Articles on the Bosnia Conflict



Bosnia-Herzegovina 2019, report #5: Pride in Sarajevo.

2019 Report index

Report 1 Why Bosnia; Exodus; protests; Scandal.
Report 2 Impunity, manipulation, activism.
Report 3:
Aluminij conglomerate; Corruption at Gikil.
Report 4
Political charades; militarization of police.
Report 5Pride in Sarajevo.
Report 6Migrants stuck in BiH on the way to Europe. 

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There is pride in Sarajevo.

The good people of Sarajevo proved this on September 8, when they held the "last first" Pride march, without incident, surpassing expected attendance by far. The event was a reaffirmation of the legendary "Sarajevo spirit" of tolerance, creativity, and freedom.

When in early April of this year the Pride March was announced for September 8, there was an understandable case of nerves on the part of people who cared about human rights in Sarajevo, particularly LGBT rights. Sarajevo was the last European capital to hold its first Pride March. There was an attempt at holding a gay pride festival in the summer of 2008, but it did not get off the ground. It started with a photograph exhibit at the Academy of Fine Arts—and there it ended, when a combination of "soccer hooligans" and hard-line religious fundamentalists vamped on visitors to the exhibit, putting some of them in the hospital.

The message delivered was that Sarajevo was a dangerous place for queers, and that they had better not even think about organizing any more public manifestations. A lesser incident of violence took place in 2014, when three people were hurt by masked vandals who attacked a smaller festival.

Meanwhile, similar violence has taken place in Split, Croatia, and in Belgrade, Serbia, when gay pride marches have been held. In Belgrade, more recently, the event has become somewhat normalized. And in Zagreb, Croatia's capital, the Pride March is a regular and accepted event.

But in Sarajevo—and moreso in the rest of Bosnia-Herzegovina—gay people have had to remain underground, without any public venues where they can congregate and support each other.

This goes against the vaunted "spirit of Sarajevo" (Sarajevski duh), which you hear about if you spend any real time in the city. Sarajevo has been a cultural center for all of former Yugoslavia. Before the 1990s war it had its own brand of sophistication, generating rock bands, films, art, and literature that were very well received throughout the country.
Safet Zec, Isak Samokovlija, Miljenko Jergović, Jadranka Stojanković, the Nobel Laureate Ivo Andrić, Midhat Riđanović, Goran Bregović, Emir Kusturica, Zdravko Čolić, Vesna Ljubić, Mersad Berber, and many more artists and intellectuals came from Sarajevo or spent their most creative years there.

Sarajevo was always a multi-cultural city, and people celebrated that diversity. Jews, Muslims, Orthodox Christians, and Catholics lived side by side, intermarried, and created a cultural center over the centuries. When in the mid-19th century the Ottoman vizier of Sarajevo arrested a rabbi and threatened to execute him if the Jewish community did not pay a steep ransom, the Muslim notables of the city organized a protest and liberated the rabbi.

And there were the not-so-ordinary "regular" people of Sarajevo, the raja that you'll always hear about, who know they're as hip as New York City, whom nothing fazes. One of that crowd told me that the three-plus years of siege was "a meditation."

But the war succeeded not only in breaking that meditation, but in driving out most of the non-Muslims, replacing them with villagers seeking refuge, and installing a Muslim nationalist, profiteer government. Many of the artists and intellectuals left the city forever. When I returned to Sarajevo after the war, a composer friend of mine told me that it would take fifty years for the city to recover.

Part of that recovery has been political. Throughout the postwar period there have been periodic local victories by non-nationalist coalitions going up against the most powerful Bosniak nationalist party, the SDA. In this, Sarajevo has come in second only to Tuzla in attempting to promote and preserve a political culture that is based on citizenship rather than ethnicity. The verdict is not in; non-Muslims for the most part feel outnumbered in the city, and discrimination has been practiced ever since the war. Added to that, all of the non-nationalist parties have made shady compromises when it suited them. There are no clean politics in Bosnia. But
Naša Stranka, a leader in the present coalition governing Sarajevo since late 2018, is one of the more sincerely non-nationalist parties.

All of this background is by way of saying that Sarajevo has a tradition and potential for openness—and resistance to Bosnia's overriding conservatism and patriarchy—that outstrips progressive impulses in most of the rest of the country. The question is how much the city has recovered its creativity, its intellectual strength, and its liberatory tradition. The matter of LGBT rights is the new boundary to be crossed.

Organizers of the Pride March said in advance, "No longer will we allow people to beat us, to shut us in, or to throw us out of our houses and jobs. The march will help people to realize that we exist, that we are here, that we are humans." 

And Tanya Domi, a professor, gay rights activist, and commentator who has been closely involved with Bosnia for many years, looked forward to her participation in the upcoming march, calling it an "antidote to the post-war ethnic division that has characterized Bosnia and Herzegovina." She anticipated that "Sarajevo’s positive reputation will indeed be tested by a new generation of post-war queer youth who refuse to remain silent or closeted, or to be invisible."

After the Pride March was announced, the backlash began, to be answered in turn by pro-human rights organizations. The leadership of the Narod i Pravda (NiP—People and Justice) party, a spinoff of the SDA, announced, "We advocate for rule of law, tolerance, and coexistence of all different people, but we oppose the organization of a demonstration that will not improve, but will rather damage the overall security situation in Sarajevo and beyond." Since Elmedin Konaković, former prime minister of Sarajevo Canton, is the leader of the NiP party and now chairman of the Canton Assembly, the party's opposition carried weight.

The NiP further  declared that a "great majority of citizens of Sarajevo opposed the Pride March, because it was in opposition to traditional values and their religious feelings." In response Edin Forto, the current prime minister of the canton and a member of
Naša Stranka, announced that he would do all he could to ensure that all citizens of the canton be treated equally, that they had the right to demonstrate, and that they would be protected by the police.

Aleksandar Hemon, the Bosnian-American writer originally from Sarajevo, commented that the "degree of progress of a society is best measured by the relationship between the majority and the minority, toward the weakest and the endangered. Certainly that includes the LGBT people." He concluded that the Pride March should have taken place a long time ago, and that if Bosnia is a democracy, then the LGBT citizens have the unquestionable right to existence and expression in the public space.

And the Građanski Savez (GS—Civic Alliance), led by people from the activist/political realm including Emir Suljagić and Reuf Bajrović, announced its full support to the organizers of the Pride March and condemned the "primitive call" on the part of NiP, which it characterized as an implicit threat of security problems.  GS declared colorfully that the cancellation of the march would be "wind in the sails of the enemies of Sarajevo, who persistently want to explain to the world that we are a conservative, shabby, un-free environment where there is no water [referring to recurrent water shutoffs], the air is as bad as that in Pyongyang, and minorities are in a position similar to those in a theocratic regime, as wished for by the NiP."

As summer passed, organizers of the march announced that they expected some 500 participants. They titled the event "Ima iza
ć," sometimes translated as "I want out." I find it more accurate to translate as "One most go out," with the double entendre being that one must go out onto the streets, and one must come out as gay.

Criticism of the upcoming march got worse. Samra Ćosović-Hajdarević, a Sarajevo SDA representative, posted a diatribe on Facebook against LGBT people, saying they should be isolated and "removed from our children and our community." The statement was removed from Facebook as hate speech. The SDA was one of the first organizations that called for the cancellation of the Pride March.

In late August, ten days before the Pride March, an organization calling itself "Svijetlo" (Light) announced a counter-demonstration for September 7. The group called for a peaceful march in protest of the Pride March, declaring that Sarajevo had already proven its tolerance and that the traditional family was the pillar of society.

A week later, the conservative political Muslim organization "Mladi Muslimani" (Young Muslims), with roots back to the mid-20th century and a history of Muslim nationalist activism, announced a second counter-demonstration, to take place on the morning of September 8, before the Pride March and in a different part of the city. The organization issued a proclamation stating that LGBT people were neither non-violent, nor endangered. The statement called on intellectuals "to hold to traditional values, and to reject the thesis that being gay is not unnatural." It quoted the Kur'an, and called on the international community not to support the Pride March, also calling on the media to avoid using the term "Pride march" but rather to call it the "Parade of shame." The declaration ended by saying that LGBT organizers are not sincerely concerned with human rights, and that "relevant statistics" show that most pedophiles are gay.

In response to the announced counter-demonstrations, Martina Mlinarević Sopta. a prominent progressive writer and commentator from Herzegovina, wrote that calling the event announced for September 7 a "Day of the traditional family" was extremely hypocritical. She lamented that the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina's Teachers' Union supported the counter-demonstration, and asked, "What is the traditional BiH family? Is it traditional when men cheat and lie, and sleep with whomever they want, and then emphasize their family orientation all over Facebook and Instagram? Is the traditional family the one where there is shouting, cursing, and thievery, and then its members regularly attend religious services and donate charitably?"

With two counter-demonstrations announced, and bearing in mind the bad history of 2008 and 2014, police announced that not only would there be over a thousand police units present at the march, but there would also be snipers posted on the tops of buildings along the route. People living in the many apartments above Mar
šala Tita Boulevard were admonished to keep their windows closed throughout the time of the march.

And the organizers announced strict measures: entrance to the march would take place only in one location and for exactly one hour. Participants were requested not to bring bottles, spray deodorant, pepper spray, or fingernail kits. They were also warned to take care when approaching the march and when leaving.

Meanwhile, US Ambassador to Bosnia-Herzegovina Eric Nelson, an openly gay Trump appointee (?!), declared his full support for the march and announced that he would be participating with his partner. After this, someone posted placards in several locations around Sarajevo bearing Eric Nelson's photograph, with the inscription, "Gay is not ok." Members of the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, and the Green Party of Germany also announced that they would participate.

In response to the implicitly threatening statements from organizers of counter-demonstrations (especially from the Mladi Muslimani who were planning the September 8 counter-march), spokespersons from the official Islamic Community of BiH proclaimed, "Distance yourself from the march. Homosexuality is a sin. But the Kur'an prohibits violence." A statement "affirmed marriage and family," recalling that it is "an agreement between a man and a woman," but emphasizing that no individual is permitted to commit violence against another because of their personal beliefs or orientation.

I should note that while some conservative Muslims were among the leaders of the opposition to the Pride event, they did not hold a monopoly on the disapproval, as pointed out afterwards in a communique from the Advisory Council for Bosnia-Herzegovina, an American lobbying group. The Council criticized Western media for singling out Muslim sources exclusively as the challengers to gay rights, when it was also the case that the Catholic Church in Sarajevo harshly opposed the march as well.

And so it happened that the weekend of September 7 and 8 took place without violence, but with drama and emotion.

The first event, the Day of the Traditional Family, kicked off in the afternoon of the 7th. A reported several hundred people attended, traveling on the same route as the planned Pride March the next day. Among others participating were Samra Ćosović-Hajdarević; the director of the Sarajevo Canton tourism organization; and Saudin Sivro, the president of the Sarajevo Canton Teachers' Union. Sivro proclaimed, "We are always for human rights and workers rights, but we will not allow anyone to endanger the family, as the pillar of society." And a member of a veterans' organization challenged the US Ambassador, saying, "No one has the right to provoke us, not even Ambassador Nelson." He further termed the Pride March "terrorization."

The "family values" demonstration passed without great energy or impact, although immediately afterwards, a group calling itself the "Open-minded Parents" circulated an on-line petition calling for Sivro's removal. Part of the petition read, "Because of his homophobic outbursts, accompanied by religious intolerance, we parents...who do not share the primitive, fascist attitudes of Saudin for his replacement by someone who has higher moral principles, who will not spread hate and intolerance toward unprotected minorities, but who will rather have a civilized, open, European outlook toward all minorities regardless of religious or sexual orientation."

The next day's counter-demonstration, organized by an Islamic theologian named Sanin Musa, carried a more bellicose tone. About 150 people attended, marching down Alipa
šina Ulica (a couple kilometers from the Pride March) and carrying signs that were later described as bearing "homophobic and even fascistic" messages. Mr. Musa announced that there was to be no violence associated with this march. He also said that he did not wish for high school students to be taught that it was "ok for two men or two women to adopt a child." And he also opined that war veterans should have come and "prevented the march from passing through the center of the city that they had defended." At the end of the march someone began to address the group, asserting that its protest should not be associated exclusively with one religion. He was interrupted and removed.

And Mr. Musa announced, "We are prepared to say 'no' to the debauchery that is taking place in this city...and this is just the beginning." He led a prayer in which he said, "Reward us with your mercy. We pray you...who can do what you wish, you can in the next hour, or in ten minutes, a minute, a second, change this sun and bring clouds. You can put rain that has never been seen before upon this city...let loose an unrecorded deluge, and drive them apart, may they flee..."—after which the crowd said, "amen."

But the weather remained sunny, and the Pride March, assembling at the Eternal Flame in the center of town, headed along
Maršala Tita Boulevard for nearly a mile, toward the Bosnian Parliament. All were surprised at the turnout, with several sources estimating it at 3,000. One participant conjectured that the counter-demonstrations helped inspire people who were on the fence decide to take part.

The atmosphere was described as festive, with cheerful interaction between marchers and local residents waving from their closed windows above. People chanted in Bosnian, "Death to fascism," and "The streets are ours." One placard read, "Proletarians of all identities, unite." People from as far away as New Zealand and Australia marched; Canton Prime Minister Forto took part, as did filmmaker
Jasmila Žbanić and theater producer Haris Pašović. The popular gender-fluid singer Božo Vrećo attended as well.

At the march's end organizer
Lejla Huremović spoke, saying, "We wish to build a society of non-violence, togetherness, support, where no one will have to confine their lives between four walls and where no one will be afraid to report violence that they experience or that they witness...Let love and freedom spread. That is our dream, and we have the courage to fight for that."

Afterwards, the popular Sevdalinka (traditional urban Ottoman folksong) singer Damir Imamovi
ć sang "Snijeg pade na behar na voće," an old song that has become somewhat of an underground anthem for the LGBT movement, since one of its lines goes, "Neka ljubi ko god koga hoće," that is, "Let everyone love whomever they wish." Imamović ended by singing the Italian anti-fascist song "Bella Ciao." And the revolutionary theme was carried on by Darko Rundek, singing the Spanish Civil War song "Ay Carmela."

Banja Luka social analyst and commentator Sr
đan Puhalo, who had come to Sarajevo to participate, tweeted, "Next year in Banja Luka."

Not an askance glance nor other untoward behavior was reported, other than the false bomb threat called in by someone who was quickly arrested because he had not bothered to conceal the identity of his cell phone.

All that was left was the post-march commentary, some of it nearly euphoric.

Selimbegović, editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, wrote that the march "demonstrated that Sarajevo that has, with loathing, rejected all force, repression; that Sarajevo that has never tolerated anyone's lawlessness and injustice...this was the first Balkan capital in which a Pride March passed without was cheerful, colorful, and entertaining. Sarajevo has once again shown that it has the strength and energy to demonstrate its understanding for others. That is that Sarajevo which, during the last its hardest days of the siege, knew how to preserve its dignity and humanity."

Journalist Đorđe Krajišnik agreed that the march under sunny skies was peaceful and happy, an event that celebrated life, opposing the culture of death "that has for two decades served as a daily portion of darkness that contaminates us." "Indeed," he continued, "The march showed that Sarajevo still certainly possesses its cosmopolitan spirit, that it is prepared to defend that, and that all that [opposition] was not as powerful as it seemed. The Pride March showed that otherness is possible in this city, that there is a strong enough critical mass that thinks of Sarajevo as an open-hearted city."

And novelist
Faruk Šehić wrote, "This was an event that you could not watch on the news. You had to take part, to be part of that unexpected multitude. That mass was not to be measured by the number of people, but by the quantity of positive energy we emitted in the course of two hours of walking and gathering...I thought how we, with our bodies, must prove how wrong the homophobes and right-wingers are. And we proved that. There is not a single march in which the rightists and our fascists could produce that amount of goodness and love that we sent out into the world today...Sarajevo has brought back faith in itself, at least for a moment. It has justified its legendary spirit of tolerance, which today, in everyday life, exists only in traces. Today, that spirit walked the city completely free and in full splendor."

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