At the end of this personal journey through Bosnian history, the former President declares "If I were offered life again, I would refuse it. But, if I had to be born again, I would choose my life." And this is Alija Izetbegovic. Father, philosopher, activists, politician, statesman and to many, a reluctant hero, who sought to live life away from the glare of history. But the dark forces of history did not allow that.
Inescapable Questions captures the life and thoughts of an extraordinary man, an individual’s lone resistance at a time when the violence of the new world order mutated and then mutilated humanity’s innocence. When the world was only just awakening to the new order that might is right, a part of Europe was already plunged into a conflict of primeval dimensions, where "ethnic cleansing", the linguistically ambivalent phrase conveniently used in popular reportage, became a byword that sanitized the horrors of war.
In this descending madness, Izetbegovic was thrust into the deadly game of politics where his gentle disposition was effortlessly battered by an assortment of nasties such as Radovan Karadzic and Slobodan Milosevic.
Faced with the reality of international ineptitude and staring military defeat in the face, he did not abandon the dream of a multi-ethnic, pluralistic Bosnia-Herzegovina. During the years of fighting parallel battles on the war front and at the negotiating table, Izetbegovic matured, grappling with the subtleties of realpolitik by seizing the initiative away from his foes - Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic and his Croatian counterpart, Franjo Tudjman.
Inescapable Questions is not an easy book. Against the backdrop of Western international political gangsterism, Izetbegovic discloses the intense mental battles that he waged against himself. Deeply religious, principled and an unashamed humanitarian, Izetbegovic fought for survival – survival of his people.
With the traumas of a brutalised nation weighing heavy on his tired shoulders, the 68-year-old President, bent but not broken, negotiated the future of his country. Members of the Collective Presidency, comprising equally of Muslims, Croats and Serbs, fluctuated with relative ease between conflicting parties. At the height of the negotiations, the three Croat members of the Collective Presidency announced their withdrawal from the Bosnian delegation, dealing a seemingly fatal blow to the idea of a multi-ethnic Bosnian presidency, a move clearly incited by Croatian President, Tudjman, and given a characteristic nudge by international mediator, David Owen, to destabilize Izetbegovic. Holding the trump cards at the other end of the table was the ugly face of Serbian nationalism, Slobodan Milosevic. The consummate politician, Milosevic kept a calculated distance from the peace process until the situation in the killing fields all but buried any hope for a multi-ethnic unitary state, effectively destroying the Vance-Owen plan. When the going got rough, Cyrus Vance, astute businessman and politician serving as UN envoy to the negotiating process, decided it was time to leave. Owen, a failed British politician motivated perhaps by the allure of power and politics, embraced the Serb-Croat partition plan as the only solution. For the Bosnians this was the death knell, as then Pakistan Foreign Minister, Abdul Sattar, remarked, "The choice available to the Bosnians is between murder or suicide". While the Vance-Owen plan outlined a federal structure, maintaining the territorial integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina, divided into ten largely autonomous provinces, the new formula from Belgrade and Zagreb was for the total dismemberment of the country, splitting it between Muslim, Croat and Serb - a recipe that aggravated ethnic hatred – shamelessly endorsed by the acquiescent Western powers.
Shame, irony and tragedy best described the response of Western countries towards the carnage that unfolded on television screens. There was even an absence of rhetoric from Western democracies.
In Geneva, the three warring factions pursued a policy of charges and counter-charges, where invectives were exchanged at diplomatic level. Their vision of the future was as clouded as the fog that surrounded Sarajevo on a winter’s morning. The threat of NATO air strikes, a burden to one, a hope for the other, a joke to the third, were more of a distraction than a solution. This diversion was a source of irritation to Owen and his UN counterpart, Thorvald Stoltenberg. Izetbegovic, hopes fuelled by the prospect of air strikes, gained an unexpected upper hand and began dictating the course of negotiations. He stuck firm to his condition of no negotiations without withdrawal of Bosnian Serb forces from strategic high ground surrounding Sarajevo, backed by a July 30, 1993, cease-fire agreement. While it postponed the agony of ethnic partition, the drums of war were beating ever so loud.
And then there was the Islamic world - hand wringing at best from a safe distance. While the streets were outraged at the plight of their brethren, Islamic leaders, disdainful of popular opinion, demonstrated paralysis of choicest quality. It took sixteen months of bloodshed and unprecedented displacement of persons for the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) to send a delegation to air out its conscience. So often as the case was the cries from the streets fell on deaf ears. It is a truism of war that the victors dictate the course of the future, while the victims reside on the margins of that "peace". The dictum of the new world order is that aggression is profitable. After three years of war, Bosnia's rebellious Serbs, guilty of the most heinous crimes against humanity since World War II, acquired international acceptability. It would have been ironic had they been placed on par with the victims, but as it was, they were given the edge-reducing irony to tragedy.
The plan rendered the sociological soil of a pluralistic culture infertile, in spite of a passing reference to human rights provisions. That for centuries Bosnian Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics lived in harmony, intermittently disrupted by discordant voices of fascism and Nazism, have also been ignored. Terrifyingly these disruptive elements could still be revived with the implementation of the new blueprint for peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Inescapable Questions asks the obvious question: why was the war in the Balkans allowed to happen. Was it a conspiracy; didn’t people know; why wasn’t more done to stop it; and is it true that only bad things happen to good people?
As the book concludes and Izetbegovic brings an end to his political life, his last act in public office was addressing a group of young school students: "As I spoke at that day’s meeting, pictures of a world from more than 50 years ago followed one another in the mists of my memories…..For a moment there I returned to my youth, the early youth, when all nice illusions were gathered together. Then life came and, like a strong wind, blew them away, one by one. What we call happiness is sometimes the accordance between our life and circumstances, our biography and history, our personal aspirations and historical currents. If I look at things that way, I can say: I was born too early to be happy. But birth is one of the many things we do not get to choose. It is part of our destiny."
Inescapable Questions: Autobiographical Notes is a rare story. More than cherishing the book it is time to revere the life and times of a remarkable man.
Inescapable Questions is available from Amazon UK, Germany and France. Izetbegovic's Notes from Prison, 1983-1988 is also available from Amazon USA, UK and Canada.
Read an obituary of Alija Izetbegovic by the author Nadeem Azam
Exclusive interview with Dr Mustafa Ceric, a friend of Izetbegovic and spiritual leader of the Bosnian Muslims
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