Photo: Dževada Šuško, Avicenna Studienwerk

Dževada Šuško in conversation: on Bosnian perspectives on the Ukraine war

While fighting is going on in various parts of Ukraine, this conflict is also radiating to the countries of the Western Balkans, especially to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Here, there have been fears for months that the already ongoing tensions emanating from the Serbian entity and its leadership could be increased by further escalation on the part of Moscow.

However, Bosniaks not only look at the current situation with a wary eye, but also see parallels between Russia’s attack and their own experiences. Thirty years ago, the Bosnian war began, resulting in over 100,000 dead, injured and displaced.

We spoke with Dr. Dževada Šuško about these issues, as well as Bosniaks’ solidarity with Ukraine and their role as European Muslims. Šuško is currently an assistant professor of international relations at the International University of Sarajevo. She specialises in European Muslims and is involved in the Islamic Community in Bosnia.

Question: Dear Dževada Šuško, shortly after the war began, the Bosnian National Library in Sarajevo was illuminated in the Ukrainian national colours. In the following days, various solidarity addresses were heard from Bosnia. What do Bosniaks think about the war?

Dževada Šuško: Bosnian Muslims or Bosniaks have a clear attitude towards civilian victims in war situations, mainly because of their experience with expulsion and genocide in the 1992-95 war, but also during the Second World War. They know the suffering experienced by victims of war crimes. The traumatic memories of the last war are still very present. What I want to say is that Bosnian Muslims stand with the victims, with the Ukrainian people who are now experiencing hunger, death, displacement and destruction of their property as well as their cities.

The Bosnian Muslims have had to experience similar things. They too were accepted as refugees by European countries as well as by the USA, Australia and New Zealand. They will never forget this solidarity. Hence the expressions of solidarity from the Bosnian public, especially on social media.

The National Library in the old city of Sarajevo – the Vijećnica – was deliberately burnt down during the war. Two million books and manuscripts thus went up in flames. Nevertheless, it was rebuilt and is an architectural masterpiece that I recommend to every visitor. The emanation of the Ukrainian national colours on the National Library therefore has an even stronger symbolism. It is much more than just a show of solidarity.

Question: Almost 27 years ago, the murderous war against the Bosniaks ended. Do people feel reminded of it when they see the pictures from Ukraine, and does this represent a renewed burden for traumatised people?

Dževada Šuško: The people of Bosnia and Herzegovina have not yet recovered from the war. In this very year – 2022 – it will be 30 years since the Bosnian war began. Even though the country has been largely rebuilt, many displaced people have not returned. Most come from the part of Bosnia and Herzegovina that was assigned to the Republika Srpska (RS) entity by the Dayton Peace Treaty. Bosniaks living in the RS are exposed to everyday discrimination – be it at school, in public institutions or on the labour market.

The genocide in Srebrenica is mainly denied by the Serbian side. Glorification of convicted war criminals is not uncommon. Murals with the portrait of Ratko Mladic have become the norm in several places in RS, but also in the capital of Serbia in Belgrade. Serbian leaders use a nationalist narrative from the 1990s.

In addition, Russia also plays an important role here in terms of foreign policy and geostrategy. Some leading Serbian and Croatian politicians and parties are already under Russian influence. This means serious destabilisation and high conflict potential for Bosnia-Herzegovina. People are aware of this. There is daily talk of a new potential war. Indeed, when the images from Ukraine are broadcast in the media, it brings back painful memories for the already traumatised population in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The shelves with flour, sugar and oil were empty at times in the supermarkets, because people are afraid of a new war and of hunger.

Question: With distance, do you see parallels in the actions of the Serbian and Russian aggressors?

Dževada Šuško: There are indeed many parallels. Cities are destroyed, hospitals are attacked, the civilian population is killed, cultural and historical heritage is reduced to rubble, infrastructure is destroyed and even access to humanitarian aid is denied. Moreover, now in Ukraine and back in the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, people are struggling to survive without electricity, water and heating. All this is reminiscent of the war crimes committed by the Serbian and Croatian military. Sarajevo in particular – the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina – was surrounded for more than three years, the inhabitants knowingly kept without electricity and water and deliberately shot at by snipers. This alone resulted in the deaths of 1,601 children. The siege of Sarajevo lasted exactly 1,425 days and is considered the longest in the 20th century. In Ukraine, too, the Russian military is acting in a similar way and has no compassion for the people.

The Russian and Serbian militaries therefore have an almost identical warfare. My assessment is that – just as in Bosnia-Herzegovina – the return of displaced people to their occupied homes will be difficult. Likewise, I would not be surprised if Russian war criminals are celebrated as heroes, the victims are humiliated, and their suffering is minimised. It is symptomatic that the Russian side does not want to call this obvious war of aggression and destruction in Ukraine a war. We also have such denials of the facts in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The International War Tribunal has recognised the genocide in Srebrenica and convicted numerous war criminals, but the leading Serbian policy is not ready to accept the truth. We are still waiting in Bosnia-Herzegovina for a Serbian politician who, like Willy Brandt in Warsaw, kneels in Srebrenica to ask the victims for forgiveness.

But there are also differences between the two cases. The international community of states or the UN introduced an arms embargo in Bosnia-Herzegovina. This was only to the detriment of the army of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which consisted mostly of Bosniaks and defended the preservation of the multi-ethnic country. It made it more difficult to defend the attacked state and the civilian population, which was subjected to ethnic cleansing from the beginning. In comparison, the Serbian side had the support of Serbia and Montenegro and the Yugoslavian People’s Army (JNA), which was considered one of the leading armies in Europe at the time. On the Croatian side there was the HVO militia. The Bosniaks were on their own. The Ukrainians are comparatively better off in this respect. The international community is helping them militarily and allowing them to defend themselves.

Another difference between the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Ukraine is that foreign politicians, human rights activists, athletes and intellectuals visited Bosnia-Herzegovina during the war. For example, former US President Jimmy Carter, French President Francois Mitterrand, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, writer and director Susan Sontag, pacifist and singer Joan Baez, or even Juan Antonio Samaranch, former President of the International Olympic Committee, visited Sarajevo ten years after the 1994 Winter Olympics. These were indeed courageous gestures that had a high symbolic value and meant a lot to the population. In the process, the world public was informed even more about the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which mobilised a lot of humanitarian aid. Visits of this kind have not yet taken place in Ukraine.

Question: How did the Rijaset and other organs of the Bosnian Muslims react to the war? There were reports of fundraising in mosques…

Dževada Šuško: The Islamic Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina sent 50,000 euros to the Ukrainian Red Cross within a few days after Ukraine and its inhabitants were militarily attacked by Russia. In the following meetings, the war in Ukraine was addressed several times. This was also followed by an appeal to all Bosnian Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina but also in the diaspora – especially in North America and Europe, but also in Australia and New Zealand – to collect donations for the Ukrainian population in mosques.

The Islamic community has always been willing to collect money to help people in need in other crisis situations as well. This is also an integral part of Islam’s understanding and practice of showing solidarity and empathy for those who are victims of aggression and whose lives are at risk. It was not too long ago that Bosnian Muslims themselves found themselves in a similar situation and very gratefully received all the fundraising from around the world.

Question: Bosnia and Herzegovina is currently itself in a moment of heightened tension as well as the escalations on the part of the RS under Dodik. Just recently, Foreign Minister Baerbock was in the region. What do other Europeans and their institutions must do now to stop further aggression in your home country?

Dževada Šuško: The crisis in Bosnia is more complicated than the crisis in Ukraine. The member of the State Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina Milorad Dodik and his ruling party in the RS are the extended arm of Russia and Russian-Chinese politics. These spread their world views and geostrategic interests not only in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also throughout the Balkans. If you take a closer look at the situation, you will see that the Bosnian Croats are also under Russian influence. Europe and the Europeans should urgently stop Russia’s influence and help Bosnia-Herzegovina to gain candidate status for the EU and NATO as soon as possible.

Otherwise, Bosnia-Herzegovina is at the mercy of Putin’s plans. If the Russian president decides to wage war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, then there will be war again. The Islamic Community and I personally see no alternative but the EU and NATO path for Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Question: The Bosniak Muslims, just like the Ukrainian ones, belong to the traditional Muslim minorities of Europe with a long history. Do you feel that the global Muslim public takes sufficient notice of both and their situation?

Dževada Šuško: The public in general does not seem to be familiar with the situation of Muslims in Ukraine and Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is downright sad that the global Muslim public shows little interest in learning more about European Muslim minorities. Bosnian Muslims form the absolute majority in Bosnia and Herzegovina and are among the oldest societies in Europe. They did not immigrate to Bosnia but converted to Islam as autochthonous inhabitants.

Abroad, however, such as in Germany, they have shown that they integrate very well as a minority. They have proven their ability to adapt many times in history. They have learned to adapt to different political and social systems while preserving their religious identity. A good example is the successful integration into the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, where the Bosniaks even received titles of nobility and the Bosniak regiment was highly praised for its loyalty. With the retreat of the Ottoman Empire, the European identity of the Bosniaks and their belonging to Europe came into its own.

Moreover, it is rarely noticed that Bosnian Muslims have learned to live together with other religions and ethnicities through the centuries, because Bosnia-Herzegovina has always been a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country. This diversity compatibility is – in my opinion – an enormous opportunity for Europe and many other societies could learn from these experiences of the Bosnian Muslims. After all, the motto of the EU is “Unity in Diversity”; and according to this, Bosnian Muslims are undoubtedly also bearers of European values.

Question: Dear Dževada Šuško, thank you for the interview.

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