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June 02, 2008

Bato Tomasevic's life encapsulates the twentieth century in the Balkans, says Brendan Simms: Life and Death in the Balkans: A family saga in a century of conflict - Bato Tomasevic

Posted by Brendan Simms

Life and Death in the Balkans: A family saga in a century of conflict
by Bato Tomasevic
London: Hurst and Company, 2008
Hardback, Ł20

When Manchester United vanquished Chelsea in Moscow on 21st May, many commentators noted that it helped to lay to rest the ghosts of the famous Munich air disaster forty years earlier. For in 1958, nine members of Matt Busby's famous side were killed when their plane crashed shortly after take-off. The legendary manager himself was seriously injured. They were on the return leg of their journey to play Red Star in Belgrade.

By a strange coincidence, a survivor of the crash was in London on the evening of the Moscow match to launch his mesmerising memoir, Life and Death in the Balkans: A family saga in a century of conflict. Tomasevic, a young Yugoslav diplomat, had been accompanying the team for a fixture regarded by Marshal Tito's communist regime as an important sign of their acceptance by the western bloc. Tomasevic himself had only survived the crash because the steward, who was killed, had inexplicably demanded to change seats with him after the first few attempts to take off had failed.

For the author, still only twenty-eight, the crash was by no means his last brush with danger, but it was surely not his first either. Indeed, by the time this point in the narrative has been reached, the memoir has almost run its course.

Tomasevic is approaching his eightieth year, but the most dramatic events in his life took place before he had turned seventeen. By then he had fought the Germans, Italians and Royalist Serb Chetniks as a partisan with Tito's communists. When not yet a teenager he personally witnessed the terrible carnage inflicted by Italian bombers on his childhood friends. Later he saw the execution of partisan prisoners on more than one occasion and the gruesome suicide of a German prisoner who put his head beneath the wheel of a passing truck. His beloved brother Dusko perished in the war along with many other close friends and relatives. This is therefore more a story about death than about life.

Tomasevic himself, however, threads a charmed path through the mayhem. Rather like the unfortunate steward at Munich, those around him fall on the field of battle or are captured and incarcerated (or much worse). After the war, when he needs some nifty bureaucratic footwork, he always seems to bump into some old Montenegrin crony who irons out the problem for him.

Tomasevic's one unlucky break is when he falls out of a truck and is concussed by the only stone in the vicinity, but even then he is rescued by a passing vehicle which is taking men to hospital. Perhaps Bato's survival had something to do with his tough upbringing among a peer group whose past-times included the catching of venomous snakes and playing "chicken" with stolen dynamite (which ended horribly for one of the gang). Mostly, however, he was just lucky, or as a believer might put it, "blessed".

But if Tomasevic himself waxes in this story, the ideal of multi-ethnic cooperation - for which he risked his life first in the Second World War and then during the more recent breakup of Yugoslavia - wanes.

The story begins in interwar Kosovo, where the Tomasevics are among the Serb-Montenegrin colonists planted to keep an eye on the restive Albanian population. Unlike virtually all of his colleagues, Tomasevic senior is a policeman who pleads for cooperation between the two nationalities. He is vindicated when the oppressed Albanians rise up and slaughter the colonists after the German invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941.

Tomasevic himself - who does not appear to have had a bigoted bone in his body - was a vigorous supporter of the equality of Slovene, Croat, Moslem, Serb, Hungarian and Jew. He was therefore not merely a slavish but a genuine supporter of the communist slogan of "brotherhood and unity" between the constituent peoples of Yugoslavia.

The author is clear about who was to blame for its collapse - the most painful death of the whole memoir. Bato Tomasevic has some very harsh words for the Croatian nationalist regime of Franjo Tudjman, but he fixes the main responsibility clearly on the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who exploited Serb anger over Kosovo and fed them a steady diet of hate propaganda until they were ready to support his campaign of ethnic cleansing against Croatia and Bosnia.

Tomasevic speaks with authority on this subject as he was deeply involved in the liberal and multi-ethnic media experiment YUTEL, a forelorn attempt to depoison the minds of Yugoslavs which was so popular that the nationalists shut it down. The results are known to all: the siege of Sarajevo, the camps at Omarska and elsewhere, and the Srebrenica massacre.

It all ended, of course, where the Tomasevic saga began in Kosovo, when Milosevic defied the international community one last time and commenced the ethnic cleansing of the Albanian population. Once again, the author was in the thick of it and once again he made a dramatic escape as the authorities closed in on him, surely not the last in this remarkable life?

The author thanks Miss A. M. Knox for research conducted in support of this piece.

Dr Brendan Simms is Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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in one of the author's books I found the story of a family member killed from Nazis during the Second World War and I am worrying how to find the email address of Mr. Bato Tomashviç.

Posted by: Ilir at February 18, 2010 07:50 PM

Ilir, Bato is my grandfather and if you would like to email me - - I can send you his email address.

Posted by: Andrea at May 17, 2010 03:46 PM

Yeah siege of Sarajevo, but you forget 50 000 muslim soldiers who were sheling surounding Serb towns from Sarajeve. Nedžarici, Ilidža, Vogošca and others, concentration camps for Serbs in Sarajevo, mas murder od thousends Serbs and Croats, rapes, hiliganism and ethinc clensing so that most of 180 000 Serbs from before war are not living there enymore. As for Srebrenica, 28. Muslim division also known as "poor unarmed Muslims" killed over 1 600 soldiers and 1 600 civilians also known as "evil Serbs", burned over 40 vilages, raped, nailed children on doors etc and when they were met in battle killed and prisonets shot its a masacre or a genocide ... hura for media spining.

Posted by: Jabre Me at October 24, 2012 10:07 PM
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