Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Bosnian Film Challenges Old Stereotypes About Gays

“Go West” stirs angry debate with its unprecedented depiction of a gay love affair in wartime Bosnia.
By Aida Sunje

Sasha looks no different than any other Bosnian youth in his twenties. He is tall and well dressed. But in the last five months alone, he has been beaten up four times. His crime? He is a homosexual. He reported the first three attacks to the police but did not bother the fourth time because he does not believe they want to help him.


“I cannot live in Bosnia the way I am,” said Sasha, who has spent some time in Germany where he said he lived a normal life. But now fear for his safety has prompted him to start thinking about leaving the country. Police told me I should have stayed in Germany when I filed my complaints,” he said, with a wry smile on his face.


Sasha’s experience is a fair reflection of Bosnian society’s treatment of gay people. The message of one 18-year-old on the topic was loud and clear. “I would line them all up against the wall and execute them, so help me God,” he told IWPR.


The fact that homosexuality remains a taboo issue in Bosnia has not stopped film director Ahmed Imamovic from tackling it head-on, however.


Imanovic’s movie, Go West, about a love affair between two men during the height of the war in Bosnia in the 1990s, has stirred tensions and brought the debate to the ears of many who would otherwise know little or nothing about the subject.


Many critics are furious. The editor of the Bosnian magazine Walter condemned Go West as “blasphemy”.


Others are simply puzzled. “I don’t want my son to think weird things about me when he sees this movie and asks if this is what people really did during the war,” one father who hasn’t seen the film said.


Others have stood up for Go West. Senad Avdic, editor of the magazine Slobodna Bosna, one of the few who has seen the unfinished movie, has called it a masterpiece. “It's a love story with open and unrestrained insight into the lack of tolerance in the horrendous circumstances of war,” Avdic said.


Imamovic has told the media his film aims to tell society that homosexuals are human beings like any others, who suffered just as the rest did during the war.


The public debate reflects the harsh reality homosexuals have to deal with in a society that has slipped culturally as well as economically behind its western neighbours.


“Go West has fully exposed just how immature some media are,” said Svetlana Djurkovic, chair of the informal Q Association, which lobbies for gay and lesbian rights. She says the debate has revealed one glaring fact – “that our society is largely based on aggressive communication”.


According to a report by the Bosnia Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, gays and lesbians are fearful of expressing their sexuality and of the way society treats them. The committee stressed that laws were less of a problem than dominant social and cultural stereotypes based on prejudice and ignorance.


“No one, no matter how different, should be discriminated or hated like queers in Bosnia are,” Asim, a young homosexual from Sarajevo, told IWPR.


The Helsinki committee and the Q Association know of numerous cases of violence against gay people, as well as threats and job losses.


Neither organisation knows the exact number of cases for the simple reason that few are reported. The Q Association, however, does know of at least three gay men who have asked for political asylum in foreign countries, citing the discrimination they face at home on account of their sexuality.


Madeleine Rees, head of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Bosnia, is acquainted with Sasha’s case. “He has complained to the police but feels they have not dealt with his case seriously,” Rees said.


Bosnia’s constitution guarantees a high level of internationally recognised human rights and basic freedoms, with special emphasis on personal freedom and safety prohibiting any kind of discrimination.


But laws on public order in both the Federation and the Republika Srpska, RS, contain articles that can be used against homosexuals.


In the Federation, “threatening public morality” and “offending the patriotic, national, religious and moral feelings of citizens” are deemed breaches of public order and judges have considerable leeway to decide what counts as an offence to public morals.


The three largest religious groups in Bosnia - the Islamic community and the Catholic and Orthodox churches - unite in condemning homosexuality as a sin.


“The Islamic community follows the principles of faith, and we will support nothing that contradicts faith (such as the issue of homosexuals),” effendi Muhamed Lugavic, an imam from Tuzla, told IWPR.


Most people routinely express feelings of contempt for gay people. “It’s a hormonal disease,” one passer-by in Sarajevo told IWPR. Another was prepared to let homosexuals do “whatever they want, as long as they stay out of my sight”.


Naturally, those belonging to this minority disagree. “Love can never be wrong. Love is what this society is so sadly deprived of,” Djurkovic said.


Asim sees some hope in the future. “It’s a process that takes time and education, because people fear homosexuals as they would alien creatures, even though they communicate with them on a daily basis,” he said.


Asim emphasised that many people in Bosnia view homosexuals as sick, sexually deviant, perverts who do not differ from child molesters. They often assumed all of them have AIDS. Few think their neighbours, relatives and even children may be among them.


Meanwhile, Sasha has asked international organisations to help him get a Canadian immigration visa. “I hope it doesn’t take too long,” he said, “so I can take a break and start living a normal life.”


Aida Sunje and Mirna Mekic are IWPR trainees in Bosnia.


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