Kindle edition, published by AmazonCrossing, Seattle
Originally published by Remzi Kitabevi, Istanbul, 1999
Reviewed for Peacehawks by Jamie Arbuckle
The author describes her book succinctly and accurately in her introduction:
This book tells the story of the heroic and honorable people who survived the horrendous war in Bosnia that took place from April 5, 1992 to February 26, 1996, during which Sarajevo was held under siege for 1,395 days, without regular electricity, communications or water. Ten thousand six hundred Bosniaks – of whom 1,600 were children – lost their lives. Those who survived were pressured to accept the Dayton Agreement. With this treaty, 51 per cent of Bosnia was left to Bosnia and Herzegovina, while the Serbs, who comprised only 34 percent of the population before the war, gained 49 per cent of the land. (location 31).
She has thus told us both what this book is: a vivid portrayal of the events in Yugoslavia (as it still was) in 1991 and 92, seen through the eyes of the Bosniak community; and what it is not, which is history.
This book may be read and enjoyed for what it is: an entertaining and well-written novel. It is best in depicting the slow motion horror of the unveiling of the malevolence and cruelty of a very few men, who were determined to wreck a country with no idea of what was to replace it. The effects of this nihilism on the lives of common people, and the difficulty of replacing a society which has been so thoughtlessly and deliberately wrecked, is something we need to hear and not forget.
On the other hand, novels are fiction, and will vary in their usefulness as history. One who is genuinely interested in the history of these events will need to look elsewhere, because there are some gaps here. First, the importance of the relations between the Bosniaks and the Turks is in my view exaggerated, and my suspicions are fueled when I notice how this exaggeration seems to reflect a Turkish government policy about which I am also skeptical. Second, an entirely scurrilous attack on the UN and on one UN officer repeats the scapegoating of 20 years ago. Neither of these apparent plot devices are essential to the story, and together they seriously undermine the credibility of this book.
Milosevic Cries Havoc
Milosevic was to make a speech in Pristina to mark the 600th anniversary of the Battle of the Field of Blackbirds on 28 June 1389, in which it was popularly believed that the Ottoman forces had routed the Serb forces under their king, Lazar, and thereby initiated nearly six centuries of Ottoman suzerainty. Days before the event, rent-a-riot Serbs from outside Kosovo had moved in, had loaded trucks with rocks which were then positioned around the city and with which the police were assaulted, deliberately provoking a counter-attack by the police which Milosevic would use to inflame the Serbs.
Ms. Kulin portrays with searing intensity the emergence of the monster who was Milosevic:
The president had sent Milosevic not to further inflame the Serbs but to placate them. Furthermore, there were no incidents of Serbs being beaten or anything of the sort. But Milosevic already understood how far the winds of Kosovo Serbian nationalism could take him if properly harnessed. Ultimately it didn’t matter that the words leaving Milosevic’s mouth were a fabrication. It only mattered that they were designed to inflame. (location 461)
Ironically, even as Milosevic was assuring the Serbs (in Kosovo) that “on these lands nobody can dare to mistreat you,” each and every Kosovo (Albanian) policeman on duty that day was being pummeled, stoned and abused by Serbs (location 465).
The images on TV don’t do it justice … You had to be there to feel that incredible electricity. A million people had fallen under his spell. Milosevic seemed to have possessed the very souls of his listeners. … He’s an amazing actor. … Mark this day as the day Milosevic ignited Serbian nationalism in a speech marking the six hundredth anniversary of the defeat of the Serbian kingdom to (sic) the Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Kosovo (location 759).
And, as always seems to happen, Milosevic spawned and supported monstrous dependents:
Meanwhile, Radovan Karadzic, who realized that Bosnia and Herzegovina would have no choice but to declare its independence, had begun systematically to implement in Bosnia Hezegovina the tactics then being used in Croatia. The Serb Volunteer Guard under his control, Arkan’s Tigers, were now battle hardened. (location 1239).
It only needed the addition of Ratko Mladic to this bestiary, and the cast was complete and the stage set for the seriatim outrages of Dubrovnik, Vukovar, Sarajevo, Zenica, Srebrenica. Eventually, and much too late for it to matter, Milosevic would realize that he could scarcely avoid his responsibilities in these affairs, and he would resort to the common excuse of those who lose control of the dogs they have let slip: the “I can’t control my people” defense, which in courts since Nuremburg has been judged to be no defense at all.
Of course not all the monsters were Serbs or Bosnian Serbs, and when the Chief of Staff of UNPROFOR, Major-General Lewis Mackenzie, said (outraging the UN as well as many Yugoslavians) that “there was enough blame to go around,” he was stating the simple truth.
If there is a point to this, it must be the pointlessness of negotiations with those who have so little respect for the process of managing conflict non-violently. We Peacehawks have taught negotiations for several years, and we have from our field and from our classroom experiences come to realize that there is a time for negotiations, and there is a time when negotiations are somewhere between inappropriate and impossible. And there are some who will never be negotiating partners. It is essential that negotiators and mediators recognize these individuals and these situations, and be prepared to progress by other means.
In their largely fruitless attempts at negotiating with the dogs of war, the UN and other international and regional bodies and individuals were hampered by the traditional usages of diplomacy, often manifested in an exaggerated respect for the leaders of the conflicted parties. Ex-President Jimmy Carter held a black-tie dinner for Karadzic in December 1992, and Yasusi Akashi, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General and Head of the UN mission in Yugoslavia, addressed him as “Excellency.” This was not the language, and that was not the time for such language, for the Milosevics and Karadzics – the only language they could or would understand would not be spoken in their hearing until 1995, when the U.S. dragged NATO into the act. As Karadzic said in Belgrade in July of 1993:
They (the Bosniaks and the Bosnian Croatians) are militarily defeated, and we have no urgency to negotiate with them.
We should have listened to that, and then acted accordingly. And sooner.
Geography of the Heart: Bosniak Relations with Turks and Turkey
Ms. Kulin makes much of the cultural and sometimes familial connection between the Bosniaks and the Turks, between Bosnia and Turkey:
In the early 1970s, she and her family had gone to Istanbul to visit relatives her parents hadn’t seen for years. … Istanbul had so enchanted her and her family that they returned several times a year after that, always staying in the summer house of their relatives … . … Even today she still treasured her memories of those wonderful holidays … … (she) started learning Turkish … (location 242).
The father had said, ‘I felt so sorry when I became unable to send our relatives in Istanbul their fair share of the income from the property. For years I’d been sending them their portion of the revenues and various provisions, never once neglecting to ship off canisters of Travnik cheese. (location 395).
People had gone their own way – their homelands, languages and customs were all different now – and yet they were still bound together the way all the strands in a thickly woven braid belong to the same head of hair. (location 1330)
I and others remember this somewhat differently.
When Radovan Karadzic wished to be especially insulting to Bosniaks, he would call them Turks, and they would usually react in fury at the deliberate slighting of their Yugoslavian citizenship. Their forefathers had, they would say, in the course of nearly six centuries of Ottoman occupation, converted to the Moslem religion. They were no more Turkish than Indians who might have converted to Christianity were English. Usually, Bosniaks did not speak Turkish; Turks in Bosnia usually did not speak Serbo-Croatian. By the 1990s, there were seemingly very few of the latter.
Why is this linkage, which is of little importance to the story being told here, of such obvious importance to this writer? There are some clues we might follow to see just why.
Ms. Kulin is Turkish, and she is writing and being published in Istanbul.
A recent report by a Bosnian “think tank”, Populari, offers
a study of relations between two countries, Turkey and Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), their specific political relations rooted in deep historical, cultural and religious ties, political flirtation, and economic trends that (un)follow (sic) this seemingly idyllic exchange. It examines this relatively recently re-discovered mutual affection and results of it. It also considers the influence that Turkey spreads in BiH through the cultural and educational activities and the impact of it, onto Bosnian lifestyle.
Since the early 90s, Turkey has been increasingly present in the Balkans, especially in BiH. Gradually, first providing humanitarian assistance to the war ravaged BiH, and later on investing heavily into Ottoman cultural heritage renovation and education, Turkey has managed to become one of the most influential international actors in BiH. [i]
It is clearly the intent of the Erdogan government to maximize a latent Turkish influence in the former empire; as Erdogan said in his election victory speech in March of this year:
I wholeheartedly greet our 81 provinces as well as sister and friendly capitals and cities of the world […]. I first want to express my absolute gratitude to my God for such a victory and a meaningful result. I thank my friends and brothers all over the world who prayed for our victory. I thank my brothers in Palestine who saw our victory as their victory. I thank my brothers in Egypt who are struggling for democracy and who understand our struggle very well. I thank my brothers in the Balkans, in Bosnia, in Macedonia, in Kosovo and in all cities in Europe who celebrate our victory with the same joy we have here.[ii]
Just how sincerely this is all meant, and how effective it might be as policy, is being severely tested right now in events on the Turkish-Syrian border. The report cited takes a very positive line on the degree and nature of Turkish support for Turkish cultural descendants in the disjecta membra of the former empire, but the evidence is not strong, and is possibly exaggerated by Populari, by Ms. Kulin – and by Mr. Erdogan.
Perhaps we need to be reminded, ever so gently, of something of the information environment in Turkey. In 2013, and for the second consecutive year, Turkey was the world’s leading jailer of journalists, followed closely by Iran and China. The three in fact accounted for more than half of all journalists imprisoned around the world in 2013.[iii] We don’t want to make too much of this, but we shouldn’t ignore it either.
Premature Recognitions: Cleanly Leaping
Hans-Dietrich Genscher had been the German Interior Minister from 1969-74, and in 1974 became the Foreign Minister, a post he held until 1992. In 1991 he was also the Chairman of the Conference on Cooperation and Security in Europe (which in 1994 assumed its current title of Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe – the OSCE). He was in 1991 already the longest serving national cabinet minister in the world, and he was soon to demonstrate that he knew almost nothing about how either Europe, or for that matter, the world, really worked.
Genscher was under the illusion that, if Croatia were recognized as a sovereign state, Europe and the United Nations would compel recognition of its borders, and the threat of civil war would be averted. Ignoring warnings from nearly everyone, including the Secretary General of the United Nations and the President of Bosnia Herzegovina, that this would not be the case, he informed the EU that Germany would proceed with the recognition of Croatia and Slovenia, and did so in 1991. Despite their misgivings, the Europeans felt compelled to follow suit. Ms. Kulin takes up the sorry tale:
President Alija Izetbegovic was doing everything in his power to delay the international recognition of the separatist movements of Croatia and Slovenia. The Bosnian president was well aware that such premature recognition would put Bosnia in a difficult spot. Bosnia would have no choice but to secede from Yugoslavia the moment Croatian and Slovenian independence were recognized, thereby risking civil war with the ethnic Serbs living within the borders of Bosnia. There was only one other person who shared Izetbegovic’s concern: Lord Carrington, the man charged with bringing peace to Yugoslavia (location 1228).
Carrington knew that without careful consideration, planning and mutual approval from the remaining republics, official recognition of Croatia and Slovenia on an international platform would lead to all of Yugoslavia being divided between Croatia and Serbia – as well as an end to the aspirations of the other peoples of Yugoslavia. (location 1236)
We will note elsewhere that unrealistic expectations are quite frequently fatal to the peace process. There is an equally forbidding corollary to that: when the regional organizations, in this case the EU and the CSCE, either do not act, and/or mismanage the situation, outsiders, in this case the United Nations and the United States, can only try belatedly to pick up the pieces. This is in fact the story of the involvement of the UN and of the Americans in, especially but not only, the former Yugoslavia. In Bosnia, the pieces are still scattered on the ground around Sarajevo, and re-assembly of what did not need to be so broken has, more than 20 years later, scarcely begun.
Scapegoating the UN and MacKenzie: A Great Game if It’s Played Fast
Ms. Kulin has only contempt for the UN peacekeepers, especially one of the best known of them:
Lewis MacKenzie, a Canadian, was the commander of the UN’s peacekeeping force in Sarajevo. Even during the bloodiest days of the war, he’d failed to grasp the severity of the Bosniak’s situation. In his eyes, Izetbegovic was an unreasonable politician who was seeking to get the UN forces embroiled in a hot war and who was paranoid enough to believe that the Serbs and the Croats planned to do nothing less that wipe Bosnia from the map. Trained for war, MacKenzie was inept when it came to poltical maneurvering. He’d badly botched things when Izetbegovic was kidnapped, wasn’t particularly fond of either the Muslim Bosniaks or their Muslim president, and was known to rue the day he’d been posted to Sarajevo. Rumours had been circulating that MacKenzie had been receiving funds from Serbian-American lobbyists (location 3581).
It is an uncomfortable semi-truth that the conflict in Yugoslavia was not taken entirely seriously at the highest levels of the United Nations. That of course is not the full story: most UN officials take their responsibilities and their various missions quite seriously, although the most experienced will unavoidably engage in comparisons which may seem at the local level to be entirely odious. Thus when Secretary General Bhoutros-Bhoutros Gali infamously said on his only visit to Sarajevo, “Bosnia is a rich man’s war. I understand your frustration, but you have a situation here that is better than ten other places in the world. … I can give you a list,” he did neither himself nor the organization any credit – but then he seldom did. Placing the UN force HQ in Bosnia, we learned much later, was the New York response to the Bosnian request for a preventive deployment (as was just a few months later authorized for Macedonia). It is indeed hard to argue that those responsible were taking these obvious dangers in Bosnia seriously – or, for that matter, handling them competently. The Europeans (whose patch this really was and is) didn’t handle things any better but, by staying out, they largely avoided Ms. Kulin’s censure. It is at any rate unjust and inaccurate to scapegoat a relatively junior appointment like MacKenzie, as this author has done.
MacKenzie was billed as Canada’s most experienced peacekeeper, no small distinction in one of the world’s leading peacekeeping troop contributors. He had served four tours with the UN force in Cyprus (UNFICYP), had been in the Middle East with the UN Emergency Force (UNEF) in 1973, and in that same year been with the disarmament and control commission in Vietnam. He had been a year in Central America with the UN Observer Group there. The UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in Yugoslavia was thus his eighth peacekeeping mission. Additionally, he had certainly been, like most peacekeepers, trained for war, and had served in Canada’s NATO brigade in Germany. [iv]
MacKenzie very much wanted to go to the field with UNPROFOR when it was forming, but was told by the Commander of the Canadian Army that it was time for someone else to have a turn. Sadly disappointed, he accepted that ruling. However, that was not the final word, and he was eventually asked to accept the post when an earlier Canadian appointment turned out not to be suitable. As MacKenzie put it (in his book, Peacekeeper: “As a rule, Canadians like serving on peacekeeping duty;” he cited the excitement and the camaradie as especially attractive.[v]
MacKenzie, as the Chief of Staff of the force, was the third senior officer in the force, but there were two civilians who considered themselves senior to him, so he might have been considered fifth in line from the throne.
The first UN officers arrived in Yugoslavia on 8 March, 1992, MacKenzie among them. The mandate, based on the Vance Plan, authorized the UN to deploy only in Croatia, and only in the four agreed UN Protection Areas (UNPAs) which were predominantly Serb areas on the Bosnian and Serb borders, in Croatia. The UN blundered badly in placing its HQ in Sarajevo, nearly 400 kilometers from its actual operational deployment areas. The officers tried to argue New York out of this folly, but to no avail. As MacKenzie wrote, “ … the UN had no mandate to get involved in the affairs of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH); our responsibilities were restricted to the command of the 14,000 man force in Croatia.” Nevertheless, as MacKenzie observed, “As for as each side was concerned, we were there to help them and only them”.
The kidnapping of the President of BiH was a murky and confusing incident which caught every one by surprise, but was made much worse by an out-of-control and frequently drunken bunch of Muslim hooligans, calling themselves a Territorial Defence Force, who killed many Serbs and took 200 hostages, from the very convoy which was trying to evacuate Izetbegovic from the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) barracks in which he was being held. Mackenzie was caught up in this almost by accident, but by his courage and coolness prevented the Bosniaks from accidentally killing their own president.
Eventually, the UN force HQ was withdrawn from Sarajevo, and MacKenzie left with them on 17 May 1992; he had been there about nine weeks.
There had remained behind in BiH a group of unarmed UN military observers, and through them the UN was kept informed of the steadily worsening humanitarian situation, especially in the besieged Sarajevo. But there was no mandate, and no resources of any kind, to do anything whatsoever about that. Offstage, however, negotiations did finally reach an agreement that the airport in Sarajevo would be placed under UN control and re-opened for reception and delivery of humanitarian relief supplies. MacKenzie was appointed the commander of the new Sector Sarajevo, and returned there on 10 June.
There is no worse threat to the success of any operation than the frustrations of unrealistic expectations. This author has made it clear that her Bosniaks thought the UN, and especially MacKenzie, had been sent to save them. The very real limitations of his mandate and his resources – he was only responsible for the airport, and he had only a single infantry battalion – are beyond their ken or caring. There then began a deliberate campaign of scapegoating the UN in general and MacKenzie in particular. A letter purporting to be from the “Citizens of Dobrinja”, a small community near the airport which had been the scene of frequent heavy fighting which had often caused the closure of the airport, accused him of war crimes, and of impartiality. As a direct result of these scurrilous attacks, UN soldiers began to be threatened – that is, threatened more than usually, by Bosniaks who had obviously been told that MacKenzie was to blame for their plight. This bothered MacKenzie more than the personal scapegoating, that soldiers under his command were being threatened because of him, and he offered his resignation to his force commander (who was by now in Zagreb).
MacKenzie left Sarajevo on July 31st, and shortly thereafter left UNPROFOR. He had been in the former Yugoslavia five months.
In 1914, the French Senator Baron d’Estournelles de Constant, writing in the Introduction to The Report of the International Commission to Inquire into the Causes and Conduct of the Balkan Wars, observed that:
I am aware of course from experience that in the Balkans, as in some other countries, that I know of, it is impossible to avoid the reproach of a party, if one does not take sides with it against another, and conversely.
Conclusions – Mind the Gaps
Ms. Kulin has written a fine novel: it is fast paced, but takes the time to inform us in some depth of events as they unfold.
She lets us down, however, with her ill-informed scapegoating of the UN. Her personal attack on Lewis MacKenzie is particularly inappropriate and inaccurate. She too closely repeats the negative propaganda of those days, propaganda nearly entirely refuted since, but dredged up here afresh. As Tony Blair is reported to have said to Alistair Campell: “You know, when you get it wrong, you really get it wrong!”
In that same vein, a largely notional relationship between Bosniaks and Turks is here given a prominence it seems not to deserve. As the issue has so little to do with this story and the times it presents, it is hard to understand why such a shaky edifice has been thrown up. Perhaps it is telling us more about this relationship today than it was in fact then; perhaps it is more about what both groups imagine, and wish, than what is in fact.
We have to wonder about the author’s purposes in surfacing these two issues at all.
You will, we know, read this book carefully, and you will mind those gaps.
[i] See A Political Romance: Relations between Turkey and Bosnia and Herzegovina. by Populari, at www.populari.com, May 2014 (accessed 30.10.2014)
[ii] Op cit
[iii] See http://cpj.org/reports/2013/12/second-worst-year-on-record-for-jailed-journalists.php (accessed 31.10.2014)
[iv] Full disclosure: I am also Canadian, also trained for war, also a fairly experienced peacekeeper, and I also was in HQ UNPROFOR in 1992.
[v] I also wanted very badly to go, was also told no, swallowed that, and was then suddenly sent out at very short notice. I was overjoyed at my appointment, not least when I learnt of the fury of the Command Medical Officer that I had been allowed to go to a war zone (which Bosnia was then not yet).