IN MEMORIAM: Alija Izetbegovic 1925-2003
“The death of Izetbegovic, is the loss of not only a person whose distinguished personality has written history but also the loss of a personality who has enlightened our thinking and ... of a brave spirit who has become a great source of courage for his country and people”
Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Alija Izetbegovic, the former Bosnian president who steered Bosnia through independence and the worst bloodshed in Europe since World War II, died on 19 October, 2003 aged 78.
He died of complications that developed after he was hospitalized for injuries sustained from a fall in his home, Dr. Ismet Gavrankapetanovic, the head of Sarajevo’s Kosevo clinic, was quoted as saying by state radio.
Izetbegovic’s condition had become critical two days earlier when doctors could not stop bleeding in his left lung. He had been admitted to Sarajevo’s main hospital weeks ago after breaking four ribs and injuring his shoulder during a fall at his home. He had been fitted with a pacemaker last year and had suffered two heart attacks in the past.
Reverently called “Dedo” (Grandpa) by his followers, the low-key Izetbegovic was a father figure to many Muslims, particularly those in rural areas who voted overwhelmingly for his Party of Democratic Action in the November 1990 election. The vote brought him to power and helped set the scene for Bosnia’s tragic war less than two years later.
Bosnian Serbs, a fiercely nationalist people, unfairly accused him of trying to establish an Islamic republic in Europe, a cry later taken up by radical Bosnian Croat nationalists and used to fuel ethnic passions that led to what primarily was a war over territory.
While his fight for Bosnian independence enjoyed broad Western support, even some former allies criticized him in later years, suggesting his courting of Islamic countries during the Bosnian war let Muslim radicals gain a toehold in his republic.
Of the three leaders in charge as the Bosnian war broke out, Izetbegovic lasted the longest. Slobodan Milosevic was ousted as Yugoslav president in 2000 and was later extradited to the U.N. war tribunal where he now stands trial for alleged war crimes in Bosnia and elsewhere. Franjo Tudjman, Croatia’s president, died in office in 1999. After 10 years of leadership, Izetbegovic stepped down from the three-member collective presidency in 2000.
In the run-up to the 1990 elections, Izetbegovic rallied Bosnia’s Muslims behind him, convincing them that in talks about the future of Yugoslavia, Milosevic would represent the Serbs and Tudjman the Croats. “And who will speak for you?” asked a pamphlet. This led to unrivaled authority and influence among Bosnia’s Muslims - 44 percent of the 4.3 million prewar population.
Conjuring up memories of brutal massacres in Yugoslavia’s civil war during World War II, Izetbegovic predicted - wrongly - in prewar days that fear of a blood bath would prevent his republic’s three ethnic groups from going to war again. That led him to dismiss Bosnian Serb threats of war if the republic seceded.
He won a reputation as a moderate by steering multi-ethnic Bosnia-Herzegovina on a neutral course as the feud between blood-thirsty Serbia and Croatia tore the Yugoslav federation apart in 1991. But after the republics of Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia had declared independence from the federation, Izetbegovic finally supported the idea of an independent Bosnia. That infuriated Bosnia’s Serbs, who made up one-third of the republic’s people and wanted to remain within a Serb-dominated Yugoslavia.
After dominant Muslims and Croats voted for independence February 29, 1992, Serbs began fighting for Bosnian territory. The ensuing bloodshed engulfed Bosnia, eclipsing neighboring Croatia’s war and resulting in an estimated 260,000 people killed or missing and 2.5 million refugees, who fled their homes or were evicted in ethnic purges. Tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims were tortured and raped in Serbian concentration camps.
Under pressure from the United States, Izetbegovic and Tudjman signed an agreement for the establishment of a Muslim-Croat federation in Bosnia in March 1994 after the two groups fought bitterly in central and western Bosnia. Although the federation was dogged by persistent Croat-Muslim enmity and deep mistrust, it proved one of the decisive steps in reaching a peace deal with the Bosnian Serbs.
In July 1995, troops from Croatia joined Izetbegovic’s forces in attacks against Bosnian Serb positions. That, coupled with a NATO bombing campaign, finally broke the Bosnian Serbs sufficiently to give Milosevic - the erstwhile patron of the Serb rebels - the power to negotiate peace as a way out of a losing war.
Again, U.S. diplomacy played a decisive role in cajoling Izetbegovic to negotiate with Tudjman and Milosevic in closed-door talks in Dayton, Ohio, where they agreed to a peace deal signed in Paris on December 14, 1995, setting up present-day Bosnia - a Serb republic and a Muslim-Croat federation. Izetbegovic, his face lined with the years of worry and war, joined his erstwhile foes in signing -in total silence - an accord that satisfied none of the three deadly rivals.
Born on August 8, 1925 in Bosanski Samac, Izetbegovic and his family moved to Sarajevo in 1928. He graduated high school in 1943, and studied agriculture for three years. His bookish manner making him an unlikely warrior, Izetbegovic nonetheless demonstrated steely will long before the start of the Bosnian conflict.
He was sentenced twice for his anti-Communist political views and spent nearly nine years in jails in Communist Yugoslavia - the state created by Josip Broz Tito. Under the motto “Brotherhood and Unity,” Tito and his immediate successors stamped on any expression of freedom. After serving three years in prison, he was released in 1949 and earned a law degree from Sarajevo university in 1956, later working as a legal adviser to city transport firms. He was imprisoned again from 1983 to 1988 for daring to defy the Communist dictatorship.
Abandoned by Western governments who merely offered platitudes, he courted Muslim nations during the Balkan wars, resulting in financial support for the fledgling Bosnian army in its fight against the Serbs and Croats. When the Serbs policy of “ethnic cleansing” came to light, hundreds of Islamic fighters came to Bosnia from Arab and other Muslim countries to defend their fellow brothers and sisters.
Izetbegovic died of complications that developed after he was hospitalized for injuries sustained from a fall in his home, said Dr. Ismet Gavrankapetanovic, the head of Sarajevo’s Kosevo clinic. Izetbegovic’s condition had become critical two days before he passed away when doctors could not stop bleeding in his left lung.
The former president had been admitted to Sarajevo’s main hospital several weeks earlier after breaking four ribs and injuring his shoulder during a fall at his home.
He is survived by his wife, Halida, and three children - Sabina, mathematician daughter Lejla, and architect son Bakir.