Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Journalist Peter Lippman--Travel Journal to Bosnia-Herzegovina Part V

Bosnia-Herzegovina journal #5: End of the Queer Festival

I was hoping to get back to Sarajevo from Srebrenica and Bratunac in time to observe at least part of the "Queer Sarajevo Festival," scheduled for September 24th through 27th. I didn't make it, because the festival ended almost as soon as it began.

Checking my e-mail on my way out of Srebrenica on the morning of the 25th, I read with concern that visitors to the opening event, an exhibition of photographs, had been physically attacked upon leaving the exhibit. When I arrived in Sarajevo that afternoon, I called my friend Edo, who had been a participant in the festival. Breathlessly, he told me that he had barely gotten away from the melee in one piece. A crowd of angry people, Edo said, assaulted visitors leaving the Academy of Fine Arts on the banks of the Miljacka River. Two people suffered broken nose. Attackers followed people leaving the event in taxis. Some of them were chanting "Allahu Ekber." Edo ended by saying, "I am scared, but I can't be scared. I lived through the war, so I have to go on."

Further news reports said that between 300 and 400 people attended the photograph exhibit, including special invitees from foreign embassies. On the outside, a hostile crowd numbering between 70 and 100 gathered on both sides of the Miljacka, next to and directly opposite the Academy. The crowd grew as visitors were arriving. Some were bearded "Wahabis," orthodox adherents of Saudi-style fundamentalism. Some young women with scarves incited the attackers. Others who joined in the fray, perhaps just because it was exciting to them, were simply street hooligans, of the type that fill out the ranks of soccer fan clubs throughout ex-Yugoslavia (and, for that matter, from England to Russia).

The exhibit opened peacefully, and inside it was crowded. Some menacing Wahabis tried to enter the exhibit hall, but the police prevented them. But when the event was over, people in the crowd outside attacked those who were leaving, chasing them down on the side streets. Attackers photographed the visitors and even followed their taxis to distant neighborhoods. Off in Hrasno they forced one taxi to pull over and, with the butt of a handgun, broke glass in the vehicle. Then they broke the nose of one of the passengers. The taxi driver then took him to the hospital.

Among those attacked were people who just happened to be on the street nearby at the wrong time. At least a dozen people were sent to the hospital, including two local journalists and a filmmaker from Denmark. He showed up at the hospital with an eye injury and a boot print on his face. One policeman was injured as well.

The police were hard put to control the situation. Three or four attackers were arrested. While the police were apparently helpful in bringing the injured to the hospital, they were otherwise severely criticized for "passivity" and lack of preparation for the event. In their report on the incident, the police stated that they took the event very seriously. They evaluated the attackers as a group of Wahabi associated with King Fahd mosque (a grandiose Saudi-built mosque a couple of kilometers out of the center of town), and said that the attack was "well-planned and thought-out."

Some commentators blasted the police department, saying that they were perfectly capable of protecting the public when they had the intention, as past events had shown. For example, at a protest of street violence staged against the cantonal administration, police cordoned off the cantonal government building for 150 feet in every direction. Ultimately, the public conclusion was that it was not the policemen on the scene who were at fault, but their commanders who failed to organize protection effectively.

The rest of the festival was cancelled due to concern for people's safety. A few events were to be held in secret locations, for participants only.

The mood among the more progressive, tolerant part of Sarajevo's population after the night of incidents was one of shock and depression. Commentators wrote that the attacks were a "slap in the face" of Sarajevo and Bosnia. One asked, "Should we worry now that people who want to hold cultural events in the future will be regulated by paramilitary gangs, which will determine which exhibitions we can visit, which films watch, and which pools we can swim in? Another person wrote, "This is a test to show whether a totalitarian system can be imposed on the citizens. It's fascist rhetoric [referring to threatening posters]...if you had seen the words "Jews" or "Gypsies" on those posters, you would have seen the program of Adolph Hitler."

Samir Sestan of Start magazine wrote, "The cancellation of the Queer festival is a defeat for this city and for the dream of a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural Bosnia...The world has been sent a picture of intolerance, extremism and religious exclusiveness, and the whole story about Sarajevo's famous tolerance and multi-culturalism has been reduced to a tragic-comic level."

Sestan further wrote ironically of the "witch hunt" organized by the "gangster publication" -- that being Fahrudin Radoncic's Dnevni Avaz -- which "presented itself as the defender of the Bosniak population, while doing business with the financier of genocide against that people" -- that being Miroslav Miskovic, whom I introduced in journal #1.

The media, with the exception of Avaz, predominantly condemned the attacks. Commentators in other outlets questioned Avaz's position that "the public" was opposed to the Queer Festival, noting that "all three main magazines, and the other two main dailies, supported the event, and religious leaders kept out of it; no one asked the Serbs, Croats, Jews, children of mixed marriages, etc...because it is known whose town this is."

Referring to the festival opponents' calling on Ramadan as an excuse to oppose the event, a writer in Dani magazine asked, "Who gave approval for the pre-election campaign to take place during Ramadan? And a session of the UN General Assembly?"

Finally, many of those who had beforehand opposed the festival, afterwards condemned the violence, but usually in compromised terms. For example, in an interview Bakir Izetbegovic, vice president of the SDA and son of deceased former president Alija Izetbegovic (see journal #1), said, "The violence is worse than any sexual depravity. But I think that it they [organizers of the Queer Festival] shouldn't do that in Sarajevo, you know, Sarajevo went through a lot of suffering, and that's a mainly Muslim population. This kind of thing makes them afraid."

Here Izetbegovic strings together some statements that are entirely irrelevant to gay rights, but they work together in classic fashion to depict the struggle for gay rights as something that threatens a beleaguered, oppressed population. Izetbegovic's and his colleagues' standard lie is that, first of all, Sarajevo is a Muslim city. Certainly Muslims, together with the Croat and Serb part of the city, suffered through the war; Izetbegovic uses this as a foil for his reactionary position. Then he says, "We are a conservative party, we defend traditional values... It's their [the gays'] business what they do, but they shouldn't popularize it, and display it as an innocent thing; that's a thing that spreads, if you let it. It should be kept behind four walls."

Bakir Izetbegovic is the leader of the Bosnian parliamentary delegation to Council of Europe. Soon after the attack on the festival, Izetbegovic attended a session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. At that time the EU Parliament passed a resolution condemning the attacks against participants, organizers, and journalists, and another resolution that condemned discrimination and violence against the LGBT population.

The world-famous punk music star Iggy Pop was scheduled to perform at Sarajevo's largest venue, the Zetra Olympic sports hall, on October 1st. Just before that date, the local producer of the concert announced that it was cancelled. Ticket sales had been slow, but the producers emphasized the fact that they could not guarantee security for the show, due to fears of a recurrence of the recent violence. One commentator wrote in response, "Now we should expect only the most kitsch pop performers; we haven't deserved better than this. Normal people should condemn the behavior of the hooligans and Wahabis, beating innocent people. But they are doing so very quietly, somewhere behind four walls."

This mention of hooligans refers not only to the incident at the festival, but also to periodic violence committed by members of soccer fan clubs in many cities around Bosnia. As I was visiting a friend in the Ciglane neighborhood of Sarajevo towards the end of September, I noticed that the floor-to-ceiling windows of a popular café had just been entirely smashed. The police were on the scene, and workers were boarding up the place. This was the result of a brawl between fan clubs of Sarajevo's Zeljeznicar soccer team and Celik, a team from Zenica. It was never made clear who attacked whom first. But by the end of the fight, four cafes, two private apartments, two offices, five vehicles, and a police car were damaged, to the tune of at least 100,000 KM (around $70,000).

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Meanwhile, reactionary clerics continued to lash out at the event retrospectively; Sarajevo mufti Husein ef. Smajic stated, "The joy of this Ramadan was disturbed by the provocation of the Queer Festival.... same-sex marriage is the ugliest sin towards God and human nature." Magazines that had supported the event received further threats, including one from an organization of demobilized war veterans.

Responding to the reactionaries, one letter-writer responded to an ignorant and hateful posting from an imam. He wrote, "We need the gay festival in order to open people's minds...For your information, in Western countries many gays are excellent parents, and if you think they will raise their kids to be gay, then it would be better for you if you don't express that opinion in public, to avoid being laughed at."

The outbursts from some xenophobic Sarajevans reinforced RS prime minister Dodik's characterization of Sarajevo as "Tehran," a stereotypical description he is fond of using. The heated atmosphere in Sarajevo serves Dodik well, in that it further drives the two Bosnian entities apart from each other. What may not be clear to Westerners is that this serves the gangsters and corrupt lords of the Federation as well, because in division, there is profit for them as well as for Dodik and his gang. Whatever serves to keep the ethnicities herded into their respective corrals also serves to keep ordinary people passive and acquiescent before their ravenous "leaders."

There are clusters of Wahabi adherents in many cities in the Bosnian Federation. As a movement, they are small but strident, amounting, perhaps, to a few hundred followers in each town. Some are remnants of the mujahedin who came from North Africa and the Middle East during the war, but the majority now are now recruits from among the Bosnians. The movement recruits from among young criminals and intellectuals alike, focusing lately on students in the economics department of Sarajevo University.

Over the past few years Wahabi followers have tried with varying success to take over local mosques; in some notable instances they have been rebuffed and thrown out by the traditional practitioners. And they have been attempting -- since during the war -- to impose their orthodox version of religious observance on local populations, also with mixed success. In Hadzici, for example, there is an independent "morals police" that patrols some neighborhoods. The people who attacked the Queer Festival participants came from these groups. (Some of this information is from Slobodna Bosna #620, Oct 2, 2008)

A final outrage was the posting on YouTube of an animated clip of Wahabi adherents cutting off the head of one of the festival organizers. And adding to the injuries, Avaz published the full names and birth dates of all the participants who were injured and taken to the hospital.

However, supporters and organizers of the festival were not resigned. One organizer announced, "We're not giving up. The festival will continue until it happens just like an ordinary festival should happen. You can kill someone, but you can't kill an idea. Ideas are indestructible."

Some anonymous pro-human rights activists made their opinions known on the walls of Sarajevo's business establishments, spray-stenciling a hand throwing a swastika into a garbage pail. Elsewhere they wrote, "We're not giving up Sarajevo to the fascists!" Near the Ciglane open market someone wrote, "Suada and Olga [early victims of snipers in the opening days of the war and siege] didn't die for fascism!"

And for good measure, someone visited the shop purchased by Miroslav Miskovic, and wrote, "Death to fascism" on the front.

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Next -- Bosnia-Herzegovina journal #6: Tuzla, the elections, more gangsters, and another scandal

2 comments:

Kirk Johnson said...

I wrote a few posts earlier this year regarding the negative impact of religion, religious belief, and religious institutions on Bosnia and Bosnian society. This depressing incident certainly suggests that, if anything, I was too kind.

Daniel said...

Quote: "...Fahrudin Radoncic's Dnevni Avaz -- which 'presented itself as the defender of the Bosniak population, while doing business with the financier of genocide against that people' -- that being Miroslav Miskovic."

Here is video of Fahrudin Radoncic defending his relationship with Miroslav Miskovic on Federal TV http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=15hD2oH-u4U .

Radoncic - a multi-millionaire real estate developer who built the highest skyscrapper in the Balkans (Avaz Twist Tower) - claims his relationship with genocide financier is only "business" oriented. He does not offer any compeling arguments as to why he needs to be involved in a shady dealings with genocide financiers, *cough.*