Sabina Berberović’s memories of the day of the arrest of her father, Alija Izetbegović, as part of the staged Sarajevo Trial in 1983

March 23, 2023

On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the arrest of Alija Izetbegović and other Bosnian Muslim intellectuals on March 23, 1983, we bring you an interview with Sabina Berberović, Alija Izetbegović’s daughter, about what happened that day and how she experienced the police search of their home, the arrest of her father and other events which followed.

March 23rd marks the 40th anniversary of the arrest of a group of Muslim intellectuals in Sarajevo. Among those arrested was your late father, Alija Izetbegović. Do you remember that day, where you were, what you were doing?

S.B: I remember very well. It was a beautiful spring morning. I was going to my parents, because I had promised my mother to bring some things from the market and help prepare lunch for the guests.

There were no cell phones then, so I slowly made purchases while walking around the city, unaware of the drama that was unfolding at my parents’ house and at my sister Lejla’s.

Later, Lejla told me that at around 6 am, an unknown man in civilian clothes came to her door and said that our mother Halida was not feeling well. He didn’t introduce himself, and he didn’t say anything else. Our parents were not answering the phone, so Lejla’s husband Jasminko went to see what was happening. However, the man who opened the door did not allow him to enter. He just called ‘Mrs. Halida’ and told her to say that she was fine. Mom said that she was fine, that Lejla should not worry, that only the police were searching the apartment…

Even today, it is not clear to me who this man who came to Lejla was. It doesn’t seem logical to me that he was one of those who came to arrest the father. In any case, it was someone who felt it necessary to warn us of what was happening.

Jasminko returned home. He and Lejla were in shock. They took their daughter to kindergarten and decided to go to our parents together again. Another unknown man opened the door and blocked it with his foot. He also called my mother to confirm that she was okay. She said that they were fine, but Lejla felt fear in her voice. They were not allowed to enter this time either, and they had to leave.

When and how did you find out about the arrest?

S.B: I had a key to my parents’ apartment. Fortunately, I didn’t ring the bell – I unlocked the door, entered and in a few steps found myself at the door of the living room, in front of a large man in black – Inspector Klarić was wearing a black suit, black shirt, and black tie. I walked past him (he was surprised and didn’t stop me) and saw my parents sitting next to each other on the couch in the living room. Mother was crying, father was very serious. I sat down next to my mother and hugged her. It was immediately clear to me what was happening, but I will never understand why.

What was going on when you came?

S.B: The apartment was being searched. There were ten plainclothes agents and they searched the apartment thoroughly. They packed various books and texts from my father’s study into large bags. Among the ‘incriminating’ materials they took were articles in English about Neil Armstrong, the American astronaut who landed on the moon. They left around 1 pm and took my father with them. I asked where they were taking him, and Inspector Klarić answered briefly: to “SUP” (Secretariat of Internal Affairs). Going down the stairs, father turned and looked at mom and me, and I asked him: “What should we do?”, and he answered: “Publish the book” (Islam between East and West). I was surprised – to publish a book, and he was being arrested for the things he wrote. We managed to publish the book, first in English in the USA thanks to the help of our friend Hasan Karachi, and then in Belgrade in Bosnian, right before my father’s release from prison.

I immediately called my sister Lejla and she came. During the day, we managed to contact brother Bakir, who was working at the construction site on the Igman mountain, and he immediately returned to Sarajevo.

In the following days, I went to SUP every morning and asked to see my father, but without success. They told me that visits will be possible after the investigation at the SUP, when they transfer him to prison.

Part of the list of items seized from Alija Izetbegović during the search of his apartment by the National Security agents in 1983

When did you find out about the other arrests?

S.B: We learned the names of all those arrested very quickly: Salih and Omer Behmen, Edhem and Đula Bičakčić, Mustafa Spahić, Ismet Kasumagić, Derviš Đurđević, Melika Salihbegović, Hasan Čengić, Džemaludin Latić, Husein Živalj, Rušid Prguda. There was already a lot of talk about it in the city. Friends and relatives came and brought the news.        

After a few days, the father and the others were transferred to the Central Prison in Sarajevo.

I went to the prison every day, hoping to see my father. After 3-4 days, I met investigator Vlado at the reception desk and he told me that I could come in an hour and see my father for 5 minutes.

When I came, my father was waiting in a small room where there was only one table with two chairs. He was visibly exhausted, I remember his lower lip was chapped. He tried to look calm. When I asked how he was, he replied that he was fine, that we should take care of my mother and tell her not to worry… and to find a lawyer, he suggested the famous Sarajevo lawyer Jovanović. 5 minutes passed and the visit ended.

Although all the families managed to hire lawyers, they saw their clients for the first time at the trial. The entire investigation was conducted only in the presence of the prosecutor and the investigating judge, which was a gross violation of the laws and the rights of the accused.

Two weeks later, around 5:30 in the morning, National Security agents came and searched the apartments of the three of us – me and my siblings. I didn’t know what they were looking for. They found nothing.

What was your life like after that, how did friends and acquaintances react? Were you able to visit your father in prison?

S.B: It seemed as if life turned ‘upside down’. It was like trying to run in weightless and breathe in airless space. Nothing seemed real, except the suffering. And we suppressed it too, so that we could function.

True friends stayed with us and were not afraid. Some others, less brave, did not know us anymore. But some unknown people showed us understanding and support.

We got closer to the families of those arrested. We started meeting and writing petitions to the Bosnian and Yugoslav authorities. We also went to Belgrade in the hope that someone would receive us, but without success.

We could visit our father once a week for an hour. We weren’t supposed to talk about the trial. We didn’t want to talk about feelings. We were trying to be brave.

He worried about us and we worried about him.

Meanwhile, the media campaigned against the arrested. Both before the indictment and before the trial, they were already convicted.

It was just the beginning of a process that would culminate in a staged trial in August and the imposition of draconian sentences.

Envelope of Sabina Berberović’s letter to father Alija Izetbegović in the District Prison in Sarajevo

Alija Izetbegović two years before his arrest