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From THE NATION, vol. 261, no. 21 18 December 1995


by Christopher Hitchens

Mostar/Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- In his essay "Qu'est-ce qu'une nation?" Ernest Renan wrote, "The essence of a nation is that all its individuals have many things in common, and also that everybody has forgotten many things." The smooth exercise of forgetting -- so necessary to the construction of a no-nonsense Holbrookian state -- is made jagged and awkward by the most casual stroll through either of these two cities. The whole of one side of Mostar, or the whole bank of one side of the Neretva River, has been seared and pockmarked and shattered by the same unrelenting Croatian blitz that -- catching world attention for a brief moment of aesthetic despair -- sent the ancient span of the Stari Most, or Old Bridge, crashing into the water.

Today, the survivors make shift among the ruins, and one can see old Muslim stonemasons patiently repairing their places of worship. One can also see their local newspaper, titled Stari Most. Its headline is printed in green, the color of Islam. (That's a new touch to the local scenery). Almost no traffic flows, or is permitted to flow, between the two sides. And it is with the triumphant Croatian Catholic crusaders that the victims are confidently expected to "federate."

Far in advance of any cleverness in Dayton, Ohio, the Croats had in any case made their own plans for federation. To drive into Herzegovina from the Dalmatian coast is to see a process of Anschluss that is rotten before it is ripe. The police and border guards have Croatian cap-badges. The currency is the Croatian kuna -- another recently resuscitated emblem from the dingy past of the 1940s. Every flag and symbol proclaims the presence of the big brother. Election posters -- showing only one visage in banana republic fashion -- banner forth the supremacist politics of an ambitious neighbor. (Unaware of the tactless echoes of the triple "Ein", they read "The Right Man, The Right Party, The Right Time." Make that the extreme right man, the ultra-right party and the absolutely wrong time, not to say the wrong place.) In an interview with Le Figaro published on September 25 last, the man on the posters, Croatia's President, Franjo Tudjman, had this to say:

Europe and the Western countries did not want an Islamic state, even a tiny one, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. They did not want to give the Serbs an opportunity to support Muslim fundamentalist activists in Europe. So through the efforts of Western countries, a Croat-Muslim federation was proposed. For strategic reasons, Croatia agreed. WE THEREFORE ACCEPTED THIS TASK GIVEN TO US BY EUROPE, NAMELY: TO EUROPEANIZE THE THE BOSNIAN MUSLIMS.

Thus, Tudjman annexes, along with much Serbian property, the Serbs' boast that it is they who guard the gates of Vienna. In the wreckage of beautiful Mostar one can see how the boast is made good. One may also see the outlines of the Ohio agreement, which still awards almost half of Bosnia to those Serbian irredentists who committed memorable atrocities in order to lay hold of their prey. If the face of Tudjman looks self-satisfied, then the face of Milosevic (everybody's new friend) seems to positively glisten with triumph -- and relief.

What can one say about the atmosphere in Sarajevo? Perhaps out of good manners the inhabitants prefer to turn cynicism inward when speaking to visitors, and to make dry and sardonic remarks chiefly at their own expense. The brave and witty and intelligent people who kept newspapers and radio stations and the semblances of culture breathing throughout the siege are just a touch fed up. One more visitor who comes and praises their multicultural theme park, and they may scream. Or at least moan. Yes, it is true that you meet Serbs all the time, and that they are integral to the life of the city, and that they are the best-regarded and best-treated minority in the Balkans. Yes, it is true that the Sephardic Jewish charity La Benevolencija is a keystone in Sarajevo's multiethnic arch, and has been since 1492. Yes, it is true that on entering the home of a prominent Islamic civic figure I was told not to bother removing my shoes and was then offered a beer at 11 o'clock in the morning. But these things used to be part of normal civilized life, not occasions for praise and condescension. Any gesture, however courteous and spontaneous, is cheapened by the least suggestion that it is made for effect. So the citizens of Sarajevo, on hearing the Dayton carve-up praised by Warren Christopher as a tribute to their "multi"-everything, are entitled to a private cringe. If the great powers really cared about such things, they could have stirred themselves before such ideals were confined to a single museum-piece city from which much of the authenticity has been bled.

On the last day of my short stay in Sarajevo, I took a drive and a walk, marveling inwardly that conditions (unlike my last short stay) did not oblige me to duck and scuttle. The shell of the National Library, the ruin of the old town, the unbearable football field given over to burial, the laying waste of everything from the zoo to the Olympic village ... it was all too much. I interviewed a Serb, a former ally of Radovan Karadzic who had fallen foul of the leadership, been locked up in a cellar for a couple of years and then traded in a prisoner exchange.He said ruefully that he now realized he had joined a fascist party. How true. How late. I couldn't get excited. Clintonian diplomacy has succeeded in reducing the moral temperature to nil. (The President's national address employed the highest moral tone to baptize the lowest common denominator.) Fascism didn't win in Bosnia, but nor did it lose, and now the antifascist slogans sound trite as evrybody agrees to split the difference. Forgiveness, for all I know, might be the least difficult part. Forgetting, even in the cynically Cartesian sense proposed by M. Renan, still seems a lot to ask.

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