Bosnia: Communism, Genocide, and Fundamentalism
It’s been 15 years since the genocide in Srebrenica, the NATO bombings that helped to end the four-year brutal war, the end of the siege of Sarajevo, and the signing of the Dayton peace accord.
What does the future look like for Bosnia?
During my visit I was able to meet with many people who shared their experiences, hopes, frustrations, and thoughts about the years ahead. We heard from a wide range of people including the following:
Haris Sklajdic, President of Bosnia
Senad Pecanin, editor of Dani, a Bosnian investigative newspaper
Dr. Demaris Wehr, human rights activist and documentarian
Elma Softic-Kaunitz and Eli Weber, Jewish Community of Sarajevo
Anisa Suceska Vekic, Director, Balkan Investigative Reporting Network
Klaudia Kuljuh, Coordinator, Balkans Political Unit, International Commission on Missing Persons
Davorin Brdanovic, Community Gardens Association
Velma Saric, Centre for Justice and Reconciliation
Midheta Oruli and Admir Musegic, Association of Concentration Camp Survivors
Women from The Mothers of Srebrenica Association
Ed Vuillamy, journalist, The Guardian and The Observer
and many other survivors, witnesses, scholars, and members of civil society
These conversations gave me a glimpse into many different facets of life, from that of ordinary people to the country’s leaders, from the people in power to those who feel that they have no voice. Like a prism, there are always many facets to any situation and place, but also like a prism, the facets can be brought into a single focus.
What I observed and heard seems to crystallize around three issues. Bosnia is a post-Communist society struggling to create a market-driven democracy; the scars of the genocide from fifteen years ago seem to be festering and perhaps even growing worse in the light of politics driven by ultra-nationalist parties; and increasing religious fundamentalism is polarizing people and creating ever-widening divides.
I’ve seen the legacy of Communism in Russia, Ukraine, and Poland, places where I was fortunate to teach. That legacy, here in Bosnia as well, continues a culture that devalues success, personal efficacy, hard work, and honesty, while valuing, instead, a climate in which nobody achieves more than the next person, corruption is endemic, nepotism means more than ability, and distrust and suspicion are everywhere.
We heard of a brilliant man who trained to be a social worker – but chose, instead, to be a laborer because there was so much corruption in the social welfare system. We heard of money given for computers to go to key workers – but instead that money wound up in directors’ pockets. We heard of people unable to get into college because they didn’t know the right people and didn’t have enough money to pay the right bribes. We heard of a cancer sufferer who wasn’t able to get treatment until money was passed under the table to the right doctors. Education, social welfare, politics, business, health care – we heard about corruption, waste, and incompetence in every sector.
Tragically, we also heard of no measures to combat these problems. People feel incapable of changing the prevailing system. A few key political parties and their leaders are perceived as having an unbreakable lock on social governance and control. These parties use nationalist concerns specific to Bosnians, Serbs, or Croats to manipulate and polarize people, keeping crucial issues of rights, opportunities, and development in the background in favor of identity-based politics.
The legacy of the genocide is a deep and horrible wound in the body politic of the country. Some critical steps towards transitional justice have not been taken or are moving forward at a glacial pace. For example, more than 55,000 concentration camp survivors have provided documentation about their experiences. They want to have their day in court and to seek official governmental redress. Yet to date only one case has been heard and only 18 more are on the docket. The obstacle is an infrastructure riddled with incompetency, corruption, and inefficiency, a system almost impossible to fix. But without opportunities to adjudicate their cases, there is no chance for these survivors to move forward.
The government’s actions to locate grave sites of those who were murdered have been notoriously slow. Of the 8,000 people exterminated at Srebrenica, for example, there are still more than 3,500 whose remains have not been identified. The recent burial on Sunday, July 11 of another 775 bodies, although providing some relief, recognition, and memorialization to the victims’ families, took place a decade and a half after the murders.
Without various forms of due process, the wounds, both literal and metaphorical, will not heal, and neighbor will continue to feel pitted against neighbor. These divisions are palpable. In a residential neighborhood on the border between Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia, for example, nobody fixes the potholes in the street or cleans a rat-infested open area. Each ‘side’ blames the other and refuses to take responsibility for making the repairs, even though everyone is troubled by living with these problems . At a very micro level, this illustrates the divisionism that permeates the country.
Yet another form of polarization is the spread of religious fundamentalism. Radical rhetoric, increasingly conservative lifestyles, and isolation from those who don’t share the same views hamper democratic participation in the sense of ‘universal’ participation in the life of the nation. An ideology of push-back against a perception of European anti-Islam divides ‘Muslim’ and ‘other’ and has resulted in rhetoric of victimization and aggression. This alienates the Serb Orthodox and Croat Catholic communities, of course, and provides yet more ground for dissent and separation.
These challenges exist in a country with an unemployment rate of 45 percent. The economic challenges, coupled with the social unrest, the post-Communist culture, the unresolved issues surrounding the genocide, and the religious differences suggest an extremely volatile and perhaps dangerous future.