Bosnia’s Frozen Conflicts
By Peter Lippman
July 14, 2011
Bosnia Remade: Ethnic Cleansing and Its Reversal, by Gerard Toal and Carl T. Dahlman. Oxford University Press, 2011. 488 pages.
A couple of years after the end of the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Aleksandar Sakota showed me around Doboj town. Sakota, a native of Doboj, was an activist with the local branch of the return advocacy organization Coalition for Return. We had just finished a meeting where I was briefed on the status of return of displaced people to Doboj. Sakota and his colleagues, local Serbs, were working to help their Croat and Bosniak (Muslim) former neighbors to return to the Serb-controlled city from which they had been expelled during the war.
Sakota took me up to Doboj’s ancient fortress, a prominent viewpoint above the center of town, from which one can survey the entire surrounding region. There, he pointed to an area near the Usora river and told me, “That is where I was on the front line.” I struggled with the dissonance of this new information: this man, who was working to promote the right to return, once fought against the army that was trying to keep Bosnia and Herzegovina whole. Presumably he believed that he was protecting himself and his family.
I asked Sakota, “Is it not a confounding situation for you, that you are now working to help the return of those whom you once fought against?” He answered, “No, we who were on the front line understand each other well. I miss my former neighbors and I want them to return. It’s those people who stayed in the city, tormenting the Bosniaks and Croats, who still want them to stay away.”
In that exchange lies much of the information that can unlock the confusion of Bosnia’s story.
Bosnia Remade works to clarify that confusing situation. Authors Gerard Toal and Carl T. Dahlman have done an admirable job of providing background information about the war and its resulting many-layered displacement, as well as discussing the successes and failures of the postwar recovery period.
Yugoslavia, a federation composed of six republics and numerous ethnicities, was a good idea. It offered relative prosperity and stability to a population of more than 20 million people in a political space between the East and the West, in the time between World War II and the fall of the Berlin Wall. For that brief time the Macedonians, Slovenians, Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks, Albanians, and many others living in a varied, magnificently beautiful landscape had a multicultural country that they could proudly call home.
Sadly, Tito’s authoritarian regime did not prepare the Yugoslavs for the post-Tito – and critically, the post-Cold War – transformation, and the country dissolved into chaos and violence at the hands of competing nationalist extremists. Bosnia got the worst of it; by the end of the war more than a million Bosnians had been made refugees throughout the world, and a similar number remained displaced within the country. More than 100,000 people had been killed. The Dayton armistice of November 1995 left the country partitioned into two “entities,” the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska and the Croat- and Muslim-dominated Federation.
In the first half of Bosnia Remade, the authors ably describe the breakdown of Yugoslavia and the fighting that tore Bosnia apart. With the benefit of more historical distance than that found in most books on that period, the book offers clarity anew through a dispassionate examination of the behavior and motives of those who destroyed Bosnia. Outside of polemical works, it is rare and refreshing to find such pointed analysis. For example, the authors write:
“From a start-up history of violent entrepreneurship during the war, criminal business networks are active across Bosnia and have embedded themselves into its divided political life. Closely tied to nationalist parties, this business class acquired economic power through political means and keeps it through political manipulations and the power of ethnic patronage.”
With this analytical approach, the authors have swept aside the standard low-grade, talk-show historiography that views the Bosnian war as an ethnic conflict; they have identified the motive for the destruction of Bosnia as the ongoing, massive plunder of the country’s wealth for the benefit of a new elite. They illustrate that as long as people whose experiences are similar and whose interests are identical can be divided, they can be manipulated to continue to support those who are robbing them. Pushing the ethnic button has proved to be as good as any other device for this purpose, and that device continues to function in Bosnia to this day.
The “tormentors” of Doboj whom Aleksandar Sakota mentioned to me were just such “violent entrepreneurs.” Since Toal and Dahlman selected Doboj, together with Jajce and Zvornik, as their geographical focus, they name some of those entrepreneurs: Milan Ninkovic, Milovan Stankovic, and Borislav Paravac were among them. Many of these figures have survived and thrived to this day. Paravac, who has boasted of his family’s “Chetnik” (extreme Serbian nationalist) background, even served as the Serb member of Bosnia’s three-part presidency for a time.
The impunity that has thus reigned in Bosnia for the 16 postwar years has facilitated the continuing existence of a state that the authors repeatedly describe as “dysfunctional.” The international community – notwithstanding the sincere efforts on the part of some of its officials – has played an active role in enabling and perpetuating this dysfunction, second in that role only to Bosnia’s home-grown gangster-profiteer-politician infrastructure. Toal and Dahlman provide an assessment of the international community’s role that is nearly as severe as its evaluation of the domestic factors. Referring to the “fascist visions and practices” sponsored by the leaders of the Serbian and Croatian expansionists, they write, “But fault lies too with U.S. and European leaders at the time for their failure to see the challenge … in Bosnia-Herzegovina clearly and act decisively.”
The international community indeed failed to see the challenge, from well before the war’s start. When certain exceptional international officials accurately described the dynamics of the conflict as Toal and Dahlman have done, they were ignored.
By the time the Dayton peace agreement was signed, Bosnia was a country in ruins; half of the Bosnians were displaced or made refugees, and a half-million housing units lay ruined or damaged, as were hundreds of mosques, churches, schools, bridges, and other vital infrastructure. Meanwhile, capping off a decade-long process of identity dislocation, people who wished to return to their prewar homes in places now under the control of another ethnicity found themselves termed “minorities” – a new name in the political lexicon. Never before had a Croat, a Serb, or a Bosniak been called a minority in any part of his or her homeland of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The movement for the return of internal refugees was the key grass-roots human rights movement in Bosnia for the first half-dozen postwar years. The success of this movement was the only hope for reversing the ethnic cleansing that had destroyed the rich multicultural character of the country.
The second half of Bosnia Remade examines the international community’s participation in the return campaign. This valuable section charts new territory, introducing postwar history that has scarcely been covered in a serious way in book form. My only frustration with an otherwise clear and ample recounting of the campaign for return is that, to a large degree, it omits the story of the people themselves. The authors note the “complete disenfranchisement of ordinary Bosnians” and go on to state that “real desire to return home” among ordinary Bosniaks provided unexpectedly large participation in the return process, thus implicitly showing that the return campaign depended upon the people. But an examination of the grass-roots nature of that campaign is lacking; the Coalition for Return is barely mentioned, and the phenomenon of hundreds of local “associations of displaced people” is left out.
The million-odd displaced people remaining in Bosnia at war’s end could emigrate, “integrate” in their new locations, or try to return to their prewar homes. In spite of often violent obstruction, thousands of people – Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats all – fervently wished and hoped to go home. The attachment to one’s ancestral land and to the particularities of one’s micro-region is a bond that is generally foreign to peripatetic Westerners. But this attachment was part of the urge, against all odds, to return. Another motivation, in many cases, was simply that displaced people wished to evacuate their temporary shelters as soon as possible. Often people were huddled in vacated houses or were squatting in “abandoned” homes that belonged to other displaced people.
A further incentive to return, as described in Bosnia Remade, was that eventually squatters were faced with the threat of eviction. It took three years after the war for the international community and its representative in Bosnia, the Office of the High Representative, to realize that it had to increase the pressure upon recalcitrant local officials by promulgating standardized property laws that forced local authorities to relinquish usurped property to its prewar owners. These laws began to come into force only in 1999, almost four years after the end of the war, and they took a couple more years to begin to be implemented. This was the heart of the international community’s enforcement of Annex 7 of the Dayton agreement, which had articulated the displaced people’s right to return to their prewar homes. It was too little, too late.
For years, organizations and individuals had been struggling to return. Obstruction first took the form of low-intensity terrorism. Obstructionists mined and torched rebuilt homes and murdered returnees. Later, when the violence gradually subsided, “obstruction at the office counter” took its place. Displaced people paid unreasonable fees for forms that they were required to fill out in order to register their requests for return. They were shunted from one office to another. It required intrepid persistence to succeed. One Sarajevo Croat in the midst of a several-year-long effort told me, "I went to the municipality offices, and to the ministries – I knocked on every door, everywhere. Eventually I realized exactly what was happening: that they were kicking me around like a ball.”
Toward the end of the 1990s the international community, through threats, removal of obstructionists, and the new laws, began to clear the logjam. At this time the grass-roots movement was also developing new tactics, including setting up tent encampments on the interentity borderlines. By the year 2000, as Toal and Dahlman describe, something approaching real return was under way. Return rates peaked in the next three years and then dropped precipitously after 2003. In the end, in most localities the actual minority return rate, optimistic declarations notwithstanding, remained under 20 percent.
Toward the end of Bosnia Remade, the authors phrase their central concluding question: “Did ethnic cleansing succeed?” To this question they counterpose another: “Was the implementation of Annex 7 successful?” To the detriment of the book, criteria for answering the second question are not adequately defined.
At one point, Toal and Dahlman state that it is “much too glib to describe the annex as a failure.” In other places they refer to the “relative success of Annex 7 but also the enduring legacy of ethnic cleansing.” Stepping gingerly around the question, they equivocate by saying, “A certain resolution and closure, not perfect or even satisfactory in many cases, has been achieved and resentment and future conflict ameliorated.”
Is successful implementation of Annex 7, i.e., some significant amount of minority returns, equivalent to reversing the effects of ethnic cleansing? Or is there some other, more abstract definition for success?
The confusion generated by the authors’ vacillating on this question is an academic confusion. It is unrealistic to demand that this excellent book answer every possible question, but the confusion could have been dispelled, and the book could have benefited, if the researchers had had the time to make more contact with the grass roots. For example, a conversation with Hatidza Mehmedovic, activist and returnee to Srebrenica, or with Nermin Dizdar, activist and returnee to Stolac, would have been instructive. Either of these brave activists would have brushed aside the wrangle over Annex 7 and simply said that for returnees in Bosnia today, a situation of apartheid reigns.
Authors Toal and Dahlman wrap up the discussion about the remaking of Bosnia by saying, “Perhaps the most appropriate answer to whether ethnic cleansing has succeeded in Bosnia is that it is too early to tell.” This statement is detached from the daily reality of the country. The ethnic cleansing of Bosnia was legalized by the Dayton agreement, leaving its perpetrators in power and free to continue to operate their wreck of a state in its several mafia-run fragments.
The story of refugee return in Bosnia is finished. Beyond that discussion, an appropriate question to ask is, what is to become of Bosnia and Herzegovina? From where does the impetus for change come? Academics and international officials must pay more attention to the grass-roots impulse for change – for democratization and for an end to corruption – and to support it. As current events in other parts of the globe demonstrate, there are indeed times when change wells up from below. The situation is so stalemated in permanent crisis in Bosnia that neither the international community, as it has so amply demonstrated, nor the grass roots, can fix things alone. They must collaborate.
Peter Lippman is a writer and human-rights activist from the United States. He covered the Bosnian refugee return process for the Advocacy Project.