Articles on the Bosnia Conflict



Bosnia-Herzegovina 2021, Journal #1

2021 Journal index

Journal 1: Returning to Bosnia with books; protests; population count; Vesna
Journal 2
Inzko's laws; "Hospice care"; Activism vs. emigration
Journal 3:
Pandemic; Mostar and corruption; Emptying Kozarac
Journal 4: 
Visiting Kevljani; Talks with Ervin; Mom
Journal 5
Folie ŕ Deux; Zulfo

Previous journals and articles

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Returning to Bosnia with books; protests; population count; Vesna

Last September I came back to Bosnia after more than a two-year wait, and after one and a half years of the Covid pandemic. Not long after my July 2019 visit, my book, Surviving the Peace: The Struggle for Postwar Recovery in Bosnia-Herzegovina, came out in November of that year. So my "mission" for this recent visit was to bring copies of the book to people who had helped me over the previous 20-odd years. At about a kilo per book, just getting 28 copies over to Bosnia and carting them around to five different cities was a task.

While getting the books to friends and colleagues gave my visit a framework, I wanted to catch up with people and get a renewed, close up feeling of what's going on in the country. That, and some of my own thoughts and experiences, will be the contents of this five-part series. You're receiving them because you're on my distribution list, which reaches back all the way to 1997, or if you subscribed to my blog. If you no longer wish to receive these reports, just let me know and I'll remove your address from the list—no hard feelings.

Sarajevo, September 2021

My landlady, Fata, is looking thinner and a bit older, but she still has her dynamic energy. She bustles around in her humble kitchen, makes me coffee in the morning, prays five times a day, and visits with her best friend, also named Fata. She told me her sister died, and her brother-in-law too.

Walking around town, I see almost no facemasks; it's mainly foreigners who are wearing them. Some of the shops have signs requiring that masks be worn, but the workers in the shops aren't wearing them, and neither are the customers.

The "migrant problem" is much less in the news than the last few years since the first big influx of migrants from northern Africa and the Middle East, five years ago. That is partly because it's been the cold season and activity has slowed down; also because the pandemic has put a constraint on everyone's travels. But just as much, the migrant issue has been edged out by the ongoing political crisis, with the Serb-controlled part of Bosnia attempting to secede (see
my blogs for all the details).

But as I was walking down Ferhadija, the pedestrian zone of Sarajevo, I heard live Middle Eastern music. Two young men were sitting on a stoop; both were playing hand drums and one was singing in a lovely way. I gave them some coinage and sat and talked with one of them, Mouwad, from Morocco. Two years earlier, Mouwad had gone to Turkey in order to travel into Europe. He told me that Spain is only 40 miles from the Moroccan shore, but that "the police will shoot you" if you try to go that route. I asked, "The Spanish police?" "No, the Moroccan police," he said.

By this time, Mouwad told me, he had been in Bosnia "two snows" (winters). He said, "When you go across to Croatia they take away your phone and beat you, and then send you back." But, "no problem," he said. "It's better to be here than Morocco." He and his friend will go into "the game," that is, try to cross the border again, soon. I wished him good luck. "No problem," he said again. But it sounded to me like his journey was one constant problem.


I arrived in Sarajevo on September 11, a few hours too late to witness one of the biggest protest demonstrations to take place in the city in several years. This time, the protest was the result of accumulated anger over
who killed David Dragičević in Banja Luka in 2018, about who killed Dženan Memić in Sarajevo in 2016, and who killed numerous other young people on the streets, in streetcars, and in kafanas over the 25-odd years since the end of the war. Both the Memić and Dragičević cases involved cover-ups by police and others. Street violence and the treatment of such cases has, in fact, been a burning issue for much of the postwar period—at least going back to the 2008 killing of the teenager Denis Mrnjavac on a Sarajevo streetcar.

In that case, Mrnjavac was killed in broad daylight with plenty of eyewitnesses, and the culprits were eventually punished. That is not the case with the two more recent crimes, nor with numerous others around the country. That failure of the judiciary system—with accompanying failures to take action against what amounts to a regime of corruption—periodically spurs people to mobilize and express their frustration. That's what happened on September 11, with thousands of people on the streets. The protests inevitably end up being an expression of resentment of all the ills and failures of Dayton's postwar system.

In both of the above-mentioned cases, there were clear signs of cover-up on the part of the local police. To the respective families of the victims, these cases are a tragedy and an atrocity. To the broader population, they are the tip of the iceberg of street crime, impunity, and police unaccountability. They represent what is at best a cavalier approach to public safety on the part of the police and, certainly in the case of the Banja Luka authorities, a system of cronyism and state capture that reaches up to the highest levels of power in the Serb-controlled entity.

Ultimately, outrage over the cold indifference of the police blends with fury over the corruption that both enables and is supported by rotten police departments. In both entities, these are intersectional problems. And in both entities, there has been a sense of revolt over the unsolved and unprocessed killings, and at the very least, police involvement in burying traces of the crimes. So on September 11 of 2021, thousands of people were out on the street in front of the National Theater in Sarajevo, protesting, and calling for "Justice for D

I heard estimates attendance between 7,000 and 10,000. People came from
Tuzla, Bugojno, Mostar, Travnik, and Banja Luka, across the inter-entity borderline. This was not the first time protesters crossed that line in solidarity over this issue; people traveled from Tuzla and Sarajevo to Banja Luka in recent years as well, to support the "Justice for David" protests.

The protest was the largest in quite some years, probably since the near-revolt of February, 2014. But—as we can see as well in the US—there are the problems of sustainability of a movement, as well as co-optation. Sustaining a movement—or even building a real one—has been difficult in Bosnia-Herzegovina since the war. Activists become sidetracked by other facets of life, such as marriage, family, emigration, etc. Or they become co-opted by the relative ease of NGO life. (This is not meant to tar all NGOs nor all activists.) And in the case of the Sarajevo protests about the Dženan Memić case, there is concern that a prominent political party, Narod i pravda (NiP—People and Justice) has moved in and exploited the issue.

This is similar to something that has happened with the
David Dragičević protests in Banja Luka where, before he was elected as mayor of the city, Draško Stanivuković publicly supported the protests. After he was elected in 2020, he dropped the issue. It is clear that, as a member of the opposition to Dodik's machine, Stanivuković was riding on the wave of the Dragičević protests. His populist manipulation likely gained him support as a candidate in an environment where many are tired of Dodik—but in the long run, Drašković and the opposition parties that back him have shown to be "more Serb (nationalist) than Dodik."

Similarly, the opposition NiP came out stronger in the 2020 municipal elections in Sarajevo than the SDA, for decades the strongest Bosniak nationalist party. But the NiP's leaders are former SDA members, and they hold to the same nationalist precepts as the SDA. So it is not to be expected that the NiP will provide sincere support for the justice movement in the long run. Such support would presuppose digging down and exposing the foundations of the ethno-nationalist populism of which the NiP's leaders are also a part.

As my
friend Damir, a Sarajevo activist, told me, "It's not an honest struggle for justice for Dženan and David. There are too few honest journalists to investigate these cases. In my opinion, there are hundreds and hundreds of politicians who take advantage of their power. They really go crazy! They have so much money; they are bullies, and they are well-connected. My assumption is that in these cases the killers, in general, are well-connected with high-level politicians."

Jakub, a young scholar, was at the September 11 demonstration. He said, "These are problems that need to be solved, having to do with the most disgusting political murders, especially the one in Banja Luka. As far as I could find out about David Dragičević, he had come by information that incriminated some police, and he was killed because of that. This movement is a way for us to fight against this kind of system because there is this injustice globally."

I commented that it struck me that the two cases in question were just the tip of the iceberg. I asked if the new head of the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council (HJPC), installed after the ouster of the
abundantly corrupt Milan Tegeltija, could make a difference.

Jakub: "An individual can't change anything here. Let's say you make an investigation, say, of five crimes. You come by some information, witnesses, documents, and you're nearing the end of the investigation. But then they remove that prosecutor who is pursuing those cases, and put a different one in. The cases get stale, and everything starts over, then you have to interview the same witnesses over again, and those people won't want to keep doing that.

"It's the same with these crimes, all the way. And the prosecutor can't make a decision without his deputy. And if he makes a decision, a good, moral one, then his deputy can obstruct him. That's the dynamic that has lasted here for the last 15 years. So it's a question how much the new head of the HJPC can do, and whether he has the will, but it's also a question how much he will be allowed to do what he wants to do."


I thought about why I was back in Bosnia. In one way or another, all of my visits and longer periods of staying in the country, since the end of the war, contributed to the writing of my book. Even during the last visit in 2019, just before its publication, I was getting information for the epilogue and vetting some of the text with people I had interviewed. Now, that was all over and finished, and I wondered what my relationship with the country was to be. There would always be one, but there probably will not be any more massive writing projects. So at first, I felt a bit rudderless.

And times are different. People are leaving the country by the thousands. That includes seasoned activists and potential new activists. Activism will go on; new protests had just taken place. There are a few diehards, and some new folks organizing things. But it's a tougher battle than ever before. Activism being the manifestation of hope, as I've written, things look less hopeful than ever. I was told that 80,000 people have left the country in just the last year. Some close friends have left the country, and others have died. So, without a project, I wondered what my connection was.

I gave Nermina a copy of my book, and told her, "You'll probably find yourself in there." She looked at the title and said, "It's not easy to survive the peace." And as to the matter of hope, she said, "When I was 18, I thought that everything would be better in ten years. Now I have less time and less mobility, and things are not only not better, but they are getting worse, and I'm still working on finding my place. Maybe in ten years, you'll see me in Germany. For sure, my children will not be here. I have a good salary, but it takes more than that to be satisfied. There has to be life. Activism and cultural life are at a very low level, not to speak of the political situation."

I mentioned to Nermina my thoughts about my relationship to Bosnia, and said that maybe I would just come back with Leslie and visit beautiful places, like Jajce, and others. She said, "I don't see you just going around as a tourist." I said, "It would be a mix, because sometimes you know too much just to be a tourist. I went to Spain, and Poland, and I saw the ghosts."

Nermina asks, "Why the ghosts?"
I: "My ancestors were killed in Poland."
Nermina: "Why Spain?"
I: "There was the expulsion there. If you know any history, you just can't wander around without some feeling about what's behind the scenes. But, I love this country, and the people."
Nermina: "Would you be satisfied to come back and just go to Jajce, and Kravice?"
I: "No, I would also take Leslie to Kozarac and Srebrenica."

Discussing the ongoing emigration from Bosnia, Nermina says, "We have a saying, who leaves last, turn out the light. It could be the name of a blog. You could have photos, with nature coming to take back its own; the empty houses; small mining towns full of unemployed people; and other things."

I said, "All that loss is not what I would want to write a blog about."

Nor was my friend Riza very optimistic. He commented that "concerns about security, recurring ethno-nationalist incidents, and the resulting fear, influence ordinary life. So anyone who knows some German, or who has any interest in working in that country—even as an ordinary construction worker—well, it's tempting, because the pay is better; there are good benefits, stability. Politically, this past 2 years has been really difficult for Bosnia. Never mind the Croat and Serb separatists; look at the Bosniak leaders. They too are corrupt, and everyone can see that, but if you want to confront that situation, they have small groups of thugs, like janissaries, who are protecting them.

"Many people here in the Federation are quite naďve, and they believe that in any conflict, the West is going to come in and save them. They think that in the 1990s, the West didn't understand what was going on, but now they do understand, so they'll do something [in response to the current crisis]."

In geopolitical terms, in some ways Bosnia-Herzegovina is in the same position that it has been in for at least five or six centuries, if not longer. It is a peripheral country at the whim of Empire. Different empires, same dilemma.


I asked Jakub for his take on the population count in Bosnia. This is a hard thing to nail down. The 2013 census gave the number of 3.7 million, but it was clear to everyone from the start that this figure was a product of manipulation. Jakub said that it is probably around 3 million: "Many of those counted were living abroad. And it is worrying, now, that people are constantly leaving. It is hard to make a count, and there is a particularly difficult situation with the Croats. They have dual citizenship and they can leave more easily. A large number of people are also leaving from the eastern part of Bosnia, from Bijeljina to Trebinje—a complete demographic catastrophe. They are going to Serbia, to Germany. A student from there who finishes high school, ordinarily would come to Sarajevo to continue their studies. But the Serb nationalist propaganda takes its toll, and then those young people don't want to come here. All the anti-Bosnian politics is damaging to the Serb part of the population in eastern Bosnia."

"We feel the loss of population the least here in Sarajevo, because the fewest people are leaving from here. But in some of the smaller municipalities, as many as fifty percent are leaving. Many are leaving from Kozarac [in Prijedor municipality in the Republika Srpska]. That is a special situation, a small Bosnian community surrounded by the Serb population. It is a very worrisome situation, where returnees have been struggling for 20 years.

"There is a problem here with tradesmen. It is hard to find people to hire, since so many have left. And people in the medical professions can earn much better in someplace like Germany. The 2013 census is really not relevant now, because so many people have left. The actual population could even be 2.5 million. And there are many people who haven't left Bosnia yet, but they go away to work for six months of each year. They work abroad, with their families waiting here. Some come back, but the bigger number stay away.

"In the Republika Srpska, after the war the population was 1,400,000. Now it probably has about 800,000. The situation in the Federation is not much better, but unlike the RS, the Federation has significantly more large cities, regional centers: Sarajevo, Zenica, Tuzla, Bihać, Mostar; people gravitate to these places.


As I went around the country and my satchel got lighter, I encountered a very positive response to my book. I had the impression that people were glad to see that their story had been told in English in a way that can be accessible to the world outside of Bosnia. Some people suggested I have a "book launch" in the country. It's not a bad idea, but time was short and for the most part, it didn't take place. I did give a talk for a branch of the Rotary Club in Sarajevo, thanks to the efforts of Valery Perry. Ultimately, what I had was a unique one-on-one book tour.

I ran into an American who works for the UN, and he told me that my book was "making the rounds of the international workers last summer." And people I met with were promoting the idea of having the book translated into Bosnian. It's a good idea, but a massive project, demanding both time and money.

Nela, a local activist and intellectual who
reviewed my book in 2020, said that "there would definitely be an interest in a translation, because there is much content that is really important for our narrative here. When I was reading the book there were two things that really came to my mind: one was the importance of the documentation that the book contributes. But also, those dialogues that you've done with returned persons are key. This is a deep thing that always needs to be reflected. Refugee return is one big chunk of it. When you have lived through those moments of refugee return, there is no amount of academic, theoretical knowledge that can be compared to a replication of our personal stories. I felt that your book was really a narrative about these people's experiences, which I think can be really valuable for other people, in other contexts."


I was walking around Sarajevo one day. From the Bosnian Cultural Center (BKC), which used to be a synagogue before it was "donated" to the city after World War II, you cross through a passageway where there are dozens of booths selling all kinds of inexpensive clothing, to get to the main street near the
Viječna Vatra, the eternal flame.

Just before I
entered the passageway, a young man of about 30 years came out of a kafić (a small kafana where you can buy coffee and other drinks) and said to me, "Do you recognize me?" I didn't, for a few minutes. It was Toni, whom I hadn't seen since he was a teenager. I was happy to see him. He had been adopted by my friend Vesna when he became orphaned at about age 10. Vesna didn't take him in, but she made sure he got schooling and a place to stay. Eventually he became a cook. That was the last I had heard of him, somewhat over 10 years earlier.

Just running into someone by chance, and being recognized—as had often happened before—made me feel, once again, that I had a connection to Sarajevo and to Bosnia.

But Vesna is no longer there. She had been one of my most important "anchors" in the country. She was the one I checked in with about current events, the weather, old friends, and all things Bosnian. She died of Covid in April—one of the first in a string of friends of mine who have died, in Europe and in the US, of a variety of causes.

Vesna was a filmmaker, the only prominent woman film director in Yugoslavia before the war. She studied under Fellini in Italy in the early 1970s. Vesna sat on Fellini's lap. And before all that, she was a professor of literature. She was a Yugoslav by identity, with a Croat background, a perennial skeptic, never a member of the Party. During the war she filmed...the war. She was all but killed once or twice, and had another couple of near misses when bullets went through her hair. She could smell burning hair.

Vesna made a one-hour film about the war called "Ecce Homo." During the war, she came to Seattle to show her film in the Seattle International Film Festival, in about 1994 or 1995. I didn't meet her then, but later, in 1998, through a friend from Seattle who put me in touch with her when I was living in Sarajevo.

When Vesna left besieged Sarajevo to go to the US, she exited through the famous tunnel under Butmir airport. As she was exiting the tunnel, Serbs were bombing at that end. Vesna told me that she stepped through puddles of blood to get away from there, and she wasn't sure if it was her blood, or someone else's.

Vesna was cagey about her age. She once told me that she was 300 years old in her experiences. At the same time, she could enjoy life in the way that a child does. And she was everyone's mentor, before the war and after. She said that you couldn't count the number of books people published that listed her name in the acknowledgments. She was director of the Radio-Television Sarajevo drama and documentary department. She edited her friends' and colleagues' books, and she taught people how to make television and radio programs. She helped people overcome their fear of their own art, and helped them win prizes in their artistic endeavors. And after the war, as a displaced minority in her native Sarajevo, she also had to stand up to the harassment and obstruction of people in charge in that city.

There's a wartime curse from Sarajevo: "May you see your house on CNN." Well, while Vesna was at the film festival in Seattle, she did see her house on television. It had been bombed and the roof was damaged. She came back home, a Bosnian patriot who hoped to see things get better—even back to normal—after the war. That was a natural thing to hope for, during the war. Later, hope gradually got harder. But Vesna stayed.

I came to Bosnia after the war with rather simplistic ideas about who the "good guys and bad guys" were in that country's recent history. Vesna helped me get straightened out about things that had happened during the war, and the fact that corruption, profiteering, and manipulation were characteristics that were not exclusive to any one of the three main ethnicities in the country.

Vesna was an intellectual, but above all, an artist. She could come up with a film scenario at the drop of a hat, and it would be remarkably original. Her sense of irony—so natural in an East European country—was in top form, sometimes veering into sarcasm. Sarajevo and Bosnia-Herzegovina are much the poorer without her.

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