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Balkans Without Borders

For Susan Sontag, staging a play in wartime Sarajevo was an act of conscience rather than a political act.

Editor's Note: April 5 is the 25th anniversary of the shootings in Sarajevo of two peace demonstrators, a flash point leading to the 1,425-day siege of the Bosnian capital by Bosnian Serb forces.

I will never forget April 5, 1992. I was working for the Sarajevan daily newspaper Oslobodjenje, and on that day I was downtown covering a large peace demonstration in front of the parliament. Suddenly, shots were fired into the crowd and we all cowered instinctively.

Two women were killed that day. But when I returned to our newsroom, only one of the victims' names was known. She was a student from Dubrovnik, Suada Dilberovic, and she had been killed by a sniper's bullet fired from the Holiday Inn hotel, where the Serb Democratic Party (SDS) led by Radovan Karadzic had positioned its gunmen.

Later, it emerged that another woman, Olga Sucic, had also died. The bridge over the Miljacka River is now named after these two women, who were killed while demonstrating for peace. Occasionally, people leave flowers next to the plaque that bears their names.

Although we weren’t fully aware of it at the time, that was the first day of the war in Bosnia. For Suada and Olga, of course, it was also the last. For most Sarajevans, it was the beginning of nearly 1,500 days under siege, with its daily suffering and humiliations. The structure of civil life was broken. The mountains surrounding the city became our worst enemies. The city was relentlessly bombarded for the next 3 1/2 years. All telephone lines were cut, along with virtually any other form of communication with the outside world.

PHOTO GALLERY: The Siege Of Sarajevo

The only visitors to a city that had hosted the Winter Olympics a few years earlier were war correspondents, and UN officials and soldiers. That's why the rare appearances by foreign writers and artists were so precious to us. Perhaps the most fondly remembered among those few who risked their lives by coming to besieged Sarajevo was Susan Sontag (1933-2004).

Her first "mission" was to meet with members of the Bosnian chapter of PEN International to help them cope with wartime scarcities. A few short visits later, she came with a more ambitious and unlikely project in mind: to stage a play in wartime Sarajevo with local actors. Her closest friend and guide was director Haris Pasovic. He had been doing his best to keep theater alive under impossible conditions; Pasovic saw it as a way to preserve normality.

Sontag thought of it in similar terms. Rather than a political act, she preferred to see it as an act of conscience. In her words:

"I was not under the illusion that going to Sarajevo to direct the play would make me useful in the way I could be if I were a doctor or a water-system engineer. It would be a small contribution. But it was the only one of three things I do -- write, make films, and direct in the theater -- which yields something that would exist only in Sarajevo, that would be made and consumed there."

Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot was an obvious choice. That play seemed as if it had been written for Sontag to stage in wartime Sarajevo. Like Vladimir and Estragon, the play’s central characters, waiting for a mysterious "Godot" who never arrives, Sarajevans waited in vain for the West to take some action to prevent the daily slaughter in their city and country. After a year and a half of the siege, every day was exactly like the one before, the only variable being the number of dead and wounded.

The square in front of the Bosnian National Theater is named after Sontag.
The square in front of the Bosnian National Theater is named after Sontag.

We did not publish the time and date of the performance, as copies of the newspaper were finding their way to the hills surrounding Sarajevo, where most of the Serb guns and artillery were positioned. Such information would have meant the addition of a theater, cinema, or exhibition to the list of targets.

We learned that the hard way. Once, in the first month of the war, we published information about a 5 p.m. opening of an exhibition of political cartoons, providing the address. Less than five minutes after it opened, the shelling began. I was not hit, but the detonation threw me to the floor. I was unable to move or to help the wounded who were just meters away.

So when it came to Sontag’s Godot, invitations were circulated strictly by word of mouth. A friend of mine told me about the premiere. It was at 2 p.m. on August 17, 1993. Once the lights were switched off, I felt like I was at some theater on Broadway or London’s West End. No one in the audience made a sound. During those two hours, Sarajevo felt like part of the civilized world; it was not abandoned. At the end of the performance, the Sarajevan actors received a standing ovation.

Once the curtain came down, the mayor of Sarajevo, Muhamed Kresevljakovic, called Sontag to the stage. He announced that she would be declared an honorary citizen of Sarajevo and that, as a token of that honor, she would receive something to identify herself as a Sarajevan. I had no idea what that something might be -- which marked me or anyone else as a citizen of Sarajevo. Sontag came onstage and was presented with a miniature traditional Bosnian carpet. Kresevljakovic told her that every citizen of Sarajevo dreams of leaving the city on a magic carpet and that now she would have one of her own.

Today, decades later, the square in front of the Bosnian National Theater is named after Sontag -- "in the heart of Sarajevo forever," in Pasovic's words.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.
A Declaration on Common Language concerning four Balkan states is presented to the media in Sarajevo on March 30.

An initiative launched in the Bosnian capital on March 30 by hundreds of notables and NGOs marks a major effort to bolster the consensus that Croats, Serbs, Bosniaks, and Montenegrins all speak the same language.

It might seem uncontroversial to assert that these neighboring peoples, who until just decades ago shared a country, speak their own standard versions of the same polycentric language.

But word of the so-called Declaration on Common Language -- dubbed by some the Sarajevo Declaration and allying hundreds of personalities and experts from across the Balkans -- has been met with howls of official outrage across the region. Opponents see the initiative as reviving the ghost of the former Yugoslavia -- one of whose official languages was Serbo-Croatian, which is now variously designated as Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin, or Serbian. The declaration is therefore regarded by nationalist elites in Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, and Montenegro as a threat.

Since the dismantling of Yugoslavia through proclamations of independence and successive wars between 1991 and 1999, the politics of identity has taken center stage in each of these countries. Contrasts are emphasized as symbols of statehood -- and language, above all, is put forward as evidence of distinction.

Croatian 'Newspeak'

Croatia led the way in the early 1990s with the creation of "newspeak" in the best Orwellian tradition, eliminating words that were seen as being of Serbian, or generally foreign, origin and inventing new, irreproachably Croatian ones. Bosnia-Herzegovina increased the number of Turkish words in its vocabulary, while Montenegro even introduced a new letter of the alphabet.

Years of political pressure over the "purity" of language in all these countries provoked a reaction in the form of meetings that led to the Sarajevo Declaration. Those gatherings brought together writers, linguists, actors, directors, and artists from the region together to discuss the relationships between nationalism and language.

The result is the Sarajevo Declaration, which arguably just states the obvious -- that the people in these four countries (Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, and Montenegro) understand each other; that they can communicate without interpreters. The signatories did not promote a "Serbo-Croatian" language, which is generally associated with the former Yugoslavia, as they are comfortable with different versions of the same language having different names: Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, Montenegrin. But that simple statement about a shared language is seen by others as a form of heresy -- or treason.

'Producing Future Enemies'

One of the authors of the Sarajevo Declaration, Serbian writer Vladimir Arsenijevic, says the goal of the initiative is to neutralize the damage done by nationalist identity politics in the region.

"It is most visible within the Bosnian education system, where we have two schools under one roof [children of different ethnic groups learning 'different' languages, and a different version of history]. The two-school system is a project designed to produce future enemies," Arsenijevic says.

Miro Lompar, professor of Serb literature at the University of Belgrade, is among the opponents of the initiative. He has expressed concern that the declaration's real goal is to make Serbs in Bosnia and Montenegro less aware of belonging to a Serb nation. Lompar told the Russian state news agency Sputnik in Belgrade ahead of the text's publication:

They would like to insist on a common language, but the motive is to distance ethnic Serbs living in Bosnia and Montenegro from the natural right to claim that they speak the Serbian language. In my opinion, this quasi-Yugoslav initiative is yet another attempt to de-nationalize Serbs in Bosnia and Montenegro, and at the same time to undermine the already incoherent and weak language policy being implemented by Serbia itself.

Sputnik's headline above the Lompar interview was even more dramatic, claiming: Balkan Esperanto [Is Set] To Extinguish The Serbian Language.

A 'Wolf Howl' Of Nationalists

Asked about the declaration a day before it was made public, Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic responded with questions about the need for such an initiative: "How could I support that [declaration]? Who in Croatia can support it?"

Plenkovic added: "The Croatian language is defined in our constitution. Croatian is one of the official languages of the EU. That's the only thing that matters to me. There is no need to waste words on sundry informal initiatives."

A former Croatian culture minister and an informal leader of that country's far-right, Zlatko Hasanbegovic, used stronger language to denounce the Sarajevo Declaration as "a wolf howl of Yugoslav nationalists for their lost country."

But a supporter of the initiative, Croatian journalist Ante Tomic, asked rhetorically in his regular column in Jutarnji List whether "we are so stupid that we cannot memorize more than one word for a certain thing." Tomic added that through a language policy based on "pure Croatian," the state is not only controlling its subjects but also creating confusion and stoking animosity against ethnic Serbs.

"I signed [the Sarajevo Declaration] because it is a measure of reconciliation and it recognizes and includes everyone. It affirms differences, and allows for the fact that one thing can be called by many names, and that we all speak the same language, which is variously named Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian, or Montenegrin," Tomic said.

The Sarajevo Declaration claims to be nothing more than a strong statement against language being used in any project of segregation -- like that of Bosnian schools -- and against political manipulation based on the restricted use of language.

The Declaration on Common Language will officially go online on April 1, after which the organizers are encouraging supporters to add their signatures to the list.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

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About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.


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