I Watched War Erupt in the Balkans. Here’s What I See in America Today.
I can’t sleep anymore. I wake up in the middle of the night from hallucinatory dreams and don’t fall back asleep. I’m obviously not alone with this condition. Sleeplessness and a kind of narcoleptic fatigue that I have all afternoon are gripping the country, actually the globe. Last night, I was locked inside a church and pulling the rotten, moldy, wood slats covering the windows to escape. I kept falling back onto the church floor and seeing bodies against the back wall.
Earlier this summer, as I walked past the hum of the morgue trucks parked outside our neighborhood hospital, I remembered my frequent pilgrimages to the morgue in Sarajevo as people searched for missing family during the war more than a quarter century ago. I can’t believe it’s that long ago. Watching what’s happening around the country, images from the Bosnian war and from years of my past living amid other people’s civil wars have crept into my daily and sleepless life. What were the precipitating incidents, what were the signs, when did rage and fear turn to violence, how did the fear defeat hope, was there some measure that could be codified? I don’t think we’re there yet. In fact, I can’t believe we’ll ever be there. But neither did they.
George Floyd’s death, the video of his slow suffocation, his pleas for breath, his call for his mama as he lay dying under the knee of police Officer Derek Chauvin ignited a rising-up against an entrenched and far better organized movement of white power, one that stretches back and back through our history. During one of the first Black Lives Matter protests in Brooklyn, I stood in a crowd wearing a mask and listened to a Black Episcopalian preacher give a sermon about peaceful anger. The next day, I was outside Barclays Center just before dusk with a crowd of protesters when another crowd arrived, having marched for miles from Bay Ridge. They stopped and one woman said they were going to pray, the evening Islamic prayer, and anyone could join or listen. They formed rows. A young man sang the call to prayer. The rest of the crowd — Black, white, brown — got down on a knee facing them. You could feel the surprise among the original crowd who had not expected the Bay Ridge Islamic Center’s arrival. How to react? Time passed and the anxiety dissipated as the kneelers watched and listened and some raised a fist. Bay Ridge’s Muslims were saying, Yes we know well how the system wields power, sweeps through neighborhoods, crushes minorities. And we’ve joined forces before.
That night, the protesters stayed out after curfew; the police chased them, many were beaten, locked up. Groups formed to get people out of prison. You know the rest: Allies handing out water bottles, curfews, the chanting of names of Black men and women killed by police, police violence, clashes. And then, on the tails of demands for justice, the extremists flew in. In the streets of Portland, Oregon, the gun-chested, beefy, white power anti-maskers and the Homeland Security dudes in riot gear ratcheted up the crisis, with unmarked vans whisking protesters away, with the Boogaloo Bois, the Boojahadeen, the Proud Boys, and antifa. In early June, helicopters were constantly buzzing overhead in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, and then at night the fireworks began. All over the city. At first, it was exciting, celebratory. I noticed Max, our 6-year-old mutt, who could never get enough of the outdoors night or day, around dusk, his tail would drop, he’d lope to the dining table and duck under. If I tried to take him out after sundown, his feet cemented in place. Max wasn’t alone. There was an epidemic of traumatized dogs. Canines sense an earthquake coming — why not war?
Max’s fear started with the fireworks. And the fireworks set off more fears, conspiracy theories about government plots to drive people mad with sleeplessness, to stir anxiety in Black and brown communities, to send police fireworks squads into neighborhoods searching for “troublemakers” — code for protesters. You could find any and every theory, even that the fireworks were the prelude to war. Isolation, despair, insomnia, job losses, illness, curfews, police violence, looting — they breed conspiracy theories. It’s the traction of those conspiracy theories that needs to be measured.
I lived in Sarajevo during the war above the Catholic church in the old town called Bascarsija — “grand bazaar” in Turkish — with Vera, her husband Drago, and their traumatized dog, Blacky. Every time the phone rang, which wasn’t often since the phones were often down during the war, Blacky flipped out. If you dared to venture forth and pick up the receiver, he’d grip your ankle with his teeth and yank. Everyday around dusk, an archipelago of shell-shocked dogs barked their agony across the city.
Vera, a poet and newspaper editor in her 50s, was convinced that war would never come to Bosnia. Even in 1991, the year before the war began, with the Yugoslav army shelling towns on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, with the Yugoslav army besieging the eastern Croatian town of Vukovar, Sarajevans did not believe that war would come to their beautiful city nestled in the mountains. War in Bosnia? No way, said Vera. It was too mixed up: Muslims, Orthodox, Catholics, Jews, all living together and intermarried. Vera was Croat. Vera’s former husband was half Croat and half Jewish. Drago, a retired economist and bank director, was Serb. Upstairs in Vera’s apartment building lived a Jewish-Croatian Bosnian and his Muslim Bosnian wife and their mixed son. The whole building was like that.
Drago told Vera that she was naive. “The war in Bosnia,” he said, “will be longer and bloodier than anywhere else.” The two rarely agreed on anything.
Vera had been a baby in a bomb shelter in World War II. Drago had joined the partisans to fight the Nazis and their Croatian allies. He ended up in a concentration camp in Austria and nearly died of starvation. His sister happened to see his body thrown on a pile of corpses and saved him.
Drago always expected the worst. And so in early 1992, with war raging just across the border from Bosnia, Drago drove up north to his family farm where he’d once been mayor. Already, the Bosnian Serbs had declared autonomous zones and were preparing for an independent state. Drago heard that Ratko Mladic — the charismatic Bosnian Serb military commander who would become notorious for leading the massacre of 8,000 men and boys in Srebrenica — was recruiting men for his separatist army. Drago urged the reservists he knew to resist Mladic and stay home, until a friend warned him to be quiet and leave lest he get thrown in prison or killed. On his way home, he saw irregular soldiers with beards and long hair wearing patches with crossed swords, a skull, an eagle. The Chetniks were back, reincarnations of the old nationalist guerrillas who’d formed an alliance with the Nazis in World War II to advance their dream of a Greater Serbia. Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb political leader, was a great admirer of the Chetniks. In their honor, he vowed that the Muslims of Bosnia would burn in hell if Bosnia declared independence.
Lately, I’ve drifted into Drago’s camp. The images of bulging, bearded men with their ammunition bibs, wielding automatic rifles and a medley of white power symbols — swastikas, Confederate flags, nooses, patches of an arrow through a skull and the words “death” and “victory” — just like a cabal of Chetniks. They mobilize like the wind thanks to their chat-frats. They message, “Any patriots willing to take up arms and defend our city?” — Kenosha, Wisconsin. They threaten to lynch and behead the governor of Michigan. Drago recently died, but I can hear him telling me, “Don’t be a donkey.” That’s what he called me. A lot. Usually for missing signs of trouble, for not being vigilant.
In Sarajevo, whispers swept through schools, the hospital, newsrooms, offices. Serb friends and colleagues were suddenly off to Belgrade to visit family, or going to the countryside, or getting medical treatment, or just disappearing. Still few believed that war would come to Sarajevo. Between February 29 and March 1, 1992, Bosnia held a referendum on independence from Yugoslavia. A nearly unanimous “yes” prevailed. Except that the Serb-controlled areas of Bosnia boycotted the vote. In fact, they’d already declared a separate constitution.
On March 1, a Serb wedding party was heading toward the old Orthodox church in Bascarsija. Gunfire scattered the celebrants. The bridegroom’s father was shot and killed. The Orthodox priest was shot. Sarajevans were disgusted but not surprised when the killer was rumored to be a local thug, nicknamed Celo, or “baldy.”
Immediately Bosnian Serb leaders declared, You see? We were right. Independent Bosnia means death to Serbs.
Up went the barricades manned by Serb paramilitaries. Students removing the barricades were killed. And up went the barricades manned by Celo and other criminals. Fairly quickly, the Bosnian government formed its own underdog army.
In April, Sarajevans still believed peace was possible. Because they wanted peace. Because they felt peace. They couldn’t conceive that anyone would want war. Hundreds began marching in Dobrinja, the suburb created for the 1984 Winter Olympics. Hundreds turned to thousands and tens of thousands shouting, We can live together. They brandished photographs of the late Josip Broz Tito, nostalgic for his autocratic rule when everyone was a Yugoslav. They waved signs for sex, drugs, and rock and roll. This was Sarajevo. Fun town. Comedians. Musicians. Cafe hipsters. War was for those rural hillbillies. The protests carried on into the next day. Some 100,000 Sarajevans calling for peace. Then the shots rang out again. Bullets hit dozens of protesters. Fourteen were killed. The police figured out that Serb snipers were firing on the protesters from the Holiday Inn, the same hotel that would end up housing the international media for three and a half years of siege.
That day, April 6, Bosnia won international recognition of its independence. And the siege began.
The siege of Sarajevo, the longest in modern Europe’s history, was brutal and twisted and yet so intimate. It’s very intimacy made it so unthinkable that friends and neighbors could turn on each other. How could they? How could we? One Bosnian Croat writer and boxer I knew who stayed to defend the city told me that his best friend was on the other side with the Bosnian Serb army. During the day, they shot at each other. At night, they talked on the phone and wept. Ismet Ceric, the head of psychiatry at Sarajevo’s main hospital, was Karadzic’s boss for 20 years. He told me that the very day Karadzic ordered the shelling of Sarajevo from the mountains, he called Ceric’s mother in Sarajevo. “He called to wish her a happy Bajram,” Ceric told me, referring to the Muslim festival following Ramadan. Ceric then asked me, Can you believe that? Yes, sadly I could. Karadzic was so obsessed with Ceric that he followed his old boss around the city for the next three years with mortars and grenades. It was hard to say whether Karadzic wanted to kill him, taunt him, or whether Ceric thought there must be a Karadzic behind every near-miss.
When Karadzic told Serbs to evacuate the city, many refused, because they had nowhere to go, some because they refused to be refugees, and some because they believed in defending the old pre-war Sarajevo even as the Bosnian army turned more and more Muslim. As hard as you tried to hold on to your identity as a mother, a doctor, an actor, a journalist, a policeman, that’s not how others identified you. With a flip of a linguistic switch, you were reduced to Serb, Croat, Muslim, Jew.
What flips civil strife into civil war? A well-planned agenda, charismatic leaders, and fear. And perhaps one last ingredient that pulls together all three: the whittling down of history and all its complexities into a narrative of collective destiny — ours against theirs, us against them.
This summer some New Yorkers fled the city for the suburbs, the countryside, New England, California. The New York Post egged on the dystopian fears with headlines like “New York City Crime Wave Reaches New Heights.” People have lost their homes, more are living on the streets. Storefronts and restaurants are empty. Overturned chairs and tables fossilized in the windows. My dentist in Manhattan told me that her colleagues want to buy guns. What did you tell them, I asked her. That they should get them, she said. Her husband survived the war in Kosovo, he says they would be foolish not to have guns. A war photographer and friend told me that I should have an escape-survival bag always at the ready. He thinks us city people are idiots not to have guns.
An author and friend in Charlottesville, Virginia, tells me the feeling in low-income communities is that the mob is coming, and no one will protect them but their own guns. She says summer of 2017 in Charlottesville was our Fort Sumpter, the first generation of a virus that’s morphing. When a group of Ku Klux Klan showed up to demonstrate, the police had their backs to them. Who were they facing down? The citizens who’d come to protest these avatars of violent white power. They chanted: The cops and Klan go hand in hand. And when the KKK left, the cops tear-gassed the anti-KKK demonstrators as if to say, Yeah, we do. That was two years before George Floyd’s death set off demands to defund the police. After all, who are they defending? The KKK? The Proud Boys? The demonstrators? Onlookers? Their power?
FBI documents released recently give proof to the fact that right-wing extremists are infiltrating and recruiting the police. Daryl Johnson, an agent tasked with investigating domestic terrorism at DHS eleven years ago, was pushed out for his inconvenient findings that right-wing extremist terrorism is far more dangerous to the homeland than Islamic terrorists. Recent history in Las Vegas, El Paso, Gilroy, and Charleston just proves his point, a point he now makes in books, articles, interviews, to anyone who will listen. Hundreds of thousands of well-armed white power extremists are now fully out in the open. Their violent acts are enshrined in social media and heralded by the president. They have new charismatic leaders. They have a clear agenda. They have a narrative of historic grievances and a shared destiny: white power. They have their white supremacists’ bibles. Their conspiracy theories are sticking with acronyms like TEOTWAKI: The End of the World As We Know It. They could all be called the children of the Turner Diaries.
“The U.S. doesn’t share a political context or history with Bosnia. But then there’s human nature, how we wield denial to survive, and tribalism when under threat, and how hard it is to turn off the worst of ourselves.”
Residents in Erie and Union City, Pennsylvania tell a New York Times reporter that people on both “sides” are ready for violence should the other candidate win. Biden and Trump supporters live side by side. Some in the same family. They all know each other. And they’re all saying, Forget the courts. Trouble is coming to the streets. Because everyone’s armed. Trump supporters say a Biden win would be a Marxist socialist coup — extreme-right rhetoric is now mainstream. Female Biden supporters like Mary Jo Campbell say they’re scared to death. After Trump was elected, she and her friends started a club they called “The Drinking Girls” to meet, drink, plot, talk. During the pandemic, my women friends, and I’m pretty sure thousands of others, took to Zoom-drink sessions for similar reasons.
I keep looking at the portraits of Campbell and the other people of Erie captured by photographer Libby March. The faces — weary, drawn with anxiety, tough. They remind me of the men and women in central Bosnia, where the war hit first, where everyone kept an AK-47 or hunting rifle by the door. It’s impossible to imagine neighbors and friends turning on each other. Until it’s not.
I’m trying not to be a donkey, but being a Cassandra is extremely unrewarding. And annoying. A friend of mine who fled Iran when she was 9 years old balked at my comparisons to Sarajevo. “The minute anyone compares completely different countries that share no history, I switch off. That is never going to happen here.” I agree, in part. The U.S. doesn’t share a political context or history with Bosnia. But then there’s human nature, how we wield denial to survive, and tribalism when under threat, and how hard it is to turn off the worst of ourselves.
The two sides have come to stand for so much more than they can possibly hold and now face each other down like the forces of light and dark over Gondor. Only each side thinks the other is the dark. People who should be united by economic class are divided by skin color. The idea that one side is elitist and the other working class is a fallacy. Look no further than the elitism of the sitting president. Or the myriad working classes who comprise the so-called elitist Democratic Party. Still, when we meet strangers, we know almost instinctively who is a Trump supporter and who is a Biden supporter. Who is other. Who is hateable, deplorable, dispensable. The language of othering slips so easily off the tongue in this fraught moment. We are in the throes of an inexorable rearrangement. History moves not like an arrow but a boomerang, Ralph Ellison wrote. And no one knows which way it will go. What is known is that none of us can escape from history.
I could leave off here. Except I prefer the endings of comedy, not tragedy.
My neighborhood park in Brooklyn has come alive as never before: It’s an outdoor gym, an outdoor dance floor, people bring their exercise mats and a phone for their online high-intensity training or yoga class. People are kickboxing, jump-roping, sweating under the British prison ship martyrs’ monument. I watch one-woman camera crews filming their friends for a TikTok video. Nightlife has also moved to the park: Picnics, small parties, a couple wrapped in a blanket because there’s nowhere else to go. Every shape and color and size mingles in the park. I recently noticed that the hum and menace of a police generator and a police pole with stadium lights are gone. While ostensibly there to offer safety, the hum and glare stalked you, creating the menacing atmosphere of a dystopian film about surveillance, anomie, and the end of the world. Their absence has brought calm, respite, and festivity. And been replaced by nightly drumming sessions.
I loved Jerry Seinfeld for his real-New Yorkers-stick-it-out column, rebutting and lampooning a fellow New Yorker and comedy club owner whining on LinkedIn that the city is dead, his friends have fled, and he’s moving to Miami. Imagine being in a real war with this guy, Seinfeld wrote.
The day after I read it, I was speaking to a friend who wrote one of the definitive books on the wars in Yugoslavia.
“We have to stay,” I said.
“Of course we’re staying,” she said. Where else are we going to go?”
Then she said, “We’ll be like the Sarajevans.”
Even if Joe Biden wins, the divides ripping apart this country will not go away. But that doesn’t mean we will go the way of the Balkans, find ourselves in Sarajevo’s siege. That’s the nightmare scenario. There are millions of people, most in fact, who want to find a way to bridge the divides and face the seismic shift that history is demanding.
In a recent dream, I walk into a party in Sarajevo. I plan to surprise Vera. We haven’t seen each other in two decades. She’s on the couch. She seems angry. Why didn’t you tell me you were coming, or is this just a coincidence because you wanted to go to a party? No, no, no, I say, stunned by her anger. I don’t even know these people, I tell her. She hugs me so tight. We’re both crying, in front of a roaring fire. The room turns to stone. The ceiling recedes, cathedral high. It’s so dark. I take my daughter by the hand to show her the room where I slept without windows, but she is pulling me away, she wants to go talk to the kids outside. She says something about a new friend, Methody. Outside Vera’s building I see a bent-over old man with long gray hair and a cane. It’s Mr. Methody, the philosopher-father of the crowd. Everyone looks to him, but he keeps manifesting in different places. He whispers to me, The structure of things is difficult. These are not normal times. The atoms and structures. It’s not a time of normal cause and effect. Then he vanishes.
Correction: November 1, 2020
This story has been corrected to note that Kenosha is in Wisconsin, not Minnesota.
Elizabeth Rubin has reported from the Middle East, Afghanistan, the Balkans, Russia, Africa and other parts of the world for the New York Times Magazine, the New Republic, the New Yorker, Harper’s, the Atlantic, Bidoun and Vogue, among others. Her journalism honors include the Livingston Award, the Bayeux-Calvados Award, and the Kurt Schork Award.
Co-published with The Intercept.