The Significance of Sarajevo

Oct 23, 2013 | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Sarajevo. The tenth anniversary of the death of Alija Izetbegovic. As was the case 10 years ago, when President Jacques Chirac asked me to head the French delegation at the former Bosnian president's funeral, I delivered the commemorative address.

Before the assembled audience, before the friends and family of the deceased, before his son Bakir, the current Bosnian president, before the people of Sarajevo, I sketched the portrait of that paradoxical and ultimately victorious wartime leader; I described the lawyer, the scholar, the gentle man (in the Dostoevskian sense) who had been plunged into a cataclysm that he had not wanted and become, in spite of himself, the De Gaulle of Bosnia in agony. I recounted episodes I witnessed, such as a morning of heavy shelling on which, to set an example, he walked the city on foot. I recounted Jacques Chirac's visit in the summer of 1995, several hours after the commencement of the aerial intervention for which Bosnia had waited so long, when he said to the French president, in vain: "When the United States and Great Britain delivered France from Nazism, it was a French column, that of General Leclerc, that liberated the capital; shouldn't the allies let a Bosnian Leclerc break the siege of my city?" I spoke of another day when, learning that a unit of rogue soldiers had just exacted retributions in a village in central Bosnia, he dashed off, in longhand, a sentence not subject to appeal -- what better response to those who, 20 years later, continue to try us with their fable of shared wrongs and, thus, shared responsibility for crimes?

I described, too, the great European he was, one who, at the very moment when Europe seemed to be blotting Bosnia out, never abandoned his version of the dream of Milosz, Patocka, and Bibo. More memories tumbled out. The night he asked me what I knew about Vaclav Havel. The lunch with François Mitterrand, who just couldn't understand how a Serb, Jovan Divjak, could be put in charge of the defense of Sarajevo and to whom President Izetbegovic then delivered a short course in cosmopolitanism and European citizenship. Or his anger, which I witnessed, when two deputies from his party, appalled and despairing over Europe's abandonment of their country, proposed to protest that treatment by retreating into a smaller Bosnia, a shrunken Bosnia, one that would be a pure state of refuge for persecuted Muslims of the former Yugoslavia, to which Izetbegovic responded that he would do everything in his power, however unreasonable and extreme, to avoid yielding to that temptation, which represented, in his eyes, defeat and renunciation. As long as I'm alive, he told them, Bosnia will remain Bosnia, a nation of diverse origins in which affiliations and cultures intermingle, the basis for which is in the mind as well as on the ground, in the beauty of the idea more than in the blood of martyrs -- a Bosnia of citizenship whose founding idea was and remains the same as that of Europe itself.

I spoke, too, of that moderate Islam of which he was (whatever one thinks of the concept) a tireless advocate. He rejected the international brigades that some of his friends urged upon him. They would open the door to Iran, he feared, and to that country's God-crazed leaders. There was the moving meeting with Jean-Paul II that Gilles Hertzog and I organized, a meeting that took place in the private library of Peter's successor at the Vatican, under the world's most beautiful frescoes, which Izetbegovic studied carefully. After the meeting, he said to us: "They speak of God, of course, but also of Evil, of the unfathomable enigma of Evil. Has the Holy Father understood that Sarajevo is presently the world capital of pain and Evil? I have faith in him; I invited him to come to Sarajevo, because I have faith in his word." And there was our very first meeting, on June 19, 1992, a day on which he was alone in the deserted presidential palace in a besieged capital that might hold for days, weeks, or years -- no one knew -- a day on which he entrusted me with a message of distress that I delivered to François Mitterrand. What did that message say? What was the image that crossed the mind of that Muslim president who was doing his utmost to save his people from a bloodbath announced by the Serbs? "We are the Warsaw ghetto," he wrote, "Will the Warsaw ghetto once again be left to die?" He chose one of the most emblematic scenes of Jewish destiny, the very image of the suffering and resistance of the Jewish people, to ground his SOS on behalf of a majority-Muslim city. How far that is from the clash of civilizations! And what better expression, even today, of that enlightened Islam for which we search widely and so often vainly.

In my ear sounds the echo of the psychodrama now playing out in France. All those people obsessed with identity or, what amounts to the same thing, with community. All those who do not appear the least bit afraid, some to be guided by a writer whose sole memorable contribution to the history of his country is to have counted the Jewish intellectuals on his favorite radio station; others to act as if fifteen thousand Romas pose such a threat that sixty million French people should revise their immigration and residency regulations; still others to conclude that the illegal presence in France of a high-school student from Kosovo constitutes such a flagrant disturbance of public order that the sanctuary of the public schools must be breached forthwith -- all of which convinces me that we in Europe as in France have not paid sufficient attention to the lesson, the wisdom, of Sarajevo.

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy