Warring Bosnia factions practice linguistic cleansing of geographic names

May 04, 1993|By Dusko Doder | Dusko Doder,Contributing Writer

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- First there was ethnic cleansing, the euphemism applied to the atrocious upheavals of one people driven out by another in the former Yugoslavia.

Now there is linguistic cleansing, a nonlethal form of tribal warfare in the Balkans, the expurgating of "hated names" from maps, dictionaries, encyclopedias, telephone books and travel directories. New names are being attached to streets, squares, towns, villages, mountains and rivers to prove the ethnic purity of regions.

The main battleground for name changes is, once again, the unhappy republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is particularly treacherous ground for linguistic hygiene, having been lorded over by foreign rulers throughout history.

The Ottoman Turks ruled Bosnia for five centuries before they were replaced by Austrians in 1878. The Serbs took charge in 1918, to be replaced by Croatian fascists in 1941. The territory acquired its current geographic identity only in 1945 under the Communist strongman Marshal Tito.

The historic complexities of the region do not deter cunning political linguists among the Serbs and Croats.

Even the Bosnian Muslims have succumbed to the temptation. Many of Sarajevo's streets and landmarks have been renamed by them during the past 12 months, including the Gavrilo Princip bridge, named after the Serbian nationalist who killed the heir to the Hapsburg throne in 1914, sparking World War I.

The Bosnian Croats have wiped out all symbols of the Bosnian state from territory under their control, as well all Serbian names.

The Bosnian Serbs seem to be pursuing the nonlethal purification with the greatest zeal. Their offensive is broader in scope, and its target is the very name "Bosnia." Since the term was appropriated by Muslim leaders during the past few years, the Serbs have decided to obliterate it in the territory under their control.

According to Djordje Mikic, a Bosnian Serb historian, the word "Bosnia" has become a symbol of Turkish and Austro-Hungarian oppression and is associated with the denial of religious and national identification."By eliminating this term," he says, "we are eliminating the memory and consequences that stem from it."

So far, the term has been eliminated from the names of following towns: Bosanska Krupa, Bosanski Novi, Bosanska Dubica, Bosanski Brod, Bosansko Grahovo, Bosanska Gradiska, Bosanski Petrovac, Bosanski Samac and Bosanska Kostajnica.

Also to be eliminated are all names that "in an ethnic-linguistic sense do not correspond to Serb traditions." This includes geographic terms associated the five centuries of Turkish domination. The town of Donji Vakuf was renamed Serbobran.

The man in charge of the Serbian linguistic purge is Radoslav Unkovic, director of the Institute for the Protection of Cultural, Historical and Natural Heritage in the Bosnian Serb government.

The purpose of the changes, he says, is to eliminate all "names which associate with evil."

Linguistic cleansing is an old political technique, according to Djordje Stankovic, a Belgrade University historian. In ancient China, new dynasties tended to obliterate all written traces of their predecessors. Chairman Mao Tse-tung switched the meaning of traffic stop lights to make red mean "go" and green "stop."

Mr. Stankovic sees the changes in Bosnia as reflections of tribal hatreds.

The quest for linguistic purity has gained popularity with politicians in both Serbia and Croatia. Under the pressure of authorities, the famous Zagreb soccer team "Dinamo" has been forced to change its name twice in less than two years -- first to "HASK-Gradjanski" and then to "Croatia."

How far the Serbs will push with their linguistic hygiene is unclear. Most Belgrade districts bear Turkish names that are clearly unsuitable ethnically.

And what about linguistically un-Serbian family names? Many of the most strident Serbian nationalists could have a problem here.

The name of the Bosnian Serb leader's family is Karazdic, or son of Karadza. The word "karadza" is Turkish and means "of dark complexion."

The president of the new Yugoslav federation is Dobrica Cosic. He is son of Coso, a Turkish word with two meanings: a man whose beard and mustache are thinned out or missing, or a cunning person.

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