Hearts Grown Brutal: Sagas of Sarajevo

Hearts Grown Brutal: Sagas of Sarajevo

by Roger Cohen

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In this brilliant book, Roger Cohen of The New York Times takes us to the core of one of the twentieth century's most complex stories, weaving together the history of Yugoslavia and the story of the Bosnian War of 1992 to 1995, as experienced by four families.
"I have tried to treat the story of Yugoslavia, which


In this brilliant book, Roger Cohen of The New York Times takes us to the core of one of the twentieth century's most complex stories, weaving together the history of Yugoslavia and the story of the Bosnian War of 1992 to 1995, as experienced by four families.
"I have tried to treat the story of Yugoslavia, which lived for seventy-three years, as a human one," Cohen writes in this masterly book, which, like Thomas Friedman's From Beirut to Jerusalem and David Remnick's Lenin's Tomb, makes us eyewitnesses at the center of historic events. In the aftermath of the Cold War, the Bosnian conflict shattered the West's confidence, reviving Europe's darkest ghosts and exposing an America reluctant to confront or acknowledge an act of genocide on European soil. Through Cohen's compelling reconstruction of the twentieth-century history that led up to the war, and his account of the war's effect on everyday lives, we at last find the key to understanding Europe's most explosive region and its peoples.
"This was a war of intimate betrayals," Cohen goes on to say, and in Hearts Grown Brutal, the betrayals begin in the family of a man named Sead. Through his search for his lost father, we relive the history of Yugoslavia, founded at the end of World War I with the encouragement of President Woodrow Wilson. Sead's desperate quest is punctuated by the lies, half truths, and pain that mark other sagas of Yugoslavia. Through three more families—one Muslim-Serb, one Muslim, and one Serb-Croat—we experience the war in Bosnia as it breaks up marriages and sets relative againstrelative. The reality of the Balkans is illuminated, even as the hypocrisy of the international response to the war is exposed.
Hearts Grown Brutal is a remarkable book, a testament to the loss of a multi-ethnic European state and a warning that the violence could return. It is a magnificent achievement that blends history and journalism into a profoundly moving human story.

Editorial Reviews

New York Times Book Review
Cohen writes clearly and vigorously. . . .[he] avoid[s] the trap of attributing the country's dissolution primarily to ancient hatreds, but his sense of history also prevents him from dismissing previous bloody conflicts.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Cohen admits that his experience covering the Bosnian War for the New York Times changed him. He counts himself fortunate not to have been destroyed, like the estimated 200,000 dead or the living whose lives were deranged by the war's terror. This is a long book, thick with metaphor that struggles to describe the unspeakable. The ethnic mistrust reignited by Slobodan Milosevic had been buried in Bosnia generations ago. Through four "typical" families, whose personal histories form part of Bosnia's own, Cohen shows how Serb, Muslim, Croat and Jew had become so inextricably linked that their identity could be nothing other than Bosnian Yugoslav. Serb fanaticism not only estranged neighbors but broke the bonds between families and even between husbands and wives. NATO nations, with massive strength poised against potential Soviet threats to the Balkans, became impotent and flagrantly manipulated by an ambiguous enemy. Cohen's indignant questions reverberate--What stripped the West of moral courage just 40 years after the Holocaust? What compelled the U.N. to insist on a fantastic and suicidal impartiality in the face of atrocity? What allows mass psychosis to grip an entire nation? With the foundations of democracy safely inherited, do we abjure courage and responsibility, to pursue consumer comforts whatever the spiritual cost? His conclusions are not auspicious. Bosnia epitomized a triumph of tolerance; in its loss, he doubts our capacity to achieve it again. Editor, Kate Medina; agent, Amanda Urban, ICM. (Sept.)
Library Journal
Former Balkan bureau chief for The New York Times, Cohen uses four families to tell the story of Yugoslavia
Noel Malcolm
. . .[M]ore than just a catalogue of Western blunders. . .[he explains] the meaning of the war . . .in terms of human experience and at the level of longer-term Yugoslav history. . . .[readers may be] bewildered by the sheer intensity of the violence it describes, but at the same time they will be informed, challenged and moved. . . -- The New York Times
Ian Williams
Cohen's prose is impassioned and objective at the same time. --The Nation
NY Times Book Review
Cohen writes clearly and vigorously. . . .[he] avoid[s] the trap of attributing the country's dissolution primarily to ancient hatreds, but his sense of history also prevents him from dismissing previous bloody conflicts.
Kirkus Reviews
With the Bosnian war several years behind us, there has been a spate of books by journalists and diplomats. Hearts Grown Brutal stands out among them. For the general reader seeking insightful, eloquent journalism as well as the historical background necessary for understanding Yugoslavia, Cohen's book is essential reading. Cohen's is an ambitious approach, but the vast and complex canvas he paints more accurately reflects the tangled reality of Yugoslavia's history than a more narrowly focused account might. Because Cohen, who was The New York Times' Balkan bureau chief in 1994-95, also saw in his Bosnian experience the 'whole lurid cast of the 20th century tragedy,' his book is infused with reflections on Yugoslavia's destruction and the end of our century. This theme is taken up in Book 1 ('The Lost Century'), the tragic story of Sead Mehmedovic's search for his father, a Muslim who served in the Croatian fascist regime and was presumed dead, but had secretly emigrated to Turkey. This haunting tale of loss and betrayal serves as a fitting prelude to the remainder of the book, which more directly deals with the everyday struggle of families during the Bosnian War. Cohen follows three extended families, all of mixed ethnic background, during their break-up and destruction. Like Yugoslavia, they can never be whole again. Through them he contemplates the issue at the heart of the conflict: the nationalist leaders' fatal insistence on immaculate ethnic borders and identities in a region where 'the very notion of ethnic homogeneity had been nullified by centuries of miscegenation, migration, and religious conversion.' In a tone simultaneously melancholy and scathing,Cohen describes the evil and absurdity of leaders like Milosevic ('a craven, clever bully'), Tudjman (with his 'macabre dance'), Karadzic, and the nationalist venom they incited. The West, the U.S. and the U.N. in particular, Cohen accuses of moral cowardice and abetting the Bosnian tragedy. A piercing study of the facts and myths that led to the destruction of multiethnic Yugoslav communities.

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
6.56(w) x 9.70(h) x 1.58(d)

Read an Excerpt

This quest involved attempts to overcome many silences, blank spaces, pages deleted from history. People, like Sead's father, disappeared. Families knew who the executioners of their relatives were, but did not confront them. Vaclav Havel, the Czech president, has written that the "special union" between ancestors and descendants "is one of the foundations of the existence of every sound human community aware of its identity." Yugoslavia, by this standard, was never a "sound human community," for, in countless cases, the bridges across generations had been broken.

If this was the case, the savagery of Yugoslavia's destruction from within became more readily understandable. I came to see a bloody catharsis cynically willed by communist-turned-nationalist leaders, in the wars of Yugoslavia's destruction between 1991 and 1995; the catharsis of a seductive but repressed individual, one whose birth in 1918 from the marriage of loveless parents was flawed and whose mid-life crisis in World War II left a residue of lies and fear that ruthless politicians were able to exploit.
Sead Mehmedovic is a Yugoslav. He has the mixed blood of this Balkan crossroads state. His father was a Bosnian Muslim; his mother, Gaby, who was raised in Zagreb, is half Hungarian, one quarter Serb, and one quarter Austrian. Such mixtures on lands that were long part of the Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman empires are typically Yugoslav. But Sead is also a Yugoslav in another sense. His own family history was falsified.

Sead's smile is gentle: it begins and ends in his pale blue eyes, a smile that is never quite whole, for it contains, like a shadow, a suggestion of fatigue less physical thanintellectual and emotional. The fatigue of a man in late middle age who has long sought, long questioned, before accepting with a wry abandon the absence of answers in any other form but riddles. "I have a very bad orientation in time and space," he said to me once. "I don't know if something happened three years ago or five years ago. When I go into some big home, I don't know the front from the back, the left from the right. It takes me a long time to orient myself. I am unable to navigate."

I, too, have experienced Sead's Balkan vertigo. There are moments when everything seems to lurch, like the listing white graves on the ridges above Sarajevo and Tuzla that march out to meet the surrounding houses, or what is left of them, in a visible dance of the living and the dead. Time, no longer an abstraction, becomes a palpable matter. The sheer accumulation of tombs turns the head, and a rational understanding of so much death seems not so much impossible as inadequate.

In the northwestern Bosnian town of Banja Luka, outside a stone fort, there are numerous black marble graves recalling Tito's "People's Heroes" who died in World War II. None of the dead--Muslim, Croat, or Serb--is older than thirty-five. On and on the names trail--Kazim Hadzib, Drago Lang, Ante Jakib--lives given for a Yugoslav state that is itself now dead. Beside the memorial stones flows the Vrbas River, gushing over rocks: this sound of water, an unquenchable sound, is the essence of Bosnia. On the far bank, in winter, children sled, their squeals of pleasure carrying out over the water. The cries spend themselves slowly over the ruins of the Roman fort, the tombs of the now forgotten or vilified World War II Partisan heroes, the battlefields of "ethnic cleansing" between reborn tribes that marked the last decade of the twentieth century, the soaring poplars and willows with silent ravens perched on the highest branches. The indifferent river swirls on, eddying past small promontories where grass peeks through the snow. Everything here appears to be in movement, defying a firm foothold.

Sead's search for his father was like Yugoslavia's search for its soul. In a fluid landscape, it was a quest for bearings, for an understanding of the past--the basis, for an individual, as for a state, of a sound existence. But on the unstable Balkan Peninsula, the quest was arduous.

In 1995, some years after his quest to find his father had ended, Sead took me to a small room perched like an eagle's nest on the roof above his mother's Belgrade apartment. He unlocked the door and we walked into a cluttered space filled with boxes of papers. Casting a despairing glance at the disorder, he said, "When I'm old and my wife, who is much younger, leaves me, I will come up here and sort through all this."

But would he, I wondered, ever be able to bring order to this chaos? "Earlier," Sead said, "I had the feeling that there was so much time in front of me. Gauguin started to paint when he was forty. I could too. When I passed forty, this habit stayed, this feeling that I had time. Still, I don't really register time passing. I don't pay much attention to my age, but just sometimes I feel this physical tiredness, a pressure at the back of my neck."

He reached into one of the boxes and pulled out an undeveloped roll of film. "This might interest you," he said. :I was given it by a friend of my father named Refik Cabi, but I never did develop it. You might find some pictures of my father."

Below us, the city stretched away, a beaten-up and shabby accumulation of masonry. Belgrade rises from the Sava and Danube rivers toward the handsome avenue of Terazije; it falls, a mound of crumbling gray stucco, sucked down toward the rivers' banks. The Serbs have a saying: "Nema rata bez Srba"--"No war without the Serbs." Belgrade, according to Serbian lore, has been destroyed and rebuilt forty times. Its obvious strategic importance, on a ridge at the confluence of two great rivers, at the entrance to the fertile plains of Vojvodina, Hungary, and eastern Slavonia, long ensured that it was battled over with a singular intensity. It stood, moreover, at the dividing line of the eastern and western Roman empires that ran along the Drina and the Sava; centuries later, it stood at another border, between the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires.

Belgrade was, by turns, Celtic, Roman, Bulgar, Serb, Turkish, and Austro-Hungarian--to name but a few of its identities between the third century b.c., when the Celts built the "Round Fort" called Singidunum, and the Ottomans' recapture of the city in 1739. The crescent and the cross did battle atop buildings that were mosques, then churches, then mosques once more. The Orthodox Christian Serbs finally recaptured the city in 1813. Over the next hundred years they leveled every mosque but one.

I gazed out: the hill of Dedinje where Tito lies, the Sava River, the high-rises of Novi Beograd, and the fertile Serbian plains beyond. After the plains, I could see in my mind's eye the mountains of Bosnia emerging abruptly, shrouded by mist or haze. Clouds on rocks. Birds circling. The smell of pine and plum brandy. Beyond that the oleander and the heady, Dalmatian coast opening out like some lush dream from the backdrop of a stony hinterland. How beautiful and variegated the Yugoslav state had been! But like the undeveloped film in my hand, it had secrets that had been concealed for too long.

Sead and I walked past the villas of Dedinje Hill, the leafy suburb inhabited by Slobodan Milosevib's Mercedes-driving mercenaries. The Serbian president's socialist party was the old Communist party dressed up in new clothes. Marxism had been dropped but Leninism maintained. The result was gangster capitalism with centralized control: call it Milosevib's Mafia-Leninism. Sead, who had believed in Tito and his revolution, was disgusted.

"These nouveaux riches put pressure on me," he said. "I have always wanted equality and social justice. I feel cheated by these people. When I was young, I thought it was enough to work and society would give you back what you gave to it. Maybe I am just envious because I have no idea how to make so much money and make it so fast. Here, there is no culture of making money slowly. It's fast or nothing.

"All my life, I thought that now it will be different, now it will be different. With my fifty-eight years, I am still naive. I did not want to believe that they could be connected--the party I once supported and the massive crime of this wealth. But I have to bow to the evidence. Still, knowing this, I am divided between what I don't want to believe and what manifestly is--and I guess I will die with this division. I really wanted to live in a better world. I don't believe that the West is better. In America, capitalism can be a game for wolves. That is why I became a communist. I did not want that kind of society."

The towering house belonging to Zeljko Raznatovib, alias Arkan, one of the more murderous of Serbia's paramilitary leaders during the wars of Yugoslavia's destruction, loomed up beside us, with slitlike tinted windows. A Jeep was parked outside, its driver talking on a cellular phone. Sead shook his head. We walked on past the stadium of the Red Star soccer club, whose supporters' club provided an initial nucleus for Arkan's gangs. When we reached his apartment, Sead went into his bedroom and emerged carrying a battered suitcase. Smiling his enigmatic smile, he handed it to me. The case contained letters, diaries, photographs, and other material that provided a portrait of Alija Mehmedovic's war and life and told the story of the terrible circumstances in which Sead ultimately found his father.

Meet the Author

Roger Cohen is the Berlin bureau chief of The New York Times. He was its Balkan bureau chief from 1994 to 1995 and reported from Bosnia throughout the war there. Twice nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, Cohen has won several awards, including two from the Overseas Press Club. He has also been a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and Reuters. Cohen is co-author of a biography of General Norman Schwarzkopf, In the Eye of the Storm.

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