Recent history of war-torn Sarajevo



By Roger Cohen

Random House

523 pp., $27.95

There are two ways to interpret the recent Bosnian civil war, about which Roger Cohen of The New York Times has written a lyrical, but also embittered and anti-historical account of the siege of Sarajevo.

First, historically: as the latest manifestation of struggles that have rolled on, century after century, since the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans in 1389. Second, fortuitously: from the schemes of local leaders; from the unwillingness of the great powers and the United Nations to intervene; and from the underestimation on all sides of the forces at work. Cohen adopts the second interpretation in "Hearts Grown Brutal." How sound is it?

The key factor in Bosnia, which he underestimates, is the mass Muslim presence and the resulting Christian-Muslim conflict. Nowhere else in the Balkans (except in northern Albania) did Islam convert many Christians. Everywhere else, it was relatively easy for the Austrian and Rus-sian Empires to roll back a declining Ottoman military system. The Ottomans, assaulted from within and without, suffered continual defeat. Bosnia stood in the front line, with cattle raids, guerrilla skirmishes, and outright war becoming a habit, a tradition, a source of loot, of glory, of conquest.

Each Ottoman defeat meant the flight of Bosnian Muslims, a retreat to Turkey. So it is not surprising that Cohen writes of contemporary refugees from Sarajevo in Belgrade, in Germany and Sweden, in Canada, and even in Detroit, the home of Haris Zecevic and his young family. Here is one of the painful rhythms of Balkan history, the gradual eviction of sullen minorities, their scattering through the world.

The Balkan Christian states gathered up the fallen leaves and sometimes they shook the Ottoman tree itself; witness the birth of Yugoslavia in 1918. But it was first smashed by Hitler in 1941 and then racked by a brutal civil war, one of all against all, until the Communist victory. Tito rebuilt the state, but his cautious manipulations failed to unite its nations: after him, the deluge. Can we conclude that traditions of war and revenge, of Muslim-Christian fear and distrust, of conflict over land and status, are too strong for peaceful solutions to succeed?

Cohen disagrees. Though he pays an occasional homage to the past, he is essentially present-minded, concerned largely with the here and now. He is, for example, angry about the long debate at the UN and in Washington regarding Western military intervention against the Serbs besieging Sarajevo, whom he argues - from hindsight - would have been pushovers.

However, it didn't appear so at the time. They were a substantial force, full of nationalist fervor and warrior traditions. This Cohen ignores; his rage at the Serbs is too great for sober evaluations.

I have my own memories of Sarajevo, and of the unmarked black rectangular stone, bearing two footprints, set in the sidewalk on its main street. What could they signify? And then I realized: here Gavrilo Princip stood in 1914, as he shot the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, triggering World War I - and the birth of Yugoslavia. How did that stone fare during the Serb siege? What of the elderly Muslim in whose house I stayed? I'll never know.

* Leonard Bushkoff is currently working on a book for Yale University Press about the CIA's involvement with American and English intellectuals.

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