Bosnia-Herzegovina Journal #2: Tuzla By Peter Lippman
October 11, 2012
2012 Journal index
Sarajevo. September 25 Journal 2:
Tuzla. October 11 Journal 3: Srebrenica. October 13 Journal 4:
Bratunac, Višegrad, Elections. October 26 Journal 5:
Banja Luka. November 6 Journal 6:
Krajina - Kozarac, Prijedor. November 12 Journal 7:
Guilt, Responsibility, and
Politics. November 20 Journal 8:Travnik,
Mostar, Animal Farm. December 13 Journal 9:
Activism in Sarajevo, Return to
Srebrenica, Prijedor Revisited,
December 19 Journal 10:
Nade; The Missing; Tycoon Arrested; March 1st Coalition,
December 26 Journal 11:
Macedonia and Kosovo, January 2, 2013 Journal 12:
The Roma of Kosovo, January 11, 2013 Journal 13: A
Visit to Germany, January 29, 2013
To contact Peter
in response to these reports or any of his articles,
Soon after I arrived in
Tuzla, I took the 20-minute bus ride to Lukavac to look up
Vahid. He is from Srebrenica and works for the municipality
there, but happened to be on leave. I find him one of the people
most qualified to describe to me the situation in Srebrenica,
able to talk knowledgeably not only about the politics, but
about the economic situation and how people are getting along.
Here are some notes from that conversation.
One recurring comment from nearly everyone I speak with about
Srebrenica is that everything is decided from afar. Vahid says,
"Regarding Srebrenica, in the Republika Srpska [RS] all
decisions are made centrally, without consulting Srebrenica. For
example, they sold the concession for the mine to a company in
Gradiska [a city in the northern part of the RS], so the money
goes to Gradiska, not to the Srebrenica municipality. They
didn't ask us. So in that way, they are continuing to kill
Srebrenica. We do not have a way to defend ourselves from that;
they have never stopped killing Srebrenica."
Q: How do you evaluate the situation with the upcoming
A: There is the problem with the official identification
documents. In order to change your official residence [in order
to vote in Srebrenica], you must change your i.d. This is an
administrative form of discrimination. .Since people can't just
change their place of voting that easily, there had to be the
campaign ["Glasaću za Srebrenicu" - I will vote
for Srebrenica, which helped register people who were displaced
from there during the war].
Q: What do you think will happen if a Serb wins?
A: There won't be anything spectacular. In Bratunac the Serbs
are in control, but there has been plenty of Muslim return.
There will be compromise because there will still be Muslim
power in the municipal council.
Q: Will people raise a fuss?
A: They will, but it will subside. And the Serbs can say, well,
Potocari [the memorial center and cemetery] is administered by
SIPA [the state-level police, equivalent to the FBI], so there
won't be any change there.
The political power as concerns Srebrenica is located at the
entity [RS] level and in the international community. Vesna
Kočević [Serb candidate for mayor] is an honest person. She is
not in conflict with people.
Q: How do you evaluate the political-economic situation in
Banja Luka has tried to prevent
the development of Banja Guber [the mineral springs and spa
which once used to be a tourist attraction for people throughout
Yugoslavia and beyond, and a significant source of income
to the municipality]. There was an arrangement to rebuild the
spa [devastated during the recent war], but it was blocked by
Banja Luka. After a year's
fight, we won by showing that our plan was serious. Now, they
are still building the hotel and a center for physical therapy.
So then, the private sector will be able to develop the economy.
So it will come to a positive change, guests will come, people
will be able to earn money. Therefore, it will be possible for
more people to return to Srebrenica, and younger people would
Q: How do you compare the situation in Kozluk to that of
Srebrenica? [Note: I wrote reports about return to Kozluk in
previous years. That is a small town north of Zvornik where
returnees, led by now-deceased Fadil Banjanović "Bracika,"
collaborated with Dodik, to their own benefit.]
A: It shows that you can do some things with Dodik if you set
some things aside. He denies genocide. And Srebrenica denies
Dodik. Srebrenica should make the first step towards Dodik; he
won't do that. Bracika is a good example of how to work with
Dodik. Srebrenica could do what he did, but it won't.
There are some facts that should be accepted: Srebrenica is in
the RS, and Dodik is president of the entity. Q: What are the numbers of return?
A: There are around 5,000 returnees and 2,000 or 3,000 who come
back and forth. These are about half and half Bosniak and Serb.
Of the pre-war population of Srebrenica, around ten thousand
were killed, another ten thousand are living abroad, and around
ten thousand are living in various locations throughout BiH.
Added to that, there is a low birth rate among people from
Vahid concluded, "There are many conditions to fill before
Srebrenica can be a good place to live. It will take a long
I am aware that Vahid's opinions may make some people very
uncomfortable, especially the suggestion that the issue of
genocide denial should be put aside. That won't happen, in any
case. As long as there is denial of the recent history of
Srebrenica, people in many places will fight back. But I think
that Vahid's attitudes are significant in that they represent
the position of some people in a position of power, more or less
situated with the
SDA. They suggest a
kind of realpolitik, a way to "get along." Bracika, who was a
hero of the return movement after the war, probably also adopted
that strategy. It's much harder, of course, for the survivors of
Vahid's words also reflect the fact that there is a lot more on
people's minds than the history of the war - I'll say more about
that when I report on what I've seen in Srebrenica.
Vahid mentions Vesna Kočević favorably, as have other people
familiar with Srebrenica. But they also point out that if she
were elected, the local boss of her party (Dodik's SNSD),
Radomir Pavlović, would become "shadow mayor."
As to the "facts that should be accepted," Vahid is correct
about that - Srebrenica is where it is, and no amount of
striving for absolute justice will change that.
In searching for the whole story in this country, I have to
talk to many people about one issue or situation in order to
develop, even roughly, an accurate impression of what's going
on. In some places I have someone I call the "third answer."
After talking to many people and getting conflicting answers, I
talk to that person, and s/he helps me sort things out.
Fountain square, Tuzla
Tuzla is one of the most progressive cities in
Bosnia-Herzegovina. While politics started dividing people by
ethnicity before the war, there has never been a nationalist
government in Tuzla. The atmosphere has thus always been
noticeably more relaxed in the city than in most other parts of
Bosnia, and people have celebrated the fact that they are not
burdened by ethnic tensions. This is partly due to the long-term
cultural heritage of this relatively economically-advanced and
multi-ethnic city. Part of the credit also goes to the ruling,
non-nationalist SDP, which has received its mandate from the
local voters ever since the early 1990s.
Given this, it's striking that no one I talk to in Tuzla is
happy with the local government. While there is noticeable
development in Tuzla, on the whole people still live under the
insecure and unstable conditions of the Bosnian economy, with
low pensions, low wages, and high utility bills. People I know
there who were once involved in politics, say, with the
progressive opposition party Naša Stranka [Our Party],
have left that work behind and are tending to their own life
projects. For example, I talked to Samira, a former activist
with that party, who said the following:
"Until about five years ago, I had hope. I don't think that
Bosnia will fall apart, but now I feel disappointed about the
lack of progress. I love this country, but I have to take care
of myself, to develop skills."
Speaking of local politics, Samira said, "The people who are in
power are not educated; you have to be a member of a party to be
employed. You have no chance without being a member. And people
are paying 10,000 KM to get employment, for example, in the
"The party appoints the director of a company, and then he hires
people from the same party. And then to keep their jobs,
everyone votes for that party.
"There is still a lot of support for the SDP [Social Democrats]
here. People vote based on their family tradition, and on the
possibility to travel. They're happy to get the chance to go to
Sarajevo. And the SDP has more money.
"People from the SDA [the traditional Bosnian Muslim party] have
been offering to pay 100 KM for a vote. The hodža
[functionary in the Muslim infrastructure] has been going around
paying people to vote for the SDA. You're supposed to take a
photo of your ballot with a telephone, and then you get paid.
Samira told me that she has good relationships with all kinds of
people in both entities of this country. I asked her for her
impression of how young Serbs in the RS feel about their
leaders. She said, "They don't like Dodik. But they want him for
a leader, to 'keep things together.' "
Campaign posters, Tuzla
I talked to my friend Nedžad about the
politics and the corruption. Samira had told me that she
believes that there are some good people locally in the SBB,
that they have a good economic policy. Nedžad disagreed. He
said, "Their only policy is to blow smoke in people's eyes and
confuse them so that they can get power."
Speaking of the corrupt leaders, Nedžad said, "Radončić will go
to jail. Dodik will go to jail. They will all go to jail sooner
or later, I am convinced."
I said, "Well, doesn't that require there to be a situation of
rule of law in this country?" He responded, "You can't create a
country with rule of law overnight."
My friend Mersiha invited me to a family event in a village near
the town of Lukavac, not far from Tuzla: the pečenje rakije,
distilling of the brandy.
Mersiha's cousin drove us up to Bistarac where Mersiha grew up,
a village about ten minutes from Lukavac. There, there were
around fifteen or twenty people, mostly her relatives. I met her
parents, her dajdža (uncle) Ševal,
and all the rest of the folks.
Mersiha's father and several other men were working the kazan,
or still. This was rented equipment. There was a great boiler
into which they poured the kom, or mash, from plums that
had been ripening for some weeks. Mersiha explained to me that
it is critical to distill the mash at exactly the right time,
when the fermentation is finished. They stoked the fire, churned
the mash inside the kazan, and the liquid evaporated and ran
into a pipe cooled with water, which made it condense into a
Rakija still, Bistarac, near Tuzla
From there, the finished rakija (brandy) dripped down
into a five-gallon pail. One man sat near that pail, taking
samples of the product into a graduated cylinder. There, he
measured the brandy, making sure that it was coming out at the
right temperature and with the appropriate percentage of
alcohol, in this case 40%. The crew was distilling brandy for
two households on two consecutive days.
In these parts I have heard that the kazan is sometimes called "veseli
stroj," i.e., "happy machine."
I had arrived when most of the brandy was already distilled,
around 4:00 p.m. The participants had been up working since 5:00
a.m. It was good timing for me, as I was able to witness some of
the distilling process, and then participate in all of the
cheerful revelry afterwards.
I was treated to an ongoing repast, immediately offered some
tasty roast chicken, and the food kept coming. Meanwhile, as the
distilling process was going on, Ševal sat down with a
šargija, a stringed instrument about the size of a saz. The
Bosnian saz is more primitive than a Turkish one; this
instrument, I'd say, was halfway between a saz and a
two-by-four. It had crude carvings on its face, and Ševal had
installed a couple of bolts and small L-brackets in the neck and
base, with which to hold a strap.
I was immediately captivated by the magic of Ševal's singing,
his lyrics, and his musicianship. It's really quite remarkable,
the music you can coax out of a simple instrument. He sang a
love-song for his native region:
Volim Tuzlu, volim okolinu
Volim Bosnu, svoju domovinu
Volim selo gdje sam se rodio
Staru majku koju sam dojio
I love Tuzla, and its surroundings
I love Bosnia, my homeland
I love the village where I was born
And my dear old mother, who nursed me
Ševal writes some of his own songs, and sings others from the
region and beyond. For the most part they were in the rural
style typical to northeastern Bosnia, much more rustic than the
famous urban Bosnian sevdalinka. The lyrics were simple
and heartfelt, with fewer Turkish loan-words than what's common
in sevdalinka, but with a down-to-earth, natural and eloquent
language. I found Ševal to be a home-grown troubadour,
reminiscent of Woody Guthrie. In this area this is a tradition
that goes back centuries, but it's hard to say how much longer
it will last.
Playing saz at distilling session
Ševal sang and other people sang along. Each stanza repeated the
last line, with the song's melody trailing off at the end into a
longer-held, slightly dissonant harmony. This is the kind of
music that, perhaps, you have to be in the right setting to
appreciate - then it becomes absolutely the right thing at the
I ate chicken, and was interrupted to watch the end of the
distilling, when the men emptied the spent mash into a bathtub
with one big "whoosh."
Everyone sat down to eat and drink. Mersiha's cousin was wearing
a t-shirt that read, "Bagram Afghanistan." I don't know if he
had acquired it there, or if someone brought it back to him as a
souvenir, but thousands of people from this area work there at
the NATO base in that city. The newer half of Lukavac is built
up thanks to the funds that they have earned.
I ate some other meat (probably beef, certainly not pork), and
then Amer offered me some čorbana, a stew made from wild
game. Someone poured me a sample of the rakija in a vase-like
flask about four inches tall, narrow at the top, called a
čokalj. Ševal sat down at the table and sang some more:
Ja sam iz Živinica, cura iz Kalesije
došla bi mi svakog dana, ali sama neće
došla bi mi svakog dana, ali sama neće
I'm from Živinice, my girl's from
She would come to see me every day
But she won't come alone (2x)
We clinked čokaljs and drank. There was cake in the local style,
together with a cup of Turkish coffee. We sang. I was then
offered a small glass of višnjevača, plum brandy sweetened with
a cherry additive.
The men sat at one table, and the women and one or two small
children sat at a separate table. Mersiha explained, "The women
get annoyed when the men get rowdy." There was not too much
rowdiness - some elevated volume of conversation, certainly, and
one glass accidentally broken and another knocked over - nothing
compared to some scenes I have witnessed elsewhere in the
We talked, joked, and sang some more. I asked someone if there
had been war near this village. He said, "No, not here, but in
the next village over, they (Serb forces) bombed. We had to
watch out. They bombed there about a dozen times. And they did
real damage down in Lukavac."
Someone shouted out a couple of lines Bečarac-style, the
Slavonian call-and response genre. Ševal sang a couple of real
sevdalinke, and then sang the old paean to Tito: "Druže
Tito mi ti se kunemo" (Comrade Tito we swear to you.) of an
earlier era, but again, in the rustic style.
We clinked čokaljs and drank again. Ševal sang another verse,
introducing it by saying, "Evo pjesmu za Amerikanca"
(Here's a song for the American):
Dodji mala ponesi mi sliku Come over, baby, bring me
your picture pa ću te dovesti u Ameriku And I'll take you to
The evening wound down around 8:00 p.m., as people went home to
be ready to work. No one was really drunk.
Back in Tuzla, I spoke with Danijel Senkić, of the organization
notes from my 2010 talk with him.) Front is
an independent media watchdog that spends most of its time
criticizing the entrenched municipal infrastructure, run by the SDP.
Describing Front, Danijel said, "We are whistleblowers. But we
have not yet had any success with this. There are three levels
of power in Tuzla: the executive, the municipal assembly, and
the courts. All are controlled by the SDP, so we can't win.
"Here's an example of the local corruption. No one can be in
more than one governmental commission, to prevent a conflict of
interest. But Jasmin [Imamovic, long-time mayor of Tuzla]
appointed one person to eleven commissions! That's eleven times
250 KM per month.and in twelve years there has been no audit of
the governmental expenditures.
Front criticizes the local SDP-run government vociferously, and
in return, Danijel noted, "Jasmin sues us because of questions
we ask. .The Sarajevo TV station TV1 backed us up in May of
2011, and then there was a big fight about that. Then Jasmin
took us to court for slander, for talking about these things,
and he has been suing the media as well.
"The Tuzla municipal council voted in a resolution to threaten
the businesses of Tuzla with sanctions if they advertised on our
portal. Some of them withdrew their ads.
"As accredited press, we tried to film a session of the council,
and we were ejected from the session."
In the central park of the town, next to the pedestrian zone,
there is an imposing statue of the medieval Bosnian King Tvrtko
Kotromanić. This is one of an impressive series of improvements
in Tuzla. It could be seen as one of the few contemporary
monuments that appeal to a pan-Bosnian romanticism rather than
to an exclusivist, mono-ethnic nationalism. The mayor has been
implementing a strategy to make the town more attractive to
tourists. Other notable improvements include the construction of
the "Pannonian lakes," also not far from the center of town.
These lakes are filled with salt water that comes naturally from
underground - and there is a salt-waterfall as well.
However, these improvements are also controversial, as there are
still many urgently-needed infrastructural projects that have
Danijel said, "The mayor took 240,000 KM from the city budget,
augmented by another 200,000 from private donors, for the statue
in the middle of the park. This, after a 54,000 KM study to
prepare for the project. A further million KM was spent to
spruce up the park, and the bridge [near the park] is costing
two million - money that should have come from the Canton, not
the municipality. But the paths in the park can't accommodate
people in wheelchairs. Meanwhile, there are peripheral
neighborhoods that lack sewers. When we criticized the statue,
Jasmin said that we were 'against Bosnia.' "
I asked Danijel what he thought the background was of the
members of the SBB [party of Radončić], a relatively new party
in Tuzla. He said that the people in the SBB had crossed over
from the SDA. When I mentioned that I thought that the
(ostensibly leftist) SDP had made a mistake in making an
alliance with the SBB, a right-wing nationalist party. Danijel
answered that he believed, in fact, that the SBB made a mistake
in allying with the SDP. While I was in Sarajevo, one analyst
told me that he expected the SBB to have a victory in the
upcoming elections. But Danijel expected the opposite - and I
was inclined to agree with him, that the mass of voting Bosnian
Muslims would return to their traditional party, the SDA.
Another activist I spoke with in Tuzla described Front's style
of attack as "tacky," perhaps even sensationalist. It's always
good to take people's positions with reservations, and there's
not always a perfect "third answer." But I find that Danijel's
information is in accord with what many independent-minded
people around Tuzla think.
Anti-corruption poster, Tuzla
Some notes on politics and money in the late-September period:
--The SDA predicted that if the SDP-SBB coalition won, it would
share out the positions of directorship in the (mainly)
state-owned companies BH Telecom and the Sarajevo Tobacco
Factory, and would then move to privatize those companies.
Herein is a clue to explain the strange and precipitous,
destructive political reorganization perpetrated by Zlatko
Lagumdžija, leader of the SDP, earlier
--The Bosnian Federation's exports in August of this year were
just under half as much as its imports, or 47.8%. Imports and
exports from the Federation were right around two-thirds of the
overall Bosnian imports and exports.
--The IMF approved a 405.3 million Euro standby loan to Bosnia
to support the government's economic programs in the next two
years. The IMF had approved a 1.2 billion Euro loan in 2009. but
only about one-third of that loan was delivered before the
arrangement was frozen in 2010, because the IMF was not
satisfied with the pace of economic reforms carried out by the
Bosnian government. Meanwhile, Bosnian economists estimate that
there has been a weak economic recovery in the country in recent
months, but that the "outlook for the future" is "unfavorable."
--Fahrudin Radončić, media tycoon and head of the SBB,
bought a jet plane for around 3,557,000 KM. He tried to avoid
paying taxes in the amount of some 600,000 KM on this purchase.
This information came out when Zlatko Lagumdžija,
Bosnia's Foreign Minister and Radončić's coalition partner, took
a state trip to the Middle East on Radončić's plane (with a
ticket purchased off the books) rather than using the airline
company that state officials customarily use.
.Radončić's official income, cited in his statement of personal
wealth as required by electoral law, is 1,347 KM (approximately
$900) per month.
I spoke with Gordan, activist with the local organization
Revolt. See my
2010 reports for more on Revolt.
One of the organization's main focuses is civic involvement in
local politics, including encouraging turnout in the elections.
Referring back to the SDP victory in 2010, where that party
formed a coalition with the Bosnian Muslim nationalist SDA,
Gordan said, "We [Revolt] were the first to criticize the SDP's
coalition with the SDA, which we considered a violation of their
principles. Everyone else kept quiet."
Since then, as described in my previous journal, there was a
long freeze in the formation of the state-level government, and
not long after that ended, the SDP broke up the coalition with
SDA in favor of an alliance with the SBB. Gordan said, "We blame
the SDP the most for what has been happening. There has been
almost a two-year blockage of government. The SDP should have
gone back into the opposition."
Q: How to you evaluate the mayor of Tuzla?
A: He did a lot more in his first two terms, building the lakes,
and other projects. There are more projects now, in the last six
months, again, and that's part of his election campaign. He has
done less in the recent term. The quality of his work has gone
down. As the politicians stay in office longer, they become
alienated from the people. .I was a supporter of the SDP until
about five years ago. But people in the SDP are indoctrinated,
they spend all day with each other.
--Quote from the Internet: "We must close union offices,
confiscate their money...reduce workers salaries & take away
their right to strike." - Adolph Hitler 1933
In late September, members of the Alliance of Independent Unions
in the central Bosnian city of Zenica held a "warning protest"
of two hours. Around five hundred workers in the building
trades, the lumber mill, and the metalwork industries, along
with public school employees, and court and city administration
workers, gathered to call for the resignation of Fikret Plevljak,
prime minister of the Zenica-Doboj Canton. Their statement read,
in part, "This is a protest to initiate a struggle in defense of
the right of workers to collective bargaining. Employers have,
in very suspicious manner, become the owners of workers'
property and, with the support of the government, have gone on
the attack against collective agreements. If collective
agreements disappear from the scene, then the rights of workers
will disappear as well, and general anarchy and increased
off-the-books work will result."
This reminds me a lot of what happened in
Wisconsin last year.
Finally, I met with a local scholar and social critic, Damir
Arsenijević. If you can find any of his writings on the
internet, for example, Mobilising the Unbribable Life, I
recommend them for their analysis of Bosnian politics, culture,
and activism. For me, Arsenijević will be one of the "third
answers." .I found this flick of Damir talking about his paper
Arsenijević has studied in the UK and has spent time in the US
as well. He happened to be in New York, as was I, for a time
during the height of the Occupy movement there a year ago. He
said, "I was horrified by the repression I saw in New York. I
saw students coming out of the high school and trying to hang
out. They were hanging out, that's what students do! And the
police were hustling them along like the riot squad. What I saw
was that the US is becoming something like what it most feared:
Arsenijević worked for a time with the
Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), which strives to recover and
identify the remains of missing persons - notably including
Srebrenica massacre victims - throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina and
beyond. Arsenijević left the ICMP after a time, objecting to the
manner in which identification was being carried out. He said,
"The identification of the remains is being done on an ethnic
basis, which is exactly the basis on which those people were
killed. There has to be another way. This is the same as the
In this vein and beyond, what I take away from a conversation
with Arsenijević and from reading his works is, in the broader
scale of human relationships, a sense of the preposterous and,
for that matter, outrageous nature of classifying (and
separating) people according to where their grandparents
worshipped, as I put it. This has as much relevance to the real
needs of people as does the color of their eyes - but if you can
throw dust in people's eyes (as the Bosnian saying goes) by
confusing them with stories about "them versus us," then that's
the perfect way to divide and rule.
I recognize and respect people's need to celebrate their own
cultural traditions. In some cases there is a deep-seated
spiritual expression there. But the elevation of cultural
differences to mythical proportions in a nationalist vein - and
their reinforcement through violence - has resulted in the
greatest damage ever done to Bosnian society.
Arsenijević writes of the "multicultural apartheid," a seemingly
dissonant phrase that actually describes the prevalent system in
Bosnia. He says that this system "insists on difference as the
only structuring principle. In this context, multiculturalism is
yet another attempt to foreclose social trauma, for it reduces
social conflict to an inherent friction among many identities,
recasting cultural, religious, and ethnic difference as 'sites
of conflict that need to be attenuated and managed through the
practice of tolerance.' "
Linking this multi-cultural apartheid with its "ideological
backbone, [the] 'transition into capitalism,'" Arsenijević
makes a contrast between these false or superficial human
differences and the real conflicts in Bosnian society. The
passage I placed above, about the workers' struggle in Zenica,
provides a depiction of that real conflict.
I know this report has gotten long, but I can't end without
mentioning Arsenijević's enlightening description from his
essay, "Mobilising the Unbribable Life," where he writes,
".historical unconscious rests on the double silence of which it
is constituted: the silence of the expressionless remainder -
Benjamin's 'tradition of the oppressed' - and the silence of the
dominant, official history (victor's history) in relation to the
I read this as a mention of the silence of the ordinary people
regarding their history and their life conditions, as situated
next to the silence (read: amnesia) of the dominant narrative of
We can participate in that silence or break it. Arsenijević is
particularly concerned with the actions of artists, for example,
poets, in that role - and I like to expand that role to include
all activists and, potentially, many artists. Arsenijević writes
of poetry as something that "wrenches the memory of the
collective away from the anaesthetic miasma of conformism, reads
and constructs it 'against the grain of the dominant, and so
contemplates a new politics.'"