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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.


Going numb in Bosnia


A single blog post does not do Bosnia justice.  I cannot fully convey my experience in Sarajevo, Tuzla, and Srebrenica unless I took you there myself – I learned too much, spoke with too many people, opened my eyes too wide.  I Skyped with my parents for an hour and a half when I returned to Copenhagen on Tuesday, and even that was grossly insufficient.

To kick things off, here’s a rundown of my itinerary and some of the places we visited (part of my Justice & Human Rights Program):

  • Parliamentary Assembly of Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Court of War Crimes
  • European Union Delegation
  • Meeting with mayor of Tuzla
  • International Commission of Missing Persons
  • Srebrenica (site of genocide)
  • Meeting with Croat, Jewish, and Serb representatives
  • Dinners, cafes, and parties with local students

Quite a lot was packed into our 5-day trip, and once again I have realized why exactly I chose to study abroad at DIS.  We weren’t there to just sightsee or party at local clubs.  We were there to experience first-hand the issues we had read about in class and seen on TV.  I’ll try to sum up some of the amazing things I learned:

People have some amazing stories to tell.  It hit me like a brick wall; talking with local students – many of them the same age as me – was undoubtedly the most striking part of my experience.  During the Bosnian War (1990-1994), Sarajevo was under siege for four years, surrounded by the Serbian army.  Those who stayed in the city went through hell.  Food was rationed, cigarettes became money (they love to smoke!), and the civilians endured constant shelling and sniper fire.  Just imagine being a young child, maybe five or six years old, and seeing things like…

  • Your father shot in the leg while picking blackberries with him
  • Grandma killed by a sniper while buying bread
  • Having to crawl on your knees whenever you used the bathroom because you could get shot through the window
  • Going to school in your basement
  • Cemeteries, maternity wards, and churches getting bombed
  • Driving through the mountains in a crowded van in the middle of the night, with a older lady in the back crying and screaming as they tried to cross the border (personal account of our tour guide)
  • Not knowing if your Serb or Croat neighbor was going to shoot or save you

I stared in disbelief.  Seriously, are we living in the same world?  Am I actually talking to you right now?   It is amazing what some people have lived through, and how big of a cakewalk my life has been in comparison.  In what was called “Sniper Alley,” marksmen would camp out in abandoned buildings and deliberately target any civilians who were out in the open.  The so-called “Bosnian Romeo and Juliet” – a couple trying to flee across the river in “Sniper Alley” – were gunned down during the night.  Their bodies lay there for seven days.

The river was the main front of the siege, with Serbs holding the left side of the river. Snipers would camp in these buildings

The river was the main front of the siege, with Serbs holding the left side of the river. Snipers would camp in these buildings

There are plenty of reminders.  Next to the Holiday Inn and some new “skyscrapers” are buildings still pierced with bullet holes and broken walls.  Cemeteries roll up and down the mountains.  Amidst incredible beauty, scars remain.

Of course, there were happy stories, too.  The students smiled as they described how they collected artillery shrapnel, rode around in wheelbarrows (mistakenly called “wheelchairs”) and went to the soup kitchen – which was operated by Jews, Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks!  One guy even told me how his grandfather was rescued; dragged out of his home to a firing squad, his Serb neighbor threw him into the long grass of a nearby field when no one was looking, saving his friend from certain death.

Later we took a trip to Srebrenica, the site of a brutal massacre.  8000 Bosniak men were herded like animals and killed, their bodies thrown in mass graves.  Our guide, who was seventeen at the time, was lucky to escape by surviving the “Death March” – as several thousand men fled through the mountains into free territory.  At the International Commission of Missing Persons, we saw the bones of those that did not survive, neatly shelved in white plastic bags in the giant storage room.  I covered my nose and stood in delirium.

gravestones at Srebrenica

gravestones at Srebrenica

The experience was numbing.  It all felt so direct, so shocking, so real.  I’ve been to killing fields before – in Auschwitz, Gettysburg, Normandy.  But this was somehow different.  I’m not just looking at pictures and videos.  There is no historical or generational gap here.  I’m talking to the actual people that lived through this hell, and many of them are my age.  I can relate to them a little bit more.  These are my peers.

And I just keep thinking how damn lucky I am.  I was never afraid of running around or playing baseball outside.  I didn’t go to school in a dark basement.  I was never suspicious that my neighbors would stab me in the back.  I wasn’t going to get snipered in the middle of the street.

It’s amazing what some people had to live through.  I asked a billion questions on this trip, and I want to ask a billion more.

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