Articles on the Bosnia Conflict



Bosnia-Herzegovina Journal #2: Tuzla
By Peter Lippman
October 11, 2012

2012 Journal index

Journal 1: Sarajevo. September 25
Journal 2: Tuzla. October 11
Journal 3: Srebrenica. October 13
Journal 4: Bratunac, Višegrad, Elections. October 26
Journal 5: Krajina - 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:
Krila 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

Previous journals and articles

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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 elections?
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 Srebrenica, overall?
A: 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 return.

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 Srebrenica.

Vahid concluded, "There are many conditions to fill before Srebrenica can be a good place to live. It will take a long time."


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 Srebrenica.

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 telephone company.

"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 second vat.

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 right time.

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 Kalesija
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 region.

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 America

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 "Front" (See 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.

You can find some of Front's work here.

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 been neglected.

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 this year.

--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 here.

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: the USSR."

Arsenijević worked for a time with the International 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 persecutor." 

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 expressionless remainder.

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 events.

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.'"

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