Dr. Nedzib Sacirbey, a founding father of modern Bosnia and Herzegovina, dies at 94
Dr. Nedzib Sacirbey, a founding father of Bosnia and Herzegovina who turned his McLean home into an outpost for the Balkan nation’s quest for independence, died February 23 in the Key West, Florida home of his son Muhamed, Bosnia’s former foreign minister and first ambassador to the United Nations. He was 94. The cause was complications from Covid-19.
Sacirbey “made a powerful contribution to the emancipation of Bosnian political identity, and to Bosnia’s independence and defense against aggression,” said Bakir Izetbegovic, Bosnia’s former president and son of the country’s first president and 1992-1995 wartime leader, Alija Iezetbegovic, to whom Sacirbey was a confidant.
Izetbegovic and Sacirbey met in Nazi-occupied Sarajevo in 1942 as ranking members of the Mladi Muslimani (Young Muslims), an anti-fascist, anti-communist Muslim group. They became confidantes, serving jail together for their political activities, and remained close long after Sacirbey, his wife, and son escaped Yugoslavia in 1963 and – by way of Turkey, Libya, Oklahoma and Ohio – settled in McLean on a street presciently called Freedom Lane, in December 1974.
There, they lived the immigrant dream. Sacirbey worked as a respected psychiatrist at the Veterans Administration Hospital Center in Washington DC while his wife Dr. Aziza Sacirbey, another member of the Mladi Muslimani who was also jailed for her political activities, was a successful gynecologist at Fairfax Hospital before retiring to take care of their younger son, Omar. Muhamed, the future foreign minister, went at Tulane University on a football scholarship.
Yugoslavian politics, however, remained central to their lives. Every couple of months, packets sent by Sacirbey’s sisters in Sarajevo, Almasa and Emina, arrived with dozens of news articles from the Yugoslav press. By the late 1980s, nationalism was splitting Yugoslavia apart, culminating in Spring 1991 with the start of a brutal war between a newly independent Croatian state and what was left of Serb-dominated Yugoslavia, led by Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic died in 2006 in jail while on trial for war crimes at the UN Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Netherlands.
Izetbegovic, who became president of Yugoslavia’s Bosnian state in 1988, preferred that Bosnia remain part of a Yugoslavia that would become a democratic and pluralistic country. But Yugoslavia had become a Serb dominated dictatorship where, Izetbegovic feared, Bosnians would see their rights curtailed, as was happening to other ethnic groups in the country. The other option was to declare independence and risk war with the same Yugoslav Army that had laid waste to large parts of Croatia.
Before deciding, Izetbegovic wanted to know where the U.S. administration and Congress stood, and in 1991 appointed Sacirbey as his personal representative, tasking him with opening channels between Sarajevo and Washington.
Sacirbey lobbied then-Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, Kansas Senator Bob Dole, Virginia Senator John Warner, New York Senator Alphonse D’Amato, Congressional representatives such as Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Louise Slaughter of New York, and key administration and international officials, such as Cyrus Vance, Brent Scowcroft, Richard Pearle, and Boutros Boutros-Ghali. On two occasions in 1991-1992 when Izetbegovic and future Foreign Minister and Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic Washington DC to meet those and other representatives, he slept in Sacirbey’s house on Freedom Lane. Sacirbey also returned to Sarajevo in 1991 – 28 years after leaving – to join Izetbegovic in founding the Party of Democratic Action, a Bosnian Muslim political party that is still thrives today.
Anticipating that the U.S. and other Western nations would provide arms and air support to the Bosnians if they were attacked by Serbian nationalist forces, Bosnian leaders chose independence on March 1, 1992. A few days later, Yugoslav Army and Serbian paramilitary forces launched an ethnic cleansing campaign against Bosnia’s non-Serbian population.
A few weeks later, Sacirbey helped saved Izetbegovic’s life. On May 2, 1992, Yugoslav Army forces abducted Izetbegovic and a delegation that had just returned from failed peace talks in Lisbon. Leaders feared Yugoslav soldiers, who had cut phone lines, would execute Izetbegovic. Bosnian Vice President Ejup Ganic instructed Sacirbey to call the U.S. State Department to beseech them to intervene and implore America’s ambassador to Belgrade, Warren Zimmerman, to warn Serbian leaders that no harm should come to Izetbegovic. Two days later, an agreement was brokered freeing Izetbegovic.
The war worsened, Sacirbey’s diplomatic duties intensified, and in 1994 Izetbegovic appointed him Ambassador-at-Large. Sacirbey led or was a part of numerous diplomatic delegations on behalf of Bosnia.
Sacirbey was part of Bosnia’s delegation when it became a United Nations member on May 22, 1992, and advised Izetbegovic as part of the Bosnian delegation that brokered The Washington Agreement of 1994, which ended hostilities that had erupted between Bosnian Muslim and Bosnian Croat forces. He also advised President Izetbegovic when he negotiated the Dayton Peace Accords that ended the war in November 1995. Sacirbey also used his position to enlist the support of well-known figures that included Muhamed Ali, Hakeem Olajuwan, Elie Wiesel, and Imran Khan.
Sacirbey continued as Bosnia’s Ambassador-at-Large until retiring in 2006, six year’s after Izetbegovic died. He continued to represent Bosnia in Washington DC, at the United Nations in New York, and abroad at economic reconstruction and peacebuilding conferences organized by The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, The World Bank, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (now the Organization of Islamic Cooperation).
“They had the same vision of the future, and were true fighters for a sovereign and independent Bosnia and Herzegovina of equal rights,” said Abdulah Skaka, the current mayor of Sarajevo in a statement about Sacirbey – who in 1973 shorted his last name from Sacirbegovic, his given last name that Bosnians still know him by. “Dr. Sacirbegovic had a meaningful role in the founding of the Party of Democratic Action. He used life in the United States of America to show the political lobbying capabilities of the Bosnia diaspora, and offered a powerful contribution to strengthening ties between the United States and his homeland.”
Sacirbey was born on April 23, 1926, in the historic city of Travnik before moving to Sarajevo in December 1935, and as a teenager joined the Mladi Muslimani. In 1943, the Croatian Ustasha, the Nazi collaborators who controlled Sarajevo, jailed Sacirbey for three months for refusing to be conscripted into the Ustasha army. In 1944, Sacirbey married fellow activist Aziza Alajbegovic.
Hopes that the war’s end would bring better times were dashed when on June 15, 1946, Sacirbey, his wife, Izetbegovic and several other Bosnian Muslims were imprisoned by Tito’s communist regime for their continued involvement with the Mladi Muslimani. Sacirbey and Aziza were sentenced to four years and two years, but freed after two years and one year, respectively.
The couple enrolled in the University of Zagreb Medical School, graduating in 1955, and returned to Sarajevo to practice medicine and advocate for more freedoms in communist Yugoslavia. Sacirbey also taught. One of Sacirbey’s students, another future psychiatrist, was Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serbian leader who led the ethnic cleansing campaign against Bosnia, and was convicted in 2016 by the UN War of genocide and crimes against humanity.
Despite a successful start to their medical careers, Sacirbey and his wife worried they could be put back in jail – they were under surveillance by Tito’s secret police – and wanted out of Yugoslavia. Meanwhile, Tito, who had turned his back on Stalin and Moscow, sought to cultivate better relations with countries belonging to the Non Aligned Movement, including many Muslim countries. In 1963, the Yugoslav government granted Sacirbey and his wife permission to work in Libya.
Sacirbey worked as the chief health officer for the District of Derna, and Aziza as a gynecologist whose patients included Libya’s Queen Fatimah el-Sharif. Life was good, but in 1967, Libya declined to extend the Sacirbey’s visas. Fearful of returning to Tito’s Yugoslavia, they sought permission to work elsewhere.
The two countries that granted visas to them were Turkey and the United States, and while living in a country where most people were Muslims like them was appealing, they were more drawn to the opportunity to live in a pluralistic democracy where individual rights were respected regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity.
Sacirbey and his family arrived through Kennedy Airport in June 1967 and stayed in New York for two days where, among other things, they visited the United Nations headquarters where 35 years later their son Muhamed would lead Bosnia’s diplomatic fight as the country’s first UN Ambassador. They lived with Bosnian friends in Oklahoma City for several weeks before Sacirbey and his wife – who gave birth to their second son Omar in October 1967 – got their first jobs through the Ohio Health Department working at Orient State Institute, near Columbus, Ohio, and later at the Cleveland Psychiatric Institute.
In 1974, Sacirbey joined the Washington DC Veterans Administration Medical Center as a staff psychiatrist, and retired in 1995 as chief psychiatrist. Washington DC was the perfect city for the political activist family. Sacirbey became close friends with Yugoslavia’s Ambassador to the United States, Budimir Loncar, was active in DC-metro area Muslim communities and organizations, and when Yugoslavia began to disintegrate, found himself fighting in Washington for the same cause he fought for as a teenager in Sarajevo.