Here today, gone tomorrow?
by Daoud Sarhandi
I left Bosnia-Herzegovina in December 1998, after living there for more than a year. What kept me connected to the country most during the past three years was working on the visual material I had collected there — shaping it into a book and preparing it for publication. The process completed, I returned to Bosnia early last December carrying one hundred freshly printed copies of Evil Doesn't Live Here: Posters from the Bosnian War to give to the many artists and designers who had contributed to it.
On the one hand, I was hopeful that the overall situation in the country had improved more than incrementally. On the other, I was a little nervous that, if it had, my Introduction might seem unduly pessimistic about Bosnia's future. In particular, I had decided to quote from a Daily Telegraph article by Noel Malcolm, written just after the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement. Malcolm had expressed the view that Dayton had created a dysfunctional country — hewn into two parts by the Agreement, and ‘pickled’ like Damien Hirst's post-modern cow in formaldehyde. I found the comparison both haunting and apt. Malcolm had ended his article by suggesting that this ‘post-modern country’ — riddled with ethical and practical contradictions — was destined to implode. Six years after Dayton, I wondered just how true this prediction had been.
Back in late 1998 — as I was completing my research — there were faint but discernible glimmers of hope in Bosnia: the killing had stopped; freedom of movement was improving; private, foreign investment was steadily increasing. Better days were on their way, people felt. And well they might have been, had those overseeing Bosnia's return to the European mainstream been willing to confront head on the thorny, residual problem of ultra-nationalism. They have not done so effectively, however, and it is this issue which is at the heart of a current crisis in the post-Dayton Bosnian state — and one which still threatens to tear the country apart.
At present Bosnia is like a patient on life-support: doctors don't have the courage to tell her she's dying, or to switch off the machines. And while they do nothing — and pretend everything will be O.K. — they must know it's only a matter of time... ‘Surgical intervention’ is needed if Bosnia is to stand any chance of survival — but nobody has the guts to sign the papers. Perhaps they are afraid it will indicate that the ‘treatment’ so far has been thoroughly inadequate. Of course, such intervention may well speed the demise of Bosnia as we know it too; but is it really better just to sit and wait for the end to come?
On my recent trip to Bosnia, everywhere I went people told me the same thing: that the situation is bleaker now than it was three years ago; that opportunities are fewer; the outlook dismal. And these expressions are borne out by the facts.
Take employment — or rather unemployment: it's 50%. And that's an average. In many areas — especially in Republika Srpska (RS) — it's virtually total, with no chance of improvement on the horizon.
Meanwhile, as employment opportunities have remained static or fallen, the black economy has mushroomed. The smuggling of goods, drugs and people is the only way of life many communities know. Countless children are growing up seeing crime as the only way of making a living, and expecting little else. Indeed, there is a rising tide of all kinds of criminal activity in Bosnia: from burglary and car theft, to kidnapping and murder. The suicide rate, especially among young people, is also abnormally high.
Education for nearly all Bosnians is now ethnically exclusive. Segregated from their fellow pupils, Muslim (Bosniak), Serb and Croat children rigidly follow partisan curricula in most subjects — but especially in all-important, opinion-forming ones such as history, religion and literature. Even seemingly neutral subjects have been politicized — and opposition to an integrated education is fierce among all groups. So the Bosnian adults of tomorrow are becoming more distrustful of and alienated from one another than their parents ever were.
Among those lucky enough to be employed, discontent is running alarmingly high. Roadblocks are a routine way of expressing anger. And in the year 2000 there were nearly 350 separate strikes, as workers sought to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the late payment of low salaries, and cuts in rights and benefits. For the retired, the average state pension is currently around £15 per week in the Federation — lower, when paid, in the RS — while everyday prices of goods and utilities are expensive, and rising.
There are still more than 250,000 Bosnian refugees living abroad. And although these people are now thought unlikely ever to return, even if they wanted to it would be practically impossible: their homes are in hard-line areas where it would still be a dangerous undertaking, or are occupied by other refugees. There are currently around half a million internally displaced persons within Bosnia's borders, and their plight is becoming increasingly desperate: many continue to live in collective centres — trapped in a downward spiral of poverty, depression, and despair. Indeed, apart from a small elite group, material hardship is growing for most Bosnians. Ragged beggars of all ages are now a common sight on the streets of towns and cities.
To put it simply — after more than six years of peace, and more than five billion dollars of international aid — Bosnia isn't working. It is a sorry picture that the major donor countries, their foreign diplomats, and the United Nations — the ‘international community’ — would rather the world did not see.
And although this ‘community’ may well wish to improve the economic landscape — and has even scored some successes, by stabilizing the currency and creating a functioning central bank — overall it has failed, and for one fundamental reason: the political landscape has deteriorated over the last three years.
Widely respected for its insight into Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia, the International Crisis Group (ICG) recently wrote in a report: ‘By recognizing Republika Srpska as a legitimate polity and constituent entity of the new Bosnia, the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement embraced a contradiction. For the RS was founded as a stepping stone to a "Greater Serbia" and forged in atrocities against — and mass expulsions of — non-Serbs.’ The report goes on to highlight how the Serb Democratic Party — the same party that was led throughout the war by the indicted war criminal and fugitive Radovan Karadzic — is now back in power in RS, busily consolidating its octopus-like control over all aspects of society.
Furthermore, not only is RS fundamentally unreformed and dedicated, violently if need be, to restricting access for non-Serb returnees, but it is now being kept afloat solely by the international community. As the ICG puts it: ‘Were it not for the continuing flow of direct international budget supports and soft loans, the RS government would be bankrupt.’
And while the international community continues to embrace and prop up a political entity created through a campaign of brutality and mass-murder, so RS ministers — at local and federal levels alike — seek to undermine, in every way they can, the functioning and future of a viable Bosnian state.
Finally demonized and defeated, Slobodan Milosevic — the chief architect of Republika Srpska — may be behind bars in The Hague, facing prosecution for genocide in Bosnia. And Sarajevo may no longer be under siege. But the desire among Serb politicians (as well as many Croat ones) to strangle the country is as strong as ever, however much they may play at ‘democracy’ in order to keep international grants flowing.
It is true that endemic corruption, black-marketeering, and old-style nationalized industries throughout the country have played their part in helping to scare off foreign investors. However, as long as the overall territorial and political structure of Bosnia remains etched in the stone tablets of Dayton, so Bosnia will remain an unattractive economic proposition; forever tied to international aid; unable to function without a Western military presence. Bosnia will continue to float around in Malcolm's formaldehyde tank — struggling to find a stability forever denied her.
If you criticize Dayton too persistently, most people (Bosnians and non-Bosnians alike) will tell you that, ‘at least it stopped the killing’. And while every life saved by Dayton is to be celebrated, this is hardly a justification for the absurd reality that has followed in the conflict's wake. Six years on, Dayton’s achievements, goals, tenets, and methodology need to be seriously reassessed, and those parts of it that are patently defunct scrapped and replaced.
By failing to call a spade a spade — by failing to curb the extremist tendencies and separatist aspirations and actions of the ultra-nationalists (especially in RS) — a multi-cultural Bosnia, in spirit and in fact, is being betrayed by the international community on a daily basis — no so than it was betrayed during the long, bleak years of war.
Whether or not ‘The Peace of Paris will mean more war in Bosnia’ — as the title of Malcolm's 1995 article suggested — I do not know. What is certain, however, is that the current state of limbo is dangerously stultifying — and that the people of Bosnia are already paying a heavy price for their ‘Peace.’
Having successfully delivered my books across Bosnia, the night before I was due to leave I went out for dinner in Tuzla with a few old friends. A very bright young man called Ensar came along, and I asked him how his education was going? He told me he would finish five years of university next year. ‘What will you do then?’ I asked. ‘Nothing, of course!’, he retorted. Peals of laughter rang out from the Bosnians around the table. ‘And in the future?’, I asked, trying to inject a tone of optimism into my question. More laughter. ‘Haven't you heard?’, he said. ‘There is no "future" for us.’ As things stand, he is probably right.
Daoud Sarhandi is the author, with Alina Boboc, of Evil Doesn't Live Here: Posters from the Bosnian War, London 2001. A shorter version of this article appeared in the IWPR’s Balkan Crisis Report No. 323, 13 March 2002