Power brought him sorrow
by Bernard-Henri Lévy
His party, the SDA, is a ‘Muslim party'. Yet I do not believe you can find a single important text produced by this party which advocates a purely Muslim state. When certain Bosniak deputies such as Kupusovic or Muratovic raised this idea in the B-H parliament in 1994, an overwhelming majority voted against it. The president agreed with the majority.
Integralism? The fundamentalism of which some say he dreamed, and whose ideas he wished would prevail in the Balkans? This ‘extremist' had both Catholics and Orthodox in his government. He never omitted to pay homage to the ancient and respected Jewish community in Sarajevo. He was a European Muslim, a secular Muslim. A man who told me, when I brought him my 'La pureté dangereuse' [Dangerous Purity], that he too believed that Muslim extremism, particularly in Algeria, would be a great danger in the coming century. While I write this I recall that I spent days and sometimes nights with him, yet I never saw him spread out a prayer mat and pray.
An old-fashioned conservative
What about the famous ‘Islamic Declaration'? I would not say I agree with this text, which after all lauds societies based on the ethics and law of the Quran. If, however, we take into account that the text was a product of youth, that the author himself thinks of it in that way today and clearly never refers to it, it is sufficient to read it properly to discover that, far from recommending the establishment of a Muslim state, it demands the very opposite in Bosnia - given that the state's multicultural tradition, the importance of the Orthodox and Catholic communities and the nature of Bosnian Islam itself do not just prevent, but actually prohibit, the application of Koranic law. The truth is in reality far simpler. Alija Izetbegovic is no extremist, but a conservative. In a country like France he would have been an old-fashioned conservative of moderate views based on family values and the past. I should also add that he alone among the post-Yugoslav presidents had never been a Communist, and is perhaps the only one who entered the new period immune to the ‘national communism' favoured by Miloševic and Tudjman.
I recall our first meeting in Sarajevo. The presidency building was being shelled. Its front was pock-marked with bullet holes. A constant stream of soldiers entered and left his office. The man, modest, somewhat doleful, wearing the brown striped suit in which I was to see him so many times thereafter, spoke quietly, firmly but quietly, softly, almost whispering: ‘Tell President Mitterrand ... we find ourselves in a new Warsaw ghetto...' This was the famous, moving message that I conveyed to Mitterrand, which induced him in the middle of the Lisbon summit to make his unannounced visit to Sarajevo.
I remember him a few months later in Paris. During that unannounced visit which I, disregarding custom and protocol, had organized for him: ‘You haven't been invited? So what? François Mitterrand hadn't been invited either when he came to Sarajevo. You are returning his visit, that's all. He will receive you just as you received him...'. Mitterrand did receive him. He, for his part, received all our most eminent party leaders at his hotel, all of whom, but all, expressed on that occasion their support for military intervention. He did not realize then that they were lying. He did not know that those Tartuffes had just come to have a look at him, as if he were a circus beast. ‘A president in trouble ... a new Allende... Allende's in Paris... let's go and see him... An opportunity not to be missed, isn't it? Allende's in Paris... lets go and see him... let's take the opportunity... let's participate in a legend, provide ourselves with something for our Diaries...'. No, he knew nothing of this. He was even pleased that they paid so much attention to him, not to his person but to his state. Nevertheless, something in him resisted the emptiness. Something in him understood the farce of this petty Parisian bestiary, which even I mistakenly took for pure gold. Izetbegovic's acumen. Izetbegovic's sorrow, since he must already have known that he was a Haile Selassie of the end of the century.
I remember him again in Sarajevo in the middle of the worst winter offensive, still sad, still sombre, when he had probably finally realized that the West would not intervene, or if it did so it would not be in order to re-establish Bosnia's full sovereignty within its borders. His faint, sly smile when Kouchner proposed a wonderful exchange of prisoners: ‘That would be good for Mr Kouchner. Are you sure it would be good for Sarajevo?'
The ‘last chance' trip
Then again in Paris in June 1993, during a round trip that led him after Paris to London, Bonn, the Vatican and Madrid and that I called - not knowing how true that was - his ‘last chance' trip. Much had changed by then. The tone too. The same politicians were receiving him now not so much in order to hear, encourage or help him, but in order to preach at him, and in fact to censure him. ‘You ought to do this... You ought to accept that... You must realize that, if you do not agree, the international community could turn against you...' Even his friend Margaret Thatcher treated him like a pensioner and scolded him like a child. Such scenes pained me. He said nothing. He watched. He listened. And when Thatcher had finished and collapsed back deflated into her chair, he resumed in the same low, soft voice his heartfelt but hopeless appeal.
I remember him one night in Geneva. Another round of humiliating bargaining with Lord Owen had just ended. He was exhausted. He wished to walk a little. During our stroll he admitted to me that he was exhausted, anguished and horrified by a war that he waged but hated. It was carnival time. On our walk between the President and Richmond hotels the river bank was thronged with people. People of every kind. A crowd of happy children were running, shouting, playing. When they saw this strange old man surrounded by jugglers, limping slightly, stopping now and then to think or to say something, they started to dance around him. The bravest among them began to wave plastic guns or plastic swords at him. His bodyguards became concerned. He calmed them down with a wave of hand. He said he found the scene amusing: ‘the world is mad...the children don't realize they are playing at a war that we have to fight in reality'. We continued our stroll - the children still following us, he still explaining how much he hated the war he was waging.
The wrong man
Some men get drunk on power. Power made him sad. Does this mean that he was an incompetent war leader? With insufficient attention? No. On the contrary. For this dreamer, this melancholic, succeeded despite all in launching an offensive against the Serb fascists and their invincible positions with an army he had gathered. He fought that battle with determination. Nevertheless, I believe that he never ceased to feel that he was not the right person for it: it was necessary to play the role which fate had allocated to him and which up to a point he could not refuse. He thought, however, that fate had chosen the wrong man, which is what frequently happens. It was his misfortune that the war occurred.
He was often compared to Allende. That is how I managed to involve Mitterrand. But I wonder whether he was not more like Blum. The Blum of whom Roger Caillois wrote in a little known but admirable text that his problem, and his personal tragedy too, was that power did not change him at all. It was the year 1938. After resigning, the prime minister published a collection of speeches called 'Government', and another of literary essays titled 'New Conversations of Eckermann with Goethe'. Caillois commented: ‘Blum failed because government had not changed in any way this man of refinement. He remained a literary critic, a statesman of the republic of letters, liberal in his views and dignified in his manners. He would never have reached for his gun on hearing the word culture...'.
Like Blum, Izetbegovic remained to the end a man of letters and culture - the kind of man who in the midst of war will talk about Ivo Andric, Danilo Kiš or Stéphane Mallarmé... about Pollock or Seurat...about Judaism, his conception of evil, or his own philosophy. Like Blum, he remained to the end a lawyer. Opposite him stood a mad psychiatrist. He had to struggle against barbarians. He remained a man of texts and the law. He continued to respect the value of agreements, documents, promises. He believed that Mitterrand's word bound France, that Bill Clinton's word bound the United States. He believed in the word of states. That is doubtless why he agreed to the Dayton farce.
There is another picture I recall, simple but very telling. It was spring 1993. The Bosnian resistance was showing signs of exhaustion. The population too. Corruption, the inevitable consequence of war, was growing in the city [Sarajevo]. Mafias were triumphant, they ruled the place. The day before they had shown it by attacking a police station, after a street battle between the rival gangs of Caco and Celo. Celo was arrested. The matter was clearly sufficiently serious for Izetbegovic to be surrounded by the mayor, the minister of the interior, a general, his adviser Somun ( future ambassador to Istanbul), and the then foreign minister Haris Silajdzic. The question was what was to be done with people of that kind. The majority favoured harsh measures. Some believed the only solution was to line them up against a wall. Izetbegovic listened. His lips puckered several times, which in his case always means great hesitation. He finally decided that elo, despite everything, had been among the first defenders of the city, so he could not punish him like that. He calls himself a child of Sarajevo, but is its Dedo - Sarajevo's Grandfather.
Alija Izetbegovic was not, of course, a saint. But I cannot forget these images of him. There is a further one that I still recall. The first thing he did after his first meeting with Mitterrand was to visit the vault of the Deported, near Notre-Dame. I remember his pale grey, very soft gaze resting that morning on the Stone of the Dead. Not long before he had been reviewing a unit of the Republican Guard on the steps of the Elysée Palace. I still see his heavy, somewhat limping step. I see his military beret, quite unwarlike, with the white lilies that are Bosnia's symbols. Since then the beret has acquired in my imagination its rightful place next to Allende's bullet-proof vest and Gandhi's white cotton tunic. I have that in my mind's eye and know that he was someone out of the ordinary.
These edited extracts from 'Le lys et la cendre', Paris 1996, were published by Ljiljan (Sarajevo), 24-31 October 2003.