, which was accompanied by mass murder and deportation of the Muslim inhabitants. Izetbegović continued to believe that the JNA could stop the massacres, and he invited it to act as a barrier in the areas in which the SDS paramilitaries were attacking. His helplessness became evident on 2 May 1992, when the JNA actually arrested him; but he was released a day later in exchange for their general Milan Kukanjac.

Choosing the lesser evil

Though an opponent of ethnic partition, Izetbegović agreed to it in order to stop the war. His comment on the Vance-Owen partition plan of 1993 was: 'The plan is bad, but it is good since it will end the war.' When three months later the plan failed, because the Serb parliament in Bijeljina rejected it, Izetbegović was again forced to make concessions. When the Owen-Stoltenberg plan made its appearance, Izetbegović made a public statement: 'We are trying to preserve Bosnia for our people.' On this occasion he spelled out Bosnia's position between the two neighbouring states in which 'nationalist movements' were burgeoning at the same time as the world was governed by indifference and inertia. This is why he decided to save his people even at a price of the country's temporary division - although, he insisted, 'history will recall that we did not want the division, but that it was imposed on us.'

One should not omit here the Security Council resolution which imposed an arms embargo on all the new states emerging from Yugoslavia, regardless of the fact that Serbia (with Montenegro) was already in possession of the JNA's enormous military capacity. This forced the Bosniaks to import arms from the Islamic states, along with the services of small groups of mujahedeen. The West, not wishing to take responsibility for Bosnia, indirectly supported this. Since the West was unwilling to intervene, the international community equalized the responsibility of all the warring parties in Bosnia, and in doing so committed a great injustice against the Bosnian Muslims.

Numerous ceasefire agreements were made and not kept. The massacre in Srebrenica, however, was a turning-point, in that it led to Western intervention. Srebrenica became a moral issue for the whole world. The fall of 'Republika Srpska Krajina' [in Croatia] changed the military balance in the region, and encouraged the USA to undertake a series of steps leading to the peace settlement in Dayton. Izetbegović said of Srebrenica: 'When something so terrible happens, no one can claim innocence.'

The tragic nature of Bosnia's struggle for independence awoke the whole world. During those years Izetbegović was faced with many important decisions. While exposed to the pressure of the international community's different interests, but also to that of people within his own party, he fought courageously to save Bosnia - whose future, he always said, ultimately depended on its own citizens.

Today, as the course of the war is being reconstructed in The Hague, it is clear that the Bosniaks and their leader Alija Izetbegović have paid an enormous price for Europe's stereotyping and ignorance of Bosnia. Izetbegović himself said: ‘The referendum on independence played a key role in defining the war, since it became impossible to call it a civil war, and it had to be defined as an international conflict and aggression, as is confirmed in many trials now proceeding in The Hague.’

International politicians in their farewells to Izetbegović have stressed that ‘his greatest achievement was to preserve Bosnia-Herzegovina as a single, sovereign and internationally recognized state.’ Izetbegović , for his part, sent a final message to the Bosnian peoples from his hospital bed: 'The most important thing is that Bosnia has survived.' And it will continue to exist provided that 'the Serbs remain Serb, the Croats Croat and the Bosniaks Bosniak, but that they above all be Bosnians. I would like to say too that there must be no revenge, but only justice. One should seek justice, not revenge, because revenge begets an endless chain of evil.'

Translated from Monitor (Podgorica), 24 October 2003

Sonja Biserko is president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia and editor of Helsinška povelja (Belgrade)


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