Politics or religion?
No discussion about Bosnia would be complete without reference to my favorite subjects: religion and politics. As I mentioned in my pre-departure post, the Bosnian War involved three major parties: Bosniak Muslims (majority of Sarajevo and about 43% in Bosnia pre-war), Bosnian Serbs (backed by Serbia, roughly 30%), and Bosnian Croats (backed by Croatia, roughly 15%). The ethnic mix seems like a powder keg, destined to explode.
It sure exploded. But why? The convenient explanation is that different religions cannot get along, especially when they are bound in an uneasy political union. My initial impression was that Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats harbored an inherent antagonism, rooted in the different beliefs, histories, and cultures that make up their identity.
The religious element is so visceral that it’s hard to ignore. At Srebrenica, Serb commander Ratkum Mladic proclaimed the following: (warning: contains graphic images)
Indeed, it seems like religion was a huge factor in much of this bloodshed.
Yet, my experiences show that this may not have been the case. In fact, all of the religious and political leaders that we met argued that the Bosnian War was not a religious conflict. Serbian Orthodox priest Mitar Tarasic said confidently: “It was not a religious war. It was just war. We had conferences and calls for peace, but the politicians would not listen.” It was a war of all against all. Bosniaks were fighting Serbs, Serbs were fighting Croats, Bosniaks were fighting Bosniaks, and so on. You get the picture.
Bosniak students told me they had Croat and Serbian friends, and that the three communities had cooperated for many generations. The Jewish community leader described how he opened a soup kitchen for all people in Sarajevo, serving 350 meals per day with just 2 pots and 50 liters of water. When Bosnia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1990, it never intended nor foresaw a military conflict. And their cultures are not all that different.
The conflict was largely political. Politics is a dirty business – and when mixed with religion, it becomes a lethal combination. It is a game of manipulating ethnic/religious differences to achieve political goals – in this case, to crush Bosnian independence and reunite it with Yugoslavia (which Serbia claimed to represent).
One student was rather blunt, saying: “We need the older politicians to die. They are teaching us to hate each other.” There is definitely optimism for the future; most of the young adults identified not as Bosniaks or Croats or Serbs, but simply as “Bosnians.” They have put the war behind them, and look forward to building a nation no longer characterized solely by their family backgrounds.
Perhaps the student is being a bit rash. But the current political system certainly needs to change, for it is defined far too much in narrow ethnic terms. If you thought the U.S. political system was a mess, think again. In Bosnia, there are three presidents who rule at once: one Bosniak, one Croat, and one Serb. The country is divided into two regions based on ethnicity: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (mostly Bosniak/Croat) and the Republic of Srpska (mostly Serb). Cantons and cities further divide the country. The Dayton Accords have essentially institutionalized ethnic divisions. It is amazing that the country has not blown up once again.
So yes – politics suck, and they have created quite a mess in the Balkans. Be wary of those who immediately blame religion as the cause of wars and conflicts. Look beyond it – see who’s controlling the strings, who stands to profit, and what are the ultimate goals.