What’s different about the war in Ukraine.

A conversation with the author Aleksandar Hemon about nationalism, displacement, and the importance of dancing.

Aleksandar Hemon is no stranger to war. The author, screenwriter, and musician left his hometown of Sarajevo in 1992, just before Serbian forces laid siege to the city for four years. He received political asylum while in the United States and did not return to Bosnia until 1997.

Hemon’s characters, fictional and nonfictional, are frequently negotiating the effects of the past and present on their variable identities. In this way, his own displacement is ever present in his works, including in three memoirs, The Book of My Lives (2013) and a pair of companion memoirs, My Parents: An Introduction/This Does Not Belong to You (2019).

The war in Ukraine therefore feels somewhat familiar to Hemon, whose great grandfather came to Bosnia from Ukraine before World War I, when both places were part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Hemon currently teaches creative writing at Princeton, but he has also been making music as his alter ego Cielo Hemon in addition to working as a screenwriter on the newest installment of The Matrix. We spoke about the current war, how it compares to the war in Bosnia 30 years ago, and what dancing has to do with staying alive.

You left Bosnia early in the war and were unable to return until it had ended. Could you explain your experience now of watching the war in Ukraine?

When I left Bosnia, 30 years ago, it was part of rump Yugoslavia, and then there was a referendum. It became independent while I was away, and then it was attacked by the Serbs.

I knew what was going on while I was abroad. But the media was very different. I would get the news from Headline News and CNN—the same story all day long of the same 15 or 20 seconds of people in puddles of blood. There was only visual engagement. I had no contact with people inside.

This time I follow people on Twitter who are in Kyiv under siege. And not just me, everyone does. It’s a live broadcast of the experience. Genocide was unfolding in Bosnia, but you wouldn’t know the full extent until after the war. But the immediate presence of the current war means that people are bearing witness to people dying, and enormous crimes being committed, like in Bucha. We are all essentially watching genocide live.

Watching the dissolution of your home from afar has been a recurrent theme of your work. You also have deep connections to Ukraine. Has that impacted how you are seeing this war?

My connection to Ukraine has a few parts. Firstly, although I am not from Ukraine, I do have strong connections. Much of my family on my father’s side still speaks Ukrainian at home. I don’t know if I still have family in Ukraine, but I hope I do. The last time I visited in 2003, I went to the village where my grandfather was born, and there were some Hemons, and we talked. To me that is a strong connection.

Secondly, this family connection in part led me to Kyiv for a summer school at the Ukrainian Study Institute in the summer of 1991, just learning the language and the history of Ukraine and hanging out and drinking. This was the time of the failed Soviet putsch and the subsequent declaration of Ukrainian independence.

We didn’t exactly know what was happening. The other students and I were staying in a building that was normally some kind of Communist Party school. It was a fancy building, you could even occasionally find Pepsi there. There was a TV in the hallway, and I remember the look of despair on the faces of two cleaning women. You could tell something terrible had happened. And what they were watching was the official state declaration of the coup. So, my friends and I went out to the Maidan. I don’t even remember how we knew to go there, it wasn’t exactly coordinated, and it’s not as if there was already an independence movement working. It was reactive. I remember it as a real grassroots organization, people just showing up and talking to each other. When the putsch failed, we stood in front of the parliament, the Rada. I was outside the parliament when they declared independence. So I was there at the birth, as it were.

But also, if you commit ideologically and intellectually to antifascism, and your life and the life of everyone you know and your family for several generations has been scarred and destroyed by fascists and nationalists, then you develop a strong allergy to any kind of invasive nationalist discourse. For many of us from Bosnia, it is easy to recognize the symptoms of genocidal intent, which is what Russia is doing in Ukraine. It is terrifying.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (L) snaps a selfie with an injured man laying on a bed during a visit at a military hospital following fightings in the Kyiv region on 13 March 2022. Photo: AFP / Ukrainian presidential press service

There seems to be widespread support for Ukraine against Russia in Western media, which feels markedly different from how the war in Yugoslavia was and has since been portrayed. What do you think is different about this conflict, and what has caused this shift in the Western perception of the conflict?

I think it is partly the presence of social media now, but I also think it is simply strategic. In 1994, there were two strategic genocidal operations taking place simultaneously in Rwanda and Bosnia. The newspapers were using the same vocabulary for both conflicts. The Clinton administration issued a memo that no one should use the word “genocide,” because it would force the United States to respond. So instead, both wars were publicly construed as thousands of years of hatred. This allowed the narrative to be, “Oh those people are crazy, they just hate each other. Nothing we can do. Let’s not get involved.”

But because Ukraine has been an independent country for 30 years, it’s impossible to dismiss what is happening as hundreds of years of ethnic hatred, or as anything other than an invasion. But it is also so clear to everyone that the United States, NATO, and the EU will not get involved. Russia is too big and has nuclear weapons.

It seems like Putin has a preoccupation with what happened in the Balkans. He has made numerous references to the NATO bombing of Belgrade, and in his speech for the annexation of Crimea, he took passages that sounded intentionally lifted from the Kosovo declaration of independence. What do you make of that?

Just about the only country outside the direct sphere of influence of Russia that openly and enthusiastically supports the Russian invasion of Ukraine is Serbia. Milosevic was a visionary in his strategy of testing the West and what he could get away with was basically saying to Europe, “Well, you have nation states. Why can’t we? And you acquired those nation states by way of colonialism and conquest, why can’t we?” And many Putin assets, such as Igor Strelkov who has been running Russia’s operations in Donbas, learned their trade in Bosnia.

Eastern Europe, whether Yugoslavia or Ukraine, is seen as a kind of quasi-Europe by the West. This seems to be at the crux of this conflict, where in 2014 Ukraine declared that it wished to continue down a path of integration into Europe. Do you think this war will change the relationship between the West and Eastern Europe?

I do not think Europe will allow an integrated Ukraine to evolve into European identity. Maybe because Europe has accepted millions of Ukrainian refugees this could change, but I think it is just a matter of months before someone in those Western European countries starts a campaign saying Ukrainians are polluting Europe.

I do not think Europe will allow an integrated Ukraine to evolve into European identity.

And so I think Putin takes into account that if he destroys Ukraine and kills enough civilians then Ukraine might be too exhausted and the price of freedom would be too high. This happened in Bosnia, where the situation forced Bosnia to negotiate to end the war, and the genocidaires were allowed to keep the territory they cleansed. This froze the conflict and rewarded genocidal operations. It is imaginable to me that at some point Europe and Germany and people that like gas more than they like human beings just force Ukraine to the negotiating table and force them to give up Donbas and Crimea. There probably would be some kind of anti-war rhetoric behind it. They effectively did that in 2014, ignoring the 1994 Budapest Memorandum where the West forced Ukraine to give up its nuclear weapons for security assurances. And that would be catastrophic, because as Bosnians know that is an unfinished war.

Do you feel optimistic about the process of bringing war criminals to justice?

I don’t think so, no. Russia sits on the Security Council. They can veto any resolution. The UN is absolutely worthless in holding Russia accountable. If it somehow happens, and I hope it does, it isn’t going to defeat the Russians. I think Putin will outlive this war. I don’t think there will be any kind of protest that will test Putin’s internal power.

This is because the West has always treated Putin as a business partner. There were some gestures at a distance, like asking Russia not to arrest too many dissidents. Or shoot them in the head on the street—that’s a bit much. But the West likes the gas, they like taking part in the Olympics and the World Cup.

Millions have already been displaced by the war. You have described yourself through your displacement as “I am nothing if not an entanglement of an unanswerable question, a cluster of others.” Can you tell me about this feeling?

In nationalist discourse you contain this national essence which you carry around with you wherever you go. It’s inside you. And if you cannot express it fully, then you are oppressed. I generally think that’s bullshit. It’s mythology internalized—at best. What I’ve learned in my displacement is that while there is connection to groups of people in shared historical and cultural experience, the primary context of identities is lived life with the people who happen to be around you.

Displacement does something to the way that people might think about the notion of their national identity. And they might feel more connected to the mythological part of the nation precisely because direct contact is diminished. And this is what nationalism feeds on. The Yugoslav wars were financed to a large extent by the nationalist diaspora, including some in Serbia, because they lived abroad among themselves, and they fantasized about an ethnically cleansed country they could return to and only be with other Serbs or only the Croats.

In the lead-up to the war in Bosnia, you published an editorial by your friend Guša, which argued that it was everyone’s urgent duty to dance more if they wanted to stop the oncoming catastrophe. And you like to tell stories of what you call “makeshift joy” throughout the war. Why is finding joy in war so important?

Finding joy at any time is important. Especially collective joy. It’s why at the beginning of the pandemic I started producing music, and it’s dance music. I want to imagine some future in which I and people I like or total strangers would dance to this. It is inherently utopian to find a space where you can just dance. That’s a victory of some kind.

I love that editorial because it was partly naive. At the same time, there were people arming themselves and digging trenches around Sarajevo. And because my friends and I were not the kind of people who would arm themselves, which was probably a strategic mistake at that time, we thought, “Oh hey, let’s dance!”

There was a time after I published it that I dismissed it as totally naïve. But now there is something I appreciate about it. Dancing maintains the ability to love being alive, which helps with staying alive. It is that bonding and shared experience, and war, unfortunately, creates that too. It sounds like a hippie thing, but I’ll say it anyway: Dancing creates a situation of joy and love, and that is what we need as human beings.

My friends would have parties under siege and then put the speakers out the windows so that the Serbs could hear that they were partying. There was occasional phone connection during the siege, and a friend of mine called me and I asked her what she was doing, and she said she was going to the movies, and she was going to run under sniper fire in order to do it. The movie was Terminator 2. To risk your life to see Terminator 2 under siege? That’s amazing.

You want to be with other people, sharing something that is good and beautiful, even if it’s Terminator 2. Dancing under siege is valid.

First published on 27 April 2022 on thenation.org

This text is protected by copyright: © Carol Schaeffer / The Nation. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team. Copyright information on pictures and graphics are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: A man takes a selfie as he stands in front of a destroyed Russian tank in the vilage of Andriivka, in the Kyiv region on 17 April 2022. Photo: Sergei Supinsky / AFP / picturedesk.com

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