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
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.
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 Dženan."
I heard estimates attendance between 7,000 and 10,000. People came
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.
protest was the largest in quite some years, probably since
the near-revolt of February,
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
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
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
"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
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
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,
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
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
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.