(A Lesson in Ethnic Cleansing)
w w w . g u s h - s h a l o m - o r g
"I COLLECTED with my bare hands the body parts of my two little sons.
What mother must do that? One shell of the aggressors blew them apart.
Within a second, my life was destroyed forever." The woman spoke
quietly. Her third son, a boy of about eight, stood at her side and,
from time to time, wiped the tears from her cheek. The well turned out
woman, her hair collected in a pink kerchief, well dressed, was
self-controlled but full of restrained hatred for the "aggressors" -
the Serbs - who had caused her tragedy. A big wreath and the photos of
the boys at the entrance of the home silently commemorated the 15th
anniversary of the disaster - the first day of the siege of Sarajevo.
From the moment we - Rachel and I - arrived at the airport, Sarajevo
threw us into a cauldron of emotions, which we could not escape for a
moment. In Sarajevo, one simply cannot be indifferent. "For the stone
shall cry out of the wall," as the prophet Habakkuk (2, 11) said.
Walls pockmarked by bullets, ruins that once were homes, people
carrying with them blood-curdling stories as if they had happened but
yesterday. A city that warms your heart and breaks your heart.
For a total of four years, Sarajevo was under siege. It is hard to
believe - and it happened only ten years ago. The capital city of a
European state, surrounded on all sides, stricken, starved, shelled,
tortured - with Europe looking on.
The capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina is a beautiful town - and its very
beauty became its disaster. The description of Jerusalem in Psalm 125:
"The mountains are round about Jerusalem" also fits Sarajevo. It lies
in a valley, surrounded by high hills on all sides. Green, wooded
hills, in many places dotted with red roofs. There is almost no spot
in the city where one does not see the beautiful hills. But since all
the hilltops were occupied by the Serbian army that beleaguered the
city, there was practically no spot in the city that was not exposed
to snipers. Not for a day, a week, a month. For four long years.
Sarajevo is a town of graves - dozens of graveyards are dispersed
across it, small, large and very large. Thousands of white tombstones
blind the eyes, mostly of uniform dimensions and with simple
inscriptions, fresh wreaths at their feet. Twelve thousand of the
town's inhabitants were killed during the siege, 1500 of them children
under 14. The entire city is still suffering from this trauma.
And in spite of that - a vibrant city. Traffic jams, old, clattering
cars, roads and sidewalks scarred. The city tries to recover: many of
the square houses, which look as if they had been painted by children,
have been redecorated in brown, green and mustard colors, and between
them are fruit trees and small garden plots with huge rosebushes.
In the center of the town - a Turkish palace, built, of all people, by
the Austrians when they were ruling Bosnia. It housed the state
library, one of the most important in the world. It was completed
destroyed by fire during the siege. Behind the imposing front,
everything is burned out.
A FORMER commander, with grey hair and a sunburned, plowed face,
showed us the battle sites and recounted the annals of the siege. I
felt as if I had been there myself. Every word reminded me of my own
experiences in the war of 1948. The improvised army; the feeling that
"there is no alternative"; the fear that if we lose the battle, we and
our families would be massacred; the shortage of weapons; the sense of
"few against many"; the breakthrough to a beleaguered city (Jewish
Jerusalem); the blurring of the dividing line between soldiers and
At the time, I followed the Bosnian war with the feeling that it very
much resembled our own war. It was an ethnic war, a war marked by what
since then is known as "ethnic cleansing".
I was invited to Sarajevo to speak about precisely this subject, in an
international conference of the "New Agora", which is based in Poland
and whose aim is to gather intellectuals from different countries to
discuss the future of the world. (In ancient Greece, the Agora was the
market square where the population could assemble to discuss public
An "ethnic war", in my understanding, is different from any other war.
A "normal" war takes place between states, mostly for a piece of land
on the border between them. Thus, Germany and France fought for
centuries over Alsace. But ethnic wars are fought by two peoples over
a country that both consider their homeland. In such a war, each side
strives not only to conquer as much territory as possible, but also -
and mainly - to drive the other people out. That's why it is always
The 1948 Palestine war was an ethnic war between Arabs and Jews. Each
side believed that the entire country belonged to it. Half of the
Palestinian people were driven from their home and land, some by the
fighting itself, some by a deliberate Israeli policy. For the sake of
historical justice, it must be mentioned that in the areas conquered
by the Arab side (true, they were small) no Jews remained either. But
we conquered 78% of the country, and from these areas 750 thousand
Arabs were removed, while less than 100 thousand remained. Hundreds of
villages were razed after the war, and on their sites new Jewish
villages were built. Entire Arab neighborhoods in the towns were
emptied, and new Jewish immigrants replaced the former inhabitants.
Conquest and expulsion went together. In short: ethnic cleansing.
The Bosnian war was similar - except that instead of two sides, as in
our war, there were three: Bosniaks (Muslim), Serbs (Orthodox
Christian) and Croats (Catholic Christian). Each of the three sides
fought against the other two. Terrible massacres became almost
routine. As a sad Bosniak told us: "Every day a farmer plowing his
field discovers a new mass grave."
As in Palestine before the 1948 war, the different populations lived
in Bosnia interspersed with each other. The towns were mixed (like
Jerusalem and Haifa), the villages lived beside each other - villages
with soaring minarets, villages with Catholic church towers, villages
with the domes of Orthodox churches.
Therefore, people used to think, before it happened, "it can't happen
in Sarajevo." Serbs and Croats were already butchering each other in
the other states of the disintegrating Yugoslavia, but in Bosnia?
After all, there everybody had married everybody. There is hardly a
person in Bosnia in whose veins there does not flow all three kinds of
blood together. In the towns, they lived door to door.
In Sarajevo there was - and still is - a large majority of Muslims,
side by side with minorities of Croats, Serbs and Jews, in that order.
The general who explained the battles to us, Jovan Divjak, the former
deputy commander of the Bosnian army, is a Serb. He left the Yugoslav
(Serbian) army in order to defend Sarajevo.
The photographer who took my picture for a local magazine found it
hard to explain his family tree. One grandfather, a Muslim, had
married a Croat woman. The other one was himself half Serb, half
Montenegrin, while his wife was Muslim. "We must all live together,"
he said repeatedly, "After all, there is no real difference between us!"
And indeed - that is one big difference between our war and the
Bosnian one. There, all three sides, who butchered each other with
such relish, speak the same language. All three are the descendants of
the same Slavic tribes that conquered this country in the 7th century.
In the street, one cannot distinguish between a Muslim, a Croat and a
Sarajevo was - and remains, in spite of everything - a model of
tolerance. On one square in the center of the town there stand, next
to each other, a mosque, a Catholic church, an Orthodox church and a
synagogue. It is hard to believe that 10 years ago there was a
terrible war raging in this country.
"I can't sleep at night," the Muslim cook at a restaurant told us.
"Every night the sights come back to haunt me. I want to forget, and
cannot." When he was 18 years old, a tall, muscular youngster, he was
drafted into the then Yugoslav army, which was dominated by the Serbs.
When the war between Serbs and Croats broke out, he was enroled in a
special unit and sent to Vucovar, where the Serbs carried out a
terrible massacre of the Croats. "We mowed them down row after
row, dozens, hundreds, men, women and children. Me too. I had no
alternative. If you refused, the commander shot you in the neck. In
the end I stole a truck with weapons, and deserted. I was caught and
spent half a year in prison. It was hard, very hard. I escaped and
reached the Croats. They put me into one of their special units, until
I managed to desert and came home to Sarajevo. Now I live with my
father and mother and want some day to open an inn, to have a family,
and to hell with everyone."
After a moment he added: "It's the politicians who are to blame for
everything. If I were God, I would kill them all!"
AT THE entrance of a shop in a pedestrian street in Sarajevo I saw a
T-shirt with the English inscription: "I am a Muslim - don't panic!"
For an Israeli, it is difficult to accept that almost all the people
in the street are Muslim. They do not resemble the Muslims we know at
home. They are white, Europeans. Almost all the children are blond. On
the thousands of graves, over the name of the deceased and the dates
of birth and death, one Arabic word is inscribed (Fatiha, the prayer
for the dead), but except for the Grand Mufti, who sat next to me at a
panel discussion, I did not meet anyone who knew Arabic. I also did
not see anyone smoking a water-pipe, not even near one of the dozens
of mosques in the city.
The Grand Mufti had heard only vaguely of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem
who had visited the city in World War II. "Ah, that Husseini ," he
remarked dismissively. But Yasser Arafat is remembered. He met with
the adored leader of the Bosnian Muslims, Aliya Izetbegovich, during
the peace negotiations and advised him: "Take what you can get!"
A few women cover their hair with colorful silk kerchiefs. It is
rather odd to see such young women, with colorful headcovers and
elegant floor-sweeping skirts, sitting in the coffee-shops with female
friends and smoking cigarettes. They also walk around in mixed groups
with girls who do not cover their hair and wear tight jeans and
T-shirts. There seems to be no problem.
Many shops in the market sell local art - artillery shell cases used
as vases or salt/pepper mills, bullet cases used for pens. Everywhere
pictures of Tito are on sale. Many people recall him with nostalgia.
As long as he was alive, he kept the peace between the peoples of
But the most interesting place in town is the tunnel. It explains how
the city could hold out during the four years of the terrible siege,
without starving to death or dying for lack of medicines, or
surrendering for lack of ammunition. Much as we succeeded in 1948 in
breaking the siege of Jewish Jerusalem by moving the boulders and
creating a primitive "Burma road", the Bosniaks dug a tunnel under the
Serb position to reach the free Bosniak area beyond. For five Bosnian
Marka (two and a half Euros) one can get in: it's 1.60 meters high, a
meter wide. Through this underground passage, food, medicines and arms
were brought into the city, by half crawling, and the wounded were
Now it is a museum, the pride of the town. Perhaps, some day, the
tunnels of Rafah in the Gaza Strip will serve the same purpose.
THE NATIONAL symbol of Bosnia is the bridge of Mostar, two hours drive
by bus from the capital. The Turks, who reigned in Bosnia for 400
years and are fondly remembered, built there a unique, high stone arch
bridge over the river. It remained unharmed through all wars, until
the last war. When the Croats besieged Mostar, they destroyed it
willfully with artillery.
After the war, the bridge was rebuilt with European money, an exact
replica of the ancient one. But the barbaric deed is still burning in
the heart of every Bosniak. "Don't forget 1993!" demands an
inscription on a stone tablet.
When we visited the place, in the heart of the fascinating old town,
soldiers of the international peace-keeping force were strolling
around. I looked at their shoulder tags, and could not help laughing.
They were Austrian soldiers.
On June 28, 1914, a Serb nationalist called Gavrilo Princip murdered
the Austrian heir to the throne on the main street of Sarajevo, in
protest against the Austrian occupation of the country. That led
directly to World War I.
Now, 92 years later, the Austrian soldiers have returned to Bosnia,
and the inhabitants are glad to see them there. True, many people in
Bosnia believe that another war is impossible: "It can't happen again.
We have learned our lesson!" But a young woman of 20, who is still
carrying within her the trauma of the siege, told us: "Have no doubt -
if the international soldiers leave, everything will start again!"
It is possible that the ethnic war in Bosnia, like the ethnic war in
our country, is not yet over.
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