“Serbs, Croats and the Bosniaks have three separate languages. When they speak, however, they understand each other perfectly, as their three languages are identical.”
— Danis Tanovic
“History, I´m afraid, will be as harsh against international actors as it will be against local forces and actors in the region of Balkan.”
— Carl Bildt, (former conservative Swedish Prime and EU mediator during the Bosnia war)
You are aware of the fact that making war is one of the silliest among human activities, aren’t you? Of course you are! But let’s be fair — lovemaking, which is often proposed as an alternative activity, does not always appear so smart either. Especially not so if regarded from outside at its physical height by an independent observer who is unaware of the background and the aim of the act.
“No man’s land” (Nikorgarsnja zemlja), the film made by Danis Tanovic, which was awarded an Oscar by Hollywood as “best foreign language movie”, is depicting the Bosnia war summer 1993 in a similar way — i.e., on its physical height without presenting its background and aims. As Mr. Tanovic himself is a Bosniak, making his film primarily for an audience, well aware of the course of the war, has indeed the privilege to focus on the tragic and awkward aspects of the war. He may even in this way consider himself stressing one of his main points — the absurdity of fratricide, the passivity of the international (i.e., Western) community and the hyena-like behaviour of mass media.
For us who have not been in the trenches down there and who may even, according to our ability, harbour the ambition of creating a future world without war, the issue may be different. Because...
Absurd or not — wars happen. Each war — it may be triggered through bad ruling by a soccer umpire or by the bullet holes made in an archduke – has its concrete underlying causes. That applies to the Bosnia war as well.
There is no evidence whatsoever that Balkan nations by nature are more belligerent than others. Still, through history many wars have been fought on the Balkan Peninsula. The creation of Yugoslavia on the ruins of a couple of collapsed imperia in 1919 did not permit its people to live in peace. Two million citizens were slaughtered by the German fascists during WW II. The creation of Yugoslavia as a federation of republics where Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Hungarians, Albanians, Montenegrins and Macedonians could keep peace among themselves for 70 years was still an act of genius. No doubt the geopolitical situation for a long period after WW II helped a lot. What had often before shown disastrous for the Balkan nations — their situation in the middle between, and squeezed by, rivaling big power blocs — turned into an advantage during the Cold War. No great power of influence seemed to desire the dissolution of Yugoslavia as a state, at least not until the 80s.
The internal conditions for the re-balkanization of Yugoslavia were created by its accelerating economic crisis during the 70s and 80s. Like other former socialist states it slipped into the claws of the IMF, and was forced to follow its recipes — by now notorious — for creating new exploiting strata by means of factitious unemployment and poverty. Socialistic remnants in the economy of the Yugoslav republics were annihilated as a result of a fruitful collaboration between the creditors in the West and the new, local predator capitalists. Old ideologies, like national chauvinism, separatism and racism became instrumental for the strivings of the latter to substitute socialism for another social glue, more compatible with the directives of the IMF. And — last but not least — the collapse of the Soviet Union drastically diminished the interest among Western powers to maintain the integrity of the Yugoslav federation as the renewed national separatism created new opportunities to incorporate the Balkan into their sphere of interest.
Germany, freshly reunited and ambitious as ever, was first on the spot, followed by Austria and the Vatican. Germany exerted a lot of pressure on the EU in order to enforce recognition of the independence of Slovenia and Croatia, fully aware of the consequences, i.e., for large groups of Serbs, who had earlier been able to live as minorities in several Yugoslav republics under the protection of the federation. But most western politicians hesitated to grant Bosnia independence. Not only because there was no Bosnian nationality: In the beginning of the 90s there lived 1.7 million Muslims (Bosniaks), 1.3 million Serbs (orthodox Catholics), 700,000 Croats (Roman Catholics) and 300,000 defining themselves as “Yugoslavs” – all of them speaking the same language.
However, now was the time for the USA, risking to lag behind, losing its position as overlord in Western Europe, to enter into the arena. For quite a time the USA had resisted the German ambitions to disintegrate Yugoslavia by granting its northern republics political independence. Now, on the contrary, it pushed and lured (at the beginning secretly) the Muslim leaders of Bosnia to proclaim the independence of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The USA started secret deliveries of weaponry to Bosnia, evidently fully conscious of the prospect that this would lead to a civil war at the same time as it would increase the pressure on the Albanians in Serbia’s Kosovo province.
At this time in our Western media we were provided with juicy reports of Serbian massacres in Muslim villages and of the establishment of Serbian concentration camps. To put it mildly, this was not the whole truth of the matter.
A world opinion was soon fabricated, demanding a US intervention (under the flag of UN) because nowadays nobody is allowed to wage a war of some importance without US participation or, at least, US approval. Through some US bombings and after dispatching some UN ground forces the Dayton Agreement was enforced: In the middle of the 90s Bosnia was separated from Yugoslavia as a UN protectorate, dominated by the USA and its puppy, Great Britain. The “ethnical cleansing” of Bosnia from Serbs was continued under official UN protection. A tribunal in The Hague was established in order to confirm that the Serbs, and the Serbs alone, were responsible for the Bosnia war and its atrocities, thus making the US intervention necessary. The plans, harboured by Germany and France, of gaining a larger measure of independence for Western Europe within NATO, were effectively crossed — which was one of the main objectives of the US intervention. 1
I am afraid it will take some time before someone will make a black movie comedy about the Balkan wars from this bird’s perspective, demonstrating the fact that these wars were not more or less silly than other wars — i.e., from the perspective of those who triggered them or profited of them.
Above all Tanovic’s film is an allegory with a pacifist message – the Balkan fratricides shouldn’t have happened:
Two Bosniaks (?) and one Serb (?) by mistake jump into the same trench between the frontlines. One of the Bosniaks regretfully is lying on top of a mine which will explode if he moves away from his position. The mine is laid by a Serb as a booby trap. Most of the time the men are quarrelling, sometimes they are forced to collaborate by the circumstances, sometimes they even talk about common girlfriends from the past. The UN forces arrive at the spot in order to solve the problem but finally abstain in order to avoid political complications. In the end the Serb and the Bosniak, half by mistake, kill each other. The man on the mine is left alone in the same position as before. As a humanitarian gesture the UN commander makes sure that both sides will, later, bombard the trench believing that the opposite side has conquered it.
Tanovic took part in the fights in Bosnia. He admits that he has a firm personal opinion in the matter, at the same time he is claiming that he has made a non-partisan movie. However, that would have been to ask too much from him. He has got one thing right — on the trench level, from the point of view of the victims, the Bosnia war was just another absurd and unnecessary slaughter. But this insight doesn’t help much. Anyone could have figured that out without knowing anything about this special war.
And in fact the war took place. Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats may have provided the fertile soil. But who planted the seed?
By representing the war as taking place in a closed chamber where the distrust between Bosniaks and Serbs (where are the Croats?) provides the only motive force behind the war he is, I think, getting the criticism against the West (at this stage of the war the UN troops, dominated by Frenchmen and Britons) completely wrong. For, according to Tanovic, it is their inertia and their lack of commitment which is to blame. If my picture of the war (nowadays apparently shared by Mr. Bildt and others) is even a bit true this is to turn the world upside down as the Western powers have, for quite a time, been firmly committed to the project of achieving the re-balkanisation of the region which triggered the war.
It is not too far-fetched to track, in Tanovics film, an ardent wish for a US intervention on the Bosniak side. At the time of the drama in the trench this intervention was in fact already at work, through secret channels, a fact that Tanovic ought to be familiar with as he shot the movie. The year after it became all too apparent.
So, as a matter of fact, it was the USA who laid the mine underneath Bosnia. Why does the non-partisan Tanovic forget this — after all, he was there?
Therefore one might feel a slight discomfort experiencing that the same USA is awarding No Man’s Land as “best foreign movie”.
But, alas, perhaps I’m just paranoid as usual!
-- Hans Isaksson
 My recapitulation of the above historical events is supported – and inspired — by Peter Gowan’s text in the British Magazine Labour Focus on Eastern Europe — 62/1999.