bosnia report
No. 19 June - August 1997
Fourth S.C.C. Congress
by David Barnsdale

Travelling through Bosnia is a strange feeling. Everything is on the surface peaceful and normal. The burnt out houses that are to be found in almost every town seem no more real than they do on TV news. They don't seem to belong in the same world as the bright sunshine and the holiday atmosphere of the bus filled with the pop beat of Magazin. There are two routes from Split to Sarajevo. The northern and far faster route takes a tour round HDZ strongholds, while the longer southern route tends to go through areas that were strongholds for the Bosnian Army. The northern route is also faster because virtually everyone has a Croatian passport, which the border guards barely glance at, while on the Southern route virtually everyone has a Bosnian passport, which seems to require the guards laboriously to take down everyone's full details.

Given that everything is so normal on the surface, it is easy to see why the UN appears to think it can get away with letting things drift. Some of the reasons why things cannot drift for ever I got from the conference I attended in Sarajevo of the Serb Civic Council. The talk (at least in the part of the conference that the TV cameras were not filming) was of discrimination against Serbs and Serbs losing theÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÄir jobs. Yes, as everyone stressed, Serbs were far better off in the Federation than were Croats and Muslims in the Serb entity, but that is hardly a high target to meet. Behind those specific grievances, however, lay the fundamental issues for all Bosnians - return of refugees, reconstruction aid and the trial of war criminals. And, of course, everything is connected. How can the refugees of Srebrenica return while war criminals are still the real power in the Serb entity? And without reconstruction aid, how will they rebuild their homes if they get there? And the lack of reconstruction aid leads back into the problems of the Serbs. For, when the level of economic activity is still at only ten percent of the pre-war level, it is tempting for a political party like the SDA to give the few remaining jobs to their supporters rather than to people who are never likely to vote for them.

It is depressing how little rebuilding of houses is going on. Most people do have a roof over their head, so the problem is not too visible; but that hides how many are crammed two families to an apartment. And, of course, there is the log jam that you get when the houses to which refugees should be returning are filled with other refugees. It is frustrating that it seems the UN cannot even get the problem of house-building right, because in a lot of places money plus commitment would be enough to solve the problem. I do wonder if the EU and the UN are just going through the motions. After all, the public perception of Bosnians as helpless victims of history means the UN can play the role of rational men who tried but sadly failed to bring reason to an irrational people - and they may well get away with it.

The Serb Civic Council are not typical Serbs. Several delegates described the frustration of Serbs who had fought on the side of Bosnia, yet were now thinking of leaving the country. Yet I id not get any hint that they personally were thinking of leaving. They were political activists who were going to stick it out come what may. They were articulating the concerns and frustrations of grassroots Serbs, but, it seemed to me, separate from them . And that is true of the multi-ethnic movement as a whole. Though they are the people who understand and are confronting the real issues of Bosnia, their problem is the problem of oppositions everywhere. Why should anyone not addicted to politics try their new solutions, when nothing is going to change for the better anyway? I guess that is part of the reason the Serb Civic Council is pushing for a major reconstruction project for Sarajevo. Something like that could break through the feeling that things cannot change and so make other things possible; and this project is achievable 'if' the West is prepared to give the necessary backing.

Several people told me how angry and frustrated people were. Not just the obvious divides between the ethnic groups, but town versus country and returnee versus those who stayed. To me, most of the time, everyone seemed as warm and friendly as you expect in the Balkans. Every now and then you hit the signs that people's tempers were just a little shorter than is normal. I do not know if Dayton is going to collapse - sometimes impossible situations last a long time. But if it does collapse, only someone who seems only the surface can be surprised.


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