Articles on the Bosnia Conflict



Bosnia-Herzegovina 2021, Journal #5

2021 Journal index

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

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Folie à Deux; Zulfo

Passing through Banja Luka, I chatted with Nermina for the afternoon. I mentioned Ervin's evaluation of the present political drama as a "rijaliti" show, a performance from the political heights that had more emotional than physical impact. Nermina was not so sure, noting that the ongoing boycott of state-level institutions by Serb officials could have a very tangible impact. For example, when it came time to pass a budget, thousands of government employees in all municipalities, cantons, and entities of the country could find themselves stranded without their salaries.

That was the concern of late September, but it was resolved for the moment, as the Serb officials lifted their boycott long enough to vote in favor of their own enrichment. In the longer term, the direct, if not physical, results of the boycott and ongoing separatist manipulations have been plain to see, in widespread nervousness and the flight from Bosnia of many people.


Here's my translation of a recent description of the current crisis by Ned
žad Ibrahimović, a professor and author from Lukavac near Tuzla.

 Everything is the same as the '90s—but it is not the 90s! Then, our Bosnian-Herzegovinan Serbs (the majority but not all, to be fair), were imperceptibly endangered; they raised a commotion in the Cultural Centers about how their biological survival was threatened by the NDH [the World War II Independent Croatian State that collaborated with the Nazis] or by the Turks; they received weapons from the JNA [the Yugoslav People's Army] and they formed their independent autonomous territories. They divided everything along ethnic lines: people and water, the air and the forests, and the hills and the animals, so that we in Lukavac joked, "Is that a Serb bunny in the meadow, or it is a Muslim one?" Then some joker would ask, "But whose meadow is it?" It was an ever-stronger delusion to the point at which everyone in Bosnia became mad. In the end, this is called a folie à deux, the transmission of senseless ideas from one person to another, or to many, who are usually in a close emotional bond. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, all are in close emotional ties.
  The same people are organizing this, today, who were doing it in the '90s. The difference is that they don't feel like going to war (they are older, it's tough to bushwhack through the woods; where you gonna find an outhouse?; and where's your lover?) but that's why there are the kids, my friend (others' kids, of course); they are raised on the thesis that somehow, someone, somewhere, has at some point deceived them terribly, taken something away from them or, still worse, is about to take something away from them (the pattern: forests, bunnies, and meadows!); they're full of acquired rage, sacred evil, and the unfulfilled wishes of their fathers—Oh, those children can hardly wait to receive their weapons. And that, if possible, when it is some holiday.*
  In the Balkans, history is a crazy, narcissistic mother, one covered with wounds always inflicted by others, unfeeling towards the children of her neighbors, a bitch who is completely without empathy, who in her rage smashes everything around her—with God's help.
*The first Serb attacks on Bosniak communities in eastern Bosnia-Herzegovina took place on the Bajram holiday, 1992.

...And as the months go by and the crisis passes the half-year mark, it seems that an actual war is not in the cards after all, although no one but a foolish international envoy is willing to be quoted declaring that there will not be a war. In reality (not rijaliti) the war of the 1990s never ended, and the fanatics, the war criminals, and the high-stakes embezzlers (all brothers in plunder) carry on feverishly, working overtime to devise the perfect crime: the deepening division of a beloved, thousand-year-old country. At times, with the transparent collusion of international officials from the most powerful countries east and west. They focus on the reward: escape from well-deserved prosecution, with material rewards that are really fantastic for the satraps of a small, peripheral nation.


I'm sorry to add to the bad news by mentioning that a friend and stalwart activist for justice in Srebrenica has passed away. But his name must be mentioned and his memory honored. Zulfo
Salihović died last summer at age 56. To everyone's surprise and shock, he succumbed unexpectedly to a heart attack. Zulfo was a leader. He was one of the people who stayed in the Srebrenica enclave throughout the war, trying to defend his home. When the enclave fell, he joined thousands of others on the death march through the mountains to safe territory. He was forced to wander long in those hills, but he made it.

That experience cost him his health, but Zulfo came back and helped lead people in the uphill struggle for return to Srebrenica. He gained the lasting respect of his community. He stayed around Srebrenica and gave the rest of his life to trying to make things better for people in the town. Not only for the Muslim returnees. For everyone. Here's part of what I wrote about Zulfo in my book:

I had the honor of meeting Zulfo when he was involved in the movement for return to Srebrenica, as that movement was just beginning. In the late 1990s Zulfo and his organization, Drina, were very active in promoting return to the villages around Srebrenica. In 2000 I accompanied Zulfo on a visit to the return encampment at Sućeska, the first village that people were returning to outside of Srebrenica town.

Zulfo grew up in Brakovci, a small settlement that is part of the Sućeska complex of villages. He went to elementary school in the village, but classes only went through 4th grade, and then he had to walk down the hill to Derventa—eight kilometers away—to get to school. In order to go to technical high school in Bratunac, Zulfo rented an apartment and lived there on his own. He went to Serbia each summer to do odd jobs so that he could continue to study.

In 1985 Zulfo got a job as a mechanical design technician with one of the mining companies based in Milići. He eventually bought a lot in Srebrenica and built a house in town. On becoming politically active before the war, Zulfo told me, “I was not in politics under Tito. I was a kid from the village."

When the war started, extremist Serb forces attacked Srebrenica, ultimately surrounding it and leading to its establishment as an enclave. Of that period, Zulfo said, “In Srebrenica it was the ordinary people who fought to defend the enclave; the others, the intellectuals and the elite portion of society, were already outside Srebrenica."

Zulfo was one of those who stayed to defend the enclave.

In 2003 I hitched a ride with Zulfo from Srebrenica to Sarajevo via Milići, the rugged back route through the hills. We headed off toward Sućeska.

We climbed up the dirt and gravel—and sometimes mud—road out of Srebrenica. Around a half hour out, we stopped at Vijogor, at a viewpoint where you could see just about to Srebrenica to the south, and almost to Sućeska to the west. We were in the mountains, above everything, with a view of many shades of green all the way to the distant horizon.

We passed Zulfo’s home village of Brakovci, across the valley. Zulfo pointed up a ravine and said, “I spent much of my youth in these woods.” I said, “Then you’re not a city kid like me.” He answered, “And I’m not ashamed of it.”

Coming down through the mountains toward Milići we stopped for water at a fountain in the woods. An inscription on the fountain read, “Good works are the measure of a good person.”

There was a hefty slug climbing on the fountain. After we drank, Zulfo looked at it and told me, “I had to eat a lot of those during the hike through the woods [escaping from Srebrenica when the enclave fell in July 1995]. At first, I couldn’t eat them, but after a few days, I learned to.”

While some people managed to escape to safe territory in little over a week, Zulfo’s walk, with some other men from the army, lasted over a month. The people in his group were stuck on one mountain for 18 days, waiting for a signal to break through to safe territory.

“I walked 32 days through the woods before I arrived in Tuzla. Around one-third of those who left, fewer than 5,000 people, arrived. No one knows the real figures...”

Along the way through the mountains, we stopped occasionally as Zulfo met someone fixing a house or doing an errand. Zulfo would stop and say, “Hello friend, how’s your father?” These were Serbs from the area between Srebrenica and Milići, people he had worked with and was friends with before the war. Zulfo told me that one person he had just greeted had fought on the side of Serb forces during the war. I asked if it was strange for him to be interacting with that person. Zulfo said, “The war is over now, and people have to accept that.”

Over the years Zulfo worked with people who favored return and reconstruction of Srebrenica, regardless of their ethnicity. Asked how he felt about cooperation with Serbs after what happened during the war, he responded, “It is unavoidable for them and for us. Even during the war, I was already convinced that we were not going to be able to live separately. I was shown to be right. We have to work together.”

During that rough ride between Srebrenica and Milići, we came upon a tall cherry tree growing in the woods. We stopped and picked a few cherries and then Zulfo, who is at least six feet tall, climbed up into the tree and started picking sprigs of branches with handfuls of cherries on them, and throwing them down to me. We filled two plastic bags that way.

Assessing the toll that the traumas of the 1990s had taken on his psyche, Zulfo said, “I can’t say that I’m a completely healthy person. I think I am reasonably intact, but I often have dreams, after all that happened.”

I admired Zulfo’s ability to recover, to reach out to his former enemies, to focus on rebuilding his homeland—and to stop and pick the cherries.

Once, I commented to him, “I suppose you are an optimist.” He answered, “If I weren’t, I would not have started the work that I started after the war. Bosnia is still at a low level of functioning. Young people are our strength. I hope Bosnia can revive; I don’t know whether it can happen in 10 years, but maybe in 10 to 15, there will be success. It will be freer, there will be democracy. The majority of ordinary people are dissatisfied. There always needs to be a strong movement for change.”

Rest in peace, dragi Zulfo—laka ti Bosanska zemlja!


As I wind up this series of reports, I'm very aware that it's not all uplifting news. The crisis in Bosnia-Herzegovina is not six months old. Rather, it is thirty years old. People get discouraged and depressed; some leave. But I can tell you that there are still plenty of people who are in love with Bosnia, who are not determined to let it go down. They say, "We have been through worse."

There will be more bad news. But there will be more good news, too.

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