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Serbian 'War Song' At UN General Assembly Concert Upsets Bosniaks

  • Courtney Brooks

The Serbian vocal group Viva Vox Choir

The Serbian vocal group Viva Vox Choir

NEW YORK -- It was introduced as a "great march of peace," a stirring encore to end this week's New Year's concert at the United Nations.

The Serbian vocal group Viva Vox Choir had just performed an a cappella mix of Serbian tunes and bland western hits such as "Mamma Mia" and "Bohemian Rhapsody."

But the choir's final song struck a decidedly bum note, provoking anger among Bosnian groups who recognized it as a martial tune associated with the massacres of the 1990s.

"March on the River Drina" is an anthem from World War I, when the Serbs were fighting Austro-Hungarian troops. The Drina forms most of the border between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia.

It was also sung, however, by ultranationalist Serbian forces during the wars that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia.

On January 15, the Congress of North American Bosniaks posted an open letter on its website to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. It included signatures from the leaders at the Institute of Genocide Research, the Advisory Council for Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Bosnian American Genocide Institute and Education Center.

"The concert was a scandalous insult to the victims of genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina because the orchestra played the infamous and offensive Serb nationalist song 'March on the River Drina,'" the letter says."The genocide that occurred in Srebrenica and Zepa, and other parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was conducted by Serbian aggressors while blasting this song as they raped, murdered, and ethnically cleansed the non-Serb population."

Ban Says Sorry

The furor over the song prompted Ban's spokesman to express regret.

On January 17, Martin Nesirky told reporters that Ban -- who was shown clapping along to the march -- had not known the song's contentious background.

"We are aware that some people were offended by the encore song at the concert held in the General Assembly on January 14 and we sincerely regret that people were offended by this song, which was not listed in the official program," Nesirky said. "The Secretary-General was obviously not aware of what the song was about or the use that has been made of it in the past."

But former Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, who organized the concert, defended the performance.

Jeremic, who's currently General Assembly President, called the controversy "a highly regrettable attempt at twisting the meaning of our musical gift offered to the world this week, and a deeply offensive one for the Serbian people."

In a statement, his office added, "'Mars na Drinu' is a song that takes a central place in our memory of defending our freedom from aggressors in World War I, during which Serbia lost around one-third of its male population in the many battles fought on the side of the allies."

The statement continued: "We are very proud of it, and we wanted to share it with the world with a clearly stated accompanying message of reconciliation for present and future generations."

With additional reporting by Gordana Knezevic from RFE/RL's Balkan Service

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