Books on Bosnia & Herzegovina
163 - (24/12/10)
A very composite country
Most countries are composite, but the republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina is
extremely so. It is an odd construct in South-Eastern Europe, on the Adriatic
Formerly one of the six federal units constituting Yugoslavia, Bosnia and
Herzegovina gained its independence during the course of the 1990s. It did so
during a horrific war in 1992-95. That it did not last longer and was settled in
a durable fashion is largely due to a man that deserves the rare accolade of a
true statesman, Richard Holbrooke. He should have been the US Secretary of State
in recent Democratic administrations; but politics dictated otherwise.
Richard Holbrooke dies
President Barack Obama has led tributes to the work of the US diplomat, Richard
Holbrooke, who died following heart surgery on December 13 at the age of 69. Mr
Obama called him a "true giant of American foreign policy."
Mr Holbrooke helped broker the 1995 Dayton agreement that ended the Bosnian war.
More recently, he was US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Both Afghan
President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani leader Asif Ali Zardari said they were
saddened by his death.
He had the right enemies too. The Taliban said he had failed to survive the
pressure of the US-led occupation of Afghanistan. Yet curiously enough, as in
Bosnia, he was for negotiating with ‘the nasties’.
Nicknamed the Bulldozer for his muscular style, Mr Holbrooke once said he had no
qualms about "negotiating with people who do immoral things", if it served
efforts for peace.
In the case of Bosnia, it may have helped that he had a Hungarian wife, who knew
the Balkans intimately.
The architect of the Dayton Agreement
Holbrooke was the chief architect of the 1995 Dayton peace accords which ended
the Bosnian War.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron said Mr Holbrooke's "force of personality and
his negotiating skill combined to drive through the Dayton peace agreement and
put a halt to the fighting" in the former Yugoslav republic.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who served as an envoy to Bosnia in the
early 1990s, described Mr Holbrooke as "truly a giant among diplomats of our
time", and "one of the best and the brightest."
Even Mr Holbrooke's main opponent in the war in Bosnia, former Bosnian Serb
leader Radovan Karadzic, expressed his "sadness and regret". Mr Karadzic, who is
on trial for war crimes at The Hague, issued a statement saying he had been
hoping to call him as a witness.
An actress to the rescue
Angelina Jolie is among the most intelligent and politically aware of Hollywood
actresses; her humanitarian campaigning has taken her all over the world, and
she has a particular interest in the plight of refugees. It would seem
appropriate, therefore, that her directorial debut will be a film set during the
Bosnian war, with Bosnian actors and actresses playing several of the leading
roles (as well as, apparently, the Croatian Hollywood actor Rade Serbedzija).
For all the publicity that the Bosnian war received, it is often forgotten that
Bosnia effectively lost the war, and that the Bosnian state remains crippled to
this day by its outcome; its people still suffering from the effects of an
unjust peace settlement. One would think that one of the world’s most famous
actresses showing such an interest in the country would be something warmly
received by its people.
Yet Jolie has had to overcome a degree of unfounded hostility and suspicion
before being allowed to film in Bosnia. Her permit to film was initially revoked
by the minister of culture in the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Gavrilo
Grahovac, formally on the grounds that she had failed to submit a copy of the
script to the ministry. This came, however, after complaints about the film from
Women Victims of War, an organisation representing wartime rape victims, which
claimed to have learned that the storyline involved a Muslim rape-victim falling
in love with a Serb rapist. The organisation’s president Bakira Hasecic, herself
a rape victim, said that such a storyline would be an ‘an outrageous and
humiliating misrepresentation of our ordeal’.
However, neither Hasecic nor any member of her organisation had actually read
the script, and it was suggested that the rumour may have originated with TV
Pink, a Serbian television network formerly associated with Slobodan Milosevic’s
wife Mira Markovic. TV Pink’s owner Zeljko Mitrovic was already reported to have
been hostile to Jolie’s film project on the grounds that it was ‘biased against
Serbs’, and some Bosnian officials have been horrified that such a source should
have led the country to snub Jolie. Emir Hadzihafizbegovic, minister of culture
of the Sarajevo Canton and himself a well known actor, asked ‘Is this how we
thank Angelina Jolie… for treating a Bosnian tragedy that has already been
forgotten by the world… for hiring five or six Bosnian actors in her movie?’ He
also said that it was ‘grotesque that the owner of a television network that was
created with Milosevic’s financial backing was now concerned about the dignity
of Bosnian women who were victims of war.’ Hadzihafizbegovic made clear that he
was ‘going to give a shooting permit even if they have to arrest me.’
Grahovac told Bosnian radio ‘They no longer have the authorisation to shoot in
Bosnia. They will have it if they send us the script with a story which will be
different from what we have been told by people who read it.’ This amounted to a
grave infringement on freedom of expression, as the prominent anti-nationalist
Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic made clear: ‘In this case we are dealing with
censorship, which is unacceptable coming from the minister of culture, whom
reports quoted as saying that he would ban shooting of that movie anywhere, not
just in Bosnia, because the movie offends the feelings of victims… Such an
important decision was based on rumours.’
Jolie, for her part, urged the Bosnians not to succumb to ‘unfair pressure based
on wrong information’. As she said, ‘The choice to make a film about this area
and set in this time in history was also to remind people of what happened not
so long ago and to give attention to the survivors of the war.’ She added that
she would like to talk with representatives of the rape victims’ association ‘to
personally clear up any misunderstandings about this project.’
Eventually, permission for Jolie to film was reinstated, but only after her
production had been treated in a manner that bordered on harassment. In the
words of the film’s Bosnian producer, Edin Sarkic, ‘At no other place in the
world would they ask for the script. One is required to give a synopsis, not a
script.’ There remains the possibility that the filming may be disrupted by
protests. The whole affair represents a minor disgrace for patriotic Bosnians; a
pathetic attempt at censorship inspired by unfounded rumour that only
illustrates the unserious character of the Bosnian state and its officials, and
their whimsical approach to both procedure and freedom of expression.
While one sympathises with the feelings of Hasecic and the members of her
organisation, a democratic state has no business suppressing a film just because
they deem it to be politically incorrect. As far back as 1974, it was possible
for the film The Night Porter, starring Charlotte Rampling and Dirk Bogarde, to
be shown in Western cinemas; it was a story of a consensual sadomasochistic
relationship between a former Nazi SS guard and a former female camp inmate he
had previously abused during the war. It was controversial, but it was not
The struggle for Bosnia is far from over; there are indications that the
conflict there may heat up again in the near future. Currently, it is the
government in Republika Srpska that is pursuing a clever, sustained campaign to
win foreign support. This is not a time for Bosnia to be alienating its friends.