A Tale of Two Bosnians: Muslims Fighting for Different Reasons

The Washington Post
November 16, 1992

TRAVNIK, Bosnia – Commander Fahro Alihadzik cradled an AK-47 assault rifle in his lap and kept a sharp lookout on the cafe entrance the other day as he sipped a soft drink and explained how he maintains discipline among his Muslim troops fighting Serbs in Bosnia’s civil war.

“If a guy threatens to shoot me, I usually give him a gun and tell him to shoot me,” he said. “Or, I take him into a room, put a grenade in his hand and pull out the pin.

“That’s playing with death. You need to play games like that in this dirty war. You fight fire with fire and nothing else. If the others are crazy, then I’ll be crazy. That’s the only way to beat the hotheads.”

Alihadzik, 30, is not a hothead, although at that moment he sounded like one. He is an effective yet reluctant leader of a Bosnian army unit in this chaotic front-line town in a Muslim area under siege by Serbs. His ways are unorthodox, but so is the war that turned this former handyman into a fearsome foot soldier.

It is much the same for other Slavic Muslims fighting to preserve what little territory they can from advancing Serbs. The Muslims have been torn from their normal lives — as doctors, lawyers, farmers or carpenters — and are living in an altered universe of violence and despair.

The minority Bosnian Serbs started the war after the majority Muslims and Croats backed a Feb. 29 referendum directing Bosnia-Herzegovina to follow the republics of Croatia and Slovenia in withdrawing from the Yugoslav federation. With arms from the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army, Serb militiamen have seized two-thirds of the republic. The Muslims, on the other hand, are reluctant warriors and poorly equipped. They are desperate for help — and for peace.

Emir Tica, a former bus dispatcher, works as a logistics officer. He said he feels cursed, not only by the Serb howitzers being wheeled closer to Travnik, his hometown, but also by the misperception in the West that Slavic Muslims are ethnic and cultural kin to Arabs.

“I don’t want to live in an Islamic country,” the sandy-haired Tica said in the army’s smoke-filled cafeteria. “I drink alcohol. I don’t pray or go to the mosque. When I listen to music, I listen to {rock musicians} Guns n’ Roses, Neil Young, AC/DC. When I read books, I read Mark Twain. When I speak a foreign language, it is English. I don’t know how to speak Arabic.”

Tica is hoping that Western nations will refuse to permit a division of Bosnia into Serb, Croat and Muslim cantons. Muslims, who are the largest group here but have been routed from their homes, would end up with the smallest amount of land.

“My country is Bosnia, and Bosnia exists only with all three” ethnic groups, Tica said. “If I live in a canton, I am only with Muslims. I don’t want that. Can you imagine living in California with only white people? Or Texas with only cowboys?”

Alihadzik’s journey into war began this spring, when, he said, he was arrested by Serbs in his northern Bosnian hometown of Sanski Most. He said he was thrown into a detention center for more than a month but escaped, hid in the wilderness for 45 days, then managed to join a refugee convoy to Travnik.

Brown-haired and plain-looking, Alihadzik represents a new kind of Bosnian Muslim — one who was drawn into the war as a victim of “ethnic cleansing,” the Serbs’ policy of expelling all but Serbs from Bosnian territory under their control. Driven out of their homes, beaten in prison camps and witness to what they call Serb atrocities, Muslims such as Alihadzik have become known as the fiercest fighters in Bosnia.

“I always got along with Serbs, so I’m disappointed that my Serb friends, who shared good and bad with me, are the people who arrested me,” Alihadzik said wearily. “I want to survive this war for one reason — to meet my Serb friends again, just to see how they’ll respond, what their justification will be.”

Tica, 25, has not been subjected to the Serbs’ “ethnic cleansing.” He is from Muslim-controlled Travnik, so his family and apartment are still intact, but for how long is not certain. He says Western governments are unlikely to save the Muslims, but he pins his hopes on an awakening of public outrage at Serb actions in Bosnia.

“The reason I talk to journalists is to alert ordinary people in the West that something strange is happening in the European neighborhood,” he said. “I believe that the West has more conscience than it is showing now. And I think ordinary people can’t have a nice sleep when they understand what is happening to us Muslims.”

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.