The agony of Stolac
by Rusmir Mahmutcehajic , with accompanying quotation from Ivo Banac
It is only in death that life manifests itself in all its plenitude. This manifestation bears witness, inescapably and eternally, to plenitude as inexhaustibility and limitlessness. The confrontation with death is at one and the same time alluring and repugnant. Does not the sense of responsibility to participate in the burial of one's neighbour testify to this? With death there remains speech: it can neither be expressed nor can one abstain from narrating it. For its true, dependable witnesses never return. Thus both language and the speaker invariably betray death, even while they cannot escape their duty to bear witness to it.
From the pits of Propast, Laniste, Kazani, Bezdana, Hrastova glavica, Lipovaca, Lisac, and numerous other chasms and killing fields known or unrevealed, the stillness speaks. It, too, is filled by a narrative towards which no human decency can be indifferent. Each of these indications in Bosnia of human degradation is in itself a summation of both decadence and redemption, of both the destructive and the constructive. If there is still hope for mankind, it lies in the readiness to question and reappraise, to the very point from which there is no return. Only speech can replace the irrevocable silence of the dead, but never can it justify it.
It is where its absence is most explicit that the profile and fecund reciprocity of human endurance manifests itself as an earthly image of the celestial paradise. The dun slopes of Herzegovina's hills are marked by cultivated lands that arose from the continual presence of a human hand. Stubborn determination and labour there became a bridge between heaven and earth, where the mercy of heaven was revealed in the germination, growth and ripening of the harvest. All this abundance testifies to man's long presence in the world of the heavens and the earth. Whenever that presence ceased, and with it the growth and maturation of that ascent, those cultivated lands vanished and their retaining walls collapsed within just a few years, as thorn and thistle reclaimed their own. But they retained enduringly the more or less visible record of the presence of those who had departed into the silence of death, leaving to the living both their speech and their inability.
Seco Pezo, from Stolac, completed his apprenticeship as a shoemaker in the first decade after the First World War. He then travelled with a carousel and hurdy-gurdy, tasting the experience of towns and villages, merry-making and festivals. He returned to Stolac, and to his mahala, sated with the world and its illusory splendour. He made a home for his family and began to make his presence felt on one of those barren, thorn-covered slopes. The retaining walls and fruit trees came to bear his fingerprints. He would go to them at dawn, and return home from them at night. Full of confidence in his labours, to which the germinating, growing and ripening crops in his gardens bore silent witness, his face glowed with joy and his gait was resolute whether he was striding to his work or returning to his rest.
When people from Stolac were packed into trucks to be taken off to concentration camps or driven from their homes, Seco Pezo refused to submit to such humiliation. What would he be without his Stolac, his vineyard, his mahala and his house? He turned his back on this disgrace and took refuge in his vineyard. But its lower retaining wall was an obstacle to the tanks that their commanders wanted to drive through those narrow streets, bounded with dry stone walls, between the gardens. He stepped out in front of them, prepared single-handedly to halt the destruction of his walls.
They killed him in the evening, that same day, in 1993. There are few witnesses who would utter a word about it, even in an undertone. The story of Seco's murder has never been fully told; nor can it ever be. It is revealed, however, in the silence of fear.
At the end of August this year, part of that inexhaustible fullness was recounted. Seco Pezo was murdered in his vineyard. His feet were bound with wire, they say, and then his veins were cut below the knee, and he was left to bleed to death. He lay dead for days in his vineyard. And then the killers ordered three or four people to bury him. Furtively, they did so. One of them betrayed the secret truth about his grave. Nor had he lied: the good old man with his feet bound was in a plastic sack. He was seventy-eight when they killed him. He could see, from his vineyard, the mosques and houses of Stolac burning, night after night.
The fate of Seco Pezo reflects the reality of his fellow citizens. Without clear knowledge of themselves and their dead, abandoned to ideological fantasies and vicious deception, they could neither understand nor prevent their suffering. Their present circumstances make this clear. They can speak neither of the dead nor of the living. There are merely rumours, spoken in an undertone, with the sense that this is the way to maintain the status quo - for they feel that things could be even worse. They shun the dead, although they feel within themselves the most profound obligation to be with them. They are scattered about the world, constantly thinking about how to return, but becoming ever more distant from themselves. And those who in the multiplicity of poor possibilities for return find merely the lesser evil, and those who because of age and incapacity have no choice but to endure in fear, remain silent about the agony of Stolac. It seems to them that they have lost meaning and language and speech. To whom can they speak of the fact that the hundreds of their houses which have been torched or dynamited, and the charred remains of their mosques, are an encouragement to those who carried out these atrocities? What is the point of speaking of such things, when none of the perpetrators of these crimes, visible down to the tinest detail, has even been charged? When all of them, the perpetrators and their accomplices, are right there among them, can see the effects of their evil-doing, and look truculently at those against whom it was directed, seeking among the victims those who are willing to acknowledge that the evil-doing was even for their benefit. If they will not do so, all that is left for them is to remain silent and pass by the houses and mosques that, for years, have been visibly wept over and washed only by the rain.
But this speaking only in undertones cannot go on. They have only two possibilities. The first is to remain entirely speechless; the second, to speak out clearly and resolutely. Those among the Bosniaks who would prefer the undertones not to be transformed into clear and resolute speech have turned out to be gambling with the future of Bosnia and the Bosniaks. At the hub of these murmured undertones, they turn their passions and moral arrogance to advantage. For them Stolac's agony is an issue only to the extent that it supports the notion of their role and their homes. Any talk of the issue as a whole threatens and repulses them, since in such talk the obfuscation of their obsession and dishonourable trade is made transparent. They are incapable of facing up to this. And thus they hurry to form alliances with the guilty, who, fearful that law and order might be introduced, offer to rescue them by supporting their role and their homes. They will be under no threat, provided that they sacrifice the truth and remain strongly opposed to those who persist in the Bosnian model of trust and communication. For only this can open the way to the judgment of truth in the full human sense of the word. And that implies no reconciliation with crimes and their perpetrators.
Do these people and this country want to become inured to the dangers of fission? Are they threatened with enduring apartheid through silence and reliance on the 'democratically elected' representatives who shield their lust for property, power and reputation by enforcing oblivion as the only outcome of the Bosnian agony? Will it become, between criminals and their victims, between oblivion and memory, like a mere phantom, part of that adhesive mind-set and way of life, which is rotten through and through?
Today the whole tragic fate of Bosnia is not even named. The labels of similar phenomena from the past are attached to it. At the root of the anti-Bosnian enterprise is the intention to use destruction to distort memory. This alone, after only a few years, would impose a decline into a vacuum of oblivion. The best allies and accomplices for such intentions are corrupt government and its actors. And does not the agony of Stolac, too, demonstrate that?
Returnees to Stolac are living under apartheid. There are some forms of political pretence behind which this is concealed. Muslims have no access to the Health Centre that they and their forebears built. A separate place is provided for them in a private house in their ghetto. Part of the school that they and their forebears built on the graveyard, convinced that their dead had bequeathed the land beneath which they lie to their heirs, is set aside for their children: for Muslim children, the local authorities aver, cannot mix with others, so they impose this separate regime. Some of the children, for whom the two or three 'permitted' grades of the local school are not sufficient, have to continue their education at home. Many homes have no electricity or running water. And even if the obdurate authorities were willing to provide power and water, who would pay for it. The sites where their mosques once stood - including the Carsija mosque, the heart of urban Stolac, and the Podgrad and Cuprija mosques - are insolently trampled upon, degraded to parking lots or turned into rubbish dumps; for this enforced humiliation serves as a demonstration that even the victims have no choice but to recognize the crimes and their perpetrators. Bosniak participants in local government have a similar role: to remain silent, so as not to provoke those who drove them out of their town in 1993 and then devastated it; or to oppose them and once again bring down upon themselves the destruction of which the frequent torchings, shootings and insults are just a warning; or to stifle all their own moral resistance and accept unprincipled collaboration with people who are thereby acquiring from them not their involvement in any renewal of trust and confidence among the population, but their post festum collaboration in crime.
Seco Pezo was killed in his vineyard and then furtively buried in the Stolac graveyard. Many of his elderly fellow townsmen and women have died as exiles, far or near, full of the inexhaustible question of death, yearning to be close to their own both dead and living. Their irrevocable silence cautions their successors of the impossibility of speech and the inadmissibility of silence.
In whose community is Seco Pezo? Whose is the responsibility, whose the speech and the silence, for his fate? Those questions shake human feelings to their deepest and most individual core. And they point not only to the pits and killing fields of this country, but also to a better future.
This article appeared in Oslobodjenje, 9 September 2000
Rusmir Mahmutcehajic is professor of applied physics at the University of Sarajevo, where he also lectures on the phenomenology of the sacred. In 1991 he was first deputy premier of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, then served as minister of power and industry. In late 1993 he resigned from all governmental posts because of his opposition to the country' s ethnic partition. Founder and president of International Forum Bosnia (Sarajevo), an NGO which advocates the strengthening of civil society in B-H. Co-editor of the periodical Forum Bosnae, he is author of numerous historical-philosophical, sociological and political articles, and of: The Genocide against the Bosnian Muslims (1991), Living Bosnia: Political Essays and Interviews (1996), O nauku znaka [On the Doctrine of Symbols] (1996), Bosnia the Good (2000), The Denial of Bosnia (2000). He was the guest speaker at The Bosnian Institute' s regular monthly forum in July 1998, and contributed to its book on War in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina 1992-1995, shortly to appear in English translation.
'Vesna Pusic showed courage when she stated in the Croatian parliament that Croatia had committed aggression against Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is a crime to involve the parliament in the falsification of history. The various apologists for Tudjman who sit in it cannot erase such things as the Stolac urbicide. The Croatian parliament should establish a commission with the task of establishing how Tudjman came to involve Croatia in the aggression against Bosnia-Herzegovina.'
Ivo Banac, Nacional (Zagreb), 27 February 2001