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Bowie Was Humanitarian Hero

David Bowie (In memoriam public domain photo for education only)

David Bowie (In memoriam public domain photo for education only)

By David L. Phillips – I met David Bowie in 1994, during the war in Bosnia. Bowie was deeply troubled by ethnic cleansing of Bosniak Muslims by Croats and Serbs. He used his celebrity discreetly yet effectively to raise awareness about events in Bosnia. I knew Bowie as a humanitarian and a man of principle.

Bowie and I met at the Imperial War Museum in London. I was accompanied by Haris Silajdzic, Bosnia’s Prime Minister. Arrangements were made by Bob Summer, the former CEO of SONY Music, and his wife Susan.

The purpose of our meeting was to view a painting owned by Bowie called “Croatians and Muslim.” The painting depicted two Croatian men raping a Muslim woman, while pushing her head into a toilet. Bowie described the painting as “evocative and devastating.”

The image was so troubling that the Imperial War Museum disowned it. Bowie stepped into the controversy, buying the art work from the Scottish painter, Peter Towson, for $28,000. Art, whether visual or musical, was a call to action.

With the help of Bowie’s publicist, we lined-up dozens of media meetings at the Dorchester Hotel. Silajdzic went from room to room, 10 minutes each, doing television interviews.

Bob and Susan hosted a small private dinner. Bowie was there. Brian Eno, the musician and master recording engineer, attended with Anthea. Peter Towson was present. Other personalities in the British rock scene were also seated.

The dinner conversation focused on the siege of Sarajevo. Not unlike what’s happening today in the Syrian town of Madaya, Sarajevo was encircled. Serbian artillery fired indiscriminately. Snipers took deadly aim. Residents had no food or water.

We talked about the impact of Towson’s painting. Guests expressed horror at the systematic use of sexual violence against Bosniak Muslims. We explored organizing a series of meetings to establish rape a war crime.

Bowie thought the siege of Sarajevo could be broken by holding a concert, and offered to perform.

Safe passage was his pre-condition. The journey to Sarajevo was a scary trip in 1994. Driving from Croatia over Mt. Igman was treacherous. The road was built on crumbling limestone. There were many road blocks and land mines. Alternatively, the UN provided a shuttle service from Zagreb to Sarajevo using old Antanov propeller planes. The shuttle service was sarcastically called “Maybe Airlines.” Flights were often canceled. Some took off, but never landed.

Silajdzic proposed dates for Bowie’s concert in the spring. The UN Department of Peace-keeping Operations suggested we travel by helicopter. I kept trying to confirm arrangements with Bowie, but he wouldn’t commit. Bowie later revealed his phobia for helicopters.

The Sarajevo concert never happened. Bosnian Serb forces intensified their attacks against UN safe areas. The slaughter continued through the following summer when 8,000 men and boys were killed in Srebrenica.

I ran into Bowie backstage at Carnegie Hall a few years later. He was performing at a fund raising event for Tibet House.

We reminisced about Bosnia; discussed the Dayton Peace Agreement. He updated me on Brian Eno’s charity called “War Child,” a music school for war traumatized youth in Croatia.

In his book, A Year, Eno wrote: “Incidentally one of the connections we made was this guy named David Phillips, from an organization called the Congressional Human Rights Foundation, and he has proven extremely helpful: sort of taking Anthea and War Child under his wing, introducing her to all sorts of useful contacts.”

I was honored to help. Bowie and Eno are good people. They are humble stars who helped mobilize the music industry in response to Bosnia, and to promote peace and human rights in other violent corners of the world.

The world knows Bowie as an innovator in the fields of music, fashion, and drama. David Bowie was also a world class humanitarian. He was strong, yet understated. He was principled, yet discreet. Bowie gave voice to the voiceless, using many instruments at his disposal to bend the arc of history towards justice.

Mr. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights.

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