A report from the Rebel’s Republic, a breakaway state in western Bosnia where the Minister of Smiles rules alongside the Minister of Artificial Blondes.
As the drinking commenced one cold January evening in the Bosnian countryside, President Vinko Vukoja, of the Hajdučka Republika of Mijat Tomić, or Rebel’s Republic, burst into a passionate ganga
, a guttural, throbbing yodel sung in rural Croatia and Herzegovina. On the final note, his ministers joined their ruddy leader in a reverberating wail. This is the anthem of their young nation: “Sveti Ante platiti ću ti misu / samo reci koji naši nisu.”
(“I will pay for your mass at Sveti Ante Church / just say who is not one of us.”)
I asked what this song meant. The men explained that with ganga
, the lyrics aren’t too important—sometimes the words even change; it’s the spirit and communal reverie that matter most. But the lyrics sung by the President that night are printed on this diminutive breakaway state’s currency, called the kubura
. The money appears quite official, bearing three authentications: the signatures of the President, Minister of Defense, and Governor, as well as the national seal—a bust of Mijat Tomić, a seventeenth-century Croat folk hero who fought Ottoman rule, with two kubura
guns (the currency’s namesake antique pistols) crossed beneath him, a red and white checkerboard above his right shoulder. The flip side of each bill shows a dozen cars parked haphazardly in front of a rendering of the pyramidal hotel that doubles as the government seat and is owned by President Vukoja.
The Rebel's Republic, which is not yet recognized by any other state or international body, sits in an empty valley in western Bosnia and Herzegovina. Jagged mountains form natural northern and southern boundaries. It’s a two-mile walk from the intersection of two country roads at the territory’s western end to the chapel overlooking a lake that runs along its eastern border. The state boasts its own passport, constitution, ministers, currency, and national anthem, as well as, of course, the national assembly hall–cum
–local inn, Hajdučke Vrleti, or the Rebel’s Cliff. Vukoja founded the republic in the hotel in 2002 as a response to the new borders, laws, and flags introduced after the Dayton Accords ended the war in 1995. From the front door of the Rebel’s Cliff, it is possible to see the republic in its entirety, a spare landscape framed by snowy crags. Besides the hotel, the only structures rising from the surrounding plain are scattered homes for the eight families that reside there permanently and a few cabins for holiday hikers.
, currency and calling card of the Rebel’s Republic.
Inside the Rebel’s Cliff, taxidermied bobcats stand sentinel over an oversize brick hearth lined with booths, leering at diners from the doorway. An imposing bearskin droops from the ceiling; its brother warms a nearby wall. Obscure objects speaking to the traditions of the region are mounted on every surface: Weathered wooden farming equipment, antique pistols, and hand-carved musical instruments adorn the walls, and a traditional lumber saw is affixed to the ceiling, as if it had rusted while slicing the rafters. Posters show beautiful girls dressed demurely in traditional costumes, while poetic verses printed beside them celebrate the virginity and fidelity of a woman named Diva Grabovčeva, a martyr venerated by Catholics in the region. The red-turbaned Mijat Tomić, whose impressively mustached visage is the republic’s central symbol, is everywhere: sitting stoically in several paintings, carved into a wooden string instrument, emerging from a frame of carefully arranged burned matches, and emblazoned on waiters’ uniforms, restaurant menus, and sugar packets.
Tomić was born in the seventeenth century in Duvno, a small town in western Bosnia and Herzegovina. (It was renamed Tomislavgrad before war broke out in 1992, in honor of Tomislav, a Croat monarch known for expanding the kingdom.) As a young man, he took to the mountains, turning caves into hideouts as he fought against Ottoman control of the region. He ambushed Turkish merchants on the trade routes, demanding money in exchange for safe passage. A refusal brought the traveler death or capture. According to legend, Tomić distributed his gains to poor peasants in the region. Though he died in 1656, his current gravestone was consecrated in 1937, a year of nationalist fervor that would soon sweep many into the Nazi-allied Ustaše, or Croatian Revolutionary Movement. The tomb reads: “Mijat Tomić / Hrvatski Narodni Junak / ‘Pa ja odoh tražit pravde.’” (“Croatian National Hero / ‘I go to find justice in hidden places and canyons.’”)
One of the many incarnations of Mijat Tomić.
Before my visit to the Hajdučka Republika, I’d sought a good translation of hajduk
. People explained the term comparatively and with varying degrees of generosity: “Like many Robin Hoods”; “Like pirates, but in the mountains.” Books I consulted call them rebels, outlaws, bandits, highwaymen. Hajduks
fought the Ottomans, then the Austro-Hungarians, and sometimes one another, recording their exploits in epic poems. “Of all the numerous legends which refer to these areas,” President Vukoja writes on the hotel’s website, “only the legend about the chieftain Mijat Tomić and Diva Grabovčeva are absolutely essential. Mijat personifies heroism in the fight for human and national rights of the Croatian people, and Diva Grabovčeva embodies the heroic fight for the preservation of her Christian beliefs and maiden purity.”
A definition of hajduk
principles serves as the preamble to the constitution of the Rebel's Republic. Hajduks
, as exemplified by Tomić, defended the land from “Turkish invasion and the Ottoman Empire, preserving independence, freedom, and the holy religion of his Croat nation.” In the present tense, this means “not accepting foreign protectorates” and refusing to integrate into any of the three Bosnian cantons that border the Rebel's Republic. (Vukoja and his cohorts have, however, agreed to pay taxes to the predominantly Croat canton that includes Tomislavgrad.) It implies something more: The authors of the constitution are staking a claim to a single national identity and religion.
While visting the Rebel's Republic, I ventured north to the town of Rama, where a church is perched on an island in the center of large lake. Each year, pilgrims hike to Diva Grabovčeva’s grave in the hills that climb from Rama Lake to pay their respects. There, a Franciscan priest who oversees the church and grounds related his version of her legend.
When Diva Grabovčeva was born, sometime in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, her Catholic parents placed her on their doorstep and waited. As dictated by custom, the first passerby of another faith would become her kum
, or godfather. That man was Arslanaga, a Muslim. Years went by, and Diva grew up to be one of the most beautiful girls in the area. She attracted such attention that Tahir Kopčić, the area’s beg
, or Ottoman governor, decided to take her for a wife. But, not wanting to abandon her family and her faith, Diva Grabovčeva refused. Her parents immediately understood the probable consequences of this rejection and sent her to the hillside to stay with Arslanaga for protection. One day, when she was out with the shepherds, Kopčić arrived on horseback. Responding to her screams, Arslanaga rushed to her defense. On seeing her protective godfather approach, Kopčić realized Diva Grabovčeva would never be his wife, so he thrust his sword into her and galloped away as she lay dying.
Since then, Catholics in Herzegovina and Croatia have honored Diva Grabovčeva as a martyr. The citizens of the Rebel’s Republic extol her virtues—ultimate sacrifice in the face of oppressors seeking to pull you from your family, identity, and religion. And what of Arslanaga, who risked everything to protect his adoptive family, resisting an allegiance with Kopčić in the name of a shared faith? For the priest in Rama, his role was essential. But neither Arslanaga’s name nor his image appear in the tributes to Diva Grabovčeva at the Rebel’s Cliff. The heroic Muslim was cut from the story.
The dissolution of Yugoslavia was finally completed with Kosovo’s declaration of independence this February. Beyond the .yu Internet domain, to which the Serbian government still clings—it will not be formally abolished until September 2009—few vestiges of the multiethnic kingdom established in the wake of World War I remain. In May, the far-right Radical Party narrowly lost national elections, having profited from nostalgia for the rule of Milosevic and anger at the secession of Kosovo and those western countries that had recognized it. Party campaign rallies often praised Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, two Bosnian Serbs who are still at large after being convicted of war crimes for their roles in the siege of Sarajevo and the massacring of eight thousand Muslims in Srebrenica during the war. Even heterogeneous Bosnia and Herzegovina, once a beacon of pluralism among the ruins of Yugoslavia, has suffered nearly fatal fissures, with voices championing diversity as a virtue by which to define the young country increasingly drowned out by nationalist politicians, who have successfully employed racist appeals to lasso popular dissatisfaction with the country’s political and economic stagnation.
The political division of Bosnia and Herzegovina has been consigned to a sort of diplomatic purgatory since 1995, with borders frozen along the war’s final front line. The country is split into three political regions (not one of which is named Bosnia or Herzegovina): the Federation, consisting primarily of Croats (Catholics) and Bosniaks (Muslims) and organized into ten cantons; the Republika Srpska, primarily Serb (Eastern Orthodox Christians) and centrally governed; and the Brčko District, a diverse city of fifty thousand that couldn’t be easily sorted and is now under international supervision. Adding irony to absurdity, the original copy of the 1995 Dayton Agreement—the peace treaty that outlines these parameters and serves as the basis for the national constitution—has gone missing. On February 14, the government announced that it couldn’t find the original copy in its archives. “I don’t know whether the news is more sad or funny,” commented Miroslav Lajčak, who, as High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, is responsible for implementing the civilian aspects of the peace accord. “But I do know that the other original copy of the Dayton Agreement is located in Paris.”
As the prejudices and conflicts of the last century, and the centuries before that, return to haunt the region, so do its idols and mythologies. The names of Mijat, Diva, and other brave hajduks
and virgin martyrs from each confession flicker and redouble across generations, their images and epithets appropriated for the various battles of the day. One adulatory nationalist pop song tells the story of a 1990s war criminal with the nickname of Tuta, in the heroic decasyllabic meter used in traditional ballads and epics. During the fighting, he was referred to in the media as a contemporary Mijat Tomić, with some even suggesting a distant relation between the two men. A Croatian Christian rock band called Thompson still tours with their hit “Diva Grabovčeva,” a paean to the martyr. In a musty pub in Montenegro, the beer I ordered arrived with a label featuring the bearded face of Draža Mihailović, who commanded the Serb Royalist Četnik forces during World War II and was executed by Tito’s victorious Partisans once the postwar political sands settled. In the most recent conflict, his name was often invoked by Serb nationalist leaders trumpeting “Greater Serbia.”
In Sarajevo, where I’ve lived for the past two years, many wax nostalgic for the days of Tito, when a Yugoslav passport and diploma were respected on both sides of the iron curtain. Today, his stoic portrait is printed on calendars and T-shirts, which are sold alongside sculpted busts. A hip watering hole called Tito Bar recently opened on the first floor of the Historical Museum. Tito’s famous signature glows above the door, his slogan “Death to Fascism” looms above the bar. Beetle-shaped Nazi helmets hang above raw lightbulbs like dismembered lampshades, and the walls of the sleek interior are covered with glossy images of the socialist leader who faced down Stalin and lived.
Even the checkerboard featured in the Hajdučke Republika’s national seal has had many lives. It originally appeared on the ancient Croatian Kingdom’s coat of arms and was later adopted by the Ustaše, whose flag featured it prominently. With the creation of Yugoslavia, the republic replaced the symbol with a star, but the checkerboard returned when Croatia became an independent state. The current government claims this is not an Ustaše reference, noting that its grid starts on a red box while the Ustaše one starts on white. President Vukoja alerted me to the fact that the checkerboard on the kubura
seal plastered throughout his hotel also begins with a red box.
A Croatian flag and plaque beneath the ruins of a medieval tower, near the largely Muslim village of Počitelj, in Herzegovina.
Near the many incarnations of Mijat Tomić that populate the walls of the Rebel’s Cliff, three family photographs are mounted side by side. The middle one is a portrait of a lone, stoic young soldier wearing an Ustaše uniform. President Vukoja tells me this is his uncle, who disappeared during World War II. The photograph is not meant to make anyone uncomfortable, he explains. It is simply part of the family album. “We accept everyone here,” his teenage daughter cheerfully assures me.
Indeed, the scene at the hotel is one of disarming irreverence. The ministers who gather at the Rebel’s Cliff are all friends of President Vukoja; their titles do not correspond to any specific duty, but rather refer to professions and personality traits that predate the founding of the republic. This is surely the only cabinet ever to boast a Minister of Smiles, a Minister of Vagueness, a Minister of Artificial Blondes, and a Minister of Underachieving Truck Drivers. The primary responsibilities of these ministers seem to be drinking at the restaurant and participating in Rebel’s Cliff–sponsored “national holiday” celebrations, including the annual Festival of Lies, an elaborate storytelling competition with the slogan “Dobro Slaži i Ostani Živ
” (“Lie Well and You Live”). “No politicians allowed,” President Vukoja informs me. “It’s only for amateurs.”
A traditional instrument depicting Mijat Tomić.
This disdain for professional politicians extends to the republic’s constitution. Article 3 states, “It is strictly forbidden to institute political parties or to engage in politics in general, as it endangers the legal system and health of the people.” In Bosnia, a country crippled by corruption, the structure of government seems designed for inefficiency and institutionalized nationalism. The national branch is tripartite, a carousel of Bosniak, Serb, and Croat presidents rotating every eight months. (This structure was outlined in the Dayton Accords after the war, as was the Office of the High Representative, an external international post that has the ability to force legislation through and sack officials.)
The pervasive lack of faith in politicians is often understood to be a major factor in the renewed emphasis on religion and ethnic identity in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but it might also be considered a sign of general fatigue with the nationalist policies and rhetoric woven into daily life here, and the disturbing degree to which the country has been partitioned socially as well as structurally. The Republika Srpska now posts all its public signage in Cyrillic to ally itself with Belgrade rather than Sarajevo and Zagreb, which use the standard Latin script. In Federation territory, some ethnically Croat communities hang Croatian flags over the road like welcome banners. In February, I was passing by the border with the Republika Srpska, just outside of Sarajevo, and saw police officers standing under an enormous Serbian flag while stopping cars to check their papers. In larger cities with mixed populations, many schools (and entire school systems) segregate children. In the town of Travnik, the school’s exterior walls are color-coded to demarcate the two sides, which have different entrances, faculty, and curricula.
As of 2006, there were forty-seven schools that officially functioned as two schools under one roof; each offered its own history texts and religious studies in order to preserve and cultivate ethnic identity.
According to a 2007 survey, 88 percent of citizens believe things in their country are either somewhat bad or very bad. However, when asked to predict what life will be like in one year, 48 percent said it would be the same, and 41 percent said the situation would improve. This relative optimism owes much to the many projects being executed throughout the country that bridge political divisions to address universal concerns: building a strong primary healthcare system, supporting the development of small businesses and tourism to combat a staggering unemployment rate of 30 percent, repairing homes and infrastructure destroyed in the war and constructing a highway that will cross Bosnia, reforming the education system in accordance with EU standards, and protecting the environment. Grassroots movements like Dosta (“Enough”) have arisen to support these efforts and counteract those who view secession as the most desirable solution to the government’s failings.
Though the region may be crowded with breakaway republics, the satiric model is thriving. Another Bosnian has conceived the Republic of Titoslavija, a conceptual nation honoring Tito. Jezdimir Milošević, “The Guardian of the Stamp of the Republic,” writes that citizenship is open to all people who are “true followers of the ideas, visions, and actions” of the former leader. The state has no president, governing body, laws, or geography; one becomes a citizen through actions and beliefs; its official location resides in “the hearts of all its citizens.”
The Rebel’s Republic’s own trappings of statehood in fact constitute an elaborate marketing campaign. The country itself is little more than a nationalist theme restaurant, and the declarations of independence, official documents, currency, emblems, and legends that buttress its claims to statehood are an amalgam of inspired commercialism and quotidian nationalism. The charm of kitsch smoothes the violent edge of extremism, the guise of capitalism masks the sinister nature of sentiments that thrive beyond the hotel’s walls: As article 3 of the constitution reads, “Citizens do not have a need for politics because their ruler decides for them, either by himself or with his ministers.”
The Rebel’s Cliff’s grandest portrait of Mijat Tomić shares the wall with that of another man, with deep-set eyes, a creviced face, and a dark modern suit. I failed to recognize him and later asked President Vukoja’s daughter the identity of the suited man. She wrote a name on a piece of paper: Gojko Šušak.
Šušak seems to represent the contemporary hajduk
, his picture displayed beside that of Mijat Tomić and presented with equal solemnity. In fact, he was the Croatian Minister of Defense from 1991 to 1998, when he died. He was instrumental in creating and implementing Croatia’s war policy, which called for annexing and ethnically cleansing parts of western Bosnia and Herzegovina; a parallel strategy was enacted from the east by Slobodan Milošević and Bosnian Serb nationalists. If Šušak hadn’t died in 1998, he would have been indicted by the Hague Tribunal for crimes against humanity, alongside those members of the Croatian regime who survived him.
As I gazed at the portrait, Vukoja’s daughter came in and out of the room, serving her father’s ministers food and drink under Šušak’s frozen stare. Perhaps, years from now, his daughter will regard Šušak as a character from fables told to her as a child, no more real than Mijat Tomić or Diva Grabovčeva, Robin Hood or Joan of Arc. Or perhaps someday she will stumble on evidence of the real Šušak and the crimes he committed. I asked her about man in the portrait, and she admitted to knowing very little. She nodded her head and recited guilelessly, “He was a great man who worked very hard for the people of the region.” Then she shrugged shyly and cleared my plate.
Full-page image 1: The pyramidal Rebel’s Cliff hotel and the territory claimed by the Rebel’s Republic.
Full-page image 2: A statue commemorating Diva Grabovčeva’s martyrdom, in front of a church overlooking Rama Lake. The monument’s epigraph reads: “Evil has eyes in darkness / With light it is blinded.”
Full-page image 3: A divided school in the city of Travnik. The blue half is reserved for Bosnian Croats, the yellow half for Bosniaks.
All photographs by Sebastien Venuat.