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and corruption; Emptying Kozarac
I took the bus from Sarajevo to Mostar. The bus was almost full. As
when I was on the plane and in the airport, I wore an N95 mask, and
over it, a cloth mask. But of the other thirty-odd people in the
bus, only two or three of them were wearing masks, and just one had
the mask covering the nose. This is the way it was throughout the
country. A young man sat down next to me without his mask on, and I
asked him to put it on. He complied, and then after a while moved
over to sit with his friends, removing the mask.
Earlier in the Covid period, there was more discipline in the
country, with closures, curfews, and quarantines. Bosnia did
relatively well in fighting off the plague. But by the end of 2020,
infections and deaths were rising considerably, and in 2021 the
death rate was the highest in the region. Other nearby countries
(Hungary, Croatia, Bulgaria, Montenegro, Macedonia) were not far
behind Bosnia, but worldwide, Bosnia's death rate was second only to
Today, Bulgaria has pulled ahead of Bosnia in deaths per million,
but Bosnia-Herzegovina is still not far behind. For a variety of
statistics for most countries in the world, see this chart.
(Note: The actual deaths per million rate in Bosnia is certainly
higher that what's listed, as this chart cites the total population
of the country at nearly 3,250,000, which is higher than what it
is.) In recent days, towards the end of February, the infection rate
has gone down somewhat, to the point that authorities are promising
a relaxation of safety measures.
I didn't feel smart nor brave, going to Bosnia under these
conditions. I just hoped for the best—not much of a strategy—and
came out lucky. It helped that the weather was fair and I was able
to have all my visits outdoors. And, for that matter, most of my
friends and colleagues were vaccinated. The vax rate in the cities
is higher than in rural areas, and certainly in Sarajevo. For the
whole country, the official rate
is around 30%, but I was told that in Sarajevo it is up between 40%
and 50%. It is probably even higher around the country than the
official rates, since thousands of people traveled to Serbia to get
shots. Last year Serbia had extra doses—more than the domestic
population was willing to use—and so they threw the doors open to
anyone who wanted to come from Bosnia for a shot. The estimate is
that at least 50,000 people went to Serbia.
The problem in Bosnia has not been a lack of vaccines. That was the
case until late spring 2021, putting the country about five months
behind the US in its vaccination campaign. But by late summer,
donations and purchases had vaccines flowing in from Austria,
Serbia, the US, Russia, China, and the UN Covax mechanism. At least
a million doses arrived in late summer. People got vaxxed—but
thousands of doses went to waste because of a lethargic response.
In the opinion of my friend and journalist Pedja, "the biggest
problem with the death rate in Bosnia is the poor medical system.
Say I break my leg in Mostar, I can't go to the hospital there. I
have to go to Sarajevo, where I live, in order not to have to pay
extra or go through a lot of red tape. It's the same story
everywhere in the Federation or the RS. The divided health care
system is madness. And here in Sarajevo you have two hospitals: you
have the Clinical Center, and the General Hospital. Sebija
Izetbegović, the wife of Bakir, runs one of them, and the other is
run by people in the SBB (a Bosniak nationalist political party).
And they are fighting with each other: 'We are better, no we're
better...you killed this patient...' It's vanity, not professional.
There are some pretty incompetent doctors; everyone knows this."
Among the incoming vaccines were Pfizer, Sinopharm, and AstraZeneca.
Since there's a major city in Bosnia called Zenica, people were
calling the vaccine "AstraZenica," and sometimes "Azra iz Zenice"—Azra
(a woman's name) from Zenica.
There are several reasons for the poor response to vaccination. One
is the lack of organizational capacity in the health care system.
There was a failure to mount an effective educational campaign that
reached out to the small towns and villages. Another reason was
cultural and psychological; the whole phenomenon of the plague is
ominous and scary, and vaccinations are scary to some people as
well. Misinformation and paranoid theories have taken their toll in
Bosnia as well as in the US.
And there is the irony, in Bosnia as in the US, of people always,
heretofore, having routinely accepted other vaccines without
question. So it is ironically legitimate when people bristle and
say, "I'm not anti-vax! I'm just against this one." One big
difference between the US and Bosnia is that the vaccination issue
is not politicized in Bosnia, or nowhere nearly to the extent it is
here. Extreme ethno-nationalists and ordinary people alike have been
seen wearing the mask in public; the pre-Trump mini-Trump, Milorad
Dodik, has been seen wearing a mask at public events. But all the
same, there's resistance among ordinary people.
Pedja told me that "people stopped caring about the vaccinations
here. It's a mixture of carelessness and apathy. There has been
rebellion against closures, as well." He further explained to me
that, especially among people in smaller, out of the way places,
there is a "Balkan mentality" at play that resists vaccination as an
intrusion. Those people, he says, don't travel and don't feel like
they're going to be in any danger.
My friend Kasim told me about a man, a drug addict who was used to
injections. He was getting vaccinations in other people's names—for
25 other people. They would pay him to do this, 20 euros per
vaccination, and from that they would have a certificate that
allowed them to go to work. Kasim said, "People say you can die from
the vaccine. But if one man can get vaccinated 25 times, what's
going to make you die?"
As in the US, disinformation finds its way quickly to those who
believe. It's not hard to find that small percentage of doctors or
other "experts" who can provide you with "information" that supports
your rebellion against the anti-Covid vaccine. In that vein, you can
find anything in the Bible to support your inclination; for example,
you can find reasoning in favor of mass murder, or against it. So it
strikes me that the internet is, in that way, the new Bible.
I had dinner with Boba, who bought me ten
dinner we walked over to Hotel Bristol and had a beer, sitting above
the Neretva River. Although the hotel is on the west side of the
river, that area is still politically "east Mostar." Some people
think that the beautiful river is the boundary between east and west
Mostar, but the boundary is in fact on the broad street named "Bulevar."
That's where the city was divided, quite violently, by 1993. Since
then, Croats control the west side, and Bosniaks, the east side.
In objection to this entire history, Boba (a Bosniak resident of the
east side, part of whose family was expelled from the
Croat-controlled side) says, "It's all one city; we're not giving it
away." Boba pointed at the hotel across the river and said that
although it was on the east side, the Croats had privatized it. But,
he said, no Bosniaks could privatize anything on the west side.
Politicians from the Croat nationalist HDZ and from the Bosniak
nationalist SDA have run the city since the war. Attempts at
creating a democratic power-sharing arrangement have been so mired
by conflicting goals that no municipal elections were held from 2008
to late 2020. For most of that 12-year interval, no city council
existed, and Ljubo Bešlić
remained in place as acting mayor. The city continued to function on
a low level, with environmental and other municipal problems
Boba told me that the long-time former mayor had been "ok as a
person. You could approach him. He walked around the town, had a
public presence. And yes, there is a city council again now. But you
wouldn't know it; they don't seem to have gotten anything done. The
city is still dumping trash at Uborak, the refuse station. Some of
it is medical waste, dangerous, and the whole thing is overflowing
and endangering the neighborhood. There have been protests. The
police came and arrested the protestors. The dump was supposed to be
closed down last year, as the permit has expired. But they're still
The next morning I met with Huso, a long-time activist and
journalist, back at the Hotel Bristol, ever a popular meeting place
with a broad outdoor spread of tables overlooking the river. We
shared stories about Vesna, laughed, and discussed corruption in the
divided city. Huso works with "Mreža Naše Društvo," the activist
network "Our Society," which fights to improve conditions in the
neglected infrastructure and threatened environment in Mostar.
As an anti-corruption watchdog, Huso has his hands full. He
discussed the culture of corruption in Mostar: "State law does not
have an effect, as there are parallel forms of behavior that ignore
the law. Given that public officials have been developing ways to
evade the law for over 20 years, they have made their own behavior
the law. Then new officials come along and just accept forms of
corruption that had been practiced, and they say, 'We are doing
everything according to the law.' It is the same with any new regime
or administration. When someone retires and a new official comes
into office, they say they are working as their predecessors did.
The new officials don't even know that that corrupt behavior is not
actually legal—that it was thought up in order to steal, to corrupt
"These violations have been going on at the city and cantonal level.
Officials have created a parallel system to the point where they
believe they are obeying the law—but they steal. It is the custom,
and since we have gotten used to it, it gets established in a
This pertains to construction projects arranged without public
tenders; rampant nepotism; payments without contracts. "The budget
is the spoils," Huso says, referring to the government's income from
taxes. "It is the reward to the political parties that come to
power. Then, donations come in from the international community, and
that is how the state covers infrastructure projects. But the local
budget is not to be touched. It is shared out among the parties.
Then the highways, repair of the water system—such things are
covered with credit, from foreign investment.
"All the taxes, that's what they steal. And then the EU and the US
give money, and they use all that money for the airport, traffic
circles, and other projects. But control of the budget with a
strategy, for social, political, cultural, or medical needs—that is
impermissible. The party takes those funds; the bosses of the
parties, the oligarchy, take it for themselves."
Huso mentions a few brash operations the stealers engage in: "There
are people in the city government buying light bulbs for 10 KM
(about $6), and then billing the city 40 KM. They've been doing this
for 10 years; it amounts to a loss of 120,000 KM per year. This
money goes to the political parties, who then hire people as
patronage. For example, you have ten people working in the
Elektroprivreda [energy company] office, in a space that only holds
four people. The rest of them just sit out in the hall."
I asked what they do. Huso said, "Nothing. They vote for the 'right'
political party, they and their families."
Then, city officials have been charging for dealing with stray dogs,
a big problem around Bosnia. Huso tells me that they are charging
for injections, for the asylum (dog pound), and for euthanizing the
dogs and for burying them. But often, they are just shooting the
With corruption, Huso says, "People think that it is very complex.
But it's simple. It is so simple; they steal without any caution,
right in front of people's eyes. They make enormous profits from
markups like that of the light bulbs. And they sell goods to the
city agencies, such as the electrical company, without accounting.
They charge tax twice, without any record of such transactions. It's
not written anywhere."
A little later in the month I took the bus to Kozarac. Before I went
to the Kuća
Mira(House of Peace),
a meeting place and hostel run by the local organization Srcem do
Mira (With Heart to Peace), I stopped by the home of Emsuda
the long-time leader of the organization. It was started by exiles
from Kozarac and Prijedor during the war, while they were living in
Zagreb. Soon after the war, many refugees from Prijedor municipality
repatriated to Sanski Most, near Prijedor but in the Federation, and
for a while that became the base of Srcem do Mira.
Sanski Most is where I met Emsuda in the spring of 1998, at the
organization's fourth or fifth annual conference. Attendees took a
trip across the entity borderline to Kozarac, where on a dreary,
rainy day we viewed the town, which was nearly 100% in ruins. The
next year the conference took place in Kozarac as return was
starting to happen, led by brave refugees determined to come home
and rebuild, in spite of being "minorities" under a hostile regime.
In the next few years, Kozarac regained its old pleasant looks, as
thousands of people returned to the town and the surrounding
villages. (You can search around in this page
and among archives from the
for my reports about this return movement; that history is in my
In several ways, however, things are not as good as they were, say,
15 years ago. Due to discrimination, poor economic prospects,
seemingly permanent corruption, and increasing ethno-national
extremism from the ruling Serb parties, returned Bosniaks have been
leaving Kozarac and the broader Prijedor area.
Emsuda greeted me by saying, "So you couldn't come to
Bosnia-Herzegovina without visiting Kozarac." She asked me how my
family was, and how long I was going to stay in the country. The
answers to the two questions were related, since my mother, 101
years old, was not very well. I explained to Emsuda that just before
leaving for Bosnia, I had visited her in her senior residence and,
after that visit, I didn't know how much time I was going to be able
to spend in Bosnia.
Mom had been forgetting things lately. While I was there, I told her
about how I was going to carry copies of my book to Bosnia, to give
to friends and colleagues. Mom asked me, "Have I heard about this
book?" I walked over to the bookcase, took out the book, and showed
her the dedication, which was to her and my father.
As I was leaving, she said, "You know, I think we are getting very
I asked Emsuda if the annual conference had taken place in the last
couple of years. She said, "Not really; due to the pandemic, we
could not meet together. Last year it was limited; about 20 people
came, just from Bosnia. This year (2021) there were about 40, but
again only people from Bosnia."
I asked Emsuda how she evaluated the scene in Kozarac today. She
said, "Things were very different in 1999, in comparison with now.
Now, there are many rebuilt houses; we have electricity, running
water, and a clinic. We have the school, the fire station, and the
monument to the people from Kozarac who were killed or disappeared.
But we don't have people! They are leaving, because of insecurity.
It is not just about economic insecurity, but also because of
political tensions that have been rising. People are fleeing because
of that. People with businesses are shutting down their companies
and leaving. Even people employed in good firms are going away.
They're resigning and leaving, usually to Germany, Austria, Sweden,
or the US. People who can build things are getting jobs in those
places right away.
"Educated people, if they know German, they can leave easily too.
And those who don't know, they study. Around 8,000 young people have
left from this municipality. Now with the pandemic, people are not
coming from the diaspora to visit. So you can see the emptiness. You
can sit here and not see a car pass along this street for an hour.
There's no one. It used to be that it took an hour for me to walk
less than a kilometer, up to the Kuča
Mira, what with
running into people and visiting with them."
I asked Emsuda about the highway that the Serb-controlled entity has
planned; at present it is set to run right through a returnee
neighborhood on the edge of town. Emsuda said, "I don't know what
will happen. Now, they're planning to go through the most fertile
land. So they would destroy that land and go through neighborhoods
where there are beautiful, rebuilt houses. In some places, the
highway will pass between a family's house and their property.
"They could just broaden the already existing two-lane road between
Banja Luka and Prijedor, without moving anything. But they have
allowed people to build gas stations there, and they would have to
move them. There are other possible routes too, but they seem
determined to hurt the lives of the returnees.
"So with this kind of thing going on, people are afraid. And the
activism that used to thrive in the NGO sector, it is not the way it
was before. There is much less support from abroad. The
international community has mostly dropped its support of our local
organizations. There is some local governmental support—of
governmental 'non-governmental organizations.' Because of this, I
have not asked the municipality for support for the work of Srcem do
We could get a small amount of money, say, 2,000 KM, but then we
would be an instrument of the government. Some NGOs that are
comfortable with that. For example, Kolo srpskih sestara
(Circle of Serb Sisters), they receive 80,000 KM to build a church.
For our monument, we had to collect those funds ourselves. The 2,000
KM we had received at one time was not even enough to pay for the
lighting for the structure. So with this situation, we don't have
One evening I was on the phone from Kozarac with Valery in Sarajevo.
I recounted to her what Emsuda said, about the thousands of people
leaving Kozarac and its surroundings, about Kozarac having
everything except people.