“Only out of the past can you make the future,” says a character in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. And yet some pasts are dreadfully dark and tangled, and how one wrings a future from them is anyone’s guess.

This thought gnawed at me during a recent trip to Bosnia-Herzegovina and other Balkan states. I had gone in search of interviewees for a research project on interreligious dialogue. I wanted to talk with people removed from the tired multiculturalism of the West, people who had attempted dialogue in truly challenging circumstances; I wanted to make sense, theologically, of their experience amid the darkness of their recent past.

Interviewees, I found. Theological sense remains elusive.

Geography does not explain everything in history, only a lot of things. Students of Europe know that the region of the Balkans once had the misfortune to find itself at the crossroads of three world powers: the Ottoman Empire; the Austro-Hungarian Empire; and Russia’s Tsardom, whose power was projected through its client nation, Serbia. Although the religious dimension in these three geopolitical powers is often elided, the fact is that all three derived legitimacy through spiritually sanctioned narratives about their imperial identity and historical mission. Austria-Hungary remembered itself as the legatee of the Holy Roman Empire, which traced its roots to Charlemagne, protector of Western Christendom. Moscow saw itself as the “third Rome” after the fall of Constantinople in 1453—and as such, the guardian of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. And the Ottoman Empire, of course, was the last great Islamic caliphate, the scourge of Europe in the days of Suleiman the Magnificent (1494–1566) and the self-proclaimed protector of the worldwide Muslim community.

In other words, it is not just imperial interests in the abstract that have clashed in the Balkans, but rival narratives about the proper constitution of religious truth and its implications for political order. Over the centuries, one or another power frequently managed to impose a Hobbesian order in the region, or achieve a balance of power with the others which allowed for peaceful coexistence. The not-infrequent periods of exceptions to this rule condemned the region to cycles of revenge and violence involving the three main regional faiths, ethnically manifested in Serbs, Croats, Turks, Bulgarians, Greeks, Albanians, and more. Not without reason do most Western languages possess some variant of the verb “balkanize.”

The Nobel Prize–winning writer Ivo Andrić vividly captures these violent cycles in his 1945 novel, The Bridge on the Drina. A favorite Balkan method of suppressing dissent, employed by Turks and then others, was public impalement. Andrić offers what is surely the most graphic depiction in world literature of this horrific cruelty, in which the executioner pushed a sharpened wooden pole up the anus of the victim until it emerged in the shoulder area. Sadly, impalement is an apt symbol of the region’s past, bespeaking the violence that all too often prevailed between times of fragile peace among rival ethnic groups. (The literary character we know as Count Dracula, it might be remembered, is derived from the medieval Balkan lord, Vlad the Impaler.)

Nationalism in the nineteenth century presaged the end of the three Empires, all of which perished due to the furies of World War I, which of course began with an assassination in Sarajevo. What had been dubbed “the Eastern Question” had long baffled Western statesmen, and the war’s end gave them a chance to meddle in the Balkans directly. When the dust had settled, a multiethnic concoction known as “Yugoslavia” appeared, existing first as a constitutional monarchy under the Serbian royal house and then, after World War II, as a federal socialist republic. A political curiosity during the Cold War, standing aloof from Moscow while opposing Washington, the “nonaligned” Yugoslav state survived largely due to the ability of strongman Marshal Tito to suppress conflict under his cult of personality (still on display today at the mausoleum museum dedicated to him in Belgrade). When Sarajevo hosted the winter Olympics in 1984, the world beheld a peaceful country, destined to last; one commentator in fact noted the “powerful irony” of World War I having started in such a benign city.

The Yugoslav wars of the 1990s shattered this delusion. Begun before 9/11 consigned the Balkans to peripheral interest in Western consciousness, these wars dominated the news of the day, bringing such names as Franjo Tudjman, Alija Izetbegović, Slobodan Milošević, Radovan Karadžić, and Ratko Mladić to the fore. A graduate student in history at the time, I struggled to understand the complexity of it all—and perhaps at some level dismissed it as the faraway feuds of those who hadn’t yet gotten wind that history, as Francis Fukuyama proclaimed, had already ended.

But history never ends; and one by one, amid bloodshed, battles, and “ethnic cleansing”—the conflicts’ addition to our vocabulary—the six socialist republics of Yugoslavia went their own way, leaving behind the present-day countries of Bosnia and Herzegovina (often shortened to just Bosnia), Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Slovenia, and Serbia, as well as two autonomous provinces, Vojvodina and Kosovo—the latter eventually becoming its own state after wresting itself from Serbia’s grasp, with help from NATO muscle. In total, the conflicts of the 1990s produced an estimated 140,000 dead and some 4 million refugees.


The wounds and memories from this period, I learned, have not healed, but rather continue to fester anew. And nowhere is this truer than in Bosnia, where I spent the lion’s share of my time. The conflict that engulfed Bosnia from 1992 to 1995 proved especially devastating, due to the intricacy of an ethnic-religious makeup that had Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, and Muslim Bosnians (or Bosniaks) living side by side. When Croats and Bosniaks sought independence in 1992, Serbs dissented. Goaded by the Serbian strongman Milošević, the Bosnia-Serb faction, led by the ultra-nationalist Karadžić, attempted instead to carve out a purely Serbian part of Bosnia to link up with a “Greater Serbia.” Among many less-known atrocities, the effort produced the 1,425-day Siege of Sarajevo, the longest siege of a capital in the history of modern warfare, and the Srebrenica genocide of more than eight thousand Muslim Bosnians, mainly men and boys. The Bosnian War came to a halt with the Dayton Agreement on December 14, 1995—a peace only grudgingly accepted then and widely held as “unjust” today, as I was repeatedly told.

The wounds and memories from this period, I learned, have not healed, but rather continue to fester anew.

Driving to Srebrenica from Belgrade on a rainy, overcast day, I arrived at the Bosnian border and passed through security—the Serbian border guard who examined my passport asked me jokingly if I wasn’t really with the CIA. The rain let up once I arrived in Srebrenica to visit the Genocide Memorial, which opened in 2003. Apart from a handful of Muslims praying, I was alone as I walked around the memorial, a sea of white grave markers, all bearing the same date: 1995. Even more disquieting is the area around Srebrenica. Signs of past ethnic cleansing remain everywhere in the form of destroyed homes, overrun with weeds, that once belonged to Muslim families. When Srebrenica fell, Ratko Mladić announced that the city belonged to the Serb people, and that “the time has finally come for revenge against Turks [Bosnian Muslims] who live in this area.” This call served as prelude to a systematic massacre that took place as a Dutch UN battalion infamously stood idly by.

Srebrenica was not an isolated event, but merely the one best known in the West. “Go to the Prijedor region; it was even worse there,” I was told by Bozana Katava, a Croat member of the Interreligious Council of Bosnia-Herzegovina. I took her advice, driving from Sarajevo through Banja Luka, capital of the Republika Srpska, a semi-autonomous Serbian political entity created by the Dayton Agreement.  Serbian nationalism is visible there in Serbian flags and the ubiquitous Cyrillic (Croats and Bosniaks use the Latin alphabet). You haven’t lived until you’ve come to a four-way roundabout with all signs in Cyrillic.

In Srebrenica, the violence of ethnic cleansing was carried out mainly by outsiders; in Prijedor, neighbor slew neighbor. In a haze of morbid stupefaction, I drove around godforsaken towns—Tomašica, Omarska, Trnopolje, Keraterm—where killings had taken place. As in Srebrenica, one observes the ruined former homes of Bosnian Muslims and Croats, interspersed among intact Serbian homes. Beautiful Serb children play happily in the streets. What do their parents tell them happened to the neighbors?

Serb forces operated several concentration camps in the region, and a number of mass graves have been discovered, the largest near Tomašica. Hidden for nearly twenty years behind Serb silence, the site witnessed exhumations beginning in 2013; hundreds of missing people have been identified via sophisticated DNA-matching techniques. This has provided consolation to families bereft of a grave to visit or an account of a loved one’s fate. But here, as elsewhere, a macabre truth has come to light. In gruesome efforts to hide evidence, Serb forces often hacked bodies into pieces and dumped the parts in different graves. Exhumations have caused a cruel dilemma for families: how much of a loved one needs to be recovered before a proper burial can take place? Across Bosnia, hundreds of mass graves have been discovered, and thousands of bodies identified; still, of the roughly thirty thousand missing after the war, around twelve thousand remain missing, according to the International Commission for Missing Persons.

If only one could blame it all on the Serbs. But the reality is not so simple. While they did commit more than 80 percent of wartime atrocities, according to Sarajevo’s Research and Documentation Center, Croats and Bosniaks committed their own misdeeds, including ethnic cleansing, not only against Serbs but against one another. The most sensational episode of the latter involved the city of Mostar. In November 1993, Croat forces tried to wrest it from Muslim hands, destroying the city’s famous old bridge, an Ottoman-era architectural masterpiece. Today, the city, like many others, remains bitterly divided. All sides, moreover, used sexual violence as a weapon. Estimates vary, but the European Union has calculated that approximately twenty thousand women and girls were raped during the war. Bosnian Serbs even set up several so-called “rape camps,” bringing soldiers in by the busload. Gang rape and public rapes in front of villagers and neighbors were not uncommon. Fearful rumors of such actions assisted the ethnic-cleansing process, prodding whole families to evacuate areas even before enemies arrived.

In addition to lost lives and rape victims, places of worship, prominent symbols of ethno-religious identity, were widely targeted in the 1990s. Over fifteen hundred mosques, Qur’an schools, and dervish lodges were destroyed or damaged during the war. In retaliation, around 125 Orthodox churches and monasteries were laid waste, with comparable numbers of Croat Catholic churches. With the assistance of outside funding, many have been rebuilt. But many still show scars of the damage—and some remain subject to acts of vandalism today.


Given the violence of the 1990s and the longer history of recriminations, is there hope for Bosnia’s future? I posed this question to interviewees, eliciting a range of responses. Despair is not an option for a Catholic, I was told by Monsignor Mato Zovkic, retired vicar general of the Archdiocese of Sarajevo, whom I met at his apartment in Sarajevo. “Hope is a theological virtue,” he asserted. And yet he recognized that prospects for the future do not appear very promising. Zovkic taught at the Sarajevo Theological Seminary for decades, serving also as the archbishop’s point person for ecumenical and interreligious activities. In his mind, blame for recent woes goes back to the founding of the Yugoslav state after World War I and to efforts at that time to suppress the question of ethnic identities. After Tito’s passing, Zovkic told me, the furies of ethnic resentment returned as if strengthened by a long, invigorating sleep.

He had little positive to say about the Dayton Agreement, calling it an “unjust peace” for the way its border configurations ratified ethnic cleansing. He particularly lamented the war’s pernicious influence on Islam in Bosnia, long known for a peaceful, live-and-let-live mentality due in part to Sufi influence. Recent conflicts have heightened outside financial involvement in the country, particularly from the Gulf States, and with the new money has come Salafist influence. Today, young Muslims in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Albania make up the highest per capita number of jihadist recruits from any area in the world.

Zovkic praised speeches made by Pope John Paul II during visits to Bosnia in 1997 and 2003—visits Zovkic helped organize—for striking the right theological tone with respect to the war and its aftermath. Identifying Bosnia’s problem as “minds embittered by past violence,” the Polish pope lamented in 1997 “an inheritance of devastated families, widows and orphans, the crippled and afflicted.”  More than words, he instructed his audience, “gestures of charity” would “contribute to sincere dialogue with all your fellow citizens and...[help all] take the path of moral and civil reconstruction.”

In the aftermath of an attack, for example, a Catholic priest might visit a vandalized mosque and pray there, in the presence of local Muslims, for peace, understanding, and reconciliation.

The Islamic Faculty of Theology at the University of Sarajevo is a ten-minute walk from Zovkic’s retirement home, and owes its existence to a concession made to religious education by the Tito regime in 1977. Ascending its steep staircase, I found students in prayer, their shoes in neat rows outside the mosque, located within the faculty’s light-filled central courtyard. Here I shared coffee with Ahmet Alibašić, a leading Muslim scholar, activist, and participant in interreligious activities. Speaking to me in rapid, imperfect English, he blamed the conflicts of the 1990s on the political classes of the break-away countries and on the influence of outsiders. Alibašić explained that the more distant past had nurtured coexistence; during the late Ottoman Empire, and after Austria-Hungary acquired Bosnia-Herzegovina at the Congress of Berlin (1878), “there was much intermingling of the religions, and the street markets were always mixed.” The same was true under Tito, he continued, recounting youthful memories of buying apples from a friendly Serbian family.

But nowadays “fear has big eyes,” he told me, sipping his coffee thoughtfully. “In times of crisis people are given to believing the worst possible things about those unlike themselves, especially if they have been enemies in the past.” Nationalist politicians preyed on this weakness after Tito’s death, Alibašić explained, and in the early 1990s “Yugoslavia simply fell apart.” A harbinger of things to come took place on June 28, 1989, when Slobodan Milošević, speaking at a day-long event to mark the six-hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo—a battle Serbian forces lost to the Ottoman Empire, paving the way for centuries-long Turkish advance into the Balkans—warned of possible “armed battles” in the future to promote Serbia’s national development.

While many fears were in play in the early 1990s, Alibašić said, the most harm was done by a reemergence of Serbian memories of ill-treatment at the hands of the Croatian ultra-nationalist Ustaše regime during World War II. In 1941, Croatia annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina to form the Independent State of Croatia, a Nazi puppet. Roughly three hundred thousand citizens of Stalin-allied Serbia—along with Jews, gypsies, and Croat political dissidents—were executed during the war, many at the Jasenovac concentration camp, dubbed the “Auschwitz of the Balkans.” Serbian politicians like Milošević and Karadžić brought these memories roaring back to life, demagogically convincing Bosnian Serbs that “bloodthirsty Croats” would soon be at their throats again.

I asked Alibašić how history was taught in Bosnia. He shook his head. “It’s not,” he said, “especially in the recent era. What people know about this past comes from their family or members or their own ethnic group, and it is often full of fear and hatemongering.” But even older periods of history divide people. Not surprisingly, Bosnian Muslims tend to have a favorable view of the Ottoman Empire, while Christian ethnicities do not; the fraught history of Janissaries—Christian boys taken forcibly from their families and turned into fanatically loyal protectors of the Sultan—took place hundreds of years ago, but it remains a perennially sore subject.

Despite everything, Alibašić holds a sanguine view of the Islamic Community in Bosnia. Due to the peaceful influence of Sufi brotherhoods (tariqas), and bolstered by self-reliance since being severed from Istanbul in 1878, Islam in Bosnia has developed an irenic disposition and a nuanced, thoughtful engagement with modernity that other Muslims, he convinced me, could learn from. Echoing a point made by Zovkic, he lamented the recent influence of outside forces. During the conflicts of the early 1990s, Afghani Mujahedeen came to aid their co-religionists in Bosnia, aggressively taking the fight to both Serbs and Croats. What Bosnian Muslims saw as a local conflict born from the wreckage of Yugoslavia, foreign fighters depicted as the onset of a coming epic war between Islam and the West. This message took root, Alibašić said, and a disproportionally high number of Bosnians have fought with ISIS in Syria. He would not go as far as the former Al-Qaeda member Aimen Dean, who has called Bosnia “the cradle of modern jihadism”; still, he said, the influence of radicalized Muslims in Bosnia has been pernicious. Like others with whom I spoke, he frets about Bosnia’s future. But he believes in the common-sense capacity of most Muslims ultimately to resist Salafist and Wahhabist influence. “Ordinary believers are very often staunch opponents of salafis,” he argued recently at a conference at Cambridge University, “and that might be the really insurmountable obstacle in front of salafism in Bosnia.”


It was Alibašić who put me in touch with Bozana Katava, the Croat member of the Interreligious Council of Bosnia-Herzegovina, who ended up sending me to Prijedor. Founded in 1997 with help from the World Conference of Religions for Peace, the council boasts an impressive line-up of founding members, Orthodox, Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish. According to its mission statement, the council “acts as a domestic, non-governmental organization...through which the good will of traditional churches and religious communities is expressed to contribute jointly to the building of civil society.” I met Katava at the council’s modest headquarters in downtown Sarajevo, across the street from the Catholic cathedral. A pleasant, self-effacing woman in her late thirties, she holds both Bosnian and Croatian citizenship. After she told me a bit about the council’s history and makeup, I asked exactly what the group did, and whether she felt it made an impact. Her first glance seemed distressed; but she quickly composed herself and got down to business, describing with conviction what the council manages to accomplish despite challenging circumstances.

And its work is impressive. Katava and her colleagues monitor attacks on religious sites throughout Bosnia, publishing an annual report and maintaining a website where those attacks can be registered. They network with those sympathetic to their mission, and promote educational and outreach programs, especially to younger generations. Younger theologians and religious leaders of all faiths are crucial for their work, she says; the council hosts conferences to bring them together in cities across Bosnia, often ones that have been flashpoints of violence in the past. Another initiative, setting up open-door days at religious sites, encourages members of different faiths to visit each other’s places of worship. What moved me the most, however, were visits that the council sponsors to sites where religious violence or destruction has taken place. In the aftermath of an attack, for example, a Catholic priest might visit a vandalized mosque and pray there, in the presence of local Muslims, for peace, understanding, and reconciliation.

My curiosity piqued by the council’s focus on the young, I asked Katava about the older generations, who had been adults during the conflicts of the 1990s. That flicker of flustered dismay returned for a moment. But then she patiently explained that, with limited time and resources, one simply had to focus on what is felt to be most effective; the opinions of older generations often appeared to be fixed—unlikely to be shaped for the better, more likely obstacles to be overcome. She also lamented that several older religious leaders did not endorse her group’s work, including, notably, the Catholic bishop of Mostar.

Our conversation concluded with a discussion of history, how it is taught (and might be taught) in schools, and the role that understanding it accurately might play in the reconciliation process. We agreed that Germany since 1945 had done an admirable job of documenting past atrocities and dealing with its past. Finally, I asked Katava what she wished Westerners knew about the circumstances that she and her colleagues faced. She didn’t have to think long.

“History is the biggest problem in this country,” she said.

Preparing to depart, I found myself attempting to find some light in the darkness.  And despite the steep challenges that Katava and kindred spirits face, there is some light. Since its inception in 1993, the UN-created International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), seated in the Hague, has sought to bring one hundred sixty-one criminals to justice, sentencing eighty-three. The Tribunal completed its work recently with the conviction of Ratko Mladić, the infamous “butcher of Bosnia.” What is more, under the mantra of “transitional justice,” NGOs have flocked to the region, or have arisen internally, in an effort to nourish institutions of civil society.

The war and trials have also generated a large, perceptive literature. To cite but one example, the Croatian-American theologian Miroslav Volf has written eloquently about the role of memory in peacemaking in The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World. Memories are paradoxically both necessary for peace and obstacles to it, Volf argues, contending that aggrieved parties must finally let go of some memories if forgiveness and reconciliation are ever to take place.

This is surely so; but even as I nod in agreement, I cannot get the ruined, abandoned homes in Srebrenica and Prijedor out of my mind. These pictures mix with those of the exhumations at Tomasica and images of faceless persons, the missing, still in graves hidden behind the silence of the guilty. It is not lost on anyone that the number of those actually brought to justice is laughably small in light of the enormity of what took place. Most perpetrators still enjoy warm sunshine and thick Bosnian coffee.

As for that theological sense I set out to find, the best I can muster, I suppose, attempts feebly to fathom both the necessity and the severe limits of justice in this world; it affirms the appropriateness of those psalms in which the psalmist remonstrates with God: “Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself.... Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?” (Psalm 44).

One must honor, too, the abiding disconsolation of the living set out in Jeremiah 31:15: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more.”


Funding for this essay was made possible by the Garvey Fund, established to carry on the work of the longtime Commonweal columnist John Garvey.

Thomas Albert Howard is professor of humanities and the holder of the Duesenberg Chair in Ethics at Valparaiso University. This essay is adapted from his new book, The Faiths of Others: A History of Interreligious Dialogue (Yale University Press).

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Published in the March 9, 2018 issue: View Contents
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