If you stop a person on the street in Sarajevo and ask them what they think about the war in Ukraine, they’ll tell you they think that almost everything that happened in the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina is also happening in Ukraine.
Someone wrote on Twitter that the war in Ukraine was a game of fast chess compared to the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, because everything in Ukraine was going on at a more frantic pace.
Several days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I did an interview with a young Ukrainian writer, and he told me that Russia’s goal was to conquer the whole of Ukraine. It’s not that I didn’t believe him, but my brain is configured to insert a grain of optimism into even the worst apocalyptic mood.
It was blatantly obvious that Russia was going to attack because you don’t set up field hospitals to receive wounded if you’re just holding manoeuvres. People unfamiliar with the mechanisms of war think it’s easy to shut down a war machine of 190,000 personnel including thousands of tanks, armoured vehicles, artillery pieces and logistical units.
That war machine roared into action in the early hours of 24 February, and all hell broke loose over Ukraine.
In April, we commemorated the 30th anniversary of the aggression and war against Bosnia-Herzegovina. We consider early April 1992 the watershed when a new era began (before, during and after the catastrophe). Such a reckoning of time continues among the majority of the population in this country, who were born long enough before 1992 to have memories of civilian life before the war.
Even after one month of war in Ukraine (and maybe even earlier), I saw Ukrainians start using the phrase before the war. We’ve been through everything that’s happening to them, but no one asks us about it or wants us to help.
War leads you to start looking at life and death with different eyes. Before our smallish war (an ironic phrase I use in literary works), I wanted to be a poet and wrote ultra-metaphorical and incomprehensible poems. After the war, I persistently tried to write as clearly and precisely as possible, especially about the events of the war. That struggle with language lasted a while, and then I broke through the barrier and was able to see the contents of my war memory with crystal clarity. It was then that I became a writer. The war was a giant catalyst in that process.
In a text for The Paris Review, Ilya Kaminsky quotes Ukrainian poet Daryna Gladun: “I set aside metaphors to speak about the war in clear words.” There are a whole number of Sarajevo poets who had the same thing happen during the siege of this city – the longest in the history of modern warfare. The famous Slovenian poet Tomaž Šalamun once said that he didn’t write poetry at all during the war in Bosnia.
The phrase Never again was repeated in the Prijedor concentration camps in the summer of 1992 and is now being repeated in Ukraine
The curse of the human being is that every single person thinks narcissistically that the horror happening to them is absolutely unique and incomparable. Anyone who has survived a war knows that is totally untrue. Usually people think you can only feel pain in your own body (hence the narcissism), but it can also be felt in the bodies of others. The pain of war is transcorporeal and ubiquitous.
On 21 April 1992, the attack began on my home town in far western Bosnia.
I was studying in Zagreb at the time. I returned to my town because I knew the war would soon begin: regular and irregular Serb formations had begun attacking towns in eastern Bosnia in early April.
I watched as towns burned along the River Drina, the natural border between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia, even though the country was still called the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. But nothing remained of Yugoslavia because Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina had declared independence and seceded from it.
I was sitting at the Casablanca café when the attack began on Bosanska Krupa, the town where I grew up. I was wearing Levi’s, a down jacket and Adidas trainers. I was drinking beer and listening to music on the café terrace. It was a lovely day, but shortly after 6pm an artillery attack began. That’s when I realised what the expression “mortal terror” means. Militants of the Serb Democratic Party, aided by forces of the former Yugoslav People’s Army, shelled the city from the surrounding hills.
I neither volunteered nor was I conscripted. We were surrounded by enemy forces and there was no way out of the area (later called the Bihać Pocket or Bihać District) unless you could fly. I took up arms because I was driven out of my flat, my street and my neighbourhood. My conscience demanded that I fight.
I fought for 44 months as a soldier and later as an officer, when I led a unit of 130 men in several difficult combat operations, at the very end of the war. Once I was badly wounded in the left foot. I needed crutches to walk for six months. The pain was more or less bearable because I was young and my body had the strength of steel. We didn’t have time then to think about the transcorporeality of pain, nor about infatuation with our own.
Time stops ticking
I remember having to go to the toilet in a special wheelchair, which had a hole in the seat for doing a number two. Urinating was very awkward too, but I recovered quickly. I returned to the unit and to the same duties as before I was wounded, as a platoon commander of thirty men. After being wounded, I could have had myself transferred somewhere safer, away from the front line, but I didn’t want to wait around in a logistics unit for the war to end. I wanted to use my fighting skills to contribute to ending the war, which seemed to us interminable.
Chronological time stops ticking during war. (In the Paris Review text I mentioned, Ukrainian writers from Bucha emphasise that time has stopped for them because they understand the absurdity and pointlessness of measuring time in war.) We wore watches on our wrists but they showed a meaningless time. There was no TV, we listened to the radio, and there were no newspapers. We were cut off from the rest of our country and the civilised world. It was a small enclave just five hours’ drive from Vienna, at least before the war. Now we lived as if we were at the end of the world, so time was irrelevant. A new time was ticking inside us – the one you count from the moment your idyllic, civilised life collapses and you become a refugee. After the first moments of shock, we were quick to embrace the apocalyptic way of life.
The experience of war is not something you want to have. No sane person wants it. It’s a return to the Stone Age and the absolute basics of life. In the war, you could sell a toothbrush, a tube of toothpaste or a pocketknife and then get tanked up with the money. We did that once: we went to a town far behind the lines, drank beer and listened to Whitney Houston singing “I will always love you” on MTV. It’s not as if we were fans of hers. We preferred grunge, and before that we listened to new wave, but no one asked us about our musical or any other urban identity.
If Ukraine is defeated, we will never again live in the peace that currently prevails
We didn’t even know that the Serb nationalists saw us as the Other, who were to be expelled from “Serbian lands”, killed, raped and imprisoned in concentration camps. In the summer of 1992, when the Serb army and police occupied the town of Prijedor, all non-Serbs had to wear white armbands and hang white sheets out the windows of their houses and flats. The genocide began there, and it ended with the court-proven genocide in Srebrenica in July 1995. The phrase never again was repeated in the Prijedor concentration camps in the summer of 1992 and is now being repeated in Ukraine.
Although I and my family, comrades-in-arms and fellow citizens went through the worst possible ordeals and suffering (as refugees, soldiers and civilians), I’ve never allowed myself to hate an entire people. I’ve only hated ultranationalists and war criminals, not other members of the Serbian people.
We had to fight for our sheer survival. And when you fight like that, you can never be defeated because no idea is stronger than the idea of your own life. Right now, Ukrainians are fighting a life-or-death struggle. Being in the position of having nothing to lose but your own life is when you’re strongest. The will to live is impossible to kill. Our vitality and will to live were indestructible. We were unbreakable, like diamonds. Our bodies were young and full of primal energy.
In the autumn of 1995, we finally managed to retake our town after being driven out of it in the spring of 1992. The town was in ruins, but we rebuilt it. Years after the war, you realise that life will never be the same as it was before. Once you lose that Arcadian life it can never be found again.
A logic of its own
All this is not what concerns the people of Ukraine at the moment. They hope the war will end as soon as possible, but war has a logic of its own, unrelated to human logic. The aggression against Ukraine has all the characteristics of a long war of attrition.
The day the war in Ukraine began, I wrote on Twitter that the Russians would commit war crimes, even though these hadn’t yet occurred. It was clear to anyone who watched and listened to Mr Putin, during the speech in which he recognised the independence of the fake statelets of Luhansk and Donetsk, that war and atrocities would soon follow. He referred to Ukraine as a fake state and the Ukrainians as a fake people.
Milošević and Karadžić said the same things about Bosnia-Herzegovina and Bosniaks – that they were fake and didn’t deserve to exist. Those words were later turned into the worst crimes in Europe since the Second World War. I hope the crimes of the Russian army will not surpass those committed in my country.
The massacre uncovered in the small town of Bucha, near Kyiv, will be minor compared to the horrors that will occur if the war continues at this pace. We do not yet know the scale of the crimes in Mariupol. Ukraine is in a state of severe shock because it was attacked while people were sleeping. The night before the attack, life for people in Kyiv was completely peaceful. The streets were full of people, the bars crowded.
When someone attacks you out of the blue, you’re bewildered – you don’t believe what’s happening to you. We will discover the true atrocities and crimes of the Russian invasion of Ukraine when the war is over. The most important thing is for the Russian war machine in Ukraine to be broken and brought to a halt. The dictator understands only the language of force, and the politics of appeasement bolster his power. People in the EU will have to leave their comfort zone because that will be the sacrifice they have to make while Ukrainian soldiers are dying every day to maintain peace and prosperity in the European Union.
If Ukraine is defeated, we will never again live in the peace that currently prevails. The cities of Ukraine will be rebuilt from the dust and ashes. The whole country can rise again. What cannot be brought back are the dead. These wounds never heal, but you can live with them, you have to. The trauma of loss marks you and never leaves you. I believe in the grit and courage of the Ukrainian soldiers and citizens, just as I believed in us. I believe in the victory of life over death. The human body is fragile but life is adamantine.
In association with S. Fischer Stiftung
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