10 Years On
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.
Fog of Facts
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.
thing happened with the casualty figures. No one knows for
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
two weeks ago, a picture about the Bosnian War won the (American)
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
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.
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
To Square One?
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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 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.
of all, ten years later, Bosnia remains a paradox. And those
were never easy to inhabit.