Saturday, June 22, 2013

"Sarajevo Daily" by Tom Gjelten [12]

Chapter 10: A Loser's Peace
With the international reaction to two well-publicized incidents where large numbers of civilians were killed by mortar fire came the beginning of the end of the war in Sarajevo. Under extreme pressure, even from their Russian allies, the Serb nationalist army finally agreed to pull back their heavy weapons and essentially end the siege in exchange for promises that the Bosnian army would not counter-attack.

But while the shooting, shelling, and killing were over, it would be very wrong to say that life was "returning to normal." What had been normal in prewar Sarajevo was gone. The city, like Oslobodjenje, had survived, but the cost had been high. Many residents had trouble adjusting to postwar life, including the radical reworking of social relations. The rise of the military as an important institution, the replacement of many former residents by conservative rural refugees, and the increasing power of Muslim nationalism and the SDA all contributed to a new social order in which angry teenage gangs roamed the streets and Serbs who had remained loyal to the Bosnian state found themselves being ostracized simply for not being Muslim.

Oslobodjenje continued publication, now increasingly as an opponent of the government rather than a supporter. Ethnic cleansing continued in Serb-held parts of Bosnia. Ethnic separation would not go away once the war ended. Sarajevo, and Oslobodjenje, survived, but the values both had embodied were not so certain to return.


This is the end of the book. There is no epilogue or conclusion, and since the book was published in 1995 it ends before the war--and the final orgy of genocide in eastern Bosnia--did. I regret that this review took so long--the book is actually a brisk and enjoyable read; it's only my own distraction with graduate school and family life which has dragged this out so far. I highly recommend this book to people interested in either life in Sarajevo during the war, or the role of a free press in wartime or when democracy and secular freedom are under attack.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

"Sarajevo Daily" by Tom Gjelten [11]

Chapter 9: The Wounded City
By 1993, the more than the physical infrastructure of Sarajevo was damaged. The fragile, multicultural unity of the city was also deeply wounded. For that matter, so was the will and the morale of thousands of Sarajevo residents, including the staff of Oslobodjenje. The continuation of the war and the validation of ethnic division by the Owen-Stoltenberg Plan had the effect of strengthening Muslim nationalism, which could   only further undermine what remained of Sarajevo's prewar cosmopolitanism.

Izetbegovic refused to support the plan but felt that he needed to present it; because it was for a Muslim state he called a special Muslim-only assembly to vote on the measure before it was passed on to the National Assembly. The forces of Muslim nationalism seemed to be on the rise; Mustafa Ceric became outspokenly so. In the meantime, the staff of the paper kept a low profile and focused on the goal of surviving to the newspapers' 50th anniversary.

Ultimately, the measure was defeated--even among the Muslim majority, believers in inclusive secularism still held the upper hand. Oslobodjenje managed to publish a special 50th anniversary edition. And while the staff bickered more and more, and disagreements increased in frequency, they never broke down along ethnic lines. A new government formed in the wake of the defeat of Muslim nationalism, and it quickly cracked down on the gangsters who used their position in the military to exploit the population, leading to an outpouring of public support and overt expressions of approval from the paper.

But while these were welcome developments, things were not good. The paper still struggled. Kurspahic moved himself and his family to New York City to raise funds for the paper, leaving some staff angry and an overwhelmed Gordana Knezevic in charge. Electricity became harder and harder to come by. A promised Sarajevo film festival was completely undermined by United Nations refusal to cooperate and Serb shelling. Residents found themselves wearying of the everyday struggle to meet basic needs while avoiding death.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

"Sudden Nationhood" by Max Bergholz

The latest issue of The American Historical Review--the quarterly publication of the American Historical Association--includes an article by Max Bergholz, an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. The article is entitled "Sudden Nationhood: The Microdynamics of Intercommunal Relations in Bosnia-Herzegovina after World War II". The article approaches the subject of nationalism at the local level, specifically the Kulen Vakuf region in northwestern Bosnia during the 1950s and early 1960s. This was an area of mostly Serbs and Muslims, with a small Croat minority, which had been scarred by violence and atrocities during World War II. First, a number of local Serbs had been murdered by a group of Muslims who had joined the Ustasa. According to Bergholz it seems most of these killings were carried out for personal rather than ideological or racial reasons. This led to wider-scale retaliatory killings by Serbs even as the Partisans tried to build multi-ethnic solidarity in the region. This is a familiar story throughout Bosnia in World War, but the context is important because the author is arguing that the wartime experience of particular individuals heavily influenced the way in which they, and their immediate descendants, would conceptualized these "nationalist" incidents in the immediate post-war era.

Bergholz utilizes source documents from League of Communists reports about incidents of "national chauvinism" and inter-ethnic violence to determine patterns of ethnic violence between individuals or groups in the region. The article is a micro-level examination of how nationalism "happens."

The idea of nationalism as a process which happens rather than a fixed identity is crucial here; the incidents Bergholz studies describe situations in which often petty (and sometimes violent) incidents involving individuals are conceptualized as conflicts between national groups either by the participants or members of the surrounding community. Yet these conceptions often do not dictate day-to-day interactions within those communities. Rather, conflict triggers an automatic and seemingly unconscious configuration of a particular conflict into generalized, national-group defined terms. National identities, at least in terms of defining relations between groups and between individuals of different ethnicity were not fixed, nor were they the determining factor in communal relations. Rather, incidents of violence or conflict would sometimes trigger this "sudden nationalism."

Also of note--the author's contention that contrary to conventional wisdom (heard all too often from Western observers during the Bosnian War), it is not true that ethnic violence is the product of antagonistic national identities. Rather, incidents of violence create those opposed national identities; and that individuals will sometimes revert to those identities in times of conflict or strife. Bergholz also suggests that the Titoist focus on national coexistence might have had the counter-productive effect of encouraging Yugoslavs to conceptualize personal, social, and political disagreements in nationalist terms.

It's a well-researched and well-reasoned article, and I recommend it to anybody who has an interest in Bosnia, or in the development of nationalism and national identity in general. The citation is below:

Max Berghoz, "Sudden Nationhood: The Microdynamics of Intercommunal Relations in Bosnia-Herzegovina after World War II". The American Historical Review, 118, no. 3, June 2013, pp. 679-707.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

"Sarajevo Daily" by Tom Gjelten [10]

Chapter 8: War, Oslobodjenje, and Democracy
Oslobodjenje's record as a staunch defender of independent journalism and a free press during the fall of the Communist regime and one-party rule was truly inspirational, and earned the paper plenty of international plaudits. Its record during the war was decidedly more mixed.

By Spring 193, Bosnia was fighting for its life while the international community did little more than wait for its government to accept ethnic partition as the price of peace. In this environment, the staff--who had come of age personally and professionally under Communism, when the role of the press was to faithfully "report" the party line--found themselves torn between their professional, civic, and patriotic duties. The compromises weren't always neatly defined, and they were often quite understandable given the circumstances, but they were compromises all the same, and the idealism the paper inspired in the early days became quite tempered and muted, if never completely muzzled.

While the paper no longer followed an official party line handed down from the state, old habits of following some overriding editorial approach died hard. Many members of the staff expected the editorial board to set a "party line" for the newspaper to follow. And in effect, this happened to large degree--as the war progressed, it became more and more evident that unlike some other independent media outlets in Sarajevo, Oslobodjenje was not inclined to criticize the government or even to report news which might undermine the war effort. Even when a couple of reporters from the paper were forced under threats to spend several days digging front-line trenches under the orders of some of the gangsters-turned-military leaders who operated as de facto warlords in their parts of Sarajevo. These gangsters were abusing the rights and freedom of Sarajevo residents and lining their pockets with extortion and the control of the black market; but still, Oslobodjenje said nothing.

At the same time, the paper was not the official organ of the government, and often found itself getting the cold shoulder for refusing to completely report the "news" the way the SDA-led government would have preferred. This left the paper in a no man's land where it was simultaneously punished for the very independence it was often criticized for not having enough of.

Some staff members were torn; others, accustomed to life under Communism, saw nothing wrong. Gordana Knezevic was unapologetic for putting patriotism ahead of professional ethics. The Bosnian state had to be saved; that was more important than doing first-rate journalism. As a Serb, she had an existential reason for saving multi-ethnic Bosnia. As a mother who had sent her children away, she had a personal one--she wanted there to be a country for them to be from, even if she ended up being buried there.