Bosnia ever at heart

On August 1, 2013, the city of Sarajevo makes French writer Bernard-Henri Lévy an honorary citizen of the Bosnian capital to thank him for having given voice to the trials of the country’s people during the war that raged from 1992 to 1995.

In 1992, Bernard-Henri Lévy and his team are the first internationals to enter the city, then besieged by Slobodan Milosevic’s Serb militias. Lévy decries the wave of ethnic cleansing occurring in the heart of Europe. To create a record of what he has seen, he writes the script of his first film, A Day in the Death of Sarajevo. Upon his return to France, he conveys to President François Mitterrand the message of distress and call for help entrusted to him by the president of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Alija Izetbegovic. That message and Lévy’s urging convince the French president to make an historic visit to Sarajevo.

Lévy’s review, La Règle du jeu, fervently condemns the barbarity of the Serbs and defends Bosnia’s cosmopolitanism. In response to an invitation from the review, Izetbegovic later visits Paris to thank his supporters, French political figures, and President Mitterrand.

From September 1993 to March 1994, Lévy devotes almost all his energy to filming Bosna!. The frankly political work is filmed on the front lines of the war and in besieged Sarajevo, amid raging battles and in the basements where the city’s residents have taken shelter. The documentary provides a unique look at the Bosnian tragedy. It will be seleced for screening at the Cannes Festival.

In May 1994, following up on his documentary, BHL launches the idea of a “Sarajevo list” in the European elections. With the support of Susan Sontag, Paul Auster, and others, the step promises to sway European opinion in favor of Bosnie. But when the demands advanced by the proposed list are embraced by the major traditional parties, Lévy withdraws the idea. In the fall, he publishes La pureté dangereuse (Dangerous Purity) in which he introduces the concept of a “will to purity” seen equally in the identity-based madness of Rwanda’s Hutus and in the ethnic cleansing scourging Bosnia.

In 1996, BHL delivers an account of his past four years of struggle in another book, Le Lys et la Cendre: journal d’un écrivain au temps de la guerre de Bosnie (The Lily and the Ash: A Writer’s Journal during the Bosnian War), in which he describes the horror of the trenches, the urban guerilla warfare, survival under sniper fire, and the destruction of cities. In the book, he recalls memories of Malraux and of his own father, André Lévy, his meetings with Mitterrand and his cabinet, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II. Still advocating for the Bosnians and their leader Alija Izetbegovic, he denounces the indifference of the European Union.

In April 1998, Lévy returns to Sarajevo to be decorated by the president of Bosnia-Herzegovina in recognition of his service to the country. He is one of three French citizens, along with Bernard Kouchner and General Philippe Morillon, to receive the country’s coat of arms. Despite having refused the French Legion of Honor on several occasions and publicly stating that he sought no such honors, he makes a notable exception in the Bosnian case.

He revisits Bosnia again in June 2014, where he stages a highly symbolic performance of his second play, Hotel Europe, at Sarajevo’s National Theater, with the help of Bosnian director Dino Mustafic, whom he met 20 before in the thick of war. At the time, Mustafic was a young military cameraman. In the performance he evokes the memory of Europe—its tragedies and its lessons—as well as the honor of those who stood up to barbarism. On May 13, 2019, he takes to the Sarajevo stage once again to perform Looking for Europe, a combination play and philosophical tract, as Europe experiences a rise of nationalism on the eve of the European elections.