Being Croat the Bosnian Way
by Ivan Lovrenovic
Asked in the autumn of 1994 if you believed in your return to Sarajevo, you answered that it was a difficult question. You did not give a clear answer then,
but now you are back, to the great joy of all who those who wish this city and
this country well.
At that time I was unable to give a straightforward answer, for the simple reason that I had nowhere to go back to: Grbavica was then a different world. But
later it was quite natural for us to return home to the Grbavica flat from which
we had fled for our lives in May 1992; and if I could also go back to Mrkonjic-Vracar [his childhood home, now in RS], I should really feel I had come
home. As for the more general theme of leaving and returning, it is one I am
reluctant to broach because it is open to such grave mystifications; so I prefer
to limit myself to the 'practical' aspect of the matter.
In the first years of the war you wrote occasional columns in the Sarajevo press
under the heading Ex Tenebris. How do you experience Sarajevo today?
I feel it is almost improper to compare Sarajevo then and Sarajevo now, simply
because what happened between then and now has altered our world so fundamentally. We refuse to acknowledge this, because we harbour a deep, subconscious
fear of coming to terms with the substance and extent of that change. In my
view there is simply no comparison between the world we once knew, of which we
were a part, and the one that is now in place. Paradoxically only we have re-
mained the same, although even the word 'same' should perhaps be placed between
inverted commas. We are the same in our physical appearance, we recognize each
other's faces and speak a mutually comprehensible language; but every time we
pause in our communication, we become aware of the deep chasm of this change
yawning beneath it. I do not know how to define what has changed, but I know
for certain that this world and that world are two quite different worlds. I do
not even wish to ascribe them a value, to say that the old one was better than
the new one or the other way round. I only know that they are two quite different worlds and that the life we now live is wholly different from the life we
The Zagreb Catholic journal Glas Koncila in March 1996 described our city as
'imprisoned in the darkness of human ruthlessness, hatred and greed', and other
Croatian papers too constantly bring up its supposed 'dark vilayet' atmosphere.
I am simply unable to think in such terms. What you refer to is certainly the
result of a wilfully unsympathetic and improvised value judgement. Those who
qualify Bosnia and Sarajevo in this way demonstrate not only their ignorance but
also their moral poverty. For the sake of my own dignity and that of my country, I refuse to engage in polemical disputes with people who indulge in such
cheap abuse. And after allÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ
, what does it signify anyway? Every genuine social,
political and cultural ambience contains an element of 'darkness'. What country
in the world is not 'dark'? So we Bosnians too must find a way of admitting
that our country and even Sarajevo itself, at both their most glorious and their
worst moments, have contained something which, when observed from outside and
expressed in ideological language, may be described as darkness. We did not
need the war to realize that Bosnia has its ugly and difficult side: we who were
born and lived in Bosnia knew this well. If such an observation is to mean anything, at all events, it must be taken as a call to self-examination - to a determined and intelligent effort on our part to investigate this problem. After
all it is we who have been living with Bosnia's difficulties and will continue
to do so in the future. This is why I should not waste much time upon those who
call us such names. I should much prefer us, as a marvellous story by Andric
recommends, to take care of our own troubles, not by giving each other false
compliments or getting at each other, but by learning to face the truth - our
own and that of others - and to rationalize or objectify it, to the degree that
is necessary to re-establish mutual trust: the kind of trust which has at times
been demonized from outside but which we call coexistence or cohabitation, and
which we know provides the indispensable foundation for living also the life defined by our narrower Croat, Serb, Bosniak, etc. identities. That is how Bosnia
is. If that is darkness, then all I can say is that it is my own darkness and,
oppressive though it may be, the truth is I could not live without it.
How do you grade identities in Bosnia? You have written about being no less a
Croat because you are not simply a Croat, but a Bosnian as well.
In my whole experience, emotional and intellectual, the feeling of being a Croat
and the feeling of being a Bosnian have never in any way been mutually exclusive
or in conflict with each other. They were always mutually complementary, indeed
synonymous with each other. To be a Bosnian Croat is to be pre-eminently a Bosnian. To put it somewhat pathetically, I do not allow anyone to be a greater
Bosnian and Croat than I am myself. Such statements are, of course, ridiculous,
but I wish to emphasize that only political manipulation can set these two identities against each other .
The Bosnian Croats, ethnically and traditionally, are the Bosnian ingredient par
excellence, synonymous with Bosnia from its very beginnings. It is impossible
to imagine Bosnia without them, nor can they imagine themselves outside of it.
The private, inner sadness and suffering which the Bosnian Croats - now dislocated and widely dispersed - carry within themselves best testifies to what I am
talking about. Politically uneducated, miserable and manipulated, they may
think that Tudjman is their God; but their feelings - their tragic sorrow and
yearning - for their Bosnian places is unbelievably strong.
But can you go to Kiseljak, which is only about thirty kilometers from Sarajevo,
and tell a Croat there that he lives in Bosnia not in Croatia?
It is precisely because of such absurdities that I have been insisting so much
on a precise delineation of responsibilities. The Kiseljak question should be
addressed to the parties [HDZ and SDA] which to this day, in their unnatural
marriage, maintain that situation - and not to us Croats. This is not a question for you or me to debate. We can discuss in some detail problems of culture
and reach an understanding, but what you are speaking of here is something quite
trivial, yet unfortunately very tenacious - a question of concrete individuals
with very concrete interests.
We have many people in positions of power, especially in Republika Srpska, who
insist that no 'multi-Bosnia' is possible, Indeed the prefix 'multi' has by
constant use become trivialized and worn out. CÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ
an you comment on this linguistic exhaustion?
You are right to point out how the famous prefix 'multi' has been devalued by
constant repetition. But this is of little consequence. It is more important
to re-examine the concepts in question. When we speak of Bosnian civilization
in terms of its religions, then one can and must speak of pluralism, of Bosnia's
multi-dimensional existence. Bosnia is a multi-confessional society.
However, the concept denoted by the prefix 'multi' is often used in a wrong and
indeed damaging manner when dealing with Bosnia's cultural ambience and tradition. Speaking of multicultural Bosnia, we frequently in fact mechanically
transpose the concept of multiculturalism used in the West. Bosnia both is, and
is not, multicultural. If by culture one understands all the civilizational
substrata carried here in the past on waves originating in different cultural
and religious centres, then yes, Bosnia is multicultural. However, at the same
time Bosnia is not multicultural, in the sense that it has a cultural formation
which is unique to it. This unity of the Bosnian system of cultural references
rests on quite concrete foundations, one of which, for example, is our language
- the fact that we all speak the same language. No other former Yugoslav republic is so unified by language as Bosnia-Herzegovina. And then we speak of our
cultural multi-composition as if it were a handicap! Even today, regardless of
the results of this horrendous war, Bosnia has remained united in the sense of
the existence of this single cultural system of reference, that acts as the
medium for communication among its citizens.
What in your view is the position of the Catholic Church in Bosnia-Herzegovina
in relation to the country's future? There is a belief, rarely publicly stated,
that Catholic Church leaders have verbally defended Bosnia's integrity while
hoping that the violence and aggression would finish it off.
The behaviour of the Catholic Church can best be described as ambivalent. This
ambivalence derives from its own historical and national-confessional determination. On the one hand it is a highly traditional and deeply rooted Bosnian
structure. As the oldest of all B-H institutions, the Catholic Church can claim
to have shared the fate of the country since its inception. This is one side,
one pole of its ambivalence. On the other side it is an integral part of the
Croat cultural and national whole. In all times during which these two sides
were not in conflict, there was no ambivalence in the behaviour of the Church.
However, the break-up of Yugoslavia and the start of the war - first in Croatia
and then in Bosnia-Herzegovina - suddenly and in the most dramatic fashion
brought into collision these two equally important and equally fundamental
components of the Bosnia-Herzegovina Catholic Church, causing a crisis not only
within the institution as such, but even and perhaps more importantly within
each of its individual members. This has produced certain hesitations and oscillations between left and right. Now that the war is over and an equilibrium
has been restored, one could give the following verdict: despite all its wanderings during the past war, in relation to all the possible concrete politically
conflictual situations which the war produced, especially in the relationship
between the Croatian and Bosnian states, the Catholic Church has succeeded in
emerging from all these Scyllas and Charibdises as a truly Bosnian patriotic
force. I myself belong to those who would have preferred its position to have
been clearer - more positive and categorical - at certain moments. But since
we are dealing with an ambivalently structured institution, with people whose
being is equally strongly determined by both of the two poles I have described,
I believe it is correct to pass a generally positive judgment on its record -
and all the more so in view of the unprecedented historical circumstances, which
erhaps insufficiently understood. Whereas before the war the Catholic
Church in Bosnia-Herzegovina was organizationally an integral part of the Catholic Church of Croatia, it has emerged from the war identified with Bosnia-Herzegovina alone. The fact that the Catholic Church in Bosnia-Herzegovina has become
the Catholic Church of Bosnia-Herzegovina once and for all is, in my view, an
outcome of the greatest importance.
You wrote recently in the Croatian weekly Tjednik that to call the Bosnian HDZ
leaders 'the representatives of the Croat people in Bosnia-Herzegovina' is linguistic manipulation. What is your attitude towards the HDZ?
I am glad you have asked me this question, since there are few issues on which I
take so clear and resolute a stand as towards the HDZ. From the moment the
party was formed under the name of the Croatian Democratic Community of Bosnia-
Herzegovina, I was against it - and I have not changed this negative view of it
in the slightest. I knew already then that, for the people in whose name this
party presumed to act, it was counterproductive and dangerous that its centre
should lie outside the country, i.e. in Croatia. This submission to Zagreb has
proved to be the essence of the problem. In saying this I do not wish to deny
in any way the need for a normal relationship between the Croat people in Bosnia
and in Croatia. By manipulating this relationship, however, the HDZ became the
primary destructive force among all the other forces that have worked for the
annihilation of the Bosnian Croat world. This must be said over and over again,
and can easily be proved. To say this is not to be anti-Croat - on the contrary. My criticism of the HDZ is motivated above all by the interests of the
Croat people, which that party has neither understood nor proved able to defend.
Alija Izetbegovic likes to say that Bosnia's fate depends on a weak Serbia and a
democratic Croatia. Leaving Serbia aside, do you see a future Croatia as a
I must first of all say that, unless we see Bosnia's future as derived from itself and secured in itself, then Bosnia has no future. Only when that is made
clear can I agree that Bosnia's fate is influenced by what happens in its neighbourhood. The end of the present unbelievable, bloody and tragi-comic post-Communist structure in Croatia is guaranteed by the laws of biology and the general
march of events in Europe and beyond: both of these provide support for Izetbegovic's confidence in a future democratic Croatia. If one can permit oneself
this hope, then I would like to see - in Croatia as in Bosnia - a normal government concerned with a better life for its citizens rather than with national
mythomania. In that event, one might easily discover that Croatia and Bosnia
are a single world, not in the sense of political or state ties, but simply in
the sense that this is how things are.
At a recent basket-ball match between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia here in
Sarajevo, there was an eruption of hostility among the public against the Croatian players and their state's symbols. Can you comment on this hostility and
what it means for the relationship between the two countries and peoples?
In my view this has little to do with the relationship between the two countries
and peoples, despite appearances - which, of course, are not to be minimized either. We are dealing here with crowd psychology, which tends to function on a
simple, or more precisely on a primitive and primordial, level. The question,
however, is what kind of media and channels of communication act as suitable
transmission-belts for such primitive moods. Living in the Sarajevo-Zagreb-Belgrade triangle, six years or even longer ago we became conditioned to express
our mass frustrations by abusing each other, especially those nearest to us. At
the Maximir stadium in Zagreb they swore at the Balije, while here at Skenderija
they railed against the Ustashe. This is terrible,ÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ
it leads to no good - I repeat here the usual things - but as long as such political formulas express the
views of the organized political elites, this will continue to happen. It is
very hypocritical of the press, and even more of the politicians, to express
disapproval of such behaviour when it is in fact being engendered at the highest levels of politics. It is the politicians whom one should denounce daily,
openly, clearly and brutally, rather than the sport fans - who are, of course,
guilty of shouting such stuff, but who are not responsible for it in reality.
I really do hold this to be the great challenge, indeed a question of honour,
for the media and all of us who work within the media, that for the sake of the
people whom we claim to love best we should name those who are truly responsible
for such occurrences.
Why cannot one hear authoritative voices speaking out more loudly above politics
in its brutal form?
There are none. Can you point to any such authority anywhere in Bosnia or outside of it?
You, for example. Speaking of the fateful triangle, you have not been politically involved with any of the three ruling parties.
The position which you ascribe to me is very precisely defined by the view that
it is impossible to identify what is needed with the political parties that
dominate and determine our whole area, in terms either of their practice or of
their programmes. What is needed, in my view, includes rehabilitation, reconciliation, and a new structuring of the political, social, cultural and indeed
human ambience of Bosnia-Herzegovina. There is, however, not a single relevant,
strong and effective party which at this moment has even a minimal programme for
the regeneration of life in Bosnia-Herzegovina. To be outside party political
life thus amounts to a political statement. Your question, however, had a different content. It spoke of absence of authority. The tragedy of our present
situation, in my view, lies in the destruction of all systems of values. All
those elements of society which reproduce themselves and proclaim themselves as
authorities are, in fact, false authorities. Their pronouncements have been reduced to repetition of empty formulae of religious, national and cultural
identification - a perpetual repetition of phrases devoid of value. This is
the crucial problem which explains the absence of any authority with which people can identify. To say this is not to express pessimism in regard to the
possibility of re-establishing the necessary system of values. I only mean
that in Bosnia today, despite the tragic extent of its destruction and
fragmentation, there exist enormous and powerful human potentialities, human
energies, that could be moved in the direction of social consolidation. That
this is not being done is a great and terrible crime of the existing political
That brings us to the familiar question: how can the politicians who have caused
this terrible catastrophe succeed in re-establishing trust and coexistence?
Obviously they cannot. That is the nub of the problem. The Bosnian political
elites of today have no need or desire to turn to this latent energy in order to
rehabilitate our society. The first step would be a kind of reconciliation or
rebuilding of mutual trust. That means we must all, figuratively speaking, turn
to one another. It is evident that the existing political elites cannot do this,
and that they transfer this dangerous defeatism - their lack of will and absence
of courage - by a well-established mechanism to the so-called masses. It is a
When we speak of political elites in this way, are we not falling into the error
of equalization? Are we not being unfair to, let us say it clearly, one of the
sides? Is it not the case that we in Bosnia would not have had these problems,
had it not been for the expansionist aspirations of Belgrade and Zagreb?
Obviously, linking the fate of Bosnia-ÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ
Herzegovina to the political will of Belgrade and Zagreb cannot bring any good. However, I do not think you are right
to pose the issue of equalization in this way. No morally or rationally
responsible person can equalize what are commonly referred to as the three
sides. The history of the post-Yugoslav conflict is close at hand, so everyone
can reconstruct for herself or himself the course of events. There should be
no doubt on this score.
However, when we look at the problem from the point of view of Bosnia-Herzegovina, when we perform a concrete and impartial political analysis, a highly nuanced form of equalization simply imposes itself. It is true that the policy
of Slobodan Milosevic, expressed initially in the SDS and Radovan Karadzic, and
the HDZ's policy directed from Zagreb and from the inner core of the party
headed by Tudjman - that their interest was to destroy Bosnia-Herzegovina. However, the time has passed when we could voice our Bosnian feelings, uphold our
Bosnian dignity and express our Bosnian quest for justice by merely proclaiming
such evident political judgments. Bosnia must confront itself. This includes
also an exact and merciless analysis of the internal Bosnian factor, which you
can call the SDA, Alija Izetbegovic, the Bosniak element or whatever. The
behaviour of this 'third factor' must be subjected to an exact and public analysis, in relation precisely to the issue of all issues: how do we view Bosnia,
what kind of Bosnia do we want and is there a way to re-establish Bosnia. This
job, so far as I can see, has not been tackled. Instead, people ritually re-
peat the charges against Belgrade and Zagreb. When I say this, I find I too
need to recall what I have done for the past five or six years; but I insist
that this is no longer enough. When you embark on an exact, unbiased and
non-sentimental analysis of the 'third factor', it is very easy to reach the
conclusion that, in the political execution of this whole process, this 'third
factor' did not have - nor does it today have - a functional projection of Bosnia-Herzegovina's future, in the sense we understand when speaking of our need
for it or how it can be reintegrated in a new political form. Unfortunately
that is the case. I am aware in saying this of the need to address this theme
very precisely, thoroughly and with arguments.
What is your view of Chairman of the Presidency, Alija Izetbegovic?
My view is very complex and ambivalent. Probably because he is that kind of individual. I must admit that, at different times and in different ways, I have
found myself highly impressed by him - he has never left me cold or indifferent. When one thinks of him in a contextual and comparative manner, he is the
most interesting and in a way the most mysterious of all the leaders in the
former Yugoslav republics. Unlike the others, who share a common ideological
and political origin and behave accordingly, Izetbegovic has lived all his life
as an ordinary, politically unorganized and unformed individual. One can say
that he lived his life as an outsider, while all the others were insiders. During the war he experienced the most traumatic and terrible agony conceivable for
Would it be right to say that the Dayton division of Bosnia into two entities
amounts to a discontinuity in the history and internal organization of Bosnian
That is a very pertinent question, which perhaps the historians are best qualified to answer. All I can say is that I share the fear contained in your question, that we are faced with a serious discontinuity despite the fact that historically speaking Bosnia has been a dynamic formation - sometimes larger sometimes smaller, sometimes one size and sometimes another. One of its fundamental
divisions is contained in its name: Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was internally
divided also in recent history: i.e. in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, when the intention was to break it up as a political unitÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ
y. What Dayton has done is not
unprecedented, though the manner in which it was done is something for all of us
to worry about.
The first step in the reconstitution of Bosnian culture must be a relativization
of political-national identity. If we in Bosnia think of ourselves only as Bosniaks, Croats or Serbs, then we have nothing to say to each other - it is no-
body's fault, Bosnia is simply like that. If we want Bosnia, if we swear by
Bosnia and by the project of its reintegration, then we must know that and accept it in advance - otherwise it means we do not want Bosnia and that is the
end of the story. If you want Bosnia, you must be Bosnian: which means you cannot be only a Bosniak, a Croat or a Serb. I keep repeating: I am no less a
Croat because I am not only a Croat. And if each Bosnian can admit that to himself, then we are on the way to rebuilding Bosnia-Herzegovina. But I must remind you that the cultural ambience of Bosnia today - of Sarajevo in particular
and especially, if I may say so, of the Bosniaks - is far from that. I know
what I am saying, I know that in a way it has to be like this, and I can even
appreciate it, since I am well aware of the Bosniaks' political and historical
suffering in the modern period of our history...
If it only depended on the Bosniaks alone...
No, no, I am speaking of a pattern of behaviour which leads nowhere but to a
national autism, solipsism - a process which in Croatia, for example, has advanced to a terrifying extent. Unfortunately when we speak of these processes,
regardless of all the differences and antagonisms between them, it seems that we
are all behaving in the same way. That is the problem.
Ivan Lovrenovic returned recently to Sarajevo after serving during the war years
as cultural attache in the B-H embassy in Zagreb, working (from its foundation
in March 1997) as deputy editor of the weekly Tjednik, and acting from 1995 on
as chief editor of the Ex Ponto imprint, devoted to Bosnian literature, within
the publishing house Durieux. Before the war he had been director of the
important Prosvjeta publishing house based in Sarajevo, and he is now again
working in publishing for Bosanska Knjiga. One of the foremost Bosnian writers, his works include poetry, novels, critical essays, literary history, etc.
His influential essay 'The Deconstruction of Bosnia' was translated in the
April/June 1996 issue of Bosnia Report. The text above is a compilation from
interviews published in Dani (22 December 1997) and Ljiljan (24-31 December