Why Sarajevo is a Microcosm of everything that’s wrong with the Balkans
I just got back from Sarajevo. I’d like to be able to say that Sarajevo is a beautiful and interesting place, marvel at its history of being the “Jerusalem of Europe”, talk about how the people are welcoming and what gracious hosts they are. All of that is true. But to stop right there would be to give you a glib, half-assed version of what I felt spending a week in the city. The truth is that the more time I spent in Sarajevo the more depressed I became about the current history not only of Sarajevo and Bosnia and Herzegovina, but of the Balkans as a whole.
Readers of this blog know that we’re big fans of the Balkans. We’ve visited almost every country in the region now (Albania excluded) and everywhere we’ve gone we’ve been met by hospitable, gracious people. As visitors, I don’t think you will get more welcoming hosts anywhere in the world than you do in the Balkans where, upon entering the door, you’ll often be greeted with cake, Turkish sweets, coffee or even a home cooked meal. You think that’s incredible? On my last day in Sarajevo I met 2 elderly men. They invited me to a restaurant where we spent 8 hours talking about Bosnia over wine, pizza, and Bosnian delicacies. We ended up drinking 4 bottles of wine. At the end of the night, no matter how much I protested, they refused to accept a cent of my money. So I’m not exaggerating when I talk about the incredible Balkan hospitality.
With so many great people in the region, it is almost incomprehensible that these same people, between them, can’t get along. Not even close. As one of the two men said to me, “we must have something wrong with our heads. Maybe something wrong in our genes. It doesn’t make sense”.
Visit Sarajevo today and much of the history is focused on the siege of the city during the Bosnian War that started in 1992 and ended in 1996.
I’ll keep the history as short as possible:
– Yugoslavia started to break up in 1991, the republics of Slovenia and Croatia declaring independence.
– After a referendum, Bosnia and Hercegovina declared independence in 1992. Of the 6 republics of Yugoslavia, it was the most ethnically diverse of the republics with significant Serb and Croat minorities. Bosnian Serbs didn’t support independence from Yugoslavia (who’s capital was Belgrade, in the republic of Serbia)
– What followed in 1992 was the beginning of the Bosnian Wars in which Bosnian Serbs, supported by Serbia, laid siege to Sarajevo. The Serbians controlled the majority of the Yugoslav army, at the time the 4th largest army in Europe. Fighting them were a combined force of Bosniak (ethnic Muslim) and Bosnian Croat forces. Sarajevo would be under siege for almost 4 years with no electricity or water, with civilians getting shot in the streets and bombed in their homes. 11,000 civilians, including 1,600 children, were killed. The UN secured the airport, brought in food supplies, but it was pitifully inadequate.
– In 1992 the Croats turned on the Bosnians and, like the Serbs, made a land grab further south [I’ve previously written on Mostar – it was the most heavily destroyed city in Bosnia and Herzegovina].
– In 1995, the Bosnian War ended, first with the Washington Agreement bringing peace between Bosnians and Croats. After the famous Srebrenica massacre, NATO intervened militarily, ending the Serb – Bosnian conflict. Essentially, nobody was the victor in this war. The Dayton Accord spelled out the terms for peace for Bosnia and Hercegovina, including the establishment of a 3-person Presidency (a Bosniak, a Serb, a Croat). Together, they serve a 4 year term. The Dayton Accord also created Republika Srpska (meaning “Serb Republic”) as a 2nd constitutional and legal entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina. (ie. Just to clarify: Bosnia and Herzegovina is made up of 2 entities, one being the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the other being Republika Srpska).
I’ve highlighted important stuff above that I’ll be referring to again below. Just know that really none of the parties in the conflict are happy with the results of the Dayton Accord.
I’ve kept it factual, ignoring the ethnic cleansing, concentration camps, and killing of civilians. Many people will tell you all the above has happened to one group or another in the Balkans, including to the Serbs in World War II. There’s a long list of grievances on all sides.
One of the tours that everyone should do in Sarajevo is a Siege Tour. Included is all the history that I’ve mentioned above (in much more detail) and how citizens survived, in part because of an underground tunnel built under the airport. The tunnel was a conduit into the city from Free Bosnian Territory (which the Serbs didn’t control) on the other side of the airport. The supplies brought in saved the lives of Sarajevans and also saved the city from having to surrender to the Serbs.
But that’s history and I felt sadness seeing the video watching civilians ducking Serb sniper fire and walking through the tunnel.
But it was the modern part of the tour that made me angry.
– Do you know that the new government had 3 years to choose a flag for the new Bosnia and Herzegovina? They couldn’t agree to anything. After 3 years!! The flag of Bosnia and Herzegovina that you see today had to be decided upon by the UN.
– I’ve mentioned the 3 acting presidents. All decisions need unanimous agreement. It never happens. Everything is done to undermine the political process.
– The country is now split into 2 entities (the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina) and Republika Srpska and the population in the two are split along ethnic lines. This is a divided country.
– Government jobs are allocated by nationality, as per the Dayton Accord. So there’s ethnic tensions in the workplace where everyone knows everyone else’s ethnicity. It’s dysfunctional, discriminatory, and just adds to ethic resentment.
– The country gets little international investment and the economy stinks. The unemployment rate about 35%. Some economic numbers.
– 150,000 young people (minimum I’m told) have left the country to work in Western Europe over the last 4 years (the country’s population is about 3.5 million). Our guide had lots of stories of friends who’ve emigrated to Germany or Sweden for a better life.
Bosnia and Hercegovina is a basket case and politicians are intentionally allowing it to happen. That’s what’s really shocking. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why – a failed state falls into the longer term plans of some of its politicians.
After the tunnel we drove up into the hills and within minutes were in Republika Srpska, where Bosnian Serbs live. Their flags dominate every street corner and there was a big sign welcoming you to Republika Srpska. “They want to know who’s boss around here” says our guide. For those who haven’t heard, politicians from Republika Srpska have been in the news consistently threatening a referendum on the separation from Bosnia and Hercegovina and merging with Serbia. I asked the guide how a Muslim would be treated if coming to this territory: “they would be yelled at and insulted”.
We passed a bunch of mangy dogs (stray dogs are a problem in Bosnia) and were taking to the bobsled facilities used in the 1984 Olympics (Sarajevo hosted the Olympics that year, one of the best Winter Olympics up to that point. 8 years later the country was at war). The bobsled run was used as an artillery position by the Bosnian Serb forces during the war and were inflicted a lot of damage. I’m told they’ve been restored but all I see is graffiti and old cement.
A 5 minute drive from there brings you to old ruins. It used to be a popular restaurant with wonderful views of Sarajevo. During the war it was used by the Serbs and was targeted by NATO jets when they finally decided to step into the war. It’s totally ruined today although my guide tells me “they’re talking of re-building it…but that would mean the government would have to vote on it”.
So basically no, it won’t happen.
We went to the old Jewish Cemetery, the 2nd largest Jewish cemetary in Europe. In the days of the Ottoman empire, Sarajevo was indeed the Jerusalem of Europe. In 1492 when the Jews were expelled from Spain (kicked out by the Catholics) they were welcome in Sarajevo where they became doctors, pharmacists and businessmen. At its peak, before WWII, the Jewish community numbered about 14,000 in Sarajevo, about 20% of the population. During the war, Bosnia and Herzegovina came under the control of the ‘Independent State of Croatia”, a Croatian puppet government of the Nazis. They murdered hundreds of thousands of Jews, Serbs, and Roma (gypsies). Today the Jewish population in Sarajevo numbers about 600 and they have only one active synagogue.
I asked the guide what he thought the future was for Bosnia. He shrugged and sighed and said he didn’t know, except that he hoped there would never be another war. He mentioned that Czechoslovakia had separated with an agreement celebrated over a bottle of champagne.
Honestly, does anyone believe that will happen in the Balkans?
The next day I was on a walking tour through downtown Sarajevo. Our guide was a charming 30 something year old Bosniak lady who spoke perfect English. Again, it was early December so there were only 2 of us on the tour. It meant being able to ask questions.
“So what’s the difference between Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks?”
“Nothing really, except for history and religion. But originally we are all the same Slavic people, speak the same language although for identity reasons we call it different names (Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian). But they’re more similar than American English to British English. The difference really is the history and the different religions that developed as a result. Honestly, if you see us on the street you wouldn’t be able to tell us apart. But the major identifier is religion – if you’re Catholic you’re Croat, if you’re Muslim you’re Bosnian, if you’re Orthodox you’re Serb. Nobody is going to identify themselves as a Muslim Croat or an Orthodox Bosnian. It’s really about religion”.
I have a hard time convincing myself that Bosnians are Muslim. Yes, many women wear shawls and you hear the chant from the mosque. But you also see the men wearing the typical Balkan sweatpants, you’ll see the same underwear advertisements on billboards that you see everywhere else in the Balkans, and most women you’ll see walking around Sarajevo are dressed just as they would in Croatia or Serbia. Bosnia is “Muslim-lite”. I asked about what were clearly Muslim tourists walking around, the men more conservatively dressed, the women wearing Niquabs. “We get many tourists from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran”. She told me that these countries had promised to invest in Bosnia’s infrastructure “but so far they’re just building mosques”. She told me that Muslim visitors are shocked by how Bosnians conduct themselves, the way most women don’t cover their hair and how people drink beer just meters from the mosque. “We’re Muslim, but we are a different kind of Muslim. We’re European first”.
Our guide added one more thing. “You know, when the Serbs attacked us some said they were getting back at us for the Ottoman times. How stupid is this thinking? The Ottomans came here and converted Bosnia to Islam. It is not us that attacked the Serbs”.
I walked around the city center, walking down the main street nicknamed Sniper Alley during the War. I recognized the two towers that had been burning in the video at the museum. They had been fixed up. They are still the only two skyscrapers in the downtown core. Right next to them is the Holiday Inn which served as the base for all foreign journalists. It was one of the few buildings where they had electricity and water. It’s been fixed up as well and has new management. The hotel is now called Hotel Holiday. I’m sure there’s a joke about that somewhere. All around the city are red splotch marks on the sidewalk, they indicate where people died because of mortars. Everywhere you see a red splotch at least 3 died. You’ll still see tons of buildings with shrapnel holes. The strange thing is that Sarajevo’s central district looks almost as it did in the video from the war. Those two towers and the hotel next to it dominate the landscape. This is maybe the most disturbing thing – except for repairs, the cityscape hasn’t changed in 22 years. Show me photos of almost any city 20 years ago compared to the present day. They’re often unrecognizable. Not Sarajevo. It makes sense: Sarajevo’s population has actually gone down since the war, from a pre-war (1991) population of 360,000 to a population of 275,000 as per the last census in 2013. The composition of its citizens has also changed. Before the war there was more of an ethnic mix with Bosniaks making up 50% of the population, the rest being mostly Serb. Since the war, the Serbs moved out of the city (mostly to Republika Srpska) and now the Bosniak population is about 81%. So the country is now segregated along ethnic lines contained within different political boundaries.
But this isn’t so much a reflection on Sarajevo or on Bosnia and Hercegovina. It’s a reflection on the Balkans. The reason Bosnia and Hercegovina is in the crosshairs is because of the ethnic mix in the country. I had told one of the guides that some people compared the situation in the Balkans to African tribalism. He had looked down, thinking about it, before replying “there are a lot of stupid, uneducated people here in the Balkans”.
Sarajevo was nicknamed the Jerusalem of Europe because it was where 4 religions (Islam, Christianity, Orthodoxy, and Judaism) co-existed. You’ll still see religious houses of the 4 faiths walking around the city. It’s inspiring. But Sarajevo has gone the way of the rest of the Balkans in terms of segregation of ethnicities: Serb minorities left Croatia after the war, just as they left the Federation of Bosnia and Hercegovina. Croatia is now overwhelmingly ethnic Croatian (90% per last census), Serbia is 83% Serbian, Bosnia and Hercegovina is the most ethnically diverse (50% Bosniak, 31% Serb, 15% Croat) BUT when broken down among the two political entities in the country you get a truer picture – the Federation of Bosnia and Hercegovina is 70% Bosniak, 22% Croat (all near the Croatian border), and 3% Serb…the Serbs have all moved in Republika Srpska which is 82% Serb, 14% Bosniak, and 2% Croat. It paints a picture of 3 ethnicities that won’t co-exist.
So what is the issue in the Balkans?
The two older men that I met on that last day in Sarajevo are Bosniaks. Both served in the army protecting Sarajevo from the siege. They lost a lot of family and friends in the war. They spoke of children getting killed playing in their backyards. They lamented the fact that Bosnia and Hercegovina is the basket case it is today. “There is nothing here. The biggest tragedy is that all the young people are leaving. There is no future in this country”. I asked them what I had asked both tour guides “So what’s wrong with the Balkans?”. Their answer: “Too many uneducated people that the politicians can manipulate through nationalism and religion. It doesn’t make sense – we have friends and family in Croatia and Serbia. We have more similarities than differences”. Then he uttered what I mentioned at the top of this post ““we must have something wrong with our heads. Maybe something wrong in our genes. It doesn’t make sense”.
While I was in Sarajevo the news came out about Slobodan Praljak, the Croatian General who committed suicide in court after being charged with war crimes relating to the siege of Mostar. I came back to Croatia where the indictment and suicide have opened up fresh wounds. Croatian politicians are denouncing the verdict and want to challenge the ruling. Many Croatians are calling him a war hero – just as in Serbia where indicted war criminals such as Slobodan Milosevic and Ratko Mladic are regarded by Serbs as war heroes. This is the Balkans, where old grievances are never forgotten and where retribution is always on the mind. It reminds me of obsessed sports fans – otherwise rational people – who count every perceived offense or slight against their team (whether by the other team or by officials) and hold on to every one of these injustices, counting the days until the next game in the hope they’ll get justice. The obsession is with injustices of the past, the future with settling the score. This is the Balkans today. And that’s what’s depressing.
When I lived in Africa as a child, we had family friends from Yugoslavia. As many people tell me now (and it doesn’t matter whether it’s Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro or Macedonia) the Yugoslav passport at the time gave citizens access to the entire world, East and West. Talk to them and you can feel the nostalgia and pride. They’ll tell you that Yugoslavia was a ‘real’ country, accepted and respected by the world community. Tito, the authoritarian leader of Yugoslavia (some would call him a dictator), also brings up nostalgia. When we first came to the Balkans 3 years ago feelings about him seemed a bit more mixed. It seems to me that people hold him in higher esteem today. I was actually surprised to hear one of our guides in Sarajevo refer to him as “our great leader”, probably the most respectful title I’ve heard yet. Nostalgia and memories of better times does that.
Below: A few examples from Sarajevo’s War Childhood Museum (worth a visit)
Please don’t let the above discourage you from visiting Sarajevo. It is yet another interesting pocket of the Balkans, with a unique culture and very welcoming people. We’ve had personal experiences in the Balkans unlike anywhere else in the world. It’s part of the reason we try so hard to understand the history and mentality. But Sarajevo is more than just it’s war history – it’s also a very scenic and atmospheric city.
Related: Hate and Sadness in Mostar
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