I had to fight for Bosnia. That’s how I know Ukrainians can win, and they will rebuild
In this, one of a series of essays from countries in or bordering the former Soviet bloc, a Bosnian poet warns that Europe will have to leave its comfort zone
Tue 25 Oct 2022 10.00 BST
Stop a person on the street in Sarajevo and ask them what they think about the war in Ukraine, and they’ll tell you they think that almost everything that happened in the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina is happening in Ukraine.
In April, we commemorated the 30th anniversary of the war against Bosnia-Herzegovina. We consider early April 1992 the moment a new era began: we have the before, during and after the catastrophe.
A month into the war in Ukraine I saw Ukrainians starting to use the phrase “before the war”. We went through everything that’s happening to them, but no one asks us about it or wants us to help.
War leads you to start looking at life and death with different eyes. Before our “smallish war” (an ironic phrase I use in literary works), I wanted to be a poet and wrote ultra-metaphorical and incomprehensible poems. After the war, I was determined to write as clearly and precisely as possible, especially about the events of the war. That is when I became a writer. The war was a giant catalyst in that process.
In a recent article for the Paris Review, Ilya Kaminsky quoted the Ukrainian poet Daryna Gladun on how events in Ukraine had changed her writing: “I set aside metaphors to speak about the war in clear words,” she said, “so that readers around the world will be struck by the cynicism, cruelty, and inevitability of the war that Russia brought to Ukraine.” A number of Sarajevo poets found the same thing happen during the siege of this city – the longest in the history of modern warfare. The famous Slovenian poet Tomaž Šalamun once said that he stopped writing poetry entirely during the war in Bosnia.
On 21 April 1992, the attack began on my home town in far western Bosnia. I was studying in Zagreb at the time but returned to Bosanska Krupa because I knew the war would soon begin; regular and irregular Serb formations had begun attacking towns in eastern Bosnia in early April.
You could see towns burning along the river Drina, the natural border between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia, even though the country was still called the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. But not even the letter Y remained of Yugoslavia because Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina declared independence and seceded from it.
I was drinking beer and listening to music on the terrace of the Casablanca cafe in Bosanska Krupa when the attack came. I remember I was wearing Levi’s, a down jacket and Adidas trainers. It was a lovely day, but shortly after 6pm an artillery attack began. That’s when I realised what the expression “in mortal terror” means. Militants of the Serb Democratic party, aided by forces of the former Yugoslav People’s Army, shelled the city from the surrounding hills.
I neither volunteered nor was I conscripted. We were surrounded by enemy forces and there was no way out of the area (later called the Biha? pocket or Biha? district) unless you could fly. I took up arms because I was driven out of my flat, my street and my neighbourhood. My conscience demanded that I fight.
For 44 months I fought as a soldier and later as an officer leading a unit of 130 men in difficult combat operations at the very end of the war. Once I was badly wounded in the left foot and needed crutches to walk for six months. The pain was more or less bearable because I was young and my body had the strength of steel. We didn’t have time then to think about the transcorporeality of pain, nor about infatuation with our own.
I remember having to go to the toilet in a special wheelchair, which had a hole in the seat. But I recovered quickly, I returned to the unit and to the same duties I had before the injury, as a platoon commander of 30 men.
Chronological time stops ticking during war. We wore watches on our wrists but they showed a meaningless time. We were cut off from the rest of our country and the civilised world. We were five hours’ drive from Vienna, at least before the war. Now we lived as if we were at the end of the world, so time was irrelevant. A new time was ticking inside us – the one you count from the moment your idyllic, civic life collapses and you become a refugee. After the first moments of shock, we were quick to embrace the apocalyptic way of life.
The experience of war is not something you want. No sane person wants it. It’s a return to the stone age and the time of commodity-money exchange. In the war, you could sell a toothbrush, a tube of toothpaste or a pocketknife and then get tanked up with the money. We did that once: we went to a town far behind the lines, drank beer and listened to Whitney Houston singing I Will Always Love You on MTV. It’s not as if we were Whitney Houston fans. We preferred grunge, and before that we listened to new wave, but no one asked us about our musical or any other identity.
We didn’t even know that the Serb nationalists saw us as the Others, to be expelled from “Serbian lands”, killed, raped and imprisoned in concentration camps. In the summer of 1992, when the Serb army and police occupied the town of Prijedor, all non-Serbs had to wear white armbands and hang white sheets out the windows of their houses and flats. The genocide began there, and it ended with the court-proven genocide in Srebrenica in July 1995. The phrase “never again” was repeated in the Prijedor concentration camps in the summer of 1992 and is now being repeated in Ukraine.
Although I and my family, comrades-in-arms and fellow citizens went through the worst possible suffering (as refugees, soldiers and civilians), I’ve never allowed myself to hate an entire people. I’ve only hated ultranationalists and war criminals, not other Serbian people.
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We had to fight for our sheer survival. And when you fight like that, you can never be defeated because no idea is stronger than the idea of your own life. Right now, Ukrainians are fighting a life-or-death struggle. Having nothing to lose but your own life is when you’re strongest.
In the autumn of 1995, we finally managed to retake our town. It was in ruins, but we rebuilt it. Years after the war, you realise that life will never be the same as it was before. Once you lose that Arcadian life it can never be renewed.
All this is not what concerns the people of Ukraine at the moment. They hope the war will end as soon as possible, but war has a logic of its own that is nothing like human logic. The aggression against Ukraine has all the characteristics of a long war of attrition.
The day the war in Ukraine began, I wrote on Twitter that the Russians would commit war crimes, even though they hadn’t yet occurred. It was clear to anyone who watched and listened to Vladimir Putin that war and atrocities would soon follow. He referred to Ukraine as a fake state and the Ukrainians as a fake people.
Slobodan Miloševi? and Radovan Karadži? said the same things about Bosnia-Herzegovina and Bosniaks – that they were fake and didn’t deserve to exist. Those words were later turned into the worst crimes in Europe since the second world war. I hope the crimes of the Russian army will not surpass those committed in my country.
We will discover the full extent of atrocities and crimes of the Russian invasion of Ukraine when the war is over. The most important thing is for the Russian war machine in Ukraine to be broken and brought to a halt. The dictator understands only the language of force, while the politics of appeasement bolster his power. People in the EU will have to leave their comfort zone because that is the sacrifice required of them while Ukrainians are fighting and dying to maintain peace and prosperity in the EU. If Ukraine is defeated, we will never again live in the peace that currently prevails.
The cities of Ukraine will be rebuilt from the ashes. The whole country can rise again. What cannot be brought back are the dead. These wounds never heal, but you can live with them, and you have to. The trauma of loss marks you and never leaves you. But I believe in the grit and courage of the Ukrainian soldiers and citizens, just as I believed in us. I believe in the victory of life over death.