Not Exactly Ethnic Conflict in Sarajevo

From Logavina Street, by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau, 2012), Kindle Loc. 1206-1258:

The conflict was commonly defined as “ethnic warfare,” yet everyone comes from the same ethnic stock. The difference among people is primarily in the religions they practice, yet to explain the fighting as a “religious war” would be equally misleading, since most Yugoslavs were not religious people.

The Yugoslav (literally “south Slav”) people are mostly descendants of the Slavic tribes that wandered through the region in the third and fourth centuries. Those who settled to the west took the faith of the Roman Catholic Church in what is now Croatia. To the east, the Serbs assumed the Orthodox Christianity of the Byzantine Empire. The Muslims were Slavs who converted during the four centuries that Bosnia was ruled by the Ottoman Turks.

If you watch a Sarajevo street scene for a few minutes, you will see brunettes, blonds, and redheads, blue eyes and brown eyes, tall and short people. They are more diverse in appearance than the residents of many European capitals. You cannot tell a Serb, Croat, or Muslim by appearance. The only way to tell the difference is by traditionally Muslim, Catholic, and Orthodox given names—although even that method is not fool-proof. Lana Lačević, so named because her mother liked the actress Lana Turner, once told me with her wicked sense of humor, “I’ll decide whether Lana is a Serb or a Muslim name when I see who wins the war.”

In the former Yugoslavia, religion and ethnicity are contentious subjects. Even some of the historical scholarship is slanted by underlying political disputes. Serb and Croat militants—who agree on little else—consider the Muslims to be lapsed Christians who betrayed their faith by collaborating with and taking the religion of an occupying power. The Serbs trot out historical treatises that suggest the Muslims were originally Orthodox. In this way, they have tried to bolster their claim that Bosnia is truly part of “Greater Serbia.”

In 1993, when fighting between Croats and Muslims broke out in western Bosnia, the Croat nationalists adopted a similar tack—insisting that the Bosnians were really lapsed Catholics and that Bosnia belonged historically to Croatia. Actually, some historians have theorized that the medieval Bosnian Church was neither Catholic nor Muslim. Some evidence suggests that pre-Islamic Bosnians were Bogomils—members of a heretical Christian sect. Under this theory, the Bosnians eagerly embraced Islam and the protection the Ottoman Empire provided them from persecution by the Bosnian Church.

In any case, the prevailing view among modern historians is that it was not the Ottoman Turks’ policy to force conversions. Other than the Albanians, the Bosnians were the only Turkish subjects to convert to Islam in large numbers. Nevertheless, under Ottoman rule, Muslims enjoyed certain tax benefits and stood a better chance of retaining large land holdings. As a result, much of the feudal aristocracy converted. This set the stage for a dynamic that would persist into the twentieth century.

Conflicts between Serbs and Muslims were often about economics—a Serb peasant class revolting against a better-educated and wealthier Muslim elite. Not surprisingly, after World War II the Serbs joined the Communist Party in disproportionately high numbers. Muslims lost out when private estates were socialized. The Chetnik militia was inspired by the Hajduk bandits—Robin Hood figures in Serb folklore who robbed Turkish merchants. In 1992, the Serb militiamen who perpetrated the “ethnic cleansing” of Muslims in northern and eastern Bosnia boldly carted off the Muslims’ televisions and VCRs, often in stolen Mercedes.

These class distinctions were more or less obliterated in Sarajevo by the 1990s. There were rich Muslims, poor Muslims; rich Serbs, poor Serbs—and Communists of all religions. On Logavina Street, the last vestiges of the old class order were apparent only in where people lived. The Serbs tended to be clustered in the newer apartment houses, built in the 1950s and 1960s, some of which were used as army housing. The descendants of some of the area’s oldest Muslim families—people like the Džinos, Telalagićs, and Kasumagićs—occupied the single-family houses.

Logavina Street is in the heart of Sarajevo’s old Muslim neighborhood. Nineteenth-century postcards, printed during the Austro-Hungarian period, refer to it as the Turkische Viertel—or Turkish Quarter. Along the street, which stretches less than a third of a mile, there are three mosques, their minarets piercing the distinctive Sarajevo skyline.

Under siege, the call for Muslim prayers came not from the minarets, but from behind a brick wall. Fear of sniper attacks kept muezzins from climbing the stairs of the minarets. At one mosque, a microphone and loudspeakers were installed so that prayers could be called safely from inside. The electricity went off soon after the installation, so the muezzin began summoning the faithful from within a walled courtyard. “It was better before, when you could call from the minaret. It was higher up, louder,” said Alija Žiga, head of a tiny mosque on Logavina.

Despite the faint call, more and more faithful responded. While the cosmopolitan residents of Sarajevo had always thought of themselves as just like other Europeans, the war had made them acutely conscious of their differences. As Šaćira Lačević commented, “We never knew we were Muslims before. The Serbs forced it on us, so now I try to remind my girls not to forget who they are.”

Religion was one of the few refuges for those with little hope. With most businesses closed, no movie theaters or electricity to watch television, praying at the mosque was at least something to do. “People are coming back to Islam, sort of like rediscovering themselves and their roots,” said Edin Smajović, an army officer in his late twenties who lives on Logavina. Like others of his generation, he had come of age under Marshal Tito’s Communist regime, when religion was discouraged.

“Islam is very appealing to people right now because Islam is a religion that is not afraid of death. Every day here is a game of Russian roulette—you don’t know if you will be alive or not—so you have to believe in something,” he said. “We used to say ‘Thank Tito.’ Now we say ‘Thank you, dear God.’”

Most of the Muslims on Logavina Street did not follow the religious strictures. Some didn’t eat pork, but very few were averse to an occasional beer or brandy. Ekrem and Minka Kaljanac showed me their old photo album filled with pictures of the boys sitting on Santa Claus’s lap. “I celebrate all the holidays—Christmas, too,” Ekrem said.

Muslims visited their Catholic friends for Christmas dinner, and celebrated Christmas again with their Orthodox friends in early January. For Bajram, the most important Muslim holiday, Muslims hosted their Christian friends and neighbors.

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Filed under language, nationalism, religion, war, Yugoslavia

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