If we do not pay attention to Bosnia, we risk creating the conditions for another Srebrenica

Written by Duncan Dunlop on 23 November 2017 in Comment

We can’t afford to take our eye off rebuilding in the Balkans, says Duncan Dunlop

Remembering Srebrenica - Image credit: John Young

Bosnia is one of the most beautiful countries in Europe and Sarajevo is my favourite city in the world. Bosniaks were the jokers and cheer-makers of Yugoslavia.

So regardless of what else I write in this article about the politics of Bosnia, please remember it is an amazing place – go to Bosnia.

I have, though, just returned from a visit to Bosnia which was hosted by the charity, Remembering Srebrenica. I now feel guilty, sad, but determined.

I returned to the UK in 2008 having worked in Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro for four years. I also occasionally worked in Bosnia. I was there to help build peace.

This focused on building the capacity of remarkable young Serbs, Montenegrins, Albanians, Macedonians, Kosovans, Croats and Bosniaks.

The aim was to finally break the xenophobic roots in this complex intercultural mesh of seven peoples which were, till recently, held together in Yugoslavia. 

The objective was to reach the young student population, who were eager to travel, connect, earn, learn and understand themselves and their community.

They were the route to sustainable peace. There is no doubt for the participants it worked well.

I know activists who are still present across former Yugoslavia. They are energetic builders of peace, challengers of prejudice, battling to create a different narrative.

They are remarkable and committed individuals. They are very similar in education and outlook. They are no different to Scots. They are my friends.

Although few talked about it, I know some of them suffered and witnessed indescribable atrocities of sexual violence and murder. They had to flee their homes in fear and many lost family and friends forever.

Recently I returned to Bosnia with Remembering Srebrenica, a UK and Scottish charity whose staff are determined the atrocities committed across former Yugoslavia will not be forgotten.

They focus on the worst – Srebrenica. Here, 8,373 people were massacred in the most recent act of genocide in Europe since the Nazis.

This genocide was part of a cruel and bitter web of wars that raged across former Yugoslavia for nearly a decade in the 1990s.

Bosnia, so beautiful, was where it was cruellest. The suffering was indescribable.

The power of a xenophobic bitter nationalism was beyond the control of ordinary people. It ripped friendships, marriages and neighbourhoods apart.

Remembering Srebrenica take people to see and hear the impact of the genocide and war. It was a heartrending, tough experience.

I met the forensic anthropologists and the pieces of bone and skeleton they are trying to piece together to give the families a loved one to bury.

I stood in an agricultural-size building where the remnants of bodies and personal items are bagged together on shelves. An unpleasant, lingering scent of earthy, long passed death is omnipresent.

I visited the old battery factory which was the Dutch UN peacekeepers base on the outskirts of Srebrenica.

The overwhelmed Dutch peacekeepers turned the whole population over to the Bosnian Serbs.

This was where women and children were split from men and adolescent boys in preparation for slaughter of the males.

I heard first-hand from Hasan, who saw all his friends blown up on a football pitch. He survived a death march that his brother and father did not.

There are others who literally crawled out of a mass grave after being shot and left for dead.

Then there is Bakira from the ‘Women Victims of War’, who shows immense courage to recall how she was raped and forced to watch as her daughter was bloodied and raped.

She is uniting women who had similar catastrophic experiences and lost their sons and family in Bosnia. They are hunting down the perpetrators of these crimes.

This experience profoundly hurt the humanity within all of us in the delegation, but for me, the worst was to come.

We were sat in the salubrious surroundings of the British ambassador’s drawing room drinking tea when the UK’s top diplomat, Edward Ferguson, spelt out the starkest reality – we are not building a sustainable peace in Bosnia.

We have not progressed beyond the basic structures that were created to stop violence in the immediate aftermath of war.

Post-conflict peace-building has several phases: ceasefire, rebuild infrastructure, resolve conflicts, reconcile different communities. Bosnia has not progressed beyond phase II.

The signs are very worrying. War criminals like the Bosnian Serb Radovan Karadžić are being lauded like heroes with public buildings being named after them.

Schools in small towns still have walls and fences right through the playground and school buildings to keep ethnic groups separate. A different version of history is being taught each side of the wall.

Economic development is stymied, as being a politician in an overpopulated and ethnically divided political system remains one of the best paid jobs in Bosnia.

The country’s highest political bureau is that of the Office of the High Representative – which 22 years after the Dayton peace agreement is still held by a foreigner.

Paddy Ashdown is locally regarded as the most effective occupant of that office and he left it in 2006.

The mandate to adopt binding decisions when local parties seem unable, or unwilling, to act and to remove from office public officials who violate legal commitments are rarely used.

Recent history has taught us that if the international community gives Bosnia a low-priority status or continues to placate the increasingly entrenched but divisive status quo, the signs are not promising.

In 1991 we were focused on the first Gulf war, only to recognise, belatedly, the bloody mess that the Balkans was descending into.

It would seem foolish to not see how Bosnia is a political priority. Its fragmented and divided nature at the heart of Europe means it could be a strategic priority for competing external forces.

During the wars of the 1990s, the Mujahidin established a more conservative Islamic foothold in Bosnia as the West prevaricated over aiding the Bosniaks.

It is now suspected that with unemployment rife, local Muslim women in rural areas are being paid by Saudi Arabians to cover their heads.

This is in a country where I remember Bosniaks celebrating Eid like Scots on Hogmanay.

Bosnia also has the highest youth unemployment in the world, which, according to the World Bank, stands at 67 per cent.

If ISIS wanted to target and recruit disenfranchised young people in Europe, then Bosnia appears an obvious target.

Meanwhile, the Russians remain the main allies of the Serbs. Last year, in fear of neighbouring Montenegro joining NATO, the Russians were accused of attempting to force a coup during Montenegrin elections.

Worryingly, Bosnia, in its fragile and fragmented state and with a large Bosnian Serb population, is even more susceptible to such destructive influences.

It was heartening to hear from the ambassador that Britain is aiming to play a central role in driving change in Bosnia.

But the UK would need to scale-up its efforts significantly to appear anything but paltry when faced with the entrenched local reality.

There needs to be a bold vision and action, as the apparent ongoing appeasement of a divided and self-serving political status quo is not building sustainable peace.

Bosniaks need to know they matter. This will require strong leadership and positive international influence.

One of my Balkan friends told me: “Peace? We are just stuck in a 40-year cycle of war. War will come again.”

If we do not pay more heed to Bosnia, then within the next 18 years, we are at significant risk of unfathomably recreating the conditions for murderous violence like Srebrenica to reoccur.

Remember Srebrenica. We are meant to, so it can never happen again.

Please remember, I write this not to put you off Bosnia.

I love Bosnia and I go back to the unfashionable parts of former Yugoslavia most years with my young family.

You can visit, you can use your influence and political agency. Let’s show Bosnia she matters.

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