You are locked up in a shelter when some semi-smart and semi-literate people decide your fate, says 79-year-old Bosnian artist who survived the Siege of Sarajevo.
When the first Russian bombs rained down on Ukraine and news of the devastation emerged from the plumes of smoke, Safet Zec could not help but feel a sense of deja vu.
Zec, 79, arguably Bosnia-Herzegovina’s greatest artist, survived two wars, including the devastating 1992 Siege of Sarajevo that took place during the three-year-long Bosnian War.
The scars of the war have shaped his art since, the bold brush strokes on his canvases depicting the pain and horror of human conflict.
During the war, Zec took refuge in the Italian city of Udine. He's back in his hometown Sarajevo. He spoke to TRT World about his memories of the Bosnian war, why it is the most “horrible part” of his life and why the Russian aggression in Ukraine should end immediately.
“As a man, I would most like the parties to agree on the end of any war in Ukraine as soon as possible. If there is anything that could and should be sacrificed for the sake of security and peace in that country, it needs to be done,” Zec tells TRT World.
“Human lives are irreplaceable. And saving lives is crucial. That is the only thing that is reasonable, and that is the only thing that matters.”
He feels that invading a country “with weapons is a humiliation of the people and their dignity, which by the principle of human instinct entails a strong defensive reaction and identical use of weapons.”
Terming civilised modern society as the “greatest enigma” in human history, the artist who was awarded the prestigious Order of the Arts and Literature of France says: “Advances in technology, instead of making life easier and making people better and more humane, is arousing the animal and the bad in the human being. Your neighbour is burning down your house; your friend is no longer your friend. Is it possible that this is immutable in man? That animal urge.”
Born in Rogatica, Bosnia-Herzegovina, in 1943, he is one of eight children in a poor Muslim family. He had to flee his home twice, first in 1943 with his father to Sarajevo shortly after his birth, and then in 1992 with his family when Sarajevo was under siege.
These experiences marked both his life and career, and the theme of conflict became more prevalent in his painting, an artistic inspiration.
For instance, his exhibition titled “Exodus” is one of his works that warns of the scourge of war. The painting was on display in July 2020 at the Potočari battery factory in Srebrenica, now converted into a genocide memorial, as the people of Bosnia marked the 25th anniversary of one of the worst pogroms of the Bosnian war.
Known as the Srebrenica genocide, more than 8,300 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were executed by Bosnian Serbs.
“War is definitely ingrained in my life experience. I have to emphasise that this was the most horrible part of my life. Therefore, the war affected me for the most part as a man, entered my body and my soul and left various consequences on my life and art,” he says.
“Instead of the all-encompassing beauty and joy of living, you get emptiness and desolation and emotions that are woven deep and with a big stamp. We have seen in this terrible pandemic what empty streets, distraught people or uncertainties mean. It is also one of the scenes of the war.
“Besides, in war, there is no water, electricity, gas, or food. And everything is shrouded in fear as man's greatest enemy. You are locked up in a shelter when some semi-smart and semi-literate people decide your fate,” he adds.
Asked to describe the most frightening scene from the war that he remembers, Zec says: “All the scenes of war are very similar, so inevitably, each is terrifying in its own specific way.
“For me, leaving the place where I dreamed and built my life is the scariest scene. The life you dream of is the life you look forward to. When you take away someone's joy of life, you take away a part of their soul.”
He laments the loss of neighbours and friends and the total disruption of life. “As an artist and a man, I would never wish that to anyone. Bosnia was absolutely ravaged and devastated in the war and rolled back 50 years.”
The highly acclaimed artist, who has been awarded multiple times, also speaks about his war memories which he describes as an “indispensable part of our existence.”
“I am the child of two wars, therefore the war is woven into my memory and my soul as inevitable,” he says. “Memory is our obligation and an essential part of our overall condition. Everyone remembers the war in one way or another. The war has touched us more or less. Emotionally, humanly, psychologically.”
“Artists have an obligation to point out the whole absurdity of war with their works, but at the same time to arouse admonition. War as a recurring category is an indispensable part of human history, as if it is an animal part of the human being that we as artists try to realise on the canvas and to evoke memories of sadness and suffering which is also an indispensable part of human existence,” he adds.