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Balkans Without Borders

Filmmaker Emir Kusturica (file photo)

Together they made movie history.

But their friendship didn't survive the war, and some might argue that neither man has scaled such creative heights since their acrimonious and very public falling out.

So at a poetry festival in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, over Christmas, Bosnian screenwriter Abdulah Sidran almost inevitably faced questions about his relationship with Sarajevo-born, internationally acclaimed director Emir Kusturica, who spends much of his time in Serbia, which he describes as his "homeland."

Speaking alongside a panel of other cultural figures, Sidran insisted that he remained close to many of his former acquaintances in other parts of the former Yugoslavia.

Bosnian writer and poet Abdulah Sidran in Belgrade on December 22, 2017..
Bosnian writer and poet Abdulah Sidran in Belgrade on December 22, 2017..

"Our countries were devastated, but I can personally attest that in the world of culture, hundreds of prewar friendships have survived."

However, Sidran said, his friendship with Kusturica "died a natural death, painless and by the will of God."

Days later, Kusturica responded by referring to Sidran as Bosnia-Herzegovina's "dead capital" -- a spent force -- having earlier referred to him as a "spiritual vagrant."

Sidran has previously claimed -- implausibly -- that the real Kusturica was in fact been killed defending Sarajevo against Serb forces in 1994 and replaced by a Serbian doppelgänger.

The iconic movie that launched Kusturica's international stardom, When Father Was Away On Business (1985), also gilded Sidran's reputation. The film was the story of a Bosnian family caught in the whirlwind of great political events -- the 1948 Tito-Stalin split that both led to a degree of democratization of Yugoslav politics and society but also ushered in a flood of false accusations, arrests, and the creation of a labor camp at Goli Otok that became a symbol of injustice in Tito's Yugoslavia. The film's plot is partly autobiographical: The father who is away on business is said to echo Sidran's own father, who was falsely accused of being a Stalin sympathizer and arrested in 1948.

Kusturica and Sidran also collaborated on Kusturica's first feature film, Do You Remember Dolly Bell? (1981), a coming-of-age story that was based on episodes from Sidran's youth.

Both films won major international awards -- in Venice and Cannes, among others -- and made Kusturica a hero in his hometown, as well as a household name throughout Yugoslavia.

But the projected third installment of Sidran's personal story was never filmed, and it is tempting to suggest that neither has managed to find an adequate replacement for the creativity of the other.

When war broke out in Bosnia in 1992, the two found themselves on opposing sides of the conflict and their personal feud has been simmering ever since.

As Serb forces tightened their noose around Sarajevo, subjecting the city to daily bombardment, news filtered out that Kusturica -- who was in Paris when fighting erupted -- had defended the actions of the Yugoslav Army. There was no food in the city, but some bars managed to stay open for a time, including one called the Majestic. There, Sidran would sit quietly as others expressed their disbelief and anger at Kusturica's stance.

At one point amid the siege on Sarajevo, news arrived that Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic had made Kusturica a present of a house on the Montenegrin coast. Many of the patrons of the Majestic were incensed, and some wondered if Kusturica was thinking about his parents, both of whom were still in the city under attack. Everyone looked in the direction of Sidran, the only close friend of Kusturica's among them.

After a long silence, Sidran said: "What a fool; he got a house but lost a city!"

(The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL)
Former Bosnian Croat Defense Minister Bruno Stojic (left) and former General Slobodan Praljak wait in court prior to the judgement in their appeals case on November 29.

Radovan Karadzic, the convicted Bosnian Serb war criminal, is said to be in deep mourning over the sudden death of fellow inmate Slobodan Praljak, the Bosnian Croat war criminal who took his life in front of TV cameras in The Hague courtroom on November 28.

"Radovan is very shaken and sad," his brother reported to the local media after talking to Karadzic over the phone. "I've met [Praljak] twice in The Hague and I could see how close he was to Radovan. They were like brothers."

Not much is known about the social life of the inmates at the Scheveningen prison. The thick walls of the Dutch prison guard many secrets. Over the past two decades morsels of information would emerge, usually through lawyers of the accused or those who had been released upon serving their sentence.

Prisoners are allowed to wear their own clothing. According to the testimony of a Macedonian tried at The Hague, Ljubo Boskovski, Croatian General Ante Gotovina -- who was arrested in the Canary Islands -- arrived at the prison in a short-sleeved T-shirt. Seeing that, former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic gifted him a sweater. They may have been ideologically at odds, and may have held that Croatian and Serbian are separate languages -- but they clearly had no trouble communicating.

Gotovina was one of the key military commanders in charge of Operation Storm that in the summer of 1995 liberated parts of Croatia still under Serbian occupation. While in Croatia the victory is celebrated as a national holiday, in Serbia it is lamented as the cause of the mass exodus of ethnic Serbs from areas where they had lived for centuries. One cannot help but wonder whether Gotovina and Milosevic shed tears together over the exiled Serbs, and then celebrated the liberation of Croatia?

Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic enters a courtroom in The Hague in August 2004.
Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic enters a courtroom in The Hague in August 2004.

Milosevic's generosity was legendary among the inmates. Apart from Gotovina's sweater, which the Croatian general is said to have worn often -- and not only on that day when he abruptly swapped Spanish sunshine for the overcast skies of the Netherlands -- Milosevic gave presents of blazers and ties to some of the other inmates so they would look presentable when they had to face the judges in the courtroom. It was all so very civilized. As much of the Croatian media gushed over former General Praljak, man of culture, a Zagreb-based analyst, Dejan Jovic wrote on Twitter, tongue in cheek: "A wonderful human being...too bad he's a war criminal."

In the wake of the official commemorations and laudatory editorials in the Croatian press that followed Praljak's suicide, the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje sarcastically proposed the formation of a "war criminals association" -- membership in which would be open to all regardless of ethnic or religious background, just as in Scheveningen prison. Perhaps it could eventually morph into an international organization. After all, the Oslobodjenje article continued, "great ideas often emerge from unlikely places." The legacy of The Hague could thus be the nurturing of the "brotherhood and unity" born in the Dutch prison.

Solidarity Behind Bars

"Brotherhood and unity" was, of course, the slogan that supposedly described the nature of relations between different peoples and ethnic groups in Tito's Yugoslavia. The wars of the 1990s were in fact fought against that very idea, and the aim of both Serbian and Croatian nationalist politicians and military leaders was the creation of contiguous, ethnically "clean" territories -- something that could only be achieved by force in a historically mixed region. More than 100,000 were killed in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo. Countless crimes against humanity and acts of genocide were committed, and 2 million people were displaced by the fighting, in many cases permanently.

Following this bloody divorce, those most responsible for the crimes on either side were reunited in The Hague detention unit. One might have expected sparks to fly between the ideologues of mutually exclusive nationalist and expansionist projects. And yet the contrary turned out to be the case. The Croatian and Serbian inmates played chess, exchanged books, and helped one another with their written appeals to the court.

One notorious example of the solidarity between The Hague inmates from former Yugoslavia was their collective reaction to Milosevic's sudden death in his prison cell in 2006, before the conclusion of his trial. The fond "last farewell" to a fallen brother -- published in the Belgrade daily Politika -- was signed by virtually all the inmates of Scheveningen prison. While this was hardly a surprise from Vojislav Seselj, the radical Serbian nationalist, it was jarring to many that Gotovina and other Croatian and Bosnian inmates also expressed their condolences.

The prison psychologist Zikica Simic told Radio B92 at the time: "This obituary only shows that we were all just pawns in a game played by a small group of individuals in positions of power, each with his psychological flaws. The rest of us paid the price, often with our lives. While Mladen Naletilic Tuta, Ante Gotovina, Slobodan Milosevic, and Vojislav Seselj played their games, countless people wasted their lives for nothing."

In July 2011, the warden of Scheveningen prison at the time, Timothy McFadden, said in an interview that prior to his death, Milosevic's next-door neighbor was a Bosnian Muslim general, and that the two men apparently became friends, playing chess together regularly.

Asked about this camaraderie behind the walls of The Hague prison, Zagreb based psychiatrist Dragan Pavelic found it unsurprising.

As he explained in a telephone interview with RFE/RL: "The extremes are within touching distance of one another. In the event, they [the Serbian and Croatian inmates at The Hague] happened to be on opposing sides, but they have plenty in common. For instance, they resemble one another in their pathological narcissism -- they all see themselves as grand historical figures. This narcissism combined with exhibitionism can take very malignant forms. They wanted to 'save' us all even though we never asked for it or needed saving. On the contrary, many people suffered and died as a result of being 'saved' by these men. This similar psychological profile explains the affinity they felt for each other which seems so strange to us."

Pavelic visited the tribunal and sat in the public gallery during one session of Milosevic's trial at The Hague.

"Milosevic's sense of his own grandeur was unmistakable. His mannerisms and speech suggested that he saw himself as a semi-divine being. He even magnanimously pronounced some words that sounded like sympathy for the victims. But above all he was a man on a mission. Milosevic, like the others detained at The Hague, was not someone who required psychiatric treatment. They may all be described as normal narcissists," Pavelic said.

It is this shared sense of being misunderstood, of being unjustly prosecuted for fulfilling the providential destiny of their respective peoples that no doubt explains the sense of brotherhood between the mainly Serbian and Croatians politicians and generals on trial for war crimes at The Hague. In retrospect, even in the midst of conflict, they had needed one another as antagonists, to feed their competing narratives of victimhood -- but they also understood one another, and their respective goals, quite perfectly. The warmth between Milosevic, Gotovina and the rest of the inmates at Scheveningen prison only underlined that obvious though profoundly unsettling fact.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those 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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