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 5:
Pride in Sarajevo. Report 6:
Migrants stuck in BiH on the way to Europe.
To contact Peter
in response to these reports or any of his articles,
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
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
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
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
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
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
(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 izać,"
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 Maršala
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
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
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 Sivro...call 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
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 Alipašina
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...gift 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
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 Imamović
sang "Snijeg pade na behar na
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 Srđan
who had come to Sarajevo to participate, tweeted, "Next year in
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
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 incident...it 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 war...in its
hardest days of the siege, knew how to preserve its dignity and
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
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."