A Memoir of Bosnia, on the Eve of War

Roberta Flack was singing, “Killing me softly,” in the lobby of the Hotel Bosna in Banja Luka when I arrived. “Strumming my pain with his fingers/ singing my life with his words/ killing me softly with his song…”

Bosnia in the autumn of 1991 felt like a plate, slowly tilting into the sea of war which Croatia had become. And if the plate submerged, many observers of the Balkans knew well, the bloodbath would be even bigger than in Croatia, because of the remarkable patchwork quilt of different nations – Bosniak, Serb, Croat – spread fairly evenly throughout the republic.

According to the 1991 census, the Bosniaks – Bosnian Moslems – made up 43 per cent of the population and were coloured green on the ethnic map, the Serbs 32 per cent and were coloured red, the Croats 18 per cent, with the colour blue, while the remainder mostly identified themselves as Yugoslavs – the colour yellow. Despite seventy-four years of building a common state, only seven per cent of the population in Bosnia still appeared to identify fully with it. But the numbers, and the stark colours of the map disguised a million and one nuances. The mixed marriages, the split allegiances, the ideological differences between parties emerging from the crumbling Communist Party and beyond, the cultural and religious differences, and all the grievances fanned or suppressed by an extremely selective teaching of history. After the poor showing in the 1990 elections of the pro-Yugoslav forces, the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) was the last hope for many, as the glue that might keep the country together. But the army was already discredited in the eyes of Bosnian Croats, as a Serb-led war machine which was wreaking havoc in Croatia, and increasingly in the eyes of Bosniaks, who didn’t see why they should fight in Miloševic’s wars in Slovenia and Croatia. The army itself sometimes seemed more interested in preserving its privileges, especially the pensions and retirement homes of its officers on the Dalmatian coast. For ordinary people, it was a time of researching, then declaring your own identity. But no one knew quite where that would end.

In Zagreb in the summer of 1991, I had a bitter argument with a journalist colleague from Britain. He had long been predicting war in Bosnia, as had Newsweek, and the CIA. I felt that to do so was irresponsible, even if one genuinely thought it was coming, because it made war more likely – war was a self-fulfilling prophecy. People believed what the western press wrote. A good milking cow cost about 200 Deutschmarks at that time. So did a Kalashnikov assault rifle. If a simple peasant thought there would be peace, he would buy the animal. If he expected war, the gun. And the more guns there were, the more likely the war. Bosnia, as the centre of military production for the whole of Yugoslavia, was already bristling with weapons. Acting on orders from Belgrade, the JNA had already confiscated weapons from Territorial Defence Forces (TO) barracks in Bosniak areas. Just to make sure that, if war did come, the Serbs would have the advantage.

Marshal Tito had prepared Yugoslavs for a guerrilla war against NATO, or the Warsaw Pact, modelled on his own resistance in the Second World War to the Germans. Now they were going to use their training against each other.

In September and October 1991 five majority Serb areas in Bosnia slipped out of the control of the central government in Sarajevo, and declared themselves Serbian Autonomous Oblasts, or SAOs. The ethnic map provided by the census gave them a blueprint. The idea was simply to push other nations out, and link up one area of red with another. Then those great swathes of red would be linked to the red areas seized by the Croatian Serbs in Croatia, and the “pure red” of Serbia proper. The political message too was clear, and coordinated between the Serb leadership in Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia. Other nations could leave Yugoslavia if they insisted, but they couldn’t take areas or populations identified as “Serbian” with them. I drove north from Sarajevo to see one of the new Serb creations, the Bosnian Serb Krajina in the north west, centred on Banja Luka. That afternoon, there was a sense of triumph among the Serbs. I crouched in the drizzle on the veranda of a house on the shore of the Una river in Bosanska Kostajnica. There were still occasional bursts of gunfire, amid the nervous chatter of birds, but the news for the Serbs was all good. Hrvatska Kostajnica on the far shore of the river had fallen to their army. Three hundred and twenty Croatian prisoners had been seized. Yugoslav planes, based in Banja Luka, had been bombing targets inside Croatia.

“The Serbs want to live in one land, called Yugoslavia,” Andjelko Grahovac, deputy leader of the SAO of Krajina told me in Banja Luka. And if the other peoples don’t want to live here with you? I asked. “Yes, migrations are expected,” he replied. “I expect Moslems to move to their majority areas. But I don’t expect Serbs to move much!” He was a youngish man, with a clean-shaven face, in green trousers, brown jacket, and dark shirt. In the corner of the room, two men in camouflage uniforms watched us, with surly expressions, their guns leaning against the wall, smoking Marlboro cigarettes. Every now and then Grahovac would interrupt the interview to shout into the phone. Once I caught the word “kommandant.” The fighting would be over in Croatia soon, Grahovac predicted. He radiated confidence. “In six months I will be drinking beer again with my Croat friends.”

I met one of the Bosniaks who was doing his best to stay in Banja Luka, Muharem Krzic, leader of the local branch of the Bosniak Party of Democratic Action (SDA), and a veterinary doctor by profession. He insisted on taking me out to lunch in the restaurant of the Banja Luka castle. In hushed tones, he described the persecution of the Bosniaks which had already started, those kicked out of their workplaces, the growing acts of violence. He slept with a small pistol under his pillow. His wife objected to it at first. Now she checked each evening, to make sure it was there.

“Every day we fear they will come and arrest us. I do not believe I will be alive in a month’s time,” he told me. “If the massacres start, by then it will be too late. Do not come back. Then we will defend ourselves,” were his parting words.

Before leaving Banja Luka for the drive to Sarajevo, we had to find petrol. All the filling stations were empty, as the Bosnian Serbs supplied their brethren’s war effort in Croatia. Andjelko Grahovac personally guided us to a filling station in a back street, and ordered the attendants to fill our tank. In peace as in war, the Serbs took delight in their own generosity, and in the gratefulness of the growing number of people whose fate depended on their whim or fancy.

In Sarajevo, the mood among the Bosniaks was nowhere near so gloomy.

“There will not be a war here,” President Alija Izetbegovic told me, “because it takes two sides to make a war, and we are not going to fight.” Izetbegovic appealed to the European Union for a 10 kilometers wide demilitarised zone to be created along the Bosnia boundary with Croatia, but his plea fell on deaf ears. European diplomats, led by Lord Carrington of Britain and Jose Cutilhiero of Portugal, were too busy wringing their hands over Croatia, to worry about Bosnia yet. What messages they did send, suggested to the Bosniaks that they should accomodate the Serb leader, Radovan Karadžić’s proposal, for the “cantonisation” of Bosnia, on ethnic lines. The European diplomats were unwilling to recognise what everyone in Bosnia, on all sides realised, was simply a ruse to prepare the way for partition.

“Most SDA politicians,” wrote Marko Attila Hoare, “neither believed war would break out, nor prepared their constituents in any way for its possibility, but guided Bosnia-Hercegovina toward independence in the naive belief that this could be achieved without war.”

President Izetbegovic continued to negotiate with those army generals who he believed could still be dissuaded from backing the Serb political leadership. He still appeared to believe in the neutrality of the army, despite what was happening in Croatia, and increasingly, in Bosnia too.

“I would volunteer to defend Yugoslavia from an outside attack,” twenty year old Amer Catovic told me in his living room in Sarajevo, as his younger brother practiced on the guitar next door. “But I refuse to serve in an army which interferes in problems between the nationalities.” He, like many young men, faced the danger at any time of being conscripted into the JNA, to fight in Croatia. His mother, Mensura, was active in a new NGO called “Mothers for Peace.” The mothers, from all over Yugoslavia, organised coaches and held demonstrations outside the Federal Defence Ministry in Belgrade. Many Serb and Croat mothers joined them. Others spat at them as they passed, on the long march into central Belgrade. They demanded that their sons be returned to them. More and more were falling on the Croatian battlegrounds, around towns like Vukovar, and Osijek.

20 year old Mevludin Kulic, a conscript in the army, rang his parents in Sarajevo on 2 September, 1991, a Monday evening. “I’m fighting for the Chetniks,” he told them (a pejorative word for Serb nationalist forces in the Second World War). He described how during the day, the soldiers wore the red stars of the Yugoslav army, then when darkness fell, wore the tricolour cockades of the Serb forces. The next day he was killed. The army report said he had been killed by the Croatian National Guard. But when his family opened the steel coffin in which his body was returned, they found that he had been shot in the back of the neck – his family suspected by his own side. “Wherever the army appears, the situation gets worse,” said Mensura Catovic. A new wave of conscription began on September 6. A telephone conversation between Radovan Karadžić and Slobodan Milošević, tapped by Bosnian intelligence, ran like this:

Karadžić – Are you hesitating?

Milošević – No, on the same points that we agreed.

Karadžić – Be hard, we’re behind you.

Milošević – But we will be isolated in Europe…

Karadžić – We will rise up, you will see, our whole people are with us…

From Sarajevo, I took the early morning train to Mostar. Eating trout or drinking Turkish coffee beside the turquoise blue Neretva, it was hard to believe that war could ever dispel the quiet. Photo shops still displayed in their windows the pictures of young men in their first army uniforms, smiling at their sisters or their first sweethearts. But just down the road, up to 6,000 army reservists, mostly from Montenegro, had taken control of Mostar airport, in what the army leadership insisted was a “training exercise.” But the reservists, wild bearded men, often drunk, began terrorising the population in neighbouring villages, setting up roadblocks, and robbing and insulting civilians. Mig 29s flew sorties from there to attack Dubrovnik and other targets on the Croatian coast, just as airforce planes flew from Banja Luka in the North. Bosnia was a convenient springboard for the attacks on the horse-shoe shaped Croatia which bordered it on two sides. And there was nothing the government in Sarajevo could do about it. “I am a commander without an army,” Jerko Dokic, the Bosnian Minister of Defence, told me in Sarajevo.

“Nothing can be done, the situation will not improve here, unless the European Union intervenes,” said Marin Topic, a Croatian official in Mostar. “Everything should be discussed in a democratic way, not with a knife between the teeth. We are not asking Europe to send weapons or soldiers. We are just asking for the recognition of Yugoslavia to be suspended.” Anyone with relatives in western Europe was thinking of leaving Bosnia, he said. And the jovial atmosphere of this southerly city, famous for the beauty of its women, for the scent of fig trees, and for its love songs – sevdalinka – was turning sour. If war comes, people still managed to joke, “it will be between the whisky of the west, and the plum brandy of the east.”

“Do not think that you will not lead Bosnia-Herzegovina to hell,” thundered Radovan Karadžić from the floor of the Bosnian Parliament in October 1991, in a message aimed at the Bosniak leadership and President Izetbegović in particular. “And do not think that you will not perhaps lead the Moslem people into annihilation because the Moslem people cannot defend themselves if there is war. How will you prevent everyone from being killed in Bosnia-Herzegovina?”

He didn’t mention, but everyone by now guessed, who they would be killed by. Members of Karadžić’s Serbian Democratic Party, the SDS, were now wearing uniforms and carrying guns, both supplied by the JNA. The next, logical step was for Karadžić’s party to declare war on its own country – Bosnia.

The Croats formed their own militias in majority Croat areas. Izetbegović was like a chess player, playing for a draw. Bosnia could not afford either victory, or defeat. Bosnia’s greatest strength was also it’s greatest weakness. It only made sense with its three constituent peoples. So even when the Serbs and Croats declared war on it, those fighting for a united Bosnia were actually fighting for their enemies.

Izetbegović had only been freed from the notorious prison in Foca three years earlier, after serving five years. Almost alone among the new class of politicians as a non-Communist, his naivety lay in believing that the JNA could be trusted to defend Bosnia from paramilitary groups, and that the international community would stand by Bosnia, and defend it from the devastation that was being prepared for it. Instead, as the war wound down in Croatia, the UN happily agreed for heavy armaments and troops of the JNA to be transferred to Bosnia. There they were largely transformed, under orders from Belgrade, into the Bosnian Serb army.

I watched one such convoy leave the Borongaj barracks in Zagreb. After a month under siege from Croatian troops, the young soldiers gazing nervously through the windows of the vehicles showed no defiance, just relief. Croatian soldiers, including several women, watched them leave, pictures of the Virgin Mary on the side of their own guns. The army trucks towed artillery pieces, there were mobile rocket launchers, mortars, jeeps, army buses and even private cars – three hundred vehicles in all, bound for Bihac in north-west Bosnia. The convoy was allowed to leave in exchange for the first relief convoy of food and medicines being allowed into Vukovar, besieged since August by Serb regular and irregular forces.

On 18 November Vukovar fell to the Serbs, a burnt and battered shell of its former glory.

In December, the Bosnian Serb population, ever loyal to the SDS, voted against Bosnian independence. At the end of February 1992, the Bosniaks and the Bosnian Croats voted for independence, in a referendum boycotted by most, but not all Serbs. The front page of the main newspaper, Oslobodjenje in Sarajevo showed two photographs. Of a woman holding her child, both smiling as they pass posters which read “For a united, sovereign, independent Bosnia” on a lamp-post; and another of Alija Izetbegović, his eyes shut, holding the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. The front page the next day, 1 March, showed hopeful crowds with “I love BiH” banners. The front page of the supplement inside showed angry Serbian men waving Serb flags under the headline: Banja Luka versus Sarajevo.

Lying in bed at night in my room at the Hotel Europa in Sarajevo, the start of the war sounded like rocks crashing through the ice of a frozen lake.

On 6 April, the European Community recognised Bosnian independence, and snipers in the Holiday Inn opened fire on the march for peace as the marchers crossed a bridge over the River Miljacka, killing two girls, one just 13 years old. A few days later, with mortars falling on the town, and the irregular crackle of gunfire, I went to see Radovan Karadžić’s adviser, Milorad Ekmecic, who was still living in Sarajevo, though his boss had installed himself in the ski-resort of Pale, just outside the city.

“The Moslems expect in 10 years to have reached 51% of the population” he said, “and then they will declare a Moslem Republic. The Serbs want to avoid such a process.” Izetbegović, he grumbled, even used to interrupt cabinet meetings to go and pray, Ekmecic told me, with fury in his voice. As though prayer itself was a crime.

And he quoted von Clausewitz. “When war starts, everything is possible, every end can be realised.” “We expected a revolt, not a war,” he added. “The spontaneous revolt of the (Serb) peasants of the East.” He didn’t add that his party had been carefully arming them, and telling them that the Moslems were about to attack, and so goading them into attacking the Moslems first.

What did he think of the atrocities against Moslem civilians? I asked. In Bjeljina, in Zvornik…I started reading him the list of names, and ages of the victims, I had received that morning from the deputy prime minister, Rusmir Mahmutcehajic. “Arkan (a notorious paramilitary leader) is not helping the Serbian national cause,” said Ekmecic. “They decided to come, we did not invite them.”

“The Serbian revolution will take place in Bosnia-Hercegovina, with them, or without them.” It didn’t look much like a revolution, I told him. It looked like a massacre.

Why couldn’t Serbs just carry on living with their neighbours, in their villages, as he himself had told me they used to do so well? I asked. “Serbs have to be exclusive, in order to survive,” he replied. His words would haunt me, throughout the three and a half years of war.

In the Bosnian Presidency, there were still frantic, last minute efforts to persuade army generals to prevent the war. “We’re trying to establish the institutions of a state, and at the same time to organise the defence of the whole territory,” Rusmir Mahmutcejahic told me. “We have to persuade the Serb population that they are safe, and that Bosnia is theirs too.”

In the old town, the Bascarsija, I walked at dusk with friends I had made in the past two years of frequent visits to the city, to see the last minute preparations for its defence. There were a small group of men and boys in a room on the steep hill.

“My father is a Croat, my mother a Serb and my wife is a Moslem!” Zeljko Zivkovic laughed. “I am all mixed up – like wine and water!”

One teenager in the group proudly showed me a small handgun he had made himself for shooting rabbits. A few of them had bought guns in the past few weeks, as the situation deteriorated – “from soldiers…or on the black market.” Their pride and joy were two anti-tank missiles. One of them had been down to the market and come back with a pile of green berets – his contribution to the defence of the street. “Only a maniac would try to divide Bosnia,” said another man. “We have all lived together for so long, why should we fight each other? There are three nationalities in this room. Those who are attacking Sarajevo are terrorists, the whole world must understand that.”

A music student gave me a car-sticker with the fleur de lys, turquoise, and red and white stripes of Bosnia’s new emblem – an attempt to give all nationalities, including the Serbs, something to identify with. It was huge – “for our first airplane” he joked. People still joked then. On the slopes of the Bascarsija better-off Moslems even filmed the first shells, raining on their homes, like a fireworks display.

In the lobby of the Bosna hotel in Banja Luka, Serbian national songs replaced Roberta Flack. But her last verse hummed on, through the glass, and the woodwork, of a city stripped of its Moslem and Croat population.

“He sang as if he knew me/ In all my dark despair/ And then he looked right through me/ As if I wasn’t there.”

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