Bernard-Henri Levy Celebrates the Fraternity of Sarajevo Citizenship
Saluting Bosnian heroes and a history full of tragedy—and a present and future full of uncertainty.
Representatives of the city of Sarajevo, the surrounding region, and the nation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, I am happy to be here with you on this day dedicated to Bosnia’s Partisans, a day that is also the anniversary of the independance of Bosnia-Herzegovina. I am happy to be here at this moment in the region’s history when the legacy of the Partisans is once again being cast into doubt and the very existence of Bosnia-Herzegovina as a nation of free citizens seems problematic in some quarters.
I feel honored to celebrate with you, here in Sarajevo, the memory of those who fought fascism in two wars, the war of the 1940s and that of the 1990s, and happy to stand beside you to reaffirm that there are not two nations of Bosnia-Herzegovina, let alone three, but only one—of which Sarajevo is the capital and the symbol.
Ladies and gentlemen, I usually am not fond of honorifics.
In my own country, France, I have, over the years and now over the decades, even refused a few.
But there is one honor that I carry with special pride, and that is the Bosnian lily awarded to me in wartime by your president, Alija Izetbegovic, and there is another that I receive today with emotion, gratitude, and renewed pride. That other is the honorary citizenship conferred on me by the city of Sarajevo. I came to Sarajevo for the first time in 1992 with my friend Gilles Hertzog. We arrived in a very nice car, rented at the Venice airport. In it we crossed the Croatian lines, then the Serbian lines. I didn’t know how to drive. It was a black car that followed close behind a convoy of white U.N. vehicles. We arrived in a maddened city, crushed by bombs, in flames. Walking into the presidential palace or the national theater was like entering a bus station. I could not grasp the chaos around me, which seemed monstrous and absurd. Within an hour, I was living in a film by my friend Danis Tanovic.
During the war years, I returned to Sarajevo 12 times. I came to discuss philosophy with Bosnian philosophers amid the wreckage of their city; I came to make a film about that wreckage; I came 12 times to try to share in a small way, a very small way, along with others, along with Susan Sontag and many European intellectuals and artists, the daily reality of a city under siege, the reality of your life. And that reality I came to understand only too well: I had the feeling of being in hell. No longer was I in a film—I was in one of the black cantos of Dante’s Divine Comedy.
And then, once peace reigned over the cemeteries, I returned again. Up to the present day I have never needed an excuse to come back to this country that I so love and to which I am bound by so many memories and friendships. But this country at peace, this country as it has been shaped by the Dayton peace accords, is a strange one, complicated in its systems of power and governance. It is so puzzling even for its own citizens that one has the impression that some devil used all his ingenuity to tie it in knots, to turn it into a near impossibility. In this regard, one has the feeling of living not in a film or in a canto by Dante, but in circumstances devised by Kafka or Beckett. Ladies and gentlemen, I see two ways of handling this honor that you have given me.
The first way is that of another Frenchman whom you made an honorary citizen on June 28, 1992. In response to your gesture, François Mitterrand, standing in the very spot where I stand today, declared, “I will now be able to vote.” But once he had the ballot in his hand, he voted against Bosnia-Herzegovina and against a Sarajevo asphyxiated by siege of more than a thousand days.
The second way is my own. Unpretentious and fraternal, it consists of this: a will, not to vote, but, with your consent to serve over the coming months and years as one of your ambassadors to the international community, several representatives of which are here today. Undoubtedly they are here in good faith; I’m sure they feel as I do. But they remain representatives of a system that has, since Dayton, condemned Bosnia-Herzegovina to strain under an unlivable yoke.
I have been the ambassador of your suffering.
I have been one of the ambassadors of your civic resistance, your civilian and military resistance.
Ladies and gentlemen, I would now like to be the ambassador of your will to proclaim the truth. You know, better than anyone, that there can be no enduring peace without truth. The oldest among you, the Partisans of the war against the Nazis, know that Germany was able to return to the community of nations only because you forced it to face its crimes.
I would like to be the ambassador of your thirst for justice. That is another law that the Partisans here among us understand equally well: The crimes that we call crimes against humanity continue to draw blood until the survivors, or the children of those survivors, have obtained reparation.
I intend to be, beginning tomorrow—what am I saying? Beginning this very moment, the ambassador of your yearning for Europe. What’s that? You say that Serbia, where the authentic democrats have not been able to dispel widespread nostalgia for the Milosevic era, may soon enter Europe? You say that Croatia—where, when a footballer whose team has just qualified for the World Cup shouts out “Za Dom” to his fans, the Ustashas in the crowd respond, with arms raised like Nazis, “Presni”—is already part of Europe? And you say that the Bosnia-Herzegovina of the Partisans, the country that twice spilled its blood against fascism, will be the last to enter? In me you will have an ambassador who will say that this double standard is a scandal.
And, finally, I will try to be an ambassador of the graciousness of the great people of Bosnia, a people I have known for a long time now; a people who have never failed to extend their hand to yesterday’s enemies; who, despite being rebuffed, have never closed the door of the home they share with others; and whose national football team is the very image of a multi-ethnic and republican dream—and a capable one at that. The same team that, on the day it qualified, reinvented the words to the strangely silent song that is the national anthem of your country.
Ladies and gentlemen, before closing I would like to evoke the face of a man who should be here today and who would have been had it not been for an illness that prevented him from traveling. That man is my brother in spirit; my brother in Bosnia. Yesterday he sent me a message that was also destined for you. On behalf, then, of Pedrag Matvejevitch and myself, I say to you, “Smrt Fashizmou” (death to fascism) and “Sloboda Narodou” (liberty for the people).