Letter from the Balkans — From the December 2015 issue

The Counterparty

Can Bosnia escape the stranglehold of ethnic politics?

Download Pdf
Read Online
( 2 of 8 )

One person who was not in Potocari for the ceremony was Pedja Kojovic, the president of one of the country’s newest political parties, Naša Stranka (“Our Party”). A former journalist and a sometime poet, Kojovic, who is fifty, has shoulder-length brown hair that he parts down the middle. He speaks with a slight, thoughtful reticence. On non-parliamentary days, he wears a tight black T-shirt and jeans, a holdover from the years he worked as a cameraman for Reuters. A week before the peace march, I met him in one of Sarajevo’s ubiquitous cafés. We sat at a counter that looked out onto the brutalist structures and neo-Renaissance buildings in faded greens and pinks that alternate along Marshal Tito, a boulevard that runs through the city center. Kojovic had plans later that month to visit the village of Doljani, where he’d come across the aftermath of a massacre in 1993, and he had loudly condemned Russia’s veto of the U.N. genocide resolution. But he expressed a wariness about the ways in which various groups had appropriated the annual Srebrenica ceremony for their own purposes. “I don’t want to turn it into a marketing campaign,” he said. In the decades since the war, commemorations in Bosnia have become a new battleground, where feuds over narrative — who was guilty, who was victimized — are played out in grotesque pantomime. Srebrenica lies deep inside a part of the country that is now governed by the Bosnian Serbs, and, as I discovered, the authorities there have been known to make trouble for visitors who come to pay tribute to those who died in the genocide. “When we are able to recognize that all victims were our victims,” Kojovic said, “that will be the first step in reconciliation.”

Map by Dolly Holmes

Map by Dolly Holmes

Kojovic spent the first half of the 1990s reporting on the wars of independence that accompanied the disintegration of Yugoslavia: he followed them first to Slovenia, then to Croatia, and finally back home to Bosnia. Aleksandar Hemon, the novelist, who was his roommate at the time, described for me recently the tense months leading up to the Bosnian War, which had brought an almost frantic pursuit of pleasure. According to Hemon, Kojovic had fallen in love with a woman from Istria, in Croatia, and “he would lie back, with his eyes closed, and repeat these Istrian words that he found strange. And the word that he would say was something like ‘mruljice.’ And I’d say, ‘What the fuck is mruljice?’ He told me it was a dustpan. The least romantic object in the world. But he would just be on his back repeating the Istrian word for ‘dustpan.’ ”

Reality quickly upended their late-twenties oblivion: when Kojovic was dispatched to Croatia, in 1991, he was detained and tortured by the Croatian army. “He was all beaten up,” Hemon told me. “He would spend an hour in the bathtub soaking his bruises. He was so destroyed he couldn’t sleep.” Kojovic’s father, a Serb, was an eye surgeon who worked at the hospital in Bosniak-controlled Sarajevo throughout the war; near the end of the conflict, he was arrested by the Serbs and put in a concentration camp for aiding the enemy. After he was released, four months later, he and his family, including Pedja, left for the United States.

Kojovic had been working for Reuters in Washington, D.C., for twelve years when, in 2007, he returned to Bosnia to promote a book of poems he had written. In Sarajevo he had coffee with Danis Tanovic, a filmmaker who won an Academy Award at thirty-three for his first feature, an absurdist reverie on the Bosnian War, and Dino Mustafic, a popular theater director. Over the course of a long conversation, they found that they were all troubled by the paralysis and corruption of the country’s postwar political system. Kojovic moved back to Sarajevo the following year with plans to read and write poetry, but he ended up joining Tanovic, Mustafic, and a multiethnic group of artists and intellectuals who were disappointed with the Bosnian left and had decided to run in local elections as Naša Stranka. Tanovic lent the party the considerable heft of his name — “It was like Danis was opening a nightclub, and ten thousand people showed up the opening night,” Kojovic said — and Mustafic brought the political connections.

The founding members of Naša Stranka spent the summer and fall of 2008 visiting sixty towns around Bosnia. “We had zero cash, so we used our friendships and authority to provide some sort of campaign,” Kojovic told me. They incurred a hundred thousand dollars of debt. “I would go and say to a friend who runs the printer’s shop, ‘Hey, can you print us fifty thousand posters of this? I’ll pay you sometime.’ ” But they all felt that reform could only happen from within the system. “It couldn’t be done by writing open letters or civil society, that kind of stuff,” Kojovic said. Given the party’s limited time and resources, the members of Naša Stranka counted it a considerable victory when they won nearly 15 percent of the vote in Sarajevo that fall.

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $23.99/year.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf
Share
lives in Brooklyn. Her work on this article was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

More from Elisabeth Zerofsky:

Coda November 18, 2016, 3:35 pm

Le Trump

Marine Le Pen in the age of Trump

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2019

Men at Work

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

To Serve Is to Rule

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Bird Angle

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The K-12 Takeover

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The $68,000 Fish

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

Close

You’ve read your free article from Harper’s Magazine this month.

*Click “Unsubscribe” in the Weekly Review to stop receiving emails from Harper’s Magazine.