Articles on the Bosnia Conflict




By Peter Lippman
July 7, 2010

Sarajevo and Travnik

                  Report index
Report 1: Kozarac, Prijedor. June 2, 2010
Report 2: Banja Luka, Doboj. Tuzla
June 5, 2010
Report 3: Bijeljina,  June 16, 2010
Report 4: Srebrenica and Bratunac,
June 18, 2010
Report 5: Visegrad,
June 25, 2010
Report 6: Roses and Walnuts, June 28, 2010
Report 7: Sarajevo and Travnik, July 7, 2010
Report 8: Srebrenica, July 25, 2010
Report 9: Herzegovina and wrap-up, August 12, 2010

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The anniversary of the fall of Srebrenica and the massacre committed there is approaching. On July 11th, 1995, extreme Serb nationalist forces took over the eastern Bosnian enclave, which had been declared a “safe zone” by the UN. In the end, the UN did not defend Srebrenica.

Tomorrow I will hit the trail -- literally -- on the “Marš mira,” or “March of peace.” This hike goes from Nezuk, near Zvornik, to Srebrenica.

Upon the fall of Srebrenica in mid-July of 1995, thousands of people fled to nearby Potocari to seek protection where the Dutch UN troops were located. Meanwhile, many thousands of men of military age, expecting that they would be killed if they fell into the hands of the Serb forces, headed for the woods. They walked in a column towards government-controlled territory, roughly in the direction of Tuzla. Out of somewhere between ten and fifteen thousand men and boys, approximately five thousand survived.

The Marš mira traces one of the routes of escape taken by those men. It runs 110 kilometers (about 70 miles) and is to be traversed in three days. This is the fifth year of the hike. Last year, over four thousand people, from all over Bosnia-Herzegovina and abroad, participated. This year, the fifteenth anniversary, should see at least as many people involved. The Bosnian army helps to coordinate the hike, providing tents and food.

I am hoping that I will be able to take the march from beginning to end. When I was a bit younger I used to do hikes of twenty miles a day, say, in the Appalachians. But I am a bit older now. I am hoping that what I may lack in physical endurance, I will compensate for in determination.

Some people may consider such visits to Srebrenica as “war tourism.” That is probably true for some people, but participating in this march is important to me because I consider it an act of solidarity with the survivors and remembrance of the victims.

In an Internet center, I met a woman from Podrinje (the eastern Bosnian region), from Han Pijesak, not far from Srebrenica. She told me that she has 22 relatives buried in the memorial cemetery at Potocari. She is going to make the march.

Elsewhere I met a man from Vlasenica, also in Podrinje. He had hiked out in July 1995. He was one of the lucky ones -- very lucky, in fact, as he arrived at the safe end in a week. Some people were lost, or stuck in dangerous places, for a month or even more.

He told me that he had been hit in the face by shrapnel during the war, and that the tip of his nose was torn off. The Americans performed reconstructive surgery, and the faint line that showed where his nose had been repaired was only noticeable after the man pointed it out to me.

The man from Vlasenica told me that he ate slugs and leaves in order to survive during the escape. He swore that he would never participate in the march, that the one experience, coming out, was enough for him. But some people who made the march out in 1995 are repeating the march the other way.


There is one question that everyone who comes here and thinks about this beautiful and tormented little country asks, in one way or another: “What can happen that will save this country and make things work?”

This is my question as well, and I have been approaching it from every angle, and trying to listen to as many people’s evaluations as possible, trying to weigh them and compare them. There are few conclusive answers, other than the vague “time will tell.” But there are indications, and some concurrence of opinion among intelligent and informed people. I will share some of these opinions here.

This is a complicated country. A lot happens behind the scenes and there is much information that never sees the light of day. It has occurred to me that my search for solid, viable analysis is hindered by the fact that many people have not only too little information, but too much time -- a bad combination. Some people are tempted into “kafanski razgovor” (coffee-house conversation), which is full of conjecture, and short on facts. This pursuit is even more popular than football.

There are roughly three factors that can influence the future of Bosnia: the domestic politicians, the international community, and the people. Put simply, at present the politicians are not interested in giving up their profitable positions or changing their behavior. The international diplomats have behaved with carelessness and ineptitude, with certain honorable exceptions.

Given this, I have directed my attention towards the activism of the ordinary people. There, I see three main segments:

First are the organizations fighting for “truth and justice,” that is, apprehension and prosecution of the war criminals; establishment of memorials for the victims; and exposing the facts about wartime events.

Second, there are the NGOs that provide social services to people who are neglected or discriminated against by the government. Sajma’s “Women Can Do It” in Banja Luka (see my first report) is one of those.

Third, there are the local grassroots groups, often not even registered as NGOs, that are demonstrating, agitating, collaborating across ethnic boundaries, working against segregation, corruption, and historical amnesia.

These three groups, in varying degrees, are part of the solution. I have placed my hope in these activists. However, after talking to dozens of people in the past month and a half, I am bending towards another conclusion. Many people have told me that there is no “movement for change,” and that the change has to come from within the political structure. Or that it has to come from the international community. In any case, it is clear that change is a matter of a generation or two, not a year or two.

I am coming to the conclusion that, while the grassroots is crucial, I have placed too much hope in the possibility of change as prompted by what people here call the “civil sector.” Jusuf Trbic told me that there is no possibility of change from grassroots activism. Slavko Klisura shouted, “Nema pokreta!” (there is no movement).

I don’t agree that there is no movement. All three of the sections of the grassroots that I mentioned above are still working. However, the system of corruption is too entrenched, and the movement is too weak, for the grassroots to do it alone. And it happens that organizations that once took risks have gotten grants, moved into comfortable positions, and lost their bite. Other risk-takers will have to appear and take their place. The effort ebbs and flows.

Here is something of what others are saying about change in Bosnia. I have had the opportunity to meet with various people here who are either working with agencies of the international community or are in positions to provide intelligent analysis. Because most of what they say is “not for attribution,” I will call them Warren, Bill, Barry, and Merima.

Republika Srpska Prime Minister Dodik is one of the most common topics. People ask, “What will Dodik do?” and, “Is he really that crazy/stupid/crude/nationalist?” Much of what Dodik does is seen as pre-election performance designed to frighten people and gather votes for his team. This evaluation applies to his threat to call for a referendum on secession in the RS. Whatever else he is, Dodik is a skilful manipulator and probably the most powerful politician in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Barry told me, “Dodik is so used to getting his way that his sense of the other side’s breaking point may not be well calibrated… Dodik does not want war, but he may get one if he pushes too hard for secession. The question is how together the other side is.”

Like many other analysts, Barry said that Dodik is “a product of the system” -- “We created incentives for Dodik to be what he is. He is the beneficiary; he figured out that he could keep what the SDS (former leading Serb nationalist party) gained, without their historical baggage.”

As to the possibility for constructive measures coming from the international community, Barry said, “We need to create conditions where people will be able to make compromises. Now, that is still possible, but it could become impossible. Political stagnation is bad, but collapse would be worse. With Dodik leading, he could go too far. He keeps pushing the red line further. And we are consistently lowering the dike while the waves are getting higher.”

Barry, though not an employee of the international community, still uses “we” in reference to the internationals. But he declares, “There is no international strategy. There needs to be an arrangement that all three sides can buy into, and feel protected. Then the country can function. Dayton is not that arrangement.”

Putting it differently, Slavko Klisura earlier told me, “We don’t have a constitution, we just have the Dayton document. That constitution is fascist. It recognizes ethnicities, not citizens.”

Warren, closer to the international community, told me, “Don’t expect pressure from the international community. The real pressure has to come from the voters.”

Warren and Bill both spoke of the earlier years of the international governance of Bosnia, under High Representatives Petritsch and then Ashdown, as being more orderly times. Warren said, “We imposed a constitutional structure. Under Petritsch and Ashdown the Dayton Peace Agreement was stretched to its limits.”

When I asked Bill about the strategy of the international community, he answered, “There is no strategy. Ashdown’s strategy was transition (to domestic governance). This failed after 2006 because his reforms failed. Since then there has been inertia. And the ambassadors, who are here for three years, have no institutional memory…the biggest failure was of the Ashdown period, and, of course, the immediate postwar period. Ashdown saw the system as something to override, and he overrode it, but didn’t change it.”

In frustration, Bill said, “Mother Teresa would become an extremist in the present system.”

I spoke to Merima, another analyst. She outlined her hopes for the future of Bosnia: “We are on the road to integration. Security is important to Europe. There is already a Bosnia office in the new NATO building in Brussels. So we are going into NATO. And if we are going into NATO, then we are going into Europe.

Merima’s construction is logical. I hope that her understanding of international dynamics proves to be accurate.

View of Sarajevo from Radoncic’s Twist Tower


The World Soccer Championship is running all month in South Africa -- and in the kafanas of Sarajevo. You can’t walk down the street without tripping over a wide screen. People come out for the evening to drink a few beers and watch the games. I admire the skill of the soccer players, wondering how someone can catch a ball flying fifty meters through the air with his head, and then deflect the ball off to just the right player another ten meters away.

At a certain point, talking to Slavko, it struck me that conversation about the upcoming fall national elections, and about all the parties and all the players, is a superficial thing. A distraction from real life -- like talking about sports. Discussion of electoral politics, in a situation where so little can change as the result of an election, is stuck in the virtual realm. So much that matters to people here resides in that realm. Is not religion a virtual thing, something you decide in your head? And then if you use that abstract concept as a reason to vote for someone, is that not absurd

Many politicians talk about that most abstract of things, the “national interest” of their constituency -- as if Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks do not all in equal measure need health care, jobs, better pensions, and security.
So religion and politics -- especially when mixed together -- become a distraction. When someone asks you what religion you are, too often they really mean, “Are you a member of my club?”

In response to my comment about politics being a distraction, Barry agreed but said, “Talking about politics matters in that it defines the realm of the possible.”

Meanwhile, of course, there are people who cultivate their identity, in the face of such massive social trauma, and hold onto it “like a drunkard to a fence,” as they say here (“drzi se toga kao pijan plota”). You can’t deny the validity of someone’s moral lifeline. So the virtual becomes more important than the concrete. But all this gets out of control in the hands of skilful political manipulators.

It is easy to get tangled up when navigating in the virtual realm. People talk about another ethnicity as if they are 19th-century anthropologists. Marko (a Serb) in Foca told me, “The Muslims have this pleasant custom of sitting and drinking coffee…” -- while we were sitting and drinking coffee. Jure, a Croat in central Bosnia, told me, “The Muslims are not industrious, they are content if they have a comfortable place to sit and drink coffee.”

This kind of facile, essentially ethnic-chauvinist characterization became fashionable in the 1990s, and it has been part of the process of the creation of new identities in opposition to the “other.” It is easier for people to think in this way now, as they are more physically separated than they ever were before. The separation was the objective of the war, and it succeeded to a huge extent.

I know many people who swear that they are anti-nationalist and that they hold no prejudices. But genuinely arriving at that position takes more work than most people are prepared to do. So I regularly find, among the most agreeable and even delightful people, that some backwards attitude reveals itself. It seems that the hardest thing to do is to be completely consistent.

Graffiti in Vratnik: “This is not human.”


I took a couple of walks in the Sarajevo hills with Sarah from Portugal. Sarah pointed out to me that before the disintegration of Yugoslavia, it was a more developed country than Portugal. Portugal has a population of around ten million. Sarah told me that they are overcoming the problem of slums there. I said, “There are probably over ten million people living in slums in my country.”

Sarah is a remarkably bright and creative scholar, here to investigate “genocide and collective memory” (my approximate description). We have talked about how not only journalists, but scholars and others come to this country for “a good story.” The observers are caught up in the “story,” and the survivors and inhabitants of this country are caught up in it too. It is unavoidable -- but must be treated with sensitivity. Sarah talks about “genocide tourism” as an example of the worst of this phenomenon.

Dusk view from a hillside neighborhood in Sarajevo

For more from Sarah, see


As I was starting out on a trip to Herzegovina, I visited some of my pal Steve Horn’s friends in Travnik, in central Bosnia. Steve went to Bosnia (and vicinity) in 1970 with a camera, and then came back thirty-three years later with his old photos and another camera. He made a very fine book about the experience -- see .

Old Ottoman fortress in Travnik

I walked up to the fortress above the town for a beautiful view of Travnik, nestled among the hills, with the river Lasva running through it, fed by the tributaries Plava and Hendek. Travnik is surrounded by those tight, dark fir and pine mountains that epitomize central Bosnia. If you are not from a mountainous area, those hills can be mysterious and foreboding. If you are from a mountainous region, Travnik feels like a cozy, protected place. It was the capital of Ottoman-occupied Bosnia for 150 years, and the home of Ivo Andric, Bosnia’s Nobel Prize winner for literature.

I met Saban, who took me up in the hills to his cottage. He showed me the pigeons that he raises as a hobby. He has over a hundred pigeons. I asked if he earned anything from them, and he said, “No, they are just a hobby and a loss.” Saban also has one peacock. I looked through the wire mesh at it. His head was a little above my eye level, and his tail feathers reached to the ground. He moved towards me and looked me in the eye, and then let out a loud, “Piaao!”

Saban told me that peacocks have a better sense of smell than dogs, and that in some places they are used to guard jails.

I met Steve’s friend Alen and Alen’s friend Erna. They play in a rock band. They told me that they write love songs, and that most of their songs are in English. I asked if there were any bands around that write protest songs. They mentioned Dubioza Kolektiva. Erna said that “anyone who does anything other than turbo-folk, if they’re introducing new elements or writing in English, those are protest songs.”

Turbo-folk is a crude kind of modern, pseudo-folk music with a strong Serbian influence, popular in kafanas all around the former Yugoslavia. The lyrics range from banal to brutal.

In the evening I visited a local Croat family. Travnik used to be a mixed Bosniak-Croat town, but since the war it has been dominated by Bosniaks. Most Croats left during or after the war, but the family of “Vilko” stayed. Vilko told me, “During the war, you prayed to God that no one would call your (obviously Croat) name in the streets.”

Vilko said that his family was not able to leave the town in any case, though many Croats left from the surrounding villages, and that those villages are now all but empty.

Like everyone else in town, Vilko’s family was terrorized by Serb shelling. By the end of the war there was no unscathed glass in their apartment, not even in the interior doors. But the family also suffered from intimidation and discrimination -- during the war and to this day -- on account of being Croats. The family told me that the Bosniaks who dominate Travnik do not hire Croats, regardless of qualification. Hearing all this, I felt like I was amidst an embattled group of people.

Center of Travnik

The morning that I went to Travnik, right up the road in Bugojno there was a terrible bomb attack on the police station. A member of a militant Islamic group planted a land mine there, which did much damage throughout the building and in the neighborhood as well. Neighbors said it was stronger than anything they had felt during the war. One policeman was killed, and several others were injured. The dominant theory about the bombing attack was that it was a reprisal by local Muslim extremists for local court proceedings against fellow extremists.

At the same time the religious (Muslim) observances were taking place not far away at Ajvatovica. There, according to folklore, five hundred years ago a religious mystic prayed for water. The mountains split and a creek flowed through the gap, bearing water to the thirsty land.

The head Imam of the Islamic community, the Reis Ceric, gave a talk at the massive gathering at Ajvatovica, stating that “Muslims are not protected by the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina.” This statement was given headline space by the popular but manipulative daily Avaz, published by Fahrudin Radoncic, who recently founded his own political party. With or without Ceric’s blessing, Radoncic apparently finds it useful to quote Ceric in the promotion of his own political goals. The electoral campaign is in full swing.


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