The Bosniak


The Bosniak
By Adil Zulkifarpasic
William Heinemann, London 2003
ISBN 0-434-01220-3

The memoirs of Adil Zulkifarpasic transport the reader into the cultural world of Bosnia a hundred years ago and its subsequent unraveling and sufferings under a series of social and political transformations. It is based on conversations with the famous dissident Milovan Djilas, author of ‘The New Class’ (published 1955)and Nadezda Gace, a freelance veteran Serb journalist with a commitment to human rights. Adil’s account of the fate that befell the Bosniak landed gentry after the Austro-Hungarian occupation of 1878 bears many parallels with the travails of Delhi notables following the 1857 insurrection. His story also brings to the forefront a tension underlying Bosnian identity politics– whether their mobilization in the post-Tito era should place emphasis on a nationalist ‘Bosniac-hood’ and the possibilities of joint alliances with Croats and Serbs, or on its ‘Muslimness’. If Izetbegovic was like Jinnah in his defence of Muslim territorial integrity, then Zulkifarpasic was perhaps more like Abul Kalam Azad who believed in a Muslim-Hindu political reconciliation, trusted Nehru’s secular rhetoric and thus rejected the Partition. When Bosnian Muslims formed the Party for Democratic Action (SDA - Stranka Demokratske Akcije) in 1989 and held the first Assembly in March of the following year, Izetbegovic was elected President and Adil Zulfikarpasic as one of the three Vice-Presidents. It was an unsatisfactory arrangement that unraveled within a few months.

Adil was born in 1921 in Eastern Bosnia in a town along the Drina River, and raised in the ancestral family seat or ‘kula’ (fortress). In the 16th Century the Ottoman Sultans bestowed feudal estates to the military aristocracy, and Adil notes “most of my ancestors died on the battlefield and not in bed”. He adds, “Bosnia always held a special place in the Turkish empire. The Sultan was recognized only as the spiritual leader, and Bosnia was ruled by ajans, Bosnian notables and their councils, while the military governors assigned to Bosnia from Istanbul were placed under considerable restrictions. There is one example from the time when the seat of these governors was Travnik. The governor was not allowed to stay more than two days in Sarajevo, which was the capital city and the trading centre, in case he had the opportunity to misuse his position and influence. Governors could not, as in other parts of the empire, grant ownership of state property or give the right for it to be used, neither could they pronounce the verdicts in court cases”.

Adil’s account sheds new light on the deliberate impoverishment of the Muslim elite, first under Austro-Hungarian rule and then the agrarian reforms of 1919. The former arose from the Congress of Berlin in 1878, when in the wake of the Russo-Turkish war the European powers took over Ottoman provinces including Bosnia and Bulgaria. He writes, “Turkey accepted the occupation of Bosnia-Hercegovina by Austria-Hungary and appealed to the population to accept it as well and surrender without resistance; it asked for the army to withdraw peacefully and for the police to surrender… the Bosnian Muslims were alone in offering resistance to the occupation…the Austrians thought that they would enter Bosnia to the sound of a military march. However, they met with highly organised and well-armed resistance. Bosnian detachments that did not have any Turkish soldiers were formed very quickly. The people in Bosnia had arms because under Turkuy they had the right to bear arms, and the kapetanijas (hereditary chief of a territorial area) and different fortresses had cannons which were placed along the border to resist the occupation…Austria-Hungary had to send three times more invasion units than anticipated, they had to employ great strategists and generals and fight major battles in order to occupy Bosnia. In spite of everything Semsekadic routed them twice…”

There was however a heavy price to pay for the defiance, “In Turkish Bosnia-Hercegovina before the Austro-Hungarian occupation there were around 800,000 Muslims and 600,000 Orthodox but after the occupation over 250,000 Muslims moved to Turkey. Then the Serbs became the majority. The free peasants in Bosnia were primarily Muslims who, along with the begs and agas, owned more than three-quarters of the land, while the Orthodox and Catholics were landless peasants who mainly cultivated the Muslims’ land”. Worse times were to follow after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy after World War I. A new Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes emerged, which introduced disastrous agrarian ‘reforms’ in 1919. Much like the way Muslim elites in the United Provinces (UP) were dispossessed of their estates in post-1857 India, the Bosnian landed gentry were plunged into poverty: “landowners received compensation amounting to approximately the revenues brought in by the land over one or two years. That compensation was not paid in cash but in coupons, and the value of coupons dropped to around one-tenth of their initial value….agrarian reform in Bosnia was in effect the theft of estates, and conducted with a brutality that can only be called genocidal. I remember how my relatives the Cengic-beys who had large, very beautiful cardaks (manors) in Foca were left literally without the means of survival after the reforms….obviously the underlying intention was to wipe out the Muslim population, since those reforms were carried out exclusively in areas where Muslims were landowners and nowhere else….now, after the recent tragedies that we have experienced, I can say outright that the reforms had religious motives: their aim was to turn the Muslims in Yugoslavia into a category, to take away their property and their rights and to break them”.

Adil Zulkifarpasic’s memoirs also describe how he joined the Communist Party in 1938 at the age of seventeen, and his adventures as a Party organiser negotiating the tricky on-off relationships with the Serb Chetnik militia. Adil was given a Serb name (Aco Milic) to avoid detection and was later to provide a witness statement on the massacre of Muslims on the bridge over the Drina during World War II. It is a haunting testimony, not dissimilar to other twentieth century tragedies when Muslim populations have been deliberately left to the wolves – the killings of Muslims in Bihar in 1946 after the British Raj transferred out all Muslim policeman from the state and denied civilians the right to carry weapons with which to defend themselves, or the genocide in the ‘safe haven’ of Sebrenica in 1995 when the Dutch forces stood idle while Serbs massacred the Muslim population: “It all happened suddenly. The Italians became restless one day. It was said that the Partisans were preparing an attack. At dawn the quisling Home Guard forces, along with a few Ustas there, abandoned Foca and withdrew towards Borca. The Italians left after midnight, passing through Cajnica and towards Pljevlje, and the Chetniks arrived that same morning. In the morning all the local Serbs were wearing cockades and carrying rifles. A dozen of them proclaimed themselves vojvoda (guerilla leaders), and a hundred became more junior and senior commanders. The commandant of the place was Father Jovicic from Foca. All the Muslims had to turn over the keys to their shops and spare keys to their houses. But no one unlocked any doors, they were forced open. The bloodshed began the next evening….During the day they just took away those to be executed. But at night they went from house to house and that’s when the raping and fighting began. We heard the cries for help and saw the fires. They had made a jail in the old distict courthouse. That’s where they tortured people before killing them. But even in the squares and streets you could see horrendous things. One day they organised a hunt. A real hunt after people. They took some dogs and several hundred soldiers and went into the hills to hunt those who had escaped the killing. Their footprints in the snow and the dogs revealed their hiding places. That evening we heard shooting; they didn’t bring them back to town but killed them on the spot”.

Adil was caught by the pro-German Ustase forces in Sarajevo in 1942, tortured and sentenced to death. With the help of Party members he made a dramatic escape from his cell and by 1945, when the Communists had consolidated power, appointed deputy minister of trade. The creeping corruption and abuse of authority led to a rapid disillusionment, and he sought exile in Switzerland. He describes his walking away from the Party thus: “I had joined the left-wing camp more through literature and philosophy than through people’s influence, and certainly not out of any personal interest. With the victory of socialism for which I had fought came the loss of all the material wealth I had enjoyed as the child of a rich family. But a young man doesn’t think of that, he believes in ideas and ideals – prosperity for all, freedom for his people and his homeland. Of course I am aware now of what a mistake and illusion this was, but it was a belief that drew me into a whirlwind of events….”. From his base in Zurich, Adil soon became a successful businessman and founder of the Bosniac Institute based in the city. He retained influence within Bosnian political circles, but from the outside, unlike Alija Izetbegovic, who struggled from within and was sentenced in 1983 to 14 years imprisonment.

Izetbegovic, four years younger and also belonging to the same ‘beg’ class, had never flirted with Communism – in fact he was among the founding members of the Young Muslim (Mladi Muslimani) circle while still at high school. The two men came to represent two separate tendencies - Adil Zulkifarpasic the liberal, pro-European and Izetbegovic leading the group more ready to identify themselves as Muslims. In his own memoir, Alija writes that “I had come to know Zulkifarpasic in the summer of 1989. Our first conversations indicated that we had somewhat differing views. He wanted to eliminate the Muslim and emphasise only the national, Bosniac nature of the party (SDA). I suggested that he come to Bosnia and that we work on the issue, but he was not yet ready to do so. It was only on the eve of the Constituent Assembly that he appeared in Sarajevo. It was Friday. The media and the people gave him a ceremonial welcome. Zulfikarpasic’s objection’s were without foundation, for to a large extent I respected his proposals on ‘Bosniac-hood’. I included in the text of the Declaration a sentence in which our strategy was quite clear. I wrote that we were ‘one of the Bosnian peoples, with its own language, culture and tradition…’. The designation Muslim for a nation was obviously inadequate, but we had to retain it. If we had not, it would have given rise to confusion among the people ahead of the population census planned for the end of that year. While the speaker read out the Programmatic Declaration, Zulfikarpasic frowned, but did not react. I began my speech at the Constituent Assembly with the bismillah. I did so for two reasons: first, I was quite sincerely appealing to the Almighty for help, and second, it was a mark of religious freedom and a clear signal of disobedience to the regime. Until that time, it was unimaginable to utter any kind of religious phrase on a public platform…”[1].

Adil Zulfikarpasic in his memoir offers his version: “ At the beginning of the Party’s work, the press stated that the SDA had a liberal group with me as the mainstay, which was correct, and a group of religiously oriented people. I wanted to make the party into a liberal organisation that would be open to everyone, that didn’t exploit religion for political purposes and wouldn’t push the Muslim hodzas (imams, maulvis) into politics. They could be members like the others, but not officials or organizers. I was against the hodzas taking a part from the beginning, but Alija Izetbegovic said to me ‘Careful, Adil, Behmen [2] with his five hundred imams has direct contact with the people, so they’ll play an important role in organizing our party. They’ll be of great help to us”….Our party programme should have been the revitalization of Bosnia, tolerance, living together, peace with our neighbours, creating democratic political structures and perspectives for the modernization of Bosnia’s economy and political life. Several times I threatened Izetbegovic that I would leave the party and withdraw if things continued in this negative direction. He would always accept my criticism and accept readiness to change everything, and I would end up feeling guilty for having been so stern and unfair towards him”. Ultimately there was a rupture with Adil going his own way and forming the Muslim Bosniak Organisation (MBO).

Men like Zulfikarpasic and Izetbegovic symbolize the capabilities and resilience of the Bosnian people. Their struggle to establish a viable, independent, sovereign state – with the capacity to work out its own political choices – did not reach fruition in their life-times. But who knows of the future?

[1] Inescapable Questions, by Alija Izetbegovic; Islamic Foundation 2003; p.75
[2] Omer Behmen was a member of the Mladi Muslimani circle with Izetbegovic, and was imprisoned with him after the 1983 trial