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Failed state: Is Bosnia slipping back to war?

A quarter of a century on from its devastating war, Bosnia and Herzegovina remains as divided as ever. PETER GEOGHEGAN asks whether a failure to overcome the tensions of the past could drag it back to partition and violence once more

Tarik Calkic’s old secondary school in western Bosnian has not changed much since he graduated. The squat, two-storey building still has the same flat roof. The same fading textbooks sit on the shelves of the cramped classrooms. And there are still two entrances, one with a blue sign and another, ten feet away, in brown.

As a Bosnian Muslim, Calkic mostly went through the brown doors. But some days, when he was feeling mischievous, he walked through the blue one, reserved for Croatian children.

‘That was a big crime,’ says Calkic, 23, with a grin. ‘They were always giving us a punishment if we tried to do something like that.’

Calkic was reared on stories of the armed clashes that broke out in his hometown in January 1993. Almost 25 years later, Croats and Muslims are still taught separately. Classes start five minutes apart so the children do not meet in the playground. Even games are segregated.

His hometown is as divided as his old school – right down to its name. Croatian flags fly on one side of a main street pockmarked with empty units and bullet ridden homes. This is Uskoplje. Across the street, banners commemorating the liberation of Gornji Vakuf are adorned with fleur-de-lis, a popular Bosnian Muslim symbol.

The town was almost reduced to rubble during the fighting. Much of has been rebuilt but an invisible line still divides Gornji Vakuf-Uskoplje. ‘There is no border, there is no police, there isn’t anyone who will tell you ‘stop’ but when you have that line implanted in your head it is very hard to stop it,’ says Calkic as we walk along quiet streets.

Men nurse coffees outside bars. A muezzin calls the faithful to prayer on one side of town, on the other an elderly man sweeps outside the Croat Catholic church.

Calkic’s old school is one of more than 50 so-called ‘two-schools-under-one-roof’ in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In some towns students have protested against the policy, even forcing schools to integrate. ‘The students want to go to school together. The problem is the politicians and their leadership,’ says Calkic.

The failure of politicians – and of politics – is a common refrain in Bosnia and Herzegovina today. 25 years on from the start of an internecine conflict that killed at least 100,000 people, Bosnia remains deeply divided, with many fearing for the country’s very existence at a time of growing regional and global tensions.

The Dayton peace agreement, which ended the war in December 1995, divided Bosnia and Herzegovina into two ‘entities’, a majority Serb Republika Srpska and the mainly Muslim and Croat Federation. The Federation itself is further split into numerous largely self-governing cantons, leading to a Kafkaesque state structure that fosters corruption rather than co-operation.

The recent past has become a political tool, pushing competing ethnicities further apart. ‘At the beginning of the war the propaganda machine was so strong. You had this dehumanisation process. The Bosniaks [Bosnian Muslims] were not people. After the war we never had the reverse process,’ says Goran Zori?, director of Kvart, an LGBT youth group based in the small city of Prijedor in Republika Srpska.

Prijedor was the scene of some of the Bosnian war’s worst atrocities. On May 31, 1992, Serb nationalists ordered all non-Serbs to mark their houses with white flags or sheets, and to wear a white armband if they left their homes. Bosnian Muslims were rounded up and herded into concentration camps. At least 3,000 died, many buried in mass graves. Officially the killings were random acts of violence – not organised ethnic cleansing – and the numbers are over-stated.

On a bright summer’s day, I go looking for Prijedor’s death camps. There is no trace of the barbed wire that held an estimated 30,000 at Trnopolje, just rusted gates on the local school that doubled up as a detention centre. Likewise, there is no commemoration at the Omarska steel works, now owned by global giant ArcelorMittal. At Keraterm, on the outskirts of Prejidor, activists erected a tiny plaque to the dead one night. A security guard on a bicycle arrived before I could photograph it. ‘You must leave,’ he demands. ‘This is private property.’

Zoric and his small team are almost unique in authoritarian Republika Srpska. He has been physically attacked and called a ‘faggot’. Local politicians fear Kvart, not because they are promoting gay rights but because they are breaking the biggest taboo – talking about what happened during the war.

‘Denial is official policy here. There is not any kind of public debate here. Everything here is covered with the nationalist narrative. Education is used for indoctrination. At school kids learn only about Serbian history. They are teaching them ‘what you need to be a Serb’. Not what you need to be a human being,’ says Zoric.

Bosnia is one of the poorest countries in Europe. In Republika Srpska, president Milorad Dodik, has had sanctions imposed on him for thwarting the implementation of the Dayton Accords. For Zoric, linking the reality of the brutal past and the divided present is key. ‘People in their 20s don’t have a job, they don’t have a chance to separate from their family.

Everything that society is giving them is to be Croat, Serb, Bosniak.’ he says. ‘We are trying to connect thinking about the past and the war and the socio-economic situation today. It is important to say that because of the war you don’t have a job now. To start talking about the political economy of the war and the creation of a new state. But it’s a very slow process.’

Bosnia is also one of the world’s most rapidly depopulating nations. In Republika Srpska, many fine houses lie empty almost all year round. Most are owned by Muslims who left during the war and now live abroad, often in Germany or Austria. These émigrés return for a few months in the summer, only. Meanwhile young people in particular are leaving in droves.

In 1991, on the eve of war, Bosnia’s population stood at over 4.3 million. In 2006, over a decade after the war ended, that figure was 3.8 million. By 2016, it was 3.5m. ‘Up to 70% of the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina would leave if they could,’ says Srecko Latal, a veteran Bosnian political analyst based in Sarajevo. ‘I have many friends who could claim to be living the Bosnian dream – well-educated with families, steady jobs, a house, two cars – and even they want to leave because they don’t see prospects for themselves or their children.’

Emigration is hitting Bosnia’s flat-lining economy, and could be damaging in the years ahead. ‘Remittances is one of the key pillars of the fragile financial stability in this country. Bosnia has between 10 and 20% of GDP in remittances. That is expected to be severely curtailed in the coming years as the generation who left during the war are getting older, they are retiring and coming back but their children are lost to the country for good,’ says Latal.

Sarajevo was once a city filled with international community offices and workers, spending tax-free salaries in its bars and restaurants. Most have gone now. Twenty-five years on from the end of the war, Bosnia is no longer a priority. In Republika Srpska, Dodik has spent a decade agitating for independence. Croat calls for the creation of a third ‘entity’ have grown, too.

Bosnia is ‘a potential candidate’ for European Union membership but that possibility is fast receding. Without the carrot of EU membership, international diplomats have struggled to exert much influence of Bosnian politicians. As local politics become more divided, the delicate peace in the region is being threatened, says Latal. ‘The only context in which the Balkan ghosts could be put to rest, in which we can have political, cultural and economic co-operation is within the EU family. If you remove the EU framework then what you have is what we have today, which is more and more talk of redrawing the borders, which will not happen without wars, which given the fragile situation will trigger regional and global problems.’

Famously the first world war started in the streets of Sarajevo with the murder of Austrian heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Bosnian Serb radical Gavrilo Princip. Latal warns history could repeat itself. ‘We are very possibility facing the second half of the Balkan Wars from the 1990s. Bosnia will not break apart peacefully and that is the direction we are heading.’

Bosnia’s ongoing political crisis extends into all walks of life. There are very few national institutions. With no single ministry of culture, museums have often struggled for funding. Four years ago, the History Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina was set to close before staff in the glass-fronted communist-era museum in downtown Sarajevo staged a seven-week action, inviting locals to come in to see the collections.

‘It was really cold. The snow was everywhere. The idea was to invite the citizens of Sarajevo to come and speak about their ideas for the museum. We saw then that society had the interest to keep the museum open,’ recalls the museum’s youthful curator Elma Hodzic.

The Museum still contains relics from the communist past. A massive piece of stained glass near the entrance proclaims ‘Brotherhood and Unity’, a favourite slogan of Marshal Tito’s Yugoslavia. But there are also exhibits from the more recent history, most notably the Siege of Sarajevo, the 1,425-day long bombardment by Bosnian Serb forces that finally ended in February 1995. Hodzic – a Bosnian Muslim with family from Srebrenica – is acutely aware of the difficulties of talking about what happened during the war. ”I’m so careful when I work with young people, with the words I use, words like ‘genocide’, ‘Srebrenica’. I’m really careful how to explain what happened during those four years,’ says Hodzic who was a small child during the siege, in which her sister died.

The ethnic lines that war – and peace – carved across Bosnia have endured. ‘We have three official narratives. Children in different areas of Bosnia and Herzegovina are learning different histories not just about the last war but about the First World War. Is Gavrilo Princip a hero or a terrorist?’

Nationalists hold sway in Bosnian politics, as they have done since the war. The national parliament is an exercise in political stasis. But there have been moments when Bosnia has managed to escape its ethnic blocs. In 2014, Arab Spring-style protests swept in response to worsening social conditions. The uprising petered out but the anger that drove them remains, says Jasmin Mujanovic, author of Hunger and Fury: The Crisis of Democracy in the Balkans.

‘The actual political system has no willingness to accurately or sustainably represent the needs of the peoples,’ says Dr Mujanovic who was born in Bosnia in 1986 and, like so many, grew up as a refugee in North America. ‘There is a real sense that this is not going to get better. People say, ‘I can’t put up with this everyday grind and helplessness’. It’s especially acute in some of these nationalist heartlands.’

Twenty-five years on from the end of the war, Bosnia is at a crossroads. Which way it turns could have implications far beyond the Balkans, and even Europe.

‘Bosnia and the region as a whole is heading towards a cataclysmic confrontation – not in the sense of war but in the sense of social confrontation. The political and economic situation in the region is not sustainable. There is a race between civil society and the autocratic elements. There is a fork coming – will the region veer to the right, or will there be a very haphazard attempt by younger generations in particular to have some sort of democratic life?’

Peter Geoghegan is an Irish journalist based in Glasgow and author of The People’s Referendum: Why Scotland Will Never Be The Same Again

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