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Bosnia and Herzegovina : Ethnic Tolerance, Reality or Illusion ?

Contributor to®
Miriam Rabkin specialises in international relations and has worked as a democratisation consultant for the OSCE in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina.
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Credit : Lene Juul-Madsen*

The old Turkish area of Sarajevo bustles with activity as merchants try to sell their ware, locals stroll for hours down the many pedestrian streets or sit in outdoor cafes. Trendy stores and boutiques remain open till late at night. The general mood is festive, the calm of the city interrupted by the traditional Muslim call for prayer and occasional church bells. Nothing, save the bullet holes on the sidewalks and buildings, indicates the war-zone that Sarajevo was, not so long ago.

Almost ten years have passed since the end of the war that tore apart Yugoslavia. It was a conflict triggered by nationalist aspirations in both Serbia and Croatia, though certainly prolonged and expanded by many other factors, both external and internal. Bosnia, a country comprised of three main ethnicities - Bosniacs (Bosnian Muslims), Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs - saw its three factions turn against each other in a four-year war that cost Bosnia 250 000 lives, as its population suffered ethnic cleansing, forced migration, concentration camps and mass killings.

While the mention of Bosnia and Herzegovina still evokes images of brutality, war crimes and terrified faces of refugees, it is no longer the reality today. But has ethnic strife really been overcome? Certainly, there is no longer any explicit violence, but can one speak of Bosnia as a stable, tolerant society?

Several people interviewed in Pale, a city with an almost entirely Serb population, explain their view on their status in Bosnia. They feel that they are being demonized by the international community, and held responsible for all the war crimes that happened during the war. This is unfair, they claim, blaming Western propaganda of absolving Bosniacs of all guilt. Why then, should they strive to reconcile themselves with the Bosniacs, if they are always to be the "bad guys"?


No choice but to join the army

One Bosnian Serb from Pale, in his early 30s, professes that he had had no choice, at the time of the war, but to join the army. Otherwise he would have been tortured and imprisoned, if not killed. He did not, however, go out of his way to do anyone any harm. Shrugging, he explains that he was stuck in a bad situation, and did the best he could to survive. That, he adds, is the way many of his Bosnian Serb friends feel about their role in the war, and it is rare that any will admit to have been mistaken. "Circumstance," he says, "most of us were victims of circumstance."

The topic of the war is still very sensitive in Bosnia, and is one that most visitors to Bosnia are wise to leave untouched. Moreover, there are no outward physical differences between the three ethnicities. It is only through banners, political posters, graffiti or by talking to people that one can decipher the ethnic differences. In the Serb Republic for example, people commonly refer to themselves as Serbs, whereas most Bosniacs will refer to themselves as Bosnians, not Bosniacs or Muslims. In Banja Luka, the capital of the Serb Republic, graffiti such as "I am proud because I am Serb" can be seen. "Karadzic is a Serb hero" reads another slogan that can be noticed sprayed on some walls of apartment buildings. Yet Radovan Karadzic, former president of the Bosnian Serb administration in Pale, is considered among Bosnians to have been the most notorious Bosnian Serb war criminal, and was indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for war crimes, including genocide and crimes against humanity.

Understandably, many Bosniacs feel attacked when they see these signs. Irnisa, a 21 year old Bosniac student, speaks of the love of her nation, of Bosnia, and of her city. She proudly praises its beautiful geography, its proximity to the Adriatic Coast, its warm-hearted people. When asked, however, if she would go visit Banja Luka, she grimaces, saying that she would not travel to the Serb Republic as she felt she would be unsafe there. "How would they know you are Muslim?" I asked. She shrugs, and answers simply: "They would know."

With the same toll, Mirko, a 63 year old Bosnian Serb professor from Sarajevo, explains that among his Bosnian Serb peers there exists the need to hide the fact that they are Orthodox. He gives one example of bumping into an old friend on the streets of Sarajevo and wanting to greet him in the traditional Serb way - kissing the other on the cheek three times - when his friend pulled back and whispered "What if they see us?" This, Mirko sighs sadly, was something that did not, could not, exist before the war. He recounts seeing a Bosnian Serb woman on a tramway, carrying a small Christmas tree. She was glared at on the bus, and anti-Serb curses were heard muttered by several bystanders. Moreover, no one helped her get off the tram, again, an inconceivable situation prior to the war. Mirko obviously misses the peace and calm that he says reigned in Bosnia most of his life. With tears in his eyes, he recounts his war experiences, despondently admitting that he does not think he will live to see again the same tolerance that once was common and natural.


Nostalgia for the Communist past

He is not alone in his nostalgia for the past. Communist Yugoslavia is missed by a large segment of the Bosnian population. Tito, the Communist leader who took over after World War II and led the country for almost forty years, is remembered fondly. Some young Bosnians, who did not even live under Tito, say that they wish they could go back and see how calm and tolerant their country was then. Though few people miss communism as such, they do regret the loss of the security and ethnic tolerance that they feel went with it.

Yet, according to some, especially youth, progress is being made. Irnisa, who studies at the University of Sarajevo, says that among her peers there is no talk of ethnic differences. Students do not want to relive the past, they are simply not interested. Most of them are more worried with the high unemployment rate, measured at over 40%, and at getting a good job once they graduate. They are tired of hearing of the war, and they avoid speaking about it at all costs, especially since it can enflame into something unpleasant for all. However, Irnisa warns, this is only her personal experience at the university. She admits that because she did not lose anyone in the war, she is probably less bitter and hurt than most of her Muslim peers. She adds that the University of Sarajevo by definition might attract a more tolerant crowd, in comparison to the other universities in the region.

Sarajevo, where both Mirko and Irnisa reside, is certainly the most tolerant city in Bosnia, and so it was even prior to the war, with the highest rates of inter-ethnic marriages and mixed neighbourhoods in Bosnia. But even here, there are moments during the year when ethnic tensions rise, as during elections, or, just as vividly, during cultural events, such as sports or music contests. For example during the municipal election campaign held in September and October of 2004, many nationalistic posters came up as the ethnically divided parties started to speak with a more nationalistic rhetoric. But more irritating to many Bosniacs was the pro-Serb nationalism demonstrated during a football match between Serbia and Bosnia in October 2004. On that day, the police were out and nerves high, as several Bosnian Serbs went driving through Sarajevo waving flags, singing and cheering in support of their team.

There is, however, one thing that does somewhat unite the three ethnicities, and that is their mixed feelings about the role of the international community in Bosnia. The almost omnipotent role of international organisations in Bosnia cannot be denied, most certainly the role of the High Representative, presided, since 2002, by British politician Paddy Ashdown.

Bosnians of all ethnicities are unsure of the place this international presence has in Bosnia, many feeling that it is simply draining money which would otherwise be going directly to the Bosnian people. Some, however, are adamant that should international forces leave Bosnia, war would break out the following morning, certainly in the more unstable regions of the country. Others comment on the irony of the international community trying to instil democracy in Bosnia, when by definition, such a situation cannot exist if a foreign power has the ultimate voice in the country. On the other hand, quite a few Bosniacs bemoan the fact that the High Representative does not use the full potential of his powers in his pursuit of war criminals.





Promoting social activism

Yet another common trait among Bosnians is their considerable apathy toward politics. Having lived for many decades under communism, then under an extremely short-lived post-Communist transition period before turning to war, and now under international supervision, Bosnians have learned not to put too much faith in politicians, and politics in general. A feeling of powerlessness to affect anything presides. This pessimism regarding politics is widespread. Especially after the trauma of war, the notion of living only in the present and concerning oneself with family, friends, and immediate needs is prevalent. To counter this political apathy, many international organisations such as the OSCE and USAID are trying to develop new strategies and programmes that could help promote, especially among youth, social and political activism throughout the country.

Actual physical violence and uprising are extremely rare, almost non-existent, but the situation in Bosnia is one of a fragile peace. Recently Bosnian Serb officials admitted their guilt in the Srebrenica massacre, an act which was accepted as one step toward reconciliation. With the international community cutting down their presence, and the world focused on other conflict zones, Bosnian citizens will have to become increasingly more active if they want their country to live in peace and function properly. But to do that, they have yet to forgive, if not forget, and learn to understand and respect one another once again.

More on Bosnia : The Challenge to Install Democracy




* Mostar's "Old Bridge", a symbol of tolerance and ethinc coexistence

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