“Whom I served—by him I was buried!”
—14th-Century Bosnian Inscription
“For now I began to get the news from Croatia,” wrote Mrs. Ruth Mitchell, an American in Dubrovnik, in May of 1941. “I could not believe a quarter of them. Unfortunately, I was soon to know that they were a weak understatement of the truth. Men were soon to arrive in Dubrovnik itself, hung with strings of Serbian tongues and with bowls of Serbian eyes for sale.”
From the ridge of the Dinaric Alps, Dubrovnik looks golden against a deep-blue sea. Olive groves and vineyards surround it, and the air smells of pomegranates and oranges and exotic, Mediterranean flowers. When they first reached it in the seventh century, the wandering Slavs must have regarded Ragusa as a paradise.
Bosnians, Bogomils who converted into Islam in the 15th century, were the men Ruth Mitchell saw in wartime Dubrovnik. Former Turkish Military Frontiersmen, they, ragged and dark, strolled through white, polished, sundrenched Dubrovnik. Filigreed hanjars glistened in their sashes.
Until 1878, these Islamized Serbs or Croats manned a line that once divided the Eastern and the Western Roman Empire. Starting with the 15th century, the former administrative limes became the Military Frontier which sundered Austria from Turkey, East from West, Islam from Christianity, North from South. Marauding bands, growing overnight into hosts, ran back and forth across it, singing epic songs of treason and courage.
“Jovan, we’ll cut your heart out!” my father heard the Bosnian Ustashe cry, in 1942.
The gunfire had subsided, and the Fourth Battalion of Tito’s Fourth Montenegrin Proletarian Brigade lay face down in the rye. Most of the fighters were dead, cut down less than 150 feet before the small town of Kupres, in Bosnia.
Slowly, my father took out his pistol and put it against his head. His name was not Jovan, but he was a Serb.
The day before the storming of Kupres, on August 10, 1942, he and his soldiers had come upon the Bosnian Serb village of Gornji Malovan and found a house full of headless corpses. The old men, women, and children had been butchered above a hole cut in the wooden floor, and their blood collected in a barrel, in the cellar directly under.
The men who massacred them were the Bosnian Croats and the Bosnian Moslems of the Ustasha Black Legion, a crack unit of the Armed Forces of the Independent State of Croatia. From time to time Signal, the Nazi version of Life, ran stories on Germany’s loyal allies, the Croats. The Independent State repaid its debt by exterminating the Balkan Lumpengesindel and sending Ustashe to fight at Stalingrad.
My father, gravely wounded, did not kill himself that night. A woman soldier stayed his hand. Outlined against the early dawn, the two Serbs limped away from the battlefield, as the Ustashe fired upon them, wagering bets.
For Bosnia and Hercegovina, the turmoil did not start in 1941, nor even in 1914, when a young Bosnian Serb shot Archduke Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo, Triggered by Serb nationalism, the Great War, which destroyed empires, created new states, spawned Communism, and led to the Second World War, brought nothing new to Bosnia. Already the site of a timeless war of the worlds, Bosnia knew Illyrian, Celt, Roman, Teuton, Avar, Slav, Magyar, and Turkish armies, long before the Germans, the Italians, the Partisans, the Ustashe, and the Chetniks clashed in its dark forests.
For all their vaunted differences, however, the present day Bosnians—the Serbs, the Croats, and the Moslems—are a single South Slav people. They speak the same language, look the same, often have the same family names. From the times of a White Serbia and a White Croatia on the Oder, the Croats and the Serbs lived side by side. Once the East and the West, in the Balkans they became the South and the North as well.
Serbs were Christianized by Constantinople, Croats by Rome. Carved by peasant craftsmen, white limestone churches rose in Dalmatia. In Rascia, Serbs built rough, Byzantine crkve. Bearded nobles and barefoot ladies pushed aside mastiffs and peasants to enter. Saints were painted on the walls, until the Turks gouged their eyes out and covered them with lime.
Serbs remained free until the 15th century, long after the Groats had become Hungarian subjects. Defeated by the Ottomans, they fled to Croatia, Montenegro, and Bosnia, leaving only a part of their nation to be the Turkish rayah. But, as the Military Frontiersmen of the Austrian Empire, both the Serbs and the Croats fought the Bosnian Moslems, the most privileged military class of Ottoman Turkey. Ramparts of Christendom these yeomen Bosnian Croats and Serbs were called. Fiercely bewhiskered and scalplocked, they ravaged Europe for the Habsburgs, as eagerly as their own borders.
In 1848, the Austrians threw Serb and Groat armies against the Revolution in Hungary and Vienna. In Croatia, which then included some Bosnian lands, immigrant Serbs were confirmed in their Grenzer status, while the Croats were turned over to the Hungarians, in a bid to save the Austro-Hungarian alliance. Geese, pigs, and brown-faced children ran happily through the streets of Serb military villages. Croat peasants, dressed in brilliant white embroidered with scarlet, their red cloaks swirling around them, danced at feast days, and quietly toiled the rest of the year. “To marry a Croat,” a Serb from Croatia said to me, “was as unthinkable as marrying a cow.”
South of the Danube, among the rolling hills of Serbia, free Serbs dreamed of an everlasting Serbian Empire, whose kings would never again leave them in the lurch. One-time haiduks, the Serbs were tired of being the Heavenly Host. They wanted to unite and live in peace with brother Bosnians, Montenegrins, and Macedonians.
In answer to Hungarians who were trying to Magyarize them, Croatian intellectuals also began thinking of a Yugoslavia. They even adopted Hercegovinian Serbian as their literary language, to facilitate the forthcoming union.
Then, in 1878, Austria-Hungary occupied Turkish Bosnia and Hercegovina. Bosnian Groats were suddenly liberated, Bosnian Moslems confirmed as agas and beys, while Bosnian Serbs, apart from the Military Frontiersmen, remained the rayah.
Felled by a dumdum bullet in a battle that began long before he was born, my father lay in front of Kupres, watching a burning mosque. Whether he was aware of it as a symbol, he never told me. But he did tell me of his despair, and terror in the night.
Inside Kupres, Serb Military Frontiersmen of the Third Bosnian Partisan Military Frontier Corps barricaded themselves behind captured Ustasha field pieces. A tall, dark Military Frontiersman said to the Montenegrins, “Frontiersmen never fled before the Turks!”
After the Montenegrins retreated, the 13 Serbs were assaulted with hand grenades and killed where they lay. The Ustashe piled up their bodies, doused them with gasoline, and burnt them to cinders.
Just over the mountain from Dubrovnik, Kupres, black, burnt-out, choked with men and cattle, writhed silent among the wooded hills. Not far from it lay the immense Perucica, the last European jungle.
Let the Cross and the Mace clash,
Whose head bursts, woe is him!
sang Petar Petrovic Njegos, Prince-Bishop of 19th-century Montenegro. Seven feet tall, this mortal enemy of Bosnian and Hercegovinian Moslems died at 38, a victim of border wars, beheadings, impalements, and an eclectic, European knowledge. In Naples he ate oranges to cure his TB; to keep his aim true, he’d throw some of them high in the air and drill them with his pistol.
Today, in Bosnia, Njegos is reproached for writing of genocide. His Mountain Garland, printed first in Vienna in 1847, sings of war between the Cross and the Crescent, between Europe and Asia, light and darkness.
“Die, Serb,” Suleiman Sokolovic, a Hercegovinian, said to me in the Yugoslav People’s Army. His eyes were blue, his hair blond, his face and head long. Six feet four, he was the machine gunner, while I, being an inch shorter, was his helper.
“Suleiman,” I said, “in 1969 you’re still a Turk because you want to be one. Your forefathers were Serbs before they betrayed themselves and their people, and became agas.”
“In the good old times, you would’ve been my serf,” said Suleiman.
“Maybe,” I said. “But maybe your head would’ve been stuck upon a stake, in front of my house in Montenegro!”
He grinned, a bleary, tired, not wholly unfriendly smile. We marched on, he lugging his M43, I carrying my Mauser and his gear.
For Bosnian peasants in 1941, everything was simple. Wherever the Bosnian Serbs went, the Bosnian Croats and the Bosnian Moslems went the other way. Fascism, communism, democracy, even Christianity and Islam were just names. Balkan ethnic identity—tenuous, often imaginary and hence imperishable—was all.
In Hercegovina, families like the Sokolovici had split into Serbs, Croats, and Moslems, depending upon when certain relatives had changed their faith. Initially Serb, many had become Moslem or Roman Catholic in Ottoman Turkey, to better their lot. In Austria-Hungary, further thousands of Serbs became Catholic.
“With a stick the Turk [Bosnian Moslem] beat and pushed the old Christian [Bosnian Serb], as if the wretch were a pig, while the poor man just begged for mercy. I leapt forth to intervene, but two Bosnians [Serbs] grabbed me and pulled me back, whispering, with indescribable hatred, ‘These are the Turks!'” wrote Sir Arthur Evans, after his 1875 trip through Bosnia. In the grip of an everlasting bronze age, Bosnia needed no excavating—wild, wooded, hilly, Bogomil of memory and sadness, it yielded everything to sight, readily.
Maybe that is why eyes were such a prized trophy, between 1941 and 1945.
Few Bosnians, Catholic or Orthodox, least of all the Moslems, had read the Book of Revelations. For them, religion was identity, to be fully affirmed only by the sacrament of murder. The Apocalypse, after all, was the favorite part of the Bogomil Bible, coming right after the Gospels.
When Communists appeared in the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, Bosnian ethnic politics entered a new stage. (“These wretched fragments or ruins of former nations—Serbs, Bulgarians, Greeks, and other robber riffraff who begrudge each other even the air they breathe, ought to cut each other’s throats,” prescribed Friedrich Engels.) Under Stalin—one-time Soviet Minister for Nahonalities—the Comintern dealt in incitement to genocide; in 1932, the Yugoslav Communist newspaper, Proleter, praised the Ustashe for their Velebit Uprising.
On July 22, 1941, Mile Budak, Ustasha Minister of Education and Cults, shouted to the crowd, “For the minorities—Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies—we have three million bullets. We shall kill one part of the Serbs. We shall transport another, and the rest of them will embrace the Roman Catholic religion.”
Mile Budak was a novelist from the Croatian Military Frontier—like his Irish counterparts, he kissed the Cross and kept his powder dry. In their stony, dirt-poor hamlets, his countrymen cried in the night, their eyes glistening like the clear drops of their brandy.
“There are no Serbs,” Croat ideologue Ante Starcevic had written in the 1890’s. “There are only Croats, of Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox faith!”
When World War I began, Croatian and Bosnian regiments (both Moslem and Serb) were thrown against Serbia. At Cer alone, 20,000 of Franz Josef’s soldiers died. Their bodies rotted in heaps, too big to bury.
In retaliation, General Potiorek’s “Punitive Expedition” butchered thousands of noncombatants in occupied Serbian Macva, bordering upon Bosnian Posavina. Further thousands were killed by the Moslems along the Drina border.
Today, stone sarcophagi of the Bogomils dot Hercegovina. Crudely chiseled in bas-relief, warriors peacefully hold their right hands up. According to their creed, the world of the flesh and things was made by Satan; even having children was a sin. The Bosnian Manicheans fought off crusade after Hungarian crusade; when Sultan Mehmed II came, they stepped forth from behind the white walls of their cities and converted into Islam, en masse.
In 1941-1945, they formed three SS legionary divisions: the “Handschar,” the “Kama” (“Knife”), and the “Devil’s Division.”
Then, to preserve the “brotherhood,” the “unity,” and the “equality” of Yugoslavia, the Communists let the Bosnian Moslems build 700 new mosques after the war, mostly with Libyan money. But the burnt and pillaged Orthodox churches in Banja Luka, Mostar, Gacko, and countless Bosnian Serb villages were never renewed, either for the lack of money, or permit.
Serbs, who had made up most of Tito’s army, were phased out of the new government and party posts, and replaced in Bosnia with Moslems. As an overall Yugoslav majority, the Serbs could not be manipulated—post-war politics called for quotas, named “The Key” in Yugoslavia. Almost two thirds of Bosnia’s population during the Ottomans, Bosnian Serbs have been turned by war and socialist peace into a minority. What the agas could not accomplish, by bedecking their towers with Serb heads, today’s Moslem Communist cadres could, and did.
In Serbian Kosovo, once the part of the Ottoman Vilayet of Bosnia, ethnic Albanians, aware of propitious omens, are moving to create a Greater Albania. Like pre-1914 Serbs, they hope to dismantle an existing European state and create a new, juster reality.
Though neither the Soviets nor the Americans want a Balkan boil, Albanian youths who are raping their Serb neighbors’ daughters, mothers, and grandmothers do not care. If a Great Albania means mutilating Serbian cattle, burning Serb fields and orchards, desecrating Orthodox churches, monasteries, and cemeteries, maiming and murdering individual Serbs, too bad. Tomorrow, streets and squares will bear the irredentist’s names (Gavrilo Princip has a street in Belgrade).
No man happy, none complete,
No man peaceful, none serene.
Each ceaselessly outraging the other.
Each an ape before the mirror!
sang Njegos in 1847. To those who hold that a country with Bosnia’s legacy cannot exist, there is no answer. But France, until Louis 14th amalgamated it by fire and sword, was as diverse, and sorrowful, as Yugoslavia. So was pre-Bismarck Germany, or Russia before Peter the Great. Even today, North and South Italy are more disparate than Slovenia and Macedonia. And North and South U.S. had once indebted each other at least as much as the Serbs, the Moslems, and the Croats.
Despite Tito’s charismatic ethnic shuffling, and all the murders and lies of 2,000 years of history, there are many Bosnians today who wish to be persons instead of ethnic exemplars. When Yugoslav soccer teams play in Germany, the gastarbeiter throng the stands and shout, “Yu-go-sla-vial Yu-go-sla-vi-a!”
Slovenes, more industrious than the neighboring Austrians, are tired of their Bosnians (Moslem, Serb, or Croat). Brought in as guest workers, the Southerners (and Easterners) had proved too rambunctious and unassimilable. There is talk among Slovene intellectuals of a future Danubian Confederation, a resurrected Austria-Hungary.
Yet, like Sandinista Nicaragua, the Federal Democratic Republic of Yugoslavia was set up, in 1945, to enforce justice and equality, by whatever means at hand. Over 100,000 Yugoslavs were shot as “nationalist forces of the counterrevolution,” many of them handed over by the Allies in Austria, after May 8, 1945. As with the previous, Ustasha murders, no one will ever know how many were executed. The kin cannot gather to tally (one to 10 years for “associating against the people and the state”), while one-time executioners are today’s bureaucrats. In various Yugoslav embassies and offices, they wear well-made suits and speak English, French, or German. Charming, like Daniel Ortega, they display no marks of the Devil.
When I was a schoolboy in postwar Yugoslavia, I was taught about medieval Bosnia and its fabled Ban Kulin. Bogomils, I was told, were a revolutionary sect of peaceful men and women who called each other “Christians.” Since they were underdogs, and rebels, Communists upheld them, retrospectively.
Like pellets of steel, the Bosnian Bogomils, and later, the Bosnian Moslems, persevered in the living body of Europe. From time to time, they had their Jesse Jacksons, and Malcolm X’s, and Yugoslavs still tell stories of them.
“In 1941,” Milos Dragicevic, a Bosnian Serb, said to me, “Mico Stupar ran out of his house when the Ustashe came. From a hiding place he watched his brothers and sisters butchered in front of his parents, before their throats were slit too. He was seven years old then.”
When we were alone, Mico Stupar said to me, “Then I ran into the forest and slept for full seven days and nights.” And he smiled, like a blond, bashful boy.
Among the Montenegrins, whose history is one of ceaseless war against the Bosnians, the Hercegovinians, and the Albanians, there is a tale: Once upon a time, the lions fought the wolves, who were as numerous as any horde. Time and again the lions won, against odds 10 to one and more.
But one day a lion scout came to the lion king and said, “Your Majesty, the wolves are at it again: their army is poised to attack us along the borders of our kingdom.”
“So what,” said the Lion King, “we’ve dealt with them before. The wolves, though many and savage, are all so different—white, gray, black, even yellow, they always had as much trouble between themselves as against us.”
“But, Your Majesty,” said the scout, “this time each and every one of them is greenish-gray, with green, fiery eyes, and their ranks are quiet and taut, like the string of a bow.”
And the Lion King wept.