On average, some 200,000 tourists visit Bosnia’s capital Sarajevo every year, from as close by as Europe and as far away as Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.
Thanks to the oddly delayed lifting of the travel warning for Bosnia on the part of Western governments, that tourism has seen a recent boost, bringing visitors to check out the authentic Ottoman Empire and Austro-Hungarian heritage, and to a lesser extent, the heritage of the communist regime.
These visitors know very little about the real dynamics of the Bosnian war or the current political situation. Their knowledge is vague and black and white: They are aware that there was a war, and have surely been inundated with plentiful details on the massacre at Srebrenica (a mainstream media favorite); they are intrigued by the recent foray of Angelina Jolie into the country, and her much publicized wartime move; they are generally apprised of the fact that the country is now safe, if not politically and economically stagnate.
A UK-based tourist agency recently launched a Bosnian “war tour”, complete with a visit to Srebrenica, an exploration into the “legacy” of Ratko Mladic, and a stop-off at Radovan Karadzic’s favorite bar, among other similarly styled adventures.
The tour’s agenda has met with harsh criticism by locals, who perceive is as rather morbid, while the agency claims that “it is very important for people in Europe to understand what happened in Bosnia” (and of course to make a decent profit, incidentally).
Aside from the tourists, who are largely satisfied with taking photos of shell-pocked buildings, many Western journalists are returning to the city to opine that Sarajevo is now a Muslim city, or debate whether the capital is leaning more towards Saudi Arabia or Iran, or whether radical Muslims have gained a foothold here. How many women are wearing burkas also seems to be a popular, if not subconscious theme.
The image of groups of women wearing burkas is typically used to support various theories, though finding a predominately burka-wearing group of women in downtown Sarajevo is difficult if not pre-arranged, or if the location is not specifically chosen.
When asked to pontificate on one of these “theories”, I avoid a direct answer because there is not one that would satisfy the black-and-white requirements of the asker. I don’t know the ultimate answer to some of these questions, nor do I care about the answer or even find it relevant.
Instead, I offer them my theory on why we are where we are – in a state of political and economic paralysis – as a veteran and survivor of the Sarajevo “war camp” who lost friends and family.
The main reason that we have this complicated political and ethnic situation today is that the war came to a close without a proper ending. At that time, each peace negotiation was seen as the last hope for Sarajevo’s citizens on whom the Bosnian Serb army fired some 300 mortars daily from the surrounding hills.
The song we sang at parties in the basements by candle light during the shelling was, “Sign it Alija (Izetbegovic), even if the country we get is of coffee cup size.”
But the fact is, the war ended too soon, and as the result of the peace agreement whose only positive aspect is that it ended the war, the next generation will suffer with ethnic and religious intolerance, of hated and fear of the apparent “others”.
According to the various foreign diplomats and military personnel who played a role in the wars of the former Yugoslavia – many of them having written books and studies on the conflict – in the summer of 1995 the Bosnian Serb army was near defeat. Following joint military operations between Croatian and Bosnian armies that saw the collapse of the Croatian Serb-held region, the front was moved to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Quite a few foreign diplomats and Bosnian officials claim that the offensive against Bosnian Serb held positions was halted by US officials who threatened to shell Croatian and Bosnian forces unless they aborted. This means that the peace deal was agreed upon long before it was implemented and could have avoided the later carving up along ethnic lines.
The current situation in Bosnia perhaps mirrors what Europe would have looked like after the Second World War had a peace deal been signed between the Allies and the Axis. It would have been difficult to reintegrate European countries at first, as it was difficult for Bosnia in 1996.
Perhaps Adolf Hitler would be the Prime Minister of Germany and the leader of the Austrian empire with its ruling representatives in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland. Hermann Göring would have been the first foreign minister of the great German empire but would withdraw under Western pressure.
Some countries, like Bulgaria, would perhaps have been carved up between the Nazis and Russia. Concentration camps would have been turned into factories. Only a handful of Nazi officers would have been tried for war crimes, and streets would still be named after them.
The Nazis would celebrate dates like the “Crystal Night” as a national holiday; movies like the “Band of Brothers” would be banned due to their libelous portrayal of German soldiers; school history books would carry wildly divergent lessons.
It’s a big “what if”, but this is exactly what it is like living in Bosnia since the end of the war.
The political, military and security leaders of Republika Srpska are still on trial for war crimes committed against Bosniaks and Croats. These figures have been roundly accused of genocide by local and international courts. Yet, every year, the Bosnian Serb radical movement celebrates various national holidays, such as the “liberation” of Srebrenica, that smack of wartime sentiments.
Republika Srpska has refused to allow Bosniaks and Croats to put up memorial plaques at the Manjaca concentration camp, for instance, as there are plans to reopen the site for a new factory, which it was before the war. Some 6,000 non-Serbs passed through that camp, with the remains of some 600 people discovered so far, and 1,500 still missing.
At the same time, Bosnia is the only country in region, and probably in Europe, which has failed to adopt a resolution condemning the July 1995 massacre of some 8,000 Bosniak men in Srebrenica.
Republika Srpska has also blocked the passage of a state law that would ban fascist and neo-fascist movements in Bosnia – again, the only country in Europe without such a law. Bosnian Serb officials blocked the law, claiming that the Chetnik movement, which would have been banned under the law, is actually a liberation movement.
The extent of the crimes committed by Chetniks in the Second World War and under whose flags many paramilitary forces fought in the recent war, are well documented and easily accessible. Republika Srpska officials have also blocked the adoption of a state-level law penalizing the denial of genocide or war crimes.
All of this, though, is par for the course of Bosnia’s post-war absurdity. What is more devastating is that younger generations are being raised under this system, programed to hate anyone their neighbors – neighbors with whom they never fought and whom they could not identify as enemies without help. The situation we have today is Serbian teenagers, many born after the war, engaging in dubious acts of vandalism such as impaling cats on Mosque fences in Republika Srpska.
Likewise, Croat and Bosniak teenagers in Mostar, an ethnically divided city, turn the streets into a warzone during national football matches between Croatia and Turkey, countries many have seen only through postcards or the Internet.
This is hate by default, often something learned at home and in the country’s school system, which offers opposing histories, geographies and even, oddly enough, mathematics.
Most of the youth born after the war, especially those from rural areas, have never even had any contact with a member of another “ethnic” group. But they see them portrayed in Hollywood movies and ethno-nationalist television shows, where Bosniak women wear hijab and Serbs are portrayed as bloodthirsty animals.
Simply put, media, parents and schools teach children, even if subconsciously, that only their religion, ethnic group and political representatives can protect their interests. (Indeed, in some ethnically mixed areas, children attend the same school in “ethnic shifts”).
There is no educational or intellectual victory in ensuring that children the age of ten can name all their ministers in the government. Likewise, even Santa Claus has become politicized by a small group of politically opportunistic Bosniaks who have managed to like the jolly fellow to rival ethnic aggression. He has been banned (and then revived) on this basis.
The biggest enemies of all, so the message appears to be, are those children that come from strictly secular or ethnically-mixed marriages. They belong nowhere in this system, yet their numbers are great, especially in Sarajevo.