Articles on the Bosnia Conflict



Report #3 – Sarajevo, continued
By Peter Lippman
July, 2013

2013 Report index

Report 1:  Kosovo, mid-July, 2013
Report 2Sarajevo, July 2013
Report 3Sarajevo, continued July 2013
Report 4Tuzla, July 2013
Report 5Mostar, July 2013
Report 6Srebrenica, August 2013
Report 7Srebrenica, continued, August 2013
Report 8:  Prijedor and vicinity, August 2013
Report 9:  Prijedor and vicinity, part two, August 2013
Report 10: Tomašica, December 2013

Previous journals and articles

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It was mid-summer when I arrived in Bosnia. Temperatures were pushing 35 C. (in the 90s), sometimes up to 40. You had to drink plenty of water and try to walk in the shade.

And it was Ramadan. This didn't mean so much in some places I visited, but it meant more in Sarajevo, Srebrenica, and Kozarac. Fewer people were out and around midday in any case, because of the heat, and still fewer were out to eat or drink coffee at the kafanas. Some of these places did not serve alcohol for the duration of the holy month.

During the hot period it seems that only the people who are doing their jobs are out there in the blazing sun. Some workers, and tourists with their maps and cameras.

Iftar, the fast-breaking meal, came at sundown. A cannon goes off at the exact moment that people are permitted to eat. There's a boom; birds fly off of their roosts; and then a one-off display of fireworks.

After Iftar the temperature gets pleasant and the Sarajlije (Sarajevans) come out in droves on Ferhadija, the pedestrian zone. Sometimes it gets so crowded you simply can't pass through the crush at your own tempo.

Not all the crowd is local. Besides the tourists, there are the dijasporci, the members of the Bosnian-Herzegovinan diaspora who are coming back from Holland, the US, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and many other countries, for a visit. Back to “recharge their batteries,” to experience nostalgia, to visit relatives, to eat čevapčići and drink coffee at the kafanas...and to take it easy. These people spend millions of euros each year and provide a significant boost to the economy.

From the minarets of different nearby mosques five muezzin sound off at once, calling to prayer. After the prayer you see people leaving the mosques, all dressed up. Women in their finest scarves. Others, who have not gone to prayer, are wearing mini-skirts and other provocative dress. One man wears a t-shirt that reads, “Sorry about last night.”

There were a couple of incidents where militantly religious people harassed women in mini-skirts, saying that they should be ashamed of themselves for their sacriligious dress during the sacred month. Officials from the organized Islamic community apologized for these verbal attacks.


I sat and talked to Fata during breakfast – I ate, she fasted. I told her that a friend of mine had become religious and had grown a beard, but that he was still the same friend, a very thoughtful, mild, and intelligent person. Fata said, “I don't like the beards. That's not Islam. The Wahhabis [militant Islamic activists] have beards, and they cut people's throats.”

“The Koran says that the greatest value is to be modest,” she continued. “One should not ask for too much...When they indicted Bičakčić
[former prime minister of the Federation and a notorious operator, indicted more than once] for corruption, he said, 'I am not worried for my livelihood. I know how to take care of sheep.' And he bought some land for a shepherd, and gave him some sheep as well. He was honest. He stole, but he gave some of it away.”

This reminds me of a popular t-shirt that you can see around Bosnia which reads, “Comrade Tito, come back. Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks love you. You stole, but you gave us something. These (contemporary corrupt officials) steal, but they don't give anything.”

Apparently honesty is a relative thing.

The subject of life during the war still comes up. Fata's sister Amina visited and told me that during the war, she had lived on a hill in the Mejtaš neighborhood. “There was plenty of bombing there. Dragan Vikic’s headquarters were there. There were many civilians who were killed...We smoked a carton of cigarettes every day during the war.”


Thursday after I arrived in Sarajevo I spoke on a panel for grad students in a summer school program organized by CESI, the Center for Refugee and IDP Studies under the auspices of the University of Sarajevo Political Science Department. The subject of the panel was Srebrenica, and I spoke about refugee return to Srebrenica, which took place mostly from 2000 on, for a few years. I had been there to witness much of that return.

I spoke about the atmosphere in Srebrenica on the eve of return in the late 1990s, and quoted some of what I had heard from the first returnees. I had accompanied Hakija Meholjić and Zulfo Salihović in 2000 when they were leading return to the village of Sućeska up in the hills, so I described that project. I talked about the obstruction to return, the torchings of rebuilt houses, the harassment, and the eventual limited success of return – to the tune of about three or four thousand Bosniaks, and a similar number of local Serbs. The establishment of a UN SFOR base on the route to Srebrenica in 2001 helped gave people faith in their security and encouraged them to return. Evictions of post-war squatters from displaced people's houses and apartments helped make return logistically possible. I also talked a bit about the present, how there is a generation of young people, positive thinkers, who are acting together – across ethnic lines – to give new life to Srebrenica. Life is difficult there, but not impossible. (
Click here for some of my early writings on return to Srebrenica.)

Hasan Nuhanović was the main speaker at the event. You'll remember that
Hasan had been interpreter for Dutchbat in Srebrenica during the war, and as the enclave fell in July 1995, the Dutch allowed his father, mother, and brother to be taken away. They were killed by Mladić's forces and their remains were not found for many years. Hasan wrote a book about Dutchbat in Srebrenica called Under the UN Flag, which I have recommended before. (For information that I wrote on this case and Hasan's book in 2008, read this.)

Over the years Hasan has fought steadily for justice for the Srebrenica survivors. Some ten years ago he filed a lawsuit, together with the family of Rizo Mustafić (a Srebrenican who had worked as an electrician for Dutchbat), against the Netherlands for that state’s responsibility in the deaths of Mustafić and Hasan’s family. Mustafić and Hasan’s father had been engaged by Dutchbat and Dutchbat expelled the two of them from the Dutch base, together with Hasan’s brother, as Serb forces were separating Bosniak men from their families and taking them away to be killed.

Hasan argued that since the Netherlands had significant control over the actions of Dutchbat in Srebrenica – even though that battalion was under the command of the United Nations – the state was responsible for Mustafić and his family being wrongfully excluded from protection by Dutchbat as the enclave fell.

Hasan filed the lawsuit in the Dutch district court. In response, the Dutch claimed “lack of jurisdiction” over the case and the court rejected it. Hasan appealed and the appeal was approved in the high court. The case was returned to the district court.

In 2008 the court decided that the Netherlands was not responsible for the deaths. But Hasan appealed again and won the case in 2011. The Netherlands was deemed responsible for the deaths of his father and brother, but not his mother. The Dutch state then filed an appeal with the Supreme Court, and the judgment was to be handed down in September.

Here’s a very brief outline of Hasan’s presentation, given somewhat more than a month before the case was to be settled. He noted that at the beginning of the war, around 100,000 Bosniaks were trapped in Podrinje, the eastern part of Bosnia along the Drina River. These were people from Vlasenica, Žepa, Srebrenica, Zvornik, and other towns and villages. Many of them fled to the Srebrenica enclave as Serb forces consolidated their hold on ever more territory in the region in just the first few months of the war.
The UN formed the “safe area” enclave in Srebrenica in early 1993, and Hasan says that the “genocide was frozen” at that time. The first UNPROFOR battalion in the Srebrenica enclave was Canadian, with a couple hundred soldiers. The second and third battalions were Dutch, with about 600 soldiers.

When the enclave fell, around twelve to fifteen thousand people, mostly men and some boys, marched out on the escape route, and around 25,000 went to Potočari to look for safety at the Dutchbat base. Ultimately at least eight thousand people were killed, including more than five hundred boys under 18, and seventy or eighty women, including Hasan’s mother.

Hasan exhibited documents from the international community that revealed communications among officials of the UN, e.g., from Yasushi Akashi to Kofi Annan (at the time both were UN diplomats concerned with the Yugoslav wars), and another internal one when Srebrenica was falling. The documents expressed concern about the “PR dilemma” resulting from the impending fall of the enclave.

Discussing the lawsuit, Hasan noted that the Dutch court found The Netherlands responsible for the deaths of his father and brother, but not his mother, because “Dutchbat should have known that the men were in danger of being killed, but they couldn’t have known that the women were in danger.” They excluded the women because Hasan had not been able to make a case that there was demonstrable knowledge that women would be killed, while it was “clear that the men would be killed.” “The Dutch did everything they could to narrow the case,” Hasan said, “but there was indisputable evidence of the danger to the men; Dutch soldiers had witnessed men being killed near their base.”

On the upcoming decision, Hasan said that if he won the case in the Supreme Court, the Dutch would not be able to appeal. If he lost, he could appeal to the EU court of human rights at Strasbourg. “

One of the students asked Hasan what he thought about the possibility for reconciliation between Serbs and Bosniaks in Bosnia, and between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia. Relevant to this, a couple of months earlier Serbian President Tomislav Nikoli
ć had rhetorically “gotten down on his knees” and apologized for the Srebrenica massacre. Hasan commented, “It’s one thing to say you’re sorry, and I accept Nikolić’s apology, but so what? Serbia should send a thousand Serbs to rebuild Bosniak houses in Bosnia, and they should pay for the reconstruction.”

After the panel discussion,
Hasan invited me to come to Iftar with him. We drove out to the Sarajevo suburb Vogošća, where many displaced people from Podrinje live, to a big hall where a public Iftar was taking place. It was a catered event with a couple hundred people sitting at tables. A large SDA flag was mounted on the wall. The food was very good. We sat with two young women whose families had been displaced from Bratunac.

Hasan and I expected political speeches from SDA functionaries, but there were none. After the eating, the event was over. We drove back into town, talking about religion, the names of God, pi, and natural mysteries such as the Fibonacci numbers and the big bang theory.


The Dutch Supreme Court decision in the Nuhanović and Mustafić lawsuit came down on September 6th. To the joy of the Srebrenica survivors, the Court found in favor of the plaintiffs, determining that the Dutch state was indeed responsible for the deaths of their family members whom Dutchbat had failed to protect, and dismissing the Dutch appeal of the earlier decision to the same effect. The Supreme Court agreed that the Dutch state had “effective control” over Dutchbat.

An earlier lawsuit by survivors against the United Nations over the genocide had been dismissed some years ago on the grounds that the UN has immunity for its actions. The recent verdict makes it more difficult for any international actor to “hide behind the UN,” as one analyst commented.

After the verdict, Hasan expressed the hope that it would prevent similar acts of negligence in the future, in peace missions around the world. Other commentators have suggested that the decision, and the liability that it implies, may make states more hesitant to participate in such missions.


Just a couple of weeks before I arrived in Bosnia, the eighteenth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre had passed, on July 11th. On that date, as is customary every year, a funeral was held at the memorial cemetery at Potočari. This time, the remains of 409 identified victims, exhumed from mass graves, were reburied. The oldest was a man born in 1919. The youngest was born at Potočari after the fall of Srebrenica, to Hava Muhić, who had come to the Dutchbat base along with thousands of other refugees. The baby needed medical attention that was not available in the chaos. She died and was buried by Dutch soldiers in a small collective grave near the base, only to be found and exhumed this year.

This burial brought the number of reburied victims up over 6,150, with more than 2,000 still missing. This number of missing includes remains that have been exhumed but not yet identified. (The number of burials is different from the number of identified remains, as there are cases where only part of a body has been recovered, and the family has the option of waiting for more to be found. At present identifications are up around 7,000.)

There have been important legal developments in cases pertaining to Srebrenica and other war crimes committed in Bosnia-Herzegovina over the years, including some things that happened just since the beginning of this year. First of all, there have been numerous convictions for the crimes in Srebrenica, starting with the conviction of the minor participant Dražen Erdemović in 1996. General Radislav Krstić was the first person sentenced for genocide in the Srebrenica case, in 2001, and there was the case of Popović et al, which resulted in the 2010 conviction of Vujadin Popović and Ljubiša Beara for genocide at Srebrenica.

Currently the biggest cases on trial at The Hague are those of Radovan Karadžić, former president of the Republika Srpska, and Ratko Mladić, former commander of the Army of the Republika Srpska. Karadžić's trial, underway since 2009, is in the defense phase, while Mladić's, underway since 2012, is still in the prosecution phase.

Both men are charged with genocide – not only in Srebrenica, but also in other parts of Bosnia. This is a critical fact, because so far, the only convictions for genocide have been in the cases related to Srebrenica, and it is arguable that genocide was carried out in other parts of the country.

I find it worthwhile to remind myself periodically of the content of the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide, which I'll excerpt here:

[Genocide is defined as] any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

This is not a complicated definition. The element that complicates the judicial process and makes it difficult to determine guilt for genocide is that one word, “intent.
” The political and military figures who planned the mass killing in many parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina, from Milosevic on down, covered their trail pretty well. It is one thing intuitively to “know” that genocide was committed, and another to see that proven in court – and we are concerned with court proceedings here, as they establish a public record of personal responsibility for the crimes.

I can’t go deeply into the discussion of genocide and its problematic treatment in the courts, but genocide is a matter of great confusion. On one hand, it is difficult for many people to think of the issue in clear legal terms. Rather, to some it simply means “the worst thing that can happen,” and justice is best served by finding the perpetrators of a given crime guilty of genocide. But courts don’t work that way. I have the impression that the courts are still struggling to find the way to treat genocide themselves, with varying and unsettling results – more about this below. (For more on this subject, see “Analysis: Defining Genocide,” August 27, 2010.)

In the court cases before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague, it is customary to have a special session between the prosecutorial phase and the defense phase. During that session, under “Rule 98 bis,” evidence presented so far is assessed to determine whether the prosecutor’s case is strong enough to continue to pursue all charges leveled. It is possible for some or all charges to be dropped if the defense can argue successfully that they do not amount to a strong case – or for all charges to be retained. The former is equivalent to an acquittal, but the latter is not a conviction, merely a decision that a creditable case exists that should be pursued.

Karadžić was charged with two counts of participation in a joint criminal enterprise to commit genocide: one in Srebrenica, and the other in the seven additional municipalities of Bratunac, Foča, Ključ, Prijedor, Sanski Most, Vlasenica and Zvornik. He was also charged with nine more counts including persecution (in 24 municipalities), extermination, murder, deportation, and other crimes against humanity and violations of the laws and customs of war.

In June of 2012,
Karadžić applied under Rule 98 bis for acquittal of all of the charges against him. His request was denied except in the case of the broader genocide charge, for which he was acquitted. The ICTY found that there was “no evidence, even taken at its highest, which could be capable of supporting a conviction for genocide in the municipalities as charged.” Survivors of war crimes that took place all around Bosnia-Herzegovina, and their supporters in the search for justice, were incredulous. The decision seemed to say that the findings of genocide in Srebrenica were going to have to satisfy the survivors and their supporters – and that “the world is tired of dealing with justice in Bosnia.” It engendered a very bitter feeling among those who cared about Bosnia.

However, on the very day of the reburial at Potočari and the anniversary of the massacre, a year after the acquittal, an appeals chamber reversed the decision. Now
Karadžić will, in fact, be tried on the charges of genocide at the other locations around Bosnia. Human rights activists in Bosnia were encouraged by the reversal, not the least those in the Prijedor area, the location of several notorious concentration camps.

Poster in Sarajevo announcing July 1 demonstration and calling for the dismissal of public officials.


The wrenching back-and-forth decision in the Karadžić case is just the tip of the iceberg in a series of decisions that has left people wondering what to expect from the ICTY, and finding it difficult to believe that that court is a place of consistency, let alone justice. I'm referring to several acquittals that have, over the past year, astonished observers.

First, in November 2012 the ICTY acquitted
Croatian generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markač of conspiracy to commit murder and persecution in forcibly removing Serbs from the Croatian Krajina. The two had been convicted in 2011, but an appeals chamber under presiding judge Theodore Meron found that there had been no conspiracy. This left thousands of Serbs who had been driven out of the northwestern Croatian region in shock, wondering who could have possibly been more responsible for their expulsion than the two generals, and whether there was any remaining possibility for justice. Some reasonable people have explained that there were appropriate reasons of law for the acquittal, but I will not go into that much depth about this case here.

In another case, former Chief of Staff of the Yugoslav Army Momčilo Perišić was put on trial in 2008 for war crimes related to the siege of Sarajevo and the shelling of Zagreb. Perišić was the highest Yugoslav military figure to be tried at the ICTY. He was described as a “key figure in the murky relationship between Yugoslavia proper and its armed forces and the Bosnian Serbs, whom Yugoslavia furnished with arms, funds, men and materiel.”  He was charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity for acts committed by officers under his command. Those acts included murder, extermination, and persecution of civilians, notably including the siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica massacres.

In November of 2011 Perišić was convicted of aiding and abetting crimes against civilians, and sentenced to 27 years in prison. It was the first time that the ICTY had pronounced a Serbian state official guilty for crimes committed in Bosnia, and it was also a significant verdict because it pointed to complicity on the part of Serbia in the Bosnian war – something that had not been achieved in the Milošević case, due to his death during that trial.

The Perišić verdict was reversed in February of this year, however. A five-judge appeals chamber found that evidence did not prove “beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Perišić specifically directed assistance towards crimes committed by the Army of the Republika Srpska (VRS) in Sarajevo and Srebrenica.”

Here the controversial concept of “specific direction” was introduced into the legal proceedings, basically raising the standards for conviction on the basis of command responsibility to an impossible level. In this case, judges found that there was “no evidence that the logistic, material, personnel and other aid Perisić provided to the Serb armies in Bosnia and Croatia as the Chief of the VJ General Staff was 'specifically directed' at the commission of crimes.” Judge Meron stated that Perišić’s assistance to Bosnian Serb forces was “remote to the relevant crimes,” and that he had not seen any evidence that Perišić was on the scene when any of the crimes were committed.

So even though the Serbian state basically made it materially and logistically possible for the Bosnian Serb army to carry out genocide, and arguably participated in that act, no one from Serbia could be convicted of that participation.

Families of those killed at Srebrenica, and other survivors, were stunned by the verdict. Analysts said that one possible result of this acquittal, should it become a trend, is that the entire concept of command responsibility could vanish. Another strong implication of the decision is that the Republika Srpska army, responsible for the ethnic cleansing, murder, and concentration camps, was a legitimate army fighting a legitimate war.

Analysts criticized the ICTY at this point for lack of “consistency and rigor.” Articles came out questioning the court’s credibility, with titles such as “Requiem for a Court,” and “Accepting a Difficult Truth: ICTY Is Not Our Court.”

There was still a pending case in which Serbian state officials were charged with responsibility for some of the crimes committed in Bosnia: that of Jovica Stanišić and Franko (Frenki) Simatović. These two former heads of the Serbian secret service were charged with participating in a joint criminal enterprise to carry out ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Croatia. They had trained, supervised, and paid paramilitary troops operating in Bosnia. However, in late June the ICTY acquitted both men of all crimes, even though it recognized that they had “aided and abetted war crimes.” The verdict stated that although the two accused were involved in ethnic cleansing operations, the court could not establish “that the Accused personally directed the Unit during these operations or that they had issued orders or instructions to commit the aforementioned crimes.” Again, the court noted that the suspects’ involvement in operations “was not specifically directed towards the commission of the crimes of murder, deportation, forcible transfer, or persecution” that took place.

With this decision, commentators escalated the cry about the ICTY’s inconsistency. David Rohde wrote a piece called “Gutting international justice.” Eric Gordy called the acquittal “completely irrational.” And war crimes expert Diane Orentlicher said that the ruling provided “a road map for how to provide indispensable assistance to mass murderers and still beat the rap.” Taking the angry reaction to even further, former US Assistant Secretary of the State John Shattuck wrote an article asserting that “if the ICTY majority had been sitting at Nuremberg, few, if any, Nazi leaders would have been convicted.”

Survivors of the Srebrenica massacres, along with many others, called for the removal of Judge Meron. Meron was an Israeli diplomat before immigrating to the United States in 1977, where he became a professor of law. This background was raised as pertinent when Danish ICTY judge Frederick Harhoff sent a letter to his colleagues criticizing Meron’s behavior and insinuating that he was under political pressure from the United States to exonerate high officials who may have had some wartime dealings with the US. The private letter soon created a furor when it was leaked to the Danish press.

Thus in mid-summer of 2013, tens of thousands of survivors, widows, and displaced persons around Bosnia-Herzegovina and beyond were left with the sense that their hopes for justice through the proceedings of the ICTY were futile. Even if, as I quoted Sanja Pesek in my last report as saying, people expect too much from the court, still, the problem here was not only that the ICTY does not concern itself overmuch with the feelings of the victims. It is also that in the past year or so it has behaved in an inscrutable, inconsistent manner and has backtracked astonishingly from the inroads it has made to justice.

In an odd and unsettling post-script to this lingering problem, Vojislav Šešelj, on trial at The Hague since late 2007 for war crimes including murder, extermination, persecution, and torture, threw a wrench in the works of his own trial. In early July he appealed to Judge Meron to remove Judge Harhoff, a participant in Šešelj’s trial, because he suspected, based on Harhoff’s statements in his leaked letter, that the judge was biased against Serbs. In late August an ICTY appeals council duly removed Harhoff, throwing the trial into chaos. At present the ICTY does not appear to know what to do about Šešelj, who has been sitting in jail since he turned himself in back in 2003. There may be a reversal of the decision about Harhoff – or a new judge could be appointed to replace Harhoff, which would very significantly set back an already overlong trial. At present the pending October 30 verdict in the case has been cancelled. There could even be a cancellation of the case entirely.


The defense phase of the Karadžić trial has provided an accumulation of arrogant and fanciful atrocity denial on the part of the defendent and his witnesses. Here are a few examples:

“Military expert” Dragomir Keserović asserted that Bosnian Serb forces did not carry out the ethnic cleansing in the Prijedor area, saying that “the population mostly moved out because war broke out in Bosnia, there was great insecurity, and everyone tried to leave and save themselves…” and that “clashes were initiated by Bosniak actions against the Yugoslav People's Army.”

--Former member of
Karadžić's party Savo Ceklić testified that Karadžić never wanted to remove Bosniaks and Croats from Serb territories in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He quoted Karadžić as saying, “It is better to negotiate with Muslims and Croats for a hundred years than spill even one drop of blood.”

--In the trial of Ratko Mladi
ć, one of his former generals and a close confidante called him
a “charismatic man, a giant with the heart of a dove” and a “strict and fair commander” who “protected his subordinates.” He also testified that he had never heard Mladi
ć order the killing of civilians.

In this case, the court has also recently been reminded of a statement by Mladi
ć in front of the Bosnian Serb Parliament at the beginning of the war, in response to a presentation of Karadžić's war goals. Mladić said, “Do you know what this means? Who will have to implement this goal but the army? Do you think you can just move people like that, as if they were a set of keys from one pocket to another? What you are asking me to do, gentlemen, is called genocide.”

ć indeed warned that genocide was in the offing – and then he went on to implement Karadžić's goals.


I was catching up with my friend Alison, who works in Sarajevo. We discussed the law on residency (prebivalište) that is currently being proposed before the state-level parliament. This law would introduce restrictions on the freedom of movement that would significantly curtail the ability of returnees to register to vote in the municipalities that they have returned to – and would thus foil the March 1st Coalition’s campaign to encourage people to return and cast a pro-Bosnia vote in the 2014 national elections. (For my previous writings about the March 1st Coalition, read this and this.)

Activists with the Coalition comment that passage of the law would enable police forces in the Republika Srpska to do legally what they have been doing illegally since the fall 2012 municipal elections: to harass, frighten, and judicially persecute activists and ordinary returnees in the RS. Since those elections, especially in Srebrenica, local police have been frequenting the homes of people who have recently registered their return to the municipality, and demanding proof of return that is not required under existing law. And in Srebrenica and Foča, people who have registered their return have had their residency rights cancelled as a result of overzealous police actions that have clearly had the goal of preventing the reversal of earlier ethnic cleansing.

Police are not even supposed to be allowed to conduct such home visits. In Srebrenica they have several times called activists to the police station for interrogations. The new residence law would require returnees to be available for police inspection of their homes anytime up to five years after their return, for proof that they actually returned. Activists from the March 1st Coalition consider that this power will be misused by local police, and that there is a possibility that the residency of as many as 200,000 returnees could be removed from the official evidence – and from the voting lists – if the law is passed.

Alison told me that the new law would legalize the abuse that Republika Srpska police are now conducting in some municipalities, and that this is preparation for the 2014 elections.

I heard several comments in Sarajevo about the work of the March 1st Coalition. One was that the campaign needs to develop local networks to support its registration drive, not only throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina, but also throughout the diaspora. The Coalition is doing this in the United States – particularly in the east, where Bosnian immigrant populations are more concentrated.

One obstacle in the Coalition’s campaign is the attitude of many ostensibly pro-Bosnia politicians in the Federation. Their support of the campaign is crucial, because it is necessary for the Federation government to guarantee health coverage and pensions to people who return from the Federation to the Republika Srpska, in the event that they suffer discrimination there and are not provided with these services. Particularly the SDP and the SBB have vacillated in their support for the campaign, often voicing support for return and for a pro-Bosnia vote in 2014 – but at the same time, collaborating with RS President Dodik’s legal maneuvers (as I described last winter – go here).

One local activist in Sarajevo, familiar with the work of the Coalition, had a concern about its work. It is difficult to register Bosnian immigrants to the United States, some of whom have been here for twenty years, to exercise their right to vote in Bosnia. The activist said, “People are perhaps unrealistic in their expectation that Bosnians will bother to register to vote in the RS. If visitors to Bosnia from the diaspora only have two weeks to visit, they are unlikely to spend the necessary time, as much as five days, being mistreated all over again by Serb authorities in order to register. If only approximately 37,000 from the diaspora voted in 2012, how likely is it that a significantly greater number will mobilize to vote in 2014? People from the diaspora in Europe are more likely to be engaged in the campaign.”

Break dancer performing in the Ferhadija pedestrian zone of Sarajevo, July 2013


I've never been much of a sports fan, although in 1979 I was able to tell you the names of all our basketball players, when the Sonics won the World Series. Then, everyone in Seattle was a fan.

However, paying attention to Bosnian sports is necessary, because it's the same as paying attention to politics.

Every couple of years, the Bosnia-Herzegovina national football (i.e., “soccer”) team competes to go to the World Cup, and almost makes it. When a game is going on, you don't have to sit out in a sports kafana to watch it. Wherever you are, you can tell by the cheers and groans who is winning a goal, and when.

The greatest Bosnian football players in this year's national team are, during the regular season, playing for teams in countries abroad that can use them and pay them well. Zvjezdan Misimović, a German-born Bosnian, played for a German team, a Russian one, and now a Chinese team. Miralem Pjanić plays for a team in Rome. And probably the most famous Bosnian player is Edin Džeko, who plays for Manchester City.

When it comes time to compete for a place in the World Cup, these guys come back to Bosnia from the four corners of the map and train under a coach who is generally a former star footballer in his own right, from the Yugoslav heyday of the sport. In 2008 it was the colorful “Ćiro” Blažević who led the national team to one of the best seasons they'd had since the war – but one not quite good enough to go to South Africa. Since 2009 the coach has been Safet Sušić “Pape,” remembered from his 1970s-80s career as one of the finest players in all of Europe.

By the middle of August Bosnia was at the head of its division, undefeated with nine wins. It lost a “friendly” game with the USA. At that point it had four games left in the season, and if it won three of them, it would have the right to compete in next year's World Cup in Brazil. The next two games were against Slovakia – one at home (in Zenica) and one away.

A couple of weeks ago Bosnia was defeated by Slovakia in Zenica. People were depressed but not resigned. Then the away game took place in Žilina, Slovakia. There was tension in that town, where shop owners were bracing for an onslaught by Bosnian fans who were coming up to watch the game. Shops were closed on six of the main streets. Locals were advised to move their vehicles off the streets near the stadium in order to prevent damage from unruly sports fans. The police designated the upcoming match as a “high risk” game.

As it happened, Bosnia won the away match in Slovakia, two to one. The two points were earned by two of Bosnia's relatively new players, Ermin Bičakčić and Izet Hajrović. I saw the footage showing Hajrović, 77 minutes into the game (with 13 minutes left), shooting the second goal in from 25 meters away, in a lightning shot with no warning. That alone was enough to yank you out of your seat.

Coach Pape said, “Nothing can stop us on our way to Brazil.” There remains a home game against Liechtenstein (October 11) and an away game against Lithuania (October 15).

There was great jubilation and it was impossible not to share in the celebration. As far as I know, the 7,000 Bosnian fans who traveled to Slovakia to support their team did not participate in any hooliganism. On the main streets of Sarajevo people were honking their horns, playing the Samba through loudspeakers, and carrying signs that read, “We're going to Brazil.”

You could see clips on YouTube of people celebrating. One middle-aged man dressed only in sweatpants jumped up and down, fell on the floor and waved his arms and legs in the air, and then got up and hugged and kissed the television.

In Mostar there was rioting. Some youths set out from the Muslim-controlled section and started a fight with police on the west side.

Meanwhile, political figures who have made it their business to studiously ignore the Bosnian national team, or even to root for the other side (unless it's Turkey), were reluctantly drawn into the enthusiasm. President of the Croat nationalist party Dragan Čović congratulated the team, saying “Brazil is coming, let's support the team.” And Željko Kopanja, owner of the pseudo-independent “Nezavisne Novine” (Independent News) in the pocket of Milorad Dodik, commented that “more and more citizens of Banja Luka are rooting for Bosnia-Herzegovina.”

In an internet correspondence, human rights activist Refik Hodžić wrote jokingly, “
Hajrović, Hajrović, don't you know how much a ticket to Brazil costs, let alone tickets for the games, and lodgings, and food, and alcohol...have a heart!

And in an ironic response to his own complaint, he said, “Finally there are some 'real problems,' and not all this complaining about war crimes, the disappeared, mass graves, war trauma, corruption, fascism, widespread plunder, poverty, impoverished schools and health services, homophobia, misogyny, violence among the youth, and other fanciful things...”

In other words, the Bosnians could use a little relief.

Boris Dežulović, the sometimes hilarious, always insightful columnist from Split, made a parallel between the football game and Bosnian politics. He noted that Bičakčić and Hajrović were new players on the scene, and that that's exactly what Bosnia needs in politics as well.

It's time, he wrote, finally to say thanks “to Izetbegović, Tihić and Silajdžić, to Dodik, Radmanović, Bevanda, Lagumdžija, Komšić, Čović i Valentin Inzko, to disband all the Parliaments and the Presidency and the Council of Ministers and each of the fourteen governments, to give each of them a gold-plated watch from Taiwan with an engraved dedication, and to solemnly take away their passports and to ship them off to sanatoriums and prisons, and call back the youngsters who have left Bosnia for the whole wide world. There is still time, at least thirteen's time to send in Bičakčić i Hajrović and the others, to bring in newcomers off the bench, take the ball and knock in that goal. Without complicating things, without voting and outvoting, without coalition-making, integrating, implementing, restructuring, blocking...just taking the fucking ball and shoot it in, from 25 meters, from the parking lot, from Peking, anything at least to take this country further away from the World Cup of the homeless and the infirm...and into the Finals.”


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