April 4, 2002

Bosnia Revisited
10 Years On

Ten years ago this Friday, the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo woke up under a blockade. Set up by a Bosnian Serb militia to protest the impending – and illegal – declaration of independence by a Muslim-Croat regime, it escalated into a full-fledged siege and a bloody ethnic conflict that dragged on for 1326 days. In the course of what became known as the Bosnian War (1992-1995), Serbs fought Muslims, Croats and – eventually – NATO. Croats fought both Serbs and Muslims, and occasionally allied with either. Muslims fought Serbs, Croats, and even other Muslims, howling all along for the UN or NATO to intervene on their side. They also solicited and accepted help from hundreds of vicious "holy warriors" from Islamic countries, claiming at the same time to be secular, democratic, multi-ethnic and tolerant.

The Fog of Facts

The war has been defined as an aggression, a civil war, a religious or ethnic conflict, a clash of civilizations, a genocide, a war of secession and a war of succession, with every belligerent using the definition that suited them best.

Same thing happened with the casualty figures. No one knows for certain how many people actually died in Bosnia. Usual wartime practice of inflated claims of enemy casualties was combined with a new practice of inflating one's own civilian deaths, in order to gain sympathy from abroad. Figures thus range from 250,000 Muslims alone to 60,000 on all sides. Similarly, it is claimed that up to 2 million people were displaced, but it is still unclear how many were displaced by force. Many certainly were, yet they all claim so. No one admits fleeing in the face of danger, even if that is the truth.

Beyond a doubt, the war in Bosnia was brutal. Atrocities were a part of everyday fighting, and international conventions were hardly heeded as boundaries between civilians and military were blurred to nonexistence. Sharpshooters on urban frontlines picked off anything that moved. Millions of land mines killed anyone who came along. Artillery bombardment killed indiscriminately. Captured foes, military or civilian, were often brutalized and killed. The real atrocities, however, quickly became obscured by a sea of garish claims calculated to gain media attention: concentration camps, mass murder, mass and systematic rape of women, and even genocide. And while it was easy to document the everyday atrocities, finding evidence for these claims has proven much more elusive.

A House Divided

To be sure, there are a few facts few can disagree on. One is that Bosnia is divided today between the Serb Republic (48%) and the Muslim-Croat Federation (51%), the remaining 1% taken up by the internationally-run "district" of Brcko. The Federation is further subdivided into 10 cantons, largely along ethnic lines.

The entire country is effectively – but not officially – ruled by an international viceroy, with the prosaic title of High Representative and offices in a walled white mid-rise along the former frontline in downtown Sarajevo.

Some 20,000 NATO troops still remain in Bosnia as part of a "stabilization" (i.e. occupation) force, or SFOR. That's down from 60,000 sent there 6 years ago. Among them are still a 1000 or so Americans, despite a promise by a former Emperor that they would only stay one year. Many of those who served in Bosnia are now occupying Kosovo, as part of KFOR.

Word Games

Few other places testify to the power of words as much as Bosnia today. Its very name has become a weapon in political, cultural and ethnic conflict that still simmers in that ruined land. Muslims have bestowed upon themselves the name "Bosniak," an Austrian-era archaism denoting inhabitants of Bosnia, thus implying their ownership of the country. Very often, Muslims are simply referred to as "Bosnians," clearly implying that Serbs and Croats are pesky minorities at best, murderous intruders at worst.

Residents of the Muslim-Croat Federation mention the phrase "Bosnia-Herzegovina" as often as possible, as if uttering the country's name could somehow conjure it into existence. In the Serb Republic, on the other hand, the name is mentioned seldom, if ever – as if ignoring it could make the country disappear.

Rather than simple word games, these are serious indicators that the attitudes which a decade ago led to the war are alive and well today, ingrained deeply into the fabric of society, and poisoning ethnic relations every day more.

Oscar Politics

Just two weeks ago, a picture about the Bosnian War won the (American) Academy Award for best foreign film. The award, earned by Danis Tanovic for his brilliant directing, a clever screenplay and captivating music score, was immediately drawn into Bosnia's political maelstrom. His words from the award ceremony, "This is for my country, for Bosnia," were twisted and abused almost as soon as he uttered them.

Thus the Bosnian Serbs, portrayed rather unflatteringly in "No Man's Land," smarted and scoffed at the accomplishment. Croats claimed the award as their own, on the grounds that many ethnic Croats starred in the film. Bosnian Muslims, on the other hand, would not shut up about their success; Tanovic is a Muslim, and the film sometimes unabashedly peddled their war propaganda. Yet they conveniently forgot that the Muslim authorities' refusal to allow Tanovic to film in Bosnia made him move the production to Slovenia.

To his greatest credit, Tanovic himself refused to be drawn into politics, staying away from the limelight and even avoiding a triumphant return to Sarajevo he knew would turn into a media circus.

Back To Square One?

Just last week, the departing viceroy managed to convince some of Bosnia's leading politicians to agree on a package of constitutional reforms that would give greater rights to all three major ethnic groups. This is seen as a step ahead from the institutional discrimination of the Dayton Peace Agreement, which favored ethnic oligarchies.

Nonetheless, the reforms are still based on ethnic, collective politics, and their system of quotas and parity is merely trying to restore the situation from just before the war. This system, and its abuse by ethnic parties, led to the war in 1992. Reinstating it will hardly undo the damage.

Ironically, the judicial review that led to the reforms was initiated by the wartime Muslim leadership, which hoped to accomplish its goal of unifying Bosnia under Muslim domination by abolishing the Serb Republic. The current agreement thwarts that plan, but it's far from being defeated. As long as it exists, Serb and Croat politicians will bitterly oppose all calls for a citizens' republic, a non-ethnic political society that might give Bosnia a raison d'etre and a future. Muslim integrationists' wartime claim to represent a secular, citizens' republic seems to have poisoned that well for a long time to come.

No Man's Land

Unlike irony, tragedy, suffering or deceit, hope is one thing Bosnia is perpetually short of. Stumbling under the weight of loss, destruction, poverty, crime and repression that have marked the past decade, the residents of Bosnia are far from any sort of miraculous deliverance. Some ruined buildings may have been mended, but the wounds in people's souls may never be.

Meanwhile, Bosnia continues to exist as a sort of black hole, bereft of meaning, form, function or future. In order to be free, those who live in it need to take responsibility for their feelings. But what then? Bosnia's peoples could find a way to live together and build a true Bosnian nation. Or, they could peaceably part and bury Bosnia as Yugoslavia – another idea of multi-ethnic coexistence – was buried recently. Or, most likely, they would simply jump into another round of ethnic bloodshed, hoping that violence could persuade the others, or at least kill them off.

The occupation is not addressing any of the persisting ethnic, political or even social issues. It merely represses them, postponing the day of reckoning and prolonging Bosnia's continuing agony. Such an approach is somewhat justified by the absence of bloodshed, but it might make things worse in the long run – if they can possibly get worse, that is.

Bosnia is a living monument to the horror of Yugoslav dissolution, the harrowing reminder that people are not footnotes, and can't simply be erased or left behind. It is, as Tanovic's film so aptly states, a "No Man's Land," resting on a landmine that would surely kill if it were to try and rise. It is a testament to Empire's criminal misconduct in the Balkans, as it sought to impose unworkable solutions without understanding the problems.

Most of all, ten years later, Bosnia remains a paradox. And those were never easy to inhabit.

Text-only printable version of this article

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo, and contributed to the Independent. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia and Serbian politics, many of which have been published by the Serbian Unity Congress. His exclusive column for Antiwar.com appears every Thursday.


Archived Columns

Bosnia Revisited

Once Upon A Country

A Superbly Organized Crime

Bitter Balkans Ironies

Of Hubris, Heretics, and Hermits

Masters of Mendacity

The Trial

Exercises In Wishful Thinking

Ten Years in the Twilight Zone

Wastelands of Imperial Reality

Off to a Bad Start

Operation Enduring Stupidity

Balkans Christmas – All Year 'Round

A Trojan Horse in Belgrade

Where the Shadows Lie

Republic Day

Surrender in Kosovo

A False Choice for Kosovo

Death by Protectorate

Perverted Justice

The Meanings of Madness

Arrogance of Power

Reflections on Revolution

War Without End

Battle in the Balkans

Intersections of Fate

Macedonia's Tragedy Masquerading as Farce

A Day to Remember

The Serbian Standoff

Macedonia's Futile Surrender

Murdering Macedonia

Rambouillet Repeated?

Empire's Willing Servants

Kostunica's Choice

Betrayal in Belgrade

The Empire Shows Its Hand

The Return of Kings

Meditations On The Edge Of The Abyss


Terms of Betrayal

Presevo – A False Victory

The Balkans: Land of Delusions

Enemies at the Gates

ICG's Blueprint for Destruction

Kosovo: Between Death and Taxes

Madness in the Mountains: Montenegro's Looming Secession

A House Divided


Empire at the Gates

Macedonian Maelstrom

Pax Americana

The Fourth Balkan War

Mayhem in Macedonia

Surreal Realm

Santayana's Curse

The Croatian Conundrum

March of the Black Eagle

Showdown in Belgrade

Out of the Shadows

With a Grain of Salt

Crusade's End

The Worst of Times

Moments of Transition

Déja Vu

The Crucible

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