Bosnian President Zeljko Komsic was in Chicago to celebrate Bosnian independence with the expat community and to honor some guests who have helped Bosnia over the years. It was also a celebration of International Womans day, a under celebrated holiday for some reason in the US. It was great celebration that I had the honor to be a part of. Here is my speech...
First I would like to thank the President Zeljko Komsic for this great honor. Next I would like to thank Suad and the B&H Club for this wonderful invitation. I am humbled and honored to share the stage with these distinguished gentlemen. I want to thank everyone for coming tonight.
Bosnia and Herzigovina, the country has been reduced to one word. If you mention Bosnia to someone outside of the country, they most often think of war. The first thoughts I have are of the magical time of the Sarajevo Olympics, Tito and Brotherhood and Unity. Bosnia to me means a cultural tradition of building bridges best represented by the Stari-Most. We have a saying in our home “Build the Stari-Most, not the Berlin Wall” Building connections across ethnic, religious and cultural divides is why Bosnia is so special to me.
The second thought that goes through my mind is the saying “NEVER AGAIN!” Never again will we allow the horrors of WWII to be brought upon the earth, especially in Europe “NEVER AGAIN!” Yet, in the year 1992 here we were again. When Bosnia cried out “NEVER AGAIN” and waited for a response, the world turned its backs on them. I asked myself “WHY?” Why is this happening again, live and in color at the end of the 20th century when we were supposed to move beyond this in our human development? These were blonde-haired, blue-eyed Europeans, couldn’t we have looked into the mirror and said “ENOUGH!” Stop this slaughter! The world responded by sending spoiled food, spoiled medicines and spoiled peacekeepers who were neither capable of keeping the peace nor protecting themselves, let alone an unarmed Bosnian populace. Why was the world silent in a deafening wave of human destruction that you could see every day? I believe if it was “Muslims” slaughtering “Christians” the war would have never been allowed to begin.
Bosnia is so much more than an adjective for war. Bosnia, the people, the beautiful land it occupies and Bosnia the ideal are all things that I cherish more than the air that I breathe. Why? Why would an American have such strong feelings towards a place so far away from home? People that visit and even people that come from Bosnia, fall into two camps. You love Bosnia or you hate it, there are few that have feelings that fall in between. Bosnia being at the epicenter of so much history, culture and traditions is both a blessing and a curse. Bosnia has witnessed some of the most memorable events of the 20th century. Let us not forget the history, the false idea that “they have been fighting for centuries. Starting with the Bogomils, Bosnia has been a symbol of peace, tolerance and mutual understanding. The most obvious example is the The Ahdnama of Faith, oldest Human Rights Declaration in history, written in 1463 which states:
“LET NOBODY BOTHER OR DISTURB THOSE WHO ARE MENTIONED, NOT THEIR CHURCHES. LET THEM DWELL IN PEACE IN MY EMPIRE. AND LET THOSE WHO HAVE BECOME REFUGEES BE SAFE. LET THEM RETURN AND LET THEM SETTLE DOWN THEIR MONASTERIES WITHOUT FEAR IN ALL THE COUNTRIES OF MY EMPIRE.”
Let’s not forget this uniquely Bosnian tradition, which brought the Sarajevo Hagaddah to its final resting place. How did a Jewish manuscript of immeasurable value end up in Sarajevo in the first place? That is an easy answer, because the Jews of Europe, threatened with torture and extinction found a safe place where they could co-exist, the Muslim Bosnia, escaping their Christian torturers. That is Bosnia the ideal, not only an ideal but a tradition of tolerance, peaceful existence and mutual understanding where friendship and love can bloom and history be rewritten.
Bosnia the land is the easiest to explain, the natural beauty of the water that springs from the side of mountains and rivers that sparkle emerald green. From the lush hills and deep river valleys and mountains, there are few other beauties in the world like Bosnia. Towns like Jajce, Pocitelj, Trebenje, Sarajevo, Stolac, Mostar and too many others to mention. I remember seeing a poster on Zeljo Stadium about 10 years ago proclaiming “What is more beautiful Bosnia or her people?” I am still trying to decide. There is the natural beauty of Bosnia and there is the beauty of traditions, the call of the mosque, the Stari Most Bridge, the Olympics, Sarajevo’s town hall, Bascarsija and so many others.
It is fitting that these are the people that occupy the heart shaped country in the heart of Europe. I could tell you a hundred stories of the immeasurable kindness Bosnians have shown me both here and in Bosnia. The hospitality, the friendships, the closeness that I feel; its love. Love not because I was born with the same mother, or father. Love born of acts of kindness and care rarely seen in the world. The attention paid when one tells a story, listens and care shown when you talk. I am not the only one who feels this way, I have heard these stories from internationals that came for the Olympics, Medjurgorje or came because of the war and fell in love with the people. This kind of love is born in traditions, in kindness in a shared humanity, bonds stronger than those of random luck.
I have seen it and felt it in my friends like the Kabil family from Sarajevo Edin, Midhat and Envera who have become closer to me than my own flesh and blood. Midhat, an ophthalmologist by profession, regularly performed emergency surgeries often without medicines on bodies torn apart by war. His premature death was a direct result of his wartime occupation. Midhat’s death was not only a terrible loss for his family, but for all of humanity. He would always scold me like a parent; in a kind way “you always talk about Bosnia and always forget about Herzigovina”. His care and attention when we talked was like no other, I felt loved and cared for like a son. His wife Envera who volunteered during the war to defend Bosnia as a sniper but was told her job as a school teacher was more important. To this day I think of her as a mother. Then there is my dear brother Edin, who I have grown up with, respect deeply for his courage, his faith, and his convictions. He may not be right 100% of the time, but he is convinced he is 100% of the time. An unusual conversation a few years ago after covering every topic known to man was the war and what we thought 15 years later. He said to me he was happy for the war, not because war was good or he was happy it happened. But that it gave him the life he knows, the depth of understanding that he has and a perspective on life that few people on earth possess. It also brought him friendships and experiences he could never replace and people he could never forget.
Then there are my friends Abdullah, a Bosnian Serb who fought and defended Bosnia as a teenager. Abdullah, I have grown to consider him a dear friend and someone who is one of the most interesting people in the world. His story would be the stuff of legends if ever chose to reveal it. He exemplifies the complexity and beauty that is the Bosnian spirit, never easy to define or explain his life, his existence is an excellent example of Bosnia’s rich tapestry.
My friend Alan a British volunteer who flew helicopters for the Bosnian Government before the war, spent the next 18 months fighting for the ARBiH in Dobrinja, he has never asked a thing for, never sought the recognition, the honor he deserved for being one of the few westerners to defend Bosnia in her darkest hour. Alan loves Bosnia as much as I do, he knows what it feels to have chosen to be Bosnian. These are the people that have made Bosnia so special to me, them and so many others. I want to thank you and everyone who contributed to making Bosnia the amazing place and ideal that it is today.
I do have one request however, Bosnia needs your help. Bosnia the mother which gave birth to some of the most special people on this planet is in need of service. Bosnia needs active, energetic people who are willing to spend just 15 minutes a week to help keep her in the front of people’s minds. Bosnia needs people of service at a time when the Sarajevo museums are getting shuttered and the political process stagnates. I implore everyone to spend 15 minutes a week helping Bosnia, doing volunteer work. Fund a project, start a project, write a diplomat here or abroad. Talk to your friends about Bosnia, bring a friend to Bosnia. Help a Bosnian family struggling here in the US or back home. When an American who knows nothing about the country asks you about your name or were you are from, don’t give him the short answer, even though you have told your story 1,000 times. Take the time for Bosnia, for her victims, for her future generations to share what has happened, what is happening and what needs to happen in the future. No one should act surprised if we do not act in service to keep moving Bosnia forward towards a more stable, peaceful future. Thank you for taking the time today to listen; Bosnia has been the greatest gift ever given to me and that is why at every chance given, I share her with the world. Thank you.