Former Yugoslavs" and "The Jewish Cemetery

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"Former Yugoslavs" and "The Jewish Cemetery"

Ethnic terrorism: Serbian Murders of Bosnian Civilians


By: Izet Sarajlic

Date: 1994

Source: Izet Sarajlic's Sarajevo's War, a collection of poems published in 1994.

About the Author: Izet Sarajlic was born in Bosnia in 1930 and studied Slavic philosophy in Sarajevo as a young man. He later became the editor of Zivot (Life) Magazine. Sarajlic was one of the most prolific and often translated poets of the former Yugoslavia, with more than thirty books of poems, several memoirs, and political writings to his credit. His first collection of poetry was published when he was only nineteen years old. He was a member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences of Bosnia and Herzegovina and an intellectuals association known as Krug 99. Sarajlic died in Sarajevo in February, 2002.


The Geneva Conventions of 1949 and 1977 codified the protection and immunity of civilians during times of international conflict and civil war. Therefore, the hostilities directed at Muslim civilians in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the period of March 1992 through 1995 may be defined as a series of terrorist acts perpetrated on the basis of ethnic and religious affiliation.

The complexities of the conflict are founded in the political and historical strife between Bosnian-Serbs and Bosnian-Muslims prior to the First World War (1915–1918). Most Baltic nations, including the former Yugoslavia, have traditionally been populated by diverse ethnic and religious groups that have clashed, sometimes violently, over the years. The region now known as Bosnia-Herzegovina is home to Serbs (mainly Orthodox Christian), Croats (mainly Roman Catholic) and Ethnic Albanians (Muslim).

Bosnia was a part of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire until 1878 when it was annexed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Under the rule of Austria-Hungary, divisions between the three ethnic populations were cemented by a political system of proportional representation, divided by religious affiliation. Following WWI and the defeat of the Austrians, the victorious allies created the country of Yugoslavia. Once more invaded by Axis powers during World War II (1938–1945), Yugoslavia was divided into various regions as a means of gaining political control. Josip Tito lead a strong resistance movement against the German occupation and following the defeat of Germany and the end of the Second World War, Tito reunified Yugoslavia and became president.

Tito was a strong leader with a vision of a peaceful Yugoslavia, unified under a communist ideal that would surpass individual ethnic loyalties. He understood the problematic nature of the religious and ethnic divisions in Yugoslavia, and particularly the separatist leanings of the large Serbian population. To this end, he divided Serbia into two provinces, Kosovo and Vojvodina, to neutralise the threat of a Serbian uprising.

The death of Tito in 1980 coincided with the beginning of the end of communism in Eastern Europe. The ravages of the cold war had weakened the communist ideal and allowed the resurgence of ethnic nationalism. Without Tito's iron-grip method of leadership, Serbians began to dream of a reunified Serbian province and an independent Serbian nation. Serbian nationalist Slobodan Milosevic took charge of the Serbian cause in 1987 and under his leadership, the push for a separate nation began in earnest. Fuelled by allegations of Albanian cruelty toward Serbs in Kosovo (formerly part of the Serbian province) and a general sense of economic deprivation, Milosevic electrified the ethnic tension and pushed for decisive action throughout the region. In 1989, violent uprisings of the Serbian population in Kosovo and Vojvodina drove the elected leaders out of office and the situation in Yugoslavia quickly began to deteriorate. The increasingly poor economy and the resurgence of ethnic nationalism contributed to the eventual break-up of Yugoslavia, which commenced with the secession of Slovenia and Croatia in May of 1991.

Soon after, the leader of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Aliza Izetbegovic, proposed independence for Bosnia as well. Serbia originally attempted to keep Bosnia-Herzegovina from seceding by offering to redraw the territorial boundaries, but Izetbegovic refused and called for a referendum on Bosnian independence. While most Bosnian-Serbs boycotted the plebiscite, ninety per cent of those who voted were in favour of separation. On March 3, 1992, Bosnia-Herzegovina declared independence and soon after was recognised as such by both the European Union and the United Nations.

Bosnian-Serbs were not happy with the secession for they considered themselves to be a part of Milosevic's Serbian nation and in due course, rebelled against Bosnian-Muslims to wrest control of the territory. The struggle was violent and Serbs justified their cause by claiming that Aliza Izetbegovic planned to turn the Republic of Bosnia into a fundamentalist Islamic nation, even though Izetbegovic was considered a religious moderate by western diplomats. Although the Muslim forces within Bosnia were considerably larger than those of the Bosnian-Serbs, the latter of the two groups was supported by the Serbian army (The Yugoslav People's Army) under orders from Slobodan Milosevic and General Radovan Karadzic. Additionally, the Bosnian-Serbs established their own militia, under the command of General Ratko Mladic. Shortly after hostilities began the Serbian-led forces won control over two-thirds of Bosnia-Herzegovina and subsequently perpetrated a reign of terror against its Muslim inhabitants.

The Bosnian-Serbs wanted a "pure" Serbian territory and set out to enforce a policy of ethnic cleansing. Ethnic cleansing is generally defined as the elimination of particular ethnic or religious groups from a defined territory through forced removal, terror or genocide. Serbian military contingents forced Muslims to leave their homes, interned them in concentration camps and perpetrated rapes and mass killings. While under siege, the capital city of Sarajevo was razed of buildings and artifacts bearing cultural significance to Muslims in an effort to wipe all traces of Islamic culture and religion from the region. By the time the international community intervened and NATO ordered a ceasefire in 1994, the vast majority of Bosnian-Muslims had either fled as refugees or had been murdered. Only small pockets of Muslim citizens remained in villages throughout the countryside.

The eyewitness accounts and memoirs of those who lived through the regime of ethnic-cleansing in Bosnia reveal stark differences between the indifferent international response to atrocities in Bosnia and the world-wide outrage over the Jewish Holocaust (or Shoah) during World War II.


Former Yugoslavs
(for Mustafa Cengicnek)
Some of us
former Yugoslavs
are marked for genocide
by a part of the late
Yugoslav People's Army.

The Jewish Cemetery
From the direction of Marindvor
the deadliest fire
comes out of the Jewish Cemetery.
Though he set up his machine-gun behind his grave,
Milosevic's mercenary had no way of knowing
who Isak Samokovlija was,
nor who were flattened by his out-going bullets.
He, simply, for every snuffed-out life,
be it a first-aid Doctor
or by chance a street car driver,
stuffs 100 German Marks into his pocket.


These two poems by Bosnian poet Izet Sarajlic are reflective of the terrorism in Bosnia, perpetrated by agents of the Serbian state and military against Muslim civilians. The first poem, "Former Yugoslavs," alludes to the fact that the army that had been established to protect the citizens of Yugoslavia, The People's Army of Yugoslavia (PAY), now had turned against a group of those citizens. The PAY was comprised primarily of Serbian individuals. Under orders from Slobodan Milosevic, the army was sent into the newly independent Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina to take back the territory for Serbians and to "cleanse" Bosnia of its Muslim population.

The second poem, "The Jewish Cemetery," provides a picture of the conflict from the perspective of its victims on the ground in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. Marindvor is a square in the heart of the city of Sarajevo where the most violent attacks took place. Marindvor is also significant in Sarajevo because it is the location of the National Library, one of the vestiges of culture and history in Bosnia that was deliberately destroyed by Serbian bombs. A first attempt to bomb the National Library was miscalculated and destroyed a Holiday Inn across the street. When asked why they bombed the hotel, Serbian military officials admitted their mistake and identified the library as their target, pointing to the calculated destruction, not only of Muslim lives, but of culture and history in Bosnia as well. Thus, it is seen that the war in Bosnia was not merely a political war, but a war against ethnicity and the Islamic religion.

The Jewish cemetery referred to in the poem is also a landmark in Marindvor and was at the heart of the siege of Sarajevo. The Jewish ceremony was described by American journalist Aernout Van Lynden during the trial of Slobodan Milosevic as "a sort of no-man's land between the warring parties, right on the front lines." The grave of Isak Samokovlija is located in that cemetery. Known as the "Poet of Sarajevo," Samokovlija was a Jewish doctor, born in Bosnia, who was exiled during World War II and then returned to Sarajevo to serve as a doctor in the refugee camps. Sarajlic makes reference to the targeting of civilians in Bosnia, pointing out that the soldiers did not know their victims, nor even their occupations, and that government officials, particularly Slobodan Milosevic sanctioned the targeting of Muslim civilians.

The reference to 100 German marks in the poem holds a double entendre. As a result of the economic recession in the former Yugoslavia, one hundred marks was the average yearly income of a working individual in Bosnia. At the time, it was also the going price to secure transportation to the border and flee the country.

The poetry of Izet Sarajilic and others like him is a living testimony of the horrors perpetrated on Bosnian Muslims. Poetry, memoirs, and eyewitness accounts have helped to preserve a record of the events in Sarajevo and throughout Bosnia in the absence of governmental and authoritative accounts. The international community has since recognized the atrocities and human rights violations committed in Bosnia, and former president Slobodan Milosevic and Generals Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic were arrested and charged with war crimes in 2001. The trial of Slobodan Milosevic commenced in 2002.



Sells, Michael. The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia. Berkley: University of California Press, 1996.

Cigar, Norman. Genocide in Bosnia: The Policy of Ethnic Cleansing. Texas: A&M University Press, 1995.

Web sites

CNN.Interactive. "The Balkan Crisis: A Brief History." <> (accessed July 4, 2005).