It was July 1992 when I returned to my assignment in Croatia after a brief vacation in Egypt, only this time Croatia wasn’t the main destination, rather it was Bosnia. By that time, war had ended in Croatia only to break out in Bosnia, yet the aggressor was the same: Serbia. For the following years, Croatia was a major stopover each time I returned to Bosnia since it was under near total siege. By that time, I had become close friends with Ivan Lackovic, one of the world’s most renowned fine artists who insisted I stay with him whenever I traveled through Croatia.
On that distant July 1992, I headed to Lackovic’s home to see him before I set off to Bosnia. Once inside, I was shocked to see the great artist, whose works and masterpiece paintings are embraced by 120 prestigious museums worldwide, standing there in the middle of the room dressed in military fatigues. By that time, Lackovic was in his 60s. More shockingly, I noticed that the fatigues he was wearing were not those of Croatia’s military, from his own country, rather Bosnia’s. I stood there watching until he saw me and hurried to shake hands with me.
“Sir, what is this?” I asked him.
“As you see, I’m in Bosnian military fatigues,” he replied.
“I know what this is, my question is more about why” I bounced back.
“You’re headed to Bosnia, and this time I’m going with you,” Lackovic said with resilience.
“Why? What for? This is absolute madness!” I shouted at him.
“Don’t you know about our recently launched surprise attack against the Bosnians?” the Croatian rhetorically asked.
“Yes, I know, but what does that have to do with the Bosnian army fatigues you are wearing?” I surprisingly enquired.
“I’m going to penetrate the siege and go to Sarajevo to declare to the whole world that I condemn the shameful behavior of this government, the government of my own country!” he said while panting with excitement.
“Sir, you know what kind of government is in Zagreb. Don’t you fear retribution for taking such an anti-government position?” I tried to get him back to his senses.
“I know it’s not exactly a democratic regime. But to take advantage of the desperate situation the Bosnians are facing, and the genocide the Serbs are committing against them, it’s an abhorring immoral attitude to stab them in the back at such a time,” he sadly uttered.
“Sir, you are not the only Croat who realizes this. Everyone knows that the government violated the non-aggression agreement signed between Croatia and Bosnia. So why do you take on all the risk yourself?” I deniably asked.
“Because I love my country and I don’t want this government to shame us all. Patriotism is not, and should not, be about supporting your country when it does wrong. This would be chauvinism,” he said with a stern voice.
“You know how dangerous the situation is in Bosnia. Death is the rule there, the exception is life,” I warned him.
“My life is worth nothing in comparison with my country’s reputation,” he briefly answered.
“Okay, I agree. Nevertheless, it could have the same effect if you make this statement from Zagreb. You can even hold a news conference,” I suggested.
“You’re right; I can, and will, make a statement to condemn my government’s unethical behavior, be it from Zagreb or anywhere in the world. But you are missing the point of my reason to state this from Sarajevo. The point is to show support to my fellow Bosnians on the battlefield, as this will make a huge difference,” he concluded the last sentence while proudly standing tall.
Later, when I was discussing this issue with Lackovic, he told me that although he is Catholic and that the great majority of Bosnians are Muslims, he never viewed them in terms of their faith. Rather, he thought of them as humans who are being subjected to unacceptable injustices.
Lackovic went to Bosnia and stood face to face with Serbia’s death machine in Sarajevo. His wonderful integrity, unwavering determination, and unflinching courage boosted the moral of Bosnian Muslims on the battlefield, and in so doing, scandalized the Croatian government. Eventually, Croatia had to stop its unfair war against the Bosnians. Some might say that this cannot be the result of one man’s deed. For those who say so, my answer would be: You don’t know what Lackovic has meant to Croatia. He, along with a few others, have been one of the most important symbols of that Balkan country.
Lackovic believed in freedom for all humans. He taught me that disrespect and insults of today are the parents of extremisms of tomorrow, regardless of faith. He used to tell me that there is no such thing as equal and less equal humans; we, humans, are all equal to the same degree.
Although he passed away in 2004, Lackovic will always inspire me and remind me of the noble values many of us have lost along the way. It is Lackovic who still teaches us that a great artist cannot be great, in the full sense of the term, without being a great human. God bless your soul dear friend; I do miss you!!