In November 1983, Izetbegović was transferred to Foča to serve his fourteen-year sentence. As he entered the prison compound, he took a deep breath, preparing himself for a long struggle to maintain his physical and mental health. It was vital to stay “normal” on that rocky, uncertain path to which he could see no end.
He was put in Block S-20, known as the “homicide block,” since most of its inmates had been convicted of at least one murder. Alija would later often make a point that sounds somewhat strange, but once he had explained it, you would see that it made sense, saying, “I was lucky to be in a block with murderers. Some of my comrades from the trial were worse off, because they were put with petty thieves and criminals, which is a real misfortune in prison. People like these have no moral fibre, but murderers are another class of people.”
He often referred to the case of a man who killed a man in a coffee-house after the man had almost killed his father – “when you think about it, you find yourself thinking you would have done the same.”
The days in prison dragged by, and Izetbegović turned increasingly to reading and contemplation, as well as finding various ways to make the time seem shorter and to keep physically and mentally fit. The knowledge that ahead of him lay an endless succession of identical or barely different days in a cell of two by two metres was incredibly disheartening. Given his age (he was already about 60), Izetbegović often caught himself wondering if he would survive to the end of his prison term and live to enjoy freedom again. Yet he was a man with the spiritual strength to endure all the trials of his days in prison and all the painful tribulations that assailed him from every quarter.
Despite all his anxieties, the end of his incarceration found Izetbegović in a good state of mind. He would himself say that he owed his “preservation” as much to his faith as to the loyalty and constant moral support of his son Bakir and his two daughters, Lejla and Sabina.
The letters they exchanged throughout his time in gaol were full of parental affection from him and infinite concern for their father on his children’s part. Those of the family who were at liberty lived for their father in prison, and the reverse was equally true: in his prison cell, their father thought constantly about his family. This helped him through the moments when he had the bitter taste of abandonment and sorrow in his throat.
(“My courage would gradually fail me as the day passed, reaching its lowest point in the early evening, when I would find it hard to fight off the onset of melancholy. It would seem that I incautiously wrote about this to my daughter Sabina, for one day I received a letter from her: I don’t know if you used to feel this, but in my case that feeling always comes over me as dusk falls. I have to keep really busy to keep it, to some extent at least, at bay. Sometimes this sadness is mingled with fear and physical weakness. I know that it has always been somewhat difficult for me to get ready when I had to go out at that time of day. But as soon as I was out and darkness had fallen, it would all pass. It’s as though all my fears, uncertainties and sorrows come together in that feeling, and I would think that this is how people feel when they decide to turn to alcohol or drugs to escape. I’m telling you this because I want you to know that I too know that feeling, in part at least, and that I can imagine how it is for you. Prison must make it harder, just as for me the feeling of freedom in this house helps me to get through that part of the day. Perhaps it would be best for you to try to be doing something when it comes over you, to read something light if you can, to do a crossword or watch TV. What I know for sure is that it’s not good to think about it at those times, or to give in to those feelings; it only makes things worse. There I go again, preaching to you, but I wanted to make it a bit easier for you. In fact, what I would like best is for us to be at my place at that time of day, sitting over a cup of coffee. But at least I want you to know that I am thinking of you always, and particularly as dusk falls.” Quoted in Memoirs.)
The effect of all this was to create an unusually strong emotional bond between father and son and between father and daughters, particularly between Izetbegović and his son Bakir, who was following in his father’s footsteps by becoming interested in politics and the state of the society in which he lived. Bakir developed a keen sense for politics and a strong desire to become involved. This bond between father and son would become even more marked later, under the even greater tribulations of the unimaginably turbulent years of war, in which Izetbegović the elder would play one of the key roles.
Once the interrogations and the trial were over and he had to some extent adjusted to his new living quarters, Izetbegović began to keep notes – reflections on life and destiny, on religion and politics, on the works he had read and their authors, and on the many other things that came to his mind as he spent some two thousand days and nights in prison. These notes finally amounted to thirteen A5 exercise books of minute, deliberately illegible script, which would be published in late 1999 with the title My Escape to Freedom. Following publication, the critics would express the view that Izetbegović’s notes shed considerable light on his personality, in all its complexity. Prof. Dr. Enes Karić, whom UDBA’s interrogators had unsuccessfully tried to pressure into giving false testimony against Izetbegović and his co-accused, wrote in his review of the book that it was “impossible to read the book without becoming aware of the importance of Alija Izetbegović’s intellectual, spiritual and political biography, for these notes, written while serving his prison sentence, fill many gaps in the mosaic that constitutes the intellectual biography of an outstanding figure, one who had a major impact on the final decade of the twentieth century.” Karić also observed that “Escape to Freedom is in fact a refusal to allow the spirit to be quenched, and thus a way in which its author transcended the harsh reality of prison, becoming a quest for human freedom. It is in this blend of the personal and the universal that the importance of Izetbegović’s writings is to be found.”
Alija Izetbegović used his time in prison to read and fill the gaps in his education. He had plenty of time, and the will to spare as well (true, there was no great choice of things to do), so that gradually, from an already solid base, he moulded himself into a man ready for any historic challenge. Those who read his notes from prison will be fascinated by the lucidity of his thinking. They may recognize their own thoughts in some of his conclusions or hypotheses, while others will give them an insight into the spiritual complexities of this unusual man. Specific circumstances meant that the personality of Alija Izetbegović developed along specific lines.
First, Izetbegović’s faith grew still stronger during his incarceration. His infinite devotion to God was an oasis of calm in which he always found refuge during particularly turbulent days in prison.
Second, his long spell behind bars meant that he developed a particular feeling for freedom: what other people take for granted, was for Izetbegović the Holy Grail.
(Much later, during the 1992-1995 war, he would utter the words that would be so often quoted: “I swear by Almighty God that we shall not be slaves.”) To this prison inmate, to be free meant both the supreme desire and the highest responsibility a person can have. In some of his interviews, therefore, Izetbegović spoke of the “terrifying side of freedom” – which everyone who is not strong-willed enough has felt; in fact, they do not know what to do with their freedom, and subconsciously want to be un-free, to be captives.
Third, no doubt under the constant pressure of injustice, Izetbegović would spend the rest of his life fighting for justice as he saw it, both for himself and for the people and country to which he belonged.
The permanent museum exhibition is located in the towers Kapi-kula Ploča and Širokac. In the Ploča tower, the life of Alija Izetbegović as statesman and politician is displayed on chronologically arranged exhibition boards, accompanied by text and photographs. In the Širokac tower, the exhibition is dedicated to Izetbegović's role as the Supreme Commander in the defense of Bosnia and Herzegovina from the Serbian agression.
Established in the recent times, the Museum „Alija Izetbegović“ offers modern answers to questions from the past, but also sets the foundation for the future. Through its objective scientific approach, it encourages young people, intellectuals and researchers to approach modern history with expertise and knowledge.
The Museum educational programs are designed for elementary and secondary school students. They include professional tours of the permanent museum exhibition, interactive school workshops, pedagogical and educational publications, lectures, special programmes observing important historical dates, etc.