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Sarajevo: Perspectives from a Carnegie New Leader

August 18, 2014

A view of Sarajevo from the Dinaric Alps. Credit: Conor Moran

Images of Bill Clinton, NATO, and the United Nations flitting by on a TV in my parent's living room were among the first images that popped into my head when I found out I would by joining a Carnegie Council delegation to Sarajevo. I was around the age of 12 through 15 as the Yugoslav War raged through the Balkans. The war was distant and complicated enough that it didn't seem to grip America's attention, unlike the way Americans were riveted by CNN's near constant coverage of the recently concluded First Iraq War. My high school did show programming from Channel 1 early in the day and the Yugoslav War, in particular after genocides were being exposed in Bosnia, began to gain almost daily attention.

One has many outlets to learn about life on the ground in Sarajevo in preparation for a visit. There are lots of books on the history, as one might expect from a country with such a diverse background. Reading about modern Bosnia, as well as the Yugoslav War, is probably one of the most challenging exercises I have put myself through. I read about halfway through three books on the Yugoslav War before putting each down and trying to find a "Quick Notes" for what happened. That was about the time I began to realize that you simply cannot understand historical or modern Bosnia without taking into account the multi-dimensional ethnic, religious, and societal factors that have intertwined with each other over the years. When the books are explaining the relationship between Croat Ustasha and Tito's Partisans during World War II, it has real trickle-down consequences on perceptions in modern-day Bosnia.

The first thing you notice upon arrival in Sarajevo is that the city is located in a valley of the Dinaric Alps, which can reach upwards of 8,000 feet. This environment provides wonderful opportunities for hiking. However, as we were to learn later in the trip these mountains were heavily occupied by the Serbian Army and to this day it's still dangerous to venture too far from approved and well-marked trails due to the remaining landmines still pervasive in the area.

Being in Sarajevo when our group went in June 2014, exposed us to both the realities of the beginning of World War I 100 years prior, as well as Sarajevo 20 years after the Bosnian War. The accommodations we were staying in were literally half a block from the spot where a young Serb nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, shot the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and launched the world into a war that ultimately claimed 9 million combatants and 7 million civilians. Here too, though, we see difficulty in interpreting the past. What one group in Bosnia considers a hero, another considers a misguided anarchist.

Shortly before arriving in Sarajevo, Bosnian Serbs in Eastern Sarajevo erected a statue to Princip. The statue is situated in Bosnian Serb Eastern Sarajevo. Eastern Sarajevo is a complicated matter, as the people have a very different approach to Bosnian unity—they would like to secede to join neighboring Serbia. In fact, the Latin Bridge, about 500 years old and across the street from where Ferdinand was shot, was named after Princip during the Yugoslavian era and the name changed back after the Yugoslav Wars. So while one side of Sarajevo prepared to commemorate the beginning of the war as a symbolic start of a new century of peace, the other remained staunchly divided.

When walking through the streets of old Sarajevo, you're very much in Governor Gazi Husrev-beg's backyard. When the second Ottoman governor took over he constructed marketplaces, hotels, public waterworks, and a charitable foundation. Many of these edifices still exist throughout the city and are used daily. Most noticeable are the large number of mosques scattered throughout the city and hillsides. The main mosque of the old city, the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque, sits close to where the archduke was assassinated and it's one of the few mosques in the area to do the call for prayers without the aid of a megaphone. The soothing sounds of the calls echo throughout most of downtown in the early and late evening. Sarajevo is about 90 percent Muslim by religion, a result of both the long-term occupation of the Ottoman Empire and the forced conversion of many Christians during the 1500s.

Religious diversity and acceptance has been a hallmark of Sarajevo throughout the centuries. The city is a mix of Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, Muslims, and Jews (although there is now only one functioning synagogue where there used to be eight). During our visit, we walked by the Jewish Museum and Synagogue (Jews meet there once a year). The structure dates to the 1600s. Sadly, it was used as a prison for Jews when the Germans occupied the city during World War II. Towards the end of our time in Sarajevo, we even had a chance to visit a Jewish Cemetery that was started in the early 1600s. It is the largest Jewish Cemetery in Europe outside of Prague.

All around Sarajevo, it's hard to miss the coffee shops with outside seating. They are literally everywhere. When I asked how these businesses can sustain themselves, I was told that there is very high unemployment for citizens under 30 years old. Many of those residents frequent the coffee bars where they can buy a coffee, or later at night a beer, for a few Euros.

The day of the Carnegie Council Symposium was a special one that featured preeminent speakers from Bosnia, the United States, and the United Kingdom. The event itself took place inside a beautiful new library, the Gazi Husrev-beg Library, partially financed and rebuilt by the country of Qatar. The library hosts a large number of important documents integral to Islam in Bosnia and many papers of cultural significance to Sarajevo. During the Siege of Sarajevo, some of these documents were lost or destroyed and now the library employs a full-time staff of trained archivists to work on restoration projects.

As an American, a serious concern when traveling abroad to any country and offering advice about how people can lay a foundation for success is that you'll be perceived as obnoxious and paternalistic. Not so in Bosnia. The conference began with what was essentially a welcoming encouragement to share advice about how to move the country forward.

Bosnia has many problems facing it right now, one of which is that a small part of the country wants to secede and form its own alliance with Serbia. To understand the cause of Serb nationalism, the underlying roots of World War I, and the Bosnia War is to understand the makeup of Bosnia itself. The country is composed of citizens who identify themselves as being from a number of different nationalities—Croat, Bosnian, Serbian. Within each nationality are members of different religions—Muslims, Jews, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians. This isn't an issue unique to Bosnia; you see the same groupings across other countries like Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Albania. Nationalities are not evenly distributed with certain geographic regions. Tito held the country together with socialist glue. When that alliance fell apart in the early 1990s and each of those countries declared independence, old ethnic and nationalist rivalries flared up. There was a legitimate concern from each of those groups that the other was out to do them great harm.

The Republika Srpska is essentially a Serb stronghold within Bosnia, located near Sarajevo. The current President of the Republika, Milorad Dodik, has mentioned several times that those citizens seek to join the country of Serbia. Much of this nationalist fervor is coming to a head again because of Crimea's recent decision to align with Russia and break away from Ukraine. The not small difference is that while most of the citizens residing in Crimea identify as Russian, they are geographically close to Russia. Sarajevo and most of the northern part of Bosnia, which contains the Republika, however, are miles from the Serbian border.

The bigger issues facing Bosnia right now are massive unemployment and lack of a skilled labor force. Many citizens speak English very well; it is introduced to students beginning in the fourth grade. However, well-trained engineers are heading for Germany and those that have the connections or means to get out, do so. There's no single reason for the unemployment. From what some of the citizens I spoke with mentioned, lack of investment in infrastructure and lack of venture capital or efficient capital markets seem to be a large detriment to job growth.

After the Dayton Accords came into effect, Bosnia was left with a government that is bloated and dysfunctional. As a result of the Accords, each major ethnic party—Bosniaks (Muslims), Republika Srpska Serbs, and Bosnians—are entitled to a voice in government. But this three-tiered approach has left the country's governance mired in gridlock.

The presentations at the Carnegie Council symposium brought the conversation back to what steps the world could make to help prevent another disaster. One of the first speakers, Margaret MacMillan, began by saying that we are still trying to understand how the First World War happened 100 years ago. That's a fairly profound statement from a historian and international expert in the causes of World War I. Because we often times do not know how wars begin, we don't understand how peace can be maintained. In Europe, prior to World War I, there had been relative peace and prosperity. Wars were generally contained to conflicts between two countries. Not many people, then, in 1914 expected a major war between multiple countries to break out. I would imagine there were multiple similarities with residents living in Bosnia prior to the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. One of the most striking parts of MacMillan's speech was her explanation of how wars begin to involve entire societies. As she put it:

In other words, you're not just fighting the army of the other side, you're now fighting the people who produce the soldiers, you're fighting the women, you're fighting the old people, you're fighting the children, because they might be soldiers one day. You're fighting the industry of another society because they supply, increasingly, the means for the armies to remain in the field and the navies to remain at sea. You are fighting, often, a whole set of different moral and ethical values. In other words, war is something that now is seen as a massive struggle between two very different sorts of people. That's a danger. We see what that meant in the 20th century. We're still seeing it today.

One of the most memorable parts of the trip was a visit to the Tunnel Museum. During the worst fighting of the Siege, citizens who were miners and engineers helped design a tunnel from an apartment in central Sarajevo out to slightly beyond the airport, which was in theory a "safe zone" occupied by the United Nations. Citizens could try and escape at night after walking out from one end of the tunnel to the other. Indeed, two of the members of the Carnegie Council delegation had either personally escaped or had a close relative escape from Sarajevo in the early 1990s through the tunnel. Weapons were smuggled into the city the opposite way. The tunnel only allowed for one-way traffic and, as some of those present attested to, the entire way was filled with headlamps and cigarette smoke, since over 80 percent of Bosnians smoke. There were rumors, as well, that the Serbians were drilling an alternate tunnel to intersect the Sarajevo tunnel and cut off the supply chain. It was a running joke that if you came out of the tunnel from the Sarajevo side and were confronted by Serb soldiers, the best way to save your life was to turn around as if you were facing Sarajevo. That way they believed that you were trying to smuggle arms into the city and they would force you to leave the area.

Today the tunnel  is mostly collapsed and only a small section near the exit remains. A resident and his family who still own the house turned it into a museum and it clearly receives a significant amount of traffic on weekends, given its close proximity to the airport. We had the very surreal experience of walking around in a small section of the tunnel and hearing directly from Nedzad Ajnadzi, who joined us in a section of the museum. He was a general in the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina during the Bosnian War and to listen to him tell  of what his group endured was a profound experience.

Towards the end of our stay, we took a tour of the surrounding hillsides to gain a better vantage point of what it was like for the soldiers surrounding Sarajevo during the Siege. The striking reminder that you are entering a former war zone is the large number of relatively new, white tombstones marking the graves of those who died in the fighting. Once we reached the apex of the mountain, we understood why these hills and overlooks were of such strategic importance to the Serb Army and why it must have been so difficult to defend the city. We were told numerous stories of heroism by the citizens of Sarajevo who refused to give up ground within the city limits.

Most of us are familiar with Srebrenica as a result of the attention that was brought to the Bosnian War by Western reporting of the atrocities taking place there. In fact, it was then-senator, now-vice president Joe Biden who helped rally the cries to get NATO and the U.S. leadership to intervene in Bosnia. There is a small museum near the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Sarajevo dedicated to Srebrenica. It sits directly next to an old building that remains bombed-out from the war. There is a dispute over the ownership, but for the outside observer, it is like looking back in time 20 years ago to see what the entire city must have looked like.

The most striking aspect of the very small museum is the list of names of those who were killed at Srebrenica and the surrounding area during the war. As you progress along the walls, you come across an interactive video. At one point, you began to watch, on video footage that was captured by Serbian soldiers, the mass executions of men, women, and children. They were taken out by the roadside and shot two or three at a time, leaving those waiting in fear for a few moments before their own death. You begin to grow angry and think, How could something like this happen just a few years ago? How could other nations not have been aware or intervened sooner? How can people continue to co-exist in a nation where all sides—Croats, Bosniaks, and Serbs—were found guilty in criminal courts of war crimes?

The museum contains a section that helps explain how genocide functions and why it is difficult to detect by outside observers; classification first, symbolization, discrimination, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation, persecution, extermination, and denial.

The dig for additional mass graves continues to this day in the area around Srebrenica. It is estimated that 100,000 were killed and an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 women were systematically raped and tortured during the Bosnian War. The area in Srebrenica was supposed to be a safe zone under United Nations protection. When the Serbian Army proceeded into the area, the United Nations literally sat by and watched as the atrocities occurred. We can only hope that this was an important learning lesson for the world community in how future peacekeeping missions should be administered and monitored by the UN Security Council.

The city has made a significant recovery given that fact that it was only 20 years ago when it was surrounded and shelled repeatedly for 44 months. There is very little evidence that the city was once a war zone, save for the Sarajevo Roses, which are indentations along the city streets where residents were killed. Those indentations from mortars or sniper rounds have been filled with a red epoxy that citizens now call Sarajevo Roses. Occasionally, if you look up towards the second floor of some buildings in the old city, you will see bullet holes or pock marks from mortar fire, but most of the city has been rebuilt. They recently constructed the Avaz Twist Tower, ranked as one of the 10 most beautiful buildings in Europe.

One of the speakers at the symposium, Carnegie Council Senior Fellow Dr. George Rupp, spoke words of wisdom about the goal of inclusiveness in fostering a pathway forward: inclusiveness socially, religiously, and politically. "To frame that goal in general terms, it is to foster inclusive communities: communities that are capable of incorporating significant differences within a single unified framework. The goal affirms the value of particular commitments. It does not seek to reduce beliefs and practices to a least common denominator because its aim is to be inclusive rather than to seek what in the end attempts to be a single set of universal and all-encompassing affirmations."

It's a bit disconcerting, though, to think that the country is still in a state of precarious balance, a situation that has gone unresolved for a long period of time. There was no decisive conclusion of victory in the Bosnian War. The city resumed some form of normalcy solely as a result of the Dayton Accords. The centuries-old distrust, the lingering resentment from the genocide that took place only 20 years ago, combined with the economic disenfranchisement of most of the young populace, is a formula ripe for disaster. We can only hope that by continuing the dialogue in a constructive way, learning from the past, and establishing a shared pathway for the future—like many of the ideas presented during the symposium—Bosnia can continue to progress toward the vision shared by those who are proactively seeking a peaceful co-existence.

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