Ideas Archipelago Ukraine | Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnia and Ukraine: two rails of the same track

The aggression against Ukraine has all the characteristics of a long war of attrition. To maintain peace and prosperity in the EU, Europeans will have to leave their comfort zone and make sacrifices, says Bosnian poet Faruk Sehic, who experienced war first-hand as a soldier in his homeland.

Published on 14 July 2022 at 12:01
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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.

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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 hill…

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