I knew something was going down Tuesday night in Sarajevo, but didn't find out the magnitude of it until my boyfriend and I tried to order a pizza. It was about ten at night. We'd been watching the news coverage about what had happened in Banja Luka the day before—several thousand Serb rioters had caused massive chaos at a ceremony marking the rebuilding of the Ferhadija Mosque in the town.
Banja Luka authorities had recently, reluctantly, agreed to let a new mosque be built where the old one had stood for four centuries before it was destroyed by Serbs in 1993. The international community praised the decision, saying it would allow "multi-ethnicity" to reign in Banja Luka once again.
But thousands of rioters created a hailstorm of softball-sized stones, sending international officials and Muslim guests bussed in for the ceremony fleeing. BH-TV showed elderly Muslim men hunched on the ground, bleeding. Rioters lit the seven buses that had brought the Muslims on fire, sending huge pillars of thick black smoke into the sky. About 20 Serbs scaled the walls of the Islamic Community Center and tore down the Muslim flag, burned it and flew a Serb flag in its place. The police stood and watched. Nearly 300 Muslims and international officials crowded into the Islamic Center for refuge, and stayed there for six hours until they were finally evacuated by Republika Srpska police.
It was the second time in three days that rioting had botched mosque-rebuilding ceremonies. A similar ceremony on Saturday in the Bosnian Serb town of Trebinje was wrecked by a few hundred rioters who threw stones and beat up one international official.
I figured eating something might make us feel better. We called up a new place in Sarajevo and tried to order pizzas. "There's no way I can deliver a pizza, protesters are blocking the whole town," the pizza guy said. "They're waving flags and shouting... it's just like at the beginning of the war."
We changed the channel and saw thousands of Muslim counterprotesters mobbing the center of Sarajevo, chanting "Allahu Akhbar," "Bosnia," and "Alija," for Alija Izetbegović, former Bosnian Muslim leader whose Party of Democratic Action (SDA) ruled Sarajevo with an iron fist until getting voted out last year. Protesters waved SDA flags along with Islamic and Saudi Arabian ones. The crowd was 99 percent men, some of them sporting long fringed beards and short pants. One man went up to a police car with a huge green Islamic flag and smacked the car with it. The cops waved him away but mostly looked on. We sat in the dark, chain-smoking and not saying much.
When we ran out of cigarettes we walked up to a gas station. The streets were eerily still. On normal nights, creaking trolleybuses, guys hot-rodding on small motorcycles and people shouting in the streets are sounds that I'm used to. But there were no buses or cars, only the occasional ambulance heading towards the center. The only people we saw were three pre-pubescent Gypsy kids, arm-in-arm and very drunk. It was weird not knowing what was going on in the city. And neither of us wanted to go into town in case things got ugly.
"You're probably too young to remember," the middle-aged gas station attendant told my boyfriend when we were buying the cigarettes, "But we never had these guys with long beards and short pants here before. I say that if they want to wave Saudi flags, they should get the hell down there, and then they'll see that down there they won't be able to sit in a cafe and relax with a beer.
"No one here is working," he continued, "so they think this will solve their problems." He shook his head, disgusted.
"Četniks, get out!"
When we returned to my apartment at about 12:30, the stillness was broken by the shouting, horn-honking and chanting of a pretty big crowd of people in the distance, and it got louder by the minute. "They're coming down here," I said, and we headed to the small balcony facing the street to watch. The police inched past first, like they were leading a Fourth of July parade in the States. A mob of maybe 600 people followed, chanting "Četniks, get out."
Parts of my neighborhood were either front-line battle areas or Serb-held during the war, but the Dayton Accords awarded the place to the Muslim-Croat Federation. Hundreds of Serbs then fled, looting and destroying their apartments. Most of the people in the neighborhood now are Muslim refugees from eastern Bosnia. No Serb nationalists, or Četniks, live here anymore.
The crowd stopped right in front of my building. A man started shouting a speech. I couldn't see him because of all the waving flags, and the crowd's din made it hard to hear, but I caught a few things, like "They can't stop us from building mosques." Then the crowd started chanting, "We're going to Dobrinja," and marched off, followed by several hundred creeping cars packed with people. More flags and horn-honking, and a few of the cars blasted Bosnian folk music, adding to the ruckus.
"If they go to Dobrinja, it'll be chaos," my boyfriend said. The suburb, another five or so miles from my place, is one of the places where Bosnia is divided between the Federation and the Serb Republic. An international arbitrator awarded the Serb parts to the Federation a few weeks ago, sparking several nights of Serb rioting. We both knew what could happen if the protesters went out there. He stayed up trying to find something on television, but I went to bed for a few hours of sleep.
The next morning I had to write a story about it for an American agency, so I called the local police and the UN to see what had happened. They told me a heavy police cordon had stopped the protesters from entering the Serb part of Dobrinja, and after a 45-minute standoff, everyone went home. I sent my story and then got online to read what other people had written about it.
In the name of Bosnia
One wire report left me absolutely gobsmacked. The writer said the Sarajevo crowd consisted of not only Muslims, but of Serbs and Croats as well, marching for Bosnia. It certainly didn't look like that to me, and if I were a Sarajevo Serb, I would have been terrified by a crowd outside my window shouting, "Četniks, get out." The writer also qualified Sarajevo as a "multi-ethnic city."
Whoever wrote the piece seemed to have taken a time machine to 1992, when Croats, Muslims and Serbs in the city did march together, chanting "Bosnia, Bosnia," to show the world that Sarajevo stood for religious co-existence. In 2001—after nearly four years under seige and five and a half years of peace monitored by thousands of foreigners—these constructs are a pipe dream. In 2001, the only things remaining of Sarajevo's so-called multi-ethnic character are the religious buildings of four faiths pressed together in the city center. In 2001, Croats are concentrated in Hercegovina, Serbs in the Republika Srpska, and Muslims in and around Sarajevo. Bosnia's entire Jewish population is now less than 1000. As the man at the gas station acknowledged, the war changed everything.
Thankfully, the only resemblance the Sarajevo protests had to the riots in Banja Luka was religious nationalism. No one was reported hurt or attacked. Sarajevo Canton police had the three main Serbian Orthodox Churches in town under heavy guard. But the unrest only paints a clear picture about the "us against them" mentality in Bosnia. It exists. Not in every individual person in the country, but enough individuals feel this way here after the war that to hope for reconciliation is naive.
And it's all so ridiculous. A friend and colleague, Emir Salihović, wrote an editorial in Bosnia Daily this week, saying that Bosnians are all Slavs who share a common culture, history and language. The fact that some go to a mosque and others go to churches or synagogues does not count as a true ethnic or cultural difference. He said applying words like "multi-ethnic" and "multi-cultural" to Bosnia is an insult to New York City or London, where markedly different cultures with nothing in common co-exist. Nationalists, he said, threw these terms around as an excuse for war, and now the international community is using them as an excuse for peace. And he underscored the stupidity of these artificial divisions, when in fact people are so similar here.
"Serbs do not want to consider a business proposal if it is not written in Cyrillic script, Croats think they are endangered if they do not have a country of their own wherever there is more than 10 Croats, and Bosniaks consider that their human rights are violated if you can't tell them hello in Arabic," he wrote.
I'm sure the Croat, Muslim and Serb nationalist leaders that just got voted out of Bosnia's central government last year were dancing jigs in front of their television sets all week. They are the only ones who will benefit from this inanity.
Beth Kampschror, 14 May 2001
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