Not a lot of writing on this post, but lots of pictures. We entered Belgrade (“Beograd”) two days ago, after a long seven hour drive that consisted of two border crossings as we left Bosnia through Croatia and then again left Croatia for Serbia. Unfortunately, we didn’t spend any time in that third Balkan nation (aside from staring out the window at the endless, unchanging plains of this part of the world), but at long last we have made it to our final destination: the former capital of Yugoslavia, and today’s heart of the Republic of Serbia.
Belgrade is different from anything in Bosnia- different from Sarajevo, different from Mostar, different even from the Republika Srpska’s Banja Luka. It’s not a pretty city, not in the way say Paris or Prague is- rather, it’s a hectic mess of Austro-Hungarian structures dating back to the 19th century stacked beside Soviet-era apartments stacked beside modern glass offices. Yet at the same time, despite Belgrade’s outward messiness (or perhaps because of it) it’s an absolutely incredible city filled with life, its streets crammed full little cafes and beer gardens, burrito shops cool enough to make a Brooklyn hipster drool, and more than its own share of jazz dens, bars, and night clubs. In a sense, it’s many different cities in one- a hipster’s haven rivaling Greenwich village, a small town filled with neighbors who run into each other daily on their way to work, a national center government and culture, a bustling economic heart for the entire Balkans- and in doing so, manages to be a city unlike anywhere I’ve ever have been before, and likely ever will be.
I love it. And yet, just like the rest of the Balkans, it carrie its own share of the burden of history. Buildings torn apart from the NATO bombings just 15 years ago still stand vacant, a testament to the strained relationships between America and Serbia that still exist today. So too are the tensions left over from the wars, seemingly dissolved in day-to-day life on the streets, still very must present under the surface. For Belgrade, the conflict is even more recent than in Bosnia, and though the city and country may seem to have moved on, it would be naïve to assume that every scar has healed.
It’s hard not be a tourist here- taking pictures of every building, pointing out everything new and different- but, just as in Bosnia, it’s often better to take a step back, put away the phone, and at least try to put thought towards the depth and extent of history this city and its people have experienced. With the number of pictures shown below, I’ve obviously done my own share of indulging in my inner American tourist (its a new and exciting place, and its borderline painful notto snap photos of everything), but perhaps that’s to the benefit of the rest of you reading this blog.
Without further ado, here is Belgrade, the beating heart of Serbia.
Departing from Mostar, it took some four hours of driving across the breadth of the country to arrive at the other half of the picture that is Bosnia i Herzegovina: the Republika Srpska, and at its heart, the city of Banja Luka. Besides a brief, half-day foray into Eastern Sarajevo, this was our first time into the entity that makes up some 49% of Bosnia- and though we only managed to spend two nights in its capital, it quickly proved to be a world away from the likes of Sarajevo and Mostar.
A quick run down of the political situation of the Republika Srpska first (for something more in-depth, read last week’s “Politics in Bosnia” post). Bosnia is split into two entities: the Federation of Bosnia, which is largely Bosniak and Croat with a smaller Serb minority, and the Republika Srpska, which is about 90% Serb (although in the past the area was more diverse, the process of ethnic cleansing during the war by the Serbs makes the entity today one of the most ethnically homogenous regions in Bosnia). The two entities operate independently of one another, yet are both beholden to a unifying, federal-level government. Generally, the Serbs of the Republika Srpska desire less government control and more autonomy for their region, while the Bosniaks that dominate the Federation want a stronger federal government that would allow for the entities to serve more like states in the U.S. As you might imagine, this leads to more than a few political tensions.
Yet the divides between the two entities aren’t just political- in almost every way, in fact, the Republika Sprska looks, feels, and behaves like a country entirely separate from Bosnia and Hercegovnia, complete with its own distinct culture, beliefs, and national identity. In Banja Luke in particular, gone are the Ottoman-esque tiled roofs and mosque spires, or the Austro-Hungarian stone houses and cathedrals. Gone are the litte turkish cafes and the calls to prayer that ring out five times a day. In its place are large, rectanguar office buildings, bold concrete structures and signs domianted by Cyrillic script. Even the bars here are different- umbrellas that once advertised Sarajevsko, the national beer of Bosnia, now proclaim Serbia’s national beer, Jelen, or the Republika’s Nektar.
English is spoken less here than in Sarajevo and Mostar, and foriengers are in turn much less common- tourism, so prevealant in Mostar and growing in Sarajevo, is practically non-existant here. Americans in particular are treated with more reserve, and for good reason- to people here, we have continuously discriminated against the Serbs of Bosnia, first by supporting the Bosniaks and Croats during the war and later by prosecuting Serbs for war crimes more than Bosniaks and Croats, using the powers of the OHR to remove Serb government officials from office and restrict the Republika Srpska’s autonomy in favor of a more centralized, Bosniak-controlled state, and finally by attatching the “genocide” label to the actions of Serbs during the war.
Which, of course, brings us to Srebrenica.
To almost every Serb in the Republika Srpska, Srebrenica- where 8,000 men ages 15-70 and not a few woman and children as well- were masred by Serb soldiers does not count as a genocide. To them, the numbers, especially when compared to the Holocaust, Armenian Genocide and Rwadan Genocide, among others, don’t stack up to the levels seen in other uses of the term. Furthermore, they alledge that because they didn’t target women and children (although many were killed regardless), it wasn’t a true “genocide”- instead, it was merely a horrible crime of war which they claim was but one among many on all sides of the war. To Bosnian Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks committed just as many crimes as they during the conflict, but aren’t prosecuted or held accountable on the same level as the Serbs due to favoritism by the United States.
To say that the term “genocide” is a matter of controversey, then, between the Serbs of the Republika and the Bosniaks of the Federation doesn’t give the situation justice. To Bosniaks, the refusal of the Serbs to accept the term is one of the chief obstacles in the path of reconcilliation between the two peoples, while to Serbs, the genocide label only serves to further the divide them and the Bosniaks.
I have my own opinions on the “genocide” label- for me, while the numbers may have not been comparable to the likes of Rwanda and Armenia when looking only at the Srebrenica massacre, the intent of destroying the Bosniak ethnic group in the Republika Srpska was present throughout the war, from rape camps where men attempted to forcibly impregnate women with Serb children, to the killing or forceful expulsion of Bosniaks from their homes in an act described by Serbs in the war as “cleansing”, and finally to massacres such as Srebencia. All of these signs point to a genocide, regardless of the numbers cited and how they compare to other events.
Yet, even though Serbs may be responsible for the genocide of the Bosniak people, they too have suffered immensely during their own genocide during WW2, in which the Nazi puppet regime in Croatia- the “Ustashe”- began the systematic eradication of the Serbian people. Using hammars, knives, and only occasionally guns to carry out their genocide, the Ustashe exhibited a degree of brutality that shocked even the Nazis, who preferred the “efficient” and “scientific” death of poison gas. It was in Serbia that the first death camp was opened in 1941, before even the camps for the jews opened in 1942, and it was in Serbia that the only death camp created soley for children was established.
For all the responsibility we demand for the Bosnian Genocide- and the Serbs are, indeed, responsible- we also have forgotten the terrible suffering of the Serbs themselves. To say that it is wrong to demand justice for one genocide yet in turn forget another doesn’t even begin to describe the depth of the hypocricy involved.
When seen under this light, it makes sense for the Serbs to resent the United States, to feel themselves to be victims of the stigmitation of the international community, to refuse to believe that they themselves have commited genocide. How can you come to believe that your own people have committed one of the worst crimes against humanity when they themselves are the victims of the exact same crime?
Doesn’t it, then, seem that the use of the word “genocide” to be the political manueverings of an anti-Serb west, who have longed desired a scapegoat to intervene in Bosnia? Who choose to forget your own past sufferings, less it make you seem a more sympathetic villain?
The world doesn’t work in black and white- not when it comes to the fall of Yugoslavia, not when it comes to the Bosnian civil war, not when it comes even to genocide, as much as we would like it to. I stand by my belief that Serbs are responsible for the Bosnian Genocide- as it was, indeed, a genocide- but to see Serbs as a villain, an evil and inherently brutal people, doesn’t just do injustice to them but to ourselves.
Perhaps, next time we remember the Bosnian genocide, we should take it apon ourselves too to look back just a few years more and remember the genocide against the Serbian people as well.
Another lull in posts- this time due to traveling more than anything. From Sarajevo we traveled through Herzegovina, the southern part of “Bosnia i Herzegovina”- A region known for its beautiful mountains (The Balkan Mountains, which gives the “Balkans” region its name), crystal clear rivers, wine and unique people and culture. Herzegovinians pride themselves on, regardless of ethnicity, being a tough, hard, and sturdy people, stronger than their fellow Croats, Serbs, or Bosniaks in other parts of the country, and as such are one of the few places in Bosnia where regional pride sometimes supersedes ethnic identity- especially when it comes to sports. Unfortunately, this regional pride wasn’t enough to prevent these people too from erupting into inter-ethnic violence during the war.
An interesting note on the name: like Bosnia, Herzegovina takes its identity from an ancient medieval kingdom that existed in the area in pre-Ottoman times, but the “Herzeg” half of “Herzegovina” isn’t Bosnian- it’s German. During the 15th century, these lands were ruled by a German duke (Herzog), united to the kingdom of Bosnia in name but for all intents and purposes independent. The autonomy of these “dukes lands” (Herzegovina) is why Bosnia today is officially titled “Bosnia and Herzegovina” (Herzegovinians, for that matter, don’t like being called “Bosnians”- or Bosnia and Hercegovina being called just “Bosnia”).
Some photos from Hercegovina before going forward, including the towns of Konjic, Jajce (where communist Yugoslavia was officially declared in 1941 by Tito), and the Šćit Franscician monastery in Rama:
Mostar lies at the western edge of Herzegovina, some 50 kilometers from the Croatian border- and for travelers, just a hop, skip and a jump from the towns of Dubrovnik and Split in Croatia that draw thousands of backpackers and tourists every year. Because of its closeness to the traveler-haven of Croatia, and the absolute beauty of the city, Mostar is much more touristy than Sarajevo or most anywhere else in Bosnia. Prices are more expensive, assorted tourist souvenirs line the stalls of the streets, and it’s the only place yet that I’ve seen that accepts both Euros as well as Bosnian Konvertable Marks.
But it sure is incredible.
When we think about the war in Bosnia, we think of the Serbs and Bosniaks, of Srebrenica, and of the siege of Sarajevo. Hardly, if ever do we think of Mostar- where Bosniaks fought not just Serbs, but Croats, who they would later ally with against the Serbs to form the Federation of Bosnia and Hercegovina. In fact, Mostar lies at the heart of one of three Croat-dominated Cantons (administrative districts), and is a mostly Croat/Catholic city- something like 47 or 48%. In the narrative of the Bosnian war, we often think of the Bosniaks and Croats being the “good guys” against the “aggressor” Serbs of Serbia/Yugoslavia (under the dictator Miloševič) and the Bosnian Serbs of the Republika Srbska. That the Croats too were trying to carve out their own part of Bosnia- much like the Serbs were doing in the Republika Srpska- is often loss in the telling of the war. So too is the destruction that occurred in Mostar, one of the most beautiful cities in the entire Balkans, as Bosniaks and Croats shelled each other over control of the town forgotten.
Take, for instance, the destruction of the bridge that spans the river in Mostar, which divides the city roughly in two. Built during Ottoman times, it lasted through World War 1, World War 2, and the Yugoslav invasion of Croatia during the Croatian war for independence in ’91, only to be destroyed by shelling by Bosnian Bosniaks and Croats in the early years of the Bosnian war.
It has since been rebuilt, but allegedly lacks the same beauty as the ancient bridge that lasted up until the 90s. Yet it’s not only the thing that was destroyed during the conflict- walk perhaps ten minutes from the tourist haven of the old town towards the boulevard that divides between the Croat and Bosniak halves, and you’ll find a level of bullet scars and ruined buildings that rivals Sarajevo. Just like Sarajevo, this city suffered immensely during the war- but unlike Sarajevo, we hardly remember it. When Croats and Bosniaks are supposed to be allies in the fight against Miloševič and his militant remnants of Yugoslavia, its hard to realize that each ethnic group is also responsible for conflict, destruction and crimes independent from their fight against the Serbs.
Although the war is over, as in the rest of Bosnia scars still remain- although we did meet one NGO, the Nansen Dialogue Center, that is working to heal some of those wounds. Since the end of the war, schools in Bosnia have been incredibly segregated in a system informally known as “One roof, two schools”. In the Federation in particular, Croat children may enter school in the morning, with Croat teachers and a Croat-centric curriculum, while Bosniaks enter school in the afternoon, without any contact with Croat children their own age. This fosters ignorance about other ethnicities, intolerance and nationalism- the very things that get politicians in Bosnia elected, so there is no real push in the government to change the system.
The Nansen Dialogue is a Norwegian-based group (though Bosnian staffed) that works with going to schools in the area around Mostar- and other parts of Bosnia with other branches- and bringing students of different ethnicities together for dialogue and interaction, which they wouldn’t get in a traditional school setting. The theory is that, by bridging the separation between the youth of different ethnic groups, a more tolerant, educated and less nationalistic future may come for Bosnia as the younger generation replaces the old.
So far the results seem mixed. The spokesperson of Nansen that we spoke to talked of both resistance from parents who went through the war and government officials who benefit from nationalism, and also of young people who are rapidly adopting the dialogue offered by Nansen and actively trying to reach out to their Croat, Bosniak or Serb peers. It’s for sure too early to tell if this system of dialogue will really make a lasting change of the country, but its refreshing to see a group actively trying to solve one of the many problems facing this country.
We only spent a day and a half in Mostar- too short to understand the city in any way close to what we did in Sarajevo (which, in turn, was far too short to understand fully even with the time we spent there), but from the limited time we had, it’s an absolutely beautiful and culturally diverse city, with a feeling of its own distinct from the rest of Bosnia and with its own history, scars, and problems leftover from the war that continue to plague it today. The trick is to look past the tourism in which the city is known by today, and peer into the heart of what Mostar really is- no easy task by far, and one I don’t always succeed at, but one necessary to give justice to any place when traveling in this incredible country.
Banja Luka next, and from there, on to Serbia and Belgrade. Will (hopefully) be posting more often in the coming days.
For all of the politics of the past week, there have also been other things- personal stories of those who endured the war, places of culture and religion- that are too worth telling. As time in Sarajevo comes to a close- with Mostar, Banka Luka, and finally Belgrade to come in the coming weeks- here are are three stories and one beautiful church that have stood out over the last couple of days.
The Old Church
First off, the first Orthodox church of Sarajevo. Tucked into a side street away from the crowds of the Old Town and the Austrian District, its actually larger than it seems in the picture above. Laws of the Ottoman Empire, during which Sarajevo was part of when the church was built, prevented any church from being taller than the city’s mosques- which were mostly smaller than the more monumental mosques we think of today. To get around this, much of the church is actually built underground, expanding under and outwards beneath the walls.
The church, built during the 1500s, actually burned down a hundred years later and was re-built in much the same style as its original design.
Two important relics to the city of Sarajevo and its Orthodox population lay inside this church, and pilgrims come from all over Bosnia to see them. The first is the hand of a first-century female saint and disciple of saint Peter, which is said to have resisted decomposition for centuries due to some essence “unexplainable to science” that exists only in saints. The hand is kept in an ornate box within the church, the hand itself hidden within.
The other relic has an interesting story behind it. 400 years ago, a child, born from a husband’s first marriage, was killed by his step mother in spite and buried near the church. 200 years later, the body was uncovered by masons working on the church, and they found that (much like the saint’s hand), the corpse hadn’t decomposed. Today the body is shrined in a casket in the upper levels of the church, and is prayed to by mothers for the health of their children and especially for women experiencing difficulties with pregnancies.
Myths and legends, certainly, but when it comes to beliefs in holy miracles, I can’t judge people’s beliefs. Faith is a powerful thing, and beautiful, and an essential part of this city- without it, it wouldn’t be Sarajevo.
Besides the church, three stories by three people who lived through the conflict- one Muslim Bosniak, one Orthodox Serb and one Catholic- stand out amongst these last two weeks. I’ll try not to go too in-depth into each of them, but I think they’re valuable in retelling to understand just how much the people of Bosnia were affected- something that seems glossed over in politics and International Relations.
The first is Hasan Nuhanovic, a Bosniak who served as an interpreter for the Dutch peacekeeping force in Srebrenica. He himself was not from Srebrenica, but fled there with his family, as did so many others, as Serb forces killed and pushed out Bosniaks living in the present-day Republika Srpska in a campaign of ethnic cleansing.
While the UN “safe area” kept the Serb forced from invading Srebrenica for years- from around 1992 to 1995, when Hasan served as an interpreter- in 1995, the Serbs eventually attacked the town, ultimately resulting in the Srebrenica massacre. As I told in a previous blog post, many Bosniaks fled for refuge in the Dutch garrison in an old factory outside of the city. Hasan told of how hundreds of people fled within, and how a day later the Dutch forced every refugee taking shelter there to leave, in fear of the compound being overrun. Hasan’s mother, father and brother were among those who were filed out by Dutch soldiers, and later died at the hands of Serb militants because of the actions of the peacekeepers.
To Hasan, this means that the Dutch soldiers were complacent in genocide. He was one of the few saved from the massacre, by virtue of his job as a UN translator, a position he later left after the UN tried to repress him speaking out about his experiences. For fourteen years he engaged in a legal battle with the Dutch state over the state’s responsibility over the deaths of his family, a battle he finally won in 2014. Today he is an author and a scholar on the Sbrebrenica massacre, his books focusing on the failings of the international community in preventing or intervening in the genocide.
The second story is of the Archbishop and Cardinal of Sarajevo. Around 70 or 80 years old, with a infectious smile, he was made bishop during the communist times of Tito, and was Archbishop during the siege of Sarajevo. During the siege, while living in the bombed-out ruins of his house (the very house, now rebuilt, that we visited him in), he had a well dug and provided water to the surrounding community, no matter their religious or ethnic affiliation. Immediately following the war, he was instrumental in sending priests throughout Bosnia, to help heal wounds and bring hope to all parts of the nation, no matter their religion or role in the war.
Today, he’s part of a dialogue between the religious leaders of all four major religions- Muslims, Jews, Orthodox Christians and Catholics- in Sarajevo, and together with them working to foster tolerance and coexistence between the religions within the city. He also earns the reward for my favorite quote yet: “To be human, you must have brains, heart and soul. To have brains and heart is to be something great- but only with soul can you be truly Noble”.
Finally, there is Dragan, a Serb soldier who fought in the siege of Sarajevo during the four years of the war. His story, though, is not about battle, but instead focused on the tragic story of his friendship with Samir, a muslim from the same municipality just outside of Sarajevo as he.
According to Dragan, he and Samir were best friends since Kindergarten, and though he was Serb and Orthodox and Samir Muslim and Bosniak, each visited each other’s homes during religious celebrations, as to them and their families the festivals were as much communal gatherings between friends and neighbors as they were matters of faith.
Around 1992, however, when Dragan was in his late teens, he found himself and his family suddenly excluded from these gatherings. Samir would still say hello to him on the streets, but the long days spent together were now a thing of the past- their friend group, once a mix of serbs and muslims, was suddenly fractured in two, a fracture that only grew as the siege of Sarajevo began, with Dragan fighting on one side of the siege line and Samir and Dragan’s other Muslim friends on the other side. Dragan claimed however that, despite being on opposite sides of the war, he didn’t feel any enmity for his friends- in fact, he often sent packages of goods and medicine through the red cross to Samir and his other muslim friends (although he later found out that these were often stolen by gang leaders before they could reach their intended recipients).
At the war’s end, thousands of Serbs fled Sarajevo for the Republika Srpska and Serbia, fearful for retribution by Bosniak muslims following the conflict. Dragan was one of the few to return to his home town, months after the war ended, to retrieve possessions from his home- there he found Samir, years after he had seen him last. Approaching him as a friend, he found himself suddenly jumped by Samir and his friends, who beat him for “being of the kind that killed his brother”. Dragan escaped the beating, but it would be the last time he would ever see his childhood friend.
For years Dragan traveled around Bosnia working, in Sarajevo, Banja Luka, and other cities, before in the late 90s once again meeting Samir’s father. When asking about Samir, his father said that he had been recruited by Islamic radicals and became a militant in Afghanistan. Later, through Samir’s mother, Dragan found that Samir had died during the U.S-led invasion of Afghanistan.
Today, Dragan still maintains in contact with Samir’s parents and other Muslim friends from the war, who like Dragan refuse to let the war and the hatreds born from it to damage their friendship. Yet still Dragan, remembering his childhood best friend, remains wary of the nationalism and radicalism of his country today- radicalism, he says, which is causing many young, angry, lost muslim men to join ISIS in Syria, just as Samir had joined the militants in Afghanistan.
I haven’t told any of these stories perfectly, but they are worth retelling just to try to show just how greatly the people of Bosnia were affected, and continue to be affected, but that war that occurred just twenty years ago. Too often, listening to the news or reading about the conflict in history books, we can’t realize that these events lead to pain, suffering, and hardship for hundreds and thousands of real, breathing people. For so many Bosnians, this isn’t history. Hassan lost his family to the complacency of peacekeepers who were supposed to protect them. Dragan lost his best friend to hatred and radicalism. And there are other stories too, hundreds and thousands of stories, each just as important to understanding what happened as the last.
And yet, for all of these stories of suffering, for all of the corruption in the government, for all of the economic stagnation, there is still so much good in this city. Faith, be that Orthodox, Muslim, Jew or Catholic- compassion, regardless of ethnicity, and for all of the frustration of the state of things today, hope for the future- that things will get better, that one day Bosnia will become a country in which its many beauties outweigh its hardships.
There is a hotel that stands above the Ottoman district, and atop it, a cafe. Looking out from atop that cafe, as the sun sets over the city and sends it awash in the oranges of dusk, it is hard to feel anything but love for Sarajevo, for this city that has seen so much and yet, still, remains so beautiful, so full of wonder and life.
It’s been a few days since I’ve posted last- but for good reason. Over the past couple of days we’ve been meeting with different political figures- members of the Bosnian House of Representatives, the United States Embassy, the Officeof Higher Representatives, and the European Union- each with different views as to the sate of the country, its future and the best course of action towards improving it.
There won’t be many photos on this post- something I don’t think I’ll do in future blog posts. It’s frowned upon (to say the least) to take photos of the U.S Embassy, and the offices of the other political bodies are usually underwhelming and not terribly worth photographing. So, without further ado, here is perhaps the one photo that will be on this post: the Parliamentary building of Bosnia.
First off, a quick run-down of the very, very complicated politics of Bosnia:
Bosnia is divided between two entities: the Federation of Bosnia-Hercegovina, which is leftover from the peace agreement between Croats and Bosniaks halfway through the war, and the Republka Srpska, the Serb half of the country whose borders are (more or less) remnant of the battle line between the Serbs and Bosniaks at the end of the war. Serbs dominate the Republika Srpska and have a central, federal-type government, while the Federation is divided into ten “cantons”: four that are Bosniak dominated, four Croatian dominated, and two mixed.
On top of that, there are two nation-wide legislative bodies: The House of Peoples, which is divided into three serbs, three bosniaks, and three croats, and the House of Representatives, which is a parliamentary body divided dominated by different political parties, some of which are ethnic in platform, some economic. And then there are three presidents, each representing the Serbs, Bosniaks, and Croatians.
Complicated, no? Here’s the thing: because the Republika is serb-dominated, it can get decisions done quicker due to its federal, centralized government system. For the Federation, however, divided between Croats and Bosniaks, decision-making is harder. Not only are people divided on position, but the ability of one ethnicity to completely block the other makes it hard to get anything through the Federation’s legislative bodies. On a national level, the divide between the Federation and Republika is reflected in the House of Peoples and Representatives, making national-level decisions even less likely to pass.
Add rampant corruption (more on that later) to the table, and you have a huge mess of a political system that in which reform is almost impossible.
Got that? Now on to the other kink in the system: the Office of Higher Representatives. Run by a European head and an American deputy (although the jury is out on which of the two has the most power), the OHR is supposed to 1) uphold the peace established by the Dayton agreement (which set up all of these political systems) and 2) guide the country towards a better democracy that would, hopefully, result in integration into the European Union. To that end, they have a special ability called “bond powers”, which allows them to remove corrupt or overly radical officials in government or otherwise block certain aspects in the government that would lead to renewed war. Since 2006, the OHR has been following a policy of non-interventionalism, refusing to use Bond powers unless not doing so would result in renewed conflicts (such as the Republika Srpska breaking free of Bosnia) and allowing the country to plot its own course towards better democracy and EU integration.
Which has had…mixed results. For one their is the corruption in the country. Most businesses are nationalized, and corrupt political figures appoint as CEOs members of their political parties, leading to economic stagnation. To add to that, the judiciary is also corrupt- without a system that justly convicts corruption, it becomes impossible (outside of OHR powers) to remove corrupt officials by legal channels. And this isn’t just exclusive to the political scene- from the police to education to the health sector, corruption has become integrated into the county on the most basic level, making it all that more difficult to remove.
And then there are the divides, nationally and within the Federation, between ethnic groups that prevents any kind of reform from going through. Croats want greater political power for the Cantons in which they dominate, or its own entity like the Federation or Republika to itself. Serbs want greater autonomy for the Republika, with mentions breaking off completely having been heard in recent years- an act that could potentially result in another war. Bosniaks, by and large, want a centralized government in the Federation and National level, which would give them more political power as they are the ethnic majority in Bosnia.
Not only does this lead to gridlock throughout Bosnia, but it prevents it from joining the EU. Because the political parties are dominated- or in the case of the presidency and House of Peoples, exclusive- to the Serb, Croat, and Bosniak ethnicities, it has excluded political minorities- Jews, Roma, people who identify as nationally Bosnian rather than by an ethnic group- from political life, making the country an imperfect democracy at best. Although past court cases have ruled that the constitution must be amended to allow for these groups to have a political say- something the EU also requires before it allows Bosnia to become a member- little has been done to do so in any way, as the status quo keeps corrupt and nationalistic politicians in their positions. Rocking the boat may see them loose their political power- and just as in the U.S, that’s the last thing any politician wants.
So what’s the answer here? The end goal for Bosnia seems to be EU integration, but no one wants to make the steps towards getting there- or if they do, they are blocked by and overly corrupt and dysfunctional political system. As for the Office of Higher Representatives, they seem to lessen of their hands-on influence in favor of letting Bosnia decide its own future, and allowing the EU to take its place as a soft influence with little direct impact on the country’s affairs.
But that can’t happen with the current political system- which needs to be amended to allow for less gridlock and more representation of minorities- and the corruption rampant throughout the political scene. And that itself can’t happen so long as political candidates can fall back on nationalism and radicalism to get elected, and refuse to cooperate with other ethnic groups and parties because of their nationalist agenda.
In any other country, having a younger generation enter the political field would held solve a lot of these problems- the youth, in any country, are after all typically more inclined to want to push forward liberal reforms and bring the country forward. But because of the corruption here- and because of the impotence many people feel in their ability to change the system- most of the youth seems ill-inclined to enter politics. The common saying here is that the youth sit around in coffee shops to complain, but don’t do anything else to actually change the system that they gripe about.
Not that they’re encouraged to do so in any way, mind you. Although a lot of Bosnians are college educated, they prefer to take that education and go to Germany, Austria, or Croatia, where their prospects are better, instead of staying behind to improve their own nation. Those who do enter politics are often forced out by the existing political elite, who see any push towards reform as a challenge to their power, or are themselves radical and nationalistic like their parents. And so most do nothing- feeling like they is nothing that they can do.
There are pushes to change that, however. Schools like AUBiH (the American University of Bosnia and Hercegovina, where we have many of our lectures) try to bring Bosnian-American students, who parents usually left for America during the war, to Sarajevo to get them involved with the future of their home country. So too is the U.S Embassy trying to establish programs to get the youth politically active- a sentiment both the OHR and EU share, as they feel that only with a strong push by younger generations can the country really begin to unite its different parts and, hopefully, one day become part of the European Union.
For now, though, Bosnia- for all of its diversity, all of its different groups and religions and identities- remains dysfunctional, as crippled by corruption and nationalism as it is by apathy. That’s not to say that there isn’t hope, and signs of progress, but for now it seems like there is a long, long road ahead until Bosnia is the country it needs to be- equal for all people, free from corruption, and untainted by the radical nationalism that yesterday caused a war and today creates nearly irreparable divisions.
I’ll let photos tell most of this one- but, like yesterday, a brief bit of history first.
Srebrenica is why, when we speak of the Bosnian War, we often refer to it as the “Bosnian Genocide”. In 1995, soldiers of the Republika Srpska (the ethnically Serb part of the civil war) were in the process of “ethnically cleansing” eastern Bosnia. The thought was to create a completely Serb state by forcefully pushing out or killing everyone who was not Serb in the eastern Bosnia. In July of 1995, the town of Srebrenica- historically a mix of Serbs and Bosniak Muslims- was in the path of this campaign.
Although Bosniaks Muslim soldiers and Serb soldiers did conflict in battle over Srebrenica- both sides committing war crimes against the other but by and large keeping their intended casualties to the actual soldiers on either side- the real massacre happened when Srebrenica fell to the Serbs. Thousands of Bosniak Muslims fled to a UN “safe area”- little more than a warehouse outside of the town- for refuge as the Serb army pursued them.
The “safe area” was manned by Dutch soldiers, and though at first they brought thousands of Muslims into the warehouse for safety, the building wasn’t enough to hold everyone seeking safety. With the Serb army approaching and threatening to overrun the safe area, possibility killing both the UN peacekeepers and the people inside, the Dutch called in an airstrike on the Serb positions- but somewhere up the chain of command, either in the US, France, or Britain, the order stalled. The Serb army kept moving forward towards the safe area.
In an effort to prevent being overrun, the Dutch met with the leaders of the Serb army and agreed to help move the civilians out of the safe area. Women and men were separated and put onto separate trucks by the Serb army- with the help of the Dutch peacekeepers. In the end, the women and children were brought safely to Bosnian Muslim territory- the men, or anyone the Serbs thought would be of fighting age, were brought to five different sites, executed, and buried in mass graves. They range from 15 to 70 years old, and often consisted of entire families.
Others, instead of boarding the trucks, decided to flee north to Tuzla, where another UN safe area was. Along the way, the thousands who fled were shelled, ambushed, and killed by snipers, and though some did manage to make it to Tuzla, thousands more died.
To the Bosnian Muslims, this is a genocide. To the Serbs…it’s more complicated. They believe that it was a horrible war crime, but that it didn’t count as genocide as they had spared the women and children and killed only those who were of fighting age. If you were watching CNN the other day- the 20th anniversary of the massacre- you might have seen the Serbian prime minister being forced away from the ceremonies because of his country’s refusal to admit the killings were genocidal.
I could go on to say a lot more- retell some of the stories of survivors, throw out statistics about the number killed- but I think I’ll let photos tell the rest.
The day before was one of the largest memorial ceremonies in memory for Srebrenica- thousands of people, dignitaries from the U.S, Germany, Jordan, Turkey, televised across the world.
Today? No one. Two police cars, a scattering of people paying respects, a French tour group. It seems that, after all of the ceremony of yesterday, Srebrenica was forgotten again. And will continue to be so until the world finds a suitable enough anniversary to once again remember it.
During the siege of Sarajevo, an event lasting some four years throughout most of the war, Serb forces had surrounded the mostly Bosniak downtown of Sarajevo and there engaged in a stalemate battle against the Bosniak defense line- a battle of tank shells, artillery, and snipers, the Serbs firing into the city and the Bosniaks firing outside of it.
Travel away from the Ottoman district and you’ll still find the scars of that siege on the buildings: bullet holes and shell blasts still stain the walls of most apartments, and though people have long ago moved in and resumed normal lives, the damage is still there. Twenty years ago, during the siege, downtown Sarajevo was known as “Sniper Alley”- most of the images people remember from the war, and still often think about when thinking of Bosnia, come from this siege and the shelling that was done in that area.
A handy map to show exactly what was going on:
The red here is the Serb forces, the blue Bosniak- the “Bosnian” and “Serbian” descriptions are kind of misnomers, as both Serbs and Bosniaks were citizens of Bosnia, and Serbia didn’t really invade Bosnia at all. Rather it was more of a civil war- and in the case of Sarajevo, one in which neighbor and neighbor really were fighting each other.
These battle lines aren’t actually based on any kind of land gain or loss- rather, they’re pre-set demographic lines established during the time of the Ottomans. The Bosniak Muslims, being of the prevailing religion, dominated the city center, and other religions- Catholics, Jews, and Orthodox- became their serfs, settling towards the outskirts as farmers and giving tribute to the wealthier Muslim population. Even after the Ottomans left those divides were still present- Serbs may have worked in the city center, but by and large still lived on the outside.
Cue the war’s start, and those lines became the new lines of battle. No one really invaded or seized territory around the city- rather, a stalemate occurred over where populations already lived.
Going back to the map above- see the blue area? That is where the airport was (and still is), and was under control of the UN for humanitarian purposes, and to keep the air force away from both sides. The problem with the zone though was that it blocked off Sarajevo from the “free bosnian” part of the Bosniak army beyond the mountains- which prevented food and supplies from entering the city. The UN did their part, but the humanitarian relief was spotty at best and largely unorganized. Food was expired, medicine was inadequate, and altogether what UN relief could enter the city was inadequate to fulfill the city’s needs.
For the first year of the war, Bosniaks, under the cover of night, would race supplies through the airport under the UN’s nose, but as both sides of the Airport were Serb controlled (again, see above), nearly 500 Bosniaks died during the attempt.
So they decided to build a tunnel.
Over the course of four months, the Bosniaks built a tunnel beneath the airfield, connecting the city of Sarajevo to the Bosnian free territory and letting supplies to enter the city. Mind you, it wasn’t entirely for humanitarian reasons- what the Bosniaks really needed was weapons, ammo, and food for their army, so that’s what mainly went back and forth. Civilians were forbidden from fleeing through it, as civilians in the city increased soldier morale.
But the tunnel was a huge boost to the Bosniak war effort, allowing them to keep the city throughout the four-year siege. Yet it wasn’t the only way people got supplies into the city. Serbs and Bosniaks may have been at war, but they were also neighbors, and Serbs from behind the Serbian lines often smuggled food and supplies to friends and even family they had amongst the Bosniaks of Sarajevo. The war may have been on ethnic lines, but not everyone was blindly hating everyone- rather, it was a war, a terrible war but one in which people on both sides were very human and, for all of the inhumane war crimes, still often acted in very human ways.
Finally, we entered the Republika Srbska, the Serb half of the city. At the war’s end and the signing of the Dayton agreement, Serbs around Sarajevo fled the center of the city, fearing retribution. Throughout the war, Serbs who stayed inside the city’s center were persecuted and killed for being spies- though some of course were, a culture of fear made most Serbs within the city suspect. With the war’s end, Serbs felt that all of them would be prosecuted, and moved east, in doing so founding Eastern Sarajevo.
Here, everything is in Cyrillic, and fewer people speak English- to them, English represents a West that villainized them and placed all the blame for the war on their shoulders. It’s a very different place, with less tourism and newer (though not wealthier) buildings, all having been built within the last twenty years.
Here we came across a statue of Gravillo Princip, the man who killed Franz Ferdinand and sparked the First World War. Although he is often affiliated with the Black Hand- a Serb nationalist group around World War 1- in reality he was a member of a group known as Young Bosnia, which featured Croats, Serbs, and Muslims in its ranks, and wanted a free Yugoslavia independent of Austrian control- not just Serbia. Their connections with the Black Hand were a way to allow for this to happen.
Some call Princip a terrorist for his assassination- I’m not so sure myself, but to Serbs he was a freedom fighter and a martyr for Serbian independence (overlooking his Yugoslav ideals for the freedom of all South Slavs just as much as those in Bosnia who will call him a terrorist). Interesting fact: to find if someone thinks him a terrorist or a freedom fighter, simply ask if his wife was pregnant when she was killed with him. Serbs say no, Bosnians and Croats say yes.
It’s all different interpretations of the same history here- the same events, but which result in different conclusions depending on the people in question. Unfortunately, this very interpretation of history lead to one of the most brutal wars in history, and is even now affecting how people view each other, their history, and the future of the country.
Relaxing day today- lunch in the Ottoman square, and then a short walk up to this old keep from back when Bosnia was a Medieval kingdom, in pre-Ottoman times. Nothing like yesterday, but it was nice to just take in the city, especially on such a beautiful day.
A little on the Yellow Fortress: it’s the second of two old keeps throughout the city, and was built after the first (The White Fortress, which is higher up on the mountainside) failed to prevent the city from being sacked in the 1600s. Today there’s a cafe on top of it- a little place to have Turkish tea and take in the view. I spoke for a time to girl visiting from Russia there. She’s from about an hour outside of Moscow, and was traveling with a friend around the Balkans, already having been to Serbia and, I believe, planning on going to Croatia. She was planning to hike up to the White Fortress but, already planning on heading down to the City Hall, we parted ways at the cafe.
As for the view…
An aside: the path up to the Yellow Fortress runs through a cemetery, filled with white obelisks marking the places of rest. Looking at the names and dates on the pillars- no matter the date of birth (’67, ’52, ’79), the dates of death were always the same. ’92. ’93. ’94. ’95. It’s…heavy.
And it’s not the only one. Look at the pictures above: in several places you’ll find large white swaths of graves covering parts of the hillsides. It gives weight to the amount of people killed in the siege of Sarajevo alone- to say nothing of the conflict in other parts of the country.
On a lighter note, from atop the Yellow Keep you can see dozens of mosques littering the city. Stand up there during the call to prayer at one, and you see a single man atop every tower singing out to the city, all of their voices becoming this one, single, city-wide prayer. It’s beautiful.
The City Hall, meanwhile, was built in the 1800s, under the Austro-Hungarian Empire after they took control of Bosnia from the Ottomans (kind of..they’re a weird history where it was de facto part of Austria but still managed by the Ottomans, one of those results of the Council of Berlin under Bismark in the 1860s). While it has some traditional Austro-Hungarian influences, the building was built in a style that more resembles the Moorish architecture of southern Spain.
In the 1900s the hall served as a massive library, but during the war it was burned, and thousands of books were destroyed in the fire- some ancient and original copies of old Austro-Hungarian and Turkish books. For eighteen years they renovated the building, going so far as hand-painting every mural and mandala inside, until in 2014 it re-opened as the City Hall. Not only does this building serve as the heart of the city government, but also as a major cultural center: weddings, ceremonies, graduations and other events have already or are planned to happen within these newly opened walls.
Although we haven’t traveled to Srebrenica yet (the actual date of the massacre occurred on the 11th, and we’ll be traveling there on the 12th), there we two events related to the massacre that happened today:
The first was the procession of the identified bodies of the victims of Srebrenica- a yearly event that occurs before the annual Srebrenica memorial ceremony, in which the bodies of victims identified over the course of the year (though DNA testing) are driven before the Presidency building, and there greeted by representatives of the government and influential cultural figures (such as the Grand Mufti) before being brought to their proper burial. This year, being now twenty years since the massacre, saw crowds larger than has been seen before on previous Dialogues.
What’s incredible is that, twenty years since it happened, bodies are still being found and identified- with almost 1000 missing persons still to be accounted for, out of the estimated 8,000 victims of the massacre. The identification of the bodies of these victims, and the subsequent yearly procession to their place of final burial, is a way to bring closure to families who have been missing their sons, husbands, and grandfathers (for most of the victims were male) for twenty years.
Across the street and on the rim of the vehicle that carries the bodies of the victims are white lilies- symbols of remembrance of the massacre. The ceremony doesn’t take long- perhaps a few minutes- before the truck moves on and the people send it off with a silent prayer: arms outstretched, hands palms up, before moving to cover their face with their hands, as if weeping.
It’s- powerful, but also brings out just how little we, as Americans (or western Europeans), understand the weight of this conflict. The people here are mostly older, and although we, and the youth of Bosnia, may not remember the war, they lived through it- through the siege of Sarajevo, through the conflict in Mostar, through the loss of friends and relatives in Srebrenica. It’s easy to forget that this happened only twenty years ago- and because of that, almost impossible for us, having lives in privilege, safety, and security in our home countries, to understand the depth of sorrow and pain that was endured, and is continued to be felt.
That being said- even if we don’t understand, we can still, in some small way, share the pain of the people around us, even if only for a moment, and even if only a fraction of what is truly being felt. To see the procession being sent off in a silent prayer- no, we can’t understand. Not in the way these people do. But we can do justice to all of this by not trying in whatever way we can to learn of what occurred, and most importantly, not to forget, as the world already seems to have done.
The second event involved a meeting with the ICMP- the International Committee of Missing Persons. A mostly European organization, the ICMP is the group that works to identify the bodies of the missing- in any conflict, regardless of what side the missing may have been on during the conflict. In fact, the ICMP was created to identify the bodies of Srebrenica, and only afterwards expanded to encompass other conflicts.
It is the ICMP that uncovered the identities of the bodies and, in doing so, allow them to be sent to their final resting place. However, there are still 1,000 missing persons to be unaccounted for- the ICMP believes there to be another mass grave that is still yet unaccounted for.
Many of the victims identifies by the ICMP had different parts of their bodies placed in separate mass graves. While the perpetrators of the massacre (members of the Bosnian Serb paramilitaries) originally placed all the bodies in “primary site” mass graves, they later excavated the corpses and, using heavy machinery, removed the bodies to be placed in separate mass graves along the line of retreat in which the Muslims (largely civilians) fled- in doing so supporting the Serbian position that the massacre was not a genocide, but an unfortunate side-affect of an armed conflict. Yet the removal of the bodies by heavy machinery caused several of the corpses to be dismembered, meaning that a victim’s body may have many different parts in many secondary mass graves throughout eastern Bosnia- initially making it harder to identify corpses, but later, through DNA testing, allowing the ICMP to show that bodies found in secondary graves originated in initial execution sites that were later dug up, proving that not all the bodies in the secondary graves were, as the Serbians claimed, killed there.
Then again, there is always another side. While civilians were killed, and executed mercilessly by Bosnian Serbs, there is some merit to the Bosnian Serb claim that Bosnian Muslims fought back against the Serbs along the line of retreat. The Serbs claim that this means that the massacre was not a genocide- although Bosnian Muslims naturally feel otherwise. It’s one of many sources of conflicts in Bosnia today, each side having their own opinion of events.
As for myself…as I said before, I can’t understand what has happened the way Bosnians do. A tragedy beyond anything I have ever, and hopefully will ever, experience in my life occurred, and regardless of the terminology used to describe it, or the intricacies and contradictions told in the account of the event, innocents, entire families of civilians, were killed. That kind of crime demands that someone claim responsibility, and take efforts to make amends- yet, from what I have seen so far, people are more inclined to defend their own people than accept and claim responsibility for their actions. This doesn’t just go for Serbs, but also for Croats, and Bosniaks.
And it goes, too, for Americans. For we saw the massacre sites through satellites, and chose to ignore what very well have been a genocide, only becoming involved months later under more political motives. And as for the everyday American, we forgot, or chose (consciously or unconsciously, it does not matter) not to understand what happened. Bosnia is far away, and seemingly insignificant- but what people endured here isn’t insignificant, nor is what people are enduring in Syria, South Sudan, Myanmar, and even at home in America that we so often choose too to ignore.
Even for us, there is a certain responsibility we must own up to.
EDIT: One thing of note- while the Grand Mufti (the leading Muslim religious figure in Sarajevo), the Bosniak president and the Croatian president were all present to greet the procession, the Serb president was absent, as he has been (I believe) every time before. Also notably absent? Chancellor Merkel, who is in currently Sarajevo to witness the ceremony commemorating 20 years since Srebrenica.
Also- a UN resolution that would have officially named Srebrenica as genocide was vetoed by the Russians under the request of Serbia (the country bordering Bosnia, not the Serbian Republic of Bosnia whose soldiers were by and large responsible for the massacre). Which is interesting, as Serbia claims that it had not role in the conflict in Bosnia, and that every massacre was the responsibility of the Bosnian Serbs. Russia vetoing on Serbia’s behalf is probably just Kremlin maneuvering for allies against the United States- of which Serbia is not the greatest of friends with- but Serbia officially requesting the Russian veto throws questions at the country’s claim of noninvolvement in the conflict.
Long day of travel Tuesday- something like twelve or fourteen hours between when I arrived in the airport in Logan and landing in Sarajevo. Maybe the usual fare for someone used to crossing across the Atlantic, but seeing as I’ve been rather exclusively enjoying the three or four timezones of the western hemisphere for the past eighteen years, putting in a day like that was…taxing. Exhausting, even without the jet lag.
Some thoughts on Sarajevo as a whole, just from what little I’ve seen over the past two days:
It’s poorer than I expected. Not the center of town, will all of the shops and little cafes, no, but the road from the airport to the city center is filled with older block-like apartment buildings, strip mall-esque shopping centers, and all of the other trappings of poverty. Mind you, you find these things in America too, but it reminded me more of parts of Latin America more than anything- It is easy, though, to see all of Europe as just small french and italian villas, when the actual distribution of wealth is much more drastic. Learned later that something close to half of the population here is unemployed– wondering if that’s due to still lingering economic depression following the war (though twenty years does seem like long enough of a time to recover), mismanagement and corruption in politics, or perhaps a combination of both. And seeing as people in the west still think of Bosnia as dangerous and war-torn, it’s probably still hard to boost the economy with tourism the way, say, Croatia has.
Other surprising thing: Sarajevo in particular is much more Turkish that I’d ever thought. I expected it to be different from the rest of Europe, sure, but something more alike other former communist countries- Bulgaria, Ukraine- than the over Ottoman architecture and culture present here (though we are staying close to the old Ottoman side of the city, and as I mentioned before, the outskirts of Sarajevo are a lot different from what is to be found here). But this city has an incredible feeling to it- very alive, very distinct, very, very different from what I know in the Americas. Somehow both European and Turkish, which isn’t surprising given its history.
Wednesday came with a tour from a local tourism company- again, a business which must be much harder to thrive in than in other countries. Notes below:
– The tour guide mentioned everyone as “Orthodox” “Catholic” or “Muslim”, but not “Bosjack” “Serb” or “Croat”. With the level of conflict that came between ethnic groups in the war, its easy to see why some Bosnians may want to erase ethnic divides, but by calling out people by religion and not by ethnicity seems to- homogenize? something that should be celebrated for its diversity and complexity. But again- given recent history, maybe to some it is a better thing to feel united under one “Bosnian” nationality than many separate ethnic identities.
– Tito is very much looked up to here. I understand that- given the unemployment (50 percent), poverty, and political instability here, it’s easy to look back on a period that was comparably more stable, peaceful and economically plentiful than now. But, that being said: Tito was a dictator. One that was better for his country, perhaps, than other dictators, but one who ruled through absolute power and, through his police force, a decent amount of fear. To be respected, sure, for what he did to keep Yugoslavia together, but it seems that he is being painted in a more rosy light than he deserves.
But- as I said- it’s understandable. Although on paper Bosnia is a democracy, the day-to-day person seems weary of the corruption in politics and in the rich here. Tito may have been a dictator, but he was a dictator who ran a country in some ways better than Bosnia is being run now.
Otherwise- still trying to learn the language, which is difficult. Even in travels outside of the states I knew at least some of the language (Spanish), and it’s hard to be in a place where, even though many people know English, I would rather speak the language but can’t yet grasp it.