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Hearts Grown Brutal: Sagas of Sarajevo

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Roger Cohen of The New York Times takes us to the core of one of the 20th 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. '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 ...
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Overview

Roger Cohen of The New York Times takes us to the core of one of the 20th 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. '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 against relative. The reality of the Balkans is illuminated, even as the hypocrisy of the international response to the war is exposed.
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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
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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679452430
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/25/1998
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 6.56 (w) x 9.70 (h) x 1.58 (d)

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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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.

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First Chapter


Chapter One

My Father's War

Sead Mehmedovic grew up believing that his father was dead, one of the more than one million Yugoslav victims of World War II. Where he had died, nobody knew, there was no grave, there was nothing, but Alija Mehmedovic's death was a fact of Sead's childhood. So when Sead learned that this might not be true--that his father might be living outside Yugoslavia under an assumed name--the quest to find him naturally became an obsession. For years the search was fruitless, leading only to new riddles, but finally on December 15, 1970, Sead sat down in Belgrade to write to the father he had never known. With an address for his father at last in his possession, Sead could scarcely contain a tremulous excitement.

As he sat down to compose a letter, Sead confronted again the fact that he knew almost nothing of the dashing, dark-haired young man who appeared in the few surviving photographs of his father. Alija Mehmedovic remained a shadowy figure. He had worked at the Belgrade daily newspaper Politika; had abandoned Sead's mother, Gaby, on the eve of World War II; had remarried in Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital; and had, it was long believed, been killed somewhere in his native Bosnia or in Croatia. This was the story on which Sead was raised. Such fragments, the shards of past conflict, were his inheritance.

Sead, like countless Yugoslavs, was a child of war. The Second World War took his father. The conflict had left him with confused memories. Certain images were always vivid, imbued with the particular luminosity of childhood. Others had faded. Of Hitler's bombardment of Belgrade, starting on April 6, 1941, when Sead was not quite three years old, he recalled only a dim sense of terror. He had found shelter in cellars as the Luftwaffe pounded the Yugoslav capital. Fear, the most instantly communicable of viruses, spread in a city that only days earlier had been full of defiant demonstrations against the Nazis that displayed a typical Serb bravura.

The crowds had poured into the streets to protest the Yugoslav prince regent Pavle's decision to enter into the Axis Pact with Hitler. "Better war than the pact" ("Bolje rat nego pakt") and "Better the grave than a slave" ("Bolje grob nego rob"), the people of Belgrade chanted. A Serb officer, General Dusan Simovib, who led a coup that ousted the regent, gave a rousing speech of defiance to Hitler in which he recalled the bones of Serbian military heroes and the Serbs' epic struggle, over many centuries, against the Turks.

Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, was delighted. "Yugoslavia," he declared, "has found its soul." But Hitler was enraged. By April 10, 1941, wide swaths of Belgrade had been leveled. The defiant crowds were silenced; the Yugoslav army crumbled; the Nazis quickly installed General Milan Nedib, a soldier who did the Nazis' bidding in Serbia as assiduously as Marshal Philippe Petain's Vichy regime in France, and Yugoslavia disintegrated with the proclamation in Zagreb of an independent, puppet-Nazi Croatian state.

Belgrade was transformed by days of bombing. There were bodies piled in the streets and many dead and stray animals. A bomb hit the Belgrade Zoo, and Sead recalled animals roaming through the burning city. As if in a child's bedtime story, a polar bear made its way down to the River Sava.

A devastating conflict began on the fragmented Yugoslav lands, a conflict that was at once resistance battle against the Germans, revolutionary communist struggle aimed ultimately at the overthrow of the Serbian establishment that had ruled Yugoslavia, and civil war--violence laid layer upon layer.

Sead remembered the second bombardment of Belgrade with much greater clarity. In 1944, on the Orthodox Easter, the Anglo-American Balkan Air Force embarked on a campaign of heavy bombing against the Nazi occupiers of Belgrade. Once again there were scenes of mayhem. Sead, by now six years old, watched from what was then Kosmayaska Street as the Allied planes came swooping in. When the bombing started, he hid under the bed, until he was dragged down to the cellar by his mother. The Allies were doing to Belgrade what their Nazi enemies had done three years before.

Six months later, in October, Belgrade was again engulfed in fighting as the communist Partisan forces led by Josip Broz Tito and the Soviet army closed in on the Yugoslav capital. Sead saw the shabby, ragtag Yugoslav Partisans, rifles slung over their shoulders, red stars on their hats, moving up Kosovska Street in the center of the capital as a platoon of German troops--perhaps the last Germans in the city--took up a commanding position on the top of the central Albanija Building. The Germans were well stocked in two essential commodities for a last stand: ammunition and alcohol. They shot everything that moved on the square where Sead used to play. When the German snipers were finally silenced, Sead emerged from hiding to find his square littered with corpses and the bodies of dogs and cats. It was October 20, 1944, a beautiful, sunny day. He could not take his eyes off the small, splayed animals or shake from his nostrils the sweet, emetic smell of death. Some of the German corpses, still in uniform, had newspapers over their faces. Their boots had been removed by the scavenging Soviet forces and the equally deprived local population. After the mighty armored cars of the Germans, it was amazing to see Soviet soldiers sleeping on straw in the back of horse-drawn carts. This ramshackle army--through its mass, its momentum, and its morale--had triumphed over the Nazi war machine. He looked for a friend who used to sell tobacco on the square--his wooden leg, big mustache, and booming voice deeply impressed the young boy--but could not find him in the chaos.

The city still echoed to the intermittent crash of shells fired by the German troops retreating northward, and the cacophony of rifles, tommy guns, and--loudest and strangest of all--the Soviet Katyusha multiple-rocket launchers. Whether these were the sounds of battle, or of celebration of Tito's victory, was not always clear. The Germans had retreated to Zemun, on the other side of the Sava, the river whose confluence with the Danube provides Belgrade with the splendor of its setting. From Zemun they shelled the capital. Thirty years earlier, in 1914, and from the same positions, Austro-Hungarian troops in Zemun had fired the first salvos of World War I after the defiant Serbs rejected a demand from Vienna that Austro-Hungarian police be allowed into Serbia. The Austro-Hungarian government had demanded that the police be admitted to investigate the assassination by a Serb nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, of the Habsburg heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife in Sarajevo.

Belgrade was liberated, Sead free in the smoldering streets of the white and devastated city. Tito's forces took control amid the mixture of euphoria and terror that accompanies any revolution. It was not unusual to see a young man, denounced as an informer, being dragged off and summarily shot.

So it was that Sead, born on April 25, 1938, into a young country ruled by a conservative Serbian monarchy, found himself, at the age of seven, growing up a communist. A deeply wounded Yugoslav state was reconstituted under the unlikely banner of communism. Sead embraced this new religion, but he could not come to terms with the war that had led to its victory.

Sead was unable to walk through Belgrade without remembering that time. The wartime city and the modern city shared very little. Most street names had been changed several times and most of the town rebuilt after the war. But in Sead's mind they were superimposed on each other, like a house and its reflection in water. He lived in time present and in time past, trying, it seemed, to understand something that had escaped him.

Churchill's response to Tito's communist victory was laconic. On January 18, 1945, he told the House of Commons, "We have no special interest in the political regime which prevails in Yugoslavia. Few people, in Britain, I imagine, are going to be more cheerful or more downcast because of the future constitution of Yugoslavia." Freedom for the Yugoslavs and the "Yugoslav soul," extolled by Churchill in 1941, had ceased to interest him greatly by 1945, when realpolitik and the exploits of Stalin's Red Army had come to dictate a carving-up of Europe.

For Western governments, the way the war in Yugoslavia was perceived was ultimately a question of interests. But for Sead it was an affair of the heart. The mystery, for Sead, centered on the disappearance of his father. Repeated attempts by his mother to discover where, and in what circumstances, Alija had died proved fruitless. As Sead grew older, the phantom of his father began to haunt him. Clues emerged that Alija Mehmedovic a Bosnian Muslim, had survived the war, fled Yugoslavia, and started a new life under a new identity in Turkey.

The fact that, by an odd coincidence, Sead had, like his father, found work at the newspaper Politika, as a graphic artist in the advertising department, had only intensified his curiosity. Increasingly, the search to find his father seemed to Sead to hold the key to unlocking his own uprooted life, a life that struck Sead as eternally unresolved, a puzzle in which the pieces would not fit together.

"My dear old man," Sead began the letter in December 1970, "I have been writing to you for several days now and have not found time to finish the letter. I come to my office very early in the morning, between five and six o'clock, although my working hours begin at seven. (Every time I get up, I move the alarm hand on the clock so that my wife does not notice how early I wake up--she would scold me.)

"This is the only time when I am alone. It is still dark and there are no people around. That is when I write you a letter. But later, during the day, when I am bombarded by everyday life, things take on a different guise and however close to you I felt in those early mornings, you drift away from me and I become scared that I opened myself too much, that in my unsent words I burden you with the thoughts of someone who is a stranger, and so I tear up what I wrote to you.

"Before, I fended off thoughts of you, but now that it seems I have found you, I am discovering how much I missed you as a Father--not so much in the formal, family sense, but as a friend, in whom I might completely, fully confide: the friend who would understand me. In a sense, perhaps it is better that I found you only now. In this way, we will avoid the barrier of a father's formal authority that is established in childhood and which has to be overcome later in order to establish real friendship, with no fences, between father and son.

"In some ways, as I grow older, I withdraw into myself. I try to hide from my surroundings because I have a growing number of thoughts that seem to me to be incomprehensible to others. There are ever more barriers and ever more secret spaces that I try to make unnoticeable to others, impossible for them to find. But then you appeared as someone in whom I can confide, someone who will understand me without the desire to cram me into a mold, into his way of thinking.

"Maybe you will be disappointed that you found a son who--instead of comforting you in all the misfortunes that have befallen you--burdens you with his own thoughts and dilemmas.

"Please do not misunderstand me. But I would prefer if people close to me, with whom I live, do not find out about our relationship, or, more accurately, about this part of me. I would like to keep it all to myself. These are all unselfish, wonderful, open and good people and maybe it is not right that I hide a part of me from them. But that part exists in me and I have to save its integrity. I think that I have a right to a part of you, a part that will be undivided and mine only.

"But I will tell you more about me when we finally meet and see each other. Still I am afraid that the meeting will not occur and we will pass like two ships in the night. I have a strong feeling that we two are alike and that we will understand each other. . . ." Sead carefully folded the letter into an envelope and addressed it to Ali Erhan. Through an acquaintance, Sead knew this as the assumed name under which his father lived in Turkey, the better to shield himself from the past, the shadows of his former life in Yugoslavia. After a long search to understand the fragments of his life, Sead felt deliriously close to his goal.

The state of Yugoslavia lived for seventy-three years, an average human lifespan. Its life, like that of Sead Mehmedovic was marked by a restless search for origins and identity. Thrown together in haste on the ruins of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires in 1918, Yugoslavia sought restlessly to reconcile differences within itself of religion, culture, and tradition. After 1945, in its second incarnation as a communist state, it sought also to overcome the deep divisions left by the violence that World War II ignited on Yugoslav territory.


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 than intellectual 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.

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  • Posted October 26, 2011

    Must read

    Those who want to know about Bosnia during 20th century, especially during 90's (Bosnia and Yugoslavia), a little bit more then through a prism of a bare fact ....

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