bosnia report
New Series No. 15/16 March - June 2000
Empire of misery - round Bosnia in eight hours
by Ozren Kebo

Definition: `dirty and unfinished'. That's how an American currently working in Bosnia-Herzegovina defines our homeland. Dirty and unfinished. There's only one thing wrong with this insulting definition - it's unfortunately completely true. It was coined after a series of trips along the shabby roads of our country, roads from which chunks of raw asphalt will fall after the passage of any decent vehicle. All that's visible to the eyes of a traveller is dirt and half-houses. Half because they're either pitifully demolished as a consequence of war or have unplastered facades, a traditional construction custom of Bosnians and Herzegovinians even before this war.

My prewar and postwar passion for constantly travelling round Bosnia-Herzegovina brought me quickly to my senses. There's no beauty where dirt rules. Today only our mountains remain intact. And not even all of them. Wherever human foot has stepped, human hand has somehow already found a way to spoil it. Dirt is deeply engrained in our way of life, spoiling our region less and less because it's an ever more integral part of it. But apart from the dirt, there's another unavoidable characteristic: poverty.

The further north you go, the sadder it becomes

Roaming the highways and byways of Bosnia-Herzegovina will lead the traveller to an unexpected conclusion. This is one of the very few countries in the world where you have a (relatively) rich, developed and clean South, and a terribly poor, underdeveloped and dirty North. The further north you go, the sadder it becomes . . . Our landscapes, from Neum to Mostar are - pleasant. From Mostar to Visoko - bearable. Somewhere around Kakanj the greyness begins, and after Zenica - horror. If you go west, away from the main route, towards Travnik and Jajce there'll be no essential change. Scattered, unplastered houses, clumsy gas stations, ugly discount shops and kitsch cafes. Or if you head east across the Karaula pass to Tuzla, and on to Lopare, Celic and Brcko, it's even worse. Lukavac, the same: Modrac is the only industrial lake in the world on whose black, polluted waters they're attempting to build a tourist centre for the region. (By the way, I have real respect for such courage.)

How come that we have only such disorganized cities, so chaotic and unplanned? Why is the misery so visible? Wretched people creep listlessly down shabby streets. Facades peel through age and neglect. Posters, stuck up then torn down, reveal a space upon which everybody has given up. Shops radiating misery. Our cars look like museum artefacts. Ghostly deserted factories. Even what is new has been done without taste and without the least attempt to bÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ lend in with its surroundings.

A room unaired for ten years

This whole story about the scenery of Bosnia-Herzegovina, about these unmistakable signs of our general misery, is inseparable from the political milieu in which it occurs. After all, politics is the factor which either causes such conditions or - even if it is not responsible for all evils - can at least change them. That's not the case here. We're good servants and bad masters, a disappointed man from Zenica said to me. His disappointment is proportionate to the difference between the effort he puts into his survival and the results of that effort. Miserable results. He tells me how there's not the strength, the knowledge or even the will to raise the former industrial city from the grave in which it now successfully resides. The once highly polluted Zenica has become an ecological paradise, whose inhabitants are trying to acquire the basics: three, or at least two, meals a day.

True, all this is taking place in a country where a war that had lasted for several years was stopped only five years ago. Yet there's still no excuse for such a situation, because there are no political events, projects or personalities to offer any hope. An academic from Tuzla says that B-H politics is a room that has not been aired for ten years already. Metaphors are dubious to begin with, since they create an effect while usually hiding what's essential; but in this one there's much truth. For a whole decade, nothing has happened on the political scene of Bosnia-Herzegovina. That scene is still divided into three hostile parts, and cannot be viewed as whole but only as a sum of three.

Birds of a feather

And within those national systems, nothing new. A disaster. The Serbs have changed That Party, but everything else has remained the same. Biljana Plavsic's post-Dayton electoral slogan is being realized before our eyes, a slogan containing the whole curse of the Serb political option. That slogan says - `And Now Wisely'. In other words: we've slaughtered, burned, torched, killed everything in our path, we've made our sacred Serb space completely ethnically clean, for all these achievements we've been rewarded with a republic within a state construction that's denied that same republican attribute, so now we must proceed wisely. We must peacefully and with dignity, institutionally and non-institutionally, preserve the results of genocide. And that really is now being done wisely: there's no more genocide; there are new people on the scene, wisely defending the legacy and strategy of Radovan Karadzic. If, five years into the existence of Republika Srpska, the greatest multi-ethnic achievement is the fact that Milorad Dodik, arrogantly and in his own way, is pushing three Bosniaks into his government as ministerial advisers, how long will it take him before the first black person - pardon me, Bosniak - occupies a ministerial post? And how many decades after that for such a move not to shake the Serb national scene?

Among the Croats it's even worse. They haven't even changed the party, they've just rotated new executors of an old policy within it, as a result of inner-party struggles. The Croat national corpus is prepared to implement for the next thousand years Tudjman's plan for a harmonious and congenial co-existence of all Croats with other Croats. Voices breaking the political unanimity are so isolated that it's debatable whether they exist at all or have any significance.

But the worst situation is among the Bosniaks. They have changed neither the party nor the people in power. It's exactly the same as ten years ago. The same people who won the election and promised that the Drina would never again flow with Bosniak blood have survived all the ordeals of war, survived the Drina bloodied as never before, signed the Dayton Agreement, taken the path of renewal and reconstruction, won all possible elections and here they are, joyful, smiling and self-confident, as it were in their prime, aspiring to lead us into the tÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ wenty-first century too. With the Bosniak party, unfortunately, the discrepancy between words and deeds is glaring: behind a flawless multi-national concept hides a harsh reality, based on a mono-ethnic principle of exclusivity.

Power is understood here literally as ownership of an electoral base. In this sense privatization is almost redundant, because it has already been carried out and without a single share-certificate. Property relations are regulated so as to leave no misunderstanding as to the automatic nature of ownership of the state, the people, and material and cultural goods.

And now each to his task

It's quite normal that after such a war in Bosnia, polemics about collective guilt should still smoulder. However, it's already clear too, to any rational person, that a people cannot be collectively guilty for the crimes committed in its name. The function of the Hague Tribunal is actually to cleanse the local collectivities of these stains by proclaiming the guilt of those who slaughtered, commanded, organized, supplied, propagated. But there's something more. There's collective responsibility for the destiny of our tragically (non-) constituent peoples. The way in which we now live is something we have determined for ourselves. It's simply incredible that someone can live this badly, yet continually vote for the political option that holds him riveted to this extreme misery. The problem is that political culture is not an event, but a process. It will take years if not decades for working people and citizens to learn that they're responsible themselves for their own destiny, and that they can change a political elite that doesn't take sufficient or adequate care of their essential interests.

There's no shame in being poor. But there is shame in being dirty, seedy and poor while continually voting for the political option that creates the dirt, seediness and poverty. The condition of all conditions for the progress of Bosnia-Herzegovina is mutual respect among its peoples. Without that, there'll be no happiness in this country for anyone. Legend has it that once upon a time at some celebration a local Party secretary, blind drunk, promised people prosperity and happiness and the further development of socialist self-management conditions, but also warned them that none of that could come about without harmonious relations between the different national groups. And he was almost right. In such a sensitive country as Bosnia-Herzegovina, those relations are of primary significance. So let us remind each other once again of the wise words of the Party secretary, who continued: `If anyone dares touch brotherhood and unity, I'll fuck his mother!'

That's all.

This article has been translated from Slobodna Bosna (Sarajevo), 16 March 2000. Ozren Kebo was voted journalist of the year by the B-H Union of Journalists in April 2000.


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