Come with me into the graveyard, all human life is here

Category: Politicians

Sarajevo Roses

Sarajevo is a lovely city surrounded by hills; to the east lies the Turkish old town with its narrow cobbled and marbled streets, gracious squares, small wooden shops, bazaars, mosques, fountains, and pavement cafes serving Bosnian coffee with lokum and baklava. To the west is the new town flaunting the grand, imperialistic buildings of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. My  taxi driver spoke of his city with pride: did I know that under the Ottomans it was the biggest and most important city in the Balkans after Istanbul itself; that it was the first city in Europe to have an electric tram network; that the 1984 Winter Olympics were held here…

Yet Sarajevo has a troubled history. The Ottomans conquered Bosnia and Herzegovina in the fifteenth century and stayed for four hundred years. In 1878 Austro-Hungarian armies ousted them and occupied the territory, formally annexing it in 1908. A trading centre and an ethnic and religious melting pot with Jews, Moslems, Orthodox and Catholic Christians amongst its population, Sarajevo became known as the “Jerusalem of Europe.”

But armies of occupation are always unwelcome, and Sarajevo became the centre of Bosnian-Serb resistance to Austrian rule. As we learned in school, drafting painstaking essays on the causes of World War One, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by the Bosnian Serb, Gravrilo Princip, was the spark which ignited preexisting conflicts and dissensions, as European armies mobilised against each other in 1914. By 1918  Bosnia Herzegovina had escaped the Austro-Hungarian yoke, only to emerge from the war  annexed to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes under a Serbian monarchy. In 1929 this became the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and in 1939 the Cvetkovic-Macek Agreement effectively partitioned Bosnia between Croatia and Serbia.

When German forces invaded Yugoslavia in World War Two, the Serbian royal family fled, and the Axis powers created the independent state of Croatia, incorporating Bosnia. The quisling Croat Ustase regime ran the state as a Nazi satellite  promoting terror and genocide. Meanwhile the Chetniks, royalist Serbs, conducted their own campaign of genocide against Croats, Muslims, and Communists in pursuit of an ethnically pure Greater Serbia.

From 1941 however the Yugoslav Communists under Josip Brod Tito had organised their own multiethnic resistance group; the Yugoslav Partisans fought both the Axis and the Ustase. In 1943 they established Bosnia Herzegovina as a republic within the provisional state of Democratic Federal Yugoslavia, and on 6 April 1945 they liberated Sarajevo itself from the fascists.

The Eternal Flame dedicated to the Partisans who liberated Sarajevo from the Fascists
Dedicated 6 April 1946 on the First Anniversary of the Liberation

After the war, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia,  comprising the six republics of Bosnia Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia, emerged as a successful decentralised federation, supplanting the national disputes of the past. For forty years Yugoslavia developed its own brand of Communism, maintaining neutrality in the Cold War and close ties with developing countries. An open society whose inhabitants were free to travel for work and holidays, whose borders were open to foreign visitors, it witnessed economic growth and political stability. Along with the other capitals Sarajevo, a multicultural city of Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs, and Catholic Croats, flourished.

But the Bosnians were to suffer again. By the late 1970s inflation, economic recession, and western trade barriers had led  to a heavy IMF debt in Yugoslavia causing disputes between the Republics reflecting their divergent economies and differing levels of productivity. Moreover, with the death of Tito in 1980 ethnic nationalism revived. Serbians sought a more centralised state under Serbian hegemony while the other partners favoured the continuation of a looser federation. The breakup of Yugoslavia began with Slovenia and Croatia  seceding,  and in March 1992 following a  referendum Bosnia Herzegovina declared independence. The UN recognised its status. Bosnian Serbs however revived the spectre of a Greater Serbia, to include all Serbian populations, and under Radovan Karadzic established the Republica Srpska in the northeast of Bosnia Herzegovina.

From here between 1992 and 1995 the Serbian army directed a programme of ethnic cleansing  against the Muslim Bosniaks. They conducted massacres, the most egregious that of Srebrenica, and  systematic mass rapes of Bosnian women throughout the country.Their soldiers encircled Sarajevo from the hills, attacking the city with artillery, mortars, tanks, machine guns. Sniper attacks in the city accompanied the shelling. Sarajevo was besieged for 1425 days, the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. An average of 329 grenades hit the city every day; 100,000 Bosnians lost their lives, the dead included 11,541 civilians of whom 1,500 were children; 56,000 were wounded including 15,000 children.

The Massacre of Srebrenica shocked the West into calling for a cease fire, a NATO air campaign ended the siege, and at length the Dayton Agreement brought the Bosnian War to an end.

More than a quarter of a century later my  taxi driver could still make no sense of it: “We were all living together,” he said, “then out of nowhere….” his voice cracked, the memories obviously still sharp and painful.

And Sarajevo bears witness: outside the reconstructed library, burnt to the ground during the siege with the destruction of two million  books, a plaque reads, “Do not forget, remember and warn.” In the Martyrs’ (Kovaci) Cemetery soldiers and civilians killed in the war lie alongside Alija Izetbegovic, the first President of Bosnia who declared Bosnian Independence in 1992.

Martyrs’ Cemetery, Kovaci, Sarajevo
Lives lost too soon: young victims of the war
Alija Izetbegovic, First President of Bosnia, declared Bosnian Independence, March 1992

The Siege of Sarajevo Museum uses film, photographs, artefacts, and written material to recount harrowing personal stories of the siege. The poignant Sarajevo Roses mark the places on pavements where sniper fire killed people queueing for bread and water during the siege. The pock marked concrete has been filled with red resin like candle wax, creating the red flowers. There are two hundred of them, beautiful but terrible memorials, scattered throughout the city.

Sarajevo Roses

Sarajevo and its inhabitants have suffered horribly, but as he drove me back to the airport my driver’s principal concern was to know if I had enjoyed his city: was my hotel good, had I been up Mount Trebevic in the cable car, did I like the food, had I tried cevapi, had I seen the national museum and the botanical garden, had I had coffee in Sebilj Square, did I like Sarajevo, would I come again, would I tell my friends to visit. It was a resounding yes to everything. For all its sorrows Sarajevo is a warm, welcoming, friendly little city, bruised and hurt by foreign occupations and ugly wars, not forgetting its past and its dead, yet looking forward  even while remembering. I hope its future is as bright as the red roses on its pavements.

One Date, Three Graves; Tales of Myth, Manipulation and Mescalin

I do not remember where I was when I heard that the Thirty Fifth President of the United States of America had been assassinated, but I do remember the subsequent media coverage of the death, the funeral, the arrest and shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, the conspiracy theories, the conjuring of Camelot, and the strange outpourings of public adulation and grief. No wonder that two other notable deaths on 22 November 1963 passed virtually unnoticed.

John F. Kennedy (1917-63) was the son of Joseph Kennedy who had amassed a fortune through stock market manipulation, property deals and bootlegging. It was trust funds set up by his father that provided Jack Kennedy with financial independence and enabled him to run his successful campaign to become president, notwithstanding an undistinguished record in the Senate. His father’s contacts,  including the mafia boss, Sam Giancana, allegedly provided support following a deal with Joseph that if his son were elected he would “lay off organised crime.” Giancana’s control of the Teamsters’  Union and their votes, and judicious use of threats and fraudulent voting, helped deliver Kennedy’s narrow Presidential victory.

JFK’s time as president (1961-63) was defined by the fiascos and iniquities of a foreign policy engendered by Communist paranoia combined with arrogant Imperialism. In April 1961 he unleashed the Bay of Pigs invasion led by CIA paramilitary officers who tried to foment an uprising  to overthrow Castro’s government in Cuba. They were defeated in two days. There followed the equally unsuccessful Operation Mongoose characterised by terrorist attacks on civilians, the destruction of crops, mining of harbours and farcical assassination attempts directed against Castro. Abortive efforts  were made to keep this operation secret to avoid repercussions from the United Nations.

On Kennedy’s watch American involvement in Vietnam built up: military advisers were sent to the country along with political and economic support for the Diem regime  whose forces were funded and trained by the CIA . Under the crude social engineering of the Strategic Hamlet Programme   peasants were forcibly relocated away from Viet Cong influence and subjected  to brainwashing and surveillance with no freedom of movement. In January 1962 Operation Ranch Hand introduced herbal warfare including the use of Agent Orange. This aerial defoliation not only destroyed land and ecology but also led to cancers, birth defects and other long term health problems in Vietnam.

In April 1963 Kennedy cynically recorded: “We don’t have a prayer of staying in Vietnam. Those people hate us. They are going to throw our asses out of there at any point. But I can’t give up that territory to the Communists and get the American people to re-elect me.”

It was an abhorrent record and, although still a child in 1963 with only a hazy knowledge of the full horror of American foreign policy, I sensed something wrong in the sycophantic media coverage and the deferential tributes. Though unfamiliar with the concept of establishment propaganda, the constant repetition of the Camelot myth raised my suspicions, and the uncritical public effusions of distress seemed fabricated. So I was surprised when, years later, accompanying more worldly Politics Students on an annual trip to Washington, they invariably showed enthusiasm for crossing the Potomac to Arlington to see the Kennedy grave. Challenged, they proved themselves well informed as to the noxious nature of the Presidency yet remained susceptible to the contrived allure of the Camelot myth.

The Kennedy Grave at Arlington Cemetery, Washington. Alongside Kennedy lies Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis and two of their children.
An Eternal Flame burns at the Grave
The Grave looks out across the Potomac towards the Washington Monument

The second death on that November day was that of the academic and writer, CS Lewis (1898-1963). Amongst his sizeable output of fiction and nonfiction it is his children’s books The Chronicles of Narnia, seven fantasy novels which have sold over 120 million copies and been translated into forty-seven languages,for which he is best remembered. Like most small children I was once enchanted by the world of Narnia; what imaginative child would not be thrilled at the prospect of entering a large wardrobe full of fur coats to discover a secret exit at the back  leading to a magical kingdom of ice and snow, mythical creatures, and talking animals. It is a cleverly woven story of wonder, mystery, and adventure. Lewis began to write it in the 1940s when children  came to his house in Oxford as evacuees from London, and the four siblings who discover the world of Narnia were based on them.

But it did not take me long to realise that behind the richly imaginative narrative lay a manipulative allegory, a Christian subtext with the lion Aslan a Christ like figure sacrificing himself to torture, suffering and humiliation to redeem Edmund who has betrayed his siblings to the White Witch. Aslan’s sacrifice vanquishes death, and he returns to life but only the trusting and unquestioning Lucy can see him;  the message at the heart of this proselytising text is the importance blind faith, obedience to an authoritarian moral system, and an acceptance that there are things one is “not meant to know.”

I may not share Philip Pullman’s view that this is “one of the most poisonous things I have ever read” but alongside the Christian propaganda aimed uncomfortably at young children, there is also a pernicious defence of established hierarchies and a tacit acceptance of violence. The racist disparagement of the Calormenes, and the unquestioning acceptance of class and gender stereotypes  is disturbing. The female character of the White Witch, responsible for its being “always winter and never Christmas,” personifies evil, and when Susan becomes too interested in nylons, lipstick, clothes, and boys she can no longer return to Narnia. Worse, as Pullman says, is the terrible myth that death is better than life, the idealised view of an afterlife upholding a reactionary idealised theocracy.

But just as the Camelot myth drew my students to Kennedy’s grave, so the magic I remembered in his stories enticed me to that of CS Lewis. I did not have high expectations for the graveyard of a Victorian church, located in an old quarry in an Oxford suburb, but Holy Trinity churchyard in Headington is a delightful place. I visited on the eve of springtime as the soft green shoots of snowdrops and hellebores were emerging, and it resembled more a country churchyard than a suburban one. The gnarled roots of an ancient yew circle the honey-coloured stone marking the grave of Lewis and his brother which bears a quotation from King Lear.

The Grave of CS Lewis At Holy Trinity Church, Headington
“Men Must Endure Their Going Hence”
Lewis’ mother had a calendar with quotations from Shakespeare, his father kept the leaf from the day she died, Lewis’ brother Warren had the quotation inscribed on the grave.

And I was reluctantly charmed by the Narnia window in the church

My third grave however houses someone who was aware and wary of the power of indoctrination and  conditioning, the uncritical conformity which media myths and social engineering, fairy stories and brainwashing can engender.

Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), writer and philosopher, had published his most famous work the dystopian Brave New World in the early 1930s but it was still very popular when my school friends and I discovered it in the 60s. Eagerly we debated his vision of an establishment controlling a docile population through a combination of drugs and entertainment, maintaining  economic and social divisions with neither alphas nor epsilons questioning their status but accepting a caste system, convinced that all was right with their world.

Paradoxically Huxley’s own experiments with mescalin recorded in The Doors of Perception (1954) led him to believe that the consciousness altering drug could also promote  enlightenment, and that drug taking could be a legitimate expression of intellectual curiosity, removing inhibitions and increasing awareness. In the 1960s this chimed with a youth subculture seeking social change and experimenting with psychedelic drugs and the hallucinogenic power of LSD, and Jim Morrison’s rock group – The Doors – took their name from the title of Huxley’s book. (He in turn had taken it from the visionary poet and artist William Blake: “if the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”)

Ostentatiously clutching our copies of The Doors of Perception  was as close as we came in our provincial girls’ school to the drug subculture of the sixties. And if we perceived it then as a more glamorous world than our own and lauded Huxley for his avant-garde views yet when I reread his book recently I confess that I found it dull. Worse, it contradicted the scathing indictment of mindless acceptance and unquestioning obedience which he had wrought in Brave New World. Yet though this may have been disappointing, his grave was nonetheless the one which I approached with most respect for the memory of its occupant.

Huxley is buried in the Watts Cemetery, home of the Watts Mortuary Chapel, at Compton near Guildford in Surrey.

Alongside him are other members of his illustrious family including his father Leonard, biographer and editor.

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