Fifteen years on from the end of the war, Bosnia is struggling economically and politically—and is more ethnically fractured than ever. Will the conflict return?by Janine di Giovanni / August 25, 2010 / Leave a comment
Sunset over Sarajevo: despite one of the most expensive postwar reconstructions in recent history, Bosnia’s ethnic divisions have led to stasis
Thucydides once wrote that war is a violent teacher—meaning, I suppose, that one should take lessons from past brutalities. Yet the Balkans, a place that has suffered more than its share of horror, seems doomed to repeat the past. The war that gutted Bosnia has been over for 15 years, yet the process of reconciliation is nowhere near complete. Postwar reconstruction is always challenging, but Bosnia has deferred it to spectacular levels. Why?
When Bosnia’s leaders sat down in a dreary airbase in Ohio in December 1995 and signed the Dayton Peace Accords, they ended three years of fighting that had devastated the small, landlocked republic and killed an estimated 100,000 Bosnians. I reported that war, and return to the country often—particularly to the capital, Sarajevo, which sustained a 1,425-day siege. Today the smoke, the smell of burning, and the crowds of ragged people gathered on corners waiting to run the gauntlet of snipers in the hills are memories. In “sniper’s alley”—the main drag between the airport and downtown—the graffiti that read “Welcome to Hell” has been painted over. The winding, mountainous roads through central Bosnia are no longer littered with rusty tank traps and soldiers pointing Kalashnikovs. The underground “tunnel of life,” which used to get medical supplies, arms and soldiers into the besieged city, is now a museum.
Yet there is a feeling that things could erupt again. Before the war, none of my Bosnian friends could tell me what ethnicity they were: half-Croat, one-quarter Serb, partly Jewish with some Muslim thrown in. Or they said they were Yugoslavs. Not so today. When I ask them about the possibility of renewed violence, some recoil, but others nod and tell me the Sarajevo taxi drivers—90 per cent of whom are former fighters—talk about it constantly. Bosnia will hold parliamentary and presidential elections on 3rd October, and the campaign is compounding hostilities. Despite an international rebuilding effort which has cost around £4bn, Bosnia is a mess. Its economy is lagging; corruption and ethnic divisions are rife.
Perhaps this is unsurprising, given what happened to people. A friend who was a frontline commander during the war once described the transition he had to make. “What the hell did I know about war? I’m a lawyer,” he told me. But…