Bosnia, or Everybody Hates Dayton

Sarajevo is the capital of a country which has no government.  It isn’t in a state of anarchy or chaos.  It simply feels like the government got up one day and left, and life carried on as normal, with everyone hoping that the government would come back at some point before too much could fall apart.  That day was back in 1995, and the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina are still waiting.

We only hear of Bosnia today in connection with the capture or sentence of a former war criminal is a distressing indication of how completely the West has forgotten Bosnia since 1995.  Other nations of former Yugoslavia, even Serbia, have been purged and healed.  But Bosnia, after suffering through a War more than twice as long as that in Kosovo four years later, has been almost totally abandoned, and it shows.

There is no noisy, clustered Kosovar-style gratitude towards the West in Sarajevo, no Bill Clinton Street or NATO Avenue, just an overwhelming sense of disappointment.  The famous Sarajevo roses – places where shelling damage was filled with red concrete whenever the attack resulted in a death – are now disappearing as they are worn away by pedestrian activity.  But they are the exception.  Everything else from those years, tangible and intangible, has remained.

The national flag is not popular here.  You’re more likely to see the old wartime Bosnian flag – the fourteenth-century shield of the King of Bosnia on a white background.  Many people think that official flag – blue and yellow and white – has been artificially imposed on the country.  But it is not alone.  Virtually the whole political system is equally fictitious.

Bosnia today begins and ends with Dayton, the town in Ohio where the Orthodox Serbs, the Catholic Croats, and the Muslim Bosniaks signed a peace agreement in 1995.  It seems as though the region’s Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian history happened to some other Bosnia far away.  The Wars that Dayton ended are even now dizzying in their complexity, but they come down to three key stages.

In 1991, Serbia attacked Croatia after it declared independence, with the assistance of Croatian Serbs inside the country.  Next, Serbia, and the Bosnian Serbs, attacked Bosnia from the north, while Croatia, and the Bosnian Croats, attacked from the south (even while they were still fighting Serbia).  In 1993, Croatia and the Bosnia joined the same side, and from then until the end of the war they fought Serbia together.  At each stage tremendous atrocities were committed and huge numbers of people died.

Persuading Franjo Tuđman, Alija Izetbegović, and Slobodan Milošević to sign the Agreement is regarded as one of the coups of modern international politics, and the Dayton Agreement’s texts itself is held up as a model of state-building.  But within Bosnia itself, the picture is bleaker.  I met not a single person who had anything good to say about the Dayton Agreement.

Outside Sarajevo is the tunnel which was the only lifeline between the city and the liberated territories.  It ran under the runway of Sarajevo airport, a UN zone which was therefore immune from Serbian attacks.  We go to visit the 20 metres of the tunnel which  remains.  Tarik, our driver, used to be a firefighter during the war – it’s difficult to imagine a more dangerous job.  He is cheery during the video about the tunnel’s construction, which he has doubtless seen hundreds of times, and eagerly points out which buildings are being shelled in the footage of the war.

But about five minutes after we leave the tunnel museum Tarik’s mood becomes noticeably sour and his driving gets more aggressive.  There’s a wedding party on the main road and the cars ahead have decided to stop and block the traffic.  “You see, they’re all crazy!” Tarik says.  Then I see the Serbian flags hanging from the lampposts and the Cyrillic street signs, and I understand.  We are in the Serb zone.

Dayton’s key territorial provision was that the country should be split into two ethnically-based entities: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, for Bosniaks and Croats, and Republika Srpska, for Serbs.  A glance at a map of the division will show you why this solution was controversial – the Republika seems to be reaching out to the Federation, trying to seize hold of it.  This is because the borders are based on the ceasefire lines.  The Republika marks the exact extent of the territory which the Serbs were able to conquer (and in many cases cleanse) before the peace settlement.

This leads to some interesting anomalies.  The village of Srebrenica, scene of the infamous massacre under the very noses of UN peacekeepers, is now buried deep in the Serbian half of the country.  Even within the capital, you can stand on a Sarajevo rose in the old Ottoman quarter, read the names of dozens of people who were killed in a single instance of Serbian mortar fire, then walk across the river into Grbavica and see the old houses of the people who most likely directed that attack.  But proximity does not disguise the separation; although it’s only a few minutes away, Tarik only ever comes to the Republika when he’s driving tourists.

What the Bosnians argue is that, despite appearances, their country suffers from a surplus of government rather than a lack of it.  “We have three presidents!” shouts Tarik, almost unprompted.  It’s true.  At election times, Bosnians pick three presidents: one Croat, one Bosniak, and one Serb.  They take turns occupying the absurd position of President of the Presidency.  There is also a Prime Minister, who has the real power in theory.  In practice, most state power is exercised by the High Representative for Bosnia, an office created by Dayton and filled exclusively by EU politicians (currently an Austrian).  Both the Federation and the Republika Srpska also have their own presidents, parties, and parliaments.

So both explanations are correct in their way.  There are so many parallel structures that nothing gets done; a lot of government, but little actual governing.  The National Museum, host to an impressive collection of artifacts including the world’s oldest Jewish book, the priceless Sarajevo Haggadah, has been closed since October last year because the Federation and national governments cannot agree which of them is supposed to be allocating it funding.

In fact, the situation is so disorganised that back in 2008, the office of the Presidency rather nonchalantly announced that the original Dayton Agreement had disappeared from the archives; the one which is currently kept there is a certified copy borrowed from the French government.

It was not always thus.  Bosnia’s first President, Alija Izetbegović, led the country through the war and successfully managed to restrain his people from the sort of widespread violence and terrorism they could understandably have turned to under the circumstances.  He was also a philosopher and author who developed his own concept of Islam as a synthesis of Eastern and Western philosophies.

Izetbegović died in 2003, having stepped down from the Presidency in 2000.  His memory is not quite the industry which Croatia has made of Franjo Tuđman, its own wartime President, but it is certainly noticeable if you look for it.  His grave in central Sarajevo is guarded round the clock by the military, who even appeared to object to my photographing it.  Up the hill is the enormous Alija Izetbegović Museum and Library.  Even the Tunnel Museum has an alcove dedicated to him.

Tarik speaks of him in glowing terms.  His comments about the current Bosnian leaders are far less kind, and they become a list of complaints I will hear repeatedly in nearly every Balkan country.  The politicians are rich, selfish, corrupt, and incompetent; the international community does nothing to help; prices are rising and the standard of living is falling; more people are descending into poverty.

There may still be hope.  Our city tour guide, Harun, was a child during the war.  He still refers to the Serbs during the war as ‘the aggressor’, but he believes that they are different from the Serbs who live in Bosnia now, who have a right to live there too.  He has Serb friends, and speaks proudly of Sarajevo’s tradition of tolerance, and of the Serbs who stayed on the Bosnian side and lived under siege with the rest.  He admits that Dayton was a grossly unfair solution, but says that unpicking it and going back to the beginning would bring about far more bloodshed in a country which has had its fill.

It’s difficult to gauge how many Bosnians agree with Harun – fewer, I fear, than those who would agree with Tarik.  The War, as a chapter of their history, needs to be finished.  While new war criminals are being prosecuted almost weekly, while there are thousands of Bosniaks who know that the people who killed their family and friends are still at large, while the process of closure and reconciliation is artificially stifled by an international presence which is afraid of creating tension, nothing will be accomplished.  Nearly twenty years later Bosnia and Herzegovina is still post-war.

At the time of Dayton, the Bosnian President Alija Izetbegović announced, “This may not be a just peace, but it is more just than the continuation of war.” Perhaps the reason his memory is so ever-present is that the Bosnians are trying desperately to convince themselves that what he said is true.


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