Elvedin Nezirović: If there is no feeling of guilt, then there is no need for forgiveness

Amer Bahtijar
Autor 19.6.2019. u 13:30

Elvedin Nezirović: If there is no feeling of guilt, then there is no need for forgiveness

War is an animal feeding on human flesh, once said Krleža, being right about it. I had never, in the year and a half I had spent as a soldier, gotten to fall deep into the blind patriotism, nor any of those great and fiery ethno-nationalist ideas, which had been trying to plant some type of a pseudo-patriotic military-political view in the immature sheep brains of my generation, the same military-political view that had, with a clear conscience and a full stomach, and with their complete family, sat through the war, viewing it from a safe distance. The only thing I wanted to do during the war, was – to survive.

The overfilled atrium of the Pavarotti Music Center and a long applause for Elvedin Nezirović, the auther of the book „City Deblocade“, that very applause being so long, I know I had not heard that type of applause in a long time, and I am familiar with it. That is how Mostar natives greet only their great ones. That is how they used to greet Semir Tuce, Predrag Jurić, Sejo Kajtaz… That is how Mostar greets the great ones. Elvedin Nezirović had been standing alone on the stage at that moment, wondering how he had gotten to that point, the point where his fellow citizens had been applauding him.

Elvedin Nezirović was born in Mostar in 1976. He had been living at the Avenue, five minutes away from the Velež Stadium, as all generations born back then used to measure any distance in time spent to reach that cult football spot. Velež, EKV and Azra; it seemed like life actually had some sense. Then it all ended.  As we we were walking near the Velež Stadium, I asked him if he ever thought that a war might occur? „I don’t think that any of my friends back then, basically the mid-and-late eighties, would’ve even thought about the, for example, breakup of Yugoslavia. I don’t even want to talk about the war. My family, as well as probably thousands of other people, had been naive from the start, thinking that there was no way such horrible things could happen to us. That  very illusion had been sugarcoated with the way the society as a whole had been treating our generation back then, telling us in school that we’d be the generation that will lead our self-management socialism into the 21st century. Those were purely abstract thoughts to us, thoughts which everybody had believed in, more or less; those same thoughts would, in a paradoxical manner, spell out their real point and meaning only with the breakup of Yugoslavia.“

And so, war had eventually come. „A tank truck had exploded near the eastern wall of what had been the Sjeverni Logor (North Camp) barracks in Mostar back then, in 1992. That explosion had been my first actual war memory. I remember that moment, as well as that sudden and to me unbeknownst fear of physical disappearance, and a fear of death, pretty clearly. I would fear in the same way, yet at its’ most intense, two months later, during that same year of 1992, as well as during the time the population of the village of Crnići, near Stolac, had been running away from the Serb paramilitary units, in a confused manner. My mother’s side of the family had been living in Crnići, and so, during Eid, my stepfather, my mother, my half-brother and I had come to visit them. We had been staying over there from April 4th, until late July 1992, as we couldn’t have gone returned to Mostar due to all the roads having been blocked. We had been running through local forests, the tall grass and thorns, as well as constantly looking around yourself and the path you’d just crossed, to see if anything is moving or is anyone following you. That’s an unforgettable experience, as your body’s tense, each muscle in your body is being streched, just like a bow, your senses have been upgraded to the extreme, and you feel like you can hear your heart beating ten meters away. The fear of death is the very feeling responsible for my growth.“

The wartime year of 1992 had been hellish in Mostar, as horrible crimes, such as the Uborak massacre, the trash depot near Mostar, and others, had been commited; however, for most Mostar natives, the same 1992, except for the ones who had lost their closest ones, had been just a peek into the Hell they would experience in 1993. Did you really think that 1993 could’ve been worse than 1992? „I’d never been good with predictions, and neither was my family. In other words, I couldn’t have thought about the events of May 9th, 1993, occuring, in the same manner as I couldn’t have even thought about the war itself occuring.  So, a few months later, I think it’s either around late 1992, or early 1993, the Machinery High School had started its’ activities; I had been one of the many people of my age who’d stayed in Mostar during that time to have continued my education, which had been cut off earlier. It all looked like a new beginning was about to unfold, at least for me. Then, May 9th came along. It hasn’t been the same since. I had woken up in my empty apartment of my stepfather’s sister, which I’d used on occasions, located two stories above our apartment at the Split 50th as well, that morning. That same morning, the HVO military police had rang our doorbell, and I’d seen my mother, wearing her sleeping gown and 8 months into her pregnancy, on the brink of tears, behind them. I still remember her saying that I’m still a child, that I’m 15 and too young to be taken away, as well as me trying to grasp what was going on over there. Despite her pleas, I had been ordered to go to the first floor, where I’d met my stepfather, along with a few dozen men, all Muslims, waiting near the police car parked nearby. And so, my stepfather had recognized a cop, yet again, came closer and begged him to release me; it happened after some time. I say yet again, as I’d described a similar scene in the novel „Boja Zemlje“ (The Color of Dirt), the only difference being, this scene would happen 20 days later.

Somewhere around noon or midday, my stepfather had returned, after being recognized, and then released, by one of his friends. He was released from the Bijeli Brijeg Stadium, where, on that day, May 9th, a collective center for every man, every Muslim, capable of military action, who had been arrested, had been located. Cops would break into our apartment day slater, under the excuse of weapon search.  They’d toss everything over, rob us of all the precious things we’d had, and there had been few of them, and then they’d threaten us with dath. That’s when we’d decided to try to cross over to the eastern part of the city. During the last few days of May, the Red Cross, with the aid of the UNPROFOR, had organized some type of civilian exchange among the sides of the war, and my mother, my half-brother and I had managed to, with some incredible luck, catch a couple of seats on the bus, the Red Cross ambulance vehicle, to be precise. That’s how we’d reached the left bank of the Neretva River. My stepfather had, unfortunately, stayed over in our Avenue apartment, and had been arrested and taken to the Heliodrom camp around a month later. He’d spent the next eight months over there. All the torture he’d received over there cost him his life.“

Two years ago, Elvedin had published the autobiographical novel „The Color of Dirt“. Critics around what we call „the region“ today had been astonished. The novel had been published by the Belgrade publishing house of „Laguna“, and had become a true literary hit; however, the most important thing about it is the fact that it had become the novel of a generation, the one that had not been allowed to grow up.

One of the book’s greatest scenes is when, Elvedin’s stepfather, Mito, had rescued Elvedin by going to the concentration camp of Heliodrom instead of him. I was looking for a right way to ask him about the event, as we were walking through the Avenue, near Elvedin’s former home. I asked him if he could talk about the moment where his stepfather had, somehow, managed to get him into the last bus leading to the eastern part of the city, and, as it turned out, help him not to go into the camp? We’d been standing for a few minutes, as Elvedin had been looking at his building, and then he stated: „It’s one of the greatest scenes, not only in the novel „The Color of Dirt“, but my life as well. It’s impossible to understand the relationship between my stepfather and I without the events of May 29th, in front of the Students’ Home, nor is it possible to look at my later life, as well as the lives of my family, without the influence of Mito’s gesture.

When a single moment decides your life, it will change your views on time, first of all. My body knows that it’s been 25 years from that moment on, but my mind thinks it was yesterday. That’s why it’s hard for me to talk about it, and not to wonder if, in all open possibilities, there could’ve been a scenario where both of us could’ve been on the bus to eastern Mostar that day, or if he could’ve been the one on the bus and I could’ve been the one to stay in the apartment. Could those three options have been my chances of avoiding the concentation camp, and, if not that, could they have been my chances of avoiding horrible camp punishments, or could I’ve gone through an even bigger hell, considering how old I’d been back then? Because of that, I think that there’s a small amount of guilt in me, I haven’t stopped feeling since then. I don’t think I’ll ever rid myself off that feeling.“

People from the besieged Sarajevo had been telling me about things not being able to get worse, after which they had gone to the so-called „eastern Mostar“ and realized that, if there is a Hell above, then it is identical to the eastern Mostar over here. Elvedin had just reached that Hell. „The story of what had been going on in eastern Mostar from May 1993 till April 1994 is not just one of the darkest stories of the Yugoslav Wars, it’s one of the darkest stories of the 20th century in Europe. However, being somebody who’d come from the western part of Mostar, having survived all of the worst possible things that could’ve happened to me, I’d seen eastern Mostar as my somewhat-free spot, even during the siege’s darkest days, and with all the limitations and danger lying around. The freedom had been physically fictious for the most part, based on the foundation of an absence of fear of having your home entered into and being murdered. Then again, how to explain these horrors which had been going on in eastern Mostar at the time? It’s practically impossible, and as Richard Flanagan stated in his great novel „The Narrow Road To The Deep North“, „Horror can be described in a book, given a shape and a meaning. But in real life, horror has no shape nor meaning. It’s just there. While it’s there, it’s almost like there’s nothing else in the universe.“

He would soon become an adult and enter the war as a soldier. „I’d become a fighter of the ARBiH at 17 years and 7 months old, near my adulthood. I hadn’t done it willingly, but due to the then-current military service laws. It turned out, I had my military ID before my civilian one. War is an animal feeding on human flesh, once said Krleža, being right about it. I had never, in the year and a half I had spent as a soldier, gotten to fall deep into the blind patriotism, nor any of those great and fiery ethno-nationalist ideas, which had been trying to plant some type of a pseudo-patriotic military-political view in the immature sheep brains of my generation, the same military-political view that had, with a clear conscience and a full stomach, and with their complete family, sat through the war, viewing it from a safe distance. The only thing I wanted to do during the war was to survive.“

About 10 years ago, I had been doing an interview with Elvedin Nezirović, in which he had stated something I remember on a daily basis, „We hadn’t survived the war.“. What was it like living during peacetime? „After the war had ended, I was 19, and I’d been thinking that „yes, that was it, yes, I’d survived, we’re moving on“. However, I’d realized that, the further I’ve been from the war in time, the faster the war had begun to become the focal point of my life, as well as the center of my gravity, and the bare foundation of each and every one of my relations not just to the past, but the present as well.

During that time, basically at the end of the nineties and the beginning of the two-thousands, I hadn’t really cared for this country’s politics. I’d been actually chasing the years I’d lost during the war for the whole time; to me, it seems like the chase still hasn’t ended to this day. I was young and content with my homeland, the owner of my military life, returning me that same life I’d lost, or what was left of it. It really had been a scandalous situation, however, to see that the people who had been members of both the military and the civil government of such a project like the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia had been, the same ones who had been tried at the International Court of Justice in the Hague for a Joint Criminal Enterprise, would later, for example, Jadranko Prlić, and others as well, become high-ranked state officials. That was enough to tell us that the country was incapable of the compromising, fascist politics which had nearly destroyed it; it also tells us about the relationship between the Sarajevo politicians and the crimes those people had commited in Herzegovina. In a way, it would’ve created a perfect alibi for Bosniak politicians; to be precise, the ones who had been, and still are, pushing the agenda of them being the authentic representatives of the Bosniak political elite, ignoring the war crimes commited by the Bosnian Army, like the Kazani, Trusina or the Grabovica, where 33 Croat civilians had been murdered in the most brutal way possible, massacres.“

The question asked by everyone who had physically survived the Hell of Mostar was „How to beat hatred?“, how to divide between criminals and the collective group in whose name they had held us with no food or water, and in whose name they had been murdering similar to how endangered wildlife is being poached. Elvedin’s position on that, however, is clear: „One should see what people a lot people smarter that me have stated about this topic, for example, Jaspers, Jankélévitch, Derrida or Ricoeur… The difference between the collective as a whole and the ideologists of these criminal projects is the fact that the collective is always the object of the ideological manipulation. All ideologies persist on propagating their view of the world as an ethnic or national imperative, as well as trying to remove all alternatives appearing on public areas, whether or not they be political opponents or independent intellectuas, in one way or another. In the eyes of these ideologists, the collective is merely an instrument, a tool used for the empowerment and the development of an individual or a small group of people. However, the moment we start counting the consequences of the acts of those ideologies in the numbers of human lives, no one is rid of the responsibility. As Karl Jaspers stated, in the most fulfilling way possible, every individual carries a moral responsobility, not only for his political, but military acts as well.

Considering all that, our biggest problem, or should I say, the problem of our split society, is the fact that no one over here feels any need for what the Germans call Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which means facing the past. No one feels any need to accept the responsibility for the war crimes commited; that’s the first thing anyone should do, not because of setting things straight with others, but to reach two types of catharsis, the inner cleansing; the individual, and the social catharses. It is the foundation for our personal moral turn back (quoting Jaspers, again), as our societies have been stuck in immorality for a long time. You’re right, one needs to have courage for these types of things and initiatives; they need more than that, as well, however, as they need to have conscience, both an individual, and a collective type of conscience.“

In 2013, a video had been published, the video depicting the late Predrag Lucić mocking the ones who had not faced the Ahmići crimes; when we had started to receive hateful messages from those who had been thinking that we had been mocking the Ahmići massacre, Elvedin had been supporting Predrag Lucić. I had asked him; who would give any right to somebody to hate him in the name of those who had suffered, but do not hate? How to break that nationalist narrative? „The most successful thing I’ve seen among the local, nationalist, political elites would be the fact that they had created their own ethnic histories and memories as a replacement for actual history during the last 23 post-war years. The term „legalizing as part of the system“ refrs to the currently-existing educational politics; Bosnian and Herzegovinian schools do not teach history, but ethnic memories, the root to all our current and future disagreements. The problem with these ethnic memories is the fact that they only memorize different events; they are shaped by ideological narratives, and the point of their existence is the political manipulation of the ethnicity, which can be summed up by the words of ethnocentrism and nationalism. In other words, the Bosnian and Herzegovinian education system is designed to create future nationalists, or to create a future number of voters for the existing political elite; that, however, guarantees the existence of this politically disgusting and intellectually disabled country. This is our biggest tragedy. What’s more important than resisting this order?“

Elvedin Nezirović had not just said goodbye, but had also faced the 90s trauma and became an ambassador of peace. His mission as a writer, as the director of one of the region’s most successful cultural institutions, the Pavarotti Music Center, is the key to building a type of long-lasting peace both in Mostar, and Bosnia as a whole, and tearing all types of metaphorical walls down. „The question of forgiveness was one of the second half of the 20th century’s biggest philosophical questions. Can one forgive the other one, the other one either not being aware of his guilt or refusing to admit it? For example, Derrida saw the point of forgiveness in that exact thing; forgiving the criminal not looking to be forgiven. According to his hyperbolic ethics, which sees forgiveness as solely the forgiveness of the impossible, forgiveness has a point only when it is not deserved or looked for. On the other side, you’ve got Jankélévitch, who had stated that the point of forgiveness lies in accepting the guilt over the event done: if there is no feeling of guilt, then there is no need for forgiveness.

I doubt that anyone who is conscious and who had experienced war during his life would want the horrors of war to happen to anybody else, anywhere. That would, by itself, be enough to become the opposition to these destructive politicians and build a future by getting closer to, and not apart from, each other. Everything else drives us to insanity.“

Elvedin Nezirović was born in Mostar in 1976. Due to his father’s untimely death, he had spent his first seven years of life in the village of Crnići, near Stolac, where his mother’s parents had lived. He had been schooled at his hometown, graduating from the Pedagogical Academy, the Bosnian Language and Literature section, and the Liberal Arts College, the English Language and Literature section.

He had published the following books: „The Ditch“, a poetry book (The Society of Writers of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the HNK subunit, Mostar, 2002); The Beast From The Hotel Room“, a poetry rook (Liber, Belgrade, 2009); „Well, That’s That“, a story collection (Dobra knjiga, Sarajevo, 2013); „The Color of the Dirt“, a novel (Laguna, Belgrade, 2016); „The Blues Confession“, poetry (Vrijeme, Zenica, 2017); „The City Deblockade“ (The Critical Thought Center, Mostar, 2018).

He is the director of the Mostar Pavarotti Music Centre.

 

Amer Bahtijar
Autor 19.6.2019. u 13:30

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