Bosnia, a Country that Borders Itself

Twenty years after the civil war, Bosnia-Hercegovina is out of conflict, but not out of trouble.


There is much to ponder while looking out from the slopes of the old Jewish cemetery — Europe’s second-largest — over Sarajevo. Ahead, the city rises up from the river along the Dinaric Alps, whose gentle hillsides envelop the city before turning into full-blown ridges beyond the municipal limits into rugged 2,700-meter peaks further yet, stretching deep into Albania and spanning seven borders, five currencies and four language varieties all the way from Northern Italy.

“Winter is here,” you might think — for the January cold wraps people on the street in beanie hats as it wraps the mountain ranges in layers of snow, hiding leftover land mines from sight.

“Where is the water?” perhaps — for although every great city has its river, the Miljacka that cuts through the Bosnian capital is not like the Thames or Bosporus or Hudson but only a tame stream of ten centimeters deep. It takes a good look before you find it, buried in between quirky Communist-era tenements and quirkier post-Communist skyscrapers.

Or simply “what the hell?!” — for it seems hard to imagine that no urban planner with a slight of military insight would have seen the strategic risk of building this city. Surrounded by mountains from every single side, it poses an unspoken invitation for invasion. In that sense, the shellings and snipers that turned the city into a shooting gallery throughout the Bosnian war were hardly surprising.

Starting a story about Bosnia with the 1992–1995 civil war is a cliché, but avoiding the topic would be a mental exercise, like trying really hard not to think about a pink elephant. Especially when, like me, finding out how war works is what brought you there in the first place. Where does the death and destruction in a war zone occur, and why do other places stay peaceful? Why was Bosnia’s Mostar razed to the ground, and Tuzla spared the same fate? I hoped to find out by visiting, and made the trip over the winter break as an exercise in Capstone fieldwork. The perks of doing so are straightforward, from getting to know the facts through first-hand interviews, to simply seeing the places and people you keep reading about. Not to mention that it is likely to be the best antidote on offer against thesis procrastination.

Something rotten

“It is like a computer trying to remove its RAM,” says Bakir, who was in charge of Sarajevo’s central hospital during the war. But unlike the temporary memory from a PC, taking the war out of a human is hard. Literally, for the mountaineer who still bears a piece of shrapnel in his body; figuratively, in many other stories. The friend whose death is mourned in the byline of a conversation. The remark that the air quality has never been like it was during the war years — pure and crisp clean, once the factories stopped running and petrol became unaffordable. The former reporter whose voice still makes people at the marketplace shiver as a reminder of the bad old days — of hiding in the basement next to a crackling radio.

But unlike the temporary memory from a PC, taking the war out of a human is hard. Literally, for the mountaineer who still bears a piece of shrapnel in his body; figuratively, in many other stories.

I spoke with Zlatko, the reporter, on the third floor of a former secondary school, seated on wooden chairs, in the hallway, that were once reserved for students serving their after-hours detention. Work desks now fill the classrooms. The typing sounds of government bureaucracy have replaced student banter. The last few months here have been an act of improvisation for the Tuzla regional government, Zlatko’s new employer. The official seat, just around the corner, is a wreck. Its premises are scorched black and its walls covered in graffiti since Tuzla’s citizens took to the streets last year in protests against failed privatisation, unpaid benefits and a government that failed to do anything about it all

Something is rotten in the state of Bosnia, and the precise causes of its current state are hard to diagnose. The symptoms vary place by place, the experts disagree. Surely, this is no congenital defect: things did not have to be this way. A war wound, but not the kind that bleeds, then dries, then heals, then over time becomes a sign of the past, a source of pride perhaps. This is more like a state of shell shock. Bosnia has made it out of the war, still alive, its borders mostly intact, but with something fundamentally altered under its skin.

Out of tune and into trouble

Watch a war, and this is the story: a clash of two or three groups, call them Serbs, Croats and Muslims (or Hutus and Tutsis, or Dinka and Nuer), neatly divided into distinct teams and driven towards each other by a history of hatred and a thirst for blood. That description is apt for football matches, but not so much for civil war. True, Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs did of course exist as people, but it was the war that drove the differences between them rather than the other way around.

Politicians who tasted the potential of polarisation banged the drums of nationalism with fervour. Football hooligans, released prisoners and the odd idealist willingly offered themselves as the backing vocals in exchange for freedom or a share in the gains. Faced with hostility from all three sides, most Bosnians — whatever group they were supposedly part of — picked a side and opted for the devil they knew.

Like in a state of shell shock, Bosnia has made it out of the war, still alive, its borders mostly intact, but with something fundamentally altered under its skin.

Not to say that everyone’s part in the play was reduced to a supporting role without text of their own. There were those who made a profit on rare supplies of food and goods, and opportunists who used the abundance of weapons and the absence of oversight to fight their own wars (was there ever a better way to settle that old debt or family grudge?). Others withstood the fire and opened their houses to hide an acquaintance from shelling or searching. Even in war, superficial trench lines end at the doorstep of your next-door neighbour.

Tuzla’s memory of solidarity is cemented into this monument to a 1920 miner rebellion.

And this is where the difference I was trying to understand was made clear. Unlike elsewhere, Tuzla’s pacifists were at the middle of its social life, upheld by a patchwork of groups and organisations. The groups that had once led miner uprisings and worker strikers had the network to become the loudest voices, allowing them to preserve the peace. In Mostar and most of the country, those who tried to raise their voices lacked the history, connections or the materials needed to drown out the sound of the warmongers and replace it with one of peace.

Going crazy

If groups began to matter during the war, they certainly do matter now. Where there had been barbed wire and trench lines, the map of Bosnia now shows border posts and ethnic segregation. Trying to find a job is hard, trying to understand politics even harder.

Take Zlatko, the former reporter with the shiver-inducing voice, who now spends his days in the upper echelons of regional Bosnian bureaucracy. “For the money,” he quips about his nine-to-five job. His employer is the ministry of science, sports and culture of the Tuzla canton, which together with nine other cantons (one of which bears the illustrious name “Canton 10”) makes up one half of Bosnia’s political structure. The other half is being formed by the Republika Srpska, with a tiny side-role for the northern district of Brčko, which in Wikipedia’s fitting prose “officially belongs to both, but is governed by neither”.

At the top sits a presidency shared by a Croat, a Serb and a Bosniak — a three-headed monster as the head of state. This, all in a country of less than 4 million, is the stuff that GED dreams (and nightmares) are made of. And it isn’t working, as a recent magazine piece summed up in an alternative anthem. “Bosnia, the only country that borders itself and where illiterate people write the history,” it goes. “A land where public announcements are hidden and state secrets are public, and where you aren’t normal if you don’t go crazy.”

Other times, other places

The lines of the war are the lines in the political system: knowing the right people with the right ethnicity in the right place is crucial. “When I, a Muslim, went to a hotel named ‘Bosnia’ in [Serb-ruled] Banja Luka after the war,” recounts Sinan, “they charged me the foreigner’s rate. It’s a paradox”. Finding work brings in the same problem. Jobs are not just rare, they are the currency of politics.

Without flow, Bosnia’s progress will turn as foul as stagnant water, and its consequences surface nowhere as clearly as they do along the river banks of Mostar. History is making a comeback. Minarets and churchtowers fill the city’s skyline, a giant cross looms from a hill in the distance over the hotels and cafés of the old town. The ever-present Bosnian coffee, finely ground like its Turkish counterpart, is poured and served under the eyes of Marshall Tito. The Marshall’s face, solemn and angular, marks the month of January 2015, as well as every other month of the year, changing only his outfit and pose as the seasons pass. Yugo-nostalgia: a longing for the old state and its late benevolent dictator, are one way of dealing with today’s malheur. So is the revival of religion.

The war struck Mostar unusually hard. So hard that, twenty years on, the city still bears the smoke stains of contention. An UNESCO plaque applauds the restoration of the Old Bridge in four languages, but the real divide still runs deep in Mostar: here you find two hospitals, two bus stations, two post offices, two universities even, in a city of only 140,000 people.

The ever-present Bosnian coffee, finely ground like its Turkish counterpart, is poured and served under the eyes of Marshall Tito.

If not another era, another place offers respite. After the war sent thousands abroad in the 1990s, a brain drain now brings intellectual refugees to join them, from Western Europe to far-flung places like St. Louis, Missouri. Surveys say 80% would join the flight if they could. The protests that started in Tuzla last year were a hopeful sign, but their echo has died down.

If the hills on which Sarajevo’s suburbs sprawl were a little higher, you could imagine seeing all of Bosnia stretching ahead under your eyes. But with a changed focus and a sharp eye, the view would stay largely the same. The people on the streets, favouring beanies over protest signs, perhaps waiting for a Bosnian Spring. The quirky layers of bureaucracy, built around an invisible but deep line that cuts straight through its heart. A history built without a sense of strategy and surrounded by obstacles that reach into the sky. And, despite it all, still standing. You might just go crazy. What the hell.

Text and photos by Rik Rutten. Story written for PAX Magazine, February 2015.

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