I would like to be able to mark Bosnian Statehood Day (Dan Državnosti) with a cheery report about how Bosnia and Hercegovina (BiH) has bounced back after the war and that ethnic cleansing is a distant memory. However, that’s not true. As I write, corpses continue to be exhumed from a mass grave that may prove to be the largest from the Bosnian conflict, and genocide denial is widespread. The country is divided into two, and little has changed since 1994 when Dževad Karahasan wrote:
“All our efforts to explain… are futile, simply because the issue is not the lack of understanding or inadequate information but a deliberately false naming of things. No serious person can really believe that we are truly dealing with a civil war here, or that the forced impregnation of a woman is the same thing as rape, as awful as that crime is. Western politicians are much better informed than we are, and they know, down to the tiniest detail, what is happening (Presidents Mitterand and Bush had evidence showing the existence of Chetnik concentration camps in July of 1992). They deliberately give false names to things in order to distort those very things, to ‘justify’ their own ineptness, forlornness, passiveness, and indecisiveness. I finally realize that people who are well off are simply not interested in the tragedies of other people. Now I see that people actually are not interested in truth, goodness, justice, and meaning. I understand that the masters of the contemporary world – Western politicians – are catastrophically wrong… I now understand that much of what made my life bearable is simply an illusion; I now understand that all my images of the West and the so-called free world were an illusion; I now understand that even here, in the West, they do not look at me as a person but as a member of a certain group. That is why, after all my experiences, after the loss of a great number of my illusions, it is much harder to endure life and the world today….” (Sarajevo, Exodus of a City)
One could argue that Bosnia doesn’t really exist anymore, at least not within its historic borders. It was destroyed when too many people succumbed to the lie that people of different ethnicities couldn’t live together anymore. It wasn’t difficult to believe. The Serbs hammered the point home with their policy of ethnic cleansing. By 1993 there were so many factions and changing alliances that it seemed no one could be trusted. The memory of a Bosnia in which Serbs, Croats, Muslims, and Jews coexisted as friends had become like a cruel dream. For those besieged by the fighting, incarcerated in one of hundreds of concentration camps, or among the half a million refugees languishing in collection centres on Croatia’s Adriatic coast, their waking reality was that the country they loved no longer existed as they knew it.
The Dayton peace accords confirmed this, adding insult to injury by handing over half the country to the warmongers. The mere fact that half of BiH is now the Republika Srpska and in the hands of those who attempted to ethnically cleanse Bosnia (and parts of Croatia) is proof of this. Just four days ago, the Bosnian Serbs unashamedly commemorated Dan uspostave Opšteg okvirnog sporazuma za mir u Bosni i Hercegovini (Establishment of the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina Day) and called for their autonomy to be strengthened. Dayton Day, as it’s known, was a victory for Serb separatists. Bosnia’s war victims, those who believed in a multi-ethnic Bosnia, merely became peace victims. It’s difficult to imagine how the international community could have botched it any more than they did.
In spite of all that, Bosnia is not dead. Cast out from their homes, Bosnians internalised Bosnia as they were scattered across the world. Bosnia was kept alive as a memory even as her people started life anew in foreign countries – discovering new vocations, new friends, and new perspectives. In the aftermath of tragedy, this diaspora is the lifeblood of Bosnia. These victims of ethnic cleansing continue to defy the perpetrators by merely holding onto the idea of a multi-ethnic Bosnia. They have refused to adopt ethnic hatred. They recognise that for all the material and political losses, Bosnia will not be defeated so long as they do not hate. It reminds me of what C.S. Lewis once wrote: “We may kill if necessary, but we must not hate and enjoy hating.”
Today, in defiance of the Bosnian Serb leadership’s refusal to celebrate Bosnian Statehood Day – they say it is “an artificial imposing of a story of an alleged continuity of statehood, which did not exist” – the spirit of Bosnia is maintained. It was on this day seventy years ago that the National Anti-Fascist Council of the People’s Liberation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (ZAVNOBiH) was formed declaring Bosnia an equal community of Muslims, Serbs, and Croats. So, in defiance of fascism and ethnic separatism, in defiance of international pusillanimity, and in defiance of the aftermath of war, Bosnia survives.
Whether or not you are celebrating Bosnian Statehood Day today, I ask you to do two things: 1) do not let the truth be swept under the carpet about the war and its unresolved war crimes, as there is a fine line between indifference and hatred; and 2) watch this four-minute promotional video and see what a beautiful country Bosnia is.
Sretan Dan Državnosti! Happy Statehood Day!