Anger, activism, exodus
By Peter Lippman
spent most of June and half of July visiting and traveling around the country,
holding intensive conversations and interviews with activist colleagues and
Several issues struck me as outstanding during my visit, and that's what I'll
try to cover here. Of greatest interest to me, of course, is the state of
grassroots activism in the country. There are specific matters pertaining to
Srebrenica and Prijedor/Kozarac, areas I have covered at length over the years.
Secondly, this being an even-numbered year, there are the general elections. And
there are a couple of other particularly noticeable issues now: the massive
exodus of young people to countries where there are better opportunities; and
the influx of migrants and refugees from the east and south.
Below, I quote a number of friends and colleagues. I have changed some of their
names to protect their privacy.
I arrived in Tuzla to visit a few old friends. At breakfast Mirsada says to me:
"Nothing has changed here in 25 years, it has only gotten worse. No one looks
after the citizen. Prices are out of control, and they increase randomly. The
leaders of all three ethnicities are fascists. I'm Muslim, but Bakir [Izetbegović]
represent me...Everyone under 30, and many older people, are ready to leave.
They have one foot on the road."
I asked if there could be another war. Mirsada responds, "No, everything is fine
for the leaders; they collaborate in robbing the people."
no hope for BiH at present. People just say, 'It's ok, as long as there's no
shooting.' This is not a democracy, so you can't get anywhere. People can't
organize. Look what happened in the US. There, you have a democracy, and you got
"The only thing that can change things here is a revolution. And war is a
revolution, but it would be led by the same profiteers that are running the
Munira says, "In
BiH only the politicians have a good income, but they have no responsibility.
I'm responsible here [at her shop]. If someone breaks a window, they call me.
The politicians don't have to do anything...Any young person who can leave,
would leave the country at this point."
Mirela says, "People are fed
up. I'm fed up having to think about how to save 10 fenig on a jug of detergent,
of thinking whether to buy half a liter or a whole liter of milk. My nephew
can't get a job, even though he got the best grades in his school, because his
father's in the wrong political party. His classmate was almost failing, and he
got a job.
"I worked for 35 years, was head engineer in my department. I get 326 KM per
month [about $200]. Someone else who worked 30 years gets the same, and someone
else who worked 20 years in a menial job gets the same."
quotes give you a sense of how low things have sunk in recent months and years.
People were already starting to leave the country a couple of decades ago, even
as refugee return was still taking place. And many ordinary people have been
aware of the corruption and of the poisonous effects of nationalism all along.
But the sensation of these problems is particularly heightened now, and it makes
for a more depressing visit than before.
The 2013 census, only released in June 2016, showed the population at 3.8
million, down from 4.4 million before the war. That lower postwar figure was
more related to exile than to wartime deaths, as the figure of deaths was around
But no one ever believed that 3.8 million figure, because many people came home
just to register for the census, but did not remain home. On top of that, more
people have left since 2013--reports vary, but they run to 150,000 in the last
five years. There's no accurate count of the total population at present, but
I've consistently heard estimates below three million.
I asked young Sanela if many of her friends were leaving. She said, "The
majority. Many of them are going up to Germany to work as nurses."
And Peđa, a Sarajevo journalist, mentioned that of the 29 people in his high
school graduating class in a central Bosnian town, only three remain in the
country--and only one is still in her home town.
Peđa says, "People are leaving because the average pay, say, for a teacher, is
800 KM [about $500]. What can you do with that? The bank won't give credit to
someone with that income, if they need to borrow. So people simply leave. If
someone's getting 200 euro [about $450] a month, with which they have to pay
everything, they'd rather leave. Everyone has someone who lives abroad. And
everyone is sick of the politics here."
I visited my friend Fehim, a particularly bright activist, in the central
Bosnian town of Donji Vakuf. He
showed me around part of the town.
There's a big lumber mill and wood processing complex, formerly run by the Janj
company. We walked through blocks and blocks of large, mostly empty hangars.
There was a building with no roof. I asked if it had been bombed. Fehim told me
that people took the metal from the roof to recycle with Mittal in Zenica. He
said that Janj used to have 7,000 workers; now there are around 250. The complex
has been bought by some Malaysians.
We walked past a stainless steel company nearby. Fehim told me that the workers
there are required to work on Sundays for free.
Fehim told me that he tries to stay out of the two corrupting and demeaning
lines of work: business, where he would have to work for free on Sundays; and
politics, where he would have to help someone steal.
People are leaving Donji Vakuf. Of a former population of around 25,000, Fehim
guesses there are now about 8,500 people remaining. He himself is thinking about
leaving the country. He is no longer engaged in activist campaigns, and tells
me, "Leaving is a form of rebellion." Fehim quips, "Will the last person leaving
Bosnia please turn out the lights."
things to change for a long time. He quotes people as saying the younger people
are the "hope of the future," but he thinks they are more infused with hate than
the older people. The older people grew up in the time of the slogan
"Brotherhood and Unity" [bratstvo i jedinstvo], but the younger ones are
growing up ethnically separated from each other. Surveys say that most people in
west Mostar (mostly Croats) have never been to Sarajevo and few are interested
in going. It's the same with people (mostly Serbs) in Banja Luka. And people
from west Mostar don't even think of going to (mostly Muslim) east Mostar.
Dika, who gave me a ride to the bus station, asked, "Why do you come here?
There's nothing here except for the politicians. This is a nice country, it has
everything, but the politicians take it all. If I were younger, I would leave
now. My son has a diploma as an agronomist, but he could only get a job as a
guard. Getting a job here at all is like winning the lottery. I'm a stenographer
in court, but I only get paid 500 KM a month. The politicians get 5,500 KM a
month. They pay some of us just enough to survive, but we've been just surviving
for a long time. My husband was killed during the war. My two children were
young then. It would be better if I had left during the war.
Just the other day it was
announced that, as of the end of June, there were almost 450,000 people
registered as unemployed in Bosnia-Herzegovina. That was nearly 2,000 fewer than
were unemployed in the previous month--and it's safe to assume that a
significant part of those 2,000 were people who had left the country, rather
than getting jobs inside Bosnia. The unemployment level in the country has
consistently been around 40%, with unemployment for young people closer to 50%.
Darjan works for an international NGO and travels around the country for that
work. He noted to me that people were leaving from all the municipalities he had
visited, including those in the Serb-controlled entity. It's the same in Serbia
and Croatia, he says. "The atmosphere is catastrophic. No one will say openly
that the nationalist politics are a disaster, but the fact that 40,000 are
leaving each year from the country says that clearly. The number of people who
have left in the last five years is very high. People with college degrees are
70% of that number. The proportion of college-educated people in Bosnia used to
be 8%, but now it's not even 5%. And, this is the most polluted country in
many towns in Bosnia where people have rebuilt their prewar homes, but those
people have not necessarily moved back; often they have stayed in the cities to
which they were displaced (in a manner of "ethnic urbanization") during the war.
They visit their prewar homes on weekends or during the summer. So, places like
Srebrenica, for example, are half-empty most of the year. Then things liven up a
bit during the summer. So Srebrenica is a "ljetna vikendica" – a summer
Over the years that I have observed grassroots activism in Bosnia-Herzegovina, I
have seen that it has a cyclical nature; movements arise and thrive for a while
in one place, and then for a while in another. Leaders come and go too; few are
those who can sustain selfless activity for many years. People grow into their
thirties and finally get married; then they feel the need to build a family and,
perhaps, a career. But new people come up behind them and a new movement springs
up, sometimes in an unexpected place. The need is always there, after all.
There was the crucial movement for return of refugees and internally displaced
people, in the first six or seven years after the war. This succeeded to some
extent in some places, where there was good leadership. In the villages around
Prijedor, Doboj, and Zvornik return reached perhaps 50%; around Gacko and Bileća
it stayed close to zero. On an entity-wide scale, overall "minority" return
(Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks were never minorities anywhere before the war)
never rose far beyond ten percent. Then there was discrimination and, in some
places, conditions resembling apartheid. People fought for the right to
memorialization; that fight, and the struggles against discrimination and
against corruption, are ongoing.
But activism seems at a low ebb presently. After the widespread protests in
mid-2013 related to the standardized citizens identification numbers (JMBG), and
then the near-uprising of February 2014 in the Federation, these movements
I asked Darjan what he draws from that history. He said, "By the middle of JMBG
the first big mistake was that we refused to be a party in the negotiations.
Another problem was that it was all spontaneous, and people didn't want to plan
things. And then the demonstrations of February 2014 were taken over by kids who
burned things, damaged things, without a clear message. And the plenums [large
and lengthy public forums] took place; they went in a completely mistaken
direction. It was like social therapy. People had their first opportunity to
stand before 2,000 people and speak about their problems. And people needed
that. But that wasn't able to sustain action.
"My expectation was that from the plenums a political party would arise. There
was enough quality cadre that the movement could have brought up three or four
or five people to be independent candidates. But that's not what happened. And
that was a real downfall. Because, as people say, 'Volunteers have sufficient
force only for one battle.'
"Then there was pressure from the media, and pressure from the regime, and that
shut everything down.
intimidated after 2014; people lost their jobs, got calls in the middle of the
night. Activists were threatened, and had their children threatened."
Darjan continued, "It's easy to get information now, but people won't take
risks. Today the only ideal is to get money. It used to be that when you went to
a protest, you returned bloody. They'd put you in jail and you'd come home four
or five days later. Now, no one will even go out on a protest. Before, people
were prepared to make a sacrifice, but now they're not. People are spoiled."
I commented that we have the same problem in the US.
Darjan said, "There used to be able to be dialogue among activists. Now there's
just a competition as to who is stronger; force is the argument. And regimes in
different places are making laws that it's illegal to protest, that it's
terrorism. That's what they're calling people who block a road in Spain. So
people now can't protest there. And here, for example, when the demobilized
veterans protested by blocking traffic, everyone was against them. But when they
had a hunger strike, then it wasn't in the media. The veterans' protest
encampment has had no effect in this society; they can be there 3 years and
I commented that in Bosnia, it seems that periodically a protest will start
around an incident which in itself may not be massively significant in the grand
scale of things, but it gets people moving. Darjan said, "There are many
problems in society, and you never know which one is going to mobilize people."
Referring to current protests about some unsolved murders and violence against
young people, he continued, "Insecurity is something that affects everyone.
Everyone either has children, or knows someone who does. That's something that
By the time I left Donji Vakuf, towards the end of my visit to
Bosnia-Herzegovina, I was rather depressed about the state of activism in the
country. Little Bosnia has always produced some remarkably accomplished,
brilliant people: Aleksa Šantić; Ivo Andrić; Himzo Polovina: Vesna Ljubić; Amira
Medunjanin, Denis Bašić, Meša Selimović...and many more. Now the brightest
people are leaving, and what remains? Who will lead the next round of grassroots
I voiced this worry to Jadranka, a seasoned activist and leader in Sarajevo. She
responded that it's true that activism is presently at a low point, nevertheless
it exists, and there are indeed new young people coming up and leading movements
in a number of towns throughout the country. She also suggested that those who
say that activism is dead may just be making an excuse for their own inactivity
And indeed, as I thought about it, I remembered that right now several campaigns
are taking place around the country.
One is the "Pravda za Davida"
(Justice for David) movement, which I'll come back to. Another is the
above-mentioned veterans' campaign, which has been going on since the middle of
2017. Veterans of the 1990s war in the Croat and Muslim-controlled entity, the
Federation--both Croats and Bosniaks--set up a camp in front of the Federation
Parliament and have called for reforms in the entity's policies towards
The veterans have been a political football since the end of the war. The
contrast between their pensions and the salaries of the politicians (the latter
ranging around 20 times the former) is startling. And the ever-present matter of
veterans' livelihood is exploited not only by the politicians, but also by
numerous people purporting to represent the veterans. That is, local veterans'
associations have proliferated, and more people have registered to receive the
veteran pension than could possibly have fought in the war. This, together with
vast funds allocated to the veteran associations (as a political maneuver),
leads to a waste of moneys that could be better given directly as pensions to
The protestors, grouped together in the Association of Forgotten Defenders, have
called for three steps to address these problems:
1. Publish a unified register of demobilized fighters in the Federation,
accessible to the public.
2. Establish a pension for fighters who have not received any pension (or whose
monthly pension is less than 200 KM), based on their participation in the war
between 1992 and 1995.
3. Stop the financing of all veterans' organizations from all budgets for at
least a year, while the register of fighters is purged; check the legality and
transparency of all veterans' organizations in the last 15 years. Activists
estimate that every year, 20 million KM (10 million euro) is wasted on these
The veterans' campaign and encampment held out through last winter, with the
Federation government's response primarily limited to declarative statements of
support, paired with delays and inaction. The veterans have responded at times
by blocking roads to get attention. In February they blocked roads in Tuzla,
Zenica and Doboj, as well as the road from Sarajevo to Konjic. And early in
July, even while apologizing to motorists, they blocked a border crossing with
Croatia at Bijača.
In the last couple of weeks, with veterans threatening to move their camp into
the Parliament building (as it is "more comfortable than the tents and Bijača"),
it seems that Federation representatives finally found themselves willing to
address the concerns of the veterans, by passing a bill that seems to address
their demands. At this date it remains to be seen whether a final bill, as
amended, will finally be adopted, and whether the adopted version will satisfy
Another example of a campaign that renews one's faith in activism took place in
Jajce, the year before last. In the areas of the Federation where Croats and
Muslims still live near each other but don't have separate schools, there is the
system of "two schools under one roof," where Croat students will study during
one shift, and Muslim students during a different one. In Stolac they even have
separate entrances to the same school building.
There are over 50 such schools, mainly in central Bosnia, and the system tends
to be imposed by local Croat authorities. Such was the case in Jajce, where
local authorities tried to divide a vocational high school into a Croat school
and a Bosniak school. But students--both Croats and Muslims--joined together and
demonstrated peacefully against the move. One Croat student later declared, "We
realized, of course, that we didn't care to experience the same horrors as some
other schools. We were not happy with the idea of our school being proclaimed
'Croat;' we just look at it as a school, that is, as an institution that should
educate students." The students won their fight, and the movement has spread to
other schools in the surrounding areas of Jajce.
As I was
hearing about the exodus and seeing more and more places with conspicuous
vacancies, one thing occurred to me. What happens when all Bosnia-Herzegovina
becomes empty of young people? Could the whole country become a ljetna vikendica?
For quite some years already, you could see that people are coming back from the
diaspora only to find someone to marry, and then they take that person away. Or
they find someone to marry elsewhere in the diaspora, come back for the wedding,
and then leave again.
In that scenario, where all the brightest people have left Bosnia, then just the
average people will remain--divided, conquered, and continually plundered by the
profiteers. Those operators, the political heirs of the warlords, will continue
to sell un-tendered building contracts to their cronies and ship raw materials
abroad. While this doesn't work for the mass of Bosnians and Herzegovinans, it
works for the politicians.
It looks like things are going that way. But I don't buy this scenario in the
long term. First, those "average" people will continue to produce bright leaders
and rebellions. After the dry spell comes more action; someone will organize. It
is to be hoped that the Bosnians will show us in the West a good example, as
they figure out how to maintain a long-term effort, rather than episodic and
futile incidents of protest. The international community should support such an
effort--but it's long since time to understand that that "community" is more
ready to support international business in Bosnia than it is to support justice
Another activist who is
thinking about leaving Bosnia asked me what the country has to offer the world
that's special, when high culture and sophisticated intellectual inquiry can be
found in other centers, from Paris to Istanbul and beyond. In essence he was
asking me why it matters that so many people are leaving. I responded that I
looked at Bosnia a different way: that it is a beautiful country where people
should have the possibility to contribute, and to raise their families
unmolested and to cherish their culture.
Index of previous journals and articles