Tuesday, January 08, 2013

"Sarajevo Daily" by Tom Gjelten [2]

Introduction: A War Over Names

The introduction briefly summarizes events in Sarajevo from the breakout of hostilities in April, 1992, to the 1994 post-'Breadline Massacre' ceasefire. Gjelten also briefly explains how he came to know the staff of Oslobodjenje--unable to find the rear entrance to the Holiday Inn in Sarajevo (the front, of course, was under sniper fire) on his first of many visits to Sarajevo, he instead showed up at the apartment of two people he'd been referred to: Ivo and Gordana Knezevic. Ivo is Croat and a professor; Gordana is a Serb and an assistant editor at the popular and respected daily newspaper, which had begun in 1943 as an underground publication of Tito's Partisans. Gjelten stayed with them for eight days his first visit, and on every one of his many return trips he always visited them and their youngest son (the other children had left Sarajevo before it was completely closed).

Gjelten's sketch of the situation in Sarajevo during this period is short. In general, he explains the uniquely multicultural and tolerant nature of pre-war Sarajevo, and how the idea of civic nationalism it represented was a threat to the ethnic nationalism being espoused by the likes of Karadzic and Tudjman. This idea was appealing to many Western observers and supporters, including himself, but the ideal seemed quite tarnished two years later when the city had been changed by two years of struggle, terror, violence, and ethnic tensions. The demographic makeup had become more overwhelmingly Muslim as many non-Muslims had left, many other less cosmopolitan Muslims from the countryside had arrived, and the SDA-led government had become more shrilly "Muslim" in nationalistic identity and even in confessional terms. The city seemed much less democratic and cosmopolitan than many of its admirers had believed it to be.

Gjelten notes that even as these unfortunate changes were becoming apparent, some media observers began to question the dominant narrative about the war, wondering if the majority of Western media coverage had been biased. As Gjelten puts it, "perhaps it was time for those of us who had described the Sarajevo struggle in moral terms to rethink our sympathies."

The Diana Johnstones of the world might feel a little thrill at reading that sentence, but the very next paragraph would quickly disabuse any Bosnian revisionist of the hope that they have another ally. Gjelten insists that in order to understand how the fiercely anti-nationalist Sarajevo he quickly came to admire and care about in 1992 became the predominantly Muslim, somewhat bitter and hostile, and vaguely anti-democratic city of 1994, it is necessary to take a close look at what the experience of ethnic war, nationalist agitation, and the hardships of living in a city under siege. A lot happened to the people of Sarajevo during those two years, and his book uses the experience of the city's heroic daily newspaper, with its proud tradition of democratic and anti-nationalist beliefs, in coping with the stresses of that period as a window to understand what happened to Sarajevo in general.

In the next post, I will begin Chapter One.

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