THE BLOG

The Promise of Sarajevo

Odd, the importance of Sarajevo in my life.

I find myself here once again, this time to receive, from the mayor, Ivo Komsic, the city council's gift of honorary citizenship.

Standing on the great stage of the national theater in which the ceremony is being held, I hear myself saying that there are two ways one might receive the honor being bestowed on me.

One is the way taken by François Mitterrand, the last French recipient of the honor, almost exactly 20 years ago, who intoned: "I will now be able to vote." But once he had the ballot in his hand, he voted against Bosnia.

The other is a humbler, more loyal way that I would like to make my own. And that way, I say to the audience, is to become your ambassador -- no more, no less than your ambassador -- to the community of nations and specifically to Europe, which abandoned you years ago and has, since the Dayton accords of 1995, yoked you into a treaty that is as absurd as it is disastrous: two Bosnias, almost three, like mismatched gloves, like Kafka's or Chaplin's delirium of power, like a magic nation that had been the pearl of the Balkans undone by a malicious force.

I have been the ambassador of your suffering, I say, alluding to the years I spent filming Bosna!.

I have been with other artists and intellectuals, and with the war reporters who covered the siege of the city, one of the ambassadors of your civic resistance, your civilian and military resistance.

I now intend to become the ambassador of your will to make the truth known.

I intend to be the ambassador of your thirst for justice, real justice, the kind that remembers that there are crimes (crimes against humanity) that continue to draw blood until the survivors, or the children of those survivors, have obtained reparation.

I want to be the ambassador of your passionate, powerful, and, above all, legitimate desire for Europe. What? You're telling me that Serbia, where the authentic democrats have not been able to dispel widespread nostalgia for the Milosevic era, may soon enter the European Union? You say that Croatia -- where, when the captain of the soccer team that has just qualified for the World Cup in Brazil shouts out to his fans the "Za dom!" salute of the Ustashas, his arm raised, the crowd roars back the "Presni!" of those same dark times -- is already part of Europe? And you say that Bosnia-Herzegovina, which has twice spilled its blood to fight fascism, the Bosnia-Herzegovina that has never broken with the cosmopolitanism that is the very spirit of Europe, will be the one left waiting at the door? How ironic. How shamefully ironic.

And, finally -- above and beyond the compensation that you are due, apart from the urgency of removing the imaginary obstacles or, worse, the manufactured obstacles to the return of Sarajevo to the fold of a Europe that, without it, will not be entirely Europe -- I want to be the ambassador of the grace of the great people you are, a people whose national soccer team (to return to that analogy) is the very image of the values that one would most ardently wish to be those of Europe, a multiethnic team of citizens, a group of people of diverse origins who might, on the day of their qualification for Brazil, find their voice to give words to the anthem without words that is (Dayton oblige!) Bosnia's national anthem. What a marvel that would be! What a miracle.

Present in the theater, as witnesses to my enthusiasm and commitment, were the imams of one of the most liberal, antifundamentalist, and moderate Muslim communities on the planet.

Also present were those who, here in Sarajevo, are called the Partisans, a group that scarcely distinguishes those who fought the Serbs from those who fought Hitler, almost as if it were the same war being fought in two different eras.

Present was Bakir Izetbegovic, one of the three presidents of Bosnia-Herzegovina today -- a president like his father before him. Is he like his father? He has the same charisma, the same quiet, undemonstrative authority. Except that his father was a war leader and he will be, with our help, Bosnia's unifier and therefore the leader who presides over the restoration of true peace.

Present were many friends and companions from those dark and harrowing times, first among them Dino Mustafic and Danis Tanovic, the Castor and Pollux of Sarajevo. I met them in 1993 when they were making films for the armed forces, in the course of which they would travel to the front lines to chronicle the most brutal combat. One became the Oscar-winning director of No Man's Land, the other the best stage director in the Balkans, but, as is often the case when the same soul has been thrown into two different bodies, it could have been the other way around.

Present were the friends -- many known to me, many not -- of that magical city which, against winds and tides (the ill winds of a Europe that seems to be coming apart; the dark, ubiquitous tide of mounting populism), has managed to keep intact the civic ideal that many of us have held onto since our youth.

To all of them, to those women, those men, who escaped from hell but have not yet returned to the earth that left them, to those who made war reluctantly and who speak of it with the modesty of heroes, to those survivors who, when they recount their passage through the looking glass, say only (and I challenge anyone to wrest any more from them), "I saw things that I shouldn't have seen" -- to them all I acknowledge, more than ever, a deep and abiding debt.

Translated by Steven B. Kennedy