From the Heart of the Heart of the Former Yugoslavia

By Smajlovic, Ljiljana | The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

From the Heart of the Heart of the Former Yugoslavia


Smajlovic, Ljiljana, The Wilson Quarterly


Bosnia has become a synonym, along with Beirut, Somalia, and Rwanda, of murderous conflict and political anarchy. The tragedy of this Balkan nation, a Sarajevo-born journalist explains, cannot be understood apart from the larger story of Yugoslavia's unraveling.

Years before the thousand-day siege began, my Sarajevo neighbors and I played a waiting game with war. It was not going to confound us. We had taken a long, hard look at every possible scenario of Yugoslavia's violent breakup. Our amateur analysis invariably showed that We, the residents of Albanska Street, had nothing to fear. We lived right across from the brand-new Military Hospital. It was an indispensable facility. And we reassured one another that it would provide unconstrained services to all sides. The war, after all, was going to be in the country, not in the city. In Sarajevo, the wounded would be treated and political treaties would be negotiated. And if things went from bad to worse, the women and children could always seek refuge in the nearby Marshal Tito army barracks.

Our hopes died a very sudden death. As it turned out, my neighborhood became one of the most perilous places in the city. The hospital was pounded, the Marshal Tito barracks were devastated, and the street around the corner soon came to be called Sniper Alley. In May 1992, a month after war broke out and the siege of Sarajevo began, a Serb shell struck my apartment building, removing part of the wall and vastly enlarging my bedroom window. Fortunately, I was then living and working in Brussels, where I'd gone the previous September to open a bureau for my newspaper, Oslobodjenje. Around the same time my apartment was hit, I received a telephone call from a Muslim woman--my neighbor, my colleague, and my best friend. Hearing artillery fire in the background, I advised her to leave her apartment. "You're crazy," she exclaimed. "If it's hit I have to be here to put out the fire."

That was the first real indication that I was on the sidelines, where I have remained uneasily throughout the war. Three months after that conversation I left Brussels for Belgrade, becoming a refugee from the war in which my former neighbors, friends, and relatives were killing each other.

We had once thought that only the zealots would fight, not nice people like us. We had badly miscalculated. Not only did barricades go up in the city--they also went up in our hearts and minds. The war divided us. But today, living temporarily in the United States, I am repeatedly told that the fratricide raging throughout my native land is not, in reality, a civil war.

Conventional wisdom in the West, shared by editorial writers and scholars alike, holds that the "real causes" of Bosnia and Herzegovina's destruction originated on the outside--that it was "not internal tensions but neighboring states" that ripped the country apart and that, left alone, Bosnia might have lived in peace. A number of respectable historians have turned out volumes asserting that there is no historical precedent for ethnic or religious clashes among Bosnia's three peoples. According to such wisdom, nothing I remember is in reality as I remember it.

My earliest memories go back to my first home in Sarajevo, an old building left over from the Austro-Hungarian occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, located on a street, Vase Miskina, that has since become notorious as the site of one of the bloodiest episodes of the war, the breadqueue massacre that killed a score of people in May 1992. At Vase Miskina 13, I grew up on a diet of heroic tales and bitter memories. The South Slavs, I learned, had had the bad luck to build their house in the middle of a busy road. As a result, they were proselytized by three religions (Islam, Roman Catholicism, and Orthodox Christianity), fell under the rule of two powerful empires (Ottoman and Habsburg), and later suffered occupation by the Nazis. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbs, Muslims, and Croats lived together under foreign rule for centuries, inhabitants of a backwater province on the periphery of empires. …

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