Back to Bosnia: A War Correspondent Returns

The New Republic
October 12, 1998

A flashback: I heard the sniper’s shot before I saw Haris Bahtanovic fall to the ground. He was walking through a park-turned-shooting-gallery behind Sarajevo’s Holiday Inn. A few men rushed into the open and dragged Bahtanovic into a car that tore away. I wrote a story about this, about the odd way you can cover a war by sitting in your hotel room, out of the line of fire, and watch someone get shot. The next day, I found Bahtanovic in a hospital. The bullet had smashed through his left arm and grazed his ribs. I wrote another story and described the hospital’s recovery ward: “It’s an ugly place. One man lost both legs, another lost his foot, another has metal rods holding together what remains of his lower leg….”

With that, the parallel tracks that my life and Bahtanovic’s ran along for 24 hours forked into different directions. This is what happens in a war: You are thrown from one place to another, from one state of mind to another, as though a tornado has lifted you off the ground and carried you away. The distance need not be great; from one town to another, one house to another, one room to another, one hospital bed to another, and in each there is a different world of agony or loss or hatred, a different story. You move in this way until you become sick of it and leave or become addicted to it and cannot leave or until the war breathes its last. Years go by, and you may wonder what happened to the people whose lives you dropped into, but you hesitate to make inquiries. It is like entering a deserted house; you waver because you might find unpleasant things inside.

My last trip to Bosnia had occurred in the middle of 1993, and by then I had seen enough slaughter. Over the next five years, I never returned, never tracked down the people I had written about–the Serb teacher running an ethnic-cleansing office, the warlord swearing that Muslims were not forced to leave his fiefdom, the Muslim doctor who had no anesthesia to soothe the pain of his scalpel as he operated in Srebrenica. I didn’t lose interest in these people, or the many others I came to know and write about, but the moment had passed when our lives ran parallel; I thought there was little more to say about them that anyone wanted to hear, little more to be learned from them.

Then, last July, I found myself somewhat obliged to visit Bosnia, so I tracked down these ghosts. As always, Bosnia had an ace up her sleeve. I became attuned to the notion, hard to grasp back when the bombs were still falling and men were being shot under my window, that, while people can be murdered rather easily and towns can be flattened with the right artillery pieces and cities can be conquered in due course, countries are rather hard to kill. The apparent victory in elections this month of hard-line nationalist Nikola Poplasen, who defeated President Biljana Plavsic, a moderate by the unique standards of politics in Republika Srpska, is a major setback for the U.S.-backed process of reconciliation, but it need not be a death knell. The task of bringing Bosnia back to life will now be longer and harder, but the forces that wish to destroy Bosnia are not as omnipotent as they would like us to believe (this was also the case during the war); and it is useful to keep in mind that there is a historical pattern, in the Balkans as elsewhere, of war-torn nations collapsing, dead or nearly dead, and rising again, perhaps weaker than before, but resurrected nonetheless.

There should be no misunderstanding: Bosnia’s troubles are as striking as the mortar imprints on Marshall Tito Street in Sarajevo. With few exceptions, refugees who want to return to territory controlled by a different group–Muslims wishing to return to Banja Luka or west Mostar, Serbs wishing to return to Sarajevo, or Croats wishing to return to Brcko–are unable to do so despite pledges all sides made in the 1995 Dayton Peace Accord. Just a few war criminals have been arrested by SFOR, the U.S.-led international peacekeeping force. Bosnia’s economy, such as it is, depends on foreign aid. Government corruption is endemic. Mistrust prevails.

But the news could be worse. The news could be that nobody wants to reknit ties severed during the war, that armed checkpoints remain in place, that you cannot drive or make a phone call from Sarajevo to Banja Luka, that the international community is going to leave any day now, that the people of Bosnia are aching to fight another war, that the politicians who led them into battle are immortal and will remain in power forever. These are the disaster scenarios, and they are not unfolding.

Take a look, for example, at Visegrad. Throughout the ages, this town has been a nerve center of conflict because it is near the border with Serbia and the majority of its inhabitants were Muslim. As soon as war broke out in 1992, the Muslims were “cleansed” from Visegrad, some of them taken to a lovely sixteenth-century bridge over the Drina River, where their throats were cut and their bodies thrown into the cold, green water. I visited Visegrad in the summer of 1992 and walked through its deserted streets and its looted homes. I met Momcilo Mirkovic, who called himself “executive mayor” and wore a pistol at his waist. There had been no cleansing, he insisted, no killings; the Muslims left voluntarily.

I returned to Visegrad in July. Mirkovic was easy to locate; an operator provided his home number. He reluctantly agreed to meet at a cafe patronized by beefy men with flashy rings, expensive watches, and sauntering demeanors that indicated it had been some time since they were engaged in honest work. I tried to act like an old friend, but Mirkovic was jittery, on guard. He is no longer executive mayor; now he is a businessman, though he didn’t want to say what line of business. His eyes shifted from one place to another, like those of a fugitive. His hair had gone gray since I saw him five years before, and he was thinner. He put a pack of Marlboros on the table and smoked one, then another and another, and, when he raised his lighter to his cigarette, his hand shook. He asked how my drive from Belgrade had been, and, when I answered that I had come from Sarajevo, unfriendly territory, his comfort level nosedived.

“I don’t want to talk about politics,” he said. “Only refugees.” I asked a few softball questions about refugees and returned to politics. “I don’t like politics,” he stammered. “I left politics two years ago, after Dayton.” He cited “health reasons,” refusing to elaborate further. I asked how he became “executive mayor”–I assume he was installed after the town’s Muslim leadership had been killed or driven out–but once more he refused to talk about that era. “I don’t like to speak about politics…. I’m tired now. Perhaps our talk can continue tomorrow.” He looked at his watch and said he had a meeting in a few minutes. I mentioned that SFOR had arrested a handful of men accused of doing “bad things” in the war, and I asked whether people were upset about this. I didn’t use the touchy words “war criminals” or “war crimes,” but he knew I was asking whether he was afraid of being arrested and sent to The Hague for trial. He began to rise from his chair. “I am sorry,” he said. “I have a meeting at four. I must go. I must go.”

Mirkovic was frightened, not defiant, and this was encouraging. His role in Visegrad’s cleansing was, most likely, only on a political level, letting the death squads do the dirty work. But, if his behavior is any guide, brand-name warlords like Radovan Karadzic are not the only ones running scared in Republika Srpska; even the small fry hear a clock ticking when they go to sleep at night. It would be wrong, in the wake of Poplasen’s apparent victory, to refrain from trying to arrest more alleged war criminals. More than ever, purveyors of hatred who have committed war crimes must be brought to justice, though the risk of doing so, in SFOR casualties, may now be greater than before. This is the price of our dithering.

Hoping to take the pulse of more ordinary Bosnian Serbs, I arranged for a reunion with another figure from the past, Vladimir Radjen. When our paths first crossed in 1992, Radjen was cleaning up his street, which had been ransacked during the cleansing of Visegrad. Windows were broken, doors were ajar, even floorboards were ripped up. “We all lived in Visegrad like a big family, the Muslims and Serbs,” he said at the time. Five years later, he does not doubt that he and his fellow Serbs have been led down a dead end. Radjen, 42, now works in a grocery store that is so run-down it not only has no name, there is not even a sign in front indicating it is a grocery store. Across the street is a reminder of what had been and what happened during the war–a patch of ground, covered with weeds, where the town’s mosque was located before it was dynamited into rubble.

We walked to a restaurant alongside the river and the bridge; a more historic and charming spot would be hard to imagine, though there was a surreal twist because the restaurant’s stereo was tuned to the SFOR station. A deejay with a British accent played songs designed to appeal to the musical common denominator of fighting men and women from around the world–so Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, and the Spice Girls alternately sang in the background as Radjen unfurled his woes. We sat 50 yards from a statue of Ivo Andric, the Yugoslav writer whose majestic novel about Visegrad, “The Bridge Over the Drina,” earned him the Nobel Prize for literature.

“Andric … said there are times when clever men are silent and stupid men talk and robbers become rich,” Radjen began. “Everything he wrote has happened in this war.” Who was Radjen mad at? The nationalists, he said, citing, first of all, Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, and Alija Izetbegovic, leader of Bosnia’s Muslims. Then Radjen said he was mad at himself, too. I asked why. “Because I was born and must live now,” he explained. “I wish I had been born later. I don’t know what to do. But I have to be with my people.” He pointed to a row of stores across the street. Before the war, most storekeepers were Muslim. “Now,” he said, “everyone is a Serb, but I don’t know who they are.”

There were only two months left before the September national elections, but Radjen’s apathy was so great he not only had no idea for whom he would vote, he didn’t even know elections were to be held–expressing surprise when I told him about it. Radjen said he would back whoever offered the hope of prosperity to his down-and-out corner of Republika Srpska. He probably ended up voting, as many Bosnian Serbs did, for the hard-line nationalists who conned or frightened people into supporting them. This is sad, but policymakers who may now wish to reconsider our engagement in Bosnia should remember that, just as America played a major role in deciding the course of the war, which was ended after President Clinton belatedly agreed to bomb the Serbs, America can play a major role in deciding the course of the peace. We are not at history’s mercy; we can be the shapers of it.

It was in Banja Luka that I found an oddly hopeful sign about the direction of things. I was looking for a teacher, Milos Bojinovic, who headed the city’s wartime Bureau for the Removal of Populations and Exchange of Material Goods, which was in charge of the administrative side of ethnic cleansing. I found him at home at two-thirty on a weekday afternoon, drunk. For two hours, he spoke in slurred words about how he had been a humanitarian helping Muslims and Croats get out of town. It was alcoholic rubbish. I learned much more when I visited his school. A bulletin board at the entrance listed after-hours activities, like the photo club, acting club, and so forth. Someone had improvised a few new offerings. One was titled “Chetnikism,” a euphemism for Serbian nationalism. The instructor was listed as “Dr. Seselj,” the most notorious warlord. The time, “Nonstop.” The place, “Greater Serbia.” Another improvised activity, “Butchery.”

These jottings had been on the board for some time; nobody cared enough to erase them. I mentioned this to a friend in Sarajevo, Igor Baros, and he responded as though I had announced that Karadzic had been captured by SFOR. “That’s a great sign,” he said. “It’s better than anything the politicians agree on. It shows they think these things are jokes. Their people died for nothing.” True enough, but, as Baros knows, the Serbs remain a long distance from accepting the full truth. They still view themselves as victims and don’t want their old neighbors to return. It would be hopelessly naive to suggest that their view will change in a few years, but it would be needlessly pessimistic to suggest that refugees will never be able to return to their homes. It is between those poles–a few years and never–that changes will occur.

Nedret Mujkanovic is a human metaphor for healing the wounds of war. When the conflict began, Mujkanovic was finishing his work as a surgical intern in Tuzla, and the Bosnian army decided to send him, through Serb lines, into the besieged enclave of Srebrenica, which had just a few doctors, and none with surgery experience. In Srebrenica, Mujkanovic often operated by candlelight, under fire, with no anesthesia. He lost precise count but thinks he performed 1,400 operations in nine months. He amputated legs and arms, pulled shrapnel out of stomachs and heads, and so on. I first ran into him at the Tuzla airport in 1993, when he was evacuated from Srebrenica by U.N. peacekeepers. A day later, I spent three hours listening to his horrifying tales of battlefield surgery in a medieval operating theater. He embodied much of what I admired about Bosnia: in addition to Muslims, he operated on captured Serb soldiers and protected them from the retribution that many people in Srebrenica desired.

Five years later, I walked into Sarajevo’s Holiday Inn, which has been restored and now looks just as ugly as it did before the war, and met Mujkanovic in the lobby. I had remembered it as a cold and grubby place filled with weary journalists. But now the guests are aid officials, businessmen, politicians, and–amazingly–some tourists. Mujkanovic looked ten years younger than the last time we had met, and once more he had a surprising tale to tell.

As the war wound down, he decided to become a plastic surgeon, but plastic surgeons in Bosnia were unfamiliar with state-of-the-art practices or anything close to them. So Mujkanovic got in his car and drove the tortuous route to Zagreb, where, without the benefit of any introduction, he presented himself to a plastic surgeon in the Croatian capital and asked to be trained. The surgeon agreed. After a few months, Mujkanovic went to Slovenia, where, once again, he presented himself to a renowned specialist in the field and, once more, asked to be trained. Over the next two years he visited Austria, Italy, and Britain to further his expertise before finally returning to Tuzla

“I knew the war would finish sometime but that medical problems would continue,” Mujkanovic told me, speaking the good English he had learned in the last five years. “For the young population, during the war a scar on the face … made them feel more important, but now it’s a problem. They are coming everyday into my department, and they want to have corrections. During the war, they were very proud to have the scars, but now they want to remove them.”

For the past two years, he also has been a member of the parliament–this is why we met in Sarajevo, where the parliament was in session–but he does not plan to serve another term. “I don’t want to be in politics,” he said. “I have my job, and my job is beautiful.” Mujkanovic is thoughtful, knows his country well, and knows what will be needed for recovery. I asked whether Bosnia will survive. He was silent far longer than I expected. “I think it will be okay because America wants it to be okay,” he said slowly. “It’s very important that America is here. I believe in America. I don’t believe in the English or French.”

Of course, not even America’s best efforts can enable Bosnia to return to life as it was before or even come close to it. Too many historic buildings have been destroyed, too much of the country’s multi-religious fabric has been torn beyond repair. And there are too many roads in Bosnia like the narrow lane I followed one morning. The road, heading out of town, tracked alongside a lovely creek that nourished an oasis of trees and grass and birds. It led to a building Sarajevans know by the name of Jagomir. Inside the renovated building, behind a locked door, under the watch of a white-cloaked orderly, I found the young man who had been shot under my window at the Holiday Inn. Haris Bahtanovic, whose trembling hands are as soft as an infant’s, thinks aliens have implanted a device in his head, and he thinks Sylvester Stallone is his father. He has been institutionalized since he was felled by that sniper. A doctor who cares for him at Jagomir Psychiatric Hospital shook her head from side to side when I asked for a prognosis. Bosnia may recover in some way, but Haris, it seems, shall not.

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.