Tuesday, February 12, 2013

"Sarajevo Daily" by Tom Gjelten [5]

Chapter 3: For or Against Bosnia

The title of the chapter accurately describes the existential choice that members of the staff of Oslobodjenje (and all Bosnians) faced as the country slowly, agonizingly slipped into war during the period of 1991-1992. Many accounts of the war stress how, during the the war in Croatia, many Bosnians were deeply in denial about the danger their own republic faced; and how even after fighting and ethnic violence broke out in Bosnia residents of Sarajevo continued to carry on as if it had nothing to do with them. This chapter reinforces that impression--when Ljiljana Smajlovic left her job as politics editor, Kemal Kurspahic appointed Gordana Knezevic (recently returned to Sarajevo after four year in Cairo) as her replacement. Not that Knezevic was not qualified for the job, but it was no accident that Kurspahic replaced a Serb with another Serb. He was determined to demonstrate the inclusiveness and balance he believed the newspaper--and Bosnia itself--stood for.

That said, there was no doubt that she was right for the job. A tough woman of intellectual honesty and moral courage, she had no use for the virulent nationalism that infected so many of her fellow Serbs and she spoke out against it in column after column. She also rejected making false equivalencies in the name of balance; she refused to pretend that there were no substantive differences between the three ethnic parties. Specifically, she recognized that the SDS represented a threat to the inclusive, democratic values the paper claimed to uphold, and that it was necessary to say so.

Knezevic had been gone for four years, and she had missed out on many changes. Her and her husband Ivo were soon painfully brought up to speed, as she received numerous threats from Serbs about the strong anti-nationalist positions she expressed. Ultimately, her and Ivo decided to send their six year old daughter Olga (there had been threats to kidnap her) and fifteen year-old son Igor out of the city; the middle child, Boris, stayed. Olga and Igor took the last bus out of Sarajevo; almost immediately after it left open warfare broke out, and the siege of Sarajevo become total.

Gordana also clashed with some Serb members of the Oslobodjenje staff. When Ljiljana briefly returned to Sarajevo from Brussels (before moving permentantly to Belgrade), the two women found themselves on opposite sides of the debate over the future of Bosnia. Ljiljana would later tell author Tom Gjelten that because she spent the years 1988-1992 in Cairo, Gordana not only missed the crumbling of the ruling League of Communists and the transition of Oslobodjenje from staid party organ to independent newspaper, she also failed to realize that things had changed as far as the importance--if not the centrality--of ethnic identity. Gordana told Gjelten that it was actually Ljiljana who was clueless, as she had been in Brussels while the SDS became ever more extreme and the reality of Serb nationalism became clearer.
That was May 2, 1992. By that point, nobody in Sarajevo should have had any illusions left. Bosnia had declared independence, the SDS had declared war on Bosnia, and the Federal Army had dropped any pretense of neutrality and had been transformed into a Bosnian Serb army under Ratko Mladic. Izetbegovic belatedly realized that he was leading a country being pulled into a war it was ill-prepared to fight. Many Serbs in Sarajevo chose to stay in the city, but many others had chosen to leave, including several members of the Oslobodjenje staff. The paper finally dropped the policy of providing space for all sides and reporting the SDS side of events; the decision to throw in their lot with the SDA-led government and openly side with the Bosnian state was being thrust upon Kurspahic and his paper.

During this period of increased tensions, the paper lost one of its own--Muslim reporter Kjasif Smajlovic (no relation to Ljiljana) was murdered by Serb forces while covering the fall of Zvornik. And in late May, the Belgrade offices of Oslobodjenje were taken over by SDS officials in a move later validated by a ruling of the Serbian court system.

[I hope it is clear that I am choosing to discuss the events in the chapter specific to the story; Gjelten does a good job also relating the story of the war but as I assume most readers of this blog know the basic outline of events, I am chosing to leave the political and military events implied in the interests of time and space.]

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