Utorak, 23 travnja, 2024

“Exploring the sufferings of Croats in Central Bosnia, I experienced threats and intimidation. In the case of BiH, that comes with a day work.”

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Foreigners bear a great responsibility for the chaos in BiH today, for the atmosphere of distrust, fear, hatred, and violence. It would be good if one day, in a fairer world, a court were established to judge every High Representative who was in BiH for the systematic degradation of the state and society. No one spoke more about peace and reconciliation than they did, while at the same time sowing so much distrust and hatred among Croats, Bosniaks, and Serbs with their actions. There was more interethnic respect between the three peoples after the war and at the beginning of the millennium than there is today.

 

Following her successful debut, the novel-poem “Father” from 2023, Gloria Lujanović, in her new book “Heart of the Land” (OceanMore, HNK Mostar), gives voice to the forgotten, Croatian victims of war in Central Bosnia. Born in Novi Travnik in 1993, she studied at the Faculty of Philosophy in Mostar and worked as a journalist for several media outlets in BiH.

“Heart of the Land” is divided into three parts, each accompanied by separate visuals – one part is printed on white paper, another on dark gray, almost black paper, and at the end of the book, there are poems. Each part is supported by a powerful story – can you briefly explain them?

– The credit for such a concept goes to designers Narcisa Vukojević and Lana Cavar. They intricately composed the book and gave it an unusual rhythm. I aimed for it to include not only confessional prose and poetry but also certain facts that are mostly unknown to the Croatian public. These facts are written in footnotes and relate to specific people, places, and events. Few people in Croatia today know how many Croats lived in Travnik before the war, how the church in Nova Bila actually became a hospital, not to mention the fates of specific individuals, like Sarafina Lauš, who lost three sons and a husband in one day. That’s why the footnotes are somewhat shadowed because the truth itself is shadowed.

What lies behind the title itself? What is the heart of the land for you, not only for BiH but for any other in the world?

– I’m not sure I have an answer to that question, but I want to believe that the heart of the land is a great collective wound, shared suffering and pain. I doubt there’s any country in the world that doesn’t have such a wound. And it’s not just a wound left after wars, but a wound that arises from other circumstances as well, such as poverty, hunger, some major diseases. The heart of the land could be that wound and the way we relate to it, experience it, heal it. From that wound, we can draw strength, courage, empathy, and even love. To us, that’s 1993, a year that constantly returns. After all, Christianity is based on that idea – love born out of suffering, strength born out of pain.

At the beginning of the book, you say that your native Lašva Valley remembers and/or distinguishes between the time before and after the war. As a child born in 1993, you actually only know the time before from stories. How difficult is it to grasp the (pre)deep differences that have permanently marked the lives of the inhabitants of that area?

– That realization came to my life very early because I grew up in a city where life was organized so that Croats live in one part and Bosniaks in another. It came the moment I realized that we didn’t root for the national football team of BiH but for Croatia. War was never discussed in my family, and that bothered me because I knew nothing about our history and past. Not even when I was in my twenties, when it could have been told to me. Even these differences themselves might not be a burden, but their layers and the complexity of the relationships they contain are. In a country like BiH, they can become a comparative advantage, only if wanted.

In the book, you completely expose yourself. The story of your birth amidst the war is moving, and later, the story of the church-hospital in Nova Bila. How psychologically difficult and challenging was it to write the book? It’s impossible to peacefully sleep after reading it…

– It was difficult and exhausting. I feel like this book took a lot of life out of me. After coming to Zagreb, I stopped dealing with these topics overnight, and then the process of returning to it was very emotional and anxious for me. It’s like I relived those first encounters with war victims and all those heavy words they uttered. I had to listen to that collective tragedy again and once more confront that injustice. Injustice, that was the hardest part.

The theme you address – the victims of Croatian nationality who have remained forgotten, who have not yet seen justice, the grieving and traumatized families left behind – has been with you since your early days when you started your journalistic career. What prompted you to dedicate yourself to this?

 

It bothers me terribly when I’m not given an explanation for something. My parents never wanted to explain it to me, even when I asked them later, as a journalist, how it was, where they were, how we, instead of being in Travnik, ended up in Novi Travnik. In school, we were refugee children and a wartime generation, that’s what they called us. At one point, I realized that out of 28 of us in my class, as many as 14 were fatherless. And they went to the seaside to Jakljan. I wondered why we didn’t go there for summer vacation, and my mom said we had to reserve it. Later I realized that the children who went to Jakljan were those whose fathers died in the war, and that it was organized and funded by the Church in Croatia. When I was a little girl, there were no children of Bosniak nationality in our neighborhood, and in one moment, one family returned to their apartment. A Croatian guard then told us that we must not provoke and make fun of them, but that we all had to be polite to them. He went and bought a bag full of candy. That was, for example, the first moment of realization that we were not the same.

All of this was strange. I went to the website of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, dug through their archives, and at one point found a photo of my late aunt in the cloister of a Franciscan monastery in Guča Gora, holding a branch aimed at some Mujahideen soldiers. Later, I found photos of the house where my grandmother lived as a refugee and saw how The Hague holds that the attack on Ahmići started from that house. And then I remembered that house and the ground floor where I scribbled on the wall, there were some maps of Vitez and Zenica. It was irrational, I wanted to find out what happened to my family, and in the end, I was, well, learning about what happened to the whole nation.

You say that your family opposed investigating the crimes. Have you ever feared for your life, have you been threatened, tried to silence, and what gave you the strength to continue bravely with your research?

I can’t really say that I bravely continued. At one point, I gave up because it didn’t make sense anymore and I couldn’t bear that pain. My parents opposed it for years, begged me day after day to stop, that someone needs to write about it, but it doesn’t have to be their child. Threats, intimidation, and hindrance to work were continuous, and at some point, I got used to them. That somehow, in the case of BiH, comes with the a day work. The only thing I didn’t and can’t get used to is injustice.

 

What were your encounters with the family members of the deceased like? Do you remember the first one? You write that in those painful conversations there was never any anger, raised voices, or hatred. What is the most valuable thing you have learned from these people?

I remember, it was with a man who survived as a teenager the Mujahideen shooting on Bikoši. One of the few who managed to survive. He didn’t remember anything, he couldn’t even testify in The Hague. It’s a tremendous trauma and burden. One of the few who was there, who should help with the investigation, but can’t remember anything, except that they were forced to walk one in front of the other and look at the ground. What they all have in common is the will to continue living after everything. I sincerely admire that. There were no emotions like the ones you mention because they accepted injustice, learned to live with it. Croatian victims don’t parade around, they don’t actively participate in political life, they’re not visible even among Croats themselves.

Every war carries the curse of defining the aggressor and the victim, and there’s also a sense of collective guilt. Years go by, but it feels like we’re still stumbling in the dark. How do we move forward?

I think the whole world will move forward, but Bosnia and Herzegovina won’t. Bosniak politics uses the victims of genocide to settle scores with other policies. I’m not saying Serbian and Croatian representatives don’t do the same, but the fact is that Croats do it the least, not because they’re supposedly better or superior to others, but because Croatian politics generally doesn’t deal with that. When it comes to Bosnia and Herzegovina, everyone was both aggressors and victims, and we don’t need to live on myths of honorable, fair, and moral wars and armies. That’s disgusting. It’s hard to believe that anything will change as long as their crimes are spoken of as ‘sporadic incidents.’ Bakir Izetbegović considers expelling 100,000 people a sporadic incident. How many would they expel if it was planned and systematic? We’re persistently being imposed with a sense of collective guilt, it’s enough to have a ‘name’ that doesn’t match the ‘demographic majority,’ which is Bosniak, to be labeled as an ‘enemy.’ ‘Enemies of Bosnia’ have become everyone, from politicians from the HDZ to Croatian writers from Bosnia and Herzegovina who have been criticizing the HDZ’s policy for 30 years – both from Croatia and from Bosnia and Herzegovina. You don’t need to do anything special to become an ‘enemy of Bosnia’ today. ‘Friends of Bosnia’ are former Croatian President Stjepan Mesić and current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. I wouldn’t want to find myself in that company.

 

In the book, you criticize political structures that still use victims, perhaps even manipulate them, to turn the narrative in their favor as needed. Did your anger about this prompt you to give voice to the victims?

Croats in The Hague were not only tried for specific crimes but also for the phantom legal construct of ‘joint criminal enterprise.’ And the fact that soldiers of the Army of RBiH and Mujahideen from Iran, Syria, Algeria, etc., kept Croats from the Lašva Valley under complete military siege for almost a year, killing them on their doorsteps and on the slopes of forests where they had lived for centuries, didn’t interest The Hague Tribunal, nor the Bosnian-Herzegovinian judiciary, nor the media in Croatia. Of course, this didn’t happen by chance or spontaneously. Someone created, financed, and executed that narrative, and The Hague Tribunal eventually turned it into judicial practice. Moreover, it’s not even debatable that The Hague Tribunal dealt with crimes committed by Croats; the biggest tragedy is not even that crimes against Croats didn’t receive judicial closure, but the fact that the narrative of Croats as members of a joint criminal enterprise and Bosniaks as a party not committing crimes, the sole victims of the 90s war, is still being used as a justification for violating the constitutional, human, and civil rights of Croats in BiH.

I naively believed that if I published a conversation with a survivor of war every week, I would reach someone, that someone would say, ‘wait a minute, they also suffered in the war, so it’s not all as simple as that.’ That didn’t happen; on the contrary, a torrent of online violence poured down on me, and these people were humiliated and hurt again. It’s hard not to be angry and frustrated; it’s hard to live in your own country where your people are declared aggressors and you’re told, ‘if you don’t like it, go to Croatia.’ I came to Croatia because I had to. I’ve never seen my life outside of BiH. I gave a voice to the victims because sometimes I’m afraid that we will disappear completely. I’m afraid we’ll quietly die out and vanish – both us and our culture, our art, our community in general. Sometimes I think that disappearance will be such that no one will even notice.

This is the fifth year since you’ve been living in Zagreb. From that perspective, how close do you feel to BiH, and how do you feel today when you visit your hometown? Many say they feel like strangers at home after the war. Is it the same for you?

I have the impression that the further away you are from BiH, the closer it feels. I believe that feeling of being a stranger is somewhere present; it hasn’t developed so much in me yet, maybe it’s too early. I’m still getting used to Zagreb and the fact that drivers stop their cars at pedestrian crossings. In BiH, that’s rare. Being a pedestrian in BiH means risking your life every day. My city has changed a lot; some important places from my childhood no longer exist. For example, a row of trees under the Municipality building was recently cut down. That saddened me. And the feeling of not having a home today is a feeling shared by the whole world. Few can decently live off their work in their countries. Everyone goes where they can earn more.

Are you optimistic when you think about the future? Do you believe that normal coexistence in BiH, which includes Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks, is possible?

The very word “coexistence” makes me uncomfortable. It’s a worn-out term; I first heard it in school when some Americans came and organized sports competitions for us and students from a Bosniak elementary school. It was a very unpleasant event – we were supposed to socialize and smile, but they took our photos and probably wrote some report afterward and got some money. For a while in BiH, you could live very well by organizing these reconciliation sessions. None of us, neither Croatian nor Bosniak children, felt like participating. In the end, the boys ended up fighting each other, and we cheered from our stands, each for our own. That was coexistence in BiH about ten years after the war. Later, that word became even more worn out, and I realized that as a journalist. Coexistence has actually been a beautiful and visually pleasing facade for Bosniak domination in the Federation, especially in Central Bosnia, from the end of the war until today. Ordinary people today work together, communicate, some even socialize privately. There’s no mystification in that. The point is the equality of these three peoples and that each of us consumes our political and every other identity as we want, not as it’s imposed on us. They’ve been trying to convince us for 30 years after the war that we are “Bosnians” and “Bosnian Catholics,” not Croats. If you don’t respect me as a Croat, what use am I to you as a Bosnian Catholic, as some kind of phantom citizen? There’s no “coexistence” in BiH until fundamental political issues are resolved. As long as it’s possible for Željko Komšić to sit in the Presidency, who has been imposed on us as a member of that same Presidency for the fourth time, there is no coexistence. And there shouldn’t be if that’s how it’s envisioned because it’s oppression. And oppression should be fought against. Unfortunately, left-wing options in Croatia don’t understand this and assist Bosniak nationalism.

It’s disheartening to read that many families of the deceased, since war crimes were committed, no one has visited them, talked to them, tried to find out the truth… Shouldn’t these people have been provided with psychological help?

Psychological help and creative-therapeutic work with Croatian victims have been completely lacking. I don’t know if in these 30 years anyone from those human rights and peace-building organizations has ever visited Croatian victims. Recently, for the first time since the war, the High Representative almost clandestinely came to Vitez, to the place where eight children were killed by a grenade from the Army of RBiH. In the report from his office afterward, it was stated that he only visited Ahmići. They didn’t even dare to mention the murdered Croatian children. That’s unprecedented cynicism. My generation born in the war didn’t fare any better. My class was a class of insecure, unhappy, hyperactive, and violent children. Children who either burst with energy or wandered the school corridors like ghosts. There was no normalcy. The biggest problem today is that Croatian war victims in BiH are systematically denied, and the verdict against the Herzegovina Six contributed to that – now the Bosniak public says “that’s a member of a joint criminal enterprise” for every victim. And if you frame things that way, why would anyone, especially from Sarajevo, come to Central Bosnia and organize psychological help for supporters of the joint criminal enterprise? There’s nothing to gain from that. That part of the world has always been alone and remains so today. I remember the day when weapons were handed over to the police and EUFOR. A group of children in the Bare settlement, where we lived, entered the atomic shelter where there was HVO weapons. Someone left the doors open, and we sneaked into the shelter; I escaped very quickly, but the boys took the weapons and carried them to school. The whole town ended up “armed” like that. Today, I shudder at the thought of what could have happened. Croats talk very little and reluctantly about the traumas of war. And if they do, they talk among themselves. Besides, who would they talk to, who asks them?

Let’s go back to the beginning, i.e., the cover of the book and the symbol on its cover – the same symbol is also on the facade of a house in a photograph in the book. What is it about?

The symbol on the cover and the house is actually the symbol of the so-called Marian Cross, the cross found on the Miraculous Medal of Mary. Croatian-Catholic houses in BiH, especially in Bosnia, used to be marked with the symbol of a cross on a swallow. It was a kind of “sign” of recognition of whose house belonged to whom. I think that tradition is similar to the one with tattoos of Catholic women. I love those old houses of ours; they testify to a historical and identity continuity in that area. Our houses today are our ruins.

What is the “ideal scenario” for you to one day conclude this painful story of war victims? How to achieve reconciliation and the much-desired peace?

Peace, reconciliation, and everything that goes with it can only be brought about by art. People can only be sensitized to the suffering of others in that way. Only a quality novel, theater play, or film. However, caution should be exercised with films; the film industry in BiH is prone to portraying one ethnic group as a group that had only civilians, not soldiers. Politics can play an important role here by acknowledging that the crimes did indeed happen. Unfortunately, witnesses are dying, surviving victims are dying, it will be difficult to bring about any serious criminal proceedings. Foreigners bear a great responsibility for the chaos in BiH today, for the atmosphere of distrust, fear, hatred, and violence. It would be good if one day, in a fairer world, a court were established to judge every High Representative who was in BiH for the systematic degradation of the state and society. No one spoke more about peace and reconciliation than they did, while at the same time sowing so much distrust and hatred among Croats, Bosniaks, and Serbs with their actions. There was more interethnic respect between the three peoples after the war and at the beginning of the millennium than there is today.

 

by Ivana Vašarević

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