On the cover of Today’s Zaman, a Bosniak woman is crying over one coffin among dozens. The paper identifies them as the remains of 613 recently identified victims of the Srebrenican genocide, found in the many places Serb forces tried so hard to hide them, ripped apart in some cases by the bulldozers used to bury them.
That’s the English-language edition of Turkey’s top-selling newspaper; the story is big news in Turkish, too. It means something different to people here. Today, while we fly to Sarajevo, Istanbul’s Taksim Meydanı—think Cairo’s Tahrir Square—will see the gathering of over 8,000 pairs of shoes in a memorial honoring each person who died at Srebrenica. Even the country’s Prime Minister has sent a pair in.
The connections between Turkey and Bosnia run deep. For one thing, Bosnia was part of the same imperium as Turkey, and many of the Ottoman Empire’s sultans had Bosnian wives and mothers. (It’s a distortion of history to call the empire “Turkish”—its army and bureaucracy was heavily Eastern European.) Millions of Turks are descendants of Balkan refugees who retreated with the Ottoman Empire.
Though they found refuge in Turkey, soon after Ataturk began his top-down nation building, suppressing their Eastern European identities in favor of a uniform Turkishness; whose artifice is revealed in telling details. Take Ataturk, father of an ostensibly Central Asian nation; he was born in today’s Macedonia, his features strikingly and suspiciously Slavic—blond hair and blue eyes.
The 1990s war awakened many of these connections, and as Turkey in many respects challenges Ataturk’s legacy (especially his late 19th-century romantic European nationalism), the older truths of Turkey’s Ottoman heritage gain visibility. Not to resurrect empire, but to rediscover the differences that were forcibly suppressed in the transition to republican rule. You could say, discovering Turkey’s Eastern European roots was part of its self-discovery of democracy.
And so it made sense to start with Istanbul and then head to Sarajevo, which only became itself under Ottoman rule; Bosnia was then briefly independent, and afterwards under Austro-Hungarian hegemony. Next it was Yugoslav, and most recently almost destroyed. And today? As I board the flight to Sarajevo, I’m not sure if I should expect a post-Soviet wasteland, an eerily quiet former war zone, or something else.
The flight, though, is reassuringly undistinguished. There are lots of Bosnians, white and Western enough to pass for everyday Americans, though the occasional hijabs might throw you off. There are a few Americans, who seem to be intrepid backpackers. And I can’t figure out what the many Gulf Arabs are here for. (The Americans seated next to them seem just as perplexed, but additionally faintly alarmed.)
Some of the Arabs are young, wide fellows with mighty beards and rust-colored thobes. Others are nouveaux petroleum riche, ambassadors for the Arab Gulf’s second most precious export: unfit men who passionately pursue high-end clothing as ridiculously ugly as it is expensive. Their wives are fully veiled, in black burkas that would be banned in other parts of Europe—like France.
The thought flashes me back to the war over Bosnia. Are such burkas what the former French President, Mitterrand, had in mind when he told President Clinton that France would not stand for a Muslim-dominated nation in the heart of Europe? (Such words sound innocuous, but for their timing: During a genocidal war against that nation.)
Over an hour in, and Sarajevo emerges beneath us, a tiny strip of buildings unfortunately planted in a helpless valley, walled off by the huge mountains that brought it the Winter Olympics in 1984 (Sarajevo, then Communist, still has the distinction of being the only Muslim-majority city to host an Olympics) and then, under a decade later, its near-ruin. Serb forces took those same heights in 1992, initiating the longest siege in the history of modern warfare.
The city’s residents were reduced to fish in a barrel, up against the former Yugoslavian military, the fourth largest land force in the world, dominated by Serbs and designed to defend the former Yugoslavia from a possible Soviet invasion. The Bosniaks barely had an army. They were under an arms embargo. Something on the order of 5-10% of their population was killed. 10,000 in Sarajevo alone.
But the country, and the people, survived—though I have no idea what it means to survive that kind of war: dirty, messy, and total. It unfolded as one disaster after another. For one thing, when the war began, Bosniaks at least had an ally, but soon found themselves facing a two-front war.
During Yugoslavia’s dissolution, Milosevic’s Serbia turned on Croatia too, trying to annex Serb-majority areas inside that country. This brought Bosniaks and Croats together against the threat of Greater Serbia; but for some time in the middle of the war, the Croats switched sides, and tried to seize portions of Herzegovina, which had large Catholic populations.
After that came Srebrenica, which may have forced the international community to act after years of containing the conflict within the former Yugoslavia. In the days leading up to July 11, 1995, Bosniaks had come to Srebrenica from surrounding areas, because it was declared a UN safe area; then Dutch UN peacekeepers stepped aside, having no mandate to resist the Serbs by force, and the slaughter commenced. Civilians raced blindly into the surrounding forests, to be picked off by snipers or captured and raped.
When NATO bombs finally started falling, Bosniak forces had begun to win some victories. Many would say the tide was turning in their direction, however right or wrong that impression would be, and only after they gained some momentum did the international community intervene. But that was some three years into a horrific conflict; from my admittedly distant point of view, at that point it’s hard to argue against peace, however uncomfortable the terms.
But there’s a deeper, more urgent set of questions that storm through my mind. What sustains a people who have, over the past century and a half, undergone repeated bouts of ethnic and religious cleansing, world wars and Communist oppression? Seeing as they are otherwise Slavic like Croats and Serbs, do they curse themselves for being on the wrong side of history? Perhaps, they might think, if we weren’t Muslim, this wouldn’t have happened to us.