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Bosnia’s wartime prime minister on reconciliation

Haris Silajdžić served as the minister of foreign affairs and then prime minister of Bosnia and Herzegovina during the Bosnian War. Through his experience he understands the horrors and pain felt during the genocidal actions of Serbs at that time and knows what it takes to finally overcome that terrible period. Today, 30 years after the Bosnian war started, he still dreams of a reconciliation between different identity groups.

A few months ago, in Sarajevo, I met up with Bosnia and Herzegovina’s wartime prime minister, Haris Silajdžić. He has a certain squint in his eyes that gives the impression that he has witnessed a lot during his lifetime, which is in fact true. He lived through the collapse of the former Yugoslavia and occupied high office during the Bosnian War and in its aftermath. To this day, the septuagenarian’s mind is still razor sharp and he has the ability to dive into political issues taking place halfway around the world

April 28, 2023 - Leon Hartwell - Issue 2 2023MagazineStories and ideas

Haris Silajdžić / Photo: Leon Hartwell

Even in his old age, Silajdžić possesses that charm and charisma that I read and heard about in earlier years. When I visited Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country that is more unstable today than in the past two decades, some of his supporters pressured him to run for president again, a position he held in the post-war period, but he refused. He pontificates that it is up to Bosnia’s youth to transform the country (and he is right about that!). 

Revisiting horror through poetry

When he was a young man, Silajdžić left Yugoslavia to conduct research in the United States. He told me a few interesting stories about his encounters with race and racism in Washington DC. At the time, he made sure he stayed close to the Library of Congress and the National Archives in order to access their extraordinary collections. Those years in Washington helped prepare him for his future role when he had to encourage Americans to provide support to the government of Bosnia and Herzegovina during the war. He recounted to me how, during the Bosnian War, David L. Phillips helped him – a Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) – to get in touch with a Jewish lobbying firm and secure an interview on Larry King Live. Being on the premier talk show of its time went a long way in helping Silajdžić to present the Bosnian government’s plight to the world.

For the most part, Silajdžić likes to be left alone. He spends his days writing poetry, meditating and studying metaphysics. One of the poems that I happened to stumble across is entitled “Srebrenica Forgiveness”. The poem struck a chord with me because it has several elements in it about transitional justice. He lost his hardcopy of the poem, so he seemed rather pleased when I told him that I have a soft copy on my Kindle. After a Balkan dinner in the basement of a prominent hotel in Sarajevo, Silajdžić allowed me to record him while he recited “Srebrenica Forgiveness”. The first part of the poem is about genocide denial, a national sport in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Balkan region, and it paints a bloody picture to the reader about the experience of the Srebrenica genocide from the victim’s perspective:

That bloodstain

on the forehead of posterity

with bloodied palms

you want to erase

hope bloodied you gave them

in bloodied nightmares to suffocate

Through bloodied soil you trudge

in the dark

your tired fingers grope

feeling for the light

where tears should be

in your eyes blood sweat

The poem then alludes to the fact that “those who put [their victims] on the path of blood” were “[hiding] behind God”. Indeed, the Serbian Orthodox Church frequently gave its blessing to those who committed genocide against Bosniaks.

Later in the poem, Silajdžić appeals to perpetrators to come forward with the truth about their crimes, not only to those whom they brutally murdered, but also to the other victims of the war: the family and friends of the dead who continue to endure great suffering. He writes, “Let the truth emerge,” but then he ponders whether it is possible to ask for “forgiveness”. His answer is an unwavering “yes”, but it is a complicated endeavour nevertheless:

Asking for forgiveness?


there it is

in the eyes of a mother

still mourning her children,

in the graves of Srebrenica

it may be

There and there only

it may be

There and only there

your salvation must be

In the poem, Silajdžić also makes a reference to a “bridge”, which symbolises reconciliation. Half of the bridge, he says, is built when perpetrators tell the truth about their crimes and ask for forgiveness, while the other half is constructed once the victims grant forgiveness to those who harmed them and their family members.

Further along the poem, a shift in roles occurs as he moves to the perspective of the perpetrators, who finally ask for forgiveness from those whom they have murdered:

Raise your hand

you whom I have killed

raise both hands

raise both hands

with wire tied

in the hour of death

Place them on my heart


with pure water

to wash my hands

that bloodstain to erase

posterity their head to raise

But the statesman-turned-poet is not done yet. Silajdžić implores the perpetrators once more to ask for forgiveness, and tells them to completely expose the brutality of their deeds to the public: 

Shout then

Top of your lungs:


I am the henchman

I am the killer

I am guilty

For nothing I have killed but

their voracious hate-pit to fill

Forgive me

if you can

I have shed your blood

for your mercy now I beg

I have built half of the bridge

may your forgiveness

the other half build

And, who knows…?

Merciful is the soul of Bosnia!

Healing through truth

After he recited “Srebrenica Forgiveness” to me, I asked Silajdžić to provide me with more details about the context in which he wrote his poem. He responded, “I wrote it because I felt that what the victims really need, and want to hear, is an apology. We cannot return the dead, but the victims, the mothers, want to hear, “I am sorry I did it, please forgive me if you can.” Only that can bring peace to the victims and catharsis to the perpetrators. Only that can bring peace to these parts of the world.”

Silajdžić’s response shows that he believes in the importance of truth-telling as a form of healing, but despite the atrocities that he has witnessed, he is still somewhat optimistic as he believes he can still appeal to the human side of some of the monsters who have tormented his kin. Of the approximately 100,000 people who were killed during the Bosnian War, nearly 90 per cent of them were civilians, not soldiers, and of those, most of them were Bosniaks.

Still, when I asked him what he thought about the general state of reconciliation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Silajdžić responded without blinking: “Well, I do not think that we have made any progress there.” He admits that “we … are still in denial.”  At the time, I found it interesting that he used the collective noun “we”, but I shall return to this point later. For the former statesman, worse than the individual denial is what he calls the “official denial” by “the regime in Belgrade”.

His reference to Belgrade is important because once Yugoslavia collapsed, Serbia in effect took control over what was left of rump Yugoslavia. Belgrade also supplied its proxies – Bosnian Serbs – with substantial military support. Furthermore, Silajdžić is correct that Serbian officials at the highest echelons of government continue to deny that Serbs committed acts of genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the 1990s. According to the latest Srebrenica Genocide Denial Report, between May 2021 and May 2022, there were 693 acts of genocide denial identified in public and media spaces in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Balkans, an increase from the previous year.

Official acknowledgement and an apology from Belgrade are imperative given government-sanctioned complicity in committing major atrocities across Bosnia and Herzegovina and also because the Bosnian Serb entity – Republika Srpska – continues to act as a proxy of the Serbian government, thereby allowing Banja Luka to ride on the fumes of Belgrade’s denialism. A lot of the genocide denial and destabilising propaganda polluting the information ecosystem in Bosnia and Herzegovina emanate directly from Belgrade. Until Serbia recognises the role it played in Bosnia and Herzegovina, says Silajdžić, “there is not peace”.          

The idea of Greater Serbia, which in the minds of Serb nationalists justified so much killing and large-scale displacement, is not dead yet. Silajdžić opines that “[radical Serbs] still hope they can get a part of Bosnia – that part where they cleansed the non-Serbs of the population on the false narratives of history.” Those who promote Greater Serbia – a form of apartheid advocating that all Serbs should live in one state beyond Serbia’s current boundaries – pose an imminent threat to the stability of the Balkans. This idea will naturally generate tension between current and future generations of people across the region.

According to Silajdžić, “The Greater Serbia ideology perpetrated by the leaders and intellectuals, and the church leaders, is …  a crime to their population, [especially] the next generations. So I said something which I will repeat for you, because they have this ideology of territorial expansion like everything is Serbian.  Do not expand horizontally, expand your horizons, that is your debt to the new generation. Expand your horizons. They don’t even have enough people for Serbia, so why are they doing this? They are doing this for their own place in history, their own greatness – so their own personal needs – and [effectively] punishing the next generation, and the generation to come after that.”

Carrying the burden

For Silajdžić, the deafening silence about past atrocities from Belgrade is painful, despite countless verdicts by the Special Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia verifying the systematic killing and destruction of non-Serbs. Yet, he says, the Serbian government is “trying to somehow circumvent the facts” and their representatives are “not ready yet to say “Yes, we did it. They did it in our name. We are sorry.” They are not prepared to do that, and that is why, we do not have real peace here. They still covet our lives.”

For context, Serbia’s current president, Aleksandar Vučić, was a journalist and “warmonger” during the Bosnian War. He later became Slobodan Milošević’s minister of propaganda when his regime committed large-scale displacement and genocide in Kosovo. In other words, it would be the equivalent of Joseph Goebbels taking over from Hitler. It is thus unsurprising that today’s government in Belgrade is eager to promote genocide denial. Accordingly, in the absence of an official apology by Belgrade, Silajdžić thinks that “these [new] generations have that blood stain on their head, but they did nothing wrong. So this generation of politicians have to apologise in order to set free the new generations and the generations to come.”

As he relayed his thoughts to me, I told him that his idea of reconciliation sounded a lot like ubuntu, a concept that was popularised in the 1990s in South Africa following the country’s transition from apartheid to democracy. It is a Zulu and Xhosa noun which describes “a quality that includes the essential human virtues; compassion and humanity.” In more simple terms, ubuntu means, when you are hurting, I am hurting. When I perpetrate a crime against you, both of us become victims because our humanity is closely intertwined with one another. While he was puffing on his cigarette, I asked Silajdžić whether he is familiar with the term. Unsurprisingly, he knew about ubuntu and how it was used in South Africa to promote transitional justice.  

Belgrade’s inability to acknowledge its atrocities during the Bosnian War means that there is now an entire “new generation [that has to] carry that burden on their backs,” says Silajdžić. He is adamant that Serbian and Bosnian Serb leaders “are punishing their own people, their own future”. The way out, the only way to break the pattern, according to Silajdžić, is to recognise past atrocities and “to apologise”, which will allow Bosnians internally – that is, among Bosniaks, Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats – and bilaterally – between Sarajevo and Belgrade – “to build a new future”.

Silajdžić’s disappointment regarding the perpetrators cuts deep. At first he says, “they killed civilians for nothing,” but then quickly corrects himself by describing the culprits as bureaucratic génocidaires: “Actually, [they committed those atrocities] for some guys sitting in their armchairs [in Belgrade and Banja Luka] wanting for their names to be great names in history.” 

He blames high-level officials for sacrificing the lives of their own children, peace, and the reputation of their identity group, simply for their own glory. In Silajdžić’s opinion, “that is so wrong, and there is only one way to make it right, and that is to apologise. Recognise the fact and apologise. There is a salvation, but you have to recognise it.”

Leon Hartwell is a Senior Associate at IDEAS, London School of Economics (LSE), and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington DC.

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