Sarajevo’s Cities: Being ‘We’ in Bosnia

Sarajevo has always been a remarkable place, in at least the sense of being worth a remark; not always for desirable reasons it must be said, although its beauty and hospitality have never gone unnoticed either.  Most contemporary mentions of Sarajevo refer to the siege, ethnic cleansing and war criminals, relying on a well-established narrative of a vibrant, cosmopolitan city torn apart by ethnic hatred.  Before the war, tourists who made it far enough inland eagerly shared stories of a beautifully mixed society, sentiments which reached a global audience during the 1984 Winter Olympics.  The image of a multicultural society, established in the imagination of people around the world, eventually came to supply the war’s prologue.  These renderings, true as they are, form the inescapable context within which the people of Sarajevo relate to one another.

In 1993, Jean-Luc Nancy, a French philosopher, engaged with these narratives at their point of inflection, as the pre-war stories became obsolete and the post-war stories were being constructed.  He was aware that they could be read in many different ways, depending on the shape of the imagined and idealized community that lies in the back of one’s mind.   So when a French magazine asked to write an essay eulogizing the melangé (mixture) of Sarajevo, he spent the essay criticizing the editor’s framing of the community as a mixture of distinct cultures, calling it ‘Eulogy for the Mêlée’ instead, intentionally rejecting the word melangé. Thinking of societies in terms of  melangés is to see them as a stable mixture of distinct identities, while mêlées call a continuous, collective activity to mind, in which everyday life draws different people together. What’s possible for Bosnia will always depend on what ‘community’ means; a mix of three crystal-clear identities won’t ever come together, but focusing on the activity of living together can draw attention to the immateriality of that fact.

Both directions of Sarajevo’s past resonate with the history of many other places and peoples: the rhythmic attraction and repulsion of peoples who are subtly separate, sharing the same spaces. At one moment, relations between groups are stable, even good, but a reckoning too often follows. People pull apart, kill and die.  And then, reconciliations begin again, either in earnest or in bad faith.  In his novel The Bridge on the Drina, Ivo Andrić described this rhythm:

Measured by the eyes of a contemporary, those years seemed comparatively peaceful and serene, although they had their share of anxieties and fears and knew droughts and floods and epidemics and all manner of exciting events.  Only all these things came in their own time, in short spasms among long lulls.

In his telling, these unexceptional years are a calm that prepares for a storm that breaks when it, not the world nor any one in it, is ready.  And when it does arrive, Andrić writes of “exceptional events, which gave their name to the year in which they took place.”

During those years of conflict, the stable identities of a melangé are an organizing principle, imaginary yet real in its effects, which structures the chaotic violence. In such conditions, the identity a vulnerable person bears, Bosniak, Croat or Serb, is a guide that determines one’s actions. During the ‘peaceful and serene’ years, the sharp borders and social importance of those abstract categories had faded, even if they were never irrelevant.  Nancy argues the language of stable ‘cultures,’ ready and waiting to undergo “a fusion or a thoroughgoing osmosis,” sustained the relevance of identity.  If cultural identities can be blended together like paint, they must first exist on their own.  There’s no contradiction, then, between seeing Sarajevo as a glorious melangé of Bosniak, Croat and Serb culture on the one hand and thoughts of purifying the population on the other, banishing some but not others.

Even on the lips of the most ardent liberals, talk of multiculturalism that is undergirded by a vision of melangé will always play in the same essentialism that racists and nationalists also deploy. Nancy’s problem with thinking of societies as mixtures, with liberal conceits of ‘melting pots’ and slogans like ‘stronger together,’ was the image of cultures and communities in the background.  At a time when snipers were targeting children and mortars were launched at weddings, a philosopher’s worries about the way that fundamentally progressive people were speaking and thinking might seem ill-placed.  Questioning “this well-intentioned discourse” doesn’t put those who promulgate it on the same moral plane as those with the worst of intentions: who divide, deport or kill in the name of “the simplistic eulogy of purity.” On the contrary, it’s meant to point towards better avenues of resisting racists and xenophobes by always remaining reflexive about how we see ourselves and others.

Soon after Nancy’s essay was published, the Dayton Accords affirmed the importance of criticizing liberal thinking. The agreement bound Bosnia together by ceasefire and dictated a constitution that could only preserve a perpetually precarious peace.  The ‘peoples’ it mentions never approved the founding document, but several heads of state did.  Not only Serbia’s Slobodan Milošević and Croatia’s Franjo Tuđman, of all people, but also Bill Clinton, a few European powers, and the European Union itself.  This committee had met in Ohio during the fall of 1995 to end the fighting—and did so, more quickly than expected.

The price of a quick peace was a country where a common refrain is ‘there are no Bosnians in Bosnia’ (or Herzegovina for that matter). Rather, there are Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs, the three ‘constituent ethnicities’ mentioned in the constitution.  There are three presidents, one to represent each ethnic bloc, and seats in governing bodies are similarly apportioned.  The Serbian President controls Republika Srpska, an autonomous region comprising nearly half the country.  These leaders take the exclusive nature of their office seriously.  Just last year, after winning the Serbian seat on the presidency, Milorad Dodik put it bluntly: “I am going there, to this presidency, to work above all and only for the interests of Serbs.”

I was in Sarajevo during those elections, described to me as only slightly more divisive than usual. People seemed to be used to it, and therefore never too ruffled by political events.  The river was lined with photographs of mostly indistinguishable-looking men, all competing for a seat in one of a dozen possible bodies.  On Maršala Tita, the main pedestrian street, people streamed past the booths set up by political parties—only the rare citizen stopped to speak with those inside.  The election passed over an unremarkable day, with 53% turnout.  What was expected to happen more or less happened, as expected.

The absurdities of reifying cultural identities into legal objects were known at the outset.  In the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, everyone declares the ethnicity of their vote, thereby choosing whether to vote in the Croatian or Bosniak election.  Croats have long complained about this arrangement, since it means Bosniaks can swing elections for the Croatian President. In Republika Srpska, everyone votes for the Serbian presidency, whether or not they like it.

An even more flagrant issue emerges if one asks in what election those who are not Croatian, Bosniak, or Serbian should vote.  There are many Roma in Bosnia, and Jewish people as well, who lie outside of the boundaries of the constituent peoples.  The constitution provides for their inclusion in the polity of Bosnia, albeit within parentheses: “…Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs, as constituent peoples (along with Others).”  The syntactic exclusion is mirrored in the institutions of the country: no Presidents represent these groups, nor are they guaranteed any legislative seats.  Even the simulacrum of a Bosnian identity, constituted by some mixture of three ‘constituent people,’ needs Others against which to define itself.

Rejecting substantial identities requires us “to speak of mêlée: an action rather than a substance.”  The image of a melangé encourages one to imagine something material, composed of so much of this group and a certain amount of those people.  In contrast, understanding community as a continuous activity makes positing identities as unchanging objects impossible.  It frees those born into identities from the pressure to conform to, and defend, something definite.  Nancy repeats his point again and again, that community “happens, it takes place.” Everyday activities are the ever shifting locale through which communities are built and rebuilt: “there is mêlée, crisscrossing, weaving, exchange, sharing, and it is never a single thing, nor is it ever the same.”  Different people live together, forming relationships and experiencing conflict, changing others and being changed by others; each identity always depends on other identities.

On their own, the names ‘Bosniak,’ ‘Croatian’ and ‘Serbian’ don’t denote any one thing.  It’s true there are many traditions, foods, habits, that could be called Bosniak or Serbian, but these don’t cohere into a stable cultural essence.  What belongs to whom is contested, constantly changing, just like the recipes and the contemporary expressions of age-old traditions. Of course, there’s no test capable of determining who belongs to which ethnicity.  Even if such a test were possible, it would find virtually no one who belongs unambiguously to a single group; multiple ethnicities permeate most family trees.

This is true of my biography, as well.  My Croatian last name, my Baka’s Bosniak family, and my Canadian upbringing each presents its own issues for comprehending what happened to Yugoslavia.  The war’s ambiguous proximity to my personal history, removed yet not too far, shapes my thinking about it.  I cannot speak the language, which cannot but saddle this essay with the insecurity of not understanding all the speech around me, not knowing what would be said in Bosnian and not said in English.  But I’m not a disinterested observer either; my roots in Canada are not deep, and I’ve always felt especially connected to Croatia, despite all the other nationalities in my family tree.  I can understand how issues of language, religion, and custom came together to create conflicts caused by perceived interests and circumstances, but not their emotional force, how they engendered such hateful fighting.  It’s not surprising, since all I have are stories, told in translation.

The haze of the mêlée (what am I?) is dispersed when essential features are forced onto indistinct identities. Necessary and sufficient conditions for belonging to a group establish boundaries, control entry, and afford privileges (albeit, only when someone’s credentials are pure enough).  Possessing the wrong essence can legitimize mistreatment, of course.  On these grounds, I am a Croat and nothing more. Those standards, and the purity they purport to engender, are nothing but empty lies.  Empty because a pure identity casts nearly everything as profane, from which it follows that nothing and no one is pure under close examination.  Lies because Serbia is not, cannot be, isolated; it is bordered by Croatia and Bosnia. The unimpeached Croatian, Serbian, or Bosniak identity “is nothing at all, and it drags the other along in order to carry it into the abyss,” as Nancy wrote of the war.

I’m bound to ask: Was it ever any different? Did a mêlée of cultures ever occur in Sarajevo?  The war during the ‘90s was not the only interruption of peaceful coexistence. During WWII, just before Tito’s Yugoslavia, the Nazi-aligned Ustaše perpetrated a holocaust against Serbs and Jewish people, and the Chetniks committed mass war crimes in the areas they controlled. And before that, there were insurrections and rebellions over land and taxes and religious rights, pitting one group against another.

After WWII, many people returned to their shattered homes, encouraged by the resolute anti-nationalism of the communist partisans.  Since the ‘90s, however, the entwined political and economic importance of identity has kept populations apart. Where Sarajevo was 50% Bosniak before the siege, there is now a commanding majority of around 80%. Most of the pre-war population of Serbians have relocated to East Sarajevo, across the border with Republika Srpska. East Sarajevo is 95% Serbian. Dayton managed to arrest a headlong sprint into the abyss of impossible purity, but the agreement also closed off many avenues of retreat from it.

Striving for ethnic purity, explicitly through war or implicitly through law, leeches what is good from the messy and contradictory reality of cultures.  Returning again to Nancy’s words, if cultures develop through “mixed gesture[s]: …affront, confront, transform, divert, develop, recompose, combine, rechannel,” then each of these fundamentally relational acts invalidates any “pure and simple origin” story.  One is hard-pressed to think of any Balkan cultural practices developed solely by Bosniaks, Croats or Serbs.  Everyone has specialties and unique customs, but these divergences are only made possible by having others to diverge from.  Just as importantly, they come from distinctions between Dalmatians and Zagrebers, Sarajevans and those from Travnik; that is, from internal differences that make an ideal of purity untenable.

A way forward, if there is any, depends on recognizing both the impotence and importance of these categories.  This claim sounds like one a French philosopher would make, skirting contradiction and offering no clear prescription.  And it is.  One cannot easily square the violence experienced on account of an identity with how unreal the basis of that mistreatment is.  Our societies impose these identities, we learn to identify with them, and our violence, outward and inward, holds them in place.  Institutions track and act on identities, police their boundaries, purge their center.  We can do this, this can be done to us, because we are born into places with resident identities, fragile and prone to manipulation.

Since we cannot leave collective identities behind, Nancy argues that “the whole task… is to do right by identities, but without ceding anything to their frenzy, to their presuming to be substantial identities.”  The trick is to do as little as possible; when action is necessary, it must be careful to remove barriers without replacing them.  Doing right by identities is a matter of letting identities be, change, and come together as they will.  It’s impossible for this to happen in Bosnia, as things stand.  The system of ‘constituent identities’ molds them into fixed and unchangeable idols, around which the Bosnian state must nervously dance.

As I was working on this essay, I tried to go to the opening ceremony of the European Youth Olympic games.  I failed in the end, because the stadium–the same that opened the 1984 Olympics–was full well in advance of the festivities.  Not full as in every seat was taken; the steps and corridors were also spoken for, children lifted and passed over fences after the gates were closed.  We watched the beginning from a hill just outside, together with a few thousand tardy people.  The wordless national anthem played, the Bosniak and Serbian Presidents were  roundly booed upon entry, and fireworks were let off.  The loudest cheer, for the 1984 mascot Vućko, made the nostalgia palpable.

During the ‘84 Olympics, a locution, still heard today, would have been ubiquitous.  When asked about national questions, what language one spoke, whether ćevapi is a Bosnian or Serbian food, the response would have been: ‘It’s our language, our food.’  The undefined scope of the possessive pronoun dodges the question, refuses to indulge its ethnic basis.  At the time, the Communist government enforced a policy of ‘Brotherhood and Unity,’ which banned displays of ethnic nationalism.  It was wise to avoid flouting the ban, especially with foreigners around.  Despite the evasion, it was, and remains, the most honest answer to questions like these.

Unlike in 1984, two cities hosted the 2019 Youth Olympics rather one: Sarajevo and, over the border with Republika Srpska, East Sarajevo.  The hopefulness of the slogan, ‘Two Cities, One Dream,’ falls asunder with the realization that the split cities, one Bosniak, one Serb, reify the divisions that make calling a dream ‘ours’ impossible.


Cover photo credit: Valinor Photography/flickr/some rights reserved

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Adrian Pecotić

Adrian Pecotić is a freelance writer based in Sarajevo. He's written for Foreign Policy, Mental Health Today, and The Blizzard Quarterly. He also writes a blog called 'Synapses, Sanity, Society' for Psychology Today.