Articles on the Bosnia Conflict



Report #2 – Immiseration and resignation in Bosnia; Prospects for activism; Višegrad; trauma.
By Peter Lippman
Fall, 2015

2015 Report index

Report 1 Introduction/overview, Sarajevo, activism.
Report 2Immiseration and resignation.  Prospects for activism.
Report 3:  Prijedor. 
Report 4:  Dodik's referendum, Dodik's corruption.
Report 5:  Srebrenica. 
Report 6:  Tuzla, Mostar, and activism.
Report 7The wave of refugees coming into Europe.

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My landlady Fata is fed up. She says, "Bakir* owns the whole town: BBI, City Center, Hotel Evropa. They are fabulously rich. Those are the profiteers and the children of people who run the political parties. But those who were honest during the war have nothing. We who worked are in wretched circumstances. There won't be any change here until we abolish the existing political parties. They need to do like they did with Ceausescu. There needs to be a revolt of all the unemployed workers and the pensioners, then there will be a change."
Bakir Izetbegović, leader of the Muslim nationalist SDA and member of Bosnia's three-part presidency]

Fata's attitude is not so far from the norm, especially among pensioners. They receive $150 or $200 a month. That is not enough to be able to afford a newspaper, some halvah, or to give your children a KM for coffee. It is quite a stretch to pay for heating and medicine on that paltry allowance, which often arrives late.

It is just about as tough for young people. They get a decent education in the public schools and universities, and then they can't get a job. Belonging to a political party is often a prerequisite for employment, and not everyone will make that compromise. Even then, you have to buy a job from the boss, and that can cost 10,000 KM or more, depending on the job. There are set rates. But not everyone's parents can scrape together that money.

Mainly, the jobs are simply not there. The youth unemployment rate started high, and it has been rising. It went from 57.1% four years ago to 60.4% in 2013, according to the World Bank.

Unemployment figures are a bit slippery. On top of the above figures I read that two-thirds of youth in the Federation are unemployed and that the total number of people registered as unemployed throughout the country is 550,000 – and that actually, there are a million and a half idle workers, according to research by Sarajevo University's economics department. The same research asserts that 300,000 new jobs would be needed in order to bring Bosnia-Herzegovina's standard up to that of the weakest EU economies: Greece, Spain, Italy, and Croatia.

People who come from Bosnia-Herzegovina start out loving their country, but they leave in order to have a life somewhere that they can raise a family. The statistics on emigration are troubling – or they would be, if one could get some trustworthy information. For numbers referring to young people departing from Bosnia, I have heard everything from 10,000 per year to 68,000 in the last two years, and even higher figures. Conflicting figures like these are reported without attribution. A 2014 youth study on Bosnia by the Ebert Foundation says that 1.5 million Bosnians-Herzegovinans reside in the diaspora. Based on my count of people who fled during the war and how many returned, I would estimate that a third of that figure, that is, half a million, comprises people who have left since the war.

In any case, young people are leaving. One year you see them studying, looking for a job, or perhaps even working, and a couple of years later they are gone. The World Bank says that 28 percent of university graduates leave the country.

The results of the census taken two years ago have not yet been released, but the most common figure given is that Bosnia's population is now around 3.7 million, while it was 4.4 million before the war. But Predrag Zvijerac tells me that some 400,000 of that number could, in fact, represent people who registered with the census but do not live in the country any longer. Either they left after the census, or they were not even living there at that time.

Predrag mentioned a friend who had had excellent training in IT. They were out of touch for a while, and then Predrag found out his friend was in Ireland. Predrag asked him what he was doing there, and he answered that he was "working for Google." It turned out that this meant he was working in a restaurant in the Google building. But he makes 2,000 euro a month, and he can live well on that.

Princip's bridge over the Miljacka River in Sarajevo

A little about activism

I talked with Darjan Bili
ć, an experienced activist from Sarajevo. He spoke with me at length about life in that city and the activist response. His comments provide a good illustration of what confronts ordinary people in Sarajevo and beyond, so I share a selection of them here:

Darjan says, "The situation is worse than ever in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Starting with Sarajevo, Sarajevo Canton prime minister Dino Konakovi
ć's only credential is that he ran the basketball team. While doing that, the team went nine million KM into the red.

"Things are difficult in Sarajevo. There are water reductions. Gras [the Sarajevo public transportation company] is in debt, it's going to sell its land in order to pay off the debts. It can't maintain its vehicles. They are donated, but then it costs a lot to get parts for those old trams and buses. They are losing 2 million KM a month. There are far too many people in the administration of the company.

"Sarajevo is not Bosnia. It is like a fake Vegas in the desert. If you go just 50 kilometers out of the city, say, to Vareš, you'll see the difference. People have left. There used to be 20,000 people there, and now maybe there are about 5,000. Croatians, and anyone with a Croatian passport [including Bosniaks], are fleeing to Germany.

"When the big floods were happening last year, people stole assistance money. It's as if the profiteering infrastructure from the war never skipped a beat. For example, it was known that Merhamet in Maglaj was corrupt. That's why smarter donors bypassed organizations and they were just looking for houses that needed help and talking directly to those in need. One relief agency donated chocolate, but none of the children got any of it.

"All of the social systems in BiH are rotten. If you have a sickness and go to the hospital, you can catch two more diseases there. And you can wait two years for an MRI scan.

"Regarding the labor law, there were 5,000 people out to protest that. Then Bajramović [head of the labor union] announced on television that there would not be a protest the next day. Do we even really have a working class? Can someone define that? It is easy to manipulate the workers, because there are so few jobs that any work comes as a bribe.

"The same people have been in power and running the media for 20 years. The political situation is like before the war, in 1990. Dodik, Čović [Croat nationalist leader], and Bakir are the same, they are in a political coalition.

"So, the situation in Bosnia keeps deteriorating. In the period when the SDP was in power, the only positive thing that happened was that a stretch of the highway was built, 60 kilometers. We were taxed for that three times, and now there will be more taxes.

"Municipalities are borrowing from banks to cover their payrolls. This is taking place all around BiH, and the IMF and the OSCE are not doing anything to help; they destroy countries. Why not fix the situation with the schools? People are leaving school without being any smarter. They kill the dreams of the young people. Two years ago there was an initiative, led by pupils, to change the schools. They advocated a unified curriculum throughout BiH."

Addressing his hopes for activism in a graphic way, Darjan continued, "We need to prepare for the future possibility of activism and change. Everyone my age and older messed up Bosnia. Children are born as angels, and then they get a punch in the head."

"We have much experience with socialism, self-management, with war, with fascism, but we lack the knowledge to make conclusions and to exit from the cycle. So right now, there is no movement, but that positive energy is going into initiatives on the humanitarian level, with people helping the flood victims, working on the problem with stray dogs, and now with the refugee crisis people are going up to Croatia and Serbia to help."

As if to respond to Darjan's comments, activist Dra
žen Crnomat writes about the fate of ordinary Bosnians after the war, and recommends an approach for activists: "Workers, disempowered and subordinated, all those who by force of circumstances left their factories and went to war, when they returned, there were no more factories...neo-liberalism as political theory says, 'Fend for yourself, take care of own life' Then your future is already determined, somehow, the way that it will unfold: you await old age, and then you die. I have had no health insurance for twenty years.

"I think that, however we define 'the people,' we [activists] have to think of them and be part of the people, not coming in as as some kind of authority. I think it is essential that all of this be done on an egalitarian basis; someone comes with knowledge, with experience, or with some physical ability, someone knows how to paint, and someone else knows theory."

Activism in the service of human rights and against corruption and nationalism in Bosnia-Herzegovina is an uphill battle throughout the country. It is no less so in Sarajevo, in spite of greater numbers and easier communication in the capital city. There are other problems; opportunities for compromise (and sidewalk cafes) distract people. Activist Elmina Kula
šić lamented that "young people do not want to go into activism; they are afraid that they will be marginalized."

I have for years noted that activism comes in phases in Bosnia. There is a cause, such as refugee return or the campaign for conscientious objector status; people organize, leaders learn to lead, and the goal is achieved – or not. The movement thrives for a while, and then it disappears. Either the leaders get co-opted by the offer of a clean office and a 21st-century computer, or they start a family, or find a job, or leave the country. Then another movement arises with younger leaders and renewed fire.

My impression of activism in BiH based on my recent visit is that it is in a late stage of the first phase described above, and that the second phase has not started. That is, activists are tired and a new generation has not shown up to replace them. Some stalwart activists have been at it for twenty years. One has quit his post in a survivors organization. Another left the country, telling me that his "hands were shaking" after several years of concerted organizing. Another told me he had "hit the wall," tired of the lack of effect. In general, I heard that people were not hopeful about change in the near future. Those long-term activists who refuse to stop working tend to be focusing on personal projects such as studying or writing.

There was a special moment during one of my conversations with Kurt Bassuener, when he pulled out a piece of paper (it should've been a napkin) and drew a diagram of change for me. Kurt's diagram showed the international community at the top of the page. In the middle stood the
Bosnian political class: politicians, businessmen, organized crime, and the media (what Kurt calls "the black audis" for the favorite car of the elite). The citizens stood at the bottom. The middle layer controls the citizens through patronage and fear, says Kurt. The solution is for the citizens to combine with the international community to overpower the domestic political class, to abolish the patronage, and remove the fear.

"All of these factors are rational actors," Kurt explains. "Citizens will not act up if it may hurt the chance for the one person in their family who has a job to retain that job. And in a situation where they don't necessarily know if their votes are secret, they may fear to vote against the entrenched power. Also, who to vote for is a legitimate question, when most or all of the politicians and their parties are autocratic and corrupt."

"So it's proof of the Maslow pyramid, which locates self-preservation at the foundation and self-actualization at the top. The bottom wins out."

For the time being, the tide of activism is at a low ebb, and robust leverage from below to spur social change is not in the offing. And as Drew Sullivan said to me, "People in BiH saw the international community as the new Tito, until they figured out it wasn't on their side."

And as Kurt points out, the European Union has other weighty things to handle these days, such as the continuing effects of the recession, especially in Greece; more recently the resurgence of Russian power, and now the massive refugee influx. Kurt asserts that these things
have severely compromised the EU's power not only to help Bosnia, but also to attract it to the union. And he also warns that Russia may well veto the continuation of the EU's (paltry) military presence (EUFOR) in BiH during the present season. They abstained last year; it's a yearly vote on the UNSC.

The time for risk-taking and promoting human rights in Bosnia-Herzegovina came and went in February, 2014, but I have absolutely no doubt that it will be back.

View of Sarajevo from the northeast

The 1. Mart campaign for the October 2014 elections

In the realm of activism and hopeful plans for change, one project that seemed to show promise last year was the 1. Mart (March First) electoral campaign. The goal of this international registration campaign was to ensure that enough internally displaced and diaspora voters who could register to vote in the Republika Srpska would do so. If enough such voters were to register, the October 2014 elections could place more "pro-Bosnia" representatives in the RS Parliament, and in the state-level Parliament as representatives from the RS.

The 1. Mart campaign began with great enthusiasm shortly after the October 2012 municipal elections, led by the people who just pulled off a victory for the Bosniak mayoral candidate in Srebrenica. Activists registered diaspora voters in Europe, the United States, and other countries. Meanwhile other members of the diaspora, as well as people displaced from the RS and living in the Federation, traveled to the RS to register to vote.

The result was anti-climactic, with only one pro-Bosnia representative elected to the state-level House of Peoples, instead of the hoped-for five representatives. In the RS a new pro-Bosnia coalition was created called Domovina, but it was dominated by the SDA. This was a great disappointment to anti-nationalist activists who had worked fervently on the Srebrenica mayoral race and then on the 1. Mart campaign.

Meanwhile the leader of the campaign, Emir Suljagi
ć, joined Komšić's DF party and, on the wings of that party's success, he was appointed Deputy Minister of Defense at the state level, a position which he still holds.

Evaluation among activists and analysts whom I spoke with in Bosnia was pretty negative. It ranged from disappointment to distrust, with one person calling the result of the campaign a "catastrophe," and another calling the campaign a "deception calculated to achieve a political position" for Suljagi
ć. This last may be partisan, retroactive analysis, but in any case, the 1. Mart campaign did not live up to its hopes.


I spoke with Hikmet Kar
čić, who gave me an update on the state of activism for memorialization in Višegrad. He told me, "Consciousness about Višegrad has spread. In 2010 it was almost never in the newspapers. We did the monument in 2013, and there was a big controversy about it."

Here, Hikmet is referring to an engraved stone monument that activists placed in the Muslim cemetery in
Višegrad. The Stražište cemetery is the property of the Islamic Community of Višegrad and, given this, community members have the right to express themselves in their own chosen manner as regards the inscription on the monument. It read, "To all killed and missing Bosniaks, children, women and men, victims of genocide in Višegrad."

Local authorities heartily objected to the use of the word
"genocide," saying that it "had not been proven" and that the monument was "illegally erected."

It is true that there has been no legal verdict declaring the war crimes at Višegrad as genocide, but Višegrad was patently the location of a planned campaign to eliminate the Muslim population by murder and expulsion. Some 65% of the city was Muslim before the war, and to date, only some 200 Muslims have returned. A common count of those killed at Višegrad is three thousand, but Hikmet cautions, "
The  number 3,000 is exaggerated. I have cross-checked the names of 1,616 people who were killed at Višegrad. Our estimate is that it was somewhere between that number and 2,000.

"There was a man who lost four children in World War II. Then he remarried and had four more children, and they were killed in this war. Milan Lukić* killed one, and one was shot at the bridge."
*[former leader of separatist military formation around
Višegrad, convicted of crimes against humanity]

"Some hundreds of people were executed at the bridge made famous by Ivo Andrić's novel, Bridge on the Drina. More were killed in two separate incidents when Serb extremists crammed dozens of people into houses (on Bikavac and on Pionirska streets) and lit the houses on fire."

I have been told that there was an agreement between the local authorities and the Bosniak political representatives -  that if they removed the word 'genocide,' from the monument at Stražište, the authorities would not touch the house at Pionir street. But the city is now threatening to demolish that house.

Hikmet continued, "Then in 2014 they sent about 15 special police to the cemetery, and one with a grinder, to remove the word. After that, a woman who had been raped at Vilina Vlas spoke, and wrote the word back in, in lipstick."

"I have to remove myself a bit from that situation in order to stay calm," Hikmet told me

I have written at greater length about
Višegrad here, here, and here.


I was at the house of some old friends who had lived through the war and siege in Sarajevo. We were talking about trauma. I asked Hamdija, "
Can people get release from the memory of the war?"

Hamdija answered, "No, we can't. In those four years of war, there were days when the bombing and shooting was non-stop for fifteen hours. Houses were burning, and buildings. The air was burning.

"The war started in the city. There was the sniping from the Holiday Inn. Then there was fighting, face to face, in the streets. Our people against the Chetniks* who were trying to take over. We drove them out, but then we were surrounded. I saw people running to the fight in tennis shoes. We didn't have uniforms or weapons, and they had tanks.

"In the beginning, they took over the police academy on Vraca. Vikić led his people to go retake that place. He fought off the Serbs. If he had not done that, the Chetniks would have come and slaughtered us.

"And the criminals [Sarajevans who were gangsters before the war] were fighting up in the hills, defending Sarajevo. They were the people who already knew how to fight. They wanted to go to the fight. They figured that afterwards, they would rule us.

"The snipers were sniping at our buses. They would kill people riding the bus. Then we put metal plates over the windows. When they saw that they couldn't snipe at the buses anymore, they fired bombs at them.

"They sniped at everyone including women, children, and dogs. They killed a three-year-old girl. I knew her father. He asked, 'What did she do?'

"A big bomb landed in our yard. It left a crater 27 meters in circumference and 4 meters deep. I couldn't even see the bottom of it. The UN came and examined it.

"I made a shelter in the house with cinderblocks. I would go there whenever the bombing got heavy. I took the cats.

"It was not just the bombing and shooting. People were hungry and thirsty. We drank water from a swamp.

"There were the Chetniks above us, and in town there were the gangsters. If you didn't do whatever they said, they would just shoot you. They didn't care.

"There's nothing worse than war. No natural disaster is that bad. If there's a flood, you can get out. If it's a fire, you can escape.

"No, we are not able to free ourselves from the trauma of what happened."

*[Chetnik: Extreme Serb separatist engaged in assault on Sarajevo and other parts of Bosnia. I use this terminology here only to replicate the language of Hamdija, not to insult any ethnicity.]

Next report: Prijedor


Articles by Roger Lippman




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