In Bosnia and Herzogovina

I showed my teacher of Turkish, Hadi, the pictures of the picturesque coppersmith shop in the centre of Sarajevo. “Oh, that’s Sariyer, just up the Bosphorous Strait from Istanbul. I used to take my old girlfriends there on Sunday afternoons…”. The many mosques, for midday prayers overflowing, so prayer carpets are placed outside; the medresse, the religious school, inside a courtyard, now converted into shops; the bedestan arcade shops, which also helped to support the mosque, and now these are tourist shops; a library; a Turkish bath, the haman; the tekke, the lodge of the Dervish order; fountains; and the hans, the inns, with their courtyards. On the sunny Monday lunchtime last September, when I was first there, the cafés were full of the Sarajevo youth drinking their Turkish coffee, with the coffee powder left in, and Turkish coffee seems much more popular here than in Turkey, where the popular beverage is tea.Names are the most peculiar mixture of Bosnian use of patronymics and Turkish. The President of Bosnia from 1989-1993 was Alija Izetbegovic (Son of Izet Bey). And Bosnians killed in the 1991-5 war: Sulejman Mahmutovic, Hajrudin Catavic, Sakim Stanbolic. And even the name Sarajevo comes from Saray, the governor’s palace.

Twelve years after the end of the civil war Sarajevo seems to be thriving. The cafés are full, the shops look prosperous. Construction projects are everywhere. There are plenty of backpackers looking for a relatively safe adventurous holiday. out of the old Turkish centre I visit the Catholic churches and cathedral, the Orthodox churches, and the Jewish synagogue, now a museum. Sephardic Jews went to Bosnia when expelled from Spain at the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th centuries. But there are very few Jews left. In World War II Sarajevo was occupied by the Nazis, who sent nearly all the 9,500 Jews to concentration camps.

The Ottoman Empire extended through three continents and included all of what is now Hungary, Bulgaria, Rumania, the whole of the Balkans. In 1529 the Ottoman army reached the walls of Vienna. The Ottoman rulers were generally benign, collecting taxes from the conquered peoples, and landholders had to provide and pay for soldiers. They also exerted the devirishirme, ordering that a certain number of boys from each area should be sent to train as Janissary officers, and it was with these Christian “slaves”, who owed their lives to the Emperor and who converted to Islam, that the Ottoman army reached its most powerful. Many Balkan girls were also sent to the harem of the Sultan. Indeed, by the 1660s, when it almost ceased, some 200,000 children had been sent to Istambul, and “Slavonic” was the main language of the Janissaries. Although the seizing of children seems brutal, this was one of the few forms of upward mobility for the children, as a boy might make his way up in the army or the civil service, even returning to his home land, and a girl might even produce a future Sultan, and many parents hoped their children would be taken!

But it was only in Bosnia that a large proportion of the population converted to Islam. The ancient kingdom of Bosnia was quickly taken by the Ottomans in 1463. Both the Catholic and the Orthodox churches were weak: members of one church frequently switched to the other; many then switched to Islam. Besides, many folk religion practices had a long history in Islam: the use of prayer beads; amulets such as animals’ claws; belief in the protective powers of tablets or bits of paper with religious inscriptions. Saints’ days such as St. George’s Day, Jurjevo for Christians and Alidjun for Muslims were celebrated by both groups: “Up to midday Ilija; after midday Ali”.

Muslims entered Christian churches to pray. The cult of the Virgin Mary was particularly popular; and there are records of Christians inviting Dervishes to read the Koran in cases of dangerous illnesses. Paul Rycaut writes of the Potur sect in The Present State of the Ottoman Empire in 1559

“But those of this Sect who strangely mix Christianity and Mahometanism together, are many of the Souldiers who live on the confines of Hungary and Bosnia; reading the gospel in the Sclavonian tongue…; besides which, they are curious to learn the mysteries of the Alchoran, and the Law of Arabick tongue; and not to be accounted rude and illiterate they affect the Courtly Persian. They drink wine in the month of the Fast calles Ramazan… They have a Charity and Affection for Christians, and are ready to protect them from Injuries and violences of the Turks. They believe that Mahomet was the Holy Ghost promised by Christ… The Potures of Bosna are of this Sect, but pay taxes as Christians do; they abhor Images and the sign of the Cross; they circumcise, bringing the Authority of Christ’s example for it.” (In Bosnia – A Short History, Noel Malcolm (p.61-62)).

There were other reasons. Becoming a Muslim may have been a form of upwards social mobility; and court cases could not be brought against Muslims.

So just over half of the population of Bosnia remained Muslim, with thirty percent orthodox Serbs, and nearly twenty Catholic Croats. And the situation remained like this.The Christians were finally allowed to build their churches inside Sarajevo in the 1850s. In 1878 the Austro-Hungarian Empire invaded Bosnia and the weak Ottoman Empire was unable to do anything. A period of industrial and educational development followed. But the power of neighbouring Serbia was increasing, and the demands for a pan-Slavic state.

On 28 June 1914 , the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo and therefore the most sacred say in the calendar of Serb nationalism, Archduke Franz Ferdinand came to Sarajevo to inspect the Austro-Hungarian manoeuvres. his entourage drove past a group of nationalist assassins armed with bombs and pistols. Five failed to act, but one threw a bomb which bounced off the back of the Archduke’s car and bounced into the one behind, wounding a number of its occupants. Later in the day Gavrilo Princip shot the Archduke and his wife, the Duchess of Hohenberg, as the car went past on its way to visit the injured in hospital. Both died slowly from their wounds. One month later Austro-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and this would be the beginning of the First World War.

With the defeat and collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the First World War, the federation of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, under the nominal rule of King Alexander was formed. This later became Yugoslavia. Then in April 1941 Yugoslavia was invaded by Nazi forces, capitulating ten days afterwards. After the fall of the Nazis Tito’s partisans defeated the nationalist Cetniks, and Tito, initially subservient to Stalin in Moscow, took the reins of power. In this officially athiest state the powers of all churches were curtailed. In Bosnia, the courts of Islamic sacred law were closed in 1946; women were forbidden to wear the veil in 1950; the mektebs, schools where child gained their first knowledge of the Koran, were closed in the same year; and in 1952 all the tekkes were shut and the Dervish orders banned. Bosnia languished as the poorest state in Yugoslavia, with income per capita as low as 70% of that of Serbia. The 1984 Winter Olympics brought the attention of the world to Sarajevo. Then the war did.

Tito died in May 1980, and Slobadan Milosevic took over in Serbia. On 25 June 1991 Croatia and Slovenia declared independence. Milosevic threatened invasion of Slovenia but backed off. The population there was almost 100% Slovenian. On 29 February Bosnia formally declared independence after an overwhelming vote in favour, but Milosevic and the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic were arming paramilitary groups of Serbs and Bosnian Serbs, warning the Serbian populations in Croatia and Bosnia of Ustasa (Croatian right-wing fascists), and Islamic fundamentalists in Bosnia. The state run television and radio reinforced these fears. Areas where there was a majority of Serbians in Croatia and Bosnia were occupied by the Serbian nationalists or the Serbian-run federal army.

Initially the Serb forces attacked the non-Serb population in Eastern Bosnia. Once the towns and villages were securely in their hands, the Serb forces – the military, police, the paramilitaries and, sometimes, even Serb villagers – applied the same pattern: Bosniak houses and apartments were systematically ransacked or burnt down, Bosniak civilians were rounded up or captured, and sometimes beaten or killed in the process. Men and women were separated, with many of the men detained in the camps. The women were kept in various detention centres where they had to live in unhygienic conditions, and many were raped. Much of what happened is now coming to light.

“Ethnic Cleansing” became a current term as areas were “cleansed” of Serbs, Croats or Muslims. Executions of innocents by all sides took place: in the Muslim village of Zakoplaca on 16 May 1992 83 villagers, nearly all the menfolk in the town, were sumamrily executed by Serbian paramilitaries. On 11 July in Srebnica, blue-helmeted Dutch UN soldiers looked on while Serbs separated all the male inhabitants of the town, took them away, to be killed. Mass graves holding up to 4,000 bodies were later found. To a great extent the presence of the UN peacekeepers, originally sent in September 1991, proved ineffective.

To complicate the situation, fighting broke out in central Bosnia and Hercegovina between Croat and Muslim forces in 1993. The Croats were now thinking of their own enclave within Bosnia-Herzegovina. In early 1994 the picture began to brighten a little. NATO declared an exclusion zone round Sarajevo and warned the Serb forces that if they did not comply they would be attacked from the air. The fighting only stopped when, after a Serb mortar attack on a Bosnia market, killing 37 and wounding 88 on 28 August 1995, NATO began heavy aerial attacks on Serb military installations, communications centres and weapon dumps. In addition, Croat and Bosnian forces, with improved morale, now worked together began to retake some of the lost territory.

The result of the Dayton agreement was to divide Bosnia into two semi-autonomous regions: the rump of Bosnia, the Federation of Bosnia-Herzogovina, and the semi-autonomous Serb region of Srpska, or for those unable to say it, the RS, Republika Srpska. After more than ten pretty peaceful years, there are signs that the two area may reunite again, particularly in order to try to gain admission to the European Community.

Map of Bosnia

The slightly garish orange and yellow Holiday Inn was the communication centre of foreign media during the conflicts in Bosnia from 1990 to 1995, when, during the siege of Sarajevo, from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996 Serb forces surrounded the city and shelled it. I take a look inside: apparently no reminders of the war here, except maybe the pock marks on the concrete porch, maybe the results of shells or mortars, which can be found all over Sarajevo. Many are filled in with red cement.

There is so much rebuilding you have to look hard to find reminders of the war. The atmosphere is upbeat; in eleven years many of the scars have begun to heal. I wander in to a beautiful Moorish building that is being renovated. I see a plaque: it is the National Library, which was burnt down by the Serbs on 25-26 August 1992, with the loss of more than two million books. And in a a bookshop I discover the Fama Survival Guide to Sarajevo, written between April 1992 and April 1993:

“In spring, summer and fall. all leaves it is possible to find were used as ingredients – from parks, gardens, fields and hills which were not dangerous to visit. Combined with rice, and well-seasoned, everything becomes edible. Each person in Sarajevo is very close to an ideal macrobiotician, a real role-model for the health-conscious, diet-troubled West” (p.19)

During the siege a kilometre-long tunnel was built under the airport, through which supplies and weapons could enter the city from the safe Bosnian Muslim suburbs. I visit the tunnel, the end of which is part of a private garden, and which is now a tourist attraction. In the nearby cemetery I see the plaques to those who lost their lives.

Mostar Bridge has become something of a symbol of the war and subsequent reconstruction. The symbol of Mostar, in Herzogovina, the elegant bridge crossing the Neretva, originally built in 1566 by the Ottomans, the link between the Croatian and Bosniak communities. In Mostar Croats and Bosniaks were united against the Serbs, who attacked from the hills surrounding Mostar. But strife between the Croats and the Bosniaks led to attacks from the Croats on the Bosniaks, culminating in the destruction of the bridge on 9 November 1993.

The bridge has now been rebuilt, and much cash has been injected into Mostar. Rich Western Europe, felling guilty it did so little to stop the war, pours money in: the Danes sponsor the refurbishment of bombed out apartment blocks; the Germans a nursery school, the Spaniards a school for children with special needs; the Italians a secondary school; Japan has sent buses; and Turkey has opened up banks on the Muslim side, and the mosques have been rebuilt. The historical centre, or centar, as they say here, is now one of Unesco’s protected sites. Tourists are coming. The boys once again jump from the bridge in midsummer. The shops selling tourist tack, and even Tito souvenirs, have returned, together with boutique hotels. But move on a little, and you very clearly see the ravages of war: along the Croat-Bosniak front line, the Moorish style Hapsburg Grammar School still full of shell pock marks and the bombed out apartment blocks . My Lonely Planet waxes lyrical: “their empty windows gaping like skeletal eye sockets”. Their owners have gone to Austria, Germany, the US, Australia. Over the bridge on the Muslim side it is the same picture. On Marshal Tito Street most of the old Hapsburg buildings are no more than bomb sites. In the cemetery of the nearby Karadzozbegova mosque I look at the gravestones: Moric Meta Mehmed 1955-1993; Islamovic Enes 1970-1993; Drazic Jusuf 1930-1993; Idrizovic Admir 1981-1993; Muratovic Osmas 1946-1993. It’s a dull wet January Friday night in Mostar, but the discotheques, clubs and bars are filling up, and in my hotel there is a wedding party.

The Mostar Bridge

Bombed out building


4 Responses to “In Bosnia and Herzogovina”

  1. Gisele Wolkoff Says:

    even better now with the pictures!
    thank you!

  2. Hadi Vardarsu Says:

    Türkçe öğrencim ve dostum John Milton,
    Duyumlara ve izlenime dayanarak oluşan Türkiye’nin bu-
    günkü durumu ve geçmişi ile ilgili konuların, her zamanki gibi çok
    ilginç ve gerçeğe uygun.
    Gezip gördüğün yerlerden edindiğin bilgiler, sürekli bir bi-
    çimde dikkatleri üzerine çeken büyüleyicilikte.
    Nice yıllarda başarılar dilerim.
    Hadi Vardarsu

  3. Tayyar POTUR VE Gürhan POTUR VE NİCELERİ.... Says:

    türkçe olarak burada bahsedilen Potur hakkında bilgi almak isteriz..

  4. casey65a Says:

    Afternoon! I am new to these board I hope this was the right place to say hello.
    Anyway yeah I just wanted to say hi

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