Sunday, January 1, 2012

(1) How casual interest in the breakup of Yugoslavia turned into a twenty year love affair

(My wife and I in Mostar, Bosnia)

How casual interest in the breakup of Yugoslavia turned into a twenty year love affair. My affection for Bosnia was not born in one day. It was a slow turn of events that have grown to a love affair over the years.
The first mention of Bosnia and Sarajevo came to me during the 1984 Winter Olympics and the splendid sights and sounds on the mountains Jahorina, Bjelašnica, Igman and Trebevic . The ice dancing of Torvell and Dean and the Skiing of Bill Johnson were the most memorable to me. The next mention of Bosnia came in 1989 when my Religion teacher at my Catholic High School told us about her trip to Medjugorje. The stories of visions of Mary and the pilgrimages to the country by Catholic believers have stuck with me for a lifetime.
The Cold War and the possibility of instant death at the hands of Soviet Union because of nuclear annihilation was born and bred within every one of my generation. It wasn’t the thought of if, but of when it was going to happen to all of us and when our apocalyptic futures were to begin. We all breathed a sigh of relief when in 1989 the end of the Soviet Union began and the hope for a united Germany and Europe began.
It was with this beginning that the war in Yugoslavia was starting to be mentioned, first in Kosovo, Slovenia then Croatia and then onto the inferno which was to become Bosnia during the war. The use of terms to explain the combatants of Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats, Bosnians, Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, Bosnian Muslims, Bosniaks the rebellious Narodna Odbrana of Western Bosnia, Muslims who were fighting against the central authorities in Sarajevo made the whole story one confusing mess of an idea, that was and is to this day, hard for most to figure out.
It wasn’t until late summer of 1992 when the pictures from Omarska, Trnapolje and other concentration camps emerged that I said to myself “Wait a minute, Europe and the West swore never again in Europe would we see such horrible images”. Yet, here we were in Europe at the end of the 20th century in a dawn of a “New World Order” were we seeing the rise of facism, nationalism and hatred based upon religion, nationality and one’s last name that bore all the hallmarks of the worst of Nazi Germany of WWII. It was beyond explanation to me how, we as a people and a nation could turn a blind eye after so much was already known about this kind of ethnic hatred and it’s destructive appetite of death, horror and tragedy. Yet, no one was intervening, the US had no dog in the fight (and Bosnia had no oil) and Europe found it “unnatural” to have a “Muslim” state in the heart of Europe even though for all practical purposes Bosnia was a multi ethnic pluralistic society.
It was hard to get my head around who was who and what they were doing to whom over what. Once I was able to figure out that there was a clear aggressor with a obviously evil agenda Serbia and their ethnic kin the Bosnian Serbs who’s war aims included the ethnic separation of “us” from “them” by all means necessary, mass expulsions, genocide, rape and a new term coined just for the war in Bosnia, ethnic cleansing.
The Croats were less aggressive at the beginning and more of a political and social opportunist, when it became clear that Bosnians were unable to defend their land and people instead of trying to continue to help to fight the aggression the Croats decided it was better to carve out their own mini state named “Herceg-Bosna” with similar goals, aims and tactics used by the Bosnian Serbs. This left the Bosnians who wanted a unified, unitary state, isolated and alone both within her borders and abroad. An illegal arms embargo placed upon them and only them by the UN at the birth of the nation led to a permanent imbalance of power and weapons within the country, in effect sealing Bosnia’s fate.
I was horrified to see what was happening in Bosnia in 1992-93 as the country was torn to pieces in the most brutal fashion. The Bosnian Army lightly armed, outgunned and unsupported and unfunded held on for dear life. Driven by the fear of total annihilation at the hands of their enemies who wanted to see them not only removed from the world maps but any trace of their existence removed from history books and their historical monuments dynamited, bulldozed and then denied that they ever existed. This hardened the Bosnians resolve to fight to the bitter end, even as it barely held onto 13% of Bosnian territory. I couldn’t imagine that this kind of tragedy could befall man in this day in age, after everything we had seen of the horrific black and white images of WWII Nazi Germany. This time it wasn’t black and white images but color and we were getting them as they happened courtesy of satellite phones and satellite images of mass graves. 
I said I had to do something to get involved to prevent this continued bloodshed and death being shown on the nightly news. The images seared into my mind forever of breadline massacres, mass graves and children shot by snipers watched by Americans as they sat down for dinner and then turned the channel enraged me. I couldn’t relate to people who didn’t care or didn’t want to understand and it made me hate people, people that should know better and did not, they chose to ignore what they were seeing.
I decided I must take action and get involved and that’s what I did writing letters, calling for the lifting of the arms embargo and a genuine military strike against the marauding Bosnian Serb Army. I helped to organize the donations of medical equipment and supplies into the besieged Bosnians as the held onto the hope that this couldn’t last forever and that the West has to come to their rescue at some time. I took part in demonstrations and told anyone I could that we couldn’t just sit by and not do anything, that doing nothing meant support for the mass murderers, rapists, child killers and their supporters who made it all possible. Not choosing a side when there is a moral imperative to do so, means inertia, it is an active support for those who's policies you oppose.
Whether or not  anything I did made a difference (and it is very debatable that any of it did, outside maybe my lobbying for support of Bob Dole and his lift and Strike mandate in 1995 that led Bill Clinton to finally act before he had to place US troops inside the country to help extract UN peacekeepers) what it did was sooth, just for a moment the tempest that was inside me, the fire and hatred for all of those who didn’t care or didn’t know but should.
These experiences at the end of the war left me bitter, tired and a bit shattered. That all that I believed to be true about humanity and human nature was left tattered like the shattered bodies in the Markale Market place whose carnage was on display over and over again for the world to see. I didn’t know if I would ever recover from this shattering of ones consciousness from years of delving headlong into such an unimaginable horror and my own personal battles with my own internal demons.
What brought this full circle was the experiences I have had with so many wonderful Bosnians and my time spent in the country. If anyone had reason to give up hope and faith it was Bosnians who lived this tragedy firsthand. Who had their lives, loved ones and childhoods stolen and torn from them. Many ended scattered all around the globe with new names and places and little ties to their past except their memories.  
Bosnians dating back to the bogomils have a long history of tolerance, acceptance and a deep sense of understanding fate beyond one’s own control. Bosnian humor is dark, bleak, bitter, sarcastic and biting. It has much to do with their own struggle with identity and history that has born this out, the lack of control over one’s own fate and future and the irony that exists in life. It has given them also a great sense of living life to its fullest and what is so important and those things that are not, it has given them great depth of character and perspective.
Having a true friend is a great feeling; having a Bosnian friend or even better a Bosnian family (which thanks to my friends the Kabil’s in Sarajevo I have a Bosnian family) is an even better feeling. The sense of love, respect and care that I get from my Bosnian family goes far beyond anything I have ever felt in my own family and I am sure my wife feels the same.
I have spent twenty years dedicated a large portion of my life, my time and my energy to not only the country of Bosnia, the people of Bosnia but also the idea of Bosnia. The friendships, memories and time spent in Bosnia are well worth all the tears and pain I have experienced in life. If I can give one percent of that back to the Bosnians I know and love, I will die a happy and grateful man.


  1. As someone who was most likely learning long division and cursive when this was happening, this was very helpful in gaining some perspective. If everyone had even an ounce of your passion for something so righteous, the world would be a better place. Thank you and keep it up!

  2. As a Scandinavian resident I remember the war vaguely from TV and newspapers. When Alma (from film "Miss Sarajevo") was singing Ace of Base in a wrecked car in Sarajevo I may have been listening to the same song while gearing up for a party. It really strikes me now, almost 20 years later. Same sky, same air, worlds separated by the forces of evil.

    Lately I have developed a keen interest on Bosnian war and I symphasize deeply with the Bosniaks who had to suffer so much and to what end ? It's heartbreaking to read all of these "20 years after" stories as the presence and future of Bosnia look so bleak in them. I wish so much Bosnia will prosper in peace.

    Thank you Chris for this wonderfull and inspiring blog.