Almost twenty years on from a bloody civil war, Bosnia Herzegovina went through a turbulent phase at the beginning of 2014: its people shouted “Enough is enough!” at a system of government that proved corrupt and self-serving instead of committed to meeting the real needs of the country. A country that is asking for a future, above all.

This article was published in Oasis 19. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:53:23

Elvis’ profile (woollen hat pulled down over his twenty years and notepad in hand) cuts through the heavily smoke-laden air in the Dom Mladih centre at the heart of Sarajevo. He, too, wants to change his city. He believes in it in his head and in his guts. For days now he has been amongst the hundreds of old and young people and mothers with children in pushchairs crowding the municipality’s great hall where the plenum građana i građanki Sarajeva (the assembly of male and female citizens who convened themselves after last February’s protests) has been meeting for weeks. They are bound together by a not unambitious goal: to reform the country, abolish the cantonal governments, send the corrupt politicians packing and halt the recruitment of useless bureaucrats who consume the biggest slice of the national GDP. One can say what one likes about this attempt at direct democracy where the people votes by raising its hands and whistles at the proposals presented in free interventions lasting a maximum of two minutes: that it is ingenuous, that it is destined to wear itself out or that it is pure anarchy. But it cannot be denied that it is the sign of something that is alive in this city so wounded by history, this fascinating flagship that has run aground amongst the Balkans. Elvis studies English literature at the university and has come to the plenum because his mother, sacked after six months without pay, has suffered the same fate as that which triggered the furious protests in Bosnia Herzegovina lasting a fistful of days in mid-February: a privatization of the great Bosnian factories that turned into the plants’ definitive closure, leaving thousands of workers high and dry, whilst a handful of unscrupulous businessmen enriched themselves by selling off the various parts at a loss. The protests began in Tuzla, but spread to Brčko, Bihać, then the capital, Zenica, Mostar, Kakanj, Sanski Most, Gračanica, Zavidovići, Bugojno and Orašje…. It was not that difficult for the promoters to involve those who, today, just can’t manage any more. In Tuzla, in 2013, those who were unemployed numbered almost 99,000 compared to approximately 81,000 in employment; in Sarajevo, the numbers are 75,000 against 123,000. There is talk of a 45% rate of unemployment in the whole of Bosnia Herzegovina, but this is not confirmed by official records. In the capital, on those days when the traffic is at a standstill under a leaden, Eastern-bloc sky on the main road named after Tito (a national hero for some and a criminal for others), one takes stock of the ‘institutional crisis’. Although in the umbra of the international media (which talked about the protests only for as long as cars and government buildings were ablaze), things are happening here: the cantonal governments of Tuzla, Sarajevo, Zenica and Bihać have resigned and the militant press is divided between those who call the demonstrators hooligans and those who, on the other hand, defend their freedom of expression, whilst the more astute politicians study how to ride the wave and win consensus at the next political elections this autumn. Hate in the Media The issue of the media, in particular, remains a minefield in Bosnia Herzegovina. As in every young democracy, the press is never indifferent and easily falls victim to blackmailing by the rich and powerful. Its role in propagating divisive forms of hatred or promoting a culture that fosters a meeting of minds is decisive. Press, radio, TV and the web (including the social networks) are under special surveillance. The investigation into the presence, in the media, of incitements to hatred that has been promoted by Bosnia Herzegovina’s Journalists’ Association, BH Novinari (a body that is militant in its defence of journalists’ rights) is emblematic in this respect. Borka Rudić, BH Novinari’s secretary general, has copper-coloured hair and an open, determined manner. She is proud to illustrate the Association’s work: during the second semester of 2012 (the period of the electoral campaign), tens of thousands of articles and features from newspapers, periodicals, television stations and websites were examined to count the words and phrases used to instigate hostility towards diversity, foreigners, the State and its institutions. The picture that emerged confirmed the alarming presence of a pervasive, violent narrative both at the level of reporting and at that of the related comments, as well as the parallel and urgent need for people working in information to be more professionally trained: when people are competent, the tone is more civilized. Proof, according to Borka, of the massive amount of poison still circulating around the body of the State, which is having difficulty in detoxifying itself. The twenty years that have followed the end of the war have not helped the country to start again. Indeed, the latter seems to have remained frozen by the Dayton Accords: the state’s structure – the only one of its kind, with a tripartite joint presidency (where the office of president rotates every eight months), three parliaments, more than a hundred ‘ministers’, multiple levels of government ranging from that of the state to the cantonal and municipal ones, and the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina – consumes resources and gives nothing back to the almost four million inhabitants. Who are exhausted, all of them: both those who are protesting and those who can no longer bear those who are protesting. The widespread weariness is almost palpable in the city and is provoking different reactions. There are those who miss Yugoslavia: “Life in the sixties and seventies wasn’t bad. There was rock-and-roll, our country was great and you could breathe”, says Adis, a journalist, with nostalgia. There are those, on the other hand, who would call on the international community to write fresh agreements, those who trust in the next round of elections and those who are leaving their country for an uncertain destination elsewhere. The Price of the Dayton Accords People with conflicting opinions squabble over the Dayton ‘monstrosity’ as, indeed, they do over everything in Sarajevo. For some, the Accords were the only realistic way of imposing peace after three and a half years of fratricide. For others, they only froze the conflict, without solving the real problems. For still others, the Accords have not ended the war, which has continued in another guise. This last is the bitter observation of Mons. Pero Sudar, auxiliary Bishop in Sarajevo. The Accords signed in Ohio in 1995 created a single state that functions only on paper, not in reality. In fact, there exist two different Entities: the Croatian-Muslim Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which holds 51% of the territory, and the Republika Srpska, holding 49%. The two are in constant tension, being antithetical: one is organized like a small federation, divided into ten cantons in an attempt to guarantee both the Croats and the Bosniaks their own autonomy, whilst the other is centralised, with an almost absolute Serb majority and a president who exercises great power. Monsignor Sudar sees signs of an insidious and widespread depression every day. “In wartime, one lives hoping that, one day, it will end, because all wars come to an end sooner or later; but the current situation of inefficiency and constant tension seems never to come to an end. It wears out every shred of hope. But if you take away their hope, what are people left with?” The workers in Tuzla had tried everything; demonstrations, sit-ins, even hunger strikes, but without achieving anything. Until one mad day when Molotov cocktails were hurled at the cantonal government building. “Even if one can understand the reasons for this protest”, maintains the auxiliary bishop of Sarajevo, “it’s difficult to support it because of the risk it will degenerate into anarchy. It’s the international community that must recognise it has made a mistake and must take it upon itself to find a solution to the problems that have been created. The country cannot manage by itself, paralysed as it is by the conditions imposed at Dayton, which have, in fact, legitimated the boundaries drawn by the war’s violent abuses”. According to Sudar, Europe and the United States owe Bosnia Herzegovina something: “Our multi-ethnic country needs to be saved. It would be an enormous moral and cultural loss. We are paying the price of Kosovo’s independence: in order to make up for the wrench Serbia suffered, another Kosovo has been created with the Republika Srpska. This international problem needs to be solved as soon as possible”. In all this, the Catholics have paid a high price: in 1991, the diocese of Sarajevo had 528,000 Catholics whereas nowadays they number approximately 190,000. In the Banja Luka area of the diocese (which is, today, part of the Republika Srpska) they used to be 60,000, whereas now they number barely 5,000. And the situation shows no sign of improving. Only in the diocese of Mostar (a city split in two by the river, with Croats in the West and Bosniaks in the East) is the number of Catholics the same as before the war: approximately 200,000. Various intellectuals from all over the world (headed by the director Ken Loach) are opposed to any further foreign intervention in the country’s domestic affairs. Last spring, they signed an appeal expressing the hope that the West will put an end to its meddling in this country and to the “undemocratic ‘protectorate’ [imposed at Dayton], giving the High Representative of the Western powers neo-colonial authority over a political system that has institutionalised ethnic divisions”. Between Pride in Identity and Indifference Despite the rules written so scrupulously “fairly” to protect the three main ethnic groups, de facto discrimination does occur. In Sarajevo (today a city with an overwhelming Muslim majority), the difficulty of finding a job is an everyday experience for many Catholics. Their Christian name is all it takes for them to be ethnically classified and therefore rejected. Whilst the permits needed to build a mosque are quickly granted, those for a church can take more than ten years. The only way to bring down these bastions is by educating the new generations. Laws are not enough. Don Ivica Mrso, principal of the inter-ethnic Catholic school, San Josip (the only school in the city to be attended by children from every community), is convinced of this. But the undertaking is an arduous one. Observers throughout the world deliberately emphasised the transversal aspect of the protests at the end of last winter: everyone was calling for bread, work and reforms with one voice – Muslims, Croats and Serbs alike. The priority of the social problem over every other kind of division has reshuffled the cards. Only that, notes Mons. Mato Zovkić (for years the person responsible for interreligious dialogue in the diocese of Sarajevo), although “the distance between communities has narrowed, and although people are also gaining the experience of living alongside someone of a different faith, often they don’t make the effort to really know that person. Indifference is still too pervasive”. There does exist a religious freedom, including the freedom not to frequent the church or the mosque, but conversions are not accepted. Everyone here is used, from a tender age, to define themselves first and foremost according to their ethnic-religious affiliation: there are those who present themselves as ‘Croats from Bosnia’ and mean Catholic; those who call themselves ‘Serbs from Bosnia’ and have Orthodox in mind, and those who say ‘Bosnian’, meaning Bosniak-Muslim. Those who do not identify with any of these formulae, on the other hand, opt for agnostic or atheist, referring to a religious category only for the purposes of identifying their ethnic status in the country. By now, however, the words seem like labels stuck onto empty containers – as if the content has been lost or worn away over time. And it is not easy to find someone who calls him/herself ‘Bosnian-Herzegovene’ (in the same way as Italian or French), until you bump into some of the demonstrators from Tuzla. Like Dušica Cook, for example, who presents herself as ‘Bosnian-Herzegovene’ but adds “a second-class citizen”, because this category was not provided for under the Dayton Accords. Perhaps the results of the census carried out at the end of 2013 (22 years after the previous one) will have something new to say about this: the official results will be made public in 2016. Like every census, this Balkan version, too, is a thorn in the flesh of its people. This was already clear from the formulation of questions that have re-awakened forms of nationalism that seemed to have been assuaged: the one regarding ethnic group provided for a choice between four options (Bosniak, Croat, Serb, other), whilst the one regarding religious faith provided for six (Muslim, Catholic, Orthodox, Atheist, Agnostic or undeclared). Both questions sanction the existing divisions perfectly. Islam’s Profile in Bosnia The unofficial data already circulating substantiate the Muslims’ distinct predominance in the Federation. But what face does Islam have in Bosnia nowadays? Whilst there are various rumours (also reported in the media) of the presence of 3,000 mujahidin in Bosnia, ready to fight for an Islamic state, the current Grand Mufti, Husein Kavazović, is primarily committed to promoting the religious education of his people (starting with the madrasah and the university), well away from the excessive involvement with politics of which his predecessor, Mustafa Cerić, was accused. Even the fact of the dozens of mosques built after the war ended is the object of conflicting interpretations. There are those, on the one hand, who see these new buildings springing up so very quickly thanks to foreign funding as the proof of interference on the part of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Malaysia, to name the most generous countries. There are some, on the other, who observe that these are mostly mosques that have been rebuilt on the sites of those destroyed by the war and that the new ones are few in number and necessary to meet the need for places of worship felt by a growing population in the capital’s suburbs. One such person is Ahmet Alibašić, a professor at the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Sarajevo. Founded by the Austrians in 1887, this now prepares imams and religion teachers thanks to a body of teaching staff from various schools, none of them having anything to do with extremist groups or violent drifts. Looking beyond the stereotypes, some of the specific features of Bosnian Islam can be recognised at Alibašić’s university. With Ottoman roots, local Islam was profoundly affected towards the end of the nineteenth century by the reformist movement and the “revolution” deriving from the passing from Ottoman rule to Austro-Hungarian rule and thus by Bosnian society’s encounter with the West. This radical change pushed the ‘ulamâ’ and intellectuals into a great work of reinterpretation that took as its starting point the provocations arising from issues linked to ordinary life. The introduction of Catholic monarchy into the administrative structure effectively ended the identification of Islamic institutions with state ones and also fostered Islam’s institutionalization in the form of the ‘Islamic Community’. The latter is still, today, a unitary point of reference for the lives of the Muslim faithful and, in a certain sense, constitutes an original model of co-existence between Islamic and European institutions: a co-existence based on the idea of a secular State that is understood as neutral but respectful of religions. The long years of communism have also left their mark on Bosnian Islam. The Ottoman Sharia courts (which the Austro-Hungarian empire had kept functioning) were abolished and this fact fostered the spread of a new perception of Islamic law, experienced as a body of religious and ethical rules directed at the good of those who see themselves as Muslim and no longer as one of the State’s impositions. Lastly, the war of the 1990s has left deep scars on this face, as it has on those of all the country’s religious communities. But this is a page that no one wants to turn back to, even if it is constantly present, like some background noise of everyday life. Religions hanging between War and Peace For Cardinal Vinko Puljić, Archbishop of Sarajevo, the blood-stained twentieth century must be definitively sealed. The new century can only be a century of peace, even if he foresees a long and patient journey. Every fragment of the country is crying out for it. The Interreligious Council keeps pace with him in this arduous, uphill journey and has an equally important part to play. Founded in 1997, it is composed of representatives from the Serbian, Catholic, Muslim and Jewish communities. Coming into being with the goal of demonstrating that the war of the 1990s was not a ‘religious’ war but a political one, it (admittedly in a rather self-important manner) promotes cultural initiatives directed at a mutual understanding and acceptance. The Council’s current ‘hot potato’ is how to defend places of worship, which are the object of increasingly alarming acts of vandalism. Co-operation between the religious leaders has achieved something over the years: even during the war and thanks to a concerted action, they called for the teaching of religion to be introduced into state schools (it had formerly been excluded) and succeeded in ensuring that the religion teachers were people prepared by their respective communities and not the teachers who had previously been teaching Marxism. Nevertheless, some of the more perceptive intellectuals (who ask not to be named) consider that this process of beginning again requires a radical rethink about the war and one that is free of sentimentalism and cleansed of every form of moralism. More than 100,000 deaths during the years 1992-1995 and the still lacerating divisions that cleave the country are calling for room for an honest reflection: one that can also see the war as an effective force that, in hitting Bosnia Herzegovina, has changed the latter’s ‘personal characteristics’, giving it a new collective identity. There are even those who have changed their own first name after the war, out of a sense of the urgent need to rethink themselves in a radically new way. And this is not some cooked-up story. The registry office tells the tale. One cannot escape the war; not even twenty years after peace was signed. If Bosnia Herzegovina is to be reborn and earn herself a future, she must first free her past. Buy the hard copy issue or subscribe to read all the contents of Oasis no. 19.