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In the shadows of war
Journal Post #33: August 14th 2023, Kotor Montenegro
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How to even begin to tell the heartbreaking story of the Bosnian War and its aftermath? A story that has been told a thousand times already, from all possible angles. A story that captured the attention of so many around the world, and at the same time invoked ineffective action from the international community until it was too late. A story that very likely happened when you, my reader, were alive and growing up in a suburb in the United States, going to college in the capital of a Latin American country, or just living a war-free life anywhere else in the world. A story that was quickly forgotten by the world, even though another kind of war is still unfolding here today.
I was four when the war started and eight when it finished. The entire time I was completely oblivious to what was happening across the pond. Even after I grew up I learnt little about the Balkan peninsula, about its rich history and recent conflicts, about its kind people and ethnic divides. Not until I walked the streets of Sarajevo did I realize that thirty years after the war, there is still no peace in this country.
But let’s rewind.
Before I traveled through the region, everything I had read about it called out ethnic divides between Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks, but that was always somewhat confusing to me. Don’t people living there have a ton in common? Don’t they share their history, ancestry, and language? The reality is that they do. It has been scientifically proven that the genetic differences between these ethnicities is practically nonexistent, all being a mix between indigenous Balkan (mainly Illyrians and Thracians) and Slavic people. Their languages, besides using different alphabets (Latin and/or Cyrillic), are nearly identical in vocabulary and grammar, just like American and British are both English.
So, what do they mean by ethnicity? The more I travel through the region the more it’s clear that religion is the main divider. At some point the different groups converted into different religions, either because they were forced to or because they were promised better lives if they did, and then through time have become culturally and otherwise different too. Bosniaks are Muslim, Serbs are Orthodox, and Croats are Catholic.
These religion and cultural divisions sort of blurred when they were all part of Yugoslavia and atheism was encouraged. Religions were still allowed, but it was not socially acceptable to discriminate based on it. Mix-religion marriages were common and everyone lived in peace. Tito preached peaceful coexistence and the truth is that he achieved it, even if that simply meant grievances were hidden under the carpet for a few decades.
But then Tito died, Yugoslavia started struggling economically for a variety of reasons, the Berlin wall fell and communism regimes started falling apart. Yugoslavia followed, with several republics in the union voting to secede and become independent, including Bosnia & Herzegovina. This uncovered everything hidden under the carpet, particularly in areas with big Serb communities, mainly in Bosnia & Herzegovina and Croatia. You see, Yugoslavia was always a majority-Serb union, and the nationalist Yugoslav government of Milošević wanted to unite the Serbs spread across the union and make a “Greater Serbia”. When you look at where large Serbs communities lived in Yugoslavia, it’s clear that war was inevitable if that was his goal.
[Note: This is not a post about the war per se, but if you would like to understand the basics I have included some simplified facts at the end of the post.]
Today, if you look across the Balkan region most countries have become their own islands, with very homogenous populations. Croatia is 80% Croat Catholic, Serbia is 80% Serb Orthodox, Kosovo is 95% Albanian Muslim, and the list goes on.
One official exception: Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is roughly 50% Bosniak, 30% Serb, and 15% Croat. But, in reality, the country is split up and the populations are almost entirely segregated. Not only by neighborhood or towns, but by an actual border. The land is divided, the outcome of the war was to literally make sub-countries within the country.
You see, Bosnia-Herzegovina might officially be one country but in reality it’s two. There is Republika Srpsk, the autonomous Serb region of the country, and there is the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the other autonomous region which is shared between Bosniaks and Croats (each in its own area). There is also a small and very diverse area called the Brcko District which was created later out of land from the two main entities and kind of functions like the other two.
When we crossed the border from Serbia we went into Republika Srpsk, and during the many kilometers we drove inside the country on our way to Sarajevo we didn’t see a single Bosnian flag, it was a if we had never left Serbia, the distinctive red blue and white flag waved throughout our path (although officially the flag of Republika Srpsk is a bit different than the Serbia one, it’s very very similar).
This segregation wasn’t always the case though, at least not in the cities and certainly not in Sarajevo, which was nicknamed the “Jerusalem of Europe” for a reason. But, the war changed cities, and the country, for the worst. It transformed what before were diverse cities in which mix-ethnicity marriages and friendships could flourish into fully homogenous cities or strictly divided ones.
Our tour guide in Mostar, a city in the southern part of the country, told us we could easily meet Croat and Bosniak kids in town that had never crossed into “the other” side of town. This is even though prior to the war Mostar was one of the most ethnically diverse cities in Yugoslavia, with a large proportion of mixed marriages, and a much larger Serb population that today’s 4%. Nowadays, the town is clearly divided into two main communities, on one side Bosniaks and on the other side Croats. As we entered the town from the Croat side we saw dozens of Croatian flags waving in the light poles, the bells ringing on Catholic churches, and only Croatian beer in supermarkets.
This separation between Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs is not merely about where people live, it’s embedded in their institutions. The government classifies people into one of four categories: Muslim Bosniak, Orthodox Serb, Catholic Croat, or Other. Government jobs for these specific buckets - not including the “Other” category - have quotas, so if you want a job you *have* to identify with one of the religious buckets. Most people identify with a category regardless of their jobs.
The only shared elements between these three communities is a constitution, a central bank, and an army (which was recently united). Each of the communities has their own police force and health system, and even their money notes are different! Most worrisome of all, they have three different education systems, each teaching their own versions of history, including shockingly misleading statements of what happened during the war, like this excerpt from a college-age Serb textbook regarding the siege of Sarajevo:
"Sarajevo was under a partial blockade by Serb forces, and many Serbs remained imprisoned in the city, as Muslim military forces did not allow them to leave. Fighting was constantly taking place around the city, and war crimes against Serbs were committed in the city itself, as confirmed in 2021 by an independent international commission."
Even more surprisingly, denial of the Srebenica genocide, the worst massacre of the war, is still a widely held believe in Republika Srpska. Even though by federal law it’s illegal to deny it, no-one there is prosecuted for it. In fact, even politicians are still quite vocal about this believe.
When we visited the country a recent incident had happened in which two young women from Republika Srpska posted the image of Ratko Mladic, a convicted war criminal, and called him their hero. Because they were studying in Sarajevo, which is a short drive away from the “border” with Republika Srpska, the University there expelled them since they broke the law, but soon after they were rewarded by the authorities in Republika Srpska and told they would get their education paid elsewhere. Serbia gladly took them under their wing in the University of Belgrade. Sadly, this is just an example, as the government rhetoric on what happened during the war is clearly one-sided and echoed by the population of the Republika. People there, and in the country at large, are not coming to terms with what happened because no one is helping them reconcile, and perhaps never will.
The division runs so deeply that the country has three presidents, literally: one Croat, one Serb, and one Bosniak, elected for a 4-year term and rotating leadership every 8 months. There is also a Prime Minister, and then each entity has its own president. The Federation (the shared land between Bosniaks and Croats) not only has one president but two vice presidents as well! In addition (!!!) there is a High Representative, which is basically a viceroy due to its vast powers, and was put in place to oversee the implementation of the agreement after the war, called the Dayton Agreement. The system in incredibly complex, and I am probably butchering it (sorry).
So, how the heck do they get anything done? Well, they mostly don’t. Bosnia is one of the most corrupt countries in Europe. A complex system is not good for the people, but politicians - everywhere - benefit from them. Each level of government preaches their own victimhood, brewing hate and division, which also benefits them. Even more depressing, every single person we asked about the current situation and how to solve this deep division answered with a version of “there is no solution”.
It’s important to note that there are exceptions to the hateful divisions and people that genuinely want reconciliation. One of our tour guide in Sarajevo told us he doesn’t want to be put into an ethnic box, “I am not Muslim, I am not Bosniak, I am just a Sarajevan, a citizen of Bosnian and Herzegovina”. In a country in which most of its citizens identify with an ethnic group rather that the state, saying this is a revolution it itself. We had dinner with a kind and open family that just wish for their kids to live in peace with their neighbors. Our tour guide in Republika Srpska, where we spent a few days in Trebinje, told us repeatedly that the key was education, but also acknowledge that the system is broken, adding that the best outcome is maybe a slightly better situation that what they have today, “we can be neighbors, you can come to my home for dinner, but then you can go back home. Maybe that is the best we can hope for”.
Visiting Bosnia and Herzegovina was a wild ride. It was humbling and inspiring in many ways, but it was also a sad reminder of what humans are capable to do to one another, even long after an active conflict.
I often think about how after WWII there wasn’t a big reckoning in Germany right away, there wasn’t reconciliation and atonement for the pain the country had inflicted on so many. It actually took decade for this to happen, for a new generation to say enough is enough. So maybe more time is needed here too? I don’t know, it’s hard to see a solution to what seems like an intractable problem. Echoing the words of many in the country, “I am an optimist, but I am also a realist”.
I wanted to come to the country to learn about its past, and was blissfully ignorant of how that past is still very present in the day to day lives of Bosnians. This was a loud reminder of why I travel, because no matter how much I read about a place, I never really “get it” until I walk its streets and talk to its people. We left the country a couple of days ago and now I am more certain than ever that I know very little about it still, but my heart knows more than my head, and it’s loudly claiming to love it.
A bit about the war
The war started because there was a split in support for independence, favored by the majority of Bosniaks and Croats, and remaining in Yugoslavia, favored by the majority of Serbs. There was a referendum for independence in which 63% of people participated in and more than 90% voted in favor of independence (the majority of Serbs, which made up of 34% of the population, boycotted it)
Following the results the country declared its independence and received international recognization. Almost immediately the war started, in April 1992
There were three main groups fighting, the Yugoslav Army which later transformed into the Army of Republika Srpska (majority Serb), the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (majority Bosniak), and the Croatian Defence Council (majority Croat).
The Army of Republika Srpska was heavily supported by Yugoslavia (and then Serbia), and as such had a big military advantage.
Side note: in Serbia not a single person mentioned the War in Bosnia to us unless we brought it up first (even in history tours) and after visiting both countries and talking to many people I believe it’s because they don’t see it as their war. They didn’t officially go fight there, it was Bosnian Serbs who were doing most of the fighting, and only paramilitary groups from Serbia were on the ground. The fact that the Serbian government directly supported them with basically everything they needed to fight is apparently not enough to take some responsibility
Also, the Croatian Defence Council was supported by the Croatian government. Both Serbia and Croatia tried to hide their involvement in a variety of ways so it wouldn’t be seen as an international conflict, but rather just as a civil war, and other nations wouldn’t intervene. Their objective was to basically create a “Greater Croatia” and a “Greater Serbia”. Note that the Croatian War for Independence (first directly against Yugoslavia and then against Croatian Serbs) was happening at the same time
Although initially the Bosnian army and the croats were fighting together, this changed early on and they started to fight against each other in some parts of the country in what is known as the Croat-Bosniak war.
Many cities were sieged, including Sarajevo, which spent almost 4 years - the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare - completely surrounded by Bosnian Serb forces in a terrifying situation in which people were killed every day by bombs and snipers. More than 11,000 people were killed in the city, and 50,000 were injured. Approximately 329 mortar shells were fired on Sarajevo every day, with more than 500,000 bombs dropped in total. The videos and images that exist of what was happening then will stay with me forever.
The war lasted for almost 4 years during which a lot of war crimes were committed. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia convicted 62 Serbs, 18 Croats, and 5 Bosniaks of war crimes. Including genocide against the Bosniak population. Estimates suggest at least 100,000 people were killed during the war, 40% of those were civilians and 80% of those civilians were Bosniak. Over 2.2 million people were displaced. An estimated 12,000–50,000 women were raped, mainly carried out by Bosnian Serb forces, with most of the victims being Bosniak women.
The most shocking and depressing aspect of the war is how much the international community failed to protect civilians, specifically the UN peacekeeping force. In the largest and most devastating mass crime of the war - the genocide in Srebenica - people had literally gone there because it was designated a UN "safe zone", and then families were separated and 8,000 men and boys were slaughtered, including 600 children. They were all dumped in mass graves and then many were dug up afterwards and drop in other graves to try to hide what had happened. Still today not all missing people have been identified. 400 UN Dutch soldiers were stationed there when it happened.
The war ended when NATO, finally, got directly involved with airstrikes targeting the positions of the Army of the Republika Srpska. And then the Dayton agreement was signed in 1995, which is what divided the country. The agreement has been criticized for creating ineffective political systems and entrenching the ethnic divisions.
Side note: the Kosovo war was fought some years later, in 1999, by the same Yugoslav government, led by Milošević, that was in power during the Bosnian War, but this time against Kosovo Albanians. In this case NATO intervened rather quickly, even without full approval. I think what happened in Bosnia, or rather what the international community let happen there, was certainly on people’s mind then. On one of Clinton’s speech about the decision to intervene he said, “NATO stopped deliberate, systematic efforts at ethnic cleansing and genocide." Later on Milošević faced 66 counts of crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes committed during the Bosnian and Kosovo war.
One of the war museums in Sarajevo was playing a movie that stayed with me, it was set in 1994 when the war was in full swing and Sarajevo under siege. The film shows a tourist walking the streets of Rome talking pictures, he stumbled into a little store that is able to reveal his film in 10mins, so he drops it and goes wait outside. Then the movie cuts to the streets of Sarajevo and a kid going to fetch water from one of the water stations near his home, he finds his friends and plays ball for a minute, then a whistle and a loud explosion, he ducks and runs back home, where he finds his family has been killed by the bomb. Back in Rome, the tourist is getting his pictures back, one of them shows a happy family shot in the coliseum. Same world, same time, different realities. It’s an important reminder, specially right now.
Where are we now?
We are in Montenegro!!! Specifically in the Bay of Kotor, a beautiful aquamarine bay surrounded by big tall limestone mountains and dotted with cute medieval towns. Yesterday was the first time in months that we saw the ocean, and the first time in six months (!!) that we swam in it. It was magical! Arriving to Montenegro also means our full-time travel year+ is coming to an end, only one month left before we head to Mexico. *covers ears and sings loudly to try to ignore reality*. More on this next week!